Thursday, September 23, 2010

Being a Super Power Is Not Easy.

Imagine a clash of titans over 40 years. Suddenly one titan falls down and is exposed as a pygmy walking on stilts hiding behind a shield the real titan would be tempted to trample the vanquished. Unless the real titan is USA and pygmy-as-titan was Soviet Russia.

I just completed reading "Dead Hand" by David Hofman on the cold war arms race. Both US and Russia were involved in an arms race stockpiling nuclear weapons that could destroy the earth many times over. When Soviet Russia crumbled like a cookie from within Americans were exuberant over the demise of their nemesis. Ideologically, politically, militarily and economically Soviet Russia lay prostrate. In fact there remained no Soviet Russia. Just Russia and splinter states that Stalin had gobbled up. Could America afford to gloat and stand by to see its existential nemesis disintegrate? Of course there was gloating. Of course there was triumphalism. BUT there was concern amongst the knowledgeable in the various arms of US government.

Soviet Russia's nuclear stockpile, the biological weapons program (pursued in blatant violation of treaties that USSR had signed) etc were scattered amongst various splinter states that were all breaking up. The command and control structure was vaporizing. USSR scientists now staring at abysmal poverty, some were 'down to the last sack of potatoes', were on the lookout for any buyer. Iranians showed up in Russian colleges under the  pretext of studying chemistry. Outright poaching of dangerous scientific talent was afoot.

America could ill afford to sit out as spectator. Recession was raging at home. Two senators, Sam Nunn (D-Georgia) and Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) came together in a bi-partisan effort to craft the Nunn Lugar bill (1992) to help fund Russia to destroy its stockpile of nuclear weapons. America being an open society and that such congressional bills have to be shepherded through the Congress with utmost political skill brings to relief what a moment it was. One of the bills opponents drily remarked "we have spent more than trillion dollars over decades trying to destroy USSR why spend our tax payer money to save them now". Nunn and Lugar faced political uncertainty and had to explain to the American taxpayer why American money must be sent to USSR in the larger interest.

Just to cite one example. Things were so deplorably bad in USSR that American experts who went to assist dismantling weapons were simply shocked at the dilapidated conditions of trains used to transport nuclear weapons. One such train was then shipped to US, retrofit with safety devices and sent back, all on US taxpayer dollar.

In fact reflecting on this angle I see how America reconstructed western Europe under the Marshall plan ploughing in billions of dollars to stave of the communist threat. Mindful of how the victorious countries punished Germany in 1918 America took the leadership in reconstructing Europe in such way that Western Europe would stand as an equal ally in the fight against communism and the nations that were held in thrall behind the Iron Curtain.Whether its Germany or Japan they are what they are today thanks to American power that was exercised arbitrarily and unilaterally. But for Marshall plan western Europe would have crumbled and got lost. Yes America had its selfish aims. In fact it was naked self interest that propelled America to take those decisions. But it was not self interest at the cost of another. At least not always.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Obama's Lunch and Gorbachev's Eateries

I am currently reading David Hoffman's "Dead Hand" (Pulitzer winner). Its about the cold war arms race and its legacy. One of the interesting passages was how Gorbachev threatened some communist party men to fall in line. While the average Soviet citizen had to stand in queues for basic the communist party officials had their own grocery stores (well stocked) and eateries that provided delicacies only for party apparatchiks. Something as simple as food was disbursed based on hierarchy in Soviet Russia.

David Remnick's masterful "Lenin's Tomb" (Pulitzer), about the downfall of Soviet Russia, has hilarious anecdotes of how Soviet party apparatus functioned. When party bosses went hunting choice animals would be herded in range of their guns, when they went fishing divers would go underwater and hook fishes onto the fishing reels, a palace would be constructed for Brezhnev's visit that would be used for just a few hours.Remnick writes how Politbureau members would know if they are out of favor by watching how the line up is ordered for farewell when the General Secretary went for trips abroad.

Soviet Russia, found on the principle of 'dictatorship of the proletariat', ended up enshrining the class differentiation that it was supposed to shatter. Sort of like the pigs in Orwell's 'Animal farm" which overthrow rule by men but end up imitating men.

It is actually striking to see how India adopted such practices, many left over from British days. Even in companies like Best and Crompton there used to be an 'officers mess', ordinary workers could not eat there.    We are familiar with ministers standing with a bouquet in hand for departing CM's.

Two weeks back Barack Obama visited New Orleans for Katrina's 5th anniversary. He had lunch at some fast food place typical of New Orleans. He stood in the line, got his food and told how much it cost. Obama, President of USA, did not have enough money (sort of like USA right now). Obama borrowed $20 from his secret service agent and paid up. Bill Clinton did the same at a book store (what's with Democratic Presidents they always seem to never have money when they need to pay up).

Malcolm Gladwell, in "outliers" calls this the "Power Distance Index", it depicts how hierarchical a society is and how across the hierarchy the people of lower rings are comfortable challenging the superiors. USA has a low PDI.

My brother in law used to work for a mid size web hosting company in Maryland. The CEO would come to the cafeteria for lunch. The guy serving burgers would holler out a cheerful "hey" and of course the CEO would pay too.

It was a charm to see Senators, Governors and Presidential candidates squirm in their seats when Tim Russert would grill them mercilessly. Not many could get elected without undergoing Russert's inquisition.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Going to school in America.

Tomorrow Rowena starts school and we are thrilled about yet another mile stone. The experience of enrolling her in school was interesting. In US kids become eligible for free public education, irrespective of legal status of parents, at age 5 (I'd say that's a year later than I'd like). Side note, Macaulay's speech in the British  Parliament on the need for a free public education is a shining gem.

School year starts after Labor Day (First week of September). Around May I called the school district official and inquired about the formalities. It was simple and straightforward. Just fill out a form, provide supporting documents to prove residency in county (not legality of residence in country), vaccination  history from doctor, choose after school program and thats it. When I asked if my daughter would get a 'seat' as I would be filing the request only in late June after returning from vacation, I was told "Sir, your child, as resident of this county, is 'ENTITLED', to a seat, do not worry have a nice vacation".

One fine morning we went to the school and filed the paperwork. A cheerful lady checked out the documents, answered all our questions, absolutely polite. A typical school day for a KG class is just 3 hours (very inadequate) so we had to enroll Rowena in after school care. After school programs, especially or KG students, are pricey at approx $750 per month. A challenge for working parents especially for those whose income may not justify the extra expense but need the extra income. Students get heavily subsidized lunch, poor students get almost free food. School lunches are a hot topic. Michelle Obama heads a task force to reduce obesity among students and school lunch choices are scrutinized for health choices. Sodas have been removed from lunch offerings.

Last week when I stopped by Walmart I saw, at the entrance, for each class, list of what is required for classes. The list was from the school. "Back to School" shopping is a multi-billion dollar industry. Stores like Walmart and Target have large sections devoted to school supplies and promotional programs are heavily advertised (ad revenues for media runs to millions). Large corporations have charity drives to collect 'back-to-school' supplies for poor students.

Once we filed the paperwork the admissions process proceeded seamlessly. Out of 3 elementary schools we were sent notifications from one school to which Rowena was assigned to. Of course we did feel a tad overwhelmed by the forms we had to fill in (no online submission and no central co-ordination). For the subsidized food we knew we were not eligible but we had to submit it to say "no thanks". We had to apply separately for school bus.

School buses are a charm in US. When a school bus picks up a child, in front of his/her home, the traffic on either side of the median comes to a standstill while the tiny tot walks, at his/her own pace, towards the bus. Only after the door shuts does the traffic resume. Also a long rod like restraint flips open to prevent the kid from running across the bus. Of course the bus comes equipped with adequate seating and emergency exits. School buses are free of cost.

An orientation program was organized for KG students. Its a federal mandate to communicate with parents in a language they will understand so all communication is bilingual in English and Spanish (taxpayer expense!!!). Whether its college orientation or a KG students orientation the goal is the same. Introducing the school to the students, making the students and parents comfortable with the school and its procedures, basically making the students "FEEL WELCOME". The school authorities were cheerful, humor abounded in every aspect, everyone was equally respected. No uniforms. Teachers introduced themselves with a cheer and wave of hands. Somebody dressed up as school mascot posed for snaps with kids.

Rowena and we went with Rowena's assigned teacher (most Hispanic kids went with a 'bilingual' teacher). The hallways had cartoons painted on walls. The classroom had an air of kid friendliness with posters, a US flag and of course some helpful rules too. A rule taught children to 'respect property' by not vandalizing it, another taught them to 'respect others' by not intruding in their freedoms. 5 computers were neatly lined up. The classroom had an attached toilet so that kids need not step out of the classroom unsupervised (5 year olds). Even the toilet was kid friendly, set low, clean.

The teacher introduced herself, talked about her kid then read out a small story. She encouraged the students to ask questions, she made the kids feel comfortable and 'friendly'.

Each student gets a cubby to keep their things. No lugging of heavy textbooks. Homework is listed online on school websites. Textbooks, very pricey, are free of cost and are to be returned at the end of school year in pristine condition.

Americans take education, especially school education, very seriously. Debates rage on school textbook contents, each textbook is prepared with a panoply of experts. Publishers vie with each other to get textbook contracts. Publishers compete with products that take education to its very frontiers. Presidents deliver addresses to students on first day of school. Networks carry prime time discussions between Secretary of Education and Teachers unions covering a range of topics from merit pay to teachers to funding schools. George Bush and Barack Obama completely changed how America educates its children. It is thrilling to see a President put education on the top of his domestic agenda. Obama's "race to the top" program for allocating millions of dollars to states that SHOW reforms is changing the landscape of  education. In the process, for once, he is at loggerheads with a very powerful union, the teachers union.

September is also when there is a glut of articles in leading newspapers about the state of education, issues concerning parenting, changes that are sweeping the academic portals, questioning if tenured professors put enough work, school dorm costs, curriculum changes and so much more hit the FRONT PAGES.

Indians have a lot of misconceptions about America and the worst is how human relationships, especially parent-child, are materialistic. This is total bunkum. American parents are very affectionate and like any parent like to see their kids excel. We think American parents are 'aloof' about their kids. Terms like "helicopter parents" denote parents who constantly hover around their kids. Recently NYT ran an article on how parents undergo separation anxiety when they leave the kids on the first day of college.

I've purposely stayed away from recounting my days in Indian schools and colleges. Suffice it to say that it was anything but any of the above. Lets leave it at that.