Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

Of babies and bathwater

January 15, 2018

Libertarians tend to be skeptical toward government because it too often uses sledgehammers to kill ants, throws babies out with bathwater, and punishes the many for the sins of a few. (Like TSA, incapable of smart targeting, punishes all air travelers; confiscating, because of some past liquid bomb plot, the coffee bottle my wife forgot was in her bag.)

Advocates of free market economics do not actually call for “unfettered” capitalism. Just like we’re all subject to laws against jaywalking and murder, etc., the same principle applies to businesses, to protect us from harm. But there can be too much of a good thing.

India is a clear lesson, having suffered, since independence, from its founders’ infatuation with the idea of socialism, producing an excess of government and regulation. It’s been called the “Licence Raj.” Whatever notional harm this thicket of rules supposedly protected the public against, that was far outweighed by suffocating the economy and thereby keeping Indians a lot poorer than they need have been. (Another sardonic Indian expression for this was “the Hindu rate of growth.”) Thankfully, India started undoing all this after a 1991 financial crisis, and Narendra Modi’s government, elected in 2014, promised to do more to let business do business.

But two recent episodes show that India hasn’t unlearned its bad habits.

Government’s main economic role should not be constraining businesses, but facilitating them, by creating the conditions for commerce to thrive. For example, a sound judicial system wherein legal disputes can be fairly and efficiently resolved. Another critical role is providing a money supply, the lubricant of commerce.

Modi’s government thought it had a problem with tax-evading business people hiding cash. Maybe it did. Its answer was an attempt to catch them out by invalidating, on short notice, the highest value banknotes — 86% of the money in circulation! Economic chaos ensued with citizens queuing for hours outside banks trying to exchange their old notes — with strict limits — for new ones that were in short supply — prompting a mad scramble to find other ways to buy, sell, and get paid. While many poor people lost savings.

Punishing the many for the sins of a few; a sledgehammer to kill an ant; a baby thrown out with bathwater. (Meantime, it doesn’t even seem that black marketeers were inconvenienced much. Unsurprisingly, they found ways around the restrictions.)

Now a second Indian tale. Another problem is rampant car crashes, often caused by drunk driving. India’s latest brilliant answer: a Supreme Court ruling barring alcohol sales within 500 meters (about 1500 feet) of a state or national highway. Location near a highway used to be advantageous for such businesses. No longer. Indeed, the ruling could potentially close 100,000 bars, costing a million jobs.

Punishing drunk driving makes sense. Punishing an entire legitimate industry– indeed, the entire country — does not. More sledgehammers and ants; babies and bathwater. The victims of this insanity also include state and local governments, which stand to lose billions in alcohol taxes. But many are taking evasive action, by hastily reclassifying state highways into district or municipal roads. Some wags say the true reading of the new rule is “No road shall be classified as a highway within 500 meters of a bar.”

Maybe India will next literally require throwing out babies with bathwater. As a population control measure, of course.

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The Soul of the First Amendment

November 27, 2017

How far should free speech go?

Floyd Abrams is the country’s leading First Amendment lawyer. I bought his book, The Soul of the First Amendment, at the recent symposium on the post-truth culture (mainly for the opportunity to shake his hand).

The book’s introduction discusses my favorite painting: Norman Rockwell’s Freedom of Speech (in his “Four Freedoms” series). If not an artistic masterpiece, it’s a gem of conveying an idea that’s very dear to me. Abrams explains that it illustrates an actual event Rockwell witnessed, at a Vermont town meeting. The speaker was a lone dissenter against a popular proposal. He’s an ordinary working class Joe. A telling detail is the paper protruding from his pocket. It suggests he’s not talking through his hat, but has gathered some information — a point of particular resonance today. And even more so is the painting’s other key feature — the respectful listening by the man’s fellow citizens. For me this painting captures America — and civilization — at its best.

Freedom of speech in America is enshrined by the First Amendment — “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech or of the press . . . .” (The Fourteenth Amendment made it applicable against state governments too.) A key point of the book is how unique this actually is, not only in history, but in today’s world. In fact, no other country so exalts the inviolability of free speech. All others subject it to varying restrictions. And mostly they involve what are basically political concerns — the very sphere wherein freedom of expression is actually the most consequential.

People have been jailed in Europe for the crime of Holocaust denial. That is, advocating a certain interpretation of history. Europe also has many laws against “hate speech,” quite broadly (if vaguely) defined. Abrams cites a Belgian member of parliament prosecuted for distributing leaflets calling for a “Belgians and European First” policy, sending asylum seekers home, and opposing “Islamification.” His sentence included a ten year disqualification from holding office. It was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights! And such a case is not unusual in Europe. Actress Brigitte Bardot was fined 15,000 Euros for writing a letter objecting to how French Muslims ritually slaughter sheep.

America is a free speech paradise in comparison not only to such other places, but to our own past. The First Amendment actually played almost no role in our law and culture until around the mid-20th century. Abrams cites a 1907 Colorado episode. A lame-duck governor, defeated for re-election, exploited a newly passed law to pack the state supreme court with judges who thereupon ruled that he’d actually won the election. A newspaper published an editorial criticizing this ruling. The Colorado court held the editor in contempt. And that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion written by the famed Oliver Wendell Holmes.

The idea underlying all these cases is that rights are never absolute, being always subject to a balancing against the public interest. I myself have written that the Second Amendment’s “right to keep and bear arms” does not mean you can possess howitzers or nuclear weapons. And freedom of religion doesn’t cover human sacrifice. So it’s similarly argued that freedom of speech and press must be balanced against other public goods, and may sometimes be required to give way.

Abrams argues, however, that the First Amendment’s language, absolute on its face, reflects its authors having already performed such a balancing. The benefits to society, to the kind of polity they aspired to create, of unfettered freedom of expression were balanced against what public good might otherwise be promoted. And in that balancing, freedom of expression won out, being found the weightier. It’s more important to have a society with such freedom than, for example, one where religious sensibilities are protected from insult — or where judges are shielded from editorial criticism. That’s why we have the First Amendment, and why it actually does not permit the kind of balancing underlying that 1907 Colorado case. Justice Holmes himself came to repent his decision there, dissenting in similar future cases, and eventually the Court overturned its Colorado ruling.*

As Abrams stresses, the issues raised by the Belgian and Colorado cases go to the heart of the matter: free expression with regard to issues of public concern. This is crucial for meaningful democracy, which requires open debate and dissemination of information, with contesting advocates each subjecting the other’s views to critical scrutiny. Without that, voting itself is meaningless.

The exact same considerations were central to a case Abrams argued before the Supreme Court, which he discusses. He there contended that the government, because of the First Amendment, may not criminalize distribution of a film critical of a presidential candidate. (I quoted Abrams about it on this blog.) He won the case. And given our common understanding of free speech in America, that might seem a no-brainer.

The case was Citizens United, where the movie in question had corporate funding. Abrams is unrepentant and defends the Court’s decision, which has been ferociously assailed for affirming that businesses have the same rights to free speech and public advocacy that individual citizens have, and for allowing them to spend money in such endeavors. Abrams rejects the effort to make a distinction between money and speech, arguing that no right can be meaningful without the concomitant right to spend your money in its exercise. And he insists that businesses, being part of society, must have the right to participate in public debate.

Abrams cites here a case in which Nike was accused of corporate misdeeds and sought to rebut the charges with press releases and publications. For that, the company was sued in California state court under a consumer protection law barring false advertising and the like. The real issue was whether the First Amendment protects Nike’s freedom of speech. When the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, the New York Times submitted a brief which Abrams quotes: “businesses and their representatives have just as much a right to speak out on any public issue as do interest groups and politicians . . . .” And because issues concerning businesses “are increasingly fundamental to the world’s social and political landscape, the withdrawal of corporate voices on those issues from the media would deprive the public of vital information.” Abrams deems the newspaper’s stance there starkly at odds with the position it later took on Citizens United, where the issue was really the same. Issue advocacy, and backing candidates for office, stand on identical ground as far as the First Amendment is concerned.

For me personally, all this is not abstract, but essential to my being. Abrams discusses the landmark case of Times v. Sullivan, which particularly protects criticism of public officials. That saved my butt in 1973 when I was sued for millions by guys whose misconduct I mentioned in a book on local politics. I love the freedom to express myself like that, and in this blog. I’ve been called fearless but the fact is, in America, there’s nothing to fear. In most other places blogging like mine requires a courage I probably don’t have. People literally risk their lives, and some have been killed.

Abrams notes Europe’s “right to be forgotten,” with search engines being required to erase true information about people when requested, such as reports on criminal convictions. I blogged about this in 2009 (again quoting Abrams), when two convicted German murderers, Wolfgang Werle and Manfred Lauber, sued to erase their names from Wikipedia. In defiance of that affront to freedom of information, I made a point of putting their names in my blog post, and do so again here. God bless America and the First Amendment!

* Yet even this right isn’t actually absolute. The First Amendment doesn’t protect libel or slander, child pornography, or shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater (as the same Justice Holmes famously explained).

The indictments

October 31, 2017

Paul Manafort, who was chairman of Trump’s campaign, made millions from some of the world’s worst villains (like the murderer Putin), advising them how to crush opposition. Why they’d hire this creep is beyond me. Manafort did such a great job advising Ukraine’s Yanukovich that Yanukovich wound up having to flee the country. (The revolt against him was what triggered the Russian invasion.)

Manafort’s dirty work might actually have been legal — had he done it on the up-and-up. But he is charged with failing to file the disclosures and reporting required for such work, with money laundering of his fees, and dodging income tax on them. Also for conspiracy against the United States — undermining America’s national interests.

This is who Trump chose to run his campaign, and continued to praise as a wonderful fellow.

Now the White House claims the charges against Manafort are ancient history, predating the campaign. In fact Manafort’s sleazy work continued long after. Anyway, the line also goes, the indictments have nothing to do with the campaign itself, or its collusion with Russia. That too is a lie. In fact, George Papadopoulos* was indicted for lying to the feds about his campaign-related contacts with Russians. He has pled guilty.

The White House falsely says Papadopoulos was merely a low level “volunteer.” (Press Secretary Sanders used the word 14 times.) Papadopoulos’s guilty plea states that he served the Trump campaign as a foreign policy adviser. (The evidence corroborates this.)

Watch for a ferocious smear campaign against Special Counsel Mueller.

The other line, of course, is Hillary! Hillary! Witch! That she’s the real culprit. This would be risible if so many fools didn’t fall for it. Hillary (I was no fan) did some wrong things, but on the whole served the nation honorably and with distinction, upholding its fundamental values. Trump’s whole life story is nothing but wrong things, he serves nobody but himself, he dishonors the nation, and trashes its values.

Will Trump pardon these creeps? I doubt it. He pardoned Arpaio just to score political points with his most retrograde fans. There’s no political gain in pardoning Manafort & company. He’ll throw them under the bus.

* Greece had a military dictator with that name. Coincidence?

The Iran Deal — more Trump destructivism

October 13, 2017

Must I address every Trump atrocity? (Actually I don’t, it’s impossible; I haven’t discussed the NFL nonsense.) But I feel a civic duty to call out truly bad stuff.

Even The Great Liar can’t say Iran actually violated the nuclear deal, to justify trashing it. Instead his fig leaf is to claim it somehow harms U.S. security interests. But that too is a great lie. What does harm our security interests is trashing the deal.

Iran is a bad actor in many ways, yes. But the deal at issue is limited to just the nuclear program. Will undoing it make Iran a better global citizen? Certainly not; to the contrary, it will remove any leverage we have over Iran, and thus any constraints on its behavior. Is that in our national security interest?

It’s argued the deal was a bad one because it won’t stop Iran’s nuclear program. But the whole point was instead to slow the program, subject it to international inspection, and buy time. That was the best we could achieve; Iran would never agree to give up its nuclear ambitions entirely. Those who criticize the deal offer no plausible path to a better one. While undoing the deal will free Iran to go full speed ahead to a bomb, with no international inspections or other restraints. Is that in our national security interest?

But it gets worse. The Iran deal represented the kind of American leadership Trump refuses to understand. We led the international coalition of nations joining in this effort. Those others strongly support the deal. What will they think if we wreck it, reneging on the deal we had committed to? Will they look to us for leadership in the future? Will anyone make any deals with a nation that can’t be trusted to fulfill them? Or was that not covered in The Art of the Deal?

Remember the term “rogue nation?” I used to bristle when anti-Americans turned it against us. It was untrue before; but now, alas, it is true.

Abdicating America’s global leadership role leaves a void that Russia and China are all too eager to fill.

Is that in our national security interest?

Trump’s action quite simply makes no sense (except, of course, pandering to his know-nothing base). However, in typical Trump fashion, there’s less here than meets the eye — yet another in the unending saga of Trump flim-flams. It doesn’t actually tear up the Iran deal. Instead it bucks the issue over to Congress, to restore sanctions. But even if Congress does nothing, that won’t repair the grave damage to America’s international credibility and standing.

101 Stumbles in the March of History

September 19, 2017

This 2016 book, by Bill Fawcett, is a compendium of historical might-have-beens. Decisions and choices the author deems mistakes, along with speculation about how differently subsequent history might have unfolded. He’s fond of saying, “It would have been a hundred times better if . . . .”

One could read this and conclude that people — even great personages — are screw-ups. But two things must be kept in mind. First, history encompasses zillions of decisions and choices people made. Finding among them 101 mistakes is all too easy. Especially if (second point) you use 20-20 hindsight. I recall how Gibbon, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, loved applying the word “rash” to actions that turned out badly. Fawcett, in contrast, especially in military situations, often castigates undue timidity. Dumb rashness versus admirable boldness may be discernible after the fact, when we know how things turned out. It may not have been so clear at the time when the decision had to be made, often on the fly, without a crystal ball. And all too often the outcome hinged not so much on how smart the decider was, how rash or prudent, but how lucky.

For each “mistake,” Fawcett spins a counter-factual history, typically seeing a modern world surprisingly different, and usually better. These stories I found pretty laughable in their details; too facile and pat. History is messy. If one thing comes through from this book, it’s how contingent history is. Change any detail about the past, even a small one (“for want of a horseshoe nail . . .”), and the difference may well cascade through time, an historical “butterfly effect.” (The idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in, say, Brazil, can cause a storm in Canada.) And the law of unintended consequences is powerful. The results from changing something about the past might have confounded our expectations, good or bad, however logical those expectations might seem.

So one can never know what the final outcome of any action will be. Supposedly, Chinese Foreign Minister Chou En-lai, when asked about the impact of the French Revolution, replied “Too soon to tell.”

I’ve always been highly cognizant of contingency in life. I’ve written about this — how different, for example, my own subsequent life would have been, if I hadn’t happened to walk on a particular street at a particular minute on April 1, 1975. Several other people’s lives would be dramatically different too! (I can think of at least five offhand, two of whom wouldn’t even exist.) And that walk was only one link in a complex chain of consequential contingencies.

It’s customary in book reviews to cite at least one fact (usually minor) the author flubbed, to show off the reviewer’s erudition. This book is actually shot through with sloppy mistakes, often dates. Andrew Johnson was sworn in as vice president in 1865, of course, not 1864. Et cetera.

But here is one fascinating historical might-have-been, in the book. Why didn’t the Confederacy make military use of slaves? They had millions! In fact, it was proposed to offer freedom for serving in the army. It could have doubled Southern forces. And it was done, but only at war’s end, too little and too late. The fact was that the rebs were just too racist and contemptuous of blacks to stomach the idea of fighting alongside them. Even if it might have won the war. (Probably not; but you never know, history is messy.)

The last item in the book is something I myself, at the time, did see as a stupendous blunder: disbanding Iraq’s army in 2003. But at least two other recent biggies are inexplicably omitted (mistakes by Fawcett himself):

For 2000, he gives us Blockbuster’s refusal to partner with Netflix. Yet a vastly more consequential error that year was Yasser Arafat’s rejection of a very generous peace deal. It was all too foreseeable that immense evil would flow from this.

In a similar category was Obama’s 2013 decision to punt to Congress on punishing Syria for crossing his chemical weapons red line. Hearing his announcement, I could scarcely believe its stupidity.

Perhaps coming too late for inclusion were two epochal 2016 blunders. One was Britain’s Brexit vote. The resulting mess seems to grow daily. So deeply has Britain’s politics been poisoned that The Economist now sees the unthinkable as almost inevitable: Red Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister. Goodbye, mother country.

The other of course was our own 2016 vote — which America’s future Gibbon will surely label “rash.”

Moving pictures, Myanmar, and Rohingyas

September 12, 2017

My masthead declares me an optimist but a rationalist. Humanity is on an upward path, but nothing is ever simple, it’s strewn with pitfalls. Seeming triumphs often sour.

I keep an imaginary “rogues gallery” — pictures of the world’s worst villains. Whenever I can draw a big black “X” across one of those faces, it gives me great satisfaction. But unfortunately those seem outnumbered by newly added faces.

And alas my gallery of heroes* is much the smaller one. Villainy is far easier than heroism. The latter, of course, requires courage, a willingness to do right at personal risk or cost. That’s rare. (I don’t know how courageous I’d be if really tested.)

But especially rare — and sad — is moving a picture from that gallery to the other.

Aung San Suu Kyi has certainly been heroic. Read my 2012 blog post about her. Myanmar’s (Burma’s) vile military regime long kept her under house arrest. When finally allowing free elections, the generals first stipulated, in the constitution, that no one married to a foreigner could be president. Suu Kyi’s late husband was British. But after her party swept the elections, she installed a placeholder president and created for herself a new position from which to run things.

So nominally at least Aung San Suu Kyi is now, at long last, Myanmar’s leader. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! He chortled in his joy.

But I say “nominally” because Myanmar’s military was unwilling to cede all power. A familiar story: not only do those in power enrich themselves by it, they dare not relinquish it and expose themselves to comeuppance for their crimes. So Myanmar’s military-written constitution leaves the army with great power, outside civilian control.

The Rohingyas are a despised Muslim minority in mostly Buddhist Myanmar, concentrated in remote Rakhine state. Most Burmese see them as illegal immigrants, despite living there for generations. They’ve been persecuted since the ’80s. Now it’s become a genocidal progrom, the army using insurgent attacks as a pretext for a mass rampage of rape, burning, and killings, apparently aiming to eliminate the Rohingyas from Myanmar. Local Rakhine Buddhists have joined in the violence (and you thought Buddhists were peaceful). At least a couple hundred thousand Rohingyas have fled, under appalling conditions, to nearby Bangladesh.

And where is Suu Kyi in all this? Nowhere.

Before the election, her silence was understandable, even defensible, so the explosive Rohingya issue would not derail the transition to democracy. And even now, she doesn’t really call the shots, governing only on the army’s sufferance. She does not command it. It’s perhaps even conceivable that a clash with the army over its Rohingya atrocities could provoke a coup, ending Myanmar’s new hard-won (quasi) democracy. One can’t be heroic all the time. Maybe she’s acting prudently; “discretion is the better part of valor.”

But “[t]the time for such delicacy is past,” The Economist writes. “Democracy is of little worth if it entails mass displacement and slaughter.”

That’s happened too many times. We say “never again,” but somehow always let it happen again. When the 1994 Rwanda genocide erupted, Bill Clinton worked mightily at the UN — to block any response. It would have been just too hard, messy, and politically hazardous. So is it always.

So it may be for Suu Kyi. But this is her greatest test. The Economist notes that even if lacking legal authority, she “retains immense moral authority.” If her life has true meaning, she must act now. Come what may.

I hate to move pictures. This one would be especially painful.

*When I was a teenager, besotted with politics, that gallery was literal, with framed signed photos of my idols. I cringe recalling some of them now. One, in more mature perspective, certainly belonged in the other gallery . . . . We grow up.

Good news from Kenya

September 2, 2017

Did you hear the big news from Kenya? Its Supreme Court annulled the president’s re-election. And he accepted it.

Africa’s post-colonial history has been mostly a sorry tale of “big men” ruling tyrannically, with massive corruption. Such bad governance has been the key factor keeping most Africans poor. But positive change has been happening in many places.

I wrote recently of The Gambia, whose president lost an election, and was persuaded to go by neighboring countries sending troops to push him. Now Kenya’s story is another unprecedented milestone.

Kenyatta

Kenyan politics is rumbustious and very tribal. The 2007 elections instigated horrible violence. Corruption has been huge. The latest vote was a rematch between President Uhuru Kenyatta (son of Kenya’s first president) and Raila Odinga (son of its first VP). Days before the election, the guy in charge of its computer systems was murdered by torture. Kenyatta had been tipped to win, but his margin exceeded expectations. Odinga cried foul, charging a massive hack of the election system. But, despite some obvious irregularities, a team of international observers gave the election a passing grade.

Odinga. Take your pick

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court upheld Odinga’s challenge and voided the election. Kenyatta blasted the ruling, yet (probably confident of winning the re-vote) said he would accept it. This seems to be a first for Africa.

I hope (but doubt) our own president will be equally accepting when the time comes.

Kenya’s news is especially welcome when democracy is being battered in so many places (including America). Though I realize life is complicated, and good news often sours. I was enthusiastic about Egypt’s 2011 revolution, and even applauded President Morsi’s later ouster. That turned out badly; Egypt is now more repressive than ever. I wrote a blog post titled “Democracy Wins in Thailand;” that proved short-lived too, and Thailand today has a vicious military dictatorship.

But as I keep saying, history never runs in a straight line. And I’ve quoted Martin Luther King that the Universe’s moral arc is long but bends toward justice. That isn’t some inherent cosmic law. Rather, it’s that human beings have intelligence and rationality, whose usage expands as our material circumstances improve, freeing people from desperation, and empowering them with more education and knowledge. This is why, despite setbacks, our future is bright.

The Economist: A love letter

August 31, 2017

On this blog I’ve frequently cited The Economist. It’s a news magazine (though Britishly calling itself a “newspaper”). I’ve subscribed for about thirty years. The Economist is my friend, almost a lover even, integral to my existence.

Maybe because I was a socially awkward youth, wordly clueless, I’ve always had an ache for understanding. To know what’s going on, and why. This The Economist provides. It keeps me informed about every corner of the globe (and in today’s interconnected globalized world, it all matters). And much of it is deeply fascinating, like a great global “Game of Thrones” with hundreds of characters and story lines. Take Venezuela’s for example, a dramatic tale (indeed, a morality tale), unfolding for a quarter century. The Economist provides a ring-side seat. Much of this stuff never makes it into newspapers or other sources.

The Economist doesn’t merely report events, it analyzes them. And furthermore it has a definite point of view, not only expressed in its editorials (called “leaders”) but also infusing its news coverage. It is the stance of classical liberalism, the philosophy of thinkers like John Stuart Mill, aiming to maximize human liberty and flourishing, through limited, democratic, accountable government, and openness to ideas, enterprise, commerce, and human variety. Indeed, it was specifically to oppose Britain’s “corn laws” (restricting free trade) that the publication was launched in 1843.

Did I fall in love with The Economist because its philosophy matched my own, or did the magazine shape my outlook? Probably some of both. Anyhow it’s rare for me to disagree with it. (There were some baffling past presidential election endorsements which seemed at odds with the magazine’s editorial stance.)

So far I may have made it sound dry. It is not. The writing is often a pleasure to read and is full of droll wit. I recall one report, quoting Cuba’s Raul Castro saying Honduras should be sanctioned because its president (arguably) wasn’t seated democratically. “Castro said this,” The Economist wrote, “with a straight face.”

So The Economist has no time for cant or hypocrisy. The magazine tells it like it is – often with delicious zingers.

And not just with words. Its covers too can be a hoot. One gem depicted the European nations, when confronted with a threatening Russia, collectively as a quivering jelly mold, with their cringing faces.

The magazine also covers business, finance, science, and the arts, including excellent book reviews. And the final page always provides a parting treat: an obituary. Yes, its obits too are flavorful reading, often about less famous personages, but always interesting ones. Or at least The Economist seems able to make them so.

Depicting France’s Macron; the feet sticking up are Theresa May’s

I’m pleased to have gotten into its pages a few times myself, with letters-to-the-editor. (The latest responded to an article about violence in Baltimore, pointing to the drug war as a major cause.)

I wish more people read it. Many of the world’s movers and shakers certainly do, but not enough of them. It’s dismaying when folks aspiring to (or exercising) leadership are so ignorant about the world. An Economist reader would never have said, “What’s Aleppo?”

North Korea: fear the madman

August 9, 2017

We keep hearing about the “madman” in Pyongyang. Is Kim Jong Un bad? Yes. Mad? Probably not. It’s the guy in D.C. who’s both.

Kim doesn’t have to be told that attacking America would be suicide. Trump’s “fire and fury” declaration was brainless bluster serving no purpose except foolhardy provocation. He warned Kim against any further threats. Kim promptly responded with a new threat. Where will this schoolyard standoff end?

As long as it’s just a war of words, okay. But this is recklessly dangerous because North Korea in the past has shown a penchant for military provocation too, as with its 2010 bombardment of a South Korean island. In today’s belligerent climate, the moment one side or the other does the least thing military, the risk of tit-for-tat escalation will be severe. Neither will back down readily.

The Economist recently ran a detailed scenario for how it could well unfold, ending in nuclear warfare with mass casualties. Either side could all too easily miscalculate. And Trump is no paragon of finesse.*

So what should we do about North Korea? I’ve wrestled with this problem before. Right now, the answer is: just shut up. Trump’s chest thumping achieves nothing except to make things worse.

We don’t have to do anything. Kim will not commit suicide by attacking us unless we force him to.

It’s the madman in the White House I fear.

* He might even calculate (insofar as he’s capable of such) that war with North Korea would produce a “rally ’round the flag” effect, just the thing to bury his Russia troubles on page 8.

Venezuela’s tragedy: be careful how you vote

August 8, 2017

Chavez & his mentor

It began in 1992 when paratrooper Hugo Chavez tried a military coup. He failed and was jailed, but vowed he wasn’t done. Released, in 1999 he won a democratic election as president.

Be careful how you vote.

Chavez strutted as an adversary of “U.S. imperialism” and avatar of “21st century socialism,” earning adoration from a Hollywood claque and the usual left-wing moral morons, bedazzled by the word “socialism” into excusing all manner of anti-democratic repression.

Chavez did enjoy much genuine support among poorer Venezuelans, whom he basically bought off by distributing the country’s oil wealth — while he crippled that very industry by nationalizing it and stuffing its ranks with political types, and wrecking the rest of Venezuela’s once-rich economy with an insane farrago of anti-market, statist policies.

Dwindling oil revenues could not sustain the game, the rich got poorer, and so, ultimately, did the poor too. Chavez died of cancer at 58 in 2013 before the mierda fully hit the fan. His chosen successor, former bus driver Nicolas Maduro, narrowly won a 2013 presidential election.

Maduro

Be careful how you vote. Though Maduro’s win was almost surely fraudulent, he couldn’t have pulled that off without votes from nearly half the electorate.

Then Venezuela really went off the rails, the economy collapsing in structural disarray, producing nothing, inflation exploding, people unable to get food or medicine. Instead of reversing the economic idiocies causing this, Maduro doubled down, and blamed the troubles on supposed U.S.-inspired sabotage. But few fell for this nonsense, his political support also collapsed, and the opposition won big in 2015 congressional elections. Only more fraud and manipulation denied them a decisive two-thirds majority. Maduro’s policy was now to intimidate, emasculate, and simply disregard the congress.

Meantime, the opposition also gathered more than enough signatures to force a presidential recall vote, pursuant to the Chavez-promulgated constitution. That too the regime quite simply disregarded, refusing to hold the vote.

All this plays out against a background of increasing repression (opponents jailed; forget a free press) and rising violence as protests by an increasingly desperate citizenry escalate, and the regime responds brutally. Its intransigence made negotiation efforts useless. President Maduro, who cannot win a fair vote, has now moved to seal Venezuela into a Cuban-style dictatorship by convening an all-powerful “constituent assembly” of handpicked stooges to supplant the congress and rewrite the constitution. That assembly’s “election” was — of course — another farcical fraud. (Even the company that ran it said so.)

Ortega

One of the assembly’s first acts was to fire Attorney General Luisa Ortega, a former regime stalwart, with at least a vestige of integrity that couldn’t stomach Maduro’s extreme illegal power grab, which she condemned.

And where, in all this, you might wonder, is the army? Why doesn’t it step in to protect the constitution, congress, and democracy? Because the army is part of the regime, long since packed with loyalists. Its guns are what really keep Maduro in power. It’s the army brass, not the people, he needs to keep happy. And this is not about ideology. The “socialist” and “anti-imperialist” rhetoric continues, but that’s just a fig-leaf cover for the reality. The regime, and its army, are a gang of thugs ruling Venezuela exactly as Al Capone ruled Chicago, and for the same purpose — their own criminal enrichment.

As ordinary Venezuelans sink into an abyss of deprivation, the regime and its army feed off their flesh and suck their blood. Having destroyed the normal economy, so that not even food can be purchased normally, the army has been tasked with bringing in and selling food — profiting hugely. It’s grubby fingers are in many other businesses too. Further, while the currency has become virtually worthless, they maintain an inflated official exchange rate, at around 1,000 times the Bolivar’s actual value. Why? Only insiders can exchange Bolivars for Dollars at that phony rate, plundering the state to enrich themselves. That’s why they won’t give up power. And because if they do, they’d expect punishment for their crimes.

Here is your “21st century socialism.”

What is the sad lesson of Venezuela? Be careful how you vote.