State Department Needs More Science Officers

The Scientific American also called for more scientists at the State Department. Nick Pyenson and Alex Dehgan wrote:

“Traditional diplomacy related to territory and place. It was organized by sovereign nation-states with borders and limits that were clearly defined. Those coming into the foreign service, especially in the U.S., came from fields like history, economics and political science, forming the bread and butter of the foreign policy schools. These backgrounds help with the standard set of diplomatic responsibilities for engaging with host country officials, but they are no longer sufficient—nor is it enough to just listen to scientists. Bringing scientists to the front lines of solving our most pressing, complex problems is a necessary step for diversifying and improving the composition of our foreign affairs and foreign assistance institutions.”

I came to the Foreign Service with some of what they want. I had a bacherlor’s degree in mathematics, not exactly a hard science, and I had a law degree, adding to my liberal arts credentials, rather than my scientific credentials. However, I was more interested in science issues than most of my Foreign Service colleagues. The article continues:

“Even with a richness of talent, we still need more opportunities for integrating scientists on the front lines of U.S. embassies and missions abroad. Programs such as the AAAS fellowships already place postdoctoral scientists throughout the State Department and USAID for pressing problems in diplomacy and development. Scaling up this type of program would have a real impact on global diplomacy and development. At USAID, the Partners for Enhanced Engagement for Research have built hundreds of collaborative research programs to date, in conjunction with American scientific agencies, aimed at building long-term engagements and connections across the global scientific community.”

When I was the deputy director of the State Department office dealing with environmental conservation issues, we had two AAAS fellows working on biological issues. The director of the office spent about a year in Nairobi negotiating the Biodiversity Convention, which the US then refused to sign. The main opposition came from then Vice President Quayle’s office, mainly his chief of staff William Kristol. President George H.W. Bush said he could not sign two environmental agreements, one on climate change and the other on biodiversity, because of pressure from the Repubilan Party. He felt it was more important to sign the framework climate agreement than the biodiversity convention. So, the work of our office was for naught.

The article points out the advantages of scientific cooperation, expecially since many foreign scinetists have studied in the US. One of my biggest disappointments was whe the US ceased to fund scientific cooperation with Poland shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall, and as Poland was tansitioning from a Communist government. The US had promised several million dollars a year for science cooperation with Poland for five years. I was sent to oversee that cooperation, but the Gingrich Republican revolution occurred about a year after I arrived, and the Gingrich Republicans refused to fund the remaining years of the agreement. One would have thought that the Republicans would have wanted to encourage Polish scientists and welcome them into a free world with a free economy with a little help, but apparently Republicans didn’t care about Communism anymore and had moved on the domestic political issues. Meanwhile the State Department had a little money of its own to supplement the cancelled Congressional appropriation, and it decided that China needed the money more than Poland; so, State gave its remaining science cooperation cash to China. At least we know the Chinese put it to good use, outpacing US scientific activity.

Failure of Primaries

One thing the last elections have shown us is the failure of political parties.  In retrospect the old smoke-filled room method of selecting candidates by party insiders worked better than the new open primary system.  Primaries have pushed both the left and the right to choose more extreme candidates.  Since only one-party votes in primaries, the extremists choose candidates that do not appeal to moderates, but when the election comes, you have two extreme candidates, one on the left and one on the right, with no moderate for independent centrists to vote for.  The biggest threat that any politician can make against another of the same party is “We’re going to primary you.”

This split occurs in almost every election from county commissioner to President.  The country is certainly divided between almost irreconcilable Republican and Democratic electorates, but when each party send Congressmen or Senators from its extreme wings to Congress, the split in Washington becomes even worse.

The biggest failure was in the 2016 presidential primaries.  Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were two terrible candidates.  Hillary had deep contempt for ordinary Americans.  Her Democratic party believe that ordinary Americans were too stupid, lazy, and uneducated to help themselves, and the Democratic Party had to take care of them.  Her contempt for ordinary Americans was evident in everything she said and did.  Trump on the other hand appealed to ordinary Americans because they were stupid, lazy, and uneducated.  They loved him because he didn’t talk down to them or disrespect them like Hillary did.

The primary in 2020 made Biden in effect the second black President.  He is not as elitist as Hillary, but more important the black community united to support him over Trump.  Trump did not lose the election because of fraud, but because the black community in the US voted as a block from Biden.  Biden was doing poorly in the primaries until Jim Clyburn helped him win South Carolina, by whipping up the black vote in the South Carolina primary behind Biden.  It’s another example of how small, extremist primaries decide huge national elections.  Sometimes, Iowa or New Hampshire primaries decide elections; in 2020 South Carolina did.

Trump complained that he was defeated by fraud in the elections, but in fact by legal standards there was not enough fraud to justify reopening the elections.  The problem was that blacks voted as a block, with 90% or more voting for Biden.  I think the mail-in ballots issue did work against Trump.  Blacks who might not have voted ordinarily voted by mail because it was easy.  If there were no mail-in ballots, Trump might have won, but the mail-in ballots were legal.

If the US is to calm down the extremist rhetoric around politics, an important step is to reform the political parties and the primary system.  I think we might be better going back to the old, smoke-filled room method of having party leaders choose candidates, if only because it looks like nothing could be worse than the current system.  But this would only work if the party leaders were decent men who would choose candidates who they thought would be good for the country.

Of course, another big problem is money in elections, no matter who gets nominated.  The Citizens United case allowing unlimited spending by corporations in campaigns.  This has made money the be all and the end all of campaigning.  The nominees may be awful, but everybody wants to be on record as financially supporting whoever wins in order to get favorable treatment for their pet issues.


Returning from Vietnam

The media focus on current and former military members’ involvement in the January 6 assault on the Capitol makes me wonder how much longer Americans will honor those who serve in the military.  The press reported that the FBI was investigating the backgrounds of the thousands of National Guardsmen who were called to protect the Capitol during Biden’s inauguration, and that several were told to leave because of detrimental information found about them.

It reminds me of the horrible way that Vietnam veterans were treated by their fellow Americans when they returned from Vietnam.  I was not actually spit on, and I don’t know anybody who was, but there was a lot of contempt for veterans, even to the point of calling them baby-killing war criminals.  On one hand it is good that there is a Vietnam memorial to remember those killed in Vietnam; on the other, the memorial is anything but heroic.  It could be interpreted as a dark slash in the ground, a stark recognition of those who tragically wasted their lives by dying in Vietnam.

It is interesting that the Vietnam memorial was built before the World War II memorial.  World War II veterans were widely respected for their service, although the movie “The Best Years of Our Lives” shows that many WW II veterans faced the same kinds of problems that Vietnam veterans faced.  Nevertheless, no one felt when they returned that they needed a memorial.  Their service was memorial enough.

The World War II memorial and the various Confederate memorials that are being torn down followed similar paths.  Neither set of veterans felt that they needed a memorial, but as they began to die off in greater and greater numbers, the people left behind, often wives and daughters, worked to build them memorials to preserve their memory.

I fear that after a generation of honoring veterans, mainly starting after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, we are moving back to suspicion of veterans.  Now, instead of being war criminals returning from Vietnam, they are pictured as traitors, insurrectionists, white supremacists who are dangers to the nation.  Now the proportion of the populations serving in the military is even smaller than it was during Vietnam, meaning that less and less of the population has any personal understanding of what military service is like.  No recent President has served in the military, and few senior political or other public officials have.  How many of the “talking heads” pontificating about American politics on TV have served?  Not many.  There is a group of veterans in the Congress, mostly because of 9/11, but it will probably shrink as time goes on.

I worry that people will more and more view the military as something subversive, a hotbed of Nazi sympathizers and white supremacists, and thus military service will become less and less respected and more and more suspected.

Ancient Rome and the US

I have been reading some history of Rome to see if it had any lessons for today.  In the description of Rome around 133 BC, I found Mary Beard’s description apposite.  She writes:

Looking back over the period, Roman historians regretted the gradual destruction of peaceful politics. Violence was increasingly taken for granted as a political tool. Traditional restraints and conventions broke down, one by one, until swords, clubs and rioting more or less replaced the ballot box. At the same time, to follow Sallust, a very few individuals of enormous power, wealth and military backing came to dominate the state – until Julius Caesar was officially made ‘dictator for life’ and then within weeks was assassinated in the name of liberty. When the story is stripped down to its barest and brutal essentials, it consists of a series of key moments and conflicts that led to the dissolution of the free state, a sequence of tipping points that marked the stages in the progressive degeneration of the political process, and a succession of atrocities that lingered in the Roman imagination for centuries.

Beard, Mary. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (p. 216). Liveright. Kindle Edition.

Her subsequent, more detailed, discussions brought out more similarities, the growth of parties divided by bitter animosities and points of view, increasing disparities between the wealthy and poor.  Violence and murder was much more common in ancient Rome than in the US today.  But it does make one wonder about where the US is heading, for if history does not repeat itself, it often rhymes.

Election Highlights Health Care Problems

Three of the main issues in this election concern health care: the Covid-19 virus, Obama Care, and Roe v. Wade.

The health industry, particularly doctors’ groups and hospitals, has been remarkable quiet about the Covid crisis.  Only a few academics and government officials have been outspoken.  Local news shows often have individual doctors advising people to wear masks, but the AMA, hospital owners such as the Hospital Corporation of America, or insurance companies such as Aetna, have been quiet.  The exception has been the pharmaceutical companies, because they stand to make tons of money from a Covid vaccine.  They have mainly sung their own praises, rather than work on a strategy for dealing with the Covid-19 crisis.  In fact, the health industry has been reluctant to criticize Trump, because he has been good for their profits, leaving the criticism mainly to the media and some academic pundits.

The talk about “Obama Care” in this election illustrates how bad the American health care industry has become.  While the political debate is focused on health insurance costs and availability, the real issue has been the inability or unwillingness of the health care industry to care for the American population.  For sure, certain sectors of the population have good care, but the population as a whole is not well served.

The main problem with the American health care system is its focus on money rather than wellness.  Doctors make money when people get sick; they don’t make money if people stay well.  Therefore, their focus is on treating an acute ailment, rather than on keeping people healthy.  In addition, because of the obsession with money, poor people cannot get treatment for their acute illnesses, much less for care that would keep them well.  Obama Care is basically a way to get treatment for some poor people while keeping doctors very rich.  Doctors have tended to deal with Covid-19 as acutely sick patients to be threated individually rather than as a public health crisis to be dealt with by focusing on keeping people well, just as they treat people for a broken leg or a heart attack, rather than focus on wellness to keep people out of their offices or hospitals.

Roe v. Wade, the abortion case, is a medical issue because it is a medical procedure.  It is an image problem for some doctors with some people, because they perceive doctors who perform abortions as murders, and being a member of a profession that includes a number of murderers tends to sully the reputations of all the members of that profession, at least with those who avidly oppose abortion.

The fact that three of the main issues in this election are about health care indicates the depth of the problem for the industry in the US. Health care is a misnomer.  There is no care or love in the health “care” system.  It’s about money.  Many doctors start out performing real health “care” working in emergency rooms or small private practices, but they graduate to high paying specialties or lucrative private practices, and it is these well paid doctors who lead the industry publicly and politically.  They look out for their financial interests.