Saturday, February 18, 2006

Capitalist means, Soviet ends.

One of the growing ironies of 21st Century American political rhetoric is the way it is beginning to establish goals that are nearly a perfect mirror of the Soviet actions of the last century. Don't be confused, not a mimic, but a mirror. A reflection. The same thing from the other side.

The Soviets followed a single-minded planning system, organized from a central source and seeking a single end: aggrandizement of the Soviet Union, and an accretion of its power by whatever means available. It did this through establishment of goals, and spared no effort to ensure it achieved those goals--regardless of the practicality of the means needed to achieve them. It was this kind of thinking, this kind of prioritization, and this kind of action that determined that Kazakhstan was a good place to grow cotton--the goal. The means to get there drained a significant portion of the Aral sea, and instead has made it a ship-bearing desert.

The mirror image rhetoric in America is a demanding insistence on means without a consideration of the ends. It is nearly an inversion, believing means are an ends to themselves. What am I talking about? The best example is the semi-religious zeal the public keeps hearing the chant, "Privatize! Privatize! Privatize!" from conservative pundits and political leaders alike. There is logic behind it (of a sort). The government isn't a productive force within the economy--it is a sap. Private enterprise is what made this country great. Americans' success has always come from their own efforts in spite of government efforts to hold the people down." Fundamentally, it is a faith that the private sector can do anything the government does and it can do it better. Retirement. Health Care. Education. Transportation.

In almost every way, it is the complete inversion of the Soviet belief that the state could do anything the private sector did, and do it better. It's not a new idea. Single minded adherence to an ideology, and a rejection of any alternative is a common feature in history: Pol Pot in Cambodia during the 70s, Mao Zedong in China from the 40s-70s, Lenin in the 20s, to say nothing of religious extremism like the Spanish Inquisition in Spain or Usama bin Laden's present-day Salafism.

The rhetoric is one of "follow the means, the world will be great." Without consideration or statement of what that world would look like. As we begin to privatize our fundamentally American institutions, bit by bit, we're eroding our ability to lead the world in politics, economy, and military. Just like the Soviets, by singlemindedly seeking to fulfill their 5-year plans destroyed their ability to create, produce, and compete, with the West.

To focus on just one such area, privatizing America's public school system is a symptom of the larger disease soon to be weakening our body American. The mythology of Americans pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, and Marlboro-man individualism aside, a major component of American ascendance to economic, political, and military power in the world has been our people. For over 150 years our people have had access to better education at every level than almost anyone else in the world. From school-houses in small towns in the Dakotas, to some of the leading high schools in the country, and the world's premier universities, the United States has provided our youngest opportunities to surpass their parents in learning and knowledge. And it has been available to everyone.

No one has reaped greater economic rewards from this superior eduction than American businesses. This is why American businesses have led the way innovating products, processes and management for the past century--because we have had more people more educated than anywhere else in the world.

Now, just as the rest of the world is realizing America's greatest competitive advantage lies in its highly educated people, American business and political leadership are rejecting the idea that it is important to continue to invest in teaching our children. The money they save today in "privatizing" is better, they say, than the benefits from a long-term investment in education.

Ask the Russians and the Kazakh's today what kind of rewards they are reaping from their single-minded adherence to the Soviet line in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Growing cotton in a desert is an idea with equal consequences as the idea that having a less well educated populace will help maintain prosperity.

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