The Long View 2005-01-30: Defeats, Victories, Miracles, Chimeras, Fashion Protocol

Pensioners apply for relief

Pensioners apply for relief

We are lucky President George W. Bush's privatization of social security never got anywhere. That combined with the housing bubble could have been genuinely revolutionary, in the howling mob kind of way.

Defeats, Victories, Miracles, Chimeras, Fashion Protocol


National Public Radio this morning took care to remind its readers that today is the anniversary of the beginning of the Tet Offensive of 1968, the point after which American defeat in Vietnam was increasingly portrayed as inevitable. (For the sake of completeness, NPR also noted that today is also the date on which Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany.] Still, despite this somewhat ominous historical reminder, NPR's reports from Iraq did not disguise the fact that, given the circumstances, the Iraqi national elections were a rousing success. The insurgents were unable to stop the elections nationally. The large turnout repudiated the Islamists and the Baathists. This result is irreversible.

There are two things to keep in mind about this outcome:

First, if the Jihad is seen to fail in Iraq, it cannot hope for success anywhere. It was possible to dismiss the democratization of Afghanistan, a poor and remote country, inhabited by allegedly duplicitous Afghans. Iraq, in contrast, is easily accessible to would be jihadis. The old regime had months to prepare the insurgency, while the kabuki performance at the UN played out to its inevitable conclusion. If the Jihad cannot terrorize the population into stunned docility under these circumstances, then the strategy must be accounted a failure.

Second, we should keep in mind that the calls for withdrawal that are now being made by Democrats in America contemplate a process that is not very different from the wind-down of American involvement that the Administration was hoping to do anyway. Barring catastrophe, obviously the Coalition will reduce its presence in Iraq by the end of the year.

On a smaller scale, we will see a replay of the attempt that the Democrats made after 1989 to claim credit for the victory in the Cold War. It did not work then, and it is unlikely to work now.

* * *

The great humiliation for the Bush Administration, and for the Republican Party in general, will be the collapse of the attempt to restructure the Social Security system. The partial privatization scheme that the Administration has endorsed has been tried elsewhere in the world and found wanting. Chile has been running the most sophisticated system of this type, and as the New York Times put it last week, Chile's Retirees Find Shortfall in Private Plan:

But now that the first generation of workers to depend on the new system is beginning to retire, Chileans are finding that it is falling far short of what was originally advertised under the authoritarian government of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. ...The problems have emerged despite what all here agree is the main strength of the privatized system: an average 10 percent annual return on investments. Those results have been achieved by the pension funds largely through the purchase of stocks and corporate and government bonds - investments that helped fuel an economic expansion giving Chile the highest growth rate in Latin America over the last 20 years....For those remaining in the government's original pay-as-you-go system, the maximum retirement benefit is now about $1,250 a month. The National Center for Alternative Development Studies, a research institute here, calculates that to get that same amount from a private pension fund, workers would have to contribute more than $250,000 over their careers, a target that has been reached by fewer than 500 of the private system's 7 million past and present contributors.

This leaves many Chileans in a situation that has led to the coining of a phrase: "pension damage." There is now even an Association of People With Pension Damage, 157,000 members and growing, that consists of Chileans, mostly former government employees, who find that their pensions, based on contributions to the private system, are significantly less than if they had remained in the old system.

Churchill won the Second World War in the spring of 1945. A few months later, he was out of office because of issues of just this sort. For that matter, much the same happened to the first President Bush.

* * *

Moving to a somewhat different topic, I have never been much interested in the Shroud of Turin. Still, I was among those people who were surprised by the radiocarbon dating test in the late 1990s that gave a medieval date. There was just so much circumstantial evidence from reputable parties that suggested the Shroud dated to antiquity, though of course no train of verifiable evidence linked it to Jesus Christ. Since the radiocarbon tests, more evidence for an early date has accumulated. Perhaps the strongest appears in this report in last week's Daily TelegraphThe Turin Shroud, believed by some to be Christ's burial cloth, is much older than previously thought, a new study has found.:

Research published in the scientific journal, Thermochimica Acta, has reignited the debate over the Shroud's origins, suggesting it is between 1,300 and 3,000 years old....Author, Dr Raymond Rogers, said the 1980s carbon dating test was valid but that the piece tested was from a patch woven in to the shroud at a later date....The tests revealed the presence of a chemical called vanillin in the radiocarbon sample but not the rest of the shroud. The limited life-span of the substance is proof that the original shroud is much older than the patch.

"An analysis of vanillin loss suggests the shroud is between 1,300 and 3,000 years old." said Dr Rogers

Again: interesting if true.

* * *

Though the 21st century has been disappointing in some ways so far, it is at least beginning to meet my expectations for simple weirdness. Consider this story: Animal-Human Hybrids Spark Controversy

Chinese scientists at the Shanghai Second Medical University in 2003 successfully fused human cells with rabbit eggs. The embryos were reportedly the first human-animal chimeras successfully created. They were allowed to develop for several days in a laboratory dish before the scientists destroyed the embryos to harvest their stem cells. In Minnesota last year researchers at the Mayo Clinic created pigs with human blood flowing through their bodies. And at Stanford University in California an experiment might be done later this year to create mice with human brains.

I fully realize that I am missing the point, but I cannot help but reflect about this kind of story: when scientists outrage God and man in this fashion, couldn't they at least do it with cooler animals? A human-jaguar hybrid would be a monster out of myth. A parrot-person would give wonderful interviews. But no: it's always flatworms, weasels, and skunk cabbages.

Those responsible will bear an even heavier burden for this reason.

* * *

Meanwhile, the criticisms from Old Europe about the senior members of the Bush Administration have taken a stridently sartorial turn:

Vice President Dick Cheney raised eyebrows on Friday for wearing an olive-drab parka, hiking boots and knit ski cap to represent the United States at a solemn ceremony remembering the liberation of Auschwitz.

Other leaders at the event in Poland on Thursday marking the 60th anniversary of the death camp's liberation, such as French President Jacques Chirac and Russian President Vladimir Putin, wore dark, formal overcoats and dress shoes or boots.

I think they were just jealous.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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