Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

Covid-19, Trump, election integrity, masks, schools, and everything

November 20, 2020

Covid is surging in virtually every state, worse than ever, a million U.S. infections a week, a quarter million dead and rising fast, hospitals overwhelmed — and national leadership is out to lunch. Not even trying, or pretending to, any more.

Remember the task force Mike Pence headed? Whatever became of that? And Trump has not met with disease experts in months. Real ones he’s shut out, elevating instead this crackpot Scott Atlas, with no epidemiology background, who’s helpfully advising Michiganders to “rise up” against their governor’s anti-covid measures.

Trump campaign e-mail blasts tout vaccine progress. While he actually sabotages the vaccine rollout by refusing cooperation with the incoming administration. Based on the absurd lie that Trump actually won the election. But claims about a big conspiracy to steal it from him, massive fraud, dead people voting, observers kept out, ballots mishandled, etc., are all simply made up nonsense, devoid of evidence, laughed out of court. Giuliani’s appearances there (billing the campaign $20,000 a day) shred his reputation’s last dregs.

Trump would have to somehow flip at least three states with five-digit Biden margins. That being impossible, now his grift is to get Republican-controlled state legislatures to brazenly override popular votes and appoint Trump electors regardless. Never done in our history. Talk about a conspiracy to steal the election! After all Trump’s past false accusations of a “coup” against him, thisis a real coup attempt.

Farcical though it might seem, this is no joke. “It is difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American president,” said Republican Senator Mitt Romney. People around the world are shocked by such banana republic shenanigans. And even if he can’t overturn the election, Trump’s baseless fraud claims — 77% of Republicans polled believe this insanity — 86% in another poll — aim to destroy the next administration’s legitimacy and hence its ability to govern. Aided by continued Senate control by a morally bankrupt and intellectually deranged Republican party that, shamefully, nearly half of Americans still support.

By the way, did you know that, on top of everything, a mid-December government shutdown looms?

*   *   *

After eight months’ experience with covid, we actually know what’s needed. But we’re not doing it. Indeed, Trump continues to fight against doing it. Much of the U.S. is keeping restaurants, gyms, and other public venues largely open, but schools closed. Much of Europe does the opposite — with better results.

Because it’s indoor adult gatherings that most commonly spread the virus. That’s what Europeans are cracking down on. This does create much economic hardship, but reflects an understanding that we can’t get past all this and restore economies while covid continues running amok. This doesn’t seem to penetrate enough American skulls.

Arizona covid chart

We’ve done some locking down, but haphazardly, so incurring the pain without getting the benefits. The New York Times cites Arizona’s example, with a big June covid spike, prompting harsh restrictions. They worked splendidly, but then were eased in August, and infections shot back up. With that happening all over now, another round of restrictions is underway, but often again falling short of what experts say is needed. Many rules seem just weird. New York recently announced that venues can stay open til 10 PM, if they have a liquor license. Huh??

Masks and social distancing help tremendously. It isn’t rocket science. We know the virus spreads mainly via droplets in the air, coming out of noses and mouths and getting into other people’s noses and mouths. Your mask blocks droplets both going out and coming in. And because droplets tend not to travel far before falling to the ground, people keeping some distance apart also reduces ingestion.

Most Americans have acted accordingly, only 15-20% refusing. It’s those 15-20% responsible for causing most infections and deaths. With Trump’s insane encouragement. Literally insane, because for all his obsession with re-election, he destroyed his chances by encouraging anti-maskers, so covid predictably exploded in his face.

*   *   *

Meanwhile, research shows the one type of indoor gathering least risky is school, especially elementary school (with social distancing and other precautions). While, on the other hand, closing schools has long-range consequences far more dire than closing restaurants, bars, or gyms.

Millions of students are being switched to remote learning. But for too many, it’s more remoteness than learning. Indeed, what we learn in school is far more than reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic. A key part of educational development is socialization — how to negotiate relations with other people. (I missed some of that, being out of school a lot, and still feel handicapped by it.) But even for the more academic stuff, there’s much evidence that learning together with others in a classroom setting works better than solitary study. Particularly for reading and math, surrounding kids with letters and numbers. And one key thing a classroom provides is feedback — children “need people to see what they are doing, to cheer them on, to rally them to care and respond,” says literacy expert Lucy Calkins, quoted in a Times report.

What this means is that we’re raising a cohort of future adults who will never fully make up for lost classroom time, going through life less educated than would otherwise have been the case. A disaster when a solid educational grounding is more vital than ever for flourishing as a member of modern society. The cumulative hit to GDP, over decades, will be astronomical.

Affluent families, with parents who are themselves well-educated and capable, riding herd on their kids, with good home infrastructure and resources, can be expected to mitigate the damage somewhat. But less so as you descend the socio-economic ladder. Many poor kids lack basics of computer equipment and connectivity.

It’s long been a huge scandal of American society that whereas education might ideally be a great equalizer and engine of upward mobility, instead, for those who start out disadvantaged, our educational system actually worsens that. Affluent kids go to decent schools; underprivileged kids to lousy schools. Widening the inequality.

Covid-induced school closures widen it yet more. The whole remote learning thing is largely new, that educators weren’t trained for, and they’re scrambling to adapt. It shouldn’t surprise us that it’s going better in schools in affluent suburbs than in poverty-ridden inner cities. And here again, strong parental partnering helps a lot. But parents in less affluent homes — often single parents — have too many other problems of their own.

Just getting kids engaged with schoolwork at home is a challenge. A study by ParentsTogether, an advocacy group, found low-income parents ten times likelier than those with $100,000 incomes to report their children doing little or no remote learning. Indeed, The Times quoted an administrator in a high school full of low income and immigrant students saying many are just disappearing — quietly dropping out of school altogether. It’s no mystery that remote learning feels remote to them, in contrast with a classroom experience.

Yet in many places we’re closing schools but letting bars stay open. UNICEF says school closures are creating a “lost generation” of students while doing little to curtail the virus.

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Two months to go with Trump. Throughout, I’ve kept on saying, “it will get worse.” It always has. And so it will still.

Choice 2020: The final word, by The Economist

November 1, 2020

In 2016 we plunged into a political and societal crisis, which I’ve tried to chronicle and analyze. You’ve probably had your fill of it. Me too. But now finally (one hopes) comes the denouement.

The Economist, my favorite publication, is a British-based news magazine of highest reputation. Its editorial stance embodies Enlightenment liberalism (the classical 19th Century kind). It has now published its presidential endorsement, together with in-depth reviews of Trump’s domestic and foreign policy records.

In keeping with their scrupulous fair-mindedness and objectivity, they give Trump credit for some things he’s done. (Much of which I disagree about; as with some of their past presidential endorsements.) Nevertheless, whatever the positives may be, they’re overwhelmed by the negatives. The Economist emphatically endorses Biden.

It’s a lengthy, judicious, compelling editorial. I’ve condensed it, below:*

Why it has to be Joe Biden

Trump has desecrated the values that make America a beacon to the world

THE COUNTRY that elected Trump was unhappy and divided. It now is more unhappy and more divided. With a pandemic that has registered almost 230,000 deaths amid bickering, buck-passing and lies. 

Joe Biden is not a miracle cure for what ails America. But he is a good man who would restore steadiness and civility to the White House. He is equipped to begin the long, difficult task of putting a fractured country back together again.

Trump’s tax cuts were regressive. Some of the deregulation was harmful, especially to the environment. Health-care has been a debacle. He cruelly separated migrant children from parents, and limits on new entrants will drain America’s vitality. On the hard problems— North Korea, Iran, Middle East peace — Trump has fared no better than the Washington establishment he ridicules.

However, our bigger dispute with Trump is more fundamental. He has repeatedly desecrated the values, principles and practices that made America a haven for its own people and a beacon to the world. To breezily dismiss Trump’s bullying and lies as so much tweeting ignores the harm he has wrought.

It starts with America’s democratic culture. Instead of seeing toxic partisanship as bad for America, Trump made it central to his office. Never seeking to represent the majority of Americans who did not vote for him. Faced by an outpouring of peaceful protest after the George Floyd killing, his instinct was not to heal, but to depict it as an orgy of looting and left-wing violence — part of a pattern of stoking racial tension. Today, 40% of the electorate believes the other side is not just misguided, but evil.

The Trump presidency’s most head-spinning feature is his contempt for the truth. Nothing he says can be believed — including calling Biden corrupt. Trump voters like his willingness to offend. But America’s system of checks and balances suffers. This president calls for his opponents to be locked up; uses the Department of Justice to conduct vendettas; commutes the sentences of supporters convicted of serious crimes; gives his family plum jobs; and offers foreign governments protection in exchange for dirt on a rival. When a president casts doubt on the integrity of an election, he undermines the democracy he has sworn to defend.

Partisanship and lying also undermine policy. Look at covid-19. Trump had a chance to unite his country around a well organized response. Instead he saw Democratic governors as rivals or scapegoats; muzzled and belittled America’s world-class institutions, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; sneered at science, including over masks; and has continued to misrepresent the evident truth about the epidemic and its consequences. America has many of the world’s best scientists. It also has one of world’s highest covid-19 fatality rates.

Alliances magnify America’s influence in the world. When countries that have fought alongside America look on his leadership, they struggle to recognize the place they admire.

That matters. American ideals really do serve as an example to other democracies, and to people who live in states that persecute their citizens. Trump thinks ideals are for suckers. The governments of China and Russia have always seen American rhetoric about freedom as cynical cover for the belief that might is right. Tragically, Trump confirms that.

Four more years of a historically bad president would deepen all these harms — and more. In 2016 American voters did not know what they were getting. Now they do. They would be voting for division and lying. Endorsing the trampling of norms and the shrinking of national institutions into personal fiefs. Ushering in destructive climate change. Signaling that the champion of freedom and democracy should be just another big country throwing its weight around. 

Mr Biden is a centrist, an institutionalist, a consensus-builder — an anti-Trump well-suited to repair some of the damage. He could begin to lay down a path toward reconciliation. He is no revolutionary. His tax rises on firms and the wealthy would be significant, but not punitive. He would seek to rebuild America’s decrepit infrastructure, give more to health and education and allow more immigration. His climate-change policy would invest in research and job-boosting technology. He is a competent administrator and a believer in process. He listens to expert advice. He is a multilateralist: less confrontational than Trump, but more purposeful.

Trumpism is morally bankrupt. America faces a fateful choice. At stake is the nature of its democracy. One path leads to a fractious, personalized rule, dominated by a man who scorns decency and truth. The other leads to something better — something truer to the values that originally made America an inspiration around the world.

In his first term, Trump has been a destructive president. He would start his second affirmed in all his worst instincts. Mr Biden is his antithesis. He would enter the White House with the promise of the most precious gift democracies can bestow: renewal.

* Here’s the full text: www.fsrcoin.com/Econ.html

America slams door on refugees

October 27, 2020

Back in 2015, when I wrote unfavorably comparing America’s intake of Syrian refugees with Europe’s, my daughter (working in the Middle East for humanitarian organizations) reminded me that overall, we had been welcoming more refugees than any other nation. This indeed made me proud of my country.

Both international and U.S. law establish a right of asylum when a refugee has a reasonable fear of persecution in their home country, for various specified reasons. Asylum seekers have a legal right to a day in court for their claims. Not only is this baseline human decency, but most refugees coming here have contributed far more to this country than they cost us. They’ve helped make America great. 

The U.S. government sets an annual cap on refugee admissions. It once was about 235,000. The Trump administration has slashed that by over 93% to just 15,000 — the lowest ever. While actually, new restrictions and policies now make it almost impossible to gain asylum.

NPR’s This American Life  last week profiled Jessica and Moisés, a Nicaraguan couple, prominent political activists against their nation’s repressive Ortega regime. Moisés was taken away to its torture center. The graphic details were not easy listening. But somehow he managed to come out alive . . . this time. He and his wife decided they had to escape Nicaragua, with their young child. Though America was almost closed, there seemed to be a window. The U.S. condemns Nicaragua’s leftist tyranny. While our current requisites for political asylum are restrictive, Moisés did research and determined their case should qualify. He prepared a file with ample documentation, even including his torturers’ names.

The three set out on the terrible, perilous trek through Mexico, and managed to survive it. They got across the Rio Grande and, to their relief, immediately encountered U.S. border agents. Moisés literally laid out his documents on the sand and in fluent English claimed political asylum in accordance with U.S. law. The three people were taken into custody, separated; for twelve days, held in miserable squalid conditions. Told nothing. Then put on a bus to an airplane. Then, with other migrants, flown back to Nicaragua. Nobody ever looked at the documents.

The Nicaraguan police were waiting at the airport on arrival. Moises knew his cache of documents would constitute a death sentence. While queueing for processing he managed to surreptitiously eat the pages. Then, apparently, the slipshod cops failed to red-flag the family, and they were sent to a parent’s home. But they knew the police would be back, and they were in extreme danger. They managed to find a house where Jessica and Moisés, without their daughter, could immure themselves in strict hiding, in an attic.

I’d been hoping that, inasmuch as the couple was being interviewed for the story, it would have a happier ending. But no, that was it.

The U.S. State Department’s website still proclaims: “The United States is proud of its history of welcoming immigrants and refugees. The U.S. refugee resettlement program reflects the United States’ highest values and aspirations to compassion, generosity and leadership.”

The NPR report quoted the U.S. government’s official characterization of Nicaragua’s regime: “utter disregard for human life and democratic freedoms.” That better describes America now too, than does the State Department website.

Joe Biden has personally promised me to reverse these cruel inhuman policies.

Lest we forget: the full Trump record

October 25, 2020

• Covid-19: America’s done virtually the worst of any advanced nation. Economy shut down, but so chaotically we got huge infection and death rates anyway. Fumbled for two crucial months while the virus spread. Trump lied and misled us at every stage, especially about testing. Admitted deliberately downplaying the danger while he knew its severity. Briefings were orgies of self-praise, misinformation, and divisive insults. Pushing conspiracy theories, a phony hydroxy “cure,” or injecting disinfectant and other quackery. Disregarding, even disparaging and attacking, scientific experts, calling them “idiots;” calling Anthony Fauci “a disaster;” testing “very foolish.” Encouraging protests against his own shutdown guidelines, mask-wearing, and social distancing. Politicizing it all. Withdrawing from the World Health Organization during this global health crisis. Zero feeling for victims. Millions sick, hundreds of thousands dead, economic disaster, massive unemployment, children’s education devastated, widespread psychological trauma. Controlling covid is the key to everything — but it’s now surging again to record levels, with the president still in denial and having no actual national plan. 

• Holding rallies and other gatherings without precautions, spreading the disease. Even at the White House, infecting numerous key officials. Including Trump himself, irresponsibly contaminating others (like Secret Service agents in a car for a pointless joyride). And still telling us covid is going away and is no big deal. As if we can all get the extraordinary medical treatment he did. 

• Threatening American democracy by undermining confidence in election results, refusing to accept them or to promise an orderly transfer of power. Instead sowing seeds for turmoil, trying to stop legitimate mail voting, with lies about fraud. His actual words: “Get rid of the ballots and we’ll have a very peaceful . . . There won’t be a transfer, frankly.” 

• Trying to sabotage the Postal Service to screw up mail voting and the whole election. 

• Encouraging an “army” of supporters to disrupt balloting and scare off voters. 

• Preparing for Republican-controlled state legislatures to override popular votes and appoint presidential electors for Trump regardless. 

• Voter suppression and intimidation, using every trick in the book to keep mainly Blacks from voting.  

• Trying to pervert the census for partisan advantage by adding a citizenship question, to reduce the count of Hispanics. Disallowed by the Supreme Court literally ruling it was based on a lie (i.e., that it was to help enforce the Voting Rights Act — which Trump’s administration has in fact been eviscerating). 

• Underfunding the census and ending it early, to ensure an undercount. Directing the exclusion of non-citizen residents, contrary to the constitution, and ruled illegal by federal courts. The aim of all this is to reduce political representation for targeted demographics and thus illegitimately boost Republican power. 

• At the border, seizing thousands of children away from parents, including babies and toddlers, with poor tracking so many will never be reunited. Caging them in appalling squalor. Lying this inhumanity was an Obama policy he stopped.

• Slashing our refugee quota by over 90%; but with new rules to make asylum effectively impossible.

• Sending suffering people lawfully seeking asylum back to other countries, or even politically repressive ones like Nicaragua where the regime will torture and kill them. This violates both U.S. and international law, which requires that asylum seekers have their cases heard before deportation. The inhuman cruelty of all this will stain America forever.

• Deporting parents of young children who are U.S. citizens.

• Even deporting underaged children, by themselves, just dumping them in Mexico and other countries with no adult help. 

• Canceling the DACA program which forestalled deportation of young adults brought here as children.  After the Supreme Court ruled that cancellation improper, flouting its decision by refusing to restore the program as before.

• Virtually halting even legal immigration. 

• All this immigration-bashing foolishly short-sighted, making us poorer economically (actually costing jobs), culturally, and morally. 

• Condoning racist and Neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville; “very fine people on both sides.”

• Leading promoter of the Obama “birtherism” lie; then lying that he was the one who stopped birtherism.

• Pardoning racist Sheriff Arpaio, convicted of defying court orders.

• Divisive comments threatening escalation of violence, regarding George Floyd protests. 

• Violent attack on peaceful protesters and journalists outside White House so he could walk to a church and pose with a Bible. 

• Militarized federal officers sent to Portland to attack and seize protesters, not stopping violence but instigating more of it. 

• Talking “law and order” in Kenosha while actually defending a teenaged pro-Trump vigilante who shot and killed two people. (Trump rants about “Antifa,” but 38 of 42 political-related killings last year were by right-wing extremists.) 

• Saying American-born members of Congress should “go back” to some other country.

• Slamming NASCAR for banning the Confederate flag. 

• Blocking the renaming of military bases named for Confederate generals. 

• Re-tweeting a video showing a supporter shouting “White power!” to which Trump added “Thank you.” Then lying about it. 

• Calling “Black Lives Matter” a “symbol of hate.”

• In debate, refusing to disavow white supremacists, like the Proud Boys hate group, telling them to “stand by.” 

• Yet lying that he’s the least racist of people.

• Telling a convention of policemen it’s good to rough up people arrested.

• Encouraging fans at his rallies to beat people up.

• “Drain the swamp?” An administration that’s a rogues gallery of corrupt lowlife creeps and incompetents.

• Hiding his income tax filings, lying that being under audit prevents disclosure. 

• Turns out he actually paid just $750 in income tax in 2016 and 2017; zero in ten of the 15 prior years. He’s also $421 million in debt, we don’t know to whom, and has previously hidden bank accounts in China and other countries.  

• Enacting a tax cut that’s mainly a giveaway to the wealthiest, and lying that it wouldn’t benefit him.

• Exploiting the presidency for personal gain (like actually billing the Secret Service for accommodations in his buildings while protecting him).

• A New York Times investigation found over 200 companies, special-interest groups, and foreign governments funneled millions into Trump’s properties while reaping benefits from him and his administration — “a system of direct presidential influence-peddling unrivaled in modern American politics.”

• “Grab them by the pussy.”

• Numerous credible accounts of sexual assault, including literal rape. 

• Illegal payoffs to porn stars to hush up adulteries. Lying about this.

• In Helsinki, accepting Putin’s lies against the conclusions of U.S. intelligence services that Russia subverted our 2016 election on Trump’s behalf.

• Firing FBI Director Comey because he wouldn’t bury the investigation of Russian meddling. Lying about the firing. 

• A new August 2020 Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee Report confirms major Russian interference in the 2016 election, with Trump’s campaign chief Manafort colluding with Russian intelligence operatives. 

• Falsely accusing U.S. law enforcement agencies of improperly investigating, and “spying on,” his campaign.

• Appointing Attorney General Barr who lied about what the Mueller report said. 

• Doing nothing about Russian subversion of 2020 election. Denying congressional access to information on the subject. 

• Political interference in Roger Stone case, pressuring DOJ to change its sentencing recommendation. And after even Barr said Stone’s prosecution was proper and the sentence fair, Trump nevertheless commuted his crony’s sentence — for criminally lying on Trump’s behalf. 

• Firing National Security Advisor Michael Flynn for lying, then saying Flynn was “treated very unfairly.”

• Justice Department dropping charges against Flynn, despite his pleading guilty for lying to the FBI. 

• Justice Department firing U.S. Attorney Berman in New York, after falsely announcing he’d resigned. Berman was investigating Trump associates. 

• Justice Department assuming Trump’s defense in a private lawsuit regarding a rape allegation, putting taxpayers on the hook for legal costs and even for any liability.

• Pressuring Justice Department, weeks before the election, to bring charges against political opponents (including Clinton, Obama, Biden) for fantastical imaginary crimes.

• Undermining military discipline by pardoning soldiers court-martialed and convicted of war crimes.

• Insulting war hero John McCain.

• Insulting Khizr Khan, whose U.S. soldier son was killed in Iraq.

• Reliably quoted saying soldiers killed and wounded are “losers” and “suckers,” those who fought in Vietnam should have gotten out of it like he did, and he couldn’t understand why anyone would choose the military over money-making. 

• Tweeting “All talk, no action” about Congressman John Lewis — whose skull was fractured at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. 

• Covering for Saudi ruler’s murder of critic Kashoggi.

• Congratulating Philippine President Duterte’s handling of a drug problem — by having thousands murdered.

• Claiming a love affair with murderous North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

• Telling China’s Xi Jinping that putting a million Uighurs into concentration camps for trying to practice their religion is “the right thing to do.” 

• Saying Xi’s eliminating presidential term limits is a great idea that we should try. 

• Betraying our Kurdish allies by enabling Turkish dictator’s invasion of their northern Syria territory.

• Leaking sensitive classified information to the Russian ambassador right in the White House.

• Ignoring intelligence that Russia offered the Taliban bounties for killing U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Lying that he didn’t know about it.

• Fawning over other dictators while insulting our democratic allies.

• Economically ruinous trade war with China, costing more jobs than it saves (because U.S. manufacturers must pay more for inputs), costing U.S. consumers billions in higher prices (estimated to average nearly $1300 per household), and costing taxpayers billions to counter part of the damage to farmers. Lying that it’s China paying. 

• Boasting of a great economy (which he inherited from Obama, and which his covid incompetence destroyed). But Trump’s term really just proves that if you mortgage our future by pumping a trillion a year of federal deficit spending into the economy, the economy will look good.  

• Remember his campaign promise to balance the budget and eliminate the deficit? Ha ha.  

• Pulling out of Iran deal, thus speeding Iran’s path to nuclear weapons and destabilizing the region.

• Pulling out of Paris climate accord (America now the only significant nation outside it).

• Shutting down the government because Congress wouldn’t fund his wall.

• Funding his wall by pilfering from the military budget.

• Lying that Mexico would pay for the wall.

• Lying that Obama bugged his campaign.

• Lying about his inauguration crowd size.

• Lying about seeing New Jersey Muslims celebrating 9/11.

• Praising and parroting conspiracy monger Alex Jones, who persecuted grieving Sandy Hook parents by calling them actors in a phony school shooting cooked up by the government, among numerous other insane delusions.

• Praising the “QAnon” conspiracist network (considered a domestic terrorism threat by the FBI), and retweeting QAnon content hundreds of times. The group, among other things, accuses Trump opponents of pedophilia and baby eating.

• Retweeting that President Obama’s administration didn’t kill Bin Laden, but a body double, and shot down a Navy Helicopter, killing Seal Team members, to cover it up.

• Supporting the candidacy of pedophile Roy Moore.

• Accusing a critic, TV commentator Joe Scarborough, of a murder that never happened. 

• Pledging to protect healthcare for pre-existing conditions while his administration was in court seeking to end it.

• For years promising to replace Obamacare with a better program but never coming up with any. 

• Illegally withholding military aid to our ally Ukraine, trying to use the aid to bribe/extort its president into smearing Biden.

• Trying to cover it up, lying about it, and defying lawful Congressional subpoenas for testimony and documents about it.

• Punishing government officials who told the truth about it. 

• Calling journalists “enemies of the people” for reporting truth he doesn’t like.

• Subverting security clearance procedures for family members.

• His “business” history of multiple bankruptcies leaving others holding the bag after he skimmed off assets.

• While routinely refusing to pay his bills, resulting in literally thousands of lawsuits.

• Inheritance tax fraud, documented by the NY Times.

• The “Trump University” fraud for which he paid a $25 million settlement.

• His “charitable foundation” fraud, resulting in a multimillion dollar settlement, and his being legally barred from the charitable field altogether. 

• Contributions to his “charity” diverted to his political campaign, and even to buy a portrait of himself. 

• Siphoning off money contributed to his campaign (like the $55,000 it paid to Trump for copies of his own book).

• His own longtime “fixer” Michael Cohen told Congress Trump is a “a racist . . . a con man . . . a cheat.”

• Employing 200 illegal immigrants in building Trump Tower.

• Found guilty by a federal judge of conspiring to avoid payment of union pension contributions for those workers. 

• Paying someone to take the SAT test for him. 

• By his own account, spending most of his White House time watching TV (almost all Fox) while refusing to read briefing papers. 

• Destroying the staffing and morale of the State Department, crippling America’s overseas diplomacy and influence.

• Governing only for his supporters, not the rest of America. 

• Literal insanity; severe narcissistic personality disorder; depraved indifference to anyone but himself; a sociopath. Confirmed by his own sister and professional psychologist niece in the latter’s book. 

• Over 22,000 documented lies in addition to those noted above; a war on the concept of truth itself.

• Foreigners see all this, and admiration for America has plummeted. Foreign leaders play him like a fiddle with flattery, laughing behind his back. A recent global poll showed more people now look to China for leadership.

• In countless additional ways degrading America’s dignity and political and civic culture; empowering racists, enflaming people’s worst instincts and tribal divisiveness; undermining our democratic values, governmental accountability, and rule of law; undermining our global leadership, our network of international alliances, and the cooperative rules-based world order America hugely invested in building since World War II, which has been a bulwark of our national security and prosperity. All together, shredding the principles and ideals America used to stand for.

Nothing here is fake news, lies, hoaxes, smoke, or BS. But facts, truth, reality. Maybe you can rationalize away some of it. But all of it? 

Joe Biden is a decent, honest, compassionate, conscientious man. Caring about others. A man of great integrity, intelligence, and deep experience. Who genuinely loves this country and its people. Who built his long distinguished career as a political moderate, a man of the center. Who builds bridges, not burns them. Who is sane.

Trump tries to smear him with lies, as some doddering old fool, corrupt, a tool of extremists, who will destroy the country. All ridiculous. Idiotic. Disgusting. That’s who Trump is. 

This election is about far more than policies or issues. It’s about what kind of country we are. America’s democracy and heart and soul. If you somehow imagine this a better country with Trump than Biden, I beg you to shine a searchlight into your own heart and soul. 

Vote for hope, not fear. Truth, not lies. Love, not hate. For democracy, not autocracy. For national reconciliation — not worsening tribal division. For plain simple decency and sanity.

American Dirt

August 25, 2020

Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt begins with a bang. Literally. A gunshot. Then a lot more.

It’s a quinceañera party, in Acapulco. The massacre’s cause: a newspaper reporter who wrote about a drug cartel boss. Eighteen die. Only his wife Lydia, and her heroic eight-year-old son Luca, escape. Knowing they’re hunted, they become migrants, heading for “El Norte” (America).

Lydia had owned a bookstore; formed a deep bond with a customer who’s a real book lover and (bad) poet. He was in love with her. He’s the cartel boss.

This was one of those books I had to put down every so often, to hold my head in my hands. Sometimes I had a hard time resuming. Had to remind myself, this is fiction. Yet knew, too, its reality.

Literature is about the human heart and soul. This book exemplifies it. From the first words, the reader confronts two human beings in extraordinary trauma, knowing they face a terrible ordeal ahead. Does it matter they’re Mexican?

For some it does. The book prompted a firestorm of criticism for “cultural appropriation.” How dare a white American write a novel depicting Mexicans? This doctrine of the politically correct woke left elevates identity politics to a new height. As if a violator steals something from whom they portray.

It first came to the fore with a painting in the Guggenheim Museum based on the famous Emmett Till open-casket photo, showing his mutilation. The artist’s intent was to spotlight the injustice. But she was white. Oops. Horrors. Not only were there demands for the painting’s removal. They wanted it destroyed.

There’s a spate of polemics calling upon whites to get past their whiteness, or some such incoherent notion. Demanding wokeness. What could be more woke than trying to evoke tears for Emmett Till? You’d think. But no. Destroy that painting.

I’ve discussed this before; also in reviewing Robert Boyers’s book The Tyranny of Virtue. The watchword is “stay in your lane.” Of course that doesn’t apply to non-white artists or writers portraying whites. But otherwise, Boyers points out, “stay in your lane” applied strictly would mean white writers limited to memoir only.

This is why I make a point of literature being about the human heart and soul. That’s what Cummins is engaged in — very powerfully. Had the “cultural appropriation” cops been always with us, we’d have scant literature altogether.

Stating the obvious, the novel’s characters are human beings. Just like you and me, with joys and sufferings just like ours — no, of course not, far deeper. Even reading this with stomach clenched, it wasn’t possible for me to get my head around their extreme experience.

These are the migrants Trump and his minions so despise. Dehumanizing those whose humanness far excels their own. Any one of those migrants, with the capabilities and grit to surmount all the horrible pitfalls, and actually make it to our border, puts to shame the Americans who hate them. Those migrants have qualities that make our country great. I wish we could swap out the one group for the other.

Of course this is the import of the book’s title. Many Americans call these people “dirt.” I thought it could also mean “American soil” — something confirmed near the end.

The book does spotlight that migrants entering America, instead of receiving Good Samaritan treatment, succor and sanctuary, are today met with yet more vicious cruelty. Their children confiscated — many toddlers, even babies — many likely never to be reunited with parents. Being thusly separated from Luca is a big fear for Lydia, once they do get across the border. I used to be so proud of my country. I look forward to that pride’s restoration. Though our humane new president will have his work cut out to unwind the vile policies put in by his predecessor — American Dirt.

No — not American. Just plain Dirt.

Also as shown in this book, what ruined Acapulco, and so much else in the world, is the insane war on drugs. Doing vastly more harm than it could ever prevent, even if it did stop drug use, which it cannot. When will this madness end?

Yet I am an optimist, a believer in progress. Grounded in most people being good. It’s not a faith; it’s empirical, based on an understanding of the scientific evolutionary reasons why it’s so, as well as a lifetime of experience. Some actors in this book are very bad indeed. But most are good. Throughout Lydia’s and Lucas’s ordeal, made gut-wrenching by those bad people, they encounter far more who are good. But for whom they’d be dead. It could almost be a fairy story.

On a lighter note — I visited Acapulco once. In 1973, when the very name connoted carefree tourism. Before the criminality that has almost destroyed the place. I went there with a girl on what was literally a blind date. But one crime did take place.

The much tonier hotel next to ours was the Club de Pesca. On a lark we snuck in there just to sit by the pool. A waiter came by; we ordered a little something. Later, bringing the bill, he said to just sign with our room number. So I did.

Ah, youth.

Belarus crisis

August 20, 2020

Belarus (once known as “White Russia;” capital Minsk) is a European former Soviet republic becoming independent with the USSR’s 1991 collapse. In 1994, Alexander Lukashenko was elected president. Has since ruled as a repressive dictator, with at least enough grudging popular support. But that has run out.

In the August 9 election, a chief opponent, a leading “vlogger,” was jailed to prevent his running. His wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, registered her substitute candidacy. Lukashenko dismissed her as a “poor little thing.” But her rallies attracted gigantic crowds.

Lukashenko won with 80% of the vote. Or so the regime announced. A more credible estimate, had the vote and count been fair, was 70% for Tikhanovskaya. She went to the electoral authority to complain. After hours of interrogation by the security forces, she made a hostage video (her husband still jailed, remember) conceding the election. Then they expelled her to Lithuania.

Massive protests erupted. Lukashenko’s goon squads responded with massive brutality. One might wonder why anyone would defend such a vile regime. But there are always guys who enjoy beating people up. And also people courageous enough to risk their lives.

Tikhanovskaya has returned. Lukashenko, defiant, refuses to give in and has ramped up the repression. Can he stick it out?

Some years ago I might have said no. In Egypt’s 2011 revolution, I predicted Mubarak’s fall — telling my daughter* “there is a tide in the affairs of men.” But what then seemed a democratic tide has since reversed. And Mubarak was not as vicious as Lukashenko.

Though I’d love to see Lukashenko get the Ceausescu treatment.

Next door to Belarus is Russia. Putin and Lukashenko have had a dicey relationship. But Putin of course hates revolutions against dictators.** Might his military help be invited? Or — might Putin send in troops uninvited, seizing an opportunity to declare Belarus in chaos and invading to “restore order.” But actually, of course, to annex Belarus. (His popularity bump from the 2014 Crimea grab having dissipated.)

This could thus become a very nasty explosive situation. So far, the U.S. has been sickeningly quiet about Belarus. What if Russia does invade? Trump might see this as his own opportunity, to posture as tough and forceful, for our own election. But that assumes sanity. And forgets Trump’s being in Putin’s pocket.

* Riveted by the Egyptian drama. This contributed to her winding up with a career in the Middle East.

** We’ve just learned that Putin’s chief critic, Alexei Navalny, is in intensive care, after what seems obviously another murder attempt. The list of murdered Putin opponents is very long.

One Child Nation: Chinese brutalism

August 3, 2020

Through most of the last century, China was very poor. Exacerbated by conflict and upheaval, and, for the Communist regime’s first three decades, its harebrained Maoist economic policies. When Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978, the new leadership saw China’s huge and growing population as a Malthusian threat, with limited resources being divided among ever more people. Thus the one-child policy.

Population hawks might consider this reasonable, even laudable. A documentary film, One Child Nation, by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang, has a different view.

First, a point not made in the film. Seeing the policy as desperately needed was a terrible misjudgment by the leaders. They were also opening up the economy. Perhaps they could not have foreseen how successful that would prove. Instead of a limited economic pie feeding an expanding populace, the pie grew much faster than population. And even with no measures to contain it, population growth would have slowed on its own due to the exploding prosperity. All over the world, as people become better off, they choose smaller families. Reasons include expecting fewer child deaths, not needing children’s work, and more education, especially for girls. In many nations birth rates have plunged dramatically. So China’s leaders were wrong to fear a Malthusian trap.

They may also have failed to realize that if people have opportunities to be productive, then more people are assets, not curses. It’s having too few that’s a curse. China now has a worker shortage. Those born before the one-child era are aging and retiring, and a generation of their replacements in the workforce was partly eliminated.

This has led to a long-overdue switch to a two-child policy. Previously there was relentless propaganda telling people that having more than one child was criminal. Now it’s abruptly changed to saying one is not enough. Yet despite recognizing this need for more births, they’re still enforcing a two-child limit. It doesn’t occur to the regime to just let people make their own choices.

The policy has had other bad effects. The Chinese have a deep-seated cultural preference for male children, for family continuity. Because girls join their husbands’ families, their offspring, as the film showed, are not even regarded as really grandchildren. So couples wanted their one child to be a boy. More about this later, but the result is a population with many more males than females. And millions of men unable to find wives. (Some are now being imported from other countries.) While another downside is that a family’s lone boy child tends to be raised as a spoiled princeling.

And the one-child policy made for an ugly brutalization of Chinese society. This was the film’s main focus.

Those inclined to applaud such a population control initiative may not think through what enforcement must entail. Many people don’t just say, “Oh, okay, only one.” Especially where contraception isn’t readily available.

The film highlighted how everyone regarded the policy as being “strictly” enforced. And among its enforcers a common refrain was “What could I do?” They saw no choice but to follow the policy, dictated from above. Regardless of the horrible things it required.

Like destroying possessions and even the homes of violators, in punishment. And forced abortions and sterilizations. One spoke of performing sterilizations on women dragged in trussed up like pigs, screaming in protest. Abortions would be imposed even at the very end of pregnancies. It was literal baby-killing, said one woman who did thousands of them. To atone, she now limits herself only to fertility treatments.

The already noted preference for boys meant many girls aborted when so identified by ultrasound. But, like contraception, that wasn’t always available. So if you birthed a girl, not wanting to thusly “waste” your one-child quota, you’d often get rid of her. One woman described leaving her child in a basket in a marketplace, hoping someone would take her. This ploy was very common, but few rescues ever occurred. The woman, checking back a few days later, found the baby still there, ravaged by mosquitos. She soon was dead.

Another gave hers to a trafficker. Then we saw an interview with a man who’d been China’s top trafficker, saying he’d handled 10,000 babies. Until busted. He, along with many family members, went to prison. Sounds pretty horrible. What actually happened to all those tots? He sold them to orphanages. And most were ones he simply found. Traveling along a road, there’d always be babies abandoned in baskets or boxes. The orphanages did a brisk business charging Americans large sums for adoptions (while falsifying documentation of where the kids came from).

Seemed to me that “trafficker” was more humanitarian than criminal. But the whole picture seemed downright crazy. Why not eliminate the middleman (and the horror of babies abandoned on roadsides) and simply let parents give their babes to orphanages? Mightn’t that be more rational and humane? But it would have undercut draconian enforcement of the policy.

Humaneness was certainly not its watchword. Nor is it in anything China’s Communist regime does. While the one-child policy has been ditched, the new two-child limit is still being enforced quite “strictly.” And in numerous other ways China’s regime under Xi Jinping has grown more viciously repressive. Such regimes, with ideologies notionally aimed somehow at human betterment, always seem willfully blind to the contradiction between that and their anti-human way of operating.

China has a long history of cultural refinement. Also a long history of brutality. For ordinary people, life was always quite harsh. That was actually long true of the whole world. Perhaps Chinese accepted the brutality of the one-child policy as merely what one should expect. But the really advanced nations have progressed greatly in that regard. We no longer accept such inhumanity as normal.

At the end, one of the filmmakers, now an American, remarked on the strangeness of going from a country with forced abortions to one often impeding abortions. Both restrict people’s ability to control their own lives.

In a larger view, our democratic system, with government far more accountable to citizens, does make for a more humane society. However, seeing China’s government in various ways depriving parents of their children reminded me that our own government has emulated that cruelty by confiscating children from parents at the border. I’d never imagined modern America perpetrating such an atrocity.

China crushes Hong Kong

July 10, 2020

I could not write this blog in China or Hong Kong. It would be erased from the web — and me along with it, thrown in jail.

When Britain agreed to hand Hong Kong back in 1997, China’s regime pledged Hong Kong would keep its culture of rule-of-law and civil liberties at least until 2047. The catchphrase was “one country, two systems.” (Admitting the other system didn’t entail rule of law or civil liberties.) China even promised to move Hong Kong toward freely electing its leader.

But then, inexorably, “one country, two systems” translated into “Ha ha, we lied.”

Thus the massive pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong last year. Many feared the Beijing regime would ultimately respond as it did at Tiananmen Square in 1989, with a bloodbath. I never thought so; it wasn’t necessary. They could just do nothing and wear the protesters down with intransigence. (They were never going to dialogue with Hong Kongers to reach some reasonable modus vivendi.)

Meantime, one might have imagined the protesters had some safety in numbers. The authorities couldn’t jail a million people, could they? Actually, they could — they did in Xinjiang.

Then Covid-19 seemed to resolve the situation. Fear of the virus, not violence, pretty much ended the protests. But that was not enough for the rulers in Beijing. In the spirit of Carthago delenda est, they now sprang on Hong Kong a draconian law criminalizing any and all political activism or criticism. This went way beyond what Hong Kongers had been protesting to forestall in the first place. Not even the territory’s toady local government was consulted. Now mainland authorities can reach into Hong Kong to enforce their law, in courts they create, operating in secret, with penalties up to life imprisonment. Indeed, victims can be whisked to China for trial where execution would be on the menu. And don’t imagine these would remotely resemble fair trials.

Xi Jinping is saying: One country, two systems, my ass.

Some leading democracy advocates were arrested right away. Just to drive the point home, it was some of the most moderate and respected of them. The rest got the message. Silence descended. One youthful elected pro-democracy legislator, Nathan Law, fled the country.

The new law even applies to foreigners. Good thing I’ve visited China and  Hong Kong before. I can’t now, I could be imprisoned for this blog post. I wouldn’t bet on the regime, pervasively riding herd on the internet, overlooking it.

The Beijing gang can act this way because there’s no constraint. That’s down to the mentality of the Chinese people. Those in Hong Kong have (had) a very different, Westernized mentality, but they’re just a tiny part of China. The rest, pumped up with xenophobic nationalist swagger, mostly side with the regime against the Hong Kongers, condemned as traitorous enemies. The Chinese accept a government treating them like children, where the basis for any rule is, “Because I said so.”

Some of us had imagined that, as China became a richer, more cosmopolitan, educated, advanced modern society, that mentality would change. There’s no sign of that happening. Maybe the Beijing regime is right after all when it derides “Western values” of democracy and human rights as alien to Chinese culture. Maybe the Chinese really are that different from us. Maybe in a century that can change. I hope so. Our way is better.

Is there anything we can do? In the short term, not really. But that shouldn’t mean we just shrug and let Beijing believe there is no price at all for its conduct. Even if we can’t make it pay a tangible price, the Chinese regime actually cares a lot about international legitimacy and respect; and that can be stripped away. There should have been strong coordinated condemnation of China from the world’s democracies led by America. But unfortunately America no longer leads the world’s democracies. Trump has openly expressed idolization of Xi Jinping, particularly for his authoritarianism. He told Xi that putting a million Uighurs in concentration camps was “exactly the right thing to do.” His posturing as “tough on China” is, like all things Trump, bullshit. The Economist has just run a devastating deconstruction of Trump’s fecklessness toward China, and his trade war’s stupidity. It is well worth reading: https://www.economist.com/united-states/2020/06/27/is-donald-trump-tough-on-china

We do need to deal strongly with China, but that requires a sane, honest, responsible president, who reads briefing papers and actually knows what he’s doing.

Tales of Bermania

July 8, 2020

Once traveling with my family through Philadelphia Airport, I encountered an acquaintance, and introduced my little daughter to him as the King of Bermania. I guess it made an impression on her young mind.

Fast forward a dozen years or so. She showed me a draft of her college application essay. About travel broadening one’s horizons or something. Mentioning how, in an airport, she’d once met a king. “Ahem, Elizabeth,” I said. “You see, that was actually . . . ”

Allen Berman. A fellow coin dealer. He also goes by Alanus I, King of Bermania. But that’s all in fun. Though it’s very elaborate fun. He’s held Bermanian fests at coin shows. (Remember those BC [before covid] times when we had coin shows?) Now he’s written a book about Bermania, Please Ignore Our Time Machine. He finagled me into buying a copy. At least it was cheaper than on Amazon.

As its opening explains, Bermania is a (very) small old kingdom somewhere in Eastern Europe; whose name does not actually derive from his own. It seems the land’s early inhabitants had a thing for lawn ornaments. One fellow displayed a large wooden bear. He became known as the “Bear man.” The rest, as they say, is history (explicated rather more verbosely in the book). And since Renaissance times, hawking “relics” of “the true bear” has been a Bermanian cottage industry.

But Bermania is a very small country indeed. Even smaller than Grand Fenwick. As the author notes, the kingdom avoided Napoleon’s armies by hiding behind a tree.

The book is basically a history of Bermania and its quasi-yiddische people. Interwoven with the history of Europe and indeed the rest of the world. For example, few people know that General Tso’s chicken is actually more a Bermanian dish than a Chinese one.

The stories are amusing. Perhaps not S.J. Perelman hilarious — but amusing. There’s mention of “[w]hen the famous flying saucer arrived in 654 A.D.” Note this was the famous one.

Numismatics is never far from the author’s mind. One of the stories concerns what are called royal touch-pieces. This was an actual thing, in pre-modern Britain, whose people believed a certain nasty illness (scrofula) was curable by the King’s touch. In connection with these touch ceremonies they minted coin-like “touch-pieces,” often holed and worn on a ribbon around the neck. In the case of Bermania, the malady to be cured was glumness, the monarch administering the remedy of jokes and ticklings. So the Bermanian equivalent of the touch-piece was the tickle-token. Allen had restrikes made; some years ago he gave me one with the request that I carry it in my pocket so eventually he could see what it would look like with natural circulation wear. This was pure Allen. Actually, I didn’t know why he couldn’t do it himself; but flattered by this royal trust, I have performed it faithfully till the present day.

The picture shows the worn one from my pocket. Note the angel is not spearing the dragon but tickling it with a feather. As always, I try to thoroughly research my blog posts, so I went to Google Translate to get the technical meaning of the Latin word “placebo.” Google helpfully translated it as “placebo.”

After WWII, like several countries in its neighborhood, Bermania suffered Communist occupation. Then there was the “fig revolt” in the ’70s, resulting in a delegation of Bermanian dignitaries dispatched to Bridgeport, Connecticut, their archaic costumes causing them to be initially mistaken for trick-or-treaters confused about the calendar. They may also have been confused about Bermanian royal genealogy. The book unfortunately omits detailing the Bridgeport connection. In any case, these Bermanian emissaries were under the impression that a 14-year-old kid there was the rightful heir to the throne. This was Allen, later Alanus I. (Earlier Bermanian monarchs had much sillier names.)

Alanus, like all Bermanian kings, has ruled with a light touch. So light in fact that when Bermanian meshuginauts landed on the moon, in 2013, nobody told him. He learned of it later from Edward Snowden.

Still and all, humanity has outgrown monarchical government. Bermania should become a democratic republic.

Ethics of humanitarian and development efforts: problems versus symptoms

July 1, 2020

My daughter Elizabeth, 27, has worked for five years in the Mid-East for humanitarian organizations, currently for a consultancy much involved in Afghanistan. Wonderful, you might say. She herself is less sure — always engaging in critical self-scrutiny.

There’s much literature criticizing the whole foreign aid and development landscape, the road to Hell being paved with good intentions. Much aid has wound up serving to strengthen dictators. Other downsides may be less obvious. Send aid directly to schools and you relieve government of that expense so it can spend more on, say, weapons. Send used clothing and you undermine a nation’s own garment industry. And so forth.

Elizabeth and I have discussed such issues as relating to my own support for a Somaliland education project. Her thing is trying to find what actually works best in the context of a local culture and its idiosyncrasies. She’s troubled that the project was started by a rich white guy who went there with good intentions but scant local knowledge. She pointed me to a sardonic short story in the voice of an African employed by some sappy do-gooder Americans who created a program actually accomplishing nothing. But I was moved by the proven success of the one in Somaliland.

The words “white savior” come up. We’re told to worry instead about problems closer to home. But Africans are no less my fellow humans than those across the street. And their problems tend to be much the greater, with resources to tackle them far smaller. I don’t see myself as a white savior; hopefully, a human contributor.

That makes me feel good. Is my Somaliland involvement really an attempt to buy myself those feelings? We’re actually programmed by evolution to feel good when doing good, it’s a mechanism to promote such behavior, thereby aiding group survival. So is there any such thing as true selfless altruism? But I’d maintain we are what we do. The doer of a good deed doesn’t delude himself believing he’s altruistic — he is in fact behaving altruistically. And his motivation is immaterial to the other beneficiaries of his action.

Elizabeth recently wrote a blog essay concerning the Oscar-winning film Learning to Skateboard in a Warzoneabout an NGO project for Afghan girls — and an Al Jazeera article, Skateboarding Won’t Save Afghan girls. The latter contends the program just covers up the country’s problems, which it blames on “centuries of ruthless Western military and political intervention.” The skateboarding is likened to “palliative care” that makes dying patients feel better without curing them. The article invokes the “white savior” trope, and says the program and film “decontextualize” the girls’ lives, presenting them as “ideal victims for pity.” While making “Westerners feel good about” the Afghan war “which ‘liberated’ girls and women and gave them opportunities their own society would never have afforded them.”

Why put “liberated” in snide quote marks? America’s intervention did liberate them, did give them opportunities the article actually correctly characterizes. Though obviously Afghanistan’s problems were not all solved. Is that really the bar for judging any project’s worth?

Elizabeth says the real question is whether a program like the skateboarding —which does have real benefits — comes at the cost of other initiatives, which might have larger impacts. “Should we address the problems, or the symptoms of the problems — or both?”

She cites a book, Winners Take All, by Anand Giridharadas, arguing that the business world is too focused on symptoms rather than underlying problems — and indeed those so focused are the very people benefiting from the system that perpetuates the problems. Giridharadas cites the example of a phone app to help people with “unpredictable employment” to even out their incomes. Which he characterizes as a symptom of the real problem, an economic system making unpredictable employment so common — a system he says the app’s developers themselves helped create and benefit from.

Seriously? As if they somehow calculatingly orchestrated the whole global economic structure just so they could profit from the app? And does Giridharadas have a workable solution to the underlying problem he sees? No, he just wants other people to simply forgo their self-interest. Thanks a lot.

Casting the problem as the fault of villains is a kind of scapegoating all too prevalent (particularly in the left-wing economic perspective). But those who profit by hiring people for temporary work enable those employees to earn money by creating goods and services whose buyers value them above what they pay. Seems win-win-win to me. Not rendered villainous because Giridharadas imagines some fantasy world in which people’s earnings are divorced from the economic value their work creates. (I suggest the result would actually be a nightmare world.)

Elizabeth too largely disagrees with Al Jazeera and Giridharadas. She sees nothing wrong with addressing “symptoms” — while also working on “problems” — which may take decades if not centuries. These are not mutually exclusive. No reasonable person could view the skateboard film and think all Afghanistan’s problems are solved. Indeed, she considers it important to spotlight such successes. Whereas moralistic symptoms-versus-problems dichotomizing can make doing what’s merely feasible seem pointless.

Elizabeth’s main concern is with the impact one’s actions can achieve, and thus whether to target “problems” or “symptoms” — the “policy level” versus the “personal level.” But as for what any individual can do, she interestingly invokes the concept of “comparative advantage.” That’s an economics doctrine saying a nation gains from trading whatever it’s best at producing, even if other nations can produce that thing better. Applying it here would mean doing what one is best equipped or positioned to do. Better to have a modest success than an over-ambitious failure. But she also suggests a third option: start small and strive to scale up.

I think Al Jazeera’s analogy to palliative care is also fatuous moralizing. One is not usually able to achieve big-picture solutions. But regardless of what level you’re looking at, what matters is quality of life — for the many, or a few, as may be. Every one counts. Every improvement counts. Inability to go big doesn’t negate the value of the small. A cancer patient may not be cured but meantime palliating the pain is worth doing. Likewise for the Afghan skateboarding girls.

No individual can “solve” the kinds of big problems at issue. All one can do is what helps as much as one can. A lot of people doing that helps a lot.

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.