October 27, 2007


Travel pictures are slowly but surely being added to Flickr. Check it out.

October 23, 2007

Hope no-one sees me / Gettin' freaky

Japan: getting weirder since I've left? Discuss.

Counterargument: this is not a new story.

Thoughts on Charity and Government

Ezra Klein makes what I think is an important point, which allows me to make a rare statement elaborating a bit of my own loosely-defined personal political theories. Ezra:

Charity is good for the giver and, generally, good for the receiver. But it's not what you build your society upon. It's not reliable, or predictable, or particularly targetable. Indeed, very little philanthropy actually goes into the areas that social policy focuses on. And that's because it's not supposed to. Charity, rather often, is a way to demonstrate virtue or compassion. Social policy, at least in theory, is a way to try and fix a structural problem. The two cannot be swapped in for each other.
I've been an active supporter of the charity Habitat for Humanity for going on seven and a half years now. I have probably personally hammered nails, painted walls, or shoveled dirt at the sites of over 70 or 80 homes across the United States (and the world), and have worked with many of the future homeowners and hundreds of other volunteers in the course of doing so. I've donated a good bit of my own money to the cause as well, although I'm still at the stage in my life where donations of time and labor are a lot easier for me to make than monetary ones; having made such an investment at this point, though, it's reasonable to assume that those financial contributions will increase as my means to make them does.

I think Habitat does a lot of good work. And I am proud of the work I have done with it: through my efforts families have been able to achieve home ownership when they might otherwise never have enjoyed that stability that my fortunes have afforded me since birth. Habitat has offered a crucial hand up for these people and their lives have been impacted by it, just as those of the volunteers who work with them have. Developing a spirit of civic volunteerism is another important aspect of charity work, as I've attempted to express before. Private, non-governmental charitable groups play a very important role in policy-making, by advocating for issues and energizing constituencies to participate in the democratic political process. Living in politically apathetic Japan for two years made me realize how rich U.S. society is in that regard.

But the simple fact is that Habitat, for all its lofty vision, is not going to house the world on its own, one family at a time. There was an immense impact for every family whose home I have helped build, but on the national scale these are tiny changes — even more minuscule on the global scale. While charities may lead attention to an issue, ultimately I think broad changes, at the structural level as Ezra correctly seeks to place them, in major social policy areas like affordable housing, education, the environment, and health care, can only be effected by an agency as powerful and far-reaching as the government. And the fact that I do think it is just and proper for the government to be directed towards those goals is a major reason why I am not a conservative.

October 17, 2007

Bacevich on Niebuhr

Bad timing for my recent stopover in Boston means I missed hearing this in person, but Professor Andrew Bacevich's lecture last week at Boston University, "Illusions of Managing History: The Enduring Relevance of Reinhold Niebuhr", is available for listening online. I recall the Niebuhr section in the "Ideas on American Foreign Policy" course I took with him as being somewhat inscrutable at the time, but Bacevich's lecture touches on a number of themes also present in much of his recent writing. From the BU Today writeup:

Bacevich, a conservative thinker who has become a harsh Iraq war critic, said Niebuhr stressed that history is not a simple narrative of good battling evil, and with American leadership, eventually triumphing around the world. Instead, Niehbuhr emphasized “the indecipherability of history” and warned of “the false allure of simple solutions.” And, said Bacevich, referencing the Bush administration’s push for invading Iraq in 2003, such an allure was particularly dangerous when the solution reached for was a military one.

“Egged on by pundits and policy analysts, [they] persuaded themselves that American power, adroitly employed, could transform the Greater Middle East,” said Bacevich. “The paths of progress,” he continued, quoting Niebuhr, “have turned out to be more devious and unpredictable than the putative managers of history could understand.” Bacevich warned also that a continuing failure to heed Niebuhr’s admonitions would tempt “further catastrophes.” And he didn’t point fingers only at Washington. In the final minutes of his lecture, Bacevich examined the struggle in Iraq from a cultural point of view. Specifically, he said, it was the American expectation for ever-greater material abundance that has led to an inherently expansionist foreign policy, such as our addiction to foreign oil and the bloody entanglements needed to ensure an unfettered supply of the fuel.

The current war in Iraq, Bacevich argued, was debased not just by delusional and arrogant foreign policy leadership, but by “the moral dissonance generated by sending soldiers off to fight for freedom in distant lands when freedom at home appears increasingly to have become a synonym for profligacy, conspicuous consumption, and frivolous self-absorption.”

The latter section particularly echoes arguments made by William Appleman Williams and Charles Beard, two historians whose work Bacevich cites in his book, The New American Militarism. I'll have to see if I can't dig up my notes from senior year to see what additional points we might have covered then on Neibuhr — I think the reading itself was a handout, as I don't spot The Irony of American History on my current shelves (which I am now reunited with after two years away in Japan). The follow-up Q&A session at Bacevich's talk, unfortunately, is not included in this audio, so I'm left wondering how the debate went afterwards.

Otherwise unrelated but continuing with the where-are-my-former-professors-now theme a little bit further, Professor Husain Haqqani, current director of BU's Center for International Relations, testified before the House Armed Services Committee on Pakistan recently: here is Video Part One and Video Part Two (Windows streaming formats). I've yet to watch the videos fully for lack of a good connection, but his prepared testimony can be read here (.pdf).

October 07, 2007

There And Back Again

America is doing just ok. I caught up with some professors in Boston, had crepes at the place in South Campus and blueberry muffins at Dunkin Donuts, and am now back home in Indiana and settling in a bit before launching the Great Job Search.

I guess it's a little after the fact now, but I'm beginning to upload pictures from my trip — a slow process since 1) there are over 580 of them to sort through; and 2) we still just have dial-up in the house. So catching up on the news and blogs will also take a while. But you can see the first installment of pictures, from my three days in Beijing, now.