In “The Revolt of the Weak” Bobo gurgles that this summer, the bad guys have looked energetic while the good guys have looked tired, putting the norms of civilization under threat. Mr. Nocera has a question in “The Human Toll of Offshoring:” What should we be doing to make globalization work for us instead of against us? In “Obama’s Messy Words” Mr. Bruni says there’s inadequate urgency or reassurance in the president’s language, as Americans gaze with horror at events abroad. Here’s Bobo:
The toughest part of governing is the effect on the mind of those who govern. As Henry Kissinger said, once you get in government you are not building up human capital; you are just spending it down. People in senior positions are simply too busy to learn fundamental new viewpoints. Their minds are locked within the ones they brought into power.
Then there is the problem of myopia. People at the top of government confront such a barrage of immediate small issues — from personnel to scheduling — that it is hard for them to step back and see the overall context in which they operate.
Finally, there is the problem of the bunker. People in power are hit with such an avalanche of criticism — much of it partisan and ill-informed — that they naturally build mental walls to protect themselves from abuse.
All of which makes it hard to govern now. We are not living in a moment of immediate concrete threat, but we are in a crisis of context.
The specific problems that make headlines right now are not cataclysmic. The venture by President Vladimir Putin of Russia into Ukraine, for all its thuggery, is not, in itself, a cataclysmic historical event. The civil war in Syria, for all its savagery, is not a problem that threatens the daily lives of those who live outside.
These problems are medium-size, but the underlying frameworks by which nations operate are being threatened in fairly devastating ways. That is to say, there are certain unconscious habits and norms of restraint that undergird civilization. These habits and norms are now being challenged by a coalition of the unsuccessful.
What we’re seeing around the world is a revolt of the weak. There are certain weak movements and nations, beset by internal contradictions, that can’t compete if they play by the normal rules of civilization. Therefore, they are conspiring to blow up the rule book.
The first example is Russia. Putin is poor in legitimacy. He is poor in his ability to deliver goods and dignity for his people. But he is rich in brazenness. He is rich in his ability to play by the lawlessness of the jungle, so he wants the whole world to operate by jungle rules.
There has been a norm, generally operating over the past few decades, or even centuries, that big, powerful nations don’t gobble up everything around them just because they can. But this is precisely the norm that Putin is brazenly crushing under foot. If Putinism can effectively tear down this norm, more and more we’ll live in a world in which brazenness is rewarded and self-restraint is punished.
Then there are the Islamist movements like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. This movement is poor in offering a lifestyle that most people find attractive. But it is strong in spiritual purity, so it wants to set off a series of religious wars and have the world organized by religious categories.
There has been a norm, developed gradually over the centuries, that politics is not a totalistic spiritual enterprise. Governments try to deliver order and economic benefits to people, but they do not organize their inner spiritual lives.
This is precisely the norm that ISIS and other jihadi groups are trying to destroy. If they succeed, then the Middle East will devolve into a 30 years war of faith against faith. Zealotry will be rewarded, and restraint will be punished.
Putin and ISIS are not threats to American national security, narrowly defined. They are threats to our civilizational order.
If you are caught up in that day-to-day business of government, you are likely to see how weak Putin and ISIS are. You are likely to conclude that you don’t need to do much, because these threats will inevitably succumb on their own to their internal contradictions. But their weakness is their driving power; they only need to tear things down, and, unconfronted, will do so.
People who conduct foreign policy live today under the shadow of the postwar era. People instinctively understand that just after World War II, Harry Truman, George Marshall, Dean Acheson and others did something remarkable. They stepped outside the immediate crush of events and constructed a context in which people would live for the next several decades.
Some of the problems they faced did not seem gigantic: how to prevent a Communist insurgency from taking over a semifailed government in Greece. But they understood that by projecting American power into Greece, they would be establishing certain norms and creating a framework for civilization.
Then, democratic self-confidence was high. Today, unfortunately, it is low. This summer, the bad guys have looked energetic while the good guys have looked tired. We’ll see at the NATO summit meeting in Wales this week if there’s a leader who can step outside the crush of events and explain how fundamental the threat to the rules of civilization now is.
Next up we have Mr. Nocera:
The subtitle of Beth Macy’s new book, “Factory Man” — “How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local, and Helped Save an American Town” — gives every impression that it is going to be an upbeat read, a capitalistic feel-good story.
And, indeed, Macy, a former longtime reporter for The Roanoke Times in Virginia, doesn’t skimp on the story of a furniture baron named John Bassett III, her colorful main character, a Southern charmer with a fondness for quoting General Patton. After being pushed out of his family’s furniture company in (where else?) Bassett, Va., JBIII, as Macy calls him, buys into another, smaller company, Vaughan-Bassett, in the nearby town of Galax, right around the time that Chinese furniture manufacturers began to move seriously into the American furniture market with low-priced knockoffs of American furniture designs.
As furniture manufacturers all around him — including his family’s company — begin shuttering plants and start marketing and selling the Chinese imports, Bassett decides to fight back. Although he, too, has had to shrink his work force, he refuses to shut down his company, and he mobilizes others in the industry to charge the Chinese with dumping their goods on the market — that is, selling them below the cost of manufacturing them.
In 2005, the government did indeed conclude that the Chinese had been dumping furniture, and it put tariffs on Chinese furniture that helped make the Americans a little more competitive. Thanks to something called the Byrd amendment, some of the money from the Chinese went directly to Bassett’s company, which “invested $23 million in new plant equipment, put some in the employee profit-sharing plan, and used some of it to start a companywide free health clinic for families,” writes Macy. “The money saved upwards of 700 jobs in Galax, which, in turn, as some have argued, have saved the town.” Vaughan-Bassett has since become the largest wooden bedroom furniture maker in the country.
Surely, if they make a movie out of “Factory Man” — and I think there is a pretty decent chance they will — that will be the story line.
What is striking about Macy’s first book, though, is how little she does to make that made-for-the-movies plot stand out. Her wonderful central character notwithstanding, she’s really after something else: the effects of globalization on her little corner of the world, that is, the regions of North Carolina and Virginia where furniture making was once king. From her point of view, that story is anything but upbeat.
Nor does she miss the historic twist in her tale: as she notes early on, in the years after the Civil War, Southern entrepreneurs like Bassett’s grandfather capitalized on “cheap, hungry labor and all those tree-stocked hills” to shift furniture manufacturing from places like Grand Rapids, Mich., to the South, where it thrived for a century or more before the Chinese began doing the same thing to them.
But again and again, she comes back to the factories that have been closed, the jobs that have been lost. “Between 2002 and 2012, 63,300 American factories closed their doors and five million factory jobs went away,” she notes. She finds people who, having been laid off, do exactly what you would hope they might do: go to college and become well-paid knowledge workers.
But far more often she introduces us to people who have been displaced by the Chinese furniture manufacturers and can’t see a better future. It is especially difficult for people who have lost their jobs in what amount to company towns — where there really isn’t any other work to be had. She asks, “What good did it do to have access to cheap consumer goods if you had no money to buy them?”
She quotes the University of Oregon economist Bruce Blonigen, who tells her, “In reality, we shouldn’t be making bedroom furniture anymore in the United States. Shouldn’t we instead be trying to educate these workers’ kids to get them into high-skilled jobs and away from what’s basically an archaic industry?”
I happen to think Blonigen is right — that is exactly what we should be doing to make globalization work for us instead of against us. But I also find myself deeply sympathetic to Macy’s essential point, which is that globalization inflicts a great deal of suffering on millions of people, something the news media should do a better job of acknowledging and the government should do a better job of mitigating.
Toward the end of her book, Macy travels to Indonesia, where she talks to a factory executive. “What I do worry about every year is the future of the factory,” he tells her. “I worry that someone somewhere else, somewhere cheaper, will start to make furniture, and that will be that for us.”
It never ends.
I love the scorn directed at blue-collar workers by Blonigen (and agreed with by Mr. Nocera) — apparently if you work with your hands you’re not worth considering. You should be in some pie-in-the-sky high tech job that doesn’t exist. And now here’s Mr. Bruni:
There are things that you think and things that you say.
There’s what you reckon with privately and what you utter publicly.
There are discussions suitable for a lecture hall and those that befit the bully pulpit.
These sets overlap but aren’t the same. Has President Obama lost sight of that?
It’s a question fairly asked after his statement last week that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with Islamic extremists in Syria. Not having a strategy, at least a fixed, definitive one, is understandable. The options aren’t great, the answers aren’t easy and the stakes are enormous.
But announcing as much? It’s hard to see any percentage in that. It gives no comfort to Americans. It puts no fear in our enemies.
Just as curious was what Obama followed that up with.
Speaking at a fund-raiser on Friday, he told donors, “If you watch the nightly news, it feels like the world is falling apart.” He had that much right.
But it wasn’t the whole of his message. In a statement of the obvious, he also said, “The world has always been messy.” And he coupled that with a needless comparison, advising Americans to bear in mind that the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the rapacity of Putin, the bedlam in Libya and the rest of it were “not something that is comparable to the challenges we faced during the Cold War.”
Set aside the question of how germane the example of the Cold War is. When the gut-twisting image stuck in your head is of a masked madman holding a crude knife to the neck of an American on his knees in the desert, when you’re reading about crucifixions in the 21st century, when you’re hearing about women sold by jihadists as sex slaves, and when British leaders have just raised the threat level in their country to “severe,” the last thing that you want to be told is that it’s par for the historical course, all a matter of perspective and not so cosmically dire.
Where’s the reassurance — or the sense of urgency — in that?
And maybe the second-to-last thing that you want to be told is that technology and social media amplify peril in a new way and may be the reason you’re feeling especially on edge. Obama said something along those lines, too. It’s not the terror, folks. It’s the tweets.
Is the president consoling us — or himself? It’s as if he’s taken his interior monologue and wired it to speakers in the town square. And it’s rattling.
When he came along, many of us were fed up with misinformation and “Mission Accomplished” theatrics and bluster. America had paid a price for them in young lives.
And we were tired and leery of an oversimplified, Hollywood version of world affairs, of the Manichaean lexicon of “evil empire” and “axis of evil.” We longed for something less rash and more nuanced.
But there’s plenty of territory between the bloated and bellicose rhetoric of then and what Obama is giving us now. He’s adopted a strange language of self-effacement, with notes of defeatism, reminding us that “America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything”; that we must be content at times with singles and doubles in lieu of home runs; that not doing stupid stuff is its own accomplishment.
This is all true. It’s in tune with our awareness of our limits. And it reflects a prudent disinclination to repeat past mistakes and overreach.
But that doesn’t make it the right message for the world’s lone superpower (whether we like it or not) to articulate and disseminate. That doesn’t make it savvy, constructive P.R. And the low marks that Americans currently give the president, especially for foreign policy, suggest that it’s not exactly what we were after.
In The Washington Post on Sunday, Karen DeYoung and Dan Balz observed that while Obama’s no-strategy remark “may have had the virtue of candor,” it in no way projected “an image of presidential resolve or decisiveness at a time of international turmoil.”
And no matter what Obama ultimately elects to do, such an image is vital. But in its place are oratorical shrugs and an aura of hesitancy, even evasion, as he and John Kerry broadcast that the United States shouldn’t be expected to act on its own. Isn’t that better whispered to our allies and negotiated behind closed doors?
Echoing Hillary Clinton to some degree, Senator Dianne Feinstein just complained that Obama was perhaps “too cautious.”
Not in what he says, he’s not. Not when he draws and then erases red lines. Not with his recent adjectives.
“Messy” is my kitchen at the end of a long weekend. What’s happening in much of Syria and Iraq is monstrous.
Apparently next week Bruni will show up on Wednesday instead of Tuesday.