Grab Bag 2

April 18, 2010

I still want to talk about David Bazan and Regina Spektor, but I want to be able to listen to their music in a constructive environment while I’m writing about it. As I write this I’m in a coffee shop, and it’s just not conducive to writing about music– weird, I know. In the meantime, I wanted to talk about transit in Russia, some recent weeping and gnashing of teeth about CNN, and the nuclear arms treaty that President Obama signed with President Medvedev of Russia. First, though, a note about my blog output over the last week or so. Obviously it has slowed down, a lot. The blog output that I kept up over Lent was a bit more than I want to continue doing. If I were getting paid for this, I might change my mind, but as it stands this blog is an outlet for my thoughts to a small group of friends who read. As such, I’m having juggle it with my school responsibilities. Ordinarily I would have used the last week to write a lot since I wasn’t in class, but for various reasons, which I think are obvious, I haven’t had any motivation to write. I’ve been taking furious notes on things I’ve read recently and on the podcasts I’ve been listening to. Perhaps I’ll get around to writing about them eventually. After this. And Bazan and Spektor.

One of the things I love best about Russia is the number of transit options available to people. It would be easy to get around in Russia (well, all but the smallest of towns) and never own a car. Public transit is bountiful, commuter light rail is easy to use in big cities, and every decent sized city is served by frequent rail links. Old Soviet policy dictated that any city that broke the one million inhabitants mark was eligible for its own metro system. Because of a different old Soviet policy, population relocation and concentration, there are a lot of cities in Russia with over one million inhabitants. In any of these cities a person can reasonably expect to be able to take public transit to nearly anywhere in the city they should desire. The metro will be quickest, but the city will also have trams, trolleybuses, large state-run buses, and mashrutkas, smaller, privately owned buses. For a city with fewer than one million people, subtract the metro, but expand the bus cover. It is fast (for the most part), cheap (about 50 cents to ride the bus, about a dollar to ride the metro), and abundant (In Nizhny there’s a bus at a stop on average of every 30 seconds. It may not be exactly the bus you want, but once you figure out the routes you can take one that gets you close and hoof it the rest of the way if you don’t want to wait.).

There’s something intensely democratic about it, too. Sure, there are lots of cars in Russia, but almost everyone takes public transit at least once on a given day, and far more people commute via public transit than private transit. In Moscow everybody rides the metro. It is exactly those factors that mean that Russian style transit will never catch on in the US. Public transit in Russia is often crowded, hot, and uncomfortable. It’s a running joke between me and some friends who live in Russia that there’s always room for one more person. The interiors of the vehicles are not spit-shine cleaned, and you have to share space with people who smell funky. If you’re a foreigner you get used to it pretty quickly, and if you’re Russian I assume you just take it for granted as a fact of life. But in the US, suburbanites get spiky about expanding public transit because they’re afraid that they’ll have to share space with poor people. (I’m really not joking here. I wish I was, but you can search through innumerable town hall meetings on this subject in suburban America and find this exact sentiment being expressed.) They’re afraid that undesirables will use transit to come into their neighborhoods and sow chaos, as though they couldn’t just use a car if they really wanted to do that. There’s also a fairly large amount of state ownership and subsidy of transit systems in Russia, which allows them to keep unprofitable lines that nevertheless serve poorer segments of society open by funneling profits from more prosperous lines and benefit from the economies of scale that governments can muster when it comes to purchasing power and payment. That would not fly in the US; Amtrak is the blind, red-headed step child of the US government, and most people are convinced the government can’t do anything right anyway. Alas, and alack, Russian transit will stay in Russia.

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I don’t really know where to begin discussing the nuclear arms treaty that President’s Obama and Medvedev signed recently. On one hand, I’m happy for any measures that reduce the number of nuclear bombs in the world. (Well, not any. I should say ‘any peaceful measures.’) On the other hand, compliance with this treaty will still leave the US and Russia with 1500 bombs apiece. The rest of the world has 600. Can someone explain to me what in God’s name we need that many nuclear bombs for? Believe me, if they were usable the military would have found a reason to use them. Nuclear bombs are totally and completely useless, a country like the US cannot use them, because it would immediately lose any semblance of moral high-ground in a conflict. People know this, too, which means they aren’t afraid of our nuclear weapons. What they’re afraid of is the US’s conventional weapons. Those terrify everyone, and justifiably so.

In the first part of the 20th century, pundits began to advance the theory that world economies were sufficiently dependent upon each other that war was no longer a possibility. “Advanced” countries couldn’t afford to go to war with each other, so they wouldn’t. Obviously, two absolutely appalling World Wars later, we know that wasn’t actually the case. I wonder if it might be now, though. The world is more connected and interdependent now than it has been at any other time in modern human history. At the beginning of the last century, the sort of close connection we now take for granted only existed between the European states and the US/Canada. The colonies of the various European powers weren’t as connected as we’d like to think because of the pace of travel, and the lines of supply could be quickly and effectively cut and reconfigured with fairly minimal disruption. This isn’t so anymore. I’ve heard friends say that we need to be afraid of China since they own about half of the US (seemingly). The relationship cuts both ways, actually. US consumption is fueling Chinese growth, and the Chinese government can’t really risk a spat with the US that would cut off that demand. Gross Chinese GDP may have passed the US recently, but that’s primarily a factor of having more than three times the population of the US. If the American market goes away, there’s absolutely nowhere else in the world for the Chinese to go selling their wares– don’t forget that the US is the world’s third most populous country. The Chinese boom is fueled by the US continuing to buy from the Chinese; if that spigot is turned off, then the recent recession will look pitiful in comparison to what the Chinese economy will go through. All of the world’s economies are similarly constrained. Failure or withdrawal by one puts the whole thing in jeopardy.

So if conflict is undesirable for economic reasons, what about military ones? An amusing suggestion. The typical bogeymen are Russia and China, so we’ll take them each in turn. But first, I should note that the US currently possesses an aircraft so advanced, so comprehensively better than anything in the air that it is never used. I’m talking about the F-22. This plane was designed and commissioned at the height of the Cold War because the US assumed that the Soviets would have something terrifying coming out of the MiG factory at any minute. This plane is quite simply the best plane ever designed and built. There’s nothing in the sky that can touch it. It is also commensurably expensive to operate. Those costs would be justifiable if there was something– anything– that could threaten it, but there isn’t. Instead the US’s old planes– F-16, F-15, F-18– are all sufficient to tackle any problem we might encounter, and the F-35– 75% of the F-22’s capability at half the cost, and still much better than anything else in the world– is in the pipeline. Current estimates are that other countries might, maybe, have something on par with the F-22 in twenty years. By which time we’ll need a replacement for an unusable plane. Such is the state of our military. It can afford to spend billions of dollars a year on things that aren’t even usable.

The Russians? Click around on the internet for a while and you’ll realize that, actually, the Russian military is in extraordinarily poor condition. The Russian military used to take pride in contracting exclusively with domestic suppliers, but it has become increasingly clear in the near twenty years since the Soviet Union fell that Russian companies possess neither the design not maintenance capabilities that the Russian military requires, so it has begun contracting out to foreign weapons suppliers. The current Russian army is like a lion that’s been shaved, declawed, had its teeth pulled, its eyes gouged out, and been bludgeoned with a nail studded 2×4 for good measure. The Chinese? They’re too busy spending and making money to pour their resources into “defense.” Sure, they’re a regional bully, but the Chinese army, even in its current modernizing swing, is nothing for the US to fear. What’s China spending its money on instead? Mass transit. China’s high speed rail system is growing at an unfathomable rate– would that the US could have that HSR system– and Shanghai’s metro system recently became the longest in the world, passing Moscow, London, and Paris. In the next couple of years it is projected to become the busiest metro system in the world. That’s just one Chinese city, and the pattern is repeated across the country. That’s where China’s money is going, not into defense. If China wants to beat the US, they’ll beat us with money not with guns.

Every other pseudo-credible military opponent the US might have is explicitly an ally, so it is clear the US has absolutely nothing to fear from anyone militarily, much less have need of nuclear weapons. So there’s no need of nuclear weapons when it comes to inter-state relations simple because of the US’s overwhelming power, but perversely the only real enemies the US currently has aren’t afraid of nuclear weapons either. What fear does a terrorist have of nuclear weapons? Most of them are willing to die anyway, and the use of nuclear weapons on the part of the US would only serve as proof of propaganda to a terrorist organization. It really looks to me as though there is no credible argument for nuclear weapons, except to say that we have them.

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Lastly, I’ll talk about CNN. Ross Douthat wrote an article for the New York Times recently proposing changes that would “save” CNN. In case you missed it, in the wake of the 2008 elections, CNN’s ratings have absolutely plummeted, while the ratings of partisan channels MSNBC and Fox have soared. Just how partisan MSNBC can be considered when they give Joe Scarborough the entire morning to talk is up for debate, but they’re perceived as the “Liberal” network, which may be indicative more of how low the bar has been set for something to be “liberal” in our discourse than anything else, but I digress. My question is this: Is CNN worth saving?

I mean, beyond all the people who would lose their jobs if CNN went out of business, how many people would really miss it? The conventional wisdom seems to be that people want their news to be delivered to them through a partisan filter nowadays, but I wonder about that. Mightn’t it be, instead, that once people realized that networks like CBS, ABC, NBC, and CNN were no longer taking the time to actually sit down and soberly report and analyze the news and were instead devoting their time to one-upping each other with sensationalism, they decided that they’d be better off finding networks that would actually talk about the news, even if that meant they’d be getting a partisan filter? I’ll admit to not having paid a ton of attention while this shift was happening; I was in high school/undergrad and just liked the internet better.

Lately CNN has seemingly decided that it needs to adopt the partisan style of its competitors, but it can’t really decide which it wants to be. They recently hired a guy from redstate.com, whose name I can’t recall as I’m writing this but who has made me cringe any time he’s been called upon to “analyze” anything– surely CNN can find a conservative who is more than a partisan hack and is willing to honestly grapple with issues rather than toe the GOP line, right? The problem with this is that conservatives perceive CNN as having an incurable liberal bias, so they’re always going to lose this fight to Fox. If they want to just feature screaming partisans of both sides I can’t see this as pleasing anyone; people will just turn to their “partisan” news channel of choice instead.

Maybe CNN should just accept slightly lower ratings for now and attempt to recast itself as an NPR style news channel. Chill out on the celebrity gossip, instead actually tell us about what’s going on in the world. Devote long blocks of time to reasoned analysis of domestic and international events, foster a group of creative on-air talent who run interesting shows. (A television version of radiolab would, perhaps, be the best thing ever, for example) Give us a channel that helps us to contextualize the news, don’t just report it to us.

But maybe this channel already exists.

Maybe it’s called PBS.

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