Failed states and How to kill your husband

I ought to note, before you try and work out the surreal linkage, that these are the titles of two books.

I’ve been reading ‘Failed States’ by Noam Chomsky. For those who don’t know Noam Chomsky (as I didn’t) he is a world renowned linguist, but more widely known as strident critic of US foreign policy (see the Wikipedia entry for more info). The premise of the book is that the US is very very similar to a ‘failed state’ as defined by the US themselves. Specifically that there is no effective democratic process, and that most of the ‘democracy promotion’ overseas is nothing of the sort.  The evidence and perspective on foreign policy and intervention was fascinating and disturbing.

The style is a little laboured in large part as he is extremely careful to cite sources throughout – but that’s what makes it a fascinating read. He is really looking for the evidence, not the positions people have declared. And, the evidence is often widely at variance to the declared position.

An example of something I was not previously aware of may help to give a flavour.  The US does not sign up to ANY international treaty in a binding fashion, though they expect all others to do so. They declare themselves as having the right to ignore them if they do not suit them, and do exactly that. This includes what I thought were absolute touchstones of the modern world such as the Geneva Convention.  By comparison their failure to play ball with the Kyoto protocol looks small beer.

On the quality of US democracy, he is equally pointed, for example noting that the vast majority of the voters (like 99%) disagree with things like foreign policy for which various administrations declare that they have a ‘clear public mandate’ by virtue of winning elections by the narrowest of margins.  He also notes that the quality of public debate is very low by comparison with (for example) Turkey.  In the US the voter interaction is dominated not by debate, but by soundbite reporting and by advertising that is explicitly designed to lead the listener to a position – and often mislead, by using the cognitive biases that advertisers know people have – see previous post on that.

I didn’t agree with all the points, especially in regard to what appeared to be the irredeemable ‘bad guy’ positions of corporations. He paints corporations as the source of much that is wrong with life today, but does not seem to allow enough for the benefits – publically owned services are very rarely efficient as an example.  But, on at least one part of his polemic on this topic I completely agree with him – protectionism.  I like the free-market economy precisely because it is (or should be) a free market.  An inefficient or ineffective provider will at some point be outcompeted.  Use of protectionism to defend an inefficent provider offends me, yet it seems endemic, especially in the land of pork-barrel budgets.  If this was unrestrained then there would indeed by social chaos, but that feels like the role of regulation and law.  Regulation can and should establish the level playing field that defines what is appropriate, and prevent corporations from competing in a ‘race for the bottom’ that can otherwise happen.


Sa despairs of the books I sometimes read, and ‘Failed States’ clearly falls in that territory. She thinks that ‘How kill your husband (and other handy household hints)’ by Kathy Lette that she has been reading is vastly more likely to add to ones enoyment of life. I was slightly worried by the title as I saw it lying in the kitchen, but having determined that it was novel, not a self-help guide or a hint, I was somewhat mollified. I can’t say for certain if it’s any good as I’ve not read it, but I can report that she has been laughing out loud on several occasions.

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2 Responses to Failed states and How to kill your husband

  1. Nick says:

    Ignore the wife mate, keep going with the Chomsky. You’ll definitely learn a lot more about the world from him than some Chick-Lit book.

    As regards Corporations, I really think you should watch a brilliant documentary called The Corporation which also features Chomsky:

    Also, I’m not sure if I agree with your point about publicly run services not being efficient. By definition, public services are generally not particularly profitable – they have to be run at a loss because they’re essential public services. This simple fact has been totally eliminated from debate on both the left and right in the West which shows you just how there’s virtually no ideological difference between the major parties. They both believe that profit should be the bottom line even if a poorly functioning private railway system actually ends up being counter productive to the economy anyway (not to mention people’s safety). Nowhere is this more true in Europe than Britain.

  2. Greg says:

    I never said that public services were unprofitable, I said that they were often inefficient. Not all externally tendered work has been a success, but much has, and I understand it to cost a lot less than it used to. External companies may be looking to make a profit, but the bidding process forces focus on efficiency. It also allows penalties for lack of performance which by definition cannot happen on internal services.

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