Karzai and the Scent of U.S. Irresolution by FOUAD AJAMI, WSJ.com

‘They do give us bags of money—yes, yes, it is done, we are grateful to the Iranians for this.” This is the East, and baksheesh is the way of the world, Hamid Karzai brazenly let it be known this week. The big aid that maintains his regime, and keeps his country together, comes from the democracies. It is much cheaper for the Iranians. They are of the neighborhood, they know the ways of the bazaar.

The remarkable thing about Mr. Karzai has been his perverse honesty. This is not a Third World client who has given us sweet talk about democracy coming to the Hindu Kush. He has been brazen to the point of vulgarity. We are there, but on his and his family’s terms. Bags of cash, the reports tell us, are hauled out of Kabul to Dubai; there are eight flights a day. We distrust the man. He reciprocates that distrust, and then some. Our deliberations leak, we threaten and bully him, only to give in to him. And this only increases his lack of regard for American tutelage. We are now there to cut a deal—the terms of our own departure from Afghanistan.

The idealism has drained out of this project. Say what you will about the Iraq war—and there was disappointment and heartbreak aplenty—there always ran through that war the promise of a decent outcome: deliverance for the Kurds, an Iraqi democratic example in the heart of a despotic Arab world, the promise of a decent Shiite alternative in the holy city of Najaf that would compete with the influence of Qom. No such nobility, no such illusions now attend our war in Afghanistan. By latest cruel count, more than 1,300 American service members have fallen in Afghanistan. For these sacrifices, Mr. Karzai shows little, if any, regard.

In his latest outburst, Mr. Karzai said the private security companies that guard the embassies and the development and aid organizations are killer squads, on a par with the Taliban. “The money dealing with the private security companies starts in the hallways of the U.S. government. Then they send the money for killing here,” Mr Karzai said. It is fully understood that Mr. Karzai and his clan want the business of the contractors for themselves.

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Associated Press
Afghan President Hamid Karzai (left) and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

The brutal facts about Afghanistan are these: It is a broken country, a land of banditry, of a war of all against all, and of the need to get what can be gotten from the strangers. There is no love for the infidels who have come into the land, and no patience for their sermons.

In its wanderings through the Third World, from Korea and Vietnam to Iran and Egypt, it was America’s fate to ride with all sorts of clients. We betrayed some of them, and they betrayed us in return. They passed off their phobias and privileges as lofty causes worthy of our blood and treasure. They snookered us at times, but there was always the pretense of a common purpose. The thing about Mr. Karzai is his sharp break with this history. It is the ways of the Afghan mountaineers that he wishes to teach us.

When they came to power, the Obama people insisted they would teach Mr. Karzai new rules. There was a new man at the helm in Washington, and there would be no favored treatment, no intimacy with the new steward of American power. Governance would have to improve, and skeptical policy makers would now hold him accountable (Vice President Joe Biden, Special Representative Richard Holbrooke, et al.). Mr. Karzai took their measure, and everywhere around him there were signs of American retreat, such as the spectacle of the Pax Americana eager to reach a grand bargain with the Iranian theocrats.

Mr. Karzai didn’t need to be a grand strategist. He had, as is necessary in his world of treachery and betrayal, his ear to the ground, his scent for the irresolution of the Obama administration. He saw the scorn of Iran’s cruel leaders for America’s diplomatic approaches. He could see Iranian power extend all the way to the Mediterranean, right up to Israel’s borders with Lebanon and to Gaza. The Iranians were next door and the Americans were giving away their fatigue. Why not accept the entreaties from Tehran?

A year ago, the U.S. ambassador to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, laid out the truth about Mr. Karzai and his regime in a secret cable that of course made its way into the public domain. “President Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner,” Mr. Eikenberry wrote. The Karzai regime could not bear the weight of a counterinsurgency doctrine that would win the loyalty of the populace. There were monumental problems of governance but “Karzai continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance, or development. He and much of his circle do not want the U.S. to leave and are only too happy to see us invest further. They assume we covet their territory for a never-ending war on terror and for military bases to use against surrounding powers.” In Mr. Eikenberry’s cable, Mr. Karzai is a man beyond redemption, who was unlikely to “change fundamentally this late in his life and in our relationship.”

In one of his great tales of the imperial age, “Lord Jim,” Joseph Conrad depicts the encounter between a criminal and a noble figure. “Gentleman” Brown and a band of robbers had come into Tuan Jim’s domain—a small world, Patusan, where Jim’s writ ran and the natives honored and deferred to him. Everything was on the side of Jim—possession, security, power. But Brown senses the hidden irresoluteness of Jim, a man who had come to this remote, small world in the Pacific in search of redemption. We are equal, says Brown: “What do you know more of me than I know of you? What did you ask for when you came here?” Jim pays with his life. He had let the ruffian set the terms of the encounter.

A big American project, our longest war, is now waged with doubt and hesitation, and our ally on the scene has gone rogue, taking the coin of our enemies and scoffing at our purposes. Unlike the Third World clients of old, this one does not even bother to pay us the tribute of double-speak and hypocrisy. He is a different kind of client, but then, too, our authority today is but a shadow of what it once was.

Mr. Ajami is a professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.


Rather Than Bash the Rich, We Should Emulate Them by John Tamny

During a recent business trip to Minneapolis, an article in Mpls.St. Paul Magazine caught this writer’s eye. Titled “Blake’s True Colors”, the article chronicled the allegedly positive evolution of The Blake School, which is generally viewed as the most academically rigorous center of learning in the Twin Cities, and also the one with the most well-to-do student body.

Though the author lauded with forked tongue Blake’s efforts to morph from a school not just for the rich, but also “for the worthy”, the greater theme within concerned the values that privileged white children bring to the classroom each day. Supposedly those values are aimless, wasteful and unworthy – rich and worthy mutually exclusive – so for Blake to be relevant going forward, the students lucky enough to attend will, if the author has her way, learn to not think like rich, white kids.

The very notion of not thinking like the rich is pregnant with false meaning, and unsurprisingly, is contradicted by an article meant to discredit the wealthy and their offspring as the lucky winners of the lottery on life. Nothing could be further from the truth.

To become rich is simple, at least on paper. In order to grow wealthy one must first work very hard, and then offer up one’s labor in a field that serves the needs of others so much that profits are relatively large. This same person must then save those profits with great gusto in order to turn earned income into wealth. If it were easy to become rich we all would be, but as the rich and poor alike know intimately, getting rich is surely glorious, but also very difficult.

The rich, by virtue of being rich, are society’s ultimate benefactors thanks to them doing things that remove unease from the lives of others, and then, rather than wasting those gains, their delayed consumption is transferred to other ambitious entrepreneurs who access the capital they don’t consume in order to make our lives better themselves. There is no wealth without thrift, and it’s the thrift of the rich and hard working in our midst that funds the innovations that increasingly enhance all of our living standards.

Looking at the children of the rich who attend Blake, if it’s even remotely true that parents pass on their value systems to their kids, then it’s also true that the children of the well-to-do are bringing to school each day an essential mindset that others should emulate. These values would once again be hard work, thrift, and as evidenced by Blake’s story, charity.

As the article’s author perhaps unwittingly noted, programs offered by Blake “range from highly successful summer programs for Minneapolis Public Schools students called LearningWorks, to a quickly expanding service learning program that is designed to build a sense of responsibility toward others”. What the author conveniently leaves out is that these programs have a cost, and it’s a safe bet that they’re funded by the very parents who presumably impress on their privileged children the good that comes from helping others.

It’s also the case that last year Blake offered 250 students $4 million in aid in order to attend the school. Not mentioned once again is the likelihood that in a school that is 81% white, probably a great deal of the funds meant to give others the opportunities that were once just the preserve of the rich came from the rich white parents whose children supposedly aren’t worth emulating.

Blake was of course founded in 1900 “by the richest families in Minneapolis for the purpose of securing access for their children to the elite private schools on the East Coast,” but with 1/5th of the student body unable to afford its nosebleed tuition, it seems the school’s supposedly valueless benefactors are sacrificing a great deal of their own money in order to give to others the advantages their children presently enjoy. If so, and if the rich and their offspring place a high value on accessing the best education well beyond Blake, shouldn’t the non-rich be eagerly copying their values, rather than dismissing them as unworthy? Probably.

Looking at community service within a school that is aggressively addressing what the upper school’s assistant director terms “white privilege”, Blake students “volunteer for organizations such as Minneapolis Crisis Nursery, UNICEF, and Vail Place, a support program for adults with mental illness.” Apparently it’s a good thing to “think like a rich kid” if a volunteerism is any kind of gauge.

The obvious reply to this line of thinking is that the children of the wealthy enjoy easier lives than their parents do, so while they may be taught the importance of thrift and hard work, they don’t aspire to those values. That’s an easy assumption for sure, but one belied by simple, anecdotal evidence.

Indeed, movie moguls Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg both grew up on New York’s Park Avenue, Winston Churchill at Blenheim Palace, real estate entrepreneur Donald Trump was raised by a father who’d done extraordinarily well himself in property, while Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg attended Phillips Exeter Academy. Failed children of the successful are always notable, but not discussed enough is how often they inherit their parents’ belief in hard work on the way to great success.

Also not mentioned is how many children of the unsuccessful end up much like their parents. This number would be hard to quantify, but if values are some degree inherited, it’s a safe bet that a not insignificant number of children who grow up poor take the values of light work and an aversion to thrift well into adulthood. Simply put, the values that lead to failure are in no way the sole preserve of the upper middle classes, let alone white people.

Taking this a bit further, can the author suggest with a straight face that the values of hard work, study and charity permeate the more downtrodden schools in Minneapolis? If so, why is it that a Blake education is so desirable to the rich and poor alike?

Ultimately it’s the goal of The Blake School to erase the culture of “white privilege” from its hallowed walls. No doubt this plays well to a media possessing an almost reflexive hate of wealth, but for the rational minds in our midst, white privilege is a falsely pejorative term for the enterprise and parsimony that often lead to financial and charitable success. Blake may well rid itself of what its administrators deem a wanting, privileged culture, but if successful, they’ll rid the school of the values that make it so attractive to the ambitious, including those not rich or white.

10 Reasons To Buy a Home by Brett Arends, WSJ

The ‘New Normal’ Myth Calls For Ronald Reagan 2.0


What is the Tipping Point? by Malcolm Gladwell

1. What is The Tipping Point about?

It’s a book about change. In particular, it’s a book that presents a new way of understanding why change so often happens as quickly and as unexpectedly as it does. For example, why did crime drop so dramatically in New York City in the mid-1990’s? How does a novel written by an unknown author end up as national bestseller? Why do teens smoke in greater and greater numbers, when every single person in the country knows that cigarettes kill? Why is word-of-mouth so powerful? What makes TV shows like Sesame Street so good at teaching kids how to read? I think the answer to all those questions is the same. It’s that ideas and behavior and messages and products sometimes behave just like outbreaks of infectious disease. They are social epidemics. The Tipping Point is an examination of the social epidemics that surround us.

2. What does it mean to think about life as an epidemic? Why does thinking in terms of epidemics change the way we view the world?

Because epidemics behave in a very unusual and counterintuitive way. Think, for a moment, about an epidemic of measles in a kindergarten class. One child brings in the virus. It spreads to every other child in the class in a matter of days. And then, within a week or so, it completely dies out and none of the children will ever get measles again. That’s typical behavior for epidemics: they can blow up and then die out really quickly, and even the smallest change — like one child with a virus — can get them started. My argument is that it is also the way that change often happens in the rest of the world. Things can happen all at once, and little changes can make a huge difference. That’s a little bit counterintuitive. As human beings, we always expect everyday change to happen slowly and steadily, and for there to be some relationship between cause and effect. And when there isn’t — when crime drops dramatically in New York for no apparent reason, or when a movie made on a shoestring budget ends up making hundreds of millions of dollars — we’re surprised. I’m saying, don’t be surprised. This is the way social epidemics work.

3. Where did you get the idea for the book?

Before I went to work for The New Yorker, I was a reporter for the Washington Post and I covered the AIDS epidemic. And one of the things that struck me as I learned more and more about HIV was how strange epidemics were. If you talk to the people who study epidemics–epidemiologists–you realize that they have a strikingly different way of looking at the world. They don’t share the assumptions the rest of us have about how and why change happens. The word “Tipping Point”, for example, comes from the world of epidemiology. It’s the name given to that moment in an epidemic when a virus reaches critical mass. It’s the boiling point. It’s the moment on the graph when the line starts to shoot straight upwards. AIDS tipped in 1982, when it went from a rare disease affecting a few gay men to a worldwide epidemic. Crime in New York City tipped in the mid 1990’s, when the murder rate suddenly plummeted. When I heard that phrase for the first time I remember thinking–wow. What if everything has a Tipping Point? Wouldn’t it be cool to try and look for Tipping Points in business, or in social policy, or in advertising or in any number of other nonmedical areas?

4. Why do you think the epidemic example is so relevant for other kinds of change? Is it just that it’s an unusual and interesting way to think about the world?

No. I think it’s much more than that, because once you start to understand this pattern you start to see it everywhere. I’m convinced that ideas and behaviors and new products move through a population very much like a disease does. This isn’t just a metaphor, in other words. I’m talking about a very literal analogy. One of the things I explore in the book is that ideas can be contagious in exactly the same way that a virus is. One chapter, for example, deals with the very strange epidemic of teenage suicide in the South Pacific islands of Micronesia. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Micronesia had teen suicide rates ten times higher than anywhere else in the world. Teenagers were literally being infected with the suicide bug, and one after another they were killing themselves in exactly the same way under exactly the same circumstances. We like to use words like contagiousness and infectiousness just to apply to the medical realm. But I assure you that after you read about what happened in Micronesia you’ll be convinced that behavior can be transmitted from one person to another as easily as the flu or the measles can. In fact, I don’t think you have to go to Micronesia to see this pattern in action. Isn’t this the explanation for the current epidemic of teen smoking in this country? And what about the rash of mass shootings we’re facing at the moment–from Columbine through the Atlanta stockbroker through the neo-Nazi in Los Angeles?

5. Are you talking about the idea of memes, that has become so popular in academic circles recently?

It’s very similar. A meme is a idea that behaves like a virus–that moves through a population, taking hold in each person it infects. I must say, though, that I don’t much like that term. The thing that bothers me about the discussion of memes is that no one ever tries to define exactly what they are, and what makes a meme so contagious. I mean, you can put a virus under a microscope and point to all the genes on its surface that are responsible for making it so dangerous. So what happens when you look at an infectious idea under a microscope? I have a chapter where I try to do that. I use the example of children’s television shows like Sesame Street and the new Nickelodeon program called Blues Clues. Both those are examples of shows that started learning epidemics in preschoolers, that turned kids onto reading and “infected” them with literacy. We sometimes think of Sesame Street as purely the result of the creative genius of people like Jim Henson and Frank Oz. But the truth is that it is carefully and painstaking engineered, down to the smallest details. There’s a wonderful story, in fact, about the particular scientific reason for the creation of Big Bird. It’s very funny. But I won’t spoil it for you.

6. How would you classify The Tipping Point? Is it a science book?

I like to think of it as an intellectual adventure story. It draws from psychology and sociology and epidemiology, and uses examples from the worlds of business and education and fashion and media. If I had to draw an analogy to another book, I’d say it was like Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, in the sense that it takes theories and ideas from the social sciences and shows how they can have real relevance to our lives. There’s a whole section of the book devoted to explaining the phenomenon of word of mouth, for example. I think that word of mouth is something created by three very rare and special psychological types, whom I call Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen. I profile three people who I think embody those types, and then I use the example of Paul Revere and his midnight ride to point out the subtle characteristics of this kind of social epidemic. So just in that chapter there is a little bit of sociology, a little of psychology and a little bit of history, all in aid of explaining a very common but mysterious phenomenon that we deal with every day. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not sure that this book fits into any one category. That’s why I call it an adventure story. I think it will appeal to anyone who wants to understand the world around them in a different way. I think it can give the reader an advantage–a new set of tools. Of course, I also think they’ll be in for a very fun ride.

7. What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

One of the things I’d like to do is to show people how to start “positive” epidemics of their own. The virtue of an epidemic, after all, is that just a little input is enough to get it started, and it can spread very, very quickly. That makes it something of obvious and enormous interest to everyone from educators trying to reach students, to businesses trying to spread the word about their product, or for that matter to anyone who’s trying to create a change with limited resources. The book has a number of case studies of people who have successfully started epidemics–an advertising agency, for example, and a breast cancer activist. I think they are really fascinating. I also take a pressing social issue, teenage smoking, and break it down and analyze what an epidemic approach to solving that problem would look like. The point is that by the end of the book I think the reader will have a clear idea of what starting an epidemic actually takes. This is not an abstract, academic book. It’s very practical. And it’s very hopeful. It’s brain software.

Beyond that, I think that The Tipping Point is a way of making sense of the world, because I’m not sure that the world always makes as much sense to us as we would hope. I spent a great deal of time in the book talking about the way our minds work–and the peculiar and sometimes problematic ways in which our brains process information. Our intuitions, as humans, aren’t always very good. Changes that happen really suddenly, on the strength of the most minor of input, can be deeply confusing. People who understand The Tipping Point, I think, have a way of decoding the world around them.

What Bernanke Didn’t Say. The dollar is someone else’s problem. WSJ.com

Amid the dollar rout of the 1970s, Treasury Secretary John Connally famously told a group of fretting Europeans that the greenback “is our currency, but your problem.” If you read between the lines, that’s also more or less what Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said yesterday as he made the case for further Fed monetary easing.

Mr. Bernanke broke no new ground in explaining why he believes inflation at less than 2% is too low and why the Fed must encourage greater inflation to reduce the 9.6% jobless rate. “Inflation is running at rates that are too low [his emphasis] relative to the levels that the [Fed Open Market] Committee judges to be most consistent with the Federal Reserve’s dual mandate in the longer run,” he said. That dual mandate is to maintain stable prices and low unemployment, and Mr. Bernanke’s message couldn’t be clearer that cutting the U.S. jobless rate is now Job One at the Fed.

We were more struck by what Mr. Bernanke didn’t say. In a nearly 4,000-word speech about inflation, the Fed chief never once mentioned the value of the dollar. He never mentioned exchange rates, despite the turmoil in world currency markets as the dollar has fallen in anticipation of further Fed easing. He never mentioned rising commodity prices or soaring gold, and his only reference to the recent increase in the price of oil was by way of dismissing it in the context of overall low inflation.

The chairman’s message is that the Fed is focused entirely on the domestic U.S. economy and will print as many dollars as it takes to reflate it. The rest of the world is on its own and can adjust its policies as various countries see fit. If other currencies soar in relation to the dollar, that’s someone else’s problem. For the sake of the U.S. and world economy, we hope this turns out better for Mr. Bernanke’s reputation than it did for John Connally’s.

Tell me a story by Mary Barlow

Yesterday, Osterman’s Gas Company came to repair a worn switch on my hot water tank. When the serviceman stepped down from the truck, I smiled and said, “You’re on sacred ground here. The man who founded your company grew up here. His father built this house in 1923.” In response, the serviceman laughed and said, “I guess I AM on sacred ground.” In case you’re wondering, there’s no relation—and no discount on the service charge.

But it’s interesting how what we know about things impacts their value–something coin and baseball card collectors have always known. Back in college, the professor of my aesthetic psychology class drove this point home: He drew a simple picture on the board of a girl on a swing, which hung from a rope off a thick branch. He asked us to imagine that it was painted by a not-so-famous artist. He told us a charming little story about the artist, and then asked us to bid on the “painting.” We bid perhaps in the hundreds, some of us in the thousands of dollars for the painting. Then he told us to forget everything he just told us about the artist. He said the artist was actualy a terrible man who had done something nasty to children and so on. Again, the professor had us bid on the painting, and as you probably guessed, it instantly depreciated to $0.

These thoughts came together last night as I read an article titled “The Back Story,” written by Byron Walker and published in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine (September 5, 2010). Walker mentions how some merchants are placing bar-codes on secondhand merchandise and via the bar-code, attaching a former owner’s anecdote about an item. Smartphone users can scan the codes to get “the back story” on merchandise—perhaps for instance, how that ring was given to Aunt Betty by her husband right after the war.

“A thing’s story makes it more valuable and less disposable, ” says Walker. Or worthless and completely disposable as my Clark professor taught us. Walker points out that with sites like itizen.com and Stickybits.com, anyone can attach bar-coded stories to stuff. What a great way for businesses to promote merchandise and for the rest of us to share the memories we tie to stuff.

Still, I’ve no plans for adorning my house with a behemoth bar-code linked to its yesteryears. So far, I’m doing just fine on my own.