His World Now

The future will be nothing like the past. The trick is, the future is now. That is one of the rules of life. We all know of somebody, a cancer patient or a diabetic in our midst who was fine, healthy, vibrant even – a routine checkup, perhaps a scratchy throat or a headache that won’t go away and BOOM, the diagnosis. Stage 4, and then they are gone. There’s something prophetic about that, things don’t move fast until they do. History slow rolls like a snowball until gravity takes over. There is no way to stop an idea whose time has come; there is no way to stop the future that has arrived.

There is no way to stop the arriving ordeal.

That’s what 2030 is about. Part of my ongoing effort to read, learn about, document and perhaps prepare for a future that will look nothing like the past. The comfortable past that was not the norm for very long – maybe 70 years – but that is several generations, enough to think it was eternal. Permanent. To be sure not for everybody. The Russians and the Congolese and the Cambodians did not partake of the Pax Americana. They were at the edges of empire, not inheritors of the bounty. It was not their Pax after all, so we shouldn’t feel too guilty.

Except that now our Pax is over. Not in a dramatic “The Vandals are sacking Rome” way, no only in the “the sewers are backed up, there is no chicken in the grocery store, my son is now learning about prejudice and pity and not math or science” way. The places at the fraying edges of empire hic sunt dracones are moving closer to the epicenter – no longer lost over the map in places with names dark and foreboding like Congo and Orinoco, closer now in names we recognize more. Chicago, Los Angeles. Tent cities; political deadlock; disappearing species.

Aging populations. Innovation and AI to try and push aside the humans – we really are a messy lot. I Robot, here we come. For the betterment of who? Robots are not sentient. Or are they? Robots cannot enjoy art, cuisine, landscape – or can they? Of course they cannot. Jobs are vanishing too; who needs them? A sharing economy – in Venezuela we call these street hawkers or more politely ‘informal economy’ – in the US they are called the “sharing economy”. That sounds nicer, doesn’t it? More socialist. More pleasant. More equitable. One car to go around, and pass the hemp.

The future will be nothing like the past. For my little boy. He doesn’t know what it was like, before the mayhem exacerbated by COVID and the coming anarchy.

It’s his world now

He still loves life, because we don’t tell him any different. But we are the minority. Not the protected minority. Not the cherished diverse. We are the only minority allowed to be despised and reviled. The faithful. The grateful. The responsible. That is who my son will be, after the ordeal has arrived. He might weather it well – better than most for sure. But his ordeal it is; and 2030 is a book about what that ordeal might look like.

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The Return of Entropy

The power takes longer to return after the storm. Grids built in antiquity and faithfully maintained for too long show their wear, new technologies now become ancient – we still burn dead dinosaurs for energy to power our cars that still roll down roads much as they did a century ago. Hollywood spends $120,000,000 on a movie about space but we have not returned to the moon in my lifetime – much less conquered the stars.

In foreign lands bearded barbarians walk wild-eyed through glistening shopping malls selling consumer products, looking for women to whip and music to burn while across town the greatest army in history mounts a panicky retreat – people we promised to protect hanging helplessly from wings of warbirds or crushed inside the landing gear while from over the horizon predator drones fire missiles at the innocent. Closer to home, trickles of humanity become rivers and turn to floods as a pandemic wipes away the pretense of modernity and good-governance revealing the nakedness of a world order that does not any longer provide pathways to a life more abundant or solve that age-old challenge of consent. Upon a whisper of amnesty or rumor of a sympathetic border guard they make the 5000 mile journey to be turned away again at their last hope of a better life.

I contemplate all this as I pick my way delicately through the tent city that has cropped up in the epicenter of empire, eyes downcast lest I enrage the irrational and giving wide berth to the beetle-man army surrounding a few sorry souls, the remnants of the deplorably left-behind.

Mine is not the generation defined by success. The days of Pax Americana are well nigh and over, quite truly and visibly. I came of age in the late ‘90s. Guns and Roses and Green Day – ‘Live and Let Die’ and ‘Holiday’. We were at the outer fringes, the last gasping whisps of order that were ending – though we didn’t know it. We had won the Cold War, there was really nothing left to achieve. Hadn’t Fukuyama and his deep state told us that it was all now just a matter of tightening the screws, occasionally changing the oil in the vehicle of utopian prosperity that we had built? Were’t we assured that Haiti, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Pakistan were one correctly observed election – one successfully administered judicial training program – one parliamentary strengthening cooperative agreement away from a nicely purring system in which everything would work out according to the will of the winners. AKA us!!

The millennium found me embarking on my own “end of history” career – but quickly because if I don’t hurry up there will be no need for my services!! Call it ‘development’ or ‘aid’ or ‘humanitarian’ or whatever you want – I was to be the point of the spear at the fringes of empire; hurry up to get in my hits before it all became boring and safe – administered by the World Bank and the technocratic governments trained in Harvard and doing a stint at KPMG making the requisite contacts before returning to apply the perfect package at home. Bretton Woods had made it all safe. America’s security blanket would assure that – and who cares if it’s a little stifling, isn’t that the price for comfort?

Twenty years, maybe twenty-five – that what we were given. “The Coming Anarchy” met “The Return of Marco Polo’s World” with the intermediate period one of vitriol and paralysis and the slow failure of order. Not in small ways either – but in the most epic, civilizational ways possible. The aging of our societies: Japan and China and Italy and Russia, and yes America and Brazil. For the first time planetary population is set to reduce, dramatically in the places that made it, and with the exception of Africa – the dark continent that cannot sustain one more soul set to quadruple. The wipeout of our natural environment, the ‘6th Great Extinction’ – while the only answer are low-density solutions to energy that freeze up in a storm and chop our great birds into mincemeat. We are even getting shorter – America’s life expectancy and height reduced by our diet, our addiction to fat and sugar. An explosion of dementia – 90% of Japanese set to suffer this disease, wasting away in old folks homes uncared for because of the lack of young workers in youth-less societies.

Wars we cannot win. Problems we cannot solve. Pandemics we cannot end. Politics – all of it as we have lost our common sense and our ability to understand the world around us and turn that wisdom into actionable solutions. Today its China – but they are fading away quicker than they realize, one-child policies and lower-middle class burden making children impossible while they export their excess production in a “Belt and Road” in an attempt to smooth over the surplus. Tomorrow it will be something else, my guess is Africa – tidal waves of human  flesh making the perilous way across the Sahara bombed by Italian fighter jets piloted by the geriatrics or Artificial Intelligence desperate to keep the newcomers away from the silent ghost-villages perched beside a castle which once hosted a noble in times when Europe too was great.

The world is changing – and we are not keeping up. Anyone who says different is selling something. Apropos of that, you should buy by latest novel “The Unraveling” – at least it’s a good read while you wait for the end.       

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The Good American

I’ve never met Bob Gersony. That probably doesn’t seem strange to you. But it is to me.

Gersony was a humanitarian, and “The Good American” is his story. It is not an epic story, despite the title. There was nothing epic about what Gersony did with his forty years. He did not achieve remarkable feats of policy – no peace deals; no Nobel Prizes; no nighttime marches of the unfortunate. No clandestine airfields at twilight or discoveries of mass graves. He did not spend fifteen years living in the Congolese camps or caring for those with severe mental deficiencies or running an orphanage of war-children. He is not Mother Theresa or Nelson Mandela.

Bob Gersony did assessments for USAID; and some for State. That’s what we call them, the trips around the world to talk to residents of a refugee camp in the Sudan or of the slums above Rio in Brazil. There are a lot of assessment-takers; consultants – a cottage industry living in Vienna Virginia or Bethesda Maryland.

I am not trying to denigrate Gersony, or Robert D. Kaplan’s book about him. On the contrary. Kaplan’s representation of Gersony made me think of a line in Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim”:

“Time had passed indeed: it had overtaken him and gone ahead. It had left him hopelessly behind with a few poor gifts: the iron-grey hair, the heavy fatigue of the tanned face, two scars, a pair of tarnished shoulder-straps; one of those steady, reliable men who are the raw material of great reputations, one of those uncounted lives that are buried without drums and trumpets under the foundations of monumental successes.”

As I said I never met Gersony, which is strange. We worked in many of the same places. The difference is the timing; Gersony from the 1970s to the early 2000s – while I started my career in 1999 till now. The sad thing is, as I said, the places are the same. Northern Uganda; Eastern Chad; Honduras; Nigeria; the Balkans. I’ve worked all these places. And I knew so many of the people that fill the pages of Kaplan’s book – but I knew them at the end. Andrew Natsios and Elliott Abrams – people who are the epic characters of the 1980s and 1990s – because that is when Gersony worked.

Now the book itself – as I’ve said before it was not an epic story. But I think that was Kaplan’s point. There are of course those tales – even just these days with the fall of Kabul a thousand new stories were written (and yet to be penned – I was involved in a few). Stories of violence and espionage and terrorism and explosions. Kaplan wanted instead to highlight the importance of the steady goodness of an ordinary man. This is Kaplan’s hidden message in a book which – unlike his other works – drips with contempt and exhaustion at America’s modern State Department and USAID, institutions which no longer serve the purpose which they did a generation ago staffed by people who no longer ‘get it’.

Gersony got it – and his tremendous value added was to take that common sense and help Washington’s elite to also understand. This, during the days when Washington listened – unlike the current crowd, who only lecture.

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The Future is American

The future will be nothing like the past. That is the contention of “The Great Reversal” by Charles Goodheart. Demographic decline and the drying up of the great surge of labor product of the urbanization in China and the freeing of the millions enslaved behind the iron curtain means the return of inflation, along with low growth rates in our economies and higher taxation to take care of our elderly.

The countries most in trouble are South Korea, Russia, Italy, Japan – and China. China is in deep, serious trouble. The bogeyman, the Chinese takeover of the world of which everybody is so afraid represents a lashing out as their model fails. Very specifically, demographic decline (China will go from 1.3 billion people down to 650 million in my lifetime) exacerbated by their disastrous one child policy which left hundreds of millions of men without wives; and no cushion product of immigration. Because who goes to China? The future of China looks like a scene from Grumpier Old Men. And Xi is not the cause, Xi is the inevitable disastrous result. Because throw into that mix an increasingly intolerant dictator who himself is getting old, and what you are set for is decline.

We just need to hold on.

And that is the contention of “The Accidental Superpower”. This excellent book, written before the great pandemic (which only accelerated all the trends that were going sideways anyways) highlights why America, with its privileged geography, is able to weather most geopolitical storms better than most. We are isolated and self-sustaining – in fact these days we are even an exporter of oil and LNG etc. We are here protected by two vast seas. It is the contention that Robert Kaplan makes in all his books – geography matters. No other region of the world is privileged with what America has without even considering it.

But more than that, ideas matter too. The ‘first peoples’ had the continent for 10,000 years before the Europeans showed up, and didn’t turn it into a superpower. Oh, don’t get bent out of shape, its just the truth. The special package of ideas bequeathed to us by Locke and Jefferson and Adam Smith and Madison; the European spirit of faith and freedom set loose on a quite literally limitless land produced America as we know her. But more than that – and this is important going into the future. We are also an immigrant country. This is unpopular politically when labor unions have collapsed and their protectionist clientele have found safe-haven in populist politics. But it is why we will make it and China will fail. Our own nativists are getting old and grumpy – but because we are a land where hard work is rewarded, rule of law is respected and people can plan and build we will always attract the best and the brightest looking for a chance to succeed. United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. These are the countries of the 21st century – at the expense of everybody else.

That is what “The Accidental Superpower” is about. Part of my series of “what comes next”; I’m now going on to 2030, stay tuned!

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A Wrinkle in Time

It wasn’t so long ago that publishers were willing to invest in tremendous works of literature for young minds that marry the great truths of our world with the faith that makes them work. The laws of gravity and entropy, the low entropy of the past, the fact that time is not a constant, and neither is space as seen at a quantum level, all of this ratifying the world not only as mysterious but orderly and tremendously exciting. Because that is how the world was created by our creator. How, when, using what tools? Was the earth a rocky planet that attracted water? Was it first a ball of water, only adding land later? Why does time get slower the closer to a large source of gravity – and what does that mean for a black hole? Or, better yet, for time travel? Why does the arrow of time work the way it does, when it need not? At the quantum level there is no difference between moving forward and moving backward?

And how do we discover these things? We send our young men to MIT and then to DARPA. How do we get there? We read our little boys “A Wrinkle in Time”. Not the woke Oprah movie; the real book about the fight against evil and the discovery of tessering and how special Charles Wallace is – and how faithful his mother is to his father and they both are to God.

“Awwww, read me another page,” he says to me, though it is already late. “OK, just one more.” – I’ve been reading books to my little boy every night for his entire life. We’ve gone through Tolkien and Lewis and Potter (Beatrix not Harry); we started of course with Seuss. We’re now going through the L’Engle – because now his little malleable mind is just starting to push into abstract thought, and that must be encouraged.

I’m so glad this book was written. I’m glad it was published; and I’m glad the diversity warriors haven’t banned it (yet) to be replaced of course by some Maoist nonsense that better fits their agenda. Because God and science – right and wrong – truth and consequences? Well, isn’t that all so ‘yesterday’? And I fear for the great writers of today trying to get their tremendous civilizational stories through the censors – my guess is they will be no more lucky than I have been. And that is sad for our children. But for now, we read “Wrinkle in Time” as timeless and unchanging as we hope that the pendulum will swing back and the next generation will again seek truth.

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The Great Reversal

The great reversal is coming. Is, in fact, already here. “The future will be nothing like the past” is the contention of Charles Goodhart in his and Manoj Pradhan’s extraordinary book. Nothing like the past. The great deflation is over; the great population boom has finished; the epic march of globalization is waning. The future will be nothing like the past. A return of inflation as the glut of workers product of China’s urbanization and the liberation of the enslaved living behind the iron curtain age and are not replaced. A return of nativism not through increased power of labor unions but of reactionary populist politics – voters turning to their voting cards as their union memberships lay scattered across the wreckage of workless towns. A glut of aged and infirm – the ravages of dementia as our next health crisis.

The future will be nothing like the past.

In this extraordinarily well researched and forward thinking book, these trends, which are already well advanced and at this point irreversible, are laid out and explained. It is not an “easy read”. You’re gonna have to slog through it – rereading sentences and paragraphs and putting it down to research something online. Do it; because we need to know what is coming.

The only place this book falls down is in the end, in recommendations. Tinkering with our tax code is not going to answer the problems created by the great reversal. We need a rethink of how society is organized.

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La Argentina Despues de la Tormenta – Mis Comentarios

El punto clave creo de este libro de Francisco Santibanes, un pensador Argentino, es que la Argentina carece de una vision estrategica de largo plazo para fomentar su desarrollo y tambien fortalezer su posicion en un mundo cada dia mas complicada.

Este es el primer libro de analysis que he leido escrito en la era “post-COVID” (si es que hay un post-COVID, esto parece eterno). Primero, me imagino, de muchos. Porque lo que nos ha pasado – a todos – es algo insolito que cambiara todo. Nuestras guerras van a parecer poca cosa con lo que viene. Pero en fin, lo que Saltibanes opina es que despues de la “tormenta” del COVID, Argentina necessita buscar finalmente su lugar en un mundo bastante mas pobre, muy estresado y con mas conflictos (si eso es posible). Con mayor acercamiento a Brazil. Balanzeando la gran pelea entre EEUU y China.

En una cosa estoy de acuerdo con todo esto – es la necessidad de decidir que tipo de pais los Argentinos quieren (o los Chilenos, o los Peruanos, o los Venezolanos o los de EEUU) y tener una conversacion adulta (sin ideologizar) sobre como llegar a este punto. El discurso toxico en las Americas entre ellos que dicen “hay que tener mas marxismo humano” y los otros que dicen “hay que dejarnos quieto hacer dinero” nos ha llevado a una coyuntura poco sostenible. Desigualdad economica en crisis, y el “whiplash” de elecciones izquierda/derecha/izquierda (como esta pasando ahora en Chile y Peru) resta continuidad y hace un desastre de la administracion publica y las cuentas de las naciones.

Acercamiento, respeto, caracter, honestidad, y amor a patria: es lo que necessitamos ahora mas que nunca. Porque salir de COVID va a requerir trabajo de todos.

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“Life Among the English” – A Review

This was a funny little book. It was not a work of academic scholarship, nor was it a popularization, novelesque approach to telling about the development of England as a social and political entity. It was more like a pamphlet (pamphlets of old were longer, sort of mini-books) but if it was, what as the point (for pamphlets are most often written to deliver a point, and those most often themselves political)?

“Life Among the English” is a short review of the development of what the English love to call ‘custom’ from the days of the Romans until the early 20th century – food and entertainment and fashion and behavior. And we do love England, don’t we? We need look no further than Downton Abbey, James Bond, The Tudors or Notting Hill – all of which charm and enthrall us. My favorite novelist is W. Somerset Maugham, an Englishman of the Edwardian era – in every sense; and that is extremely cool (he was a spy during the war – of course he was – his novels overflow with England, especially ‘Human Bondage‘ which might be the best novel ever written). Empathy – it’s not something we are very good at (we are often punished for showing empathy these days, making us timid) and it’s not something the English are known for – except that it should be. So many of the great social movements started there. Lots of these described in Macaulay’s quirky little book.

It’s a fun little book too, to a point, but I would really have been interested to ask Rose Macaulay what she was getting at, who was the audience, why this of all the things she could have done (and did) with her talent. Alas I’ll probably never know…

One takeaway, however, for us these days struggling to understand the direction of the future: the English are a singular lot (English, specifically, not the Scottish or Irish or Welsh – this is a book about the English), with a particular way of viewing their island world which developed over many centuries. If nothing else, those who are still befuddled by Brexit might find some insight in Macaulay’s pamphlet. To understand just how diverse, just how different the English are from their neighbors across the channel. And is not diversity important?

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“Prisoners of Geography” – A Review

“Post Cold War” America, or maybe “globalist” America likes to believe that it has conquered the old tyranny of geography. Olden thoughts meant more for days when it took months to reach America by sea, when communication across the great plains was done by horses galloping at speed, when we were protected on our island continent by un-traversable seas. It’s easier for us, America is blessed with bountiful geography. Had we tried to design a land upon which we would build or lives, we would probably have created a land much like the one we have.

Not so the rest of the world. I recently finished a season in Armenia. A little Christian country nestled up against Turkey and Persia and Azerbaijan in the south, relying on its protection from only the Russian bear. I watched as its permanent enemy took advantage of a moment of global confusion to attack – how the country, so optimistic after a Velvet Revolution delivered to it at last a government by the people and for the people was again befuddled by its geography and reminded of why it has, forever, been the “weeping nation”. “We are in a bad neighborhood” my friends put it simply.

Geography still dominates our world. It defines not only how we will live but the opportunities we will have. It vexes policymakers and is the thing that most smart world leaders think about – much more than they do ‘supra-national institutions’ or conventions. I remember my days in Venezuela, when Hugo Chavez on his Sunday talk show would lay out a map of Venezuela and run his hands over the valleys and jungles and mountains – laying out for those who cared to listen the opportunities and risks presented by the national geography. The mind of a military man, of a planner.

All this is what “Prisoners of Geography” is about. A summary of some of the things going through the minds of successive world leaders as they look at the lands that they are tasked with governing (and protecting). Its a book about war and security, because though we’d like to believe that we are in a post-war world, the reality is that the human race is warlike and might never get over that fatal flaw. It is an introductory book, so not terribly complex. A taste of things to read more about – but also a prescient reminder that we should think about geography first, before ideology, when we consider our place in the world (and the perplexing motivations of our adversaries). That, I think, is the major lesson.

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Borges

Writers love stories about other writers. “A Moveable Feast” or “The Warmest Country“; the tales of significance and its paucity by others who – like themselves – search for that unique brand of immortality. So a story about a writer who found in a brief chance encounter a situation of intense significance with an even greater writer? Now that’s a story.

And that is exactly what “Borges and Me” by Jay Parini is about. Now I’ll be honest, I’d never heard of Jay before this (as he had never heard of Borges before his tale began). But of course we all now have heard of Borges – that legendary Argentine writer of labyrinths. A style so singular and befuddling, how could it not be grand? The “founder of the feast” as it were – the man who started the Latin American Boom in literature. Borges. Those in literati only need that one name.

Jorge Luis Borges

This story, this tale by Parini is, however, something new and fresh. The unlikely plot: while Jay is draft dodging from the Vietnam War in Scotland, spending his time getting his doctorate and trying to figure out how to become a writer, he is asked by a friend to look after a blind Borges (Borges became blind in his 50s, having to dictate his last stories) and ends up taking the brilliant man on a “sightseeing” tour of the highlands.

The story, written 50 years later with a certain amount of ‘artistic license’ nevertheless holds together well and in doing so holds the reader’s imagination, with the question, “What would you do if asked to tour a blind Borges around the highlands?” Or a blind Hemingway? Or a blind William Saroyan? For I cannot imagine anybody as exacting as a writer – the verbal painter of pictures – who can no longer see.

Back to my point; we who write like to think of times of artistic significance. We love to think about Yerevan in the cold, Aksel Bakunts and Yegishe Charents fighting in the snow in front of Aipetrat Soviet Publishing House before going to the Intourist hotel (now the Yerevan Grand) to drink away their rage. We love to wonder what it was like for Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso sitting around Shakespeare and Company commiserating the drunkenness of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Of D.H. Lawrence painting banned art in Hotel La Fonde in Taos. These thoughts fill us with a sort of foreign nostalgia; of a creative jealousy of a kind – especially as we lament how badly our own belle époque seems to blow. “Borges and Me” fills that spot in our imagination, and is satisfying for that reason. It is a story profoundly human, reminding us somehow even of ourselves. And that is good.

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