Monday, October 31, 2011

Why Kyoto is so beautiful

Kyoto is a splendid city, a tourist’s dream. During the thousand years that Kyoto was the capital of Japan, hundreds of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines were built. Kyoto contains one-fifth of the national treasures of Japan and its historic monuments have been named a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In 1945, Kyoto was selected as a possible target for an atomic bomb. A special Targeting Committee picked four cities as targets, with Kyoto at the top of the list. The Targeting Committee report stated: “From the psychological point of view there is the advantage that Kyoto is an intellectual center for Japan and the people there are more apt to appreciate the significance of such a weapon.”

Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project which created the atomic bomb, brought the proposed list of targets to Henry Stimson, Franklin Roosevelt’s and then Harry Truman’s Secretary of War. Groves later told an interviewer that when he presented the list to Stimson, Stimson immediately replied, “I don’t want Kyoto bombed.”

Stimson had celebrated his honeymoon 40 years earlier in Kyoto. He did not oppose the use of atomic weapons on civilian targets in Japan, because, like many other American leaders at the time, he believed that the shock of instantaneous mass destruction would force the Japanese to surrender and thus save many American lives. But he worried about the consequences for the US of this potentially devastating bomb. Just two weeks earlier, Stimson had written to Truman, “The reputation of the United States for fair play and humanitarianism is the world’s biggest asset for peace in the coming decades. I believe the same rule of sparing the civilian population should be applied, as far as possible, to the use of any new weapon.”

In fact, Japanese civilians were not spared in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More civilians died in World War II than in any previous war, possibly more than in all previous wars combined. The Nazis killed millions of eastern Europeans, the Japanese killed Chinese, British and American bombers killed Germans and Japanese. The human tragedies of the war in Europe and Asia are unfathomable.

But Stimson’s decision did spare a millennium of Japanese culture. Bombing Kyoto would have been a further tragedy for Japan, and it might have made Japan’s eventual recovery and its renunciation of war as a national policy much more difficult.

After the war, the newly formed United Nations initiated several projects to preserve threatened treasures of human civilization, such as the Egyptian temples, which would have been flooded by the Aswan Dam, and the unique architecture of Venice, slowly sinking into the water. A White House conference in 1965 developed the idea of a World Heritage Trust to preserve “the world’s superb natural and scenic areas and historic sites for the present and the future of the entire world citizenry.” In 1972 the world’s nations agreed to a UNESCO treaty, which prohibits “any acts of hostility directed against the historic monuments, works of art or places of worship which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples”.

The list of World Heritage sites includes the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and Cahokia Mounds in Illinois. The concept of the World Heritage list is that we all have a stake in preserving the achievements of our history. Cahokia and Kyoto are not just national creations, but international treasures, which help to define the best of the human race.

Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto houses the Museum for World Peace, established in 1992. The exhibits center around the Japanese attack on China, especially on the massacre of perhaps 200,000 civilians in and around the city of Nanjing in 1937. Like Holocaust museums and monuments in Germany, the Museum of World Peace represents a profound apology for a people’s destructive actions in war. It promulgates the lesson that war destroys the fabric of human civilization, that starting war solves no human problems, that those who seek to conquer others may lose their own humanity.

The Japanese and the Germans, nationalist aggressors in the 20th century, are now two of the world’s most peaceful nations. They have regained their places of world leadership through economic development rather than through military force. They have become good friends with their former enemies, even with the US, which helped to destroy their cities.

Kyoto is a Japanese treasure, and a monument to the development of human culture. In shrines and gardens hundreds of years old, an American tourist can experience the common human striving for understanding, for beauty, and for peace. Stimson was right to insist that Kyoto not be bombed.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 1, 2011

Monday, October 24, 2011

Are Republican Candidates Good Businessmen?

The water level in Galveston Bay, off the Texas coast, is rising, faster than ever recorded. That’s what the five scientists who wrote the most recent “State of Galveston Bay” report, commissioned by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, discovered. But the TCEQ commissioners, appointed by Governor Rick Perry, don’t want Texans to know that, so they censored the scientists’ report to remove their projection that this rise will accelerate in the future and that it is “one of the main impacts of global climate change”. These political appointees deleted or altered nearly all references to the effects of global warming on the Bay. All of the scientists have asked to have their names removed from the report.

This example of scientific censorship comes on the heels of the firing of Georgia’s state climatologist, David Stooksbury, by the Republican Governor, Nathan Deal, who apparently did not like his acceptance of the scientific consensus that human activity has contributed to global warming.

Herman Cain said in June, “I don't believe global warming is real.” In August, Perry said in New Hampshire that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by a “substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data”. The Republican candidates for President often say that government should be run like a business. Yet businesses take a very different attitude toward the science of global warming than Republican politicians.

Insurance companies across the world have built warming into their rate structures for years. In 2006, Marsh, the world's largest insurance broker, sent a 36-page “risk alert” to clients that said: “Climate change - often referred to as ‘global warming’ - is one of the most significant emerging risks facing the world today, presenting tremendous challenges to the environment, to the world economy, and to individual businesses. Businesses - if they haven't already - must begin to account for it in their strategic and operation planning.”

A report last month by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners discussed a 2010 survey of 88 major US insurance companies: “the survey revealed a broad consensus among insurers that climate change will have an effect on extreme weather events.”

Some forward-thinking businesses see opportunity in global warming. During the last 10 years, the polar ice sheet has shrunk by about one-third from its previous size. The Norwegian Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program estimates that within 30 or 40 years the entire Arctic Ocean will be ice-free in the summer. Now that the Arctic ice is melting, companies in Russia are taking advantage of new sea routes and fishing areas, as is Exxon Mobil, who hopes to drill for oil. Planning ahead is just good business.

But for Republican politicians, it’s bad politics. They have worked hard to convince their base that global warming is a fiction dreamed up by evil liberals. Now they have to shut up the scientists, who keep producing inconvenient evidence.

So here is a plausible scenario. Perry is elected President. Someone in the CIA, who knows about Russia and about foreign policy, especially security, wonders what will happen when more ice melts and the sea route from Russia to North America opens up. No problems yet, but she combines the latest global climate science, with measurements of Arctic Ocean ice, and business data from Russian shipping companies and ship manufacturers, and thinks that in 20 years world naval strategy will be transformed. Since new navies for new challenges in Arctic waters take decades to develop, she wonders why anyone hadn’t caught on to this before. She’s proud of herself.

Perry has demonstrated no capacity to understand, much less deal with complex scientific and foreign policy issues. So he relies on his closest aides. His science advisor knows how to handle this situation – the same way they dealt with the specialists who measured the rising water in Galveston Bay. We can’t admit that, because then we would have to admit that the world was getting warmer. We would have to explain to the American people what our futures might look like, very different from today. We would have to consider how much our modern industrial society contributes to the warming, and then explain what steps we would take to reduce that. We would have to admit that we were wrong, wrong for years, wrong when all the evidence showed we were wrong, wrong because of politics, not science.

As Staples says, “That was easy.” A true no-brainer. We’ll just shut her up in whatever way works best. Eventually the truth will come out, but by that time we’ll be long gone. No need for moral qualms. All the other Republican candidates would have done the same thing. Obama wouldn’t, but would we want to support anything he does?

Sorry for the depressing fairy tale. Perry won’t get elected. But some Republican might, and they already control the House. How can we make sure that this scenario remains a fiction? How can we prevent politics from trumping science, and our security?

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 25, 2011

Monday, October 17, 2011

One Week in Polite and Egalitarian Japan

I just spent a week in Japan, as my college intensifies its exchange program with two Japanese universities. While it is dangerous to make generalizations about a country and its people after a first short visit, such comparisons seem an inevitable human occupation.

The Japanese are very polite. Repetitive bowing, waiting for others to go through doors, and saying “thank you” are physical expressions of the cultural importance of deferring to others and pleasing guests. In the train, the conductor takes off his hat and bows to the entire car before collecting tickets. This politeness also includes some physical distance. The hand shakes, mutual hugging, and cheek-kissing common in Western cultures are absent.

The Japanese place a premium on cleanliness. Removing one’s shoes at the entrance to residences and the provision of hot hand towels with meals are well known manifestations of this concern with order and neatness. The absence of litter on city streets, paired with public recycling programs, make urban spaces welcoming. Even on long train rides, I saw no trash in abandoned lots near the tracks, a common view out the windows of American trains.

Space is a necessary concern in a country of 127 million people squeezed into an area the size of Montana, with 10 times the population density of the US. Houses nearly touch each other and rooms are small. But a feeling of being crowded together is avoided by the efficient and thoughtful use of space. Although the typical home has a tiny yard, these small spaces contain beautiful gardens. It is no accident that the Japanese developed bonsai culture, compressing trees into table-top gardens.

These behaviors are varied expressions of a culture which emphasizes cooperation and the welfare of others over self-regard and individual striving. To an American, these traits can feel constraining, even stifling. But they provide important social advantages. In the wake of the tsunami, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the resultant loss of nuclear power generation, the whole nation was asked to reduce power usage by 15%. The Japanese people accepted reduced air conditioning and many other daily inconveniences of lowered energy consumption in order to collectively meet this goal.

Another aspect of this cooperative model is a much flatter distribution of wealth. The Japanese think of themselves as a middle-class society. Along with the Scandinavian countries, Japan has the world’s lowest level of wealth inequality. The ratio of the pay of CEO’s to average workers is 11 to 1; in the US it is more than 200 to 1. Private home ownership is nearly as high as in the US.

Certainly the economic “miracle” of Japanese postwar expansion shows that this cultural model can succeed in global competition. For decades Japan had the world’s second largest economy. Recently the Japanese economy has appeared to sputter, with very low growth rates. Many Americans saw this as proof of the superiority of our more individualized model.

But our economy has now entered a prolonged period of decline, and our position as the world’s leader is in question for the first time in a century. Other models, like the Chinese centralized command economy, threaten to displace us from global leadership. A Goldman-Sacks study done before our great recession estimated that the Chinese economy would pass ours by 2030. If the US enters a long period of stagnation, our stark social inequalities may become less tolerable, as both the rise of the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations already show. More egalitarian Japanese society may be better placed to deal with lack of growth.

I am speculating here, from little evidence. I am just beginning to learn about Japan. For a week I observed a vibrant, efficient, modern, and friendly nation, whose people look forward, but see something different than we Americans do. Their ideas and customs are neither better not worse than ours. Observing the Japanese can teach us much about ourselves.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 18, 2011

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Can Republicans Cure the Jobs Crisis?

Polls show that the greatest political concern of Americans is jobs. Gallup found in September that 39% said jobs and unemployment were the nation’s most important problem, and another 28% mentioned the economy in general. Far behind was the federal debt (12%) and taxes (2%).

The near depression beginning in late 2007 hammered all sectors of the economy. Since then corporate profits have returned to record levels. The stock market, although volatile, has regained most of its losses. The demand for luxury goods has reportedly returned to pre-crisis levels, so the rich must be doing just fine.

But jobs have not come back. Unemployment remains at 9.1%. The long-term unemployed are having great difficulties finding jobs. In order to protect their profits, global corporations are still slashing their work forces or sending jobs overseas. While the economic situations of corporate managers, hedge fund brokers, and major stockholders have stabilized, the incomes of millions of middle- and working-class Americans are still missing.

Republican candidates for President talk incessantly about how many jobs they have created in the past. Mitt Romney claims to have personally created jobs when he was in the private sector, although he never mentions how many jobs he helped get rid of when Bain Capital was buying and selling distressed companies. Rick Perry claims credit for all the growth in employment in Texas since he has been Governor.

Do Republican politicians offer solutions to our jobs crisis? Mitt Romney released his jobs plan last month. He proposes to cut federal domestic spending by 5%, reduce the corporate income tax rate, increase oil drilling, implement free trade agreements with Columbia, Panama, and South Korea, and eliminate estate taxes on inheritances. In the most optimistic projections, assuming that tax cuts really do stimulate the economy, this would create no new jobs besides a few in oil exploration until these measures work their way through the economy. Meanwhile cutting spending means cutting public sector jobs, such as teachers and firefighters.

My own Illinois Congressman, Aaron Schock, is similarly uninterested in any proposal that might create jobs now. He sent out a “Your Opinion Matters” card to constituents, asking us to let him know which topics concern us. The card lists 10 subjects, but no mention of jobs. His 3-page letter on economic issues is about the debt ceiling and cutting domestic spending, but not a word about jobs. On his website “Jobs and the Economy” is listed under “Issues”, but there, too, all we see are the familiar Republican proposals to cut domestic spending, reduce taxes, and repeal regulations. No new jobs.

Republican spokesmen have been clear about why they have adopted this position. Right after the 2008 election, Rush Limbaugh expressed his hope that Obama would fail to improve the economy. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell confirmed the highest legislative priority of his party in October 2010: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Congressional Republicans have opposed the two proposals by the Obama administration which offer some relief to the unemployed – extension of unemployment benefits and creation of construction jobs in the latest jobs proposal.

What does this mean? It appears that Republicans do not want the economy to recover over the next 12 months. They do not want unemployment to come down and more Americans to get jobs. They believe that continuing high unemployment will bring Obama down, so they want to preserve what they feel is their winning card: a bad economy. None of their prescriptions would go into effect until after their presumed election victory in November 2012. Then these proposals, taking the most optimistic view, would percolate slowly through the economy, as the rich, with lower taxes and bigger inheritances, allow their vast wealth to trickle down to the middle and working classes.

So the Republican prescription for the jobs crisis in America is – wait. Wait for another year, while we prevent the Democrats from reducing unemployment and improving their chances of election. Wait for another year, even if your unemployment benefits run out. Pay your mortgage or rent, but don’t expect any additional help with heating costs. Buy food, but expect less help through food stamps, as we demand further cuts in federal spending. Just muddle through somehow.

Then elect us and we’ll cut corporate taxes, reduce environmental and safety regulations, and boost the fortunes of the wealthiest Americans. Then wait again until the promised economic recovery finally lifts your little dinghy. Bon voyage!

Steve Hochstadt
Kyoto, Japan
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 10, 2011

Monday, October 3, 2011

Are Republican Politicians Good for Jews?

Some people think Jews are supposed to be smart. A Mitt Romney fund-raiser said in August that some Jews are so dumb, they think Michele Bachmann, the fundamentalist Christian Republican raised in Iowa, is “the Jewish candidate”. He complained: “It’s a real problem. We’re working very hard in the Jewish community because of Obama’s Israel problem. This was surprising.”

So surprising that in one day the story spread across the world, from the New York Post to FOX News to the London Daily Mail to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Then a few skeptical people decided to check it out. Nobody could find a Jewish voter who believed Bachmann was Jewish, although New York Magazine did encounter a Jewish scientist who likes Bachmann, because the Democratic party is “destroying our free society and pushing the U.S. on the road to widespread misery and eventual dictatorship.” Even he knew Bachmann wasn’t Jewish.

This clumsy attempt by Romney’s campaign to use alleged Jewish gullibility to knock his opponent isn’t about Jews at all. It is part of a larger effort by conservative Republicans to use Jews to win Christian votes.

Every candidate argues that they are better for Israel, and thus better for American Jews, than the rest. What is unusual now is that all the Republican candidates for President say our President and his administration are deliberately bad for Israel. In May, Romney said, “President Obama threw Israel under the bus,” and the next day Herman Cain repeated it.

The Republican candidates have no plan to solve the world’s most dangerous crisis. They don’t even propose policies. Perry, Romney, Cain and the other conservative Republican politicians are not advocating any peace process nor seeking Jewish votes; they are appealing to fundamentalist Christians, for whom Israel has become a religious obsession. They support the most fanatical settler organizations, who plan to make war forever with the Palestinians. In September Rick Perry explained why he advocates continued Israeli building of settlements on the West Bank: “I also, as a Christian, have a clear directive to support Israel, so from my perspective it's pretty easy.” That “directive” comes right out of fundamentalist end-of-the-world dogma. For the Rapture they eagerly await, Jews must return to the Holy Land before the worldwide disaster of Armageddon breaks out.

According to a June poll by the Pew Center, about half of evangelical leaders across the world believe that establishment of the state of Israel was a crucial step on the path to Jesus's second coming and that Jesus will return in their lifetime.

The most vocal conservative Christian supporter of Israel is John Hagee, pastor of a megachurch in San Antonio, Texas, and founder of Christians United for Israel (CUFI). Although John McCain rejected his endorsement in 2008, appearing arm-in-arm with Hagee seems to be a requirement for today’s Republican Presidential candidates. Hagee is so concerned about the safety of Israelis that he proposed a pre-emptive nuclear strike on Iran at CUFI’s Washington conference in 2007.

And what does Hagee think about Jews? In his 2006 book, Jerusalem Countdown, he wrote: “It was the disobedience and rebellion of the Jews, God's chosen people, to their covenantal responsibility to serve only the one true God, Jehovah, that gave rise to the opposition and persecution that they experienced beginning in Canaan and continuing to this very day... Their own rebellion had birthed the seed of antisemitism that would arise and bring destruction to them for centuries to come.... it rises from the judgment of God upon his rebellious chosen people.”

Antisemitism is the Jews’ own fault, for rejecting Jesus, exactly what Christian antisemites have been saying for 2000 years. Hagee said in a sermon in 2005 that Hitler and the Nazis were divine agents sent by God to chase Europe's Jews towards Palestine. With friends like Hagee, who needs enemies?

Peace in the Middle East is not the goal of CUFI and other fundamentalist Christian organizations who focus on Israel. They are looking forward to Armageddon.

The peace process, or lack of it, in the Middle East concerns all Americans. Both of our unending wars come out of the international tensions which focus on the borders of Israel. Only a minority of the young men and women who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan were Jewish. Only a fraction of the billions of tax dollars we have spent fighting in Asia for the past 10 years came from Jewish households. Decisions about American policy toward Israel are not a matter for just Jews to be concerned about.

The only way that we as Americans can influence the state of terror alert under which we live every day is to elect the government which has the best ideas about how to find a solution to the state of mostly cold, but sometimes hot, war in the Holy Land. Just as Hagee and his Republican followers hope, standing with the settlers could bring on Armageddon. You had better hope you are in the elect.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 4, 2011