Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

Venezuela’s tragedy: lessons for America

April 18, 2019

Javier Corrales is the Dwight Morrow professor of political science at Amherst. I recently heard him give a talk about the situation in Venezuela, divided into three parts: what he called “democratic backsliding;” economic collapse; and lessons for America.

Corrales explained that the democratic decline preceded and led to Venezuela’s economic disaster. And he saw reasons for concern that the story could repeat even in well-established democracies like ours.

Corrales started with “Democracy 101.” America, in the 1700s, basically invented the modern concept of liberal democracy. (Not to be confused with the “liberalism” that’s a political orientation of some Americans.) It’s rooted in the Enlightenment, with government accountable to people, and limited, to prevent tyranny by either a minority or a majority. A key means is to divide power among different government branches to check each other, with constraints upon government as a whole to leash its authority.

For a time, after WWII, and especially after the Cold War, liberal democracy was spreading. But then came a “democratic recession” beginning around 2006. Notable cases are Turkey and Hungary, and of course Venezuela. What we see is not the “old fashioned” putsch, but something that more insidiously starts in ambiguity — what Corrales called “executive aggrandizement,” with other centers of power being neutered or co-opted. The picture may ostensibly seem at first more democratic, with a majority thinking they’re getting what they voted for.

Then the regime uses and abuses laws, and creates new ones, to make an uneven political playing field. Elections are still held, but they’re manipulated by a host of measures to produce the desired results. The ruling party becomes a rubber stamp cheering section. The opposition is demonized and delegitimized. Press freedom and public debate are suppressed.

Political scientists use a host of criteria to measure a nation’s degree of democracy. Corrales presented a graphic timeline of Venezuela’s scores. They started low, with a dictatorship until the 1950s, when they jumped to a sustained democratic plateau. Then in 1999 Hugo Chavez (a former would-be putschist) got elected president, and Venezuela’s democratic score fell off a cliff. (Corrales also displayed Cuba’s graph — basically flatlined since the 1959 Castro takeover — and America’s, starting high and rising higher through the period, but with a noticeable drop in the last few years.)

Another set of criteria encompasses all the specific ways in which undemocratic regimes subvert fair elections, and here again a detailed chart was presented for Venezuela. At the start of the Chavez era, voting was still pretty much fair. But then the regime utilized ever more of the measures on the chart, to the point where today, Venezuela’s voting is a cynical charade.

The manipulation became necessary because whereas Chavez was actually popular for a while, the regime’s popularity faded, and nosedived under his successor Maduro. This leads us to the matter of the economic disaster. Venezuela is an oil state; that is, almost all its national earnings are from oil. Chavez was the beneficiary of a big spike in the global oil price, and he used the windfall to buy off political support from the poorer classes. Then the oil price collapsed with the 2008 global financial crisis. As Warren Buffet said, when the tide goes out, you see who’s been swimming naked.

In Venezuela’s case, the regime’s economic mismanagement became tragically evident, plunging the once-rich nation into poverty, with an inflation rate measured in millions of percent, and a tenth of the 30 million population escaping to other countries. Corrales explained that Chavez not only imprudently spent all the oil windfall (saving nothing), but went deep into debt besides. While some of this profligacy did trickle down to the poor, most was frittered away through corruption and incompetence. None was allocated to investment to build the economy.

So Venezuela suffered from an unrestrained state — and that was combined with a restrained private sector. The regime’s “socialism” led it to regulate private business so as to destroy it. Thus food, medicine, and all sorts of other goods (which Venezuela, so oil-concentrated, used to import) have disappeared from the shelves. While the regime’s fiscal indiscipline brought forth hyper-inflation. It made things worse by responding with price controls and even more punitive anti-business measures.

Corrales rejected any idea that America somehow bears responsibility for Venezuela’s travail. To the contrary, he said, the U.S. actually helped finance the regime by buying its oil (now stopped). Meantime its oil income has plunged due to its mismanagement, stuffing the state oil company with political hacks.

We keep hoping Venezuela’s military will oust Maduro. After his talk, I suggested to Corrales it won’t happen because the generals too are profiting from the corrupt system. He agreed. So, I said, the only path is the opposition taking up arms and starting a war. He smiled and nodded (somewhat to my surprise). Then I added, “Some things are worth fighting for.” He smiled and nodded again (ditto).

The lessons here for America should be obvious by now. I have written about the burgeoning phenomenon of political populism (https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2017/12/28/what-is-populism/.) Corrales said the world’s democratic backsliding is driven by populism, defined by its perceived political betes-noires. On the left (epitomized by Venezuela) it’s anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, anti-Americanism. Bernie-style populism inveighs against “neoliberalism,” corporations, and the rich. Right-wing populism typically demonizes the intelligentsia, elites, immigrants, ethnic minorities, and crime. For both right and left, the stomping on hated enemies can excuse the stomping on democratic norms. (Many Western lefties still defend Maduro.)

Also obvious is Trump’s following the playbook Corrales outlined: executive aggrandizement, undermining governmental checks and balances, demonizing and delegitimizing opponents and the free press. We even see election manipulation, with voter suppression. All this is how it starts. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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“Occupied” — Norway, by Russia

April 12, 2019

Occupied is a Netflix series, a geopolitical thriller, produced in Norway. It’s terrific.

Norway is an oil-rich country. In Occupied, Jesper Berg has become prime minister, heading an environmentalist party, pledging to supplant oil with clean thorium-based nuclear power. However, Europe fears an energy crisis during the transition. Russia takes advantage of this, with a softish quasi-invasion of Norway, to force it to keep supplying oil. Berg accedes in order to avoid bloody military confrontation. But the situation becomes increasingly difficult and oppressive as it develops.

Indeed, this series’ producers succeed in sustaining remarkable dramatic tension throughout. I watch every episode with stomach clenched.

House of Cards was certainly fun to watch; but I kept turning to my wife with snide remarks about implausibility. (Like when the VP shows the President he’s still got the dead body she’d asked him to dispose of. “What does he imagine doing with it,” I said, “without implicating himself in murder?”)

Occupied is never like that. As a close observer of world politics, I find it totally realistic, with not a moment requiring suspension of disbelief.

Real life is full of ambiguity, and that’s certainly true in Occupied. Early, we’re introduced to “Free Norway,” seemingly a dark fringe terrorist group, committing atrocities. But as the picture grows more complex, one’s feelings about “Free Norway” evolve with it. Jesper Berg often seems to have a “deer-in-the-headlights” quality. In Episode 9 my wife remarked he’s acting like a fool. I didn’t agree. From the start, Berg finds himself in an impossible situation, and it progressively worsens. He struggles to deal rationally with a world where everything seems to militate against that.

One thing I did find myself questioning: where, in this story, is NATO, and America? Russia could not have screwed with Ukraine had Ukraine been in NATO — as Norway is. But it turns out Occupied is set in a near future where NATO is no more, and America has no interest in opposing Russia. The series was made in 2015!

I’m reminded of the story about Putin traveling to Finland and going through border control.

“Name?” the officer asks him.

“Vladimir Putin.”

“Nationality?”

“Russian.”

“Destination?”

“Helsinki.”

“Occupation?”

“No, just visiting.”

The tragic Trump foreign policy

April 8, 2019

Foreign policy rarely figures much in U.S. elections. China, Mexico, and Russia were actually prominent in 2016 — though not in a good way. A recent Thomas Friedman column points out that Democratic presidential hopefuls, so far, are focused on domestic issues. As if the rest of the world doesn’t matter.

Many Americans do think that way — “we should worry about problems here at home.” Trouble is, no country is an island. What happens elsewhere can hugely impact us here. Remember WWII?

World history is largely a history of such violent conflicts. Until lately. Steven Pinker has written compellingly about warfare’s decline. A key factor has been American leadership, after 1945, in building a rules-based world order, knitted together through global institutions and organizations, with a broad web of alliances, and by an international trading system, that makes more nations more prosperous. When they get richer, they have more of a stake in the system, and can buy more from us. Spreading democracy too is key, also promoting prosperity and reducing costly violence. Dictatorships feature in virtually all the world’s wars. More democracy, more stability, and more prosperity in other countries, all make America better off.

But this propitious world order is unravelling. And Trump, far from defending it, is actually helping to blow it up. Ripping up its institutional underpinnings. Like the World Trade Organization, promoting commerce through rules-based norms. Trump refuses to fill the American slots among WTO judges, paralyzing it. And he’s egged on Britain’s Brexit crazies, pulling apart the European Union. As if this reckless nihilism somehow helps America.

Friedman explains that the American-built world order is also under assault from not one but three regimes who see their interests as opposed to ours. Notice I said “regimes,” not “countries.” Those regimes aren’t really serving their people’s national interests but their own power (that’s the problem with undemocratic regimes).

The three are Russia, China, and Iran, all trying to bully their way to regional dominance, in order to whip up nationalistic fervor at home. Russia has invaded Georgia and Ukraine and forcibly seized Crimea, the most brazen of attacks on post-WWII global norms. Russia also works to wreck democracies by subverting elections. China violates international law by grabbing and militarizing a huge expanse of the Pacific, and aims to ensnare many other countries in debt traps.* Iran spreads its influence through destabilizing proxy wars in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria (where Russia also makes murderous mischief).

Friedman further explains that while these bad actors all grow stronger, some other countries grow weaker — the “failed state” syndrome that creates more big headaches. Including fleeing populations that are politically destabilizing in the better-off nations they try to reach.

Climate change exacerbates all this, further disrupting the world. And while in the past our biggest fear was nuclear war, today a host of miscreants have a panoply of potent tools for causing havoc. A cyber-attack, for example, targeting vital infrastructure (like the power grid) is practically just waiting to happen. And even if we dodge that bullet, the gathering tsunami of technological change is up-ending the world’s economic game board. These are all global problems that require global thinking.

Yet Trump’s America is retreating, abandoning leadership, pulling up the drawbridge. Venezuela is the exception proving the rule (its mistake is using the hated word, “socialist”). But mainly it’s disengagement; a glaring example being the recent escalation of hostilities between India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed. Time was, America would actively work to defuse such crises. The Trump administration’s response was instead, “Go at it.” In fact, he hasn’t even bothered to name an ambassador to Pakistan! Nor to Egypt, Turkey, or Saudi Arabia.

And where America disengages, bad guys are all too eager to exploit the vacuum. Thus Russia’s messing with Syria, in response to America’s passivity (which began under Obama).

Some see a tension between a moralistic foreign policy and pursuing national interest. But happily, doing what is right most often actually serves our national interest, if viewed in proper perspective. It is good for America to have a world where morality and democracy thrive; and good for America when others throughout the world see us as standing for morality and democracy. That’s America’s tremendously potent “soft power.”

Trump doesn’t grasp this most basic of concepts; indeed, he’s actually in opposition to it. His foreign policy is assertively amoral. Aligning America not with the angels but with the bad guys. Like when Kashoggi’s murder implicated the Saudi ruler, Trump stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him. And professed being “in love” with Kim Jong Un, a truly vicious dictator. These things speak volumes to people throughout the world, who used to look up to America.

But it’s too charitable to see any theme at all in Trump’s foreign policy. It is really just incoherent and brainless. We have a president astonishingly ignorant about global realities; thinking he knows everything, and most of it is wrong.** In fact Trump’s erratic behavior shows he has no idea what he’s doing and is too arrogant to take sensible advice. This makes all the “America First” chest-thumping a tragic joke. (It’s also terrible for the future of the world’s other seven billion people.)

Trump recently announced U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights, bragging that no previous president had acted so boldly. Well, there were very good reasons why none did! (And the great deal-maker gave Israel’s prime minister this gift for nothing in return.)

We desperately need to push the foreign policy re-set button with a new president who is on his or her game — bigly. One with the experience, understanding, seriousness, competence, sanity, and moral center to engage intelligently with world problems. To restore our precious web of invaluable global partnerships — with countries that share our democratic values — partnerships that Trump has been shredding. Some of the damage will be very hard to undo after four years (God forbid eight), but we must try.

Otherwise you can take your “Make America Great Again” hat and eat it.***

* Don’t know what I’m talking about? Do some reading.

** Am I presumptuous (or worse) for daring to think I know more than the president? Fact: I have forgotten more about world affairs than Trump ever knew. (Reading helps.)

*** My original draft had a cruder suggestion. But I exercise restraint.

Ilhan Omar, Israel, anti-semitism, politics, and BDS

March 12, 2019

Newly elected Minnesota Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar caused a furor when saying some politicians support Israel because of money from the Jewish lobby. That was simply incorrect (it’s politics, not money), and Omar was decently forthright in acknowledging her error. Then she re-inserted her foot by talking about “dual loyalties” (Israeli versus American).

Omar, a former Somali refugee, is one of only two Muslims in Congress. That should invest her with a special responsibility to demonstrate good citizenship in refutation of Islamophobia. I wish she hadn’t spoken so carelessly. But it’s phenomenally hypocritical for Republicans in their glass house to throw stones at Democrats, while their own Congressman Steve King defends “white supremacy” — and Trump spoke of “very fine people on both sides” when torch-bearing Nazis marched in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us.”*  Et cetera.

Omar may not have realized what a hoary old anti-semitic trope “dual loyalty” is. The Nazis used it, painting Jews as less good Germans. (My Jewish grandfather took a bullet for Germany in WWI, but that didn’t help him later.) Many U.S. Jews are indeed “supporters of Israel.” Some even give money to Israel. That doesn’t make them less loyal Americans. Indeed, the U.S. government itself is a supporter of Israel; first to recognize Israel’s statehood in 1948, and since then giving it many billions in aid.

But now Israel has become a flash-point in left-right political polarization. While American “support for Israel” used to be concentrated among U.S. Jews who were mostly Democrats, in recent decades the Republican religious right has latched onto Israel as central to some sort of end-times return-of-Jesus fantasy. And on the other side, the left has fetishized the plight of Palestinians, with Israel thus cast as an arch-villain, engendering the “BDS” movement — to subject Israel to boycott, sanctions, and divestment.

My own ancestry is Jewish, but I’ve been very critical of Israel. Here’s an example: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2013/12/06/israel-triumph-and-tragedy-past-and-future/. And four years ago I penned an imagined Israeli election speech (https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2015/03/14/i-have-a-dream-israeli-election-speech/) with a very different approach for the Palestinian issue. I must say, re-reading it now, it seems really eloquent. And really sad because its vision is farther than ever from possibility.

But the Israeli/Palestinian situation is not a good guy/bad guy story. It takes two to tango here, and Palestinians are victims not only of Israel but of Palestinians; their own leaders serving them as badly, and myopically, as Israel has done.

Anti-semitism is the idea that Jews have certain undesirable racial characteristics. One can certainly criticize Israel’s policy toward Palestinians without being anti-semitic. But it’s a fine line. Britain’s Labour Party, for example, has taken a hard left turn, with the obligatory Israel-bashing, metastasizing into what is blatant anti-semitism. Meantime these lefties, posturing as champions of downtrodden people, are suckers for regimes (like Venezuela’s) that trod people down, if they wrap themselves in anti-American, anti-imperialist, or anti-capitalist rhetoric.

There’s actually something downright crazy about singling out Israel as uniquely odious — when it is, after all, a basically democratic nation with rule of law, freedom of speech and press and religion, etc. (and a U.S. friend). That election speech I wrote could in fact have been given in Israel; Jamal Kashoggi was chopped in pieces. Does Israel’s ill-treatment of Palestinians remotely compare with the pervasive human rights abuses of Saudi Arabia, or Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, Congo, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, South Sudan, Bahrain, Zimbabwe, Burundi, Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, Tanzania, Turkey, Myanmar, or Iran, not to mention Russia and China? Where are the BDS movements for all these countries?

*I invite commenters to disgrace themselves by trying to excuse or defend this.

The Green New Deal

February 18, 2019

Green Nude Eel

It’s green. It’s new. And it’s a deal. What’s not to like?

Ah, the power of words. These three do make for a potent combo that’s caught the zeitgeist of today’s Democratic party. Don’t even try running for president if you’re not for the GND.

Columnist David Brooks writes that while “[t]he productive dynamism of capitalism is a wonder to behold,” this doesn’t today give the middle class, and the less skilled, economic security; nor help address “social decay.” Democrats in particular are increasingly disenamored of free market economics, blaming it for inequality and also seeing capitalism as the culprit behind climate change.

Their Green New Deal is intended as a response for all this. It envisions broad-scale government mobilization to reduce carbon emissions — to zero within a decade or two — with jobs-for-all thrown in.

Climate change is real, human activity is a cause, and the ill-effects will be costly. But the GND is a bad answer, for several fundamental reasons.

First, it does behoove us to reduce planet-warming carbon emissions, to the extent it’s reasonably possible. (Leaving the Paris agreement was brainless.) But zero is not reasonably possible (given existing or foreseeable technology) without sacrifices vastly disproportionate to the resulting climate benefit. Climate zealots seem to regard economic growth, indeed wealth itself, as an evil, urging us to scale back our lifestyles. (As though humankind is a criminal deserving punishment.) Yet these are the same people who bemoan inequality and poverty. They seemingly imagine both reversing economic growth yet also redistributing its fruits.

Economic growth, in recent decades, has in fact tremendously reduced world poverty. We shouldn’t want to reverse that, which zeroing out global carbon emissions would currently require. Indeed, the costs of basic poverty, to human well-being, far exceed climate change’s potential damage. Moreover, to deal with that damage, we’ll need the resources economic growth provides. So we must accept some temperature rise, as a necessary price to sustain our economies and global living standards.

In fact it’s not a choice. Because rising temperature is already baked in, even if emissions are cut to zero. Global warming will still continue, just a little less rapidly than if we do nothing. Thus the hair-on-fire zealotry for emission reduction is misplaced.

But if we really want to reduce emissions, nuclear power produces none. Yet greens ignore that option because . . . well, because it’s “nuclear.” (Dangerous? Fossil fuel power generation is estimated to kill around 20,000 Americans annually with lung disease. Nuclear power’s U.S. death toll: zero.)

And if we really want to stop warming, we’d have to consider geo-engineering initiatives to cool the planet. It could be done, maybe even cost-effectively. But climate zealots oppose even researching such options, because it would undermine their emissions fixation and (the horror!) enable economic growth to continue. So the GND ignores geo-engineering too.

Meantime, absent action to reverse otherwise inevitable warming, our main focus should be not on largely futile emissions reductions but, rather, preparations to combat warming’s effects. This the GND also ignores.

But meantime too, if we do insist on emissions reduction as the aim, economics gives us a clear answer for achieving it: to reflect, in the prices of things, the societal cost of their associated climate impacts. That is, a carbon tax. It would give people proper price incentives to reduce carbon and seek alternatives. (A scheme of emission permit trading would be somewhat analogous.)

However, efforts to enact a carbon tax have gone nowhere. Well, nobody likes taxes. But recently, a group of leading economists proposed, in the Wall Street Journal, a carbon tax whose revenue would be rebated via a universal dividend. That wouldn’t negate the tax’s carbon-reducing incentives, thus a win-win.

But the Democratic lefties behind the GND aren’t interested in such economic rationality, using markets and creating incentives to do right. Instead they want government giving us marching orders. Government would design and create massive new energy and transport infrastructures (“air travel stops being necessary”). These gigantic command-and-control institutions would replace much of what we’ve got now. Including most of our cars. There may also be a job for anyone unemployed (no skills needed, presumably).

This hugely consequential policy package is not the product of a careful broad-based consultative process. While lefties and greenies have long been talking in general on such lines, the GND seems to have been slapped together on the fly, on the back of an envelope, in a very short time, by a few members of Congress (including the over-hyped and under-experienced AOC). Paying for it all is another thing left unaddressed.

Brooks says the GND reflects “a faith in the guiding wisdom of the political elite,” with technocratic government planners in effect mastering the running of a huge and enormously complex part of America’s economic machine. How often must we see such hubristic faith come to tears? Remember the Solyndra fiasco? That was just a teensy foretaste of what the GND envisions. And Soviet central planners too fantasized being economic masterminds. Brooks wryly notes that the GND comes from “people who couldn’t even successfully organize the release of their own background document.”

The Economist moreover points out that the GND’s governmental behemoth would entail a massive redistribution of political and economic power, making big winners and losers. Lobbying and special interests will go into overdrive. While actually, the GND “largely dispenses with analysis of the costs and benefits of climate policy. It would create large opportunities for rent-seeking and protectionism, with no guarantee that the promised climate benefits will follow. [And with] growth-throttling taxes and dangerously high deficits” too.

Is this “Socialism?” The word doesn’t merely mean anything government does (libraries, road building), as some disingenuously suggest. It’s government taking over functions that, in a free economy, nongovernmental actors perform. And while lefties like to call it “democratic socialism,” such concentration of power is quintessentially anti-democratic and elitist.

This is the platform Democrats seem eager to run on.

Republicans, having destroyed their own brand with lies, bigotry, and thrall to a very bad man, have also managed to radicalize the Democrats into being the party of the GOP’s worst nightmare. When Democrats consolidate power — which Republican horribleness makes likely — “the era of big government,” that Bill Clinton said was over, will be back with a vengeance.

I dream of Election Day 2020 as a triumph of good over evil. But it may instead be a Hobson’s choice between Trumpian evil and everything about the left I’ve always opposed.

Mad Dog

December 24, 2018

While the government is partly shut down, held hostage to his futile wall demand, the Russian stooge in the White House is pulling our troops out of Syria. He says ISIS is defeated. That’s as true as his claiming North Korea is denuclearizing. Trump’s first foreign policy precept is (as in everything): just lie.

Here too is the great deal maker in action. His negotiating strategy, and second foreign policy precept: give away everything for nothing in return. As with moving our embassy to Jerusalem, which he actually boasted took that issue off the table. For nothing in return. Now he’s given Putin, and Iran, and Bashar Assad, and ISIS, and Turkey’s Erdogan, something they all wanted very much. Getting nothing in return.

Meantime our erstwhile Kurdish allies — the one force in the region that was really in our corner — we’ve now repaid by royally screwing, abandoning them to the mercies of the Turks, Syrians, Russians, Iranians, and ISIS, all of whom want them destroyed.

Trump is also pulling half our troops from Afghanistan. For years we’ve tried to get the Taliban to negotiate. Now their intransigence is rewarded. They too are delighted by Trump’s actions.

So there’s his third foreign policy precept: give our allies the finger while rewarding our foes.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned in protest against this policy, pointedly saying Trump “deserves” a defense secretary who’s in line with it. If such a person exists. (But none of this should be dignified with the word “policy;” in truth Trump just acts blindly on whim.)

Mattis’s letter said he’d retire February 28. Trump then tweeted he’d be out by January 1.

When first nominating him, Trump reveled in his “Mad Dog Mattis” nickname. Mattis himself reportedly hated that name. Who’s the real mad dog?

Jim Mattis should be the Democrats’ presidential candidate. “Make America great again?” Let’s just hope it survives this shitstorm. Not even half over, two years and 27 days left. And it will get worse.

Fear and Loathing in France and Britain

December 11, 2018

France is having a meltdown; a toddler’s screaming tantrum, pounding its fists and kicking its legs. Convulsed with truly scary violence around protests against Emmanuel Macron’s presidency.

I used to be contemptuous of France and its politics (here’s an example). Then in 2017 they had a fit of seeming sense, electing an actually good president, with 66% of the vote no less — a landslide of proportions unheard of in America. After that, his brand-new party swept parliamentary elections too. But this revolution wasn’t all it seemed. In the presidential contest’s first round, Macron got only 24%, just enough to make the runoff, which he won only because the other candidate was utterly beyond the pale. (Though just such a candidate was elected in America.) Macron’s new party romped because the French had lost all faith in the old ones.

Still, Macron did win with pledges of long-overdue reforms to juice France’s anemic economy. (Unemployment is 9%, due in good part to an over-regulated labor market.) But the French are like St. Augustine who said, “God, make me chaste, but not yet.” So France has a repetitive history of presidents rolling out reforms, followed by eruption in the streets, followed by presidential capitulation. Macron vowed this would not be his story too.

Then the streets duly erupted. The immediate issue was a fuel tax, but the deeper complaint is the idea that Macron is out-of-touch and his reforms benefit the rich. Those actually protesting may be a small minority, but most French citizens back them. Contrary to his brave vow, Macron folded on the fuel tax. However, that’s seen as too little, too late, and the violence continues. On Monday he made a speech offering more concessions. It doesn’t seem to be working.

Meantime in Great Britain —

I wrote in August recapping the Brexit picture. Parliament was supposed to vote Tuesday on Prime Minister Theresa May’s exit deal with the European Union. But she cancelled the vote because it was clear she’d lose, badly. Brexit voters in the 2016 referendum were delusional in imagining Britain could keep the benefits of the EU while freeing itself of the drawbacks. It turns out to be the reverse. The best deal May could get is clearly worse, all around, than the status quo. The Europeans are unbudging. But Brexiteers, still unable to face up to the hard reality, are screaming “betrayal” at May.

How can this mess be resolved? Britain should have a new referendum question — accept the deal on offer or stay in the EU. The latter would likely win. But Brexit zealots probably won’t allow such a vote. The deadline is March 29, and Britain now seems headed for crashing out of the EU without any deal — an economic nightmare. Meantime May’s hold on power hangs by a thread, within her own Conservative party. While waiting to take over is the opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. A very bad man whose accession would consummate Britain’s national suicide.

What do the French and British situations have in common? Citizen bloody-mindedness. Unreasonableness. Irresponsibility. Wanting what they want without regard to sense and reality.

The French overwhelmingly elected a government but refuse to let it govern. The Brits still refuse to give up the utter folly of Brexit.

And what about America? Trump has jeered at Macron’s poll ratings; elected with 66%, he’s now fallen to an abysmal 20%, while Trump remains at 40%. Is Macron really worse than Trump?! But if the French are fickle, America has the opposite problem. Trump’s steady poll numbers, in the face of his presidency’s total train-wreck, bespeaks a different and worse pathology. At least the French are reacting (if wrongly) to what they see is happening. The 40% of Americans backing Trump refuse to see what’s happening.

Here is the problem of democracy (which the Chinese regime smugly points to). Democracy’s weakness is not politicians behaving badly, it’s voters behaving badly. Politicians only march to voters’ tunes. In all three countries — France, Britain, America — and, alas, many others — voters have been behaving very badly indeed.

Why? A big subject. But read this past blog post for part of the answer; a review of a book titled The Death of Expertise. In a nutshell, today’s culture encourages the narcissism of thinking your opinions are as good as anyone’s.

Well (sigh), democracy is still better than authoritarian regimes (like China’s) with government not accountable to citizens at all.

Coming to America

December 9, 2018

Olga Porterfield, a friend of mine, gave a talk to the Capital District Humanist Society, about Jewish refugees exiting the Soviet Union. She was one of them, at age 20, in 1979.

She began with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. — “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

Olga Zemitskaya was born in Moscow in 1959. Jewish identity was submerged; in fact, she said, growing up she had no idea what “Jewish” meant. Her Jewish consciousness was awakened when her father brought her to a synagogue for a Simchat Torah celebration. This was actually a subversive thing to do in the atheistic USSR. Also subversive was the family’s “anti-Soviet” attitude; as a teenager she was reading “samizdat” — underground literature passed secretly from hand to hand. Being doubly such a rebel was heady stuff, especially when she fell in love with a boy with the same proclivities. But he was planning to leave for America.

Anti-semitism has a long and dreadful history in that part of the world. Russian anti-semitism went into overdrive in the wake of Israel’s 1967 Six-Day War victory. The situation was aggravated by the 1970 “Airplane affair” when a group of Jews tried to hijack a small plane to escape the USSR.

You couldn’t just pick up and leave. The authorities had to grant permission — and just requesting it marked you as a pariah, you were persecuted for it. Quite a few Jews nevertheless got permission, and went to either the U.S. or Israel. But there were also a great many “refuseniks” — Jews whose exit visas were refused. This became a focus of international condemnation toward the USSR. In 1975, America in response enacted the Jackson-Vanik amendment, punishing the Soviets on trade terms.

To illustrate the issue’s prominence, Olga showed Saturday Night Live’s Gilda Radner babbling on about “Saving Soviet Jewelry.” When informed that the issue was actually “jewry,” she responded with her standard line, “Never mind.”

Shcharansky

A leading refusenik agitator was Anatoly Shcharansky. I remember first seeing him, interviewed in Russia around 1976, and being flabbergasted by the courage of his outspoken criticism of the Soviet regime. In 1977, he was arrested, falsely charged as a spy, and sent to a Siberian ordeal. In 1986, finally, America got him out — exchanged for real spies. Today, as Natan Sharansky, he is an Israeli government minister.

Also mentioned by Olga was Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear physicist who became a vocal dissident, and his Jewish wife, Elena Bonner. Sakharov was immured in internal exile in Gorki.

Sakharov

But as the dictatorship began to crumble, Sakharov actually became a member of parliament, called the nation’s conscience. He died the month after the Berlin Wall fell.

But for Olga her greatest hero was her mother, for whom Olga’s emigration was a deep personal loss; yet she actively supported her daughter in this.

In 1979, the USSR invaded Afghanistan, becoming even more of an international pariah. In a piqued response to the criticism, the Russian regime slammed shut the door on emigration. But luckily for Olga, she had rejected her family’s pleas to hold off and wait until they all could go; she had applied for her exit visa; and got it before the door shut. Her parents were subsequently refused. (They finally reached America in the Gorbachev era.)

Soviet exit visa

Olga showed on the screen that most precious document — her official permission to leave the Soviet Union — forever.

She travelled first to Vienna, then to Rome, to wait for documents to come to America. She loved the weeks she spent in Rome. People were all smiling, she said; “nobody smiled in Moscow.” The workers’ paradise.

Olga arrived in the United States of America on June 21, 1979. When we still welcomed immigrants.

Trump, China, and the axis of evil

November 21, 2018

For a long time we imagined China’s rise would be its growing up — into a mature member of responsible world society. But now that society itself is looking ever more ragged, its norms of civilized behavior being shredded by Saudis, Russians, Iranians, and others — including indeed America — as well as China. China epitomizes the badness of the bad old days, a regime exerting muscle to get its way abroad and to repress its own citizens at home. (China employs two million people censoring the internet; has put maybe a million in “re-education” camps.) Not the better new world we’d hoped was a’borning.

An editorial in The Economist’s October 20 issue said the Trump administration is right to step up what had really previously been a weak response to China’s sharp elbows; right to recognize that China’s interests (actually, its regime’s) conflict with ours, and that it’s a bad actor needing to be confronted and opposed.

But in that battle, despite all his bluster, Trump — so besotted with military strength — is unilaterally disarming us. He’s “a bull in a China shop,” whose actions actually boost China.

The first thing he did was to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — which had been our most forceful response to China’s challenge. It was a carefully built deal among eleven key nations to set the regional terms of trade to our advantage, blocking China’s aim for economic dominance. When Trump threw that away, the rulers in Beijing celebrated and guffawed, unable to believe their luck.

Then Trump’s trade war hurts America more than it hurts China, weakening our economy by reducing our own exports while making stuff we buy more expensive.

But here is the bigger picture. China has four times our population. Contending with China requires strong solidarity among the alliance of Western-oriented democracies. America actually had the world’s greatest-ever network of global friends. Until Trump came along, showering those alliances with contempt and doing all he could to wreck them. As if we can take on China all by ourselves.

Meantime China itself isn’t so stupidly blind to the need for alliances, assiduously working to build its own such network. Which China does through bullying, intimidation, bribery, throwing its money and its weight around. Which, unsurprisingly, countries actually resent. Whereas America had true friends — nations standing with us because they shared our positive values.

Those values and ideals won the cold war. Communism stood for a closed society of enforced conformism, a repressive Big Brother state. Not only did our economic model work better, it did so by giving people the opportunities freedom provides, with democracy and human rights — a very attractive package. But that crucial American asset too Trump is throwing away. He neither honors, nor even understands, those idealistic values; instead he actually stomps on them.

When the Saudis sent a 15-strong killer squad to Turkey to dismember a Washington Post journalist, denied any knowledge for two weeks, and then concocted a ludicrous lie about a fistfight (but couldn’t say what happened to the body), Trump initially declared that “credible.” He deemed our selling arms to Saudi Arabia (to brutalize Yemen) more important. And now, with his own intelligence service concluding that the Saudi ruler in fact ordered the murder, Trump dismisses that, calling Saudi Arabia our “steadfast partner.”

Which sends the world a clear message: that America no longer stands for truth, justice, freedom, and human rights. Instead America now stands for a world of might makes right. Where money trumps morality. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with autocrats who commit murder and lie about it.

Who ever imagined America would join the axis of evil?

If the world must choose between an incompetent buffoon of a would-be American autocrat, and the real thing in China, China will win.

 

Make America America Again

October 29, 2018

When I wrote recently about the coming elections, I didn’t mention “health care.” Which Democrats pitch as their main issue. (Republicans respond by lying about their record.)

Columnist David Brooks thinks Democrats are missing the boat. In the remote past (pre-2016), health care might have been a great issue for them. They continue to think in materialist, transactional terms, trying to offer voters good policy. But Democrats could never fathom why many people voted against (what Dems saw as) their economic interests. And today, more than ever, many are voting not their wallets but their values, their souls.

This election is indeed not about material issues like health care. It’s about America’s soul.

In two ways. First, Trump offers a story: that America has been screwed by foreigners, both immigrants and other nations, and by corrupt elites. He offers an appeal to cultural identity; a raw nationalism, both economic (however misguided) and ethnic. Not all Trump supporters are racists; but all racists are Trump supporters. And now, gender chauvinism is added to the stew, as Trump bangs the Kavanaugh drum.

All this, as Brooks notes, reflects how today’s core ideological divide is no longer between traditional left and right, but between open and closed societal visions. Thus, on the international stage, Trump says he rejects “the ideology of globalism.” This has profound implications; a go-it-alone policy will produce a world America will find much less comfortable to live in. China’s outlook, notably, is the opposite, in terms of global engagement.

Secondly, as Brooks puts it, Trump has “overturned the traditional moral standards for how leaders are supposed to behave. He’s challenged basic norms of honesty, decency, compassion and moral conduct. He unabashedly exploits rifts in American society.”

Many Republicans say they don’t like Trump’s behavior but like his policies. Never mind how wrong they are about much of the policy picture. What they fail to grasp is how Trump’s conduct is of the essence. Especially the war on truth. He is methodically degrading our civic society, not just morally, but really destroying its whole underpinnings. We can’t have a democracy with debate unmoored from factual reality, and refusal to accept each other’s political legitimacy. This matters more than any particular policies.

All of this is why America’s soul really is on the line. As Brooks says, Trump and the Republicans have “thrown down a cultural, moral and ideological gauntlet.”

And Democrats respond with: better health insurance?

That’s not entirely fair. Many Democrats do push back against everything Trumpism represents. But not in a coherent, focused way, that really meets and answers the Trumpist threat with an alternative big-picture story. Part of the problem, according to Brooks, is that Democrats’ moral vision is of the “social justice warrior” sort, targeting how societal structures marginalize certain segments (the poor, women, blacks, gays). But “if your basic logic is that distinct identity groups are under threat from an oppressive society, it’s very hard to then turn around and defend that society from an authoritarian attack, or to articulate any notion of what even unites that society.”

It doesn’t help that Democrats don’t speak with a single voice, but a gaggle of them, that cannot really get heard in answering the huge Trump shout-a-thon. In 2016, the news media (far from working against him as Trump claims) gave him billions in free air time to blast his message. And they’re still doing it, having failed to learn their lesson, continuing to broadcast his every rally and tweet, becoming his enabler in spreading his poison. Indeed, by presenting it as news, they even give it a patina of legitimacy.

The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate must focus on articulating an American cultural identity different and better than what Trump appeals to. One that re-embraces the principles, ideals, and values that made America great. A vision of this nation as an open, confident and optimistic society, where all people are accorded equal dignity. A nation strengthened by its diversity. A nation that engages in the world to make it a better place, for our own benefit as well as others. In sum, an appeal (like Abraham Lincoln’s) to the better angels of our nature.

And at their convention let them reprise proudly the song they played in 1988 — what a different country it seems! — Neil Diamond’s They’re Coming to America.