Sustain America’s Greatness – Reject American Exceptionalism

When I was in high school, I confronted my European History teacher with a statement made in a book by former US Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski that at the beginning of 19th century China produced as much steel as did England. My teacher ridiculed the statement, claiming that nobody had anything close to England’s industrial capacity until late 19th century. I later found out through independent research that Brzezinski’s statement was true, and that in early 19th century England and China each produced 30% of the world’s steel. But even to this day many people in the West, including Harvard-educated historians such as my teacher, know nothing of this fact.

There are candidates in politics now who want to turn American educational system to Eurocentrism and American exceptionalism. And the answer to all these people is that in doing what they do they are in weighing against the very things that the Western Civilization, and America in particular, the leader of the world in the first place. The Western Civilization (and United States in particular) achieved its greatness through science; technology; ingenuity; innovation; knowledge; democracy; freedom of information; and fact. And in militating against such things the right-wing candidates are undermining the very things that made their country great in the first place.

In 18th century, a Chinese emperor rejected England’s offer of trade with China, saying that his “celestial empire” already had everything, and that there was nothing that the pathetic island of England could offer it. Pursuant this decision China entered a period of decline and stagnation as the Western civilization blossomed through scientific and technological innovation. This disastrous decision led China to fall steeply behind – a catastrophic decline from which China is only now beginning to recover.

And in choosing to ignore reality and embrace a factually wrong view of history and encourage a crabby, arrogant attitude on the part of American people, the right-wing politicians are at risk of putting America in the same position as the Chinese emperor had placed his “celestial empire.”

It does not help that there are ideologies out there that claim that there is no such thing as real innovation or originality, or that anyone who has any idea other than that of the people around him is a narcissist or a sociopath. It does not help that there are ideologies out there that claim that only good comes from Christ and that everything else is the work of the Devil. The world will not stop practicing intelligence and innovation, even if America does. And that will unquestionably lead America to decline in relation to the rest of the world for as long as its people practice such attitudes.

To actually be an American patriot and benefit the country in a meaningful way one must know what made it great in the first place. Ingenuity, innovation, knowledge, fact, and freedom of information, are at the root of everything, material and political, that America has. Other countries had Jesus; other countries had armies; other countries had capitalism; other countries had people willing to die for them or to work hard or to pledge allegiance to the flag. America is not exceptional in this regard. It is exceptional in its embrace of ingenuity and innovation, and it is to this that are owed America’s greatest accomplishments.

Those who want to embrace a factually wrong view of history, like those who want to misplace credit for America’s greatness, claiming it to be based on “traditional values” that existed in Europe and Middle East and in only a slightly different form in China and India long before they existed in America, are militating against the very things that are responsible for America’s accomplishments. And for America to remain an exceptional country, it must reject the factually wrong Eurocentrism and the equally wrong American exceptionalism, along with the other lies of the American Right that are contributing to this error.

To the people who would from this expect me to be a Marxist, my response is that the Marxist view of history is as wrong as the right-wing view of history. Besides describing China and India as feudalist and Native Americans as stone-age tribes, Marx offered no real informed insight into any of these societies. His linear conception of history is wrong in light of basic human reality as much as it is wrong in light of historical fact. At the time that Europe was in the Dark Ages, China had half the world’s GDP; India and Middle East had great architecture and advanced mathematics; and Africa had a city of a million people. While the Western Civilization progressed as a result of Renaissance and then later as a result of European Enlightenment and American Revolution, all of these civilizations declined and are only now getting back on their feet. There is no such thing as linear history, and there is no such thing as historical inevitability. Human choice makes it possible at any time to change history of any place in any direction. And in all cases, these choices bear logically predictable results.

Rejecting Eurocentrism and American exceptionalism will enhance and sustain America’s greatness. It will take away from people the intellectual crutches that they are using to sustain their pride as citizens of a great country while they are doing nothing great for their country themselves. It will give people incentive to actually add to their country’s greatness, instead of relying on the work of their ancestors to maintain their national pride while themselves doing nothing that merits pride. And that will do much to result in America remaining a great country instead of following 18th century China’s path to failure and decline.

AFC West Update and Carson Palmer

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks in the AFC West. I may be overly optimistic, but I still think the Chiefs have a chance to make a run for the division title. I want to touch on all four teams for a moment.

But first, how about the Raiders going out and trading for Carson Palmer? A very interesting move. Palmer is a decent quarterback who probably has a couple years left in him. And news reports are suggesting that Palmer is likely to start against the Chiefs this weekend. Wow.

My take? Quarterbacks, even veteran quarterbacks, seldom excel in their first season with a new team. And that’s when they have an entire off-season and preseason to prepare. In 1993, Joe Montana took the Chiefs to the AFC Championship Game, but did so mostly on the back of an outstanding defense. And in 2009, Brett Favre took the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game and posted a quarterback rating of 107.2. A very impressive season late in his career. But do you want to know what’s more common? Last year the Washington Redskins traded for Donovan McNabb who struggled and finished with a quarterback rating of 77.1. The only season he had with a worse rating? His rookie year in 1999 where he posted a rating of 60.1. Carson Palmer isn’t Brett Favre. Heck, he isn’t even Donovan McNabb. He’s a mediocre quarterback who enjoyed his best seasons in 2005 and 2006. The Raiders made a bold move, but probably not a smart move. If they end up winning the division and making a run in the playoffs, then it was a great move. If not, they’ve given up two very high draft picks and have hurt the long-term development of their team.

Now let’s look around the standings in the AFC West.

San Diego Chargers (4-1): The Chargers have beaten Minnesota (1-5), Kansas City (2-3), Miami (0-5) and Denver (1-4). They’ve lost to New England (5-1).

Reasons for optimism: The Chargers have managed to start fast, but that’s been more the result of the teams they’ve played, than how they’ve played. They still have a lot of talent. Ryan Matthews appears to be a legitimate starting running back.

Reasons for pessimism: Antonio Gates has played little this season. Their schedule is going to get much tougher. And Norv Turner is still their coach.

Prediction: Their schedule is going to get much tougher. And they’re going to need to play much better. I have a difficult time finding more than 5 wins on their remaining schedule. I think they end up 9-7, which is right around the record most of Norv Turner’s teams end up.

Oakland Raiders (4-2): The Raiders have beaten Denver (1-4), New York Jets (3-3), Houston (3-3) and Cleveland (2-3). They’ve lost to Buffalo (4-2) and New England (5-1).

Reasons for optimism: Darren McFadden is a stud, and the Raiders are second in the league in rushing. They’ve been the most impressive team in the division so far, and are a legitimate playoff contender.

Reasons for pessimism: The Raiders are ranked #28 in the league in total defense, and are particularly vulnerable against the pass where they’re ranked #30 in the league. Quarterback Jason Campbell was having a decent season before breaking his collarbone last week. It will be a big question as to how Carson Palmer will respond to his new surroundings. I don’t see any reason to think that the team will be better with Palmer than they were with Campbell. And it’s likely that they’ll be worse.

Prediction: The Raiders have a clear shot to win this division, but difficult to see six wins on their remaining schedule. I’m guessing they end up 9-7 as well.

Kansas City Chiefs (2-3): The Chiefs have beaten Minnesota (1-5) and Indianapolis (0-6). And they’ve lost to Buffalo (4-2), Detroit (5-1) and San Diego (4-1).

Reasons for optimism: After two historically bad losses, the Chiefs appear to have righted the ship. And if they can pull off a win in Oakland this weekend, they’re sitting at 3-3, which is exactly where I had them (though I had them beating Buffalo and losing to Oakland to reach 3-3). If Jackie Battle can provide the Chiefs with a consistent ground attack, they’re going to be OK.

Reasons for pessimism: They’re still missing Jamaal Charles, Eric Berry and Tony Moeaki for the season. And they’ve got a tough schedule ahead.

Prediction: Believe it or not, a win this weekend would put the Chiefs in a good position to win the AFC West. They would have their two toughest divisional games behind them with a 1-1 record. That leaves them two games against Denver, and home games against San Diego and Oakland. I think they’ve got 5 or 6 more wins in them this season, which puts them at 7-9 or 8-8. My original prediction of 9-7 looks very difficult.

Denver Broncos (1-4): Denver has beaten Cincinnati (4-2). They’ve lost to Oakland (4-2), Tennessee (3-2), Green Bay (6-0) and San Diego (4-1).

Reasons for optimism: John Fox is in his first year with the team, and he’s a good coach. He just didn’t have a lot to work with. Their schedule does get a bit easier.

Reasons for pessimism: Lots of them, including that they just traded away their best wide receiver. I’m not a Tim Tebow hater, and I have no clue if he’s going to be a good quarterback or not. History has shown us that quarterbacks with bad mechanics seldom have sustained success in the league. But Tebow is an interesting young man and an incredible athlete. He will make it interesting to say the least.

Prediction: Hard to see more than a couple wins left on their schedule. I’m guessing 4-12.

Short Term Profits versus Sustainable Long Term Gains

It’s a market obsessed with making short-term returns. As a result, the past decade of what is perceived as ‘regeneration’ has been dominated by speculative investor bulk-buying, killing off any chance of creating vibrant communities resulting in a legacy of absentee owners, and an oversupply of one and two bedroom identikit apartments.

You can’t blame the house builders, developers or agents; after all, they represent the private sector which has to answer to shareholders who want to maximise annualised profit.
But what about the next 20, 50 or 100 years? Is such a short-term approach really the best financial model? Does it create vibrant and healthy communities and great urban places? The answer to these questions has to be no.

Until we adopt a long-term approach to creating communities and vibrant places rather than an obsession with buildings and short-term profit, the property market will not deliver sustainable city living in line with the European approach. I believe the answer lies with the larger financial institutions and the public sector. Both can afford to think long-term, as they don’t answer to private shareholders.

Currently, property only represents a small percentage of pension funds’ total investment. Traditionally, the financial institutions have avoided more exposure to property perceiving it to be volatile and management intensive. However, the city’s financial institutions are now starting to look at property as a long-term alternative for the creation of excellent returns. Morley, one of Europe’s largest property fund managers, set up The Igloo Regeneration Fund in 2002. This is the UK’s first urban regeneration fund investing for a commercial return in mixed use, environmentally sustainable, well-designed regeneration projects on the edge of the top 20 cities in the UK. The fund is managed by Morley on behalf of Norwich Union without pressure from shareholders.

The public sector is also starting to recognise that it can take a long-term approach to value creation and the generation of public benefit through quangos like Communities England (English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation) and British Waterways. For example, British Waterways established ISIS Waterside Regeneration at the 2002 Urban Summit held in Birmingham in order to use its assets to create long-term returns and sustainable new waterside destinations. ISIS is now revitalising more than 170 acres of land in seven towns and cities across the UK, designed to attract a wide range of occupiers, including families. Icknield Port Loop, one of the most significant regeneration opportunities this decade is one of these sites.

When the public sector take this long term approach, they often are faced with a dilemma given the need to cover short term costs, for example British Waterways are responsible for a 200 year old system that constantly needs to be maintained and suffers from years of under-investment. The current costs are more than British Waterways receive. British Waterways require consistent funding to be able to maintain the waterways for public benefit and as a catalyst for regeneration without having to sell off the family silver. Over the past weeks the national news has reported that it may be privatised; this would be a huge shame. British Waterways has the opportunity to continue to act as a force for good in regeneration, rather than being forced to dance to the tune of the shareholder.
We need to encourage the government and financial institutions to get behind the property market and set up more of these funds. We only need to look to northern Europe for an example of how this can work very successfully.

In the UK, young people have a stark choice – 25 year mortgages are likely to be replaced by much longer terms and if the idea of creating huge debts for others to inherit is not attractive they are forced to rent average quality and poorly designed apartments from private, relatively unregulated landlord. If pension funds invest in well designed apartments built as part of a thriving community and well managed by responsible investors such as Morley, places with long-term value can be created, which occupants can then buy-in to as part of their pensions.

This will be a challenge, as we need to overcome the stigma of renting on a long-term basis. In addition, if pension funds do invest in developers like ISIS, which puts sustainability at the heart of its approach, there is an opportunity for large numbers to acknowledge and address the challenge of climate change. If there were more communities living in residential schemes like ISIS ones which have sustainability built-in to the very fabric of the development, then a critical mass could develop into combating the effects of climate change.

An excellent case study of how the public sector can work with long-term funds, as I have described, is represented at Icknield Port Loop. Birmingham City Council, Advantage West Midlands and ISIS together with other key stakeholders are bringing forward plans to put this long-term approach to community and value creation into practice. It can’t come soon enough.