Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

The voting rights fight: Is humanity ready for democracy?

July 19, 2021

I believe in democracy. That might sound platitudinous, but it’s actually a carefully developed philosophical stance, grounded in a utilitarian concept of the greatest good for the greatest number.

America led the way in 1776, with our democratic manifesto. Eventually the idea caught on in many other countries, and for good reason. As Francis Fukuyama explained, it serves a fundamental thirst for recognition of one’s human dignity (which he gave the Greek word thymos).

But America’s own democracy is now in trouble. Almost half our citizens in a movement in effect seeing democracy as an impediment to goals they value more. (Mainly preservation of white Christian cultural domination.)

Thus the battle over voting rights. Republican rhetoric about ballot integrity is simply dishonest. We have no ballot integrity problem. It’s a smokescreen for their real aim, to win by any means necessary. They don’t expect to win fair elections. The larger the vote, the lower their chances, so they want to prevent as many citizens as possible from voting. Especially targeting minorities who overwhelmingly vote against them.

Such voter suppression is nasty enough. But even scarier is the push, in many states, to shift authority over vote counting to Republican-controlled political bodies.

We’ve seen this movie too many times across the world. This is how dictatorships hold onto power. It doesn’t actually matter how people vote, if you control the count. You just make up the results.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad was almost certainly trounced for re-election in 2009, but the regime simply said otherwise, then brutally crushed widespread protests. In Congo’s 2018 presidential election, Fayulu apparently got three times more votes than Tshisekedi, yet Tshisekedi was declared the winner. And in Belarus, reviled dictator Lukashenko surely lost to his challenger, but here again announced the opposite result, and unleashed ultra-violence when the citizenry erupted in protest.*

Can it happen here? January 6 was an effort to overturn the 2020 election result. That violent attempt failed, but now Republicans are laying the groundwork for doing it under color of law. What if Trump loses Georgia in 2024 but the vote counting authority, set up by the Republican-controlled state legislature and staffed with its operatives, simply announces different numbers? If you doubt they could be that dishonest — where have you been for five years?

Yet almost half the country supports this gang. Fervently. That’s the scariest thing of all.

I was thrilled visiting Russia in the ’90s. A democratic Russia! The triumph of my ideals. It seemed democracy was busting out all over. Since then, it’s gone the other way. Autocrats learned to adapt to today’s world — with a lot of help from foolish voters. While finagling elections does help too, unfortunately many people are suckers for political snake oil.

Take Italy. Its electorate is divided among a bunch of parties — one more crackpot than another. Old-fashioned sober serious parties can no longer compete.

India used to be heralded as the world’s biggest democracy. Now Narendra Modi is consolidating the classic authoritarian model, giving democracy the death of a thousand cuts. Press freedom is almost entirely extinguished. A new “Unlawful Activities Prevention Act” empowers the regime to jail anyone it doesn’t like, no specific charges even needed. The law is being utilized with gusto. A recent victim was an 84-year-old Jesuit priest and human rights advocate, Stan Swamy, with no criminal record. Denied bail, and medical care, he died in his cell.

Worse yet, this Hindu nationalist regime seems bent on making non-citizens of India’s hundred million Muslims. An insane folly if there ever was one.

India’s voters might have stepped back from the brink in the last national election. Instead they gave Modi a stonking majority.

So this is the problem of democracy: voters. I still believe a nation is better off with democracy than dictatorship. I do not believe in Plato’s idea of a philosopher king knowing best. But I increasingly worry whether enough people have the mature wisdom to vote sensibly.

Religion is part of the problem, scrambling minds into pathways of irrationalism. India is again a prime exemplar: Hindus actually thinking it’s a good idea to enflame intercommunal conflict. Such irrationalism also characterizes America’s quasi-religious Trump cult. As long as religion continues to mess up so many minds, I question whether humanity is ready for democracy.

* It’s a tribute to the power of the democratic idea that even dictators feel they need to have elections — even if phony ones.

Manifesto for a new political party

June 4, 2021

We have a two-party system. Except that one is no longer a responsible legitimate party. After 53 years as a Republican, I became a Democrat as the only sane option. But I still hanker for a good second party, and I’ve thought about what it might stand for. I have no illusions that it could spring forth in today’s America. But, as an exercise in political imagination, here is the platform:

1. Truth and honesty. This even being on the list — let alone as #1 — is a sad commentary on today’s Republicans. Inhabiting an alternate reality of lies. Many Republicans know it. Bad faith pervades the party.

2. Civic virtues — democracy, decency, civility, tolerance, fairness, compassion. Sad too that this requires stating. We’d thought our democracy was secure. Now we know it needs defending. This includes the right to vote itself.

3. Science acceptance — this goes with #1. Science is not just another viewpoint, it’s how we know things. Republican rejection of science — on evolution, climate change, covid, you name it — makes it a party of fools.

4. Racial comity. Our history of slavery still afflicts us, its legacy a factor in Black Americans, on average, living less well than whites. Most fundamentally, many still feel they’re not accepted or treated as fully equal. Simply put, we must ensure such treatment. This certainly means no tolerance for racist or white supremacist views. Or police abuse. It’s not “law and order” (and not “freedom”) when police — armed government enforcers — overstep their authority.

5. Freedom of speech. Democrats are too tolerant of intolerance. True, some viewpoints can be deemed beyond the pale (See #4). But most such issues concern what should be matters of legitimate debate. We must end the McCarthyism of punishing people for their opinions. Republicans do it too, persecuting apostates from Trump worship.

6. Free market capitalism. It’s not some system thought up by ideologues, it’s how people interact economically absent interference. And businesses trying to make a buck by selling stuff gives us the goods and services underpinning our advanced living standard. Of course there must be laws and regulations to prevent abuse (we have laws against jaywalking) and there are some functions the market cannot fulfill. Otherwise, consumers and society reap the bulk of the wealth created, when markets are competitive. Anti-competitive government actions and regulatory capture are key problems.

Many Democrats romanticize government running everything. Such a concentration of power would be the antithesis of democracy.

7. A caring society. America is a very rich country. We can amply ensure every citizen has at least minimally decent health care, shelter, nutrition, etc. Don’t call it socialism or “social justice,” it’s simply recognition of our common humanity.

8. Equal education opportunity. Its lack is central to inequality. People born in disadvantaged circumstances are put further behind by rotten schools, that tend to go with the territory. Democrats have a poor record here. School choice would help. By failing to invest in all our children, we make adults who are burdens rather than productive citizens.

9. Global human rights. Remember George W. Bush’s second inaugural, casting America as the global promoter of democracy and human rights — widely mocked by cynics? But being seen as standing for what’s right, and for humanity’s highest aspirations, is key to America’s own global standing. And a more democratic and thus more peaceful and prosperous world benefits America.

10. Free trade. Both parties have lost their way, succumbing to narrow interests at cost to our national interest. Free trade does hurt some people, but makes us collectively richer. If other countries harm themselves with protectionism, we shouldn’t respond by doing likewise. It’s not a zero-sum world; freer trade globally makes all countries richer — again good for America.

11. Global engagement. In both the above respects, “America First” should not mean America alone, retreating behind walls. Since 1945, we led the way building a rules-based world order aided by a network of alliances with nations sharing our values and aspirations for human betterment. We have benefited hugely, yet again making a world in which America itself can best flourish.

12. Church-state separation. One of America’s greatest blessings. Freedom of religion shouldn’t mean government favoritism toward religion — a source of woe throughout history. Church-state separation has benefited religions, it’s a key reason why they remain so strong in America compared to Europe. Those trying to tear it down play with fire.

13. Gun control. All rights are subject to reasonable regulation to protect the public, and that includes gun rights.* America’s unique proliferation of guns is a major contributor to violent crime. We must act to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, and ban military style assault weapons.

14. End the “War on Drugs.” Drug use should be a medical matter, not a criminal one. The drug war itself harms society vastly more than drug use ever could. While achieving almost nothing. (Psst Republicans: this is another “freedom” issue.)

15. A welcoming country. America, uniquely among nations, is blessed by the diversity of enterprising people who chose to live here. They enrich us, culturally, economically, and spiritually. As Ronald Reagan said, America is a shining city upon a hill — whose wall has a great big door.

This platform distills a lifetime of thinking and political engagement. Is it so radical? Radically reasonable and rational perhaps. Yet can we imagine an American political party with such a program — and winning elections?

*The Supreme Court seems headed for an insane contrary ruling.

The power imbalance between good and evil

May 21, 2021

I literally wrote the book on optimism. Seeing people, and the world, improving over time. But that seems to have gone into reverse.

The power of good is considerable. Most people are better served when good prevails over evil, so work to achieve it. But the power of evil is stronger.

How so? Good is inherently self-limiting, ultimately bound by the golden rule, an iron law for people who do truly strive for goodness. The wicked are not so bound. The good have scruples and restrain themselves; the wicked do not, that’s their wickedness.

Thus the power imbalance between good and evil, recalling Hegel’s concept of thesis and antithesis. Humans, in mass, have indeed grown better, but it’s an ironic consequence that this means more moral restraint, and hence more vulnerability to the depredations of those without restraint.

We see this playing out all over. Some capable of anything to gain their aims, while resistance is handicapped by inhibitions on fighting fire with fire. Erdogan, Putin, Xi, Maduro, Lukashenko, Orban, Ortega, Assad. India’s Modi headed that way. El Salvador’s Bukele newly in the club. Trump tried. Myanmar’s generals willing to slaughter as many as necessary to keep power.

Willingness to kill is the top rung of the ladder that starts with flouting democratic norms, rule of law, and people’s rights. Killing is the ultimate denial of rights.

If any country ever embodied the principles of rule of law, democracy, and human rights, it was America. Don’t start in about our crimes. We’re not perfect — nothing human ever is — but we strove toward living up to those ideals, and progressed.

Until 2016. Then the power imbalance between good and evil hit. A president without restraints, compunctions, or scruples. Good did manage to prevail, but only just barely, and without finality.

America’s crisis has deep antecedents and is continuing. It was brutally exposed when Republicans blocked the Garland Supreme Court nomination, because they could. A classic instance of lack of restraint, defying democratic norms to get their way.

Behind it all lay the Obama-inspired crisis of white identity. Fears of losing demographic dominance were suddenly brought to a boil by a non-white president. Rather than Obama signaling a post-racial America, now many whites felt besieged, and that they had to make a stand. This is the elephant in the room of American political culture.

Successfully blowing through rule of law, democratic norms, and others’ rights requires the support of a critical mass of people willing to junk those principles for the sake of something that feels (to them) bigger. Such ideals once loomed large in the American imagination. But now, for many, they’re trumped by white tribalism. It’s a more primordial impulse. Democracy and rule of law are not instinctual ideas. If it’s a choice between them and white dominance, many pick the latter. They’re a minority, but a big enough one that they don’t need many additional dupes to win. Especially if unhampered by scruples.

Few of them consciously confront the reality. But white revanchism über alles is what today’s Republican party really represents. Making it an existential threat to American democracy. As seen in cultish devotion to a malign monster; propagating his big “stolen election” lie; excusing the January 6 insurrection; voting in Congress to overturn the election; and working everywhere to make voting harder. Far from being chastened by defeat, they’ve since actually gotten worse, more willing to shred democratic principles. All in service to their larger (albeit rancid and usually unspoken) tribalist cause. They’ve passed the ladder’s first rung. And their very lack of restraint confers a power advantage.

Trump finally lost because he was an incompetent fool. We may not be so lucky next time.

My optimism reality check

May 10, 2021

When I wrote The Case for Rational Optimism in 2008, that case was powerful. My innate optimism intensified by observed reality. The big global story seemed to be progress toward greater human flourishing. Writers like Steven Pinker, Francis Fukuyama, Amartya Sen, explained it. I was proud of my own contribution, making the case across the whole waterfront of human concerns.

I’ve followed up with my blog. Naturally, bad things have commanded attention, but I’ve tried to highlight good news, countering pessimists and cynics. However, looking back, I must acknowledge that my positive outlook too often proved misplaced. In a spirit of humility, I present a catalog of instances:

Egypt: a very democratic coup” (July 4, 2013). Ouch. Mubarak’s overthrow led to an election producing a Muslim Brotherhood government. It was an undemocratic disaster. I welcomed the coup that ousted it, seeing it as hopefully presaging a “do-over” putting Egypt on a sounder democratic path. I should have been more cynical about coup leader Al-Sisi, who became a more repressive autocrat than Mubarak. 

Democracy wins in Thailand” (July 14, 2011). Well, it did. For a while. Then here too the army ousted the elected government, and has settled in to stay. 

Modi for India” (December 27, 2013). Here I did have misgivings, over Modi’s rotten history on Hindu-Muslim relations. But he seemed to instead stress economic liberalization, which India desperately needed. He has initiated some good reforms. But that’s overshadowed by running a Hindu nationalist regime, enflaming intercommunal antagonisms — and following what has become the standard authoritarian playbook, giving India’s democracy the death of a thousand cuts. Plus now he’s much to blame for India’s Covid disaster.

Great news: Sri Lanka blows off authoritarianism” (January 15, 2015). I was delighted by the unexpected election ouster of another autocratic regime, under the Rajapaksa clan. Unfortunately the new government proved feckless. And guess what? The latest vote produced a Rajapaksa landslide. 

Malaysia’s election shocker: good defeats evil” (May 10, 2018). Similar story. The longtime ruling party was so corrupt and awful that extensive election rigging didn’t stave off defeat. But the successor government seems a mess. The tale is still unfolding, but the old lot’s reprise would be no surprise. 

Good news from Kenya” (September 2, 2017). Its highest court overturned President Kenyatta’s dodgy election victory. But guess what? He prevailed anyway in a second go.* In the wings: William Ruto, an even stinkier candidate.

Myanmar — On April 5, 2012, I wrote, with tentative hopes, about President Thein Sein’s democratization moves, after decades of military rule. On October 15, 2012, came my gushing paean to Aung San Suu Kyi. Who subsequently destroyed her heroic aura by making herself complicit in the Rohingya pogrom. And now the army has come back — with a blood-soaked vengeance. 

Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed: good news story” (October 12, 2019). This new prime minister seemed a dream of an African leader, doing so much right. Even got a Nobel Prize. But hardly was the ink dry (so to speak) on my tribute when things went to to hell, the regime prosecuting an internecine war with appalling human rights abuses. 

All this begins to look like a pattern. And then:

America. Just after the 2008 election, I wrote in my book that “in a nation where bloody battles once raged over blacks merely voting, a black presidency has arrived in peace and good will. . . . So we are becoming far more united than divided.” Ouch again. I did not foresee how Obama’s presidency would produce not just a racist backlash, but an intensification of racial disaffection by whites seeing their loss of caste more real. Which led to Trump — an optimist’s ultimate nightmare — America’s collapse as the avatar of Enlightenment values.

Thankfully we’ve reversed that — by a hair’s breadth — and how fully remains to be seen. A Trump return (could America go that insane?) would fit the pattern of cautionary tales I’ve related above.

Before he took office, I wrote (November 16, 2016) that power does not make bad men better. That, at least, proved prescient. And that is also a through-line in my recaps here. Lord Acton’s famous quote was “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” You can actually leave off the last five words. Power corrupts. A proposition whose importance grows the more I observe the world. Not only does power not make bad men better; it can turn good men bad. 

But I keep saying that progress does not go in a straight line. For a time, liberal democratic values were on a roll; now, they’re in a bad patch. And China looms as a huge and growing anti-democratic center of gravity. Nevertheless, where the world will be in half a century is hard to foresee. It’s been documented that people are, on average, becoming smarter. I have to hope tolerance for repressive rule will wane. And while the political realm does have much to do with human flourishing, it is far from the whole story. All across the planet, lives continue to improve in countless other very important ways.

Finally — while I’m eating humble pie — on March 9, 2020 I posted:

Coronavirus/Covid 19: Don’t panic, it’s just flu

*In 2020, Malawi’s courts similarly ruled the president’s re-election illegitimate; and there, the decision seems to be sticking. So far.

Goodbye, Afghanistan

April 23, 2021

She’d gotten a new job offer, our daughter Elizabeth said on the phone from Jordan. Asking our opinion. A nice surprise, that she’d ask. 

“It’s in Afghanistan,” she explained.

A lot of parents would have blanched. But we encouraged her to go.

Afghanistan is an afflicted country. I was proud of America’s helping, and that my own kid would be part of that good effort (albeit with a French organization). She didn’t stay there long, moving on to other jobs in the region, but would frequently return to Afghanistan working on development projects there. When asked to suggest a birthday present recently, she encouraged a contribution to an Afghan library-building initiative.

The modern cycle begins in 1978 with a pro-Communist coup. Insurgent Mujahideen guerrillas fought the new regime; the Soviets invaded to back it. America helped the rebels (including Osama bin Laden; a lot of thanks we got). When the Russians quit, the regime fell, ultimately replaced by the Taliban, a repressive extremist one, that harbored bin Laden’s al Qaeda. After 9/11, we invaded to go after them. Successfully at first. We managed to shepherd into being a more or less democratic government. A new day of freedom — especially for Afghan women, brutally repressed under the Taliban.

But we failed to fully exterminate the Taliban, leaving them to regroup, and torment the country ever since. So our troops kept fighting.

President Obama campaigned calling this “the right war” and ramped up our military involvement. That achieved nothing. So then Obama ramped it back down. Trump went back and forth; eventually the Great Deal Maker got a “peace deal” slating a U.S. withdrawal in exchange for, basically, nothing.

So finally this mess landed on President Biden’s desk. He made the decision to pull out.

I probably would not have. I’d cancel Trump’s crap deal. Unlike in the past, what Afghanistan is costing us now is actually very small in relation to the great risks and certain harm of withdrawing. Nevertheless, I give Biden much benefit of the doubt. In contrast to Trump, he acts responsibly, trying to figure out what’s really our best course, drawing from a well of deep experience. The military was against this decision, but I am sure Biden heard them out and gave all due consideration to their input. It was indeed a very difficult decision, and he faced up to it.

Originally, Afghanistan was our first front in the post-9/11 “war on terror.” Fighting there to prevent more attacks here. But what we wound up spending there, in lives and money, was out of all proportion to any terrorism risk. Which in the great scheme of things is insignificant. Yet we let it warp our entire foreign policy, the tail wagging the dog. President Biden is right to see that and stop it. (Meantime our biggest terrorism threat is home-grown, as we learned on January 6.)

I’m not one of those who say we can’t be the world’s policeman; can’t fix every problem; have plenty to do here at home. Well, your neighborhood could be a nasty place with no policing; we have to live in the world; we can fix some distant problems; and can do it without neglecting our own. It’s not an either-or choice. And like the Bible’s “good Samaritan” we have a human responsibility toward even people not like us. 

But there’s also the “serenity prayer” — the wisdom to know what we can fix and what we can’t. And the principle of “enough is enough.”

We did try hard to fix Afghanistan, and it’s painful to kiss off the huge investment we’d made in that effort, coming out with nothing to show for it. Our leaving is very bad news for Afghanistan. International help, not just of the military kind, will ebb away. Violence will escalate. Taliban power will grow and will probably wind up taking over the country. Women will lose all the freedom and dignity they’d achieved.

Malala Yousafzai was a teenager shot in the head, by the Taliban’s Pakistan branch, because she was an advocate for girls’ education. More recently, in Afghanistan itself, the Taliban has been conducting an extensive, methodical campaign of assassinations specifically targeting women with prominent societal roles — legislators, judges, journalists, etc.

Afghanistan is also full of ordinary people, fellow human beings, who just want to live decently like you or me. But alas, also many very misguided, ignorant, backward people and, yes, very bad people. It’s one of the tragedies of human life that the kind of situation that exists in Afghanistan is a playground for bad people to act out their badness. Worse yet when they’re imbued with the insanity of believing they’re doing God’s work. All this will make for untold harm until people finally grow up and free themselves from it. We can help show the way, but in the last analysis, it has to come from Afghans themselves.

Another thing I don’t believe is that people never change, cultures never change. History is full of examples of people and cultures that did change. Look how much America changed, in a very short time, with regard to gay people. But another thing we learn again and again is how tough it is when you’re facing hard men with guns.

Europe’s covidiocy

March 23, 2021

During 2020, Europe put America to shame regarding Covid, as our president willfully refused to treat it seriously, even encouraging flouting precautions, surely responsible for our outsized half million death toll. Now the tables have turned. 

The European Union is botching vaccination, epitomizing all the EU’s weaknesses. It is overly bureaucratized and rule-obsessed, gumming things up. Aggravated by a need to coordinate all 27 member countries, and prioritizing nitpicking about fairness over speed. Worse yet, the EU wasted precious months dickering with vaccine makers on price. Well, they did finally win lower prices than America. But those savings were surely swamped by the vast costs associated with more people hospitalized and dying — preventable by quicker vaccination. It was penny wise and pound foolish.

The Biden administration, in contrast, is acting aggressively to get shots into as many arms as possible, as fast as possible. Realizing this is a race against the virus, especially with new and more dangerous variants proliferating.

We’re undermined by some states prematurely lifting restrictions aimed at curbing the spread, giving us Spring Break crowding sure to cause innumerable infections and deaths. President Biden caught hell for calling that “Neanderthal thinking.” Horrors, a president using strong language! “The former guy” never did. But of course Biden was right. “Neanderthal” was actually mild. It was reckless disregard for human life.

Still, America is way ahead of Europe in vaccination rates and thus in ultimately beating Covid. Thank you, President Biden (and the 81 million with the sense to vote for him).

And meantime, already way behind, Europe has compounded its misfeasance with its AstraZeneca stupidity. It seems that out of five million receiving the AZ shot, 30 reported blood clots. So in what they described as “an abundance of caution,” at least 16 European countries suspended AZ jabs.

The blood clot rate is less than 0.001% of vaccinations. Five million of which surely saved thousands of lives. For that, 30 blood clots would have been a minuscule price to pay. Vaccines always have occasional side effects. But again Europe is being penny wise and pound foolish.

Yet it’s even dumber than that suggests. Because out of any five million people, how many normally get blood clots? The answer, it turns out: more than 30! If anything, the AZ vaccine may somehow prevent blood clots.

How many times must we repeat so elementary a mistake? Confusing correlation with causation. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. Assuming that if one thing follows another, the former caused the latter. When they may be unrelated. Remember the huge ruckus over women getting sick after silicone breast implants? Well, hello, people get sick all the time, for a million reasons. It was finally proven that implanted women’s ailments occurred at a rate no greater than for women generally. 

The Europeans say they’ll research the blood clot issue and then maybe re-authorize AZ use. They say this will help instill public confidence in vaccine safety. Excuse me, on what planet? The bare fact of the suspension needlessly gives credence to irrational fears about all covid vaccines (not to mention all others). If authorities originally authorized AZ, then changed their minds, and then change their minds again, that will hardly promote confidence among millions of people inclined to be skeptical toward both those Eurocrats and vaccines. And what of the legions of people who will suffer and die for lack of vaccination while authorities dither? 

I hate to say this: Brexit, otherwise disastrous, has been fortunate for Britain in at least this one way, removing it from the EU’s covidiocy. Britain’s vaccination rate is far higher. 

The British royals: Netflix’s “The Crown”

March 11, 2021

“The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred ready to ride them.”

Jefferson wrote that in his last letter. Perhaps strange, inasmuch as he owned slaves. However, he was writing there about hereditary privilege and power. With that understanding I’ve always loved the quote.

So it may seem odd that my wife and I have been captivated by the Netflix series “The Crown,” chronicling the reign of Queen Elizabeth II (now in its 70th year). But this is no hagiography. Indeed, a pretty good indictment of hereditary monarchy, an absurd anachronism in today’s world.

The series is beautifully done, compelling to watch. The producers present it as drama rather than history, and so take liberties with the facts. Sometimes that’s annoying, but in the big picture the show tries to show truth. It depicts real human beings, imprisoned in circumstances that pervert their humanity. Themselves, in a sense, victims of the social paradigm Jefferson decried. Not to be envied.

This is no comedy, yet I find myself laughing out loud a lot. At the sheer bizarreness of the deadpan drama, and gobsmacking words coming out of the characters’ mouths. Irony abounds.

Do they themselves watch it? Curiosity reportedly does draw their eyeballs. How must it feel? Their feelings cannot be what yours or mine might be. It’s been reported that Elizabeth actually likes it, though her portrait hardly seems flattering. Yet as the drama itself shows, the criteria by which she judges her own behavior are not those you or I would apply to ours either.

I take issue with Margaret Thatcher’s depiction as an affected woman with silly hair, an arrogant ideologue whose cruel policies caused much suffering. I know she’s still hate figure for the left. But the nation was sinking into what was being called “British Disease” and she administered some needed medicine, putting the country on a path to prosperity.

Prince Charles, on the other hand, I’ve always considered a supreme ass. His portrayal here (by Josh O’Connor) in no way redeems him. Not even by way of complexity. But here too, assuming Charles has viewed this, one can easily suppose him actually seeing it as a vindication, imagining that anyone watching would assess his conduct exactly as he himself did. Saying to himself, when he’s shown crazily denouncing Diana, “Yes, that’s right!”

He seems to have suffered from a lifelong identity crisis. His major complaint against Diana was her being more glamorous and popular than him.

One laugh line (for me) occurred when Charles, first pondering dating Diana, vets her by phoning her sister. “Is she fun?” he asks. It didn’t sound like code for sex, rather being asked straightforwardly. As such, a pretty weird thing to ask about a potential future queen. But the really striking thing was its coming from the least “fun” person on Earth. 

Indeed, watching this portrayal, the word “hangdog” kept coming to mind, his very posture conveying lugubriousness. He’s almost like a hunchback, evoking Richard III. You want to shout, “For God’s sake, man, straighten up!” In more ways than one. His mother pretty much does tell him that.

Diana once complained there were three in the marriage. Charles still stuck on Camilla, who’d married Parker-Bowles years earlier. This infatuation reprising that of Charles’s great uncle (Edward VIII) for Wallis Simpson — in both cases the men so hopelessly besotted it emasculates them.

In one scene, Charles and Camilla sit talking in a car. Prodded, she assures him of the strength of her love. I expressed bafflement, Camilla herself being long besotted with Parker-Bowles. But my astute wife observed that she was careful not to say she loved Charles more than him.

Nevertheless, in some presumed future episodes, they will each eventually divorce, and eight years after Diana dies (no seat-belt), Charles and Camilla will finally marry, and live happily ever after. One hopes ; -)

At least, thank goodness, these absurd people no longer have any actual power. In fact, while Elizabeth is often shown berating prime ministers over political issues, I doubt this could occur, so circumscribed is her role.

But in 1826 Jefferson’s quote did not reflect reality and does not fully yet today. It’s aspirational. Looking toward a world in which nobody is born saddled, with others to ride them. Slowly we are getting there. One hopes.

Biden’s “Buy American” mistake

February 15, 2021

Trumpers persist in caricaturing President Biden as some kind of mentally defective fool. One Facebook graphic even denying that such a man could have gotten 81 million legitimate votes. While in the real world, Biden demonstrates what strong, sound, intelligent, honest, competent, sane and humanly decent leadership looks like, moving briskly to tackle unprecedented challenges and repair much of his predecessor’s damage to America. 

But Bidenism is not a cult like Trumpism. I don’t support his every stance.

For one thing, far too much of the $1.9 trillion Covid relief plan is earmarked for checks to people not really needy. Maybe that’s considered the price of political support for the rest. But I’d rather see more money going to those hurting most.

President Biden also proposes expanding regulations privileging American suppliers over foreign ones. That might seem like apple pie. But it runs up against World Trade Organization rules targeting discriminatory practices (against foreign vendors), to make trade free and fair. Trump, in his “America First” folly, tried to weaken the WTO. Not understanding how promoting free and fair trade globally benefits all countries, America included. 

A “buy American” policy sounds good for U.S. jobs. But The Economist recently explained that “by locking firms out of global supply chains and shielding them from competition it promotes inefficiency, destroying more employment than it creates.” The magazine cites one estimate that we actually lose 300,000 jobs. 

How so? Simple, really. If another country can make something cheaper (or better) than we can, we’re better off buying it from them and having our own workers instead make those things wecan make better or cheaper. That’s what economist David Ricardo called “comparative advantage.” Focusing our investment on our strengths, not our weaknesses. That makes us richer. 

Yes, buying cheap Chinese goods means fewer Americans employed making those things. But the savings to U.S. consumers enables them to buy more of other things — and that creates more U.S. jobs. And the trade also makes China richer, enabling Chinese to buy more stuff we export — creating yet more American jobs. Win-win. The beauty of global free trade.

President Biden (like others before him) seems bedazzled by the dream of “bringing back U.S. manufacturing jobs.” That’s so twentieth-century. In fact we manufacture as much as ever — but we do it with a lot less labor. That’s a good thing. U.S. jobs are not being lost to foreign countries so much as to improving automation and other technological advancements. That is, rising productivity.

At one time, almost the entire workforce was needed on farms just to feed everyone. Improved agricultural productivity freed most of us up, to work in factories instead. Thus we could produce food andmanufactured goods, making us richer. Now, another wave of productivity advancement similarly liberates us from factories, so more can be employed elsewhere, like in services. So we can produce food and manufactured goods and services. Another wealth gain. 

America’s future prosperity does not lie with metal-bashing smokestack factories, but high tech and services.

None of this is the economics equivalent of rocket science. “Buy American” is tired old-line Democratic stuff that reminds me why I used to be a Republican. But tragically that Republican party, with actual principles, that actually made sense, is long gone. At least Democrats are sane and sincere, not disingenuous and deranged. 

Lessons from Myanmar’s coup

February 10, 2021

Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book, The End of History, heralded liberal democracy’s apparent final triumph, fulfilling basic human aspirations. But alas, bad people also have aspirations — and often guns.

Cheerleading for democracy is frustrating. Hopes often raised, then betrayed. Visiting a democratic Russia — shortly after Fukuyama wrote — was thrilling. Then history returned. The story repeats again and again. As in the Arab Spring. In Thailand, and Sri Lanka, and elsewhere. Now Myanmar (formerly Burma).

The problem isn’t just guns. It’s also voters. Too few have read Fukuyama to understand how democracy serves them. Too many foolishly fall for strongmen. (America saved by its would-be strongman being himself a fool.)

Myanmar’s voters, though, understood fully. Overwhelmingly choosing democracy over military rule. Perhaps a no-brainer, given their military’s remarkable vileness. As evidenced by its brazen power grab, claiming “election fraud.” (Sound familiar?) And no one was deluded that the army acted benevolently with the people’s interests at heart. They ruled by the gun, as Al Capone in Chicago, a criminal gang doing it for their own power and (importantly) profit.

The army had ruled since 1962. Democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest. She’d been heroic; her book, Freedom From Fear, an inspiration. Then, in 2012, a new military president, Thein Sein, initiated a transition to democracy. It seemed for real, aiming at the nation’s progress. Suu’s party won elections and she became Myanmar’s top leader. But the military still retained much power.

Suu’s luster dimmed when she refused to criticize, and even defended, the army’s savage genocide of rape and murder against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims. (Buddhist pacifism?) Admittedly her tense relationship with the army circumscribed Suu’s power and authority; but she had some; and what good are they if you’re afraid to use them? Freedom from fear?

Mao famously said power comes from the barrel of a gun. He knew whereof he spoke. In past epochs it was the “divine right” of kings. Few today (apart from Republicans) can be persuaded that God chose someone to rule. Instead we do it ourselves, by voting. But Mao had a point — bullets can trump ballots.

The paradigm of an army using its guns to rule is so familiar it seems inevitable, like the weather. How to keep soldiers in their barracks is a perennial conundrum. Yet few question why a country like Myanmar even has an army in the first place.

Armies originated in a world where might made right. Your city-state needed one because others had them and would use them to pillage yours otherwise. Russia’s Ukraine depredation was a throwback to that kind of world, no longer customary. By and large that just doesn’t happen any more. Most national armies, especially for small countries, are anachronistic holdovers from past history. The idea of a country like Myanmar needing to defend against invasion by some neighbor is basically just ridiculous.

Myanmar does have internal conflicts, with regional/ethnic insurgencies, that its army battles. That sort of thing is what mainly occupies modern militaries — to the extent they do any actual military stuff at all. But query what would obtain absent a national army. The aggressiveness of Myanmar’s toward those regional elements is itself a major instigator of bloodshed. Without its army, the country would likely work through such conflicts politically, and peacefully.

What’s suggested here is not some utopian pacifist fantasy. Naturally, disbanding any army faces much opposition, not least from that army itself; which, after all, has guns to back up its resistance. (Myanmar’s proved unwilling even to coexist with a civilian government.) Yet a few countries have succeeded in abolishing national armies. Costa Rica, for example, did so back in 1948, after a civil war. It has not since experienced another, nor an invasion — nor, of course, a military coup. Its democracy thrives unmolested.

And for countries that still feel an itch for military defense, here’s another proposal: the U.S. can sell invasion insurance. For an annual premium payment, we’d promise to defend a nation against foreign invasion. (Russia’s neighbors would pay a surcharge.) But their cost would be far less than for maintaining national armies. This would be good for America; the payments would help defray our own defense budget. Which could be reduced even further because armed conflicts would be fewer, as more nations join the plan. A more orderly world like that would be more prosperous too, further serving our national interests.

This is a practical path toward the pacifist dream of a world without war.

Understanding the China problem

February 1, 2021

Henry Kissinger wrote a 624-page book, On China. Here’s a shorter take.

China’s imperial dynasty was overthrown in 1911. Violent turmoil followed as warlords, Communists, and a government led by Chiang Kai-shek all battled for power. Then Japan’s 1930s invasion ravaged the country. Finally in 1949 Mao’s Communists triumphed; Chiang and his Nationalists decamping to Taiwan. Which became prosperous and democratic; de facto independent, though China insists it’s theirs.

Poverty always afflicted China. Mao’s harebrained economic policies didn’t help. The 1958-62 “Great Leap Forward” left tens of millions dead. The country was convulsed yet again in 1966 by the madcap “Cultural Revolution” Mao launched to consolidate his control. Destroying much cultural heritage, and many more lives. Ending only with Mao’s 1976 death.

That history of traumatization shapes China’s psyche. Mere domestic order seems a great blessing. Chinese also keenly feel past humiliation, seeing a century of Western bullying and exploitation. Making them truculently nationalistic, with chips on their shoulders, something to prove, swaggeringly aggressive.

Deng Xiaoping succeeded Mao, jettisoning his craziness and most communist dogma, opening up the economy. While big state-owned enterprises endure, they accompany a private sector actually epitomizing “unfettered laissez faire capitalism.” Producing four decades of spectacular economic growth, eliminating most Chinese poverty and creating a vast middle class. For which they also thank the regime.

Younger people, especially, wanted a freer society too. But that dream died with the 1989 Tiananmen bloodbath. All memory of which the party has striven to scrub out. The basic deal it offers is rising prosperity in exchange for total political control.

Corruption and dishonesty have long characterized China’s culture. In 2012 Xi Jinping became leader, gaining plaudits for an anti-corruption campaign. But it was mainly a way to amass more personal power than anyone since Mao. China actually remains deeply corrupt. While Xi has suppressed all dissension or debate, deploying pervasive propaganda and an Orwellian surveillance state. Thus China’s repression in Tibet, then Xinjiang, then Hong Kong. A million Xinjiang Uighurs are in concentration camps, an effort to pretty much stamp out their Muslim religion.

Today the idea of democracy has scant traction. What freedom Chinese do want is economic, which they’ve got. Politically most seem happy with dictatorship, if (as they believe) it manages the country well. In fact, they take pride in their system’s achievements, rejecting “Western” values like rule of law or press freedom, and feeling superior to democratic nations as dysfunctional, disordered, and declining. They support crushing Hong Kong’s democratic aspirations. Some social liberalism does surface mainly among the young, for causes like women’s equality, LGBT rights, and the environment. But most Chinese are more into consumerism and other personal stuff than public affairs. And remember that China has no historical ethos of individualism like ours, conformism being more the rule.

Also greatly shaping Chinese society is the one-child policy, harshly enforced between 1980 and 2016, to prevent overpopulation. It succeeded too well, causing a shortage of working age people. While a traditional preference for boys meant many girls aborted, with lone boys raised as spoiled princelings, and not enough females for them to marry. Add in desperate competition for university slots and housing costs becoming unaffordable, another damper on marrying.

Many millions had migrated from farms to cities for better pay, but the “hukou” system prevents their registry as official residents there, making them second class citizens. A deep social division. Meantime sweatshop factory jobs are disappearing, moving to even lower wage countries. Now many Chinese feel they’re in a rat race with “996” office jobs — 9 AM to 9 PM, six days a week.

There’d been hopes that an increasingly prosperous and secure China would become a well-behaved member of an interconnected global community. But clearly today’s China thinks differently. If Trump was right to see China more adversarially, unfortunately he followed up brainlessly, subverting our own interests. Not just with self-harming tariffs, but trying to decouple our economy from China’s, dividing the world into two economic ghettoes with separate supply chains, to our detriment. Particularly idiotic was confronting China alone, blowing off our allies who could have been marshaled into a united front.

But this needn’t be a new cold war. Whereas Soviets wanted the whole world Communist, China has no such agenda, being “Communist” in name only. Seeking instead just national aggrandizement. Mere cost-free kowtowing could actually help assuage that. What we really have is not combat but competition, and there’s a big difference. Competition among economic actors is always the way of the world, and should be, it’s the essence of our own free market system. The world is not zero-sum with China’s gain necessarily being our loss. They don’t stupidly imagine destroying America would be advantageous. We have to manage our competition for mutual advantage.

Of course that doesn’t mean overlooking China’s intellectual property theft and other unfair tactics. Just as we enforce rules within our own economy and punish violators but don’t seek to put them out of business. Nor do China’s human rights violations make it our enemy. That too we must call out, and mitigate whatever way possible; but again, that needn’t mean blowing up what’s mutually beneficial in our economic relationship.