Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

Biden’s “Buy American” mistake

February 15, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons from Myanmar’s coup

February 10, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding the China problem

February 1, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexei Navalny: courageous hero

January 22, 2021

In a world full of cynicism and falsehood, Alexei Navalny stands out as a true hero for the ages.

Long Vladimir Putin’s chief nemesis, with space for political opposition ruthlessly extirpated, Navalny managed to create some, organizing online, and leveraging that into massive street demonstrations. Infuriating Putin. As a candidate in Russia’s 2018 presidential election, Navalny was kept off the ballot.

He’s been jailed repeatedly. Tried on phony embezzlement charges in 2014, he got a suspended sentence that time. But during one jail stint, they tried to kill him, with chemical poisoning.

Nemtsov’s funeral

He managed to survive — unlike a long list of Putin opponents who’ve been murdered.

Then, last August, he fell ill on a flight in Siberia. Clearly another assassination attempt. A quick emergency landing, and Germany’s intervention to whisk him out of the country for treatment, saved Navalny’s life again. He’d been poisoned with novichok (the same Russian specialty nerve agent used on ex-spy Sergei Skripal in Britain), the work of Russia’s security services on Putin’s orders. Navalny even got one of those goons to confess in a bizarre phone call. But despite Putin’s pro forma denials, brazenly using novichok suggests they actually expected exposure — a reminder to others — “This is what happens to Putin opponents.”

On January 17, after a long recovery from the latest murder attempt, Navalny flew back to Russia. Knowing the Kremlin would stop at nothing to remove his threat to its corrupt regime. They’d already said he’d be immediately arrested — on the old embezzlement charge. Yet judging he could not credibly continue to lead his movement from abroad, Navalny returned to the belly of the beast. And was promptly arrested at the airport. In succeeding days, Putin’s gestapo has also been arresting his associates and backers, saying protests on his behalf won’t be tolerated.

Navalny’s bravery is astonishing. Submitting to imprisonment by this vile lawless regime. With grave risk that he won’t come out alive. What will he dare eat behind bars? Will it be announced he “hanged himself?” Or will he simply be chopped in pieces like Kashoggi?

But Putin might just possibly be deterred, now that we have a U.S. President who’s not a fawning toady of dictators but a believer in democracy and human rights. The UN’s ability to deal with rogue regimes handicapped by Russian and Chinese vetoes, I have long advocated for a “League of Democracies” as an alternative body. Limiting membership to genuine democracies (America once more qualifies) would give it the legitimacy and moral authority to act where the UN is hamstrung. I am very pleased that President Biden is taking a big step in that direction, slating a global “Summit of Democracies,” to coordinate with our allies a coherent joint strategy for dealing with the challenges posed by the likes of Russia and China. What an amazing concept. 

Trump’s latest criminal pardons

December 24, 2020

In 2007, four Blackwater organization operatives, working on contract for the U.S. military in Iraq, committed what by all accounts was an unprovoked and indefensible massacre, a shooting spree killing 14 innocent Iraqi civilians including women and children, and wounding 17 others. It was called Baghdad’s “Bloody Sunday.” The U.S. government went to great effort and expense to investigate this atrocity, gather evidence, and bring those responsible to trial. In compliance with our obligations under international law, and demonstrating America’s commitment to humanity and justice. The four were found guilty and received prison sentences from 12 years to life.

Trump has now pardoned them. Mumbling something about trial irregularities — dismissed as simply nonsense by people knowledgeable about the case. It was thoroughly investigated by the FBI, and the verdicts were hailed as incontrovertibly proper.

Blackwater is headed by Eric Prince, who just happens to be a big Trump donor and the brother of his Education Secretary, Betsy DeVoss. This week Trump also pardoned several criminals who were prosecuted in connection with the proven 2016 Russian election subversion (which Trump falsely calls a “hoax”), including supreme slimeball Paul Manafort (convicted of illegal lobbying, tax evasion, and multimillion dollar financial fraud connected with his working for foreign dictators). And Trump pardoned two ex-Congressmen, Duncan Hunter and Chris Collins, both convicted of serious financial crimes, who had been among Trump’s earliest Congressional supporters in 2016. And Jared Kushner’s father (prosecuted by Chris Christie), convicted of tax evasion, witness tampering, and campaign finance violations.

Presidents were given pardon power for mercy and to rectify injustices. But one former federal prosecutor likened Trump’s latest pardons as those of a mob boss.

All this comes on top of a long string of other politically smelly and corrupt crony pardons, including racist Sheriff Joe Arpaio; propagandist Dinesh D’Souza; Roger Stone; and Michael Flynn. All convicted of serious crimes. None of these pardons went through the customary Department of Justice review process. They were just Trump’s whims.

And the Blackwater case reprises Trump’s previous pardons for a Navy SEAL court-martialed and convicted by a military jury for war crimes, and other soldiers punished for misconduct. Trump’s actions horrified military brass, who said they represented a crisis in military governance, undermining good order and discipline in the ranks. Which of course rests upon the concept of accountability for transgressions. Trump also fired the Navy Secretary who objected to those pardons. (So much for Trump posturing as a champion of the military.)

The further perversion of justice represented by the Blackwater pardons has been met with widespread shock and dismay by responsible observers. Human Rights Watch calls it contempt for the rule of law. It’s a gut-punch to the people of Iraq, who’d believed justice was being done. It’s a terrible black eye for America’s standing in the world. It will make things harder for U.S. troops everywhere, who will now be looked upon with heightened suspicion.

America’s greatest asset, in its global relationships, has been not its economic or military power, but admiration for this country as being indeed admirable, standing for what’s right, upholding universal values. Putin and China jeer that that’s just bullshit, that we’re hypocrites, as bad as they are. Trump is trying to prove them right after all. Telling the world we don’t give a damn if our soldiers commit atrocities.

Trump did this latest pardon blizzard while completely ignoring covid’s accelerating death toll; except to irresponsibly trash the covid relief bill negotiated without him; and vetoing the military budget for taking Confederate names off bases; while still obsessing about somehow overthrowing the election.

Trump cultists, who call themselves “patriots,” trying to shrug off or defend the pardons (with predictable whataboutism — Marc Rich pardon? — and other lame deflections) will prove their literally insane moral depravity.

Equally insane is their denial that Trump lost a fair election — in part due to his long record of reprehensible conduct like these despicable pardons.

Is this their idea of “draining the swamp?” Of “law and order?” That slogan may still play in Trumpmania. But I wonder how it plays today in Baghdad.

Still four weeks to go. God help us.

Memo re: inaugural speech

November 27, 2020

To: Greg Schultz, senior strategist, Biden campaign

From: Frank S. Robinson

Re: Inaugural address

Nov. 9, 2020

Hi Greg,

Don’t know if you’ll have any input on the inaugural speech, but here are two suggestions perhaps you could pass along.

1) Freedom of speech, and religious freedom, have become fraught issues. I propose something like this:

In the Holocaust, millions were put in concentration camps, and killed, because they were Jews. Others too. The world said “never again.” Yet such atrocities still happen. In China, a million Muslim Uighurs are in concentration camps for trying to practice their religion. Elsewhere, people are persecuted for not accepting the dominant religion. In some nations it’s a crime punishable by death. These countries are not our enemies, but we will work to end such assaults on human rights.

Our own Bill of Rights enshrines freedom of religion, and freedom of speech. This is central to our democracy, America’s heart and soul. In America, nobody can stop you from following your faith — or make you bend to someone else’s. But in a democracy, your rights are always balanced against the rights of others. Religious freedom does not mean you can impose your beliefs on other people, nor can it mean exemption from laws and norms that apply to everybody. In our system, government stays out of matters of faith. That’s how we’ve avoided the religious conflicts that have plagued other nations throughout history.

Likewise, freedom of speech means no one can stop you from expressing your opinion; and you cannot stop others from voicing theirs. No matter if you consider their viewpoints unacceptable or pernicious. As Jefferson said, the remedy for bad opinions is not to silence them, not to censor them, but to answer them, with better ones. That discourse and debate, in a free and open democratic society, is how we get to the truth, and progress.

2) The opening line, “My fellow Americans . . . ” I’d love to see end with, “. . . and our brothers and sisters throughout the world.”

Thanks for your consideration,

Frank

Thanksgiving during a plague

November 25, 2020

Perhaps typically, the Thanksgiving holiday’s meaning has gotten somewhat lost. It’s mainly now just an occasion for family gathering and feasting. Actually a fine thing, worthy in itself. But those who celebrated the first one really did have reason for thanks: survival. After so many of their number had perished.

Now we gather for Thanksgiving amid a plague ravaging humanity. In fact under consequent strictures that limit our gathering. Yet we can, like those forebears, give thanks that we are after all alive. And that we will prevail.

We are fortunate to inhabit a uniquely hospitable planet. Well, we wouldn’t exist otherwise. And yet, while we romanticize nature, it’s also harsh and unforgiving, and the essence of the human story is our struggle in the face of that, to overcome and to thrive. So too with this pandemic we rise to the challenge. Our battle against it epitomizes our best selves. And we will prevail.

Among all the human communities that ever were, our America shines with special light. And it has been beset by a plague of another sort these past four years. Putting in grave doubt the survival of its best self. But now we have come through, if only by the skin of our teeth. The better angels of our nature have prevailed.

Indeed, in just recent weeks our democracy endured a severe test. Many feared it could buckle under the assault of a very bad man who would stop at nothing, to keep hold of his power, by abusing it. And so he did try; but he has failed, our institutions proved equal to the challenge.

I know the evil is far from fully crushed. The “stolen election” lie is a long-lasting poison injected into our body politic. But as an optimist I believe truth and reason must ultimately prevail. And meantime, the Augean stables are being cleaned out. With a new administration of experienced public-spirited professionals, grown-ups who actually understand the world, and what truly serves this nation. Who can make America great again.

Most fundamentally, a psychology of gratitude is key to a good life. I am lucky to have that; something I’m grateful for. I always count my blessings, and in this November of 2020, there’s a grand new one. This Thanksgiving is for me especially profound.

The Nordic Theory of Everything: Lessons for America

November 23, 2020

America is a great country. Not perfect, but striving to improve — its best characteristic.

Anu Partanen was a young Finnish reporter, who moved here and was surprised by unfavorable comparisons with the Nordic countries — Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland. Her book, The Nordic Theory of Everything, published in 2016 — pre-Trump — explains ways those nations promote human flourishing, which we can learn from.

American lefties see them as model socialist utopias; those on the right as cautionary tales of nannying welfare socialism. Both are wrong, Partanen shows. They’re not “socialist” at all, actually more free-market capitalist than America. That generates wealth, which they use not for “welfare states” so much as well-being states.

It’s what Partanen calls the “Nordic theory of love.” Creating social structures that free people from stresses and constraints, so they can live the best lives possible.

Partanen cites American principles of freedom, individualism, and opportunity, but came to see them as more theoretical than real, with the exigencies of American life actually forcing people into greater dependency, constraining their choices and freedom of action. Reading this, I wondered whether anti-mask fervor with all its misplaced “freedom” talk is a kind of transference, a cri de coeur over complex feelings of lost true personal freedom in today’s U.S. society. Going maskless is a simplistic counter.

Nordic family and parental leave, pensions, and other financial support policies tend to be far more generous than America’s. A main concern is child development, making an investment in the next generation. It’s recouped many times over when they grow into well-adjusted, productive, self-sufficient individuals. Family-friendly policies also make having children more attractive — combating low birth rates and boosting economies to the extent those children do become productive adults.

That’s all fine, but I felt Partanen was comparing Nordic societies mainly to America’s middle class with too little attention to less-than-affluent Americans, who seemed largely invisible to her. Yet that’s where our failure to invest in all youngsters really bites, getting us legions of poorly educated, poorly adjusted people, with problems of unemployability, crime, homelessness, addiction, etc. — ultimately costing society far more than it would have taken to make them contributing members in the first place.

Schooling is critical. Partanen writes about relatively well-off American parents struggling to advance their kids’ educational prospects, whereas Nordic parents don’t have to, feeling sure of good schooling. Again she doesn’t really discuss economically disadvantaged American kids, who are basically written off altogether. A key reason is U.S. schools funded mainly through local property taxes, inevitably magnifying the disadvantages of the poor. We give lip service to equal quality education for all children but accept falling woefully short. The Nordics really do it.

Turning to health care, our problems are familiar. It started because employee health insurance payments are tax-deductible by businesses and are tax-free income to workers. Making such insurance, tied to employment, ubiquitous. This structure adds huge administrative complexity and costs. And insurers’ economic incentive is not to serve customers but to deny coverage. While hospitals can get away with billing outrageous amounts, often not covered by insurance. Result: costs way higher than in other advanced nations, financially ruinous for many people, without buying us better health.

In Nordic nations health care is pretty much simply taken care of by government, so there’s no financial worry for citizens, nor wrestling with bureaucracies. Partanen respects Americans’ concern about freedom to choose one’s own doctor, etc., but concludes that real freedom is assurance of good care without hassles or money stress. This does entail higher taxes, but the bottom line is lower costs overall.

Tax comparisons are complicated (especially given America’s convoluted system) but broadly speaking most people actually pay similarly in both places. However, Americans must pay heavily for things, like health care, child care, elder care, and college tuition, that Nordics get from government for their taxes. Those countries seem to operate a lot leaner, so all those goodies don’t break the bank. And a big difference is the richest Americans paying lower effective rates than average people. Partanen wrote of that growing gap before Trump’s tax legislation made it even wider. Of course under-taxing the richest makes taxes higher for the rest. And Partanen writes that the Nordics prove how taxing the rich at fair (though not exorbitant or punitive) rates does not impair entrepreneurialism or economic prosperity.

Indeed, freeing businesses of obligations for employee health care and pensions enables them to be more dynamic and competitive. In global “ease of doing business” rankings, Nordics score higher than America. And they’ve cultivated the most valuable economic resource: human capital.

Not only have most Americans become dependent on employers for health care, Partanen observed another kind of dependency here — children all but smothered by helicopter parenting, while the elderly rely on their children for care. It all costs time, effort, and money. Making the financial aspects of marriage more salient while transforming it “into an unappealing morass of squandered careers, insane schedules, and lost personal liberty.” Becoming impossible for the less affluent, for whom marriage is falling by the wayside. That in turn stunts their children’s opportunities. Partanen concludes that American society just isn’t structured to support families. Unlike the Nordics and, indeed, just about every other modern wealthy country.*

It all comes down again to the “Nordic Theory of Love.” Making individuals independent and equal. This applies not only to married couples, but between parents and children, and vice versa. Hence the goal is really the opposite of “socialist dependency” — to remove all forms of dependency, within both the family and the larger society. To allow “all human relationships to be unencumbered by ulterior motives and needs, and thus to be entirely free, completely authentic, and driven purely by love.”

Some might say Nordic citizens are dependent too — upon government. But actually, what they get from government is just taken for granted, in the background of their lives. Very different from the personal dynamics made fraught by intra-family dependencies.

Partanen admires Americans’ positive attitude in spite of all the ways our society makes things hard, while Nordics tend to be morose despite societal structures more conducive to happiness. This seeming paradox reflects humans having well-being set-points independent of life circumstances. Thus the Nordic approach aims to enable people to be as happy as their innate personalities allow. And Americans could be even happier by emulating them.

I consider myself conservative, hating a nanny state telling people what to do; believing government should restrict us only as necessary to prevent harm to others. But rather than regimenting people, the Nordics aim to remove impediments and create the conditions for them to live the best lives possible according to their own proclivities.

America does do this, to a degree, through a complex web of social safety nets. But without any over-arching philosophy akin to a “theory of love.” And public support for such programs is weak, often seen as government giving undeserved handouts to moochers and “line cutters” at the expense of hard-working people. Racial antagonism is a factor, with the benefits being associated with minorities. While in fact such welfare payouts are modest in comparison to the government benefits middle class people receive, often without realizing it, as with tax breaks. The biggest “moochers” are corporations and the wealthy.

On the other hand, the left talks of inequality and “social justice.” I think that’s the wrong framing. “Justice” entails concepts of deservingness, which are arguable here. But unarguably, helping all our citizens to live good decent lives is simply humane. We should do it because they are our fellow human beings, and differing life circumstances are often due just to luck rather than merit or its lack. It would make this a better country for all of us. We are a very rich society that can amply afford it.

* Ironically, it’s “family values” conservatives most opposing policies to do that.

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.

*   *   *

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