A comment, a reply and the discussion culture

I commented recently on the Information Dissemination blog (a USN-centric blog, also linked in the left column) about the predictability of a coming military budget crunch in the context of a USN strategy formulated in the autumn of 2007.
A link to a blog post of mine from July 2007 was offered as evidence that the economic & fiscal problems were not unpredictable or invisible in autumn 2007 and the unsustainable strategy was therefore a poor one. A good one would have stood the test of an economic crisis that had already begun at the time of its creation.

This brought a visitor of ID, "Solomon" to one of two linked texts of mine on this blog and he left a comment.

I didn't publish the comment because it's not really appropriate, but he's obviously a first time visitor (not my single remaining regular troll) and his comment is of interest if seen from a certain angle.

This is the comment, with red text being my reply:
(Keep in mind; he commented a text that connected U.S. economic data with the crisis and the lacking affordability of the huge U.S. military expenditures.)

Comical. I came here from the ID blogsite and all I can say is that this is pure fantasy, conjecture, hubris and silliness rolled into one.

“pure fantasy” and your later quote “I have no problem with your facts or figures” - does that fit together?

The thought that a person from a country that DEPENDS on exports is attempting to deride US consumerism is laughable. The thought that a person who's nation is failing to live up to its international commitments militarily, yet attempts to chastise a nation that is not only pulling its own weight but the weight of that charity case of a nation is shameful.

Oh, I criticised the excessive trade of my own country as well. The key fact is that this is mostly intra-EU trade – U.S.-Germany trade is rather small; 7% of export and 4% of import in 2008. The U.S.'s trade imbalance is more a U.S.-East Asia affair while Germany's trade imbalance is mostly an intra-European affair – and thus pretty much irrelevant to the topic.
Besides; it's less of a failure to be creditor than to be debtor.

I have no problem with your facts or figures but for you to fail to realize that these trade imbalances helped to fuel the entire globe is shortsighted and an attempt to cherry pick facts.

I understand that the “consumer demand drives the economy” myth is very powerful in the U.S., but it's really just the kindergarten version of economic theory. Years of economic studies on a university have taught me enough to not fall prey to it.
There's nothing good to be found in running into debt again and again. I don't feel compelled to thank Americans for lending East Asian money to buy East Asian industrial products; that was as much an economic model as Madoff had a business model. The U.S. made at most the PRC bigger, which doesn't seem to have been in the U.S.' best interest.

Germany is a socialist nation that is not even meeting the defense budget mandated by the EU.

“socialist”, uh? Many Americans call almost everything “socialist”, so I'm not impressed. “Social democratic” would fit better, and I bet you don't know that the basic major social reforms in Germany were the product of a royalist-conservative chancellor and the "Soziale Marktwirtschaft" (social market economy) is a highly successful model developed by the conservatives (CDU/CSU) during the 50's and 60's.

Feel free to prove that there's a "defense budget mandated by the EU". It's impossible to prove that something doesn't exist (WMD anyone?), so the burden of proof is yours.

Next time you take a look at the US defense budget I recommend that you take a serious look at the personnel costs. Single mothers, 18 year olds with 5 family members etc and the associated costs are whats inflating our defense budget.

That's irrelevant. A business doesn't run better because its owner complains about the personnel structure. It will still go broke if its investments become too small and its debt too great. Your remark would have been slightly interesting if you had data to back it up and not phrased it as an argument (which it isn't).

But lastly I look forward to our efforts to reduce the budget that you so hate. EADS won't win the tanker .... the A400 will ultimately be canceled.... the Leopard MBT will finally be put to pasture and no more sales will be made....the Boxer will no longer be produced....the Eurofighter will end...

EADS tanker – so what ... A400M; I hope you're right, but I doubt your clairvoyance...Leopard MBT – long out of service, Leopard 2 MBT – dispersed in Europe, had unlike M1 Abrams real export success (not only politically enforced export sales) and is in no worse shape than the M1 Abrams … Boxer – same as A400M … Eurofighter – planned production almost complete. That's fine, just as it's fine that the F-22 production run is complete.
I wonder what that has to do with my text, though.
I do also wonder what the mentioned programs (except the tanker) have to do with U.S. military spending.

You sound like someone who has become angry that his country got criticized and who wants to hit back with nation bashing. That's neither an impressive nor a persuasive kind of critique.

Once all that happens, then and only then do I want you to take a look at what defense spending means to even a socialist country like your own.

When Iran finally gets a missile and threatens not only Europe but Israel then talk.

Iran has “a missile”. I guess you meant “a nuclear warhead”. In that case Iran would be deterred by French and British nukes as well as by the vastly superior military power of its direct NATO neighbour Turkey – just as the Soviet Union was deterred. Iran is merely a small, regional power - it offers no reason for increases in any military budget.
I wonder why you seem to think that I would bother more (or as much) about a fictional threat to Israel than/as about a fictional threat to Europe. I do also wonder about it because Berlin is more than twice as far away from Tehran as is Tel Aviv while you sound as if the latter was less easily in Iranian range.

You did not read my blog much, of course. One of my recurring points is that I'm not easily scared. The Iranians don't scare me a bit, for example. I'm confident that a Franco-Anglo strike would flatten Tehran and Isfahan if an Iranian nuke hits an EU or European NATO country.

It's furthermore doubtful how Iran could be linked to a German defence budget and how the latter could be reasonably linked to the problem of the factual unsustainability of U.S. military spending.

I would prefer a policy that was protectionist, isolationist and left Europe, Africa and Asia to there own devices. We can take care of ourselves and don't need Euro-policy wonks interfering.

“their”, not “there”.
I would prefer a more introvert U.S. as well, so there's actual agreement. I actually don't feel defended by the U.S. - it's more like the aggressive troublemaker in a clique who always provokes others and gets into a fight with the result that the whole clique is associated with trouble making.
To observe UN rules in regard to inter-state conflicts is actually a North Atlantic treaty obligation of the U.S. - one that was violated severely.

His kind of response isn't exactly uncommon. The style is very distinctly U.S. American. I disagree with Germans, Brits, Italians, Frenchmen and Canadians often - but almost none of them ever behaves like this. I assume that it's a political-culture matter.

Especially remarkable is the fear. Extreme fear. Fear of their own fictions. Seriously, I've never encountered a single non-U.S. American who came close to the top 50 fear-driven Americans I've been in contact with. The closest one was an Israeli. What's up about this fear of everything?

I didn't notice this rule of fear before 9/11, but history tells us that it's not such a new phenomenon. Red scare, yellow scare, communist subversion scare, missile gap, domino theory - apparently even ceding control of the Panama Canal raised the fear factor.

Most scares were completely off, and some were badly exaggerated. A rational being would become skeptic about present and future fear fashions given that track record of past fear fashions.

Seriously, what's up with this fear of outlandish scenarios? I don't get it.

Spending more money on "defense" seems to make a country more fearful of external threats, not less (the empirical basis for this suspicion has only anecdotal value, of course).

Fear makes you spend more on "defense", which in turn makes you more sensitive to fears, which increases your fear, which leads to more "defense" spending ... is that how it works?
- - - - -

There's no way how such a style of discussion could be of value. It's simply an irritating waste of time.

A purposeful discussion needs to be fair (either no unfairness or symmetric unfairness), rational, informed (using facts, not myths) and inspired (ideas).

I understand that really influential people behave differently (at least behind closed doors in the really relevant discussions).
Nevertheless, the Internet has become part of the media; and the media's mission to inform the nation and to foster fruitful debate is acknowledged as an important pillar of democracy.

A terrible and unproductive style of discussion in the Internet constitutes a bad influence on politics and policy.
My usual response to such behaviour is to hit back by exposing it.



  1. A great post, Sven, although correcting his English (American?) was perhaps a bit too much icing on the cake.

    Your comments about irrational fears and what it is doing to America resonate strongly with me because I'm seeing it popping up in more and more places here in the US.

    It is leading to more people being put into prison on more and more trivial charges, also more police on the street who are trained to shoot and ask questions later.

    You are undoubtedly aware that the US military has formed NorthCom to deal with possible rioting and insurrection in this country.

    At this rate we will soon be the largest, best-protected, and poorest third world country in the world. And undoubtedly we will be even more fearful of everybody around us and of ourselves.

    There's a lot of fear going around this country for more rational fears; the economy is on shaky ground at best, the educational system is diving for the bottom as fast as it can, the healthcare system is becoming a failure instead of just being a horror story.

    In this uncertain time I am completely baffled as to why supposedly rational people would seek to scare themselves even further with irrational fears. But then I've never understood the attraction of going to horror movies either.

  2. Well...to be completely fair, nearly all really powerful nations have two unpleasant characteristics. The first is a smug superiority about their politics, culture, economy, and everything else. I was reading just today the comment of a Frenchman when the British captured Port-au-Prince in 1793: "It is easy to get along with the British. We need only accustom ourselves to drinking hard liquor every afternoon and nod politely when they assert endlessly the superiority of English ways." Power breeds arrogance and I don't know that it is a characteristic of Americans so much as it is an characteristic of empires. I think if you hung out on Chinese web sites you would see much the same sort of jingoism.

    And you would see much the same sort of paranoia. It is a peculiar feature of power that it not only breeds arrogance, but also fear. The easy confidence of a nation on the rise becomes a timid dread of losing everything once they reach the top. It unbalances them, causing them to zero in on the tiniest of threats, like a middle-aged man who sees in every ache and pain, every illness or restless night, the first sign of the beginning of the end. It is part of imperial senility and it is well-recognized by American social critics but not by the public at large.

    You would not believe the business done in "sanitation" in this country right now. The television is full of ads for disinfectant wipes and stores place them on shopping carts for the benefit of customers. Experts say the wipes actually make us sicker because our immune system needs constant exposure to weak germs in order to stay fully charged. But Americans believe that safety is a commodity that can be bought. They do not believe in subtlety or the law of diminishing returns; more is more and that's all there is to it.

    So they pile on the debt trying to create a sort of absolute security that no nation in history has had, but which more than one nation bankrupted itself trying to acquire. Once again, in fairness, the real threat to the US economy is not really the deficit or the debt, but the future commitments to fund pensions and health care. Europe faces this same problem, even though their current accounts look better.

  3. The degree of ignorance and, just as you put it, fear of almost anything present in comments like the one you quoted, seems frightening. Yes, professional characters in the field of foreign affairs, defence studies etc do not display that kind of argument to such a degree, but the underlying ideology is resembling this comment on a number of points, as I can attest to from my very own experiences first-hand.

    The internet and mass-media on the one hand spread this misinformation and ideology and seem to enable sheer stupidity to prevail to an astonishing degree (Sarah Palin anyone?)...then again, at least as far as the internet is concerned, it might also showcase these tendencies, so they can be recognized, and in consequence, countered more quickly and effectively than before. The door swings both ways I guess.

    Above all it strongly indicates a culture in decay, since this is by no means the odd exception. Political thinkers on the field of hegemony theory should be thrilled to be proven right by whats happening in the US over the last ten to fifteen years.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Clairvoyance: FAIL

    I don't see at all how I denied you a chance to respond.

    Yet be warned; there is a lower limit for accepted comment quality, so simply keep civil in further comments and we can discuss this or the original topic.

    Rule of thumb: You're a guest, feel and behave like it.

  6. for those interested in solomons answer: http://snafu-solomon.blogspot.com/2009/12/europeans-feminist-and-defense-freedom.html#comments

  7. Yep, I blocked his next comment here for its first three words...

    He has quite obviously not understood much here, but that doesn't bother me. His behaviour is - as mentioned before - not exactly a rarity, so he's not important.

    The good thing about it is that every visitor of his blog can now see what kind of mind writes that blog.

  8. As for your final question, yes, this irrational fear is a uniquely American trait. Brian Jenkins described it in his latest book "Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?" and I will try to recap some of his ideas in tomorrow's post.

  9. unfortunately this is a rather typical example of the discussion style and argumentation of a certain demographic in the usa.

    not least a result of divide et impera: these people have been fostered and pimped by the bush administration, and mccain felt compelled enough to take the baton via palin.

    also in the new media environment there are plenty of sources/boards to keep their view 'consistent'. not only fox makes good money on selling the right framing to these demographics.

    your strategy of the calling out and providing better arguments is the only one that might help in the long run. education and exposure to different points of view/facts is key.

    but I am afraid that in the short run there is a whole generation of people lost for a rational discussion. unless something happens on the right wing that acts as a force of sanity/moderation this will self-perpetuate. with possibly destructive consequences for the american society.

    btw: I have american citizenship.

  10. Transatlantic reader7 December 2009 at 22:34

    Sven and others
    In order to have a genuine intelligent conversation one must correctly assign an origin to the written. In Max's case the problems are all laid at the feet of Bush. Yet in response to Sven's post the idea of BHO running a $300 billion debt in month 2 of the fiscal year certainly lends credence to Sven's premise of affordability of the Maritime Strategy. The current administration is heading down a path in Afghan that is destined to "succeed" in that we will leave in 2011 and 2012, but 'fail" in that Al Qaeda will still be a threat to ALL western nations. See Somalia. See Beluchistan.

    The Maritime Strategy is like the game plan of the football coach. It goes right out the window after the first series. You defend against your opponents strengths with what you have available. The USN spends far more time nation-building and providing humanitarian assistance than warfighting. And no other nation's naval assets can show up and provide 20,000 meals a day, a full hospital, air assets, climatological data, overhead imagery, etc. No one can. Not the Brits, the Germans, the French, the Russians, not the Indians, the Chinese. you get the picture.

    A real fear in the US is that the country is tilted toward the "social lite" fabric ensconsed in western Europe. Your economies depend heavily on immigration, which is changing the very fabric of your society. I used to spend 2 weeks of every month in the UK, and my employees there had the attitude of "we leave them along, they leave us alone" when I asked about muslim populations having their own courts, schools, banking laws, etc. The muslim population can pick and chose what sections of society it wants, the native UK does not have the same choice. England still looks at the US as the red-headed step-child that made good. They are kind of proud of our common ancestry, but seemingly jealous of the family success.

    As a retired naval officer with 2 NATO deployments, major staff duty, overseas duty, and a qualified aviator and ship driver,one of the hardest things to do is successfully integrate other navies' limited (and often very rudimentary) capabilities in a cohesive battle group. However, many times the additions were so smoothly integrated and so capable that it left us wanting more (the Dutch come to mind as being small but extremely efficient, effective, knowledgeable, and professional - they can drive as well as any).

    What many fail to see if that a certain segment has for years been calling for a balanced budget requirement. And to acknowledge the future fiscal burdens of social security and medicare. Even socialized medicine does nothing with this 800 lb gorilla, and no amount of TARP funding, bailout, tax increase, repeal of Bush tax cuts, will take care of this funding delta. So pluto is correct - we will be a poor third world country. However, pluto is incorrect on his premise of NorthCom. The US Mil has long had plans for action within the continental boundaries. Nothing new there. No black helos scorching about.

    Keep 'em on target Sven, and keep the blog pointy and sharp. Every country can use a little pointed criticism, and if you can't take it, then head to Burma where you won't know you're being criticized.

  11. 'Seriously, what's up with this fear of outlandish scenarios? I don't get it.'

    James already nailed this one, but I'll chime in with my take on "imperial senility."

    The USA catapulted into global hyperpower with the industrial-nuclear tour de force of World War II, so they have a tendency to phrase everything in terms of World War II. "The Greatest Generation," "The Cold War," etc.

    Outlandish scenarios are the USA's version of British "muscular Christianity." Just like obnoxious Brits were yelling at waiters when Britannia ruled the waves, obnoxious Yanks are now screaming that they cannot permit the Islamic extremists to tamper with their precious bodily fluids.

    China is almost as bad, but give it ten years - if the US dollar collapses, we might see obnoxious Chinamen talking about the superior Han race...

  12. transatlantic reader,
    with all due respect but I didn't mean to put the blame on the bush administration solely.

    my point, albeit maybe not worded carefully enough, was that their politics were a contributing factor to the very real cultural divide both within america and with the rest of the world.

    the bush administration was fostering a science-sceptic view, emphasizing with ‘alternative' worldviews, funneled billions into christian/creationist organizations via faith-based initiative programs and offered a unique blend of american exceptionalism, laisse-faire liberalism and ‘heartland values'.

    this is only one aspect of the story. the reasons for the prevalence of fear in certain demographics in the usa are of socio-political nature.

    the widening gap in income, diversity, and education in the us, the relative decline of the middle class and the pauperization of white working class and rural populations are well documented.

    for a lot of people their place in the society is uncertain. and they are getting more.

    right now there is neither a compelling story to deal with this anxiety nor real solutions to the real problems. its no wonder ppl are afraid.

    nationalism and militarism are poor mans socialism. it makes ppl feel proud but it usually does not fix their problem. for that I'd rather pick the european solution.

    read esping-anderson three worlds to get a perspective.

  13. Transatlantic reader9 December 2009 at 21:26

    There is a lot of fear in the US these days, and that fear is crossing the political spectrum. The conservative side fears the pendulum has swung too far to the left with trillion dollar deficits, nationalized health care that won't reduce anything but quality of care, an EPA that can now set arbitrary greenhouse limits and fetter American business, an educational system that produces functional illiterates when school districts in CA decree that "there are no wrong answers, just some answers are less right than others", when tax dollars fund abortions, and when you can brazenly show a mockery of Christ's crucifixon but can't show a Danish cartoon of mohammed. The left fears that the pendulum won't be "left" long enough to equalize income, socialize medicine and education, fund ever increasing government, and model itself after Europe's "socialism lite".

    I'm educated with two Master's degrees - one in hard science, one in business. Run my own business with 30 employees, and my wife and I make over $250K per year. And we're afraid. Afraid of the burden of the debt BHO is foisting on our future. Afraid of the equalization of America vis a vis the rest of the world. if we're equal then be equal. Which means all countries pay exactly the same for the UN dues. Right now the US supports that glaringly corrupt and inefficient organization. All countries support NATO with the same financial commitment. All countries support world hunger and famine to the same degree. but that doesn't happen. the world wants more from the US, but wants the US to be mute when criticism is mounted about "fair share".

    Most Americans are really pretty clueless about what individual European countries stand for, what foreign policy they espouse, and what difficulties they face in managing their economies. Maybe clueless is good, maybe not. But Denmark's tax rate on electric cars doesn't bother us one whit. Japan's interest rate on savings deposits of 0% doesn't bother us one bit. UK's problem with soccer hooligans doesn't bother us one bit. Germany's still divided population doesn't really affect us one bit. The lack of military spending doesn't really bother us one bit. We know that we will shoulder most of the burden of defending aligned interests around the world. Russia military is kaput, chinese military is ascending but still 15-20 years post-US in technology. We do worry about Iran and nukes. Interesting that doesn't seem to bother you continentals as you are in their range a lot sooner than us. Ah, but European society is in large part 20-30% muslim in many major metro areas, so there is some safety in that aspect.

    So, fear yes. Fear that we could lose our national identity as many European countries have lost theirs.

    And Max - thanks for the book tip. Will pick it up at B&N and give it a read.

  14. Oh, come on. You're dangerously close to repeat a standard U.S. myth about Europe; completely inflated assertions about Muslim population.

    There are urban districts with a foreigner (not necessarily active Muslim) share as you mentioned, but stating this leads predictably to many misinterpretations.

    The real share of Muslims in Europe is still very small:


    Please, don't help those who distribute the stupid myth about Europe supposedly soon being taken over by Muslims by citing rare local exceptions without context.

  15. It is interesting how so many of my fellows seem genuinely frightened. Certainly the media creates a free-floating anxiety surrounding everything from germs on cutting boards to wrinkles. Perhaps the fact that I am not bombarded daily by these images may have something to do with my resistance to them.

    Odd that we take the bait, this society which reveres The Greatest Generation, as you mention. It is almost as though we create an iconography around Walter Benjamin's mechanical reproduction of the imagery, but the icon is something inaccessible to us.

  16. Transatlantic reader10 December 2009 at 16:42

    Have you traveled to Saudi? Bahrain? UAE? Iraq? Kuwait?

    didn't think so. UK has 56 major sharia courts in 50 metropolitan areas. The recent ruling on minarets in Switzerland? Not very inclusive there, eh? Banning habibs and veils in France? Not very inclusive there. guess what - not one of those rulings in the US. Fear? I'd say those on the other side of the pond are getting a little fearful.

    Never fear, we will come rescue you once again!
    Do enjoy your blog tho, so keep up the good work.

  17. Lisa:

    It is interesting that the most enduring self-image of Americans remains that of the Westerner, pioneer or prospector or cowboy, who symbolizes Rugged Individualism. The actuality of self-reliance is nonexistent in the US, even and especially among those who promote it most. Genuinely individualistic and self-reliant people are regarded as outsiders and kooks. Of course, so were most pioneers and prospectors.

    The Westerner is constantly invoked in advertising and entertainment and Americans consciously seek out symbols that will identify them with it: rugged utility vehicles, guns, military-surplus clothing. Yet whenever they are given a chance to differentiate themselves from the mob they invariably choose safe obedience.

    The Cult of Individualism and the Cult of Patriotism would seem to be fundamentally incompatible, since one is oriented on the self and the other oriented on the collective. They must must be balanced and rationalized but many Americans claim to believe in both without compromise. Thinking too deeply about the founding myths makes Americans uncomfortable; the icon is worshiped as empty ritual because it has to be.

  18. @Transatlantic reader:

    Those "shariah courts" are not real courts. They're arbitration agencies acting under a general arbitration law. They can only decide if all involved parties agree in advance. None of those will ever be able to do the things that sharia courts are so unpopular for, as cutting off a hand for stealing.

    The Swiss, French and German discussions about immigration and Muslims can easily be explained with cultural, political and immigration integration issues without a single bit of irrational fear.

    There are of course irrational fears in Europe as well (for example hypochondriacs who fear mobile phone antenna masts), but they have only a very small influence on national policy and the major debates.

    Let me invoke the fear of fictional Iranian nuke missiles as an example.
    National TV spends a few hours per year on that topic and newspaper articles about the topic are typically critical of diplomatic performance rather than alarmist on the topic.

  19. As an American and someone who has lived most of his life in the US. I can say that this particular fellow is quite typical of many Americans, young and old. This all to familiar American mindset boils down to several factors: 1st the US is far more nationalistic then any nation in Europe. Here we call it being "patriotic" but what it really is, is nationalism. 2nd, many Americans have little to no knowledge of the outside world. This is caused by several factors, A. the US is a very large country that is somewhat geographically isolated from the rest of the world powers. B. The isolationist mentality that was once very common in this country never went away. C. The US media is so dominant in this country, it doesn't allow outside perspectives from coming in. Lastly, Americans are taught from a young age to never question the system. Your allowed to hate the leaders but you can never call into question the legitimacy of the system. This system is capitalism and our constitution. When you combine, ignorance, intense nationalism, geographical isolation, and a narrow mind set you have fellow like mister Solomon or whatever his name was. As for the socialist thing, I still don't understand what all the fear is about. Those so called socialist countries that Americans go on about are general much nicer places to live then the US is, and trust me I've lived in both. So don't let those fools get you down Sven and remember there are a few of us over here that "get it". bis später

  20. "Especially remarkable is the fear. Extreme fear. Fear of their own fictions. Seriously, I've never encountered a single non-U.S. American who came close to the top 50 fear-driven Americans I've been in contact with."

    Good post Sven, I am very much agreed with the list of failings detailed.

    However, it is not the fear that is the defining characteristic in my opinion, it is angry way in which it is evidenced when Soloman lashes out in 'defence'.

    I see this fear quite regularly in europeans, and usually it is from the same people who advocate a federal EU.

    Fear of competition in primary & secondary goods.
    Fear of declining standards of social provision.
    Fear of declining influence of social democracy.
    Fear of declining competitive advantage in hi-tech.

    In short, fear of what a rising China represents.

    And the is always; federalism.

    Stand together or sink beneath the waves.

    The difference is in the presentation.

    We euro-weenies realise we haven't been top dogs for some time, so the fear is expressed with a greater humility.

    In Soloman's cases, the fear is the realised that the US is losing the untrammelled hegemony of a hyper-power, subject to no whims but its own, and once more becoming a mere super-power that must jockey and wrestle with new giants.

    But make no mistake, the fear is the same.