Reading Bill McKibben’s excellent piece “Radio Free Everywhere” (December Atlantic), I’m reminded of how many nights in years past I spent twiddling the AM dial to extract 50,000-watt signals from faraway stations—a lost art now. One thing that’s overlooked, though, regarding the shift to digital radio, is the potential for disenfranchising over-the-air listeners. Many rural areas and small communities still lack the broadband access that’s a virtual must for reliable online listening, and high-speed Internet can be yet another utility bill burdening income-challenged households. Web-based listening provides a fine alternative as the AM/FM airwaves become increasingly homogenized, but this trend compromises what radio has always been in this country: a free, easy-to-use public service.
Bill McKibben replies:
What an excellent reminder to all of us to send in our pledges to public radio, and to patronize the advertisers who actually support what’s worth listening to on the local dial.
Robert Kaplan’s article on “America’s Elegant Decline” (November Atlantic) overlooks several salient facts. For instance, Kaplan does not mention that, during the Cold War, the U.S. Navy maintained its size by including large numbers of relatively old vessels in its inventory. One of the budgeting decisions made in the 1990s was to retire many warships ahead of schedule and invest the savings in newer platforms. The result is that the modern U.S. Navy enjoys a higher relative average of quality in its ships than 20 years ago, even if it is absolutely smaller.
Furthermore, the modern U.S. Navy represents a staggering 50 percent of the world’s naval combat power. Qualitatively, our margin of superiority is even greater. These are facts that will not change substantially within the next generation, possibly even for two generations. That is hardly a case for saying our Navy is in “decline.” What exactly would we do with a 500-ship Navy that we are not already doing with a 300-ship Navy, and incidentally, where would we find the money to pay for it?
Robert Kaplan replies:
Richard Thomas makes some excellent points. I deliberately used the adjectives elegant and relative to denote just how tenuous this decline is, adding furthermore that this decline itself can be “overrated.” Yet it isn’t just that we have gone down from a 600-ship to a 279-ship Navy; it’s that when one considers cost overruns for both big warships like the new destroyers and smaller ones like the littoral combat ship, we may be heading for a Navy in the low 200s or less. There comes a point when quantity matters qualitatively: as powerful as a warship might be, it cannot be in two places at once. As I wrote, we are entering an era in which sheer presence matters more than ever. And in a time of increasing piracy and other low-grade threats, don’t discount the value of older ships, which may be just as capable of dealing with such menaces as the most-modern warships.