Robert M. Entman

Robert M. Entman is J.B. and M.C. Shapiro Professor of Media and Public Affairs and Professor of International Affairs at The George Washington University. Robert Entman's newest book is Scandal and Silence: Media Responses to Presidential Misconduct (Polity, 2012). Dr. Entman’s Projections of Power: Framing News, Public Opinion and US Foreign Policy (University of Chicago, 2004) is winner of the 2011 Graber Award for Outstanding Book from the Political Communication Section of the American Political Science Association (APSA). He is spending 2012 as a Humboldt Award scholar at Free University-Berlin.
Robert M. Entman has written 7 posts for Take Five

Routine Health Care in Europe: Superior—and Much Less Expensive

This is the fifth in a series of posts on life, culture, and politics in the U.S. and E.U. by Robert Entman, who spent 2012 as a Humboldt Research Prize Scholar at Freie Universität in Berlin. Read more posts here.

During our year in three different European countries, my wife or I had occasion to obtain medical care in each.  Of course I didn’t do a systematic study but I saw no evidence that the taxpayer-funded and government-administrated European health care systems resembles the nightmare of many Americans’ imagination. From everything I saw, Europeans don’t experience nasty old clinics with long lines of miserable patients endlessly hassled by bureaucrats so they can get access to nameless overworked and under-trained doctors using outdated technology and drugs. Instead the experience of visiting a doctor is much like it is in America, only better and cheaper.

In our experience with routine medical care in Germany, France and Spain, care was competent, wait times and lines were shorter than in the US, and doctors paid close personal attention. For instance, on every visit, doctors left their desks and personally called out the name of the next patient and escorted him or her into the exam room. That’s never happened to us in the US, where clerks or nurses usher you around until the doctor comes into the exam room. It’s not a crucial difference, but it does illustrate the distance between stereotypes and reality.

Here’s one case study: I had a chronic problem that the doctors I’d seen in DC and North Carolina hadn’t been able to help much, so I thought I’d seek a Euro-perspective. Berlin’s Charité Hospital is one of the leading medical research and teaching centers in Germany. By searching on the internet, I found the name of a doctor who specialized in my malady and had given papers at conferences in the US and participated in international research grants—he was obviously plugged into the latest developments in the field. Like so much else, medicine, at least in affluent countries, is globalized.

It happened that this particular G-I specialist was also Chief of the Internal Medicine division. I contacted his office for an appointment and got one within a couple weeks, without needing any referral. Try getting an appointment with the head of Internal Medicine at a major American teaching hospital and see if you get seen, without a referral, within two weeks.

Subsequently, I had two long office visits with him and three multi-hour tests. These yielded useful information that helped control my symptoms a little better.  Here’s the key point: At my final visit, I had to ask my doctor’s secretary to please send me a bill. There was no upfront demand for my insurance papers or co-pay as is inevitable in the US. During my total of five visits, nobody had asked me to pay anything, or even raised the issue of billing.

The day after my fifth visit, I was leaving Berlin for Paris. The secretary was saying goodbye and even after telling her I was moving to Paris I had to remind her that I needed to pay. She said they’d figure it out and send a bill to my Paris address.

The total cost of the two doctor visits—with the chief of internal medicine at one of Germany’s leading medical institutions, no less—and three lengthy test procedures was 104 Euros, or about $130. In the US the cost would easily be 10 or 15 times greater.

Finally, the doctor at Charité wrote me a prescription for a particularly expensive drug that I take every day (a PPI if you must know). In the US, I had to make a special appeal to my insurance company to cover this drug and still had to pay a $40/month co-pay. For 90 pills (three months worth) I pay $120, and the insurance company paid about $1000, or $9.33 per pill. In Berlin, the total cost of 98 pills (three months plus one week’s worth)—with no payment by an insurance company—was $135, or $1.38 per pill. In other words this same drug cost nearly seven times more in the US than in Germany.

The cost differential arises because the US is the only affluent country that allows drug companies to charge individual patients whatever they can get away. This functionally results in American consumers and taxpayers subsidizing drug company profits (and, to be sure, drug research) for the entire world. Recognizing the serious market failures in the pharmaceutical industry, most every country regulates drug prices. US policy is one of my pet peeves, and one of many reasons Americans pay so much more for medical care.

Most importantly, US spending doesn’t yield better medical care or—and this is the bottom line—longer life. Below are life expectancies in some of the top countries in lifespan that are most comparable to US in affluence. The US ranks about 33rd among all countries, according to the World Health Organization (2011), tied with Denmark, Chile, Bahrain and Costa Rica at 79 years and just ahead of Cuba, Czech Republic, Colombia and Barbados at 78:

World Bank, 2012

RANK COUNTRY (YEARS) GDP per capita (equivalent purchasing power)*

1

Japan

83

$35,178

1

Switzerland

83

$53,367

4

Hong Kong

82

$51,946

4

Australia

82

$44,598

4

Italy

82

$33,111

4

Canada

82

$42,533

14

France

82

$36,104

15

Spain

82

$32,682

33

USA

79

$49,965

The US spends hugely more as a percentage of GDP on health care:

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Beyond paying way more for prescriptions:

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These aggregate data don’t deny that in certain respects Americans might be getting their money’s worth. For instance it’s often assumed that US spending enables more advanced medical treatments and higher survival rates for diseases like cancer. However, it turns out to be extremely difficult to compare survival rates while controlling for the many differences among countries’ populations, including their getting cancer in the first place (US ranks seventh in cancer incidence).

There isn’t much empirical basis for assuming that Americans benefit in any way from their higher spending. But there is quite a bit of evidence that the excess spending is the cost of having a political system so uniquely and thoroughly dominated by wealthy organized interests, such as the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, whose lobbies heavily influence public policy agendas, options and decisions. The Rube Goldberg-like Affordable Care Act, though a step in the right (European) direction, reflects above all the less democratic nature of the US political process when compared to the governments of Western Europe.

Americans pay for their inferior democracy thrice over: their health care system costs more yet delivers inferior care and shorter lifespans. The health of democracy reflects and shapes the physical and fiscal health of its citizens.

Policy Makes History Present (Or, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” – Faulkner)

This is the fourth in a series of posts on life, culture, and politics in the U.S. and E.U. by Robert Entman, who spent 2012 as a Humboldt Research Prize Scholar at Freie Universität in Berlin. Read more posts here.

Naturally Berlin, Madrid and Paris have more history than any US city. It’s not fair to compare them to DC, Philadelphia, New York or Boston, our most history-conscious cities. Still, the reverence for the old expresses itself in public life and policymaking in Europe.

Policy provides more resources for preservation of historical memory while also supporting modern culture. Two examples:

1. Wine
The integration of wine into typically more relaxed and lengthier meals, offers one illustration of Europeans’ ability to live in closer continuity with the past. And like so many other things, the production of wine is heavily regulated, in part because of Europeans’ insistence on honoring that continuity.

Example: In 1395, Duke Philip the Bold issued regulations governing wine quality in Burgundy. It might strike Americans as oppressive, but winemakers in, say, Puligny Montrachet with rare exceptions must specialize in the chardonnay grape, and must follow many detailed government mandates on how the grapes must be handled to be certified as genuine Puligny. The French know that this grape reaches its apogee in the soil and microclimates of the Burgundy region, where vineyards go back at least to the fourth century AD. When you drink a bottle of Puligny you know you will get a chardonnay that to some degree reflects its particular terroir now as it did back when knights and dukes ran things.

Small differences in the way the three cities typically present wine in restaurants further express historical and cultural differences. In Berlin and generally in Germany, wine lists are heavy on German wines; this limits choices of reds since white riesling is the grape that makes the best wines in the cold climate there. If you order a glass of wine, it will come with an etched line marking 10 or 12 ml, and waiters pour to that precise line. Never saw a glass with a line in Spain or France.

One historical quirk of Berlin: when you go out to eat you essentially have to pay for bottled water. Nobody drinks tap water. Supposedly Berliners got used to drinking bottled water after WWII when the infrastructure was in ruins and tap water was dangerous. Some might see this as an example of hidebound Europeans sticking with a dumb and expensive tradition for no good reason. Most restaurants have a deal with one or another brand of bottled water; presumably the water sales add significantly to profit margins. Given the generally reasonable cost of the food, that seemed fair to me.

In Paris on the other hand, asking for tap water is typical, and they usually bring it to the table in a decanter or bottle. On restaurant wine lists and in wine stores too, the French focus is on lesser French chateaux and off-year vintages, presumably because these establishments can’t compete with the astronomical costs of the most famous Bordeaux and Burgundy wines, for which prices are set on an international market. These days, for instance, even a young bottle of Chateau Lafite can set you back over $1,000 at the store. Thank globalization.  A little bit of historical continuity is lost to all but the wealthiest French folks and tourists.

2. Memorialization
Reminders of the Nazi past are omnipresent in Berlin. As one among many examples, there are small brass stumbling blocks throughout Berlin. Slightly raised from other cobblestones, they are designed to ever-so-slightly trip pedestrians, who then look down and can see the name, dates and fate of a Jew who once lived or had a business at the building where they’re standing.

Consider also the striking Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The Memorial is located in the heart of the new Berlin, bordering the American embassy and the Tiergarten (Berlin’s Central Park), near the Brandenburg Gate. So Berliners will frequently see it, register it if only unconsciously and thus potentially think about its meaning. The location and design of the Memorial engendered decades of public debate and controversy, a process that itself exemplified healthy democracy. Although much smaller than the Holocaust museums in DC and Jerusalem, I found the museum that’s integrated into the Memorial as thought-provoking and powerful.

bob-holocaust

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.

Compare what the Germans have done to ensure accurate and persistent memories of their past misdeeds with US actions to commemorate and keep alive memories of the US’s own holocausts involving Native Americans and African Americans, not to Vietnam and Indochina.  As far as I know, there is no public reminder in DC that might cause a typical citizen to reflect on how the American government’s policies and, arguably, war crimes in Vietnam caused untold and indefensible suffering there, not just among Americans. Our Vietnam War memorial is a great and justly popular tourist site, but it focuses memories only on our losses.

Reims Cathedral son et lumiere show (not as kitschy as expected, actually helps you see and understand the extraordinary craftsmanship). This is the cathedral where French kings came to be coronated.

Reims Cathedral son et lumiere show (not as kitschy as expected, actually helps you see and understand the extraordinary craftsmanship). This is the cathedral where French kings came to be coronated.

Yet, policies that make history a daily presence for citizens—including the bad or horrific history, not just the glories like France’s wine—might just make for a better future.

Life is Better Without a Car

A lot of homeless people sleep in Paris metro stations. Our stop was St. Ambroise.

A lot of homeless people sleep in Paris metro stations. Our stop was St. Ambroise.

This is the third in a series of posts on life, culture, and politics in the U.S. and E.U. by Robert Entman, who spent 2012 as a Humboldt Research Prize Scholar at Freie Universität in Berlin. Read more posts here.

After spending a year in Europe, it seems to me the number one bad thing about America is the automobile.

Our over-investments and huge tax subsidies to private autos with roots in economic and geological conditions of 100 years ago is the most powerful force for what’s bad in America: its eagerness to go to war; its disproportionate contribution to the climate change crisis; the outsize political power of reactionary oil moguls; the ugly suburban sprawl; and the domination of the chain stores and malls that largely destroy town centers and smaller business.

Living a year in Europe without a car was a financial blessing and a pleasure on many dimensions. When mass transit is taken as a natural component of a civilized infrastructure, people live better. This was especially on display in Berlin. Subway trains reliably come every 3-6 minutes; the average wait was 3-4 minutes, and the longest wait times off-peak were perhaps 8-12 minutes. If I’m not mistaken, that’s closer to the average wait time on the DC Metro outside rush hour.

Trains are clean, reliable and rarely crowded (unlike in Paris where the frequent trains seem almost always crowded and uncomfortable). The bus service is similarly superb. One of the things that made Berlin pleasant and in some ways village-like to live in, despite being a large city, was the paucity of car traffic even downtown. I saw traffic jams on the freeway at times, but on the major city streets traffic generally flowed well and just wasn’t heavy at any time of day.  It’s got to be due in substantial part to the mass transit.

And let’s not forget intercity train service. Here’s a comparison: DC to Durham, NC, about 260 miles, and a roughly similar distance from Cologne, Germany to Paris. The Amtrak train is scheduled for 6.5 hours but is routinely two hours late:  8.5 hours. There’s one train a day. It is pretty cheap, about $45. Driving a car takes 4.5 hours, costs maybe $100. But hardly anyone who can afford to avoid the train will subject himself to 6.5-8.5 (or more) hours on a dirty, noisy, bumpy, uncertain train ride rather than a 4.5 hour car ride (or a roughly 3 hour door-to-door airplane+taxi trip @ maybe $300). There is also an intercity bus service that’s cheap, but not always reliable or safe, and nowhere near as comfortable as a good train.

I think most people who’ve been to Europe agree that taking the train there is basically fun. As I recall, there are at least 12 fast trains a day between Cologne and Paris, and it takes about 3.3 hours. Cost varies a lot but can be as low as $60. Second class areas are quieter and more comfortable than first class on Amtrak, in my opinion. Certainly the ride is smoother and the ambient noise level must be 50% lower.

The 60% on-time train rate between DC and NC arises because freight trains have the right of way, forcing Amtrak trains to pull to the side and wait, and wait, and wait. That’s because the US refuses to invest seriously in train infrastructure—i.e. constructing a track just for passenger trains—while enormously subsidizing auto infrastructure.

Yes, the US is much more thinly populated than Europe and that makes all the difference to the economics of intercity trains. US metro areas that sprawl out endlessly compared to relatively dense, compact European urban areas have similar implications for the accounting of obvious, direct costs. But has anyone actually tried to estimate all the costs of maintaining our commitment to automobiles? Including the greenhouse emissions, the trillions of dollars on oil-driven military policies, the value of time spent daily by Americans on frustrating, heart-attack-inducing stop and go commuting?

Life in Europe vs. US: Charm a Function of History But Also Public Policy

Naia on pl de la paja

This is the second in a series of posts on life, culture, and politics in the U.S. and E.U. by Robert Entman, who spent 2012 as a Humboldt Research Prize Scholar at Freie Universität in Berlin. Read his previous post here

Madrid is the first city we lived in (seven weeks there, seven months Berlin, three months Paris) and is the cleanest of them. Every day, I believe, Plaza de la Paja, the oldest square in Madrid, on which we lived, was hosed down, and garbage collected. Contrary perhaps to stereotype, Berlin was dirtier than Madrid (and Paris dirtier than both). Berlin’s city government is under-funded and among other things this creates a problem with litter, because trash receptacles are tiny and overflow quickly. Saw much less street cleaning and hosing down in Berlin than in Madrid and Paris.

On the other hand, the subway stations and cars in Berlin were very clean. Subway stations in Paris were quite dirty and also full of homeless people sleeping (and in one case having autoerotic sex inside a sleeping bag) at all hours. Paris, too, featured more poop left unscooped and pee everywhere. Despite the Spanish economic crisis, for reasons I certainly don’t understand, Madrid maintained a policy commitment to keeping the city feel clean and pleasant, and that’s good for the economy and the humans living in it.

Madrid is well known for its wacky late-hour dining. This, too, is a part of its felicitous charm. It must have something to do with the sunny and warm climate facilitating life outdoors. Even in January when it’s relatively cold, everyone eats outdoors (blankets provided). There is a public warmth, a visible enjoyment of life and laughter, a sense of community in the restaurants and the crazy long late lunches and dinners.

Lunch tends to start around 1:30 and go to 3:30, dinner around 9 p.m. and go to 11 p.m. and well beyond. After two or three weeks, we got used to late dining hours. Yet even in Berlin, with its far less salubrious climate, people in public are generally friendly and cheerful, and also enjoy their communal repasts thoroughly. Restaurants in all three cities almost all seem to have one sitting; nobody rushes you out. The point is to stay and enjoy the comradeship.

The comity extends to Americans. Essentially everyone in Berlin speaks English without any hesitation or resentment. And Paris? In my view, the most underrated city in Europe when it comes to friendliness. People are just about always friendly, and most spoke English after hearing my terrible French, some good-naturedly ribbing me about my incroyable pronunciation. In this respect, Paris totally defies stereotype. Of course it’s a big, hurried city—it’s not Mayberry. But like Manhattan, it’s easy to find friendliness right beneath the hubbub.

naia restaurant madridMadrid’s English is weakest of the 3 cities but this didn’t detract from the experience. For me, Madrid was #1 in charm, perhaps because of the Plaza de la Paja neighborhood we lived in, but something about all the other squares tucked in every 2-3 blocks in seemingly every neighborhood, the mountains in the background, the sun, the people, the lovely old buildings made Madrid our favorite.

Berlin: I don’t think you can call Berlin especially charming; fascinating and dynamic for sure. The place was something like 80% destroyed in bombing during WWII. Newer architecture is generally pretty bland. There are nice streets, but nothing like the medieval streets and squares of Madrid or Paris. On the other hand, Berlin’s neighborhoods are very distinctive and that lent some charm and pleasure, very much including Schoneberg where we lived—it was at Rathaus Schoneberg, government offices, that Kennedy gave his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech.

The conscious zoning policy decisions made in all three cities have enormous impact on the human feel of these cities. Berlin essentially is a planned city from the ground up because of the war history; one can argue with some of the choices but what I loved and admired was the determination to build historical memory into the architecture and layout and thus the lived experience of the city. The other two cities can take advantage of their histories and charming built environment nurtured by public policies that strictly limit building height and cut down on street traffic. Yes, it’s economically inefficient to restrict building height (in DC as well it means higher rents and lower tax revenues), but such efficiency claims rely on implicit assumptions that non-quantifiable utility in the form of air and light and community are less valuable than money. Imagine Paris or Madrid with skyscrapers like Manhattan. I’d argue that a full accounting of economic and other costs and benefits would favor the restrictive zoning.

Another area of policy regulates retail commerce. In all three countries, most stores are closed Sundays—almost no shopping is done. You’re out of luck if you need milk or toilet paper (with some exceptions, e.g. in Berlin, a few larger supermarkets have Sunday afternoon hours). Small shopkeepers in Madrid, and in Berlin and Paris, often keep irregular hours, probably making low incomes but feeling secure because of the (relatively generous) welfare state. In other words, there’s more freedom to be a small businessperson because of the humane safety net (aka big government), which perhaps yields more competition to bigger corporations in the marketplace while allowing worker/owners to set their own hours.

Europe is friendlier to small business entrepreneurship would be my hypothesis. The whole shopping culture is very different in Paris, Madrid and Berlin from the 24/7 US marketplace. Seems healthy to me to curb acquisitiveness or better balance it against the profit/material acquisition motive with other values. Meanwhile, notice that despite the US’s self-image as worshipping small business, these three European countries have way more of it on any given street, in any given village, and do more to encourage it, at least as far as evidence on the ground suggests.

One outgrowth of the public dining and small business cultures: we got to know restaurateurs personally right away. Whereas my family has been eating at 411 West in Chapel Hill or Bullock’s in Durham for decades, nobody has ever greeted us personally. Ever. By the time we’d eaten twice at Naia on the Plaza de la Paja, the staff always waved when we walked by and spoke to us like old friends when we came in. By the way, the lunch special for 11.50 Euros (about $16) included appetizer, main course, dessert, bread, glass of wine, coffee and a digestif. Quality of food was very high, inventive, and fresh. The place consistently ranked in the top 20 of Madrid on Tripadvisor. Similar experience with the wonderful family that ran Gustibus on Rue St. Sebastien in Paris: fantastic food, warm personal service, at prices below the equivalent quality in any US city I’ve been in.

Whereas, of course, the US nurtures chain stores for every food and product. Are the prices truly lower in the US? Do we get to eat more chain store cheeseburgers, more chain store T-shirts and jeans, for less money? More to the point, do we get the goods for fewer hours of labor expended and lesser amount of employment and unemployment-related stress? I don’t really think so, but I’m not pretending to research this.

Furthermore, it’s not at all clear that everything really is cheaper in equivalent US cities. Madrid featured extremely inexpensive produce like red peppers at 5 or 6 for 1 euro on sale (recently in the US, I bought one red pepper on sale at Harris Teeter for $2.50). Or 20 kiwis for 1 euro, i.e. about 6.5 cents each—never less than 25 cents each in US. And the produce is good! The oranges, strawberries, blueberries taste better; even the lettuce. In Madrid at least, much of it seems actually to come from Spain itself or north Africa. In Berlin too, groceries generally seemed less expensive and produce tastier equivalents than the US. This holds even in the chain markets, not just the mom-and-pop stores or outdoor markets. Let’s not even talk about the cheese or bread.

But I was distressed to see that the uniformity of size of bananas and apples etc., bred by agribusiness to maximize revenue per unit, seemed to characterize Paris grocery chains (like Monoprix, which was two doors down from us on Rue St. Sebastien) as in the US. So far, less so in Germany and Madrid, but the forces of globalization and economic efficiency measured strictly in monetary terms do seem to march on.

A Europhile’s Year in Europe: Comparing Politics, Policy and Life to the U.S.

Relief map of Europe and surrounding regions

Photo credit: Wikipedia

This is the first in a series of posts on life, culture, and politics in the U.S. and E.U. by Robert Entman, who spent 2012 as a Humboldt Research Prize Scholar at Freie Universität in Berlin. He has also spent extended periods in Madrid and Paris.

This is an account not only of things done but of thoughts thought, especially those pertinent to my various pet peeves about US politics and life.

Bottom line: I did return with some small added appreciation of the US in some ways, after seeing the US more through European eyes. In particular, the notion they have that the US is freer and more flexible, more open to innovative, creative ideas, seems to have some validity. That’s the flip side of Europe’s possession of a long history—and Europeans’ deep appreciation of it.

It is their historical memory, the constant awareness of cultural heritage and connections that make Europe and Europeans so charming and fascinating to me. (Of course I’m generalizing in calling it “Europe” rather than individual countries but I think this is generally true throughout.). It is Americans’ maddening obliviousness to history of 10 or 20 years ago let alone 300 that drives me nuts, but the downside to Europeans’ quite opposite hyperawareness of history’s presence every day that also apparently makes them somewhat more rigid when asked to change a practice or think up a new solution.

I wouldn’t exaggerate this tendency toward caution about change, not at all, because there’s so much evidence that Europeans can and do accommodate change. Just think about the movement from crazy nationalism to the EU, from fear and distrust of the Iron Curtain to integration (albeit imperfect) of so many Eastern European countries into the West, or the adaptation of wind power and solar power.

Obviously the US has its own enormous prejudices and rigidities and especially ignorance (though I understand a bit better why Americans tend to be ignorant and indifferent to the perspectives of foreigners, at least compared to the average European). (More on that later.) But it did occur to me this year while seeing all the traces of the US everywhere in Europe, from IPhones (indeed all telephones) to Hollywood movies to laptops, and while hearing so many Europeans talk in glowing terms about their trips to New York or Washington or California, and while noting the Starbucks and the McDonald’s which market themselves as a kind of exotic luxury because they’re so American, all this tells me the US does have a degree of openness to innovation, especially commercial/business innovation, i.e. creativity that can earn money, that is unusual in the world. (Two different people in Paris—Paris!—told me DC is their very favorite city, as did somebody else in the enchanting city of Copenhagen, and several in Berlin told me how much more they like NYC.)

Allied to this are such obvious characteristics as the huge size, which makes Europeans marvel at how far you can go and still be in the same country speaking the same language: the big cars, the big houses, the skyscrapers. So that, whereas I come to Europe and love the narrow streets and center cities with their height restricted-buildings, and especially the way everything is smaller from the apartments to the washing machines, waste baskets and cars, Europeans look at the wide open US and its room for everything big and see a kind of dynamic, youthful optimism and openness to just about anything.

It’s not really a contradiction to note at the same time that the Europeans adore America’s open culture and landscapes, they tend to puzzle at the Americans’ political choices. The more politically interested people do have a lot of hostility to the US. At my Buddhist retreat—where everyone is above average in leftist sympathies—outside Lockerbie, Scotland, several people told me they were surprised I am an American because I’m nice and fairly unassuming, rather than arrogant and loud.

But I’d say more dominant is bewilderment at how inanities like denial of climate change and evolution, or scandals over political leaders’ private sex lives, or refusal of gun control, or election/selection for high office of the obviously mediocre like George W. Bush or Sarah Palin, can happen in a place otherwise so seemingly overflowing with intelligence and talent. I guess the hostility comes more from US foreign policy than anything else, whereas the puzzlement comes over the strength, extremity and dogmatism of America’s right wing and its religious conservatives. More on that in a later entry.

The Troubling Power of the US Military over Foreign Policymaking

In reading about the difficulties confronting American policymakers in Afghanistan, one point struck me as especially troubling. The New York Times reported

“Any accelerated withdrawal would face stiff opposition from military commanders, who want to keep the bulk of the remaining American troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2014, when the NATO mission in Afghanistan is supposed to end. Their resistance puts Mr. Obama in a quandary, as he balances how to hasten what is increasingly becoming a messy withdrawal while still painting a portrait of success for NATO allies and the American people.

The Times is reporting that the “resistance” of the Pentagon to what many of the president’s civilian advisors are saying creates a dilemma for him.  This quandary arises because open knowledge of Pentagon resistance forces the president to balance his administration’s apparent desire to “hasten” US military withdrawal against his need to maintain support from NATO allies and American citizens—support that would be undermined were the commander in chief to appear to overrule the Pentagon’s “stiff opposition.”  In other words, the military’s willingness to publicize its opposition to civilian policymakers creates pressure to which the president must respond.

"The military’s willingness to publicize its opposition to civilian policymakers creates pressure to which the president must respond."

Is it healthy for a democracy when elected leaders worry about winning the military’s support as much as winning that of the country’s citizens’ or allies’?

Not only does it seem problematic for the military to implicitly threaten open opposition should the president choose a policy the Pentagon dislikes. It’s also worrisome because any seeming “Pentagon” consensus in opposition might be nothing of the sort.  The institutional voice of the Joint Chiefs could largely reflect who won out in bureaucratic maneuvers, turf battles and individual jockeying for career advancement. The Pentagon’s stands do not necessarily reflect rational deliberation or application of neutral technical expertise.

America’s unhappy experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq could yield at least one benefit if they spurred systematic renewal of mechanisms ensuring civilian control of the US military.

Baby You Can Drive My Car. Please.

Americans tend to think—and politicians tell them at almost every opportunity—that theirs is the greatest, richest, freest country in the world. Leaders seem to consider this description so self-evident that they rarely provide evidence, nor do their audiences demand it. A major reason is the absence of truly “global communication” in most American households. Most Americans seem utterly unfamiliar with the public polices, political practices, daily lives and living standards even of this country’s closest allies. When messages about France, Germany, Norway, Spain and even the UK do reach US media, their main purpose is often to disparage these countries—again without much evidence.

A lot could be said about this but for now consider the car. I just spent 6 weeks in Madrid and had time to ponder why so many European cities seem so much more charming and livable than just about any American city. I think it’s got a lot to do with cars, specifically the paucity thereof.

In Madrid, just like DC, there are plenty of wide boulevards, where car traffic is heavy at rush hour. But there are also many, many pedestrian passages, plazas and narrow medieval streets that cars never or rarely traverse. At least in the center, you can walk for several blocks, or sit out at a café on a plaza like the one I lived on (Plaza de la Paja, the oldest in Madrid—see picture) for an hour and not see or hear a car. You can enjoy being outside, as Madrileños do even when it’s cold, soaking in sun and (fairly) fresh air, communing with other people. No need as in DC to will yourself to block out the noise and aesthetic assaults generated by automobiles and trucks. In this dimension, Madrid offers a great, rich (indeed priceless, unobtainable) experience in daily living, one most Americans are not free to enjoy whatever their income level.

Of course there are a hundred reasons for the greater charms of European capitals (not to mention the smaller towns). Some relate to cars and public policy (high gasoline taxes, heavy investment in mass transit enabled in part by far lower investment in military infrastructure), most to history, climate and many more factors.

My points in bringing up cars and comparative living standards are three: 1) The arguments for Americans reducing reliance on cars are numerous and thoroughly familiar to readers of blogs like this: augmenting national security; reducing the trade deficit; cutting the indirect funding that guzzling gas provides to terrorist organizations and nasty regimes; slowing climate change. What’s significant is how marginalized—to the point of invisibility—such reasoning is in the public discourse of 2012.

2) This in part reflects one area where America may indeed be the leader among affluent countries. I’d hypothesize (I’m not sure) that we enjoy the dubious distinction of the greatest isolation of citizens from globally communicated information and globally shared (at least among the wealthy democracies) cultural assumptions. Among many other areas, this manifests itself in the political impossibility of even mentioning the option of raising gasoline taxes to, say, half of what Europeans pay. Gasoline here in Berlin runs about 1.6 Euros, around $2.12, per liter—about $8 a gallon. The difference between that number and what Americans pay is mostly tax.

3) Americans’ isolation from two-way global communication both reflects and reinforces their impoverished sense of such words as “greatest,” “richest,” and “freest” when applied to the US.

I’m not saying this is anyone’s fault. Politicians and media can’t attack conventional notions of the normal until enough citizens share some assumptions and perceptions to make sense of the attacks. But citizens can’t develop such thinking unless their leaders and media provide the basis. If Americans could somehow plug into global communication more than they do now, perhaps the vicious circle might be interrupted.

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