The World According To Noam Chomsky

February 4th, 2012

Published on ZNet, Noam Chomsky interviewed by Dean Carroll, February 03, 2012.

… How many of these problems relating to natural resources shortages do you expect man’s ingenuity and modern technology to solve – in other words, is a modern Utopia possible?

  • “Nobody can predict that, but there certainly are theoretical possibilities. For example, if alternative sustainable energy can reach a sufficient scale – it is, in principle, possible to overcome the water shortage by desalination. But we are very far from achieving that. In the meantime, we have extremely serious problems. My morning newspaper today reports the very grim effects of what seems to be the worst drought in Mexico’s history. The rapid fluctuation of climate, which is what has been predicted by the global change models, has been quite striking in recent years. We are not addressing it. In fact, the US congress recently barred any inquiry into whether the climate extremes of the past few years have anything to do with global warming. And they say why, they say ‘if we allow an inquiry, there might be an opening to paying attention to the hoax that global warming is’. They don’t want to acknowledge that global warming is taking place or that it has anything to do with human activity. If that is the case in the richest and most powerful country in the world, then we are just like lemmings going off the cliff.”

And do you think there is a sense that certain parties like global warming because it could open up new territories for exploration in terms of fossil fuels and minerals – do you think that plays a part in the head-in-the-sand approach to climate change taken in some quarters?

  • “Well, extracting more fossil fuels is like pouring gasoline on a fire. It may open up more minerals that are needed, but the harmful effects of global warming could be devastating.”

European Union member states like the United Kingdom are opening up public national health services to the market and actively seeking out American healthcare firms as potential service providers. Is this a good idea, in your view, when the system in the United States fails to care for some many millions of people without adequate medical insurance? And, more generally, are there any lessons that European welfare systems and public services can learn from the US?

  • “Well, they can learn what to avoid. The facts are pretty clear and not at all controversial. Healthcare expenses are about twice as much per capita as other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. The outcomes are not among the best. In fact, they are often quite low. And, as you said, there are millions without any health insurance. Indeed, there are many millions of deaths from lack of healthcare. There are parts of the US system that are as effective as Europe – the Veterans Administration, in particular, and the reason for that is because the VA is nationalised healthcare with preventative care and other measures. So, therefore, the government is permitted to negotiate drug prices. But it is barred from doing this in the privatised system, by law, with consequences that are obvious. The private system doesn’t have that reduction in prices and boost in outcomes that a nationalised system does.
  • “So, if the question is – should Europe move towards a highly dysfunctional system and away from a system that is working pretty well? Then it is kind of hard to understand why that’s a question in the first place. The real question has to be – should the US move to the sort of system that other industrialised countries have at half the per capita cost and, generally, better outcomes? There is a good reason why the US system is so inefficient, it’s because it’s the only privatised system. After all, private insurance companies are businesses. Their goal is to make money, not to make people healthier.”

If we extend the discussion further – in the American higher education system, there is more of a focus on applied research rather than basic research. With Europe looking to move to a similar model – through marketisation of its universities – as a US academic, would you advise against this then?

  • “Firstly, there is extensive basic research in US universities. Patents, publications and Nobel prizes and so on in basic research areas have been heavily based in the US. Take my own university, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is a good illustration of this – when I got here in the 1950s, it was an engineering school where students were taught the available technology to apply at the time. Over the years, it has shifted substantially to a university based on science. Students here, since the 1960s, don’t take courses on a specific engineering speciality – say civil engineering or mechanical engineering. They just take basic science courses, for good reasons. Technology change has become much more rapid and you have to understand the basic science to keep up with what is going to happen next.”

But America is much better at creating university spin-off companies and bringing products to market. The US seems be much more proactive in terms of getting venture capitalists involved with pump-prime funding and so on

  • “The way the system works here fundamentally is that the state sector, which is dynamic economically, produces funds and develops the core science and technology that’s done through government labs and publicly-funded universities as well as through procurement, a major form of development. And once the basic work is done, largely within the public sector, then it is handed over to private capital for commercialisation and profit. At that stage, venture capital comes in. Take the information technology revolution – computers, the internet and satellites. For decades, it was in the state system. The first digital computers were produced in the 1950s and were not useable in the business world. Computers finally became commercially marketable in the late 1970s, it’s a long time. The internet was in the public sector for almost 30 years before it became available for private profit. Much the same is true with pharmaceuticals. The spin-offs come much later after the basic research. It’s a system that sort of works.”

Here in Europe, we have just witnessed yet another EU summit achieve very little in terms of radical solutions to tackle the eurozone crisis. From an outsider’s point of view – what is your impression of the European Union; how do you see its institutions and member states; and do you think the eurozone economic crisis helps to make the case for a United States of Europe? … //

… And, given that, what is your prediction for which way the US presidential race is likely to go?

  • “If you just take a look at the financing, which usually determines electoral outcomes, it is pretty clear that the Republican establishment is backing Mitt Romney and will beat back any opposition. After that, it is hard to predict, we can only look at the polls. It really will depend on the way forces are mobilised as well as the economy.”

(full long text).

Comments are closed.