Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

My contribution to our China trade deficit

June 13, 2017

Our yearly trade deficit with China is around $340 billion and rising. That is, we import from China $340 billion worth of goods more than we export to China. Trump fulminates obsessively about this, saying China “rapes” us to the tune of that $340 billion.

Confession: I have personally added to our past China trade deficits, by importing many thousands of dollars worth of goods.

Typical Northern Song coin

They were old Chinese coins, bought mainly from one Shanghai dealer, Luo. I think he actually got rich in the process. But I made money too. For example, I’d get Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127 AD) coins, 10,000 at a time; cost around 13¢ apiece (shipping included). I’d sort through them, cleaning many, picking out better ones to sell for a buck or two, and the rest typically at $20 per hundred. Collectors loved such inexpensive thousand-year-old coins.

A middleman or trader like me has traditionally been seen as a kind of economic parasite. After all, I produce nothing myself. However, what I do is to get coins from people who value them less to ones who value them more. That creates what economists call a “consumer surplus,” making both my suppliers and my buyers better off. That’s economically beneficial.

I sell much to other dealers too. They retail the stuff to other collectors, creating still more customer value. And meantime, Luo got the coins from other Chinese sellers. They too profited and were made better off.

Also it’s not exactly the case that I produced nothing. My work of sorting, cleaning, and identifying coins added value to them.

Did any of this entail any job losses? On the contrary, my profits made me richer and hence able to buy more goods; and enabling my customers to buy coins cheaper than they would otherwise pay left them with more money to spend on other things. All this added buying power triggers creation of more jobs, to produce the additional goods and services now wanted. Similarly, Luo’s enrichment, and that of his Chinese suppliers, enabled them to spend more, contributing to Chinese job growth. And more jobs in China means Chinese can buy more goods made in America.

So is China “raping” us? What nonsense. Trade is win-win. That’s why people do trade. Being able to buy imported goods cheaper than they can be made here puts something like a trillion dollars annually in American consumer pockets; and spending that extra cash creates lots of jobs — surely more than the few trade might displace.*

Trump refuses to understand this. In his ignorant diseased mind, all deals have a winner and a loser. Sad.

My personal trade imbalance with China ultimately reversed. Chinese coins got much more expensive in China; Luo stopped selling those and switched to other stuff, which he’s been buying in recent years from me. Alas, my profit margin on those is much smaller.

* Another perspective on our China trade imbalance is that as Americans buy more Chinese goods than Chinese buy from us, money flows from the U.S. to China, which translates into China saving and investing at a higher rate than Americans do. Net annual saving by U.S. citizens has hovered around zero. And we finance our combination of consumer spending plus government spending by borrowing (much from China, lending us back the money we’ve spent for their goods). But that’s another issue.

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Trump’s climate speech — full of covfefe

June 3, 2017

America first? Really? Who’d ever thought a U.S. president could make his Russian and Chinese counterparts appear better global citizens than us? But now even Putin and Xi Jinping are on the climate change high road, while America slithers down the other (accompanied only by the dictators of Syria and Nicaragua).

After Trump’s European trip, Germany’s leader Merkel judged that the era of U.S. leadership is over and Europe is on its own. Trump proved her point with his announcement of withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. A grown-up nation does not renege on its promises. Far from making America great again, he’s deformed it from an upstanding world leader into a child in a temper tantrum. America has never been this ungreat.

Trump says it’s to protect U.S. jobs. He just says things without regard to any reality; it’s just more covfefe.

It is true that even if carbon emissions went to zero, global temperatures would still rise, only a little less than otherwise. So if we were to curb emissions by reducing industrial output, to combat climate change, the economic harm would outweigh any benefit. But that’s not what Paris does.

Instead, it merely recognizes carbon’s effect on climate and the desirability of minimizing it to the extent we can. Simple common sense. Its targets are not binding commitments, with any penalties for noncompliance, but rather just earnestly expressed ambitions. Which virtually every other nation on Earth agreed are wise.

So no job losses. Zip, zero, zilch. Nor any transfer of wealth from America to other nations — more nonsensical Trump covfefe. His whole speech was a farrago of nonsense detached from reality, an embarrassment to the country. Transitioning sensibly from dirtier to cleaner energy sources can only have economic (as well as environmental) benefits. Trump’s coal fetish is simply insane. Coal blights the planet as well as miners’ health, and is a comparatively costly energy source. Even China, the world’s leading coal nation, is assiduously cutting back on it. And clean energy is creating around ten times as many jobs.

So why would Trump go out of his way to trash what he himself referred to as a “non-binding” agreement? To pander to his base of course — the rest of the world can go hang. Sensible heads in both government and business almost unanimously advised him against withdrawing from Paris. Polls show a majority even of Trump supporters opposed doing it. So this is aimed at the hard core of the hard core. Even politically it seems insane.

But it sticks a thumb in the eye of the world order, so Trump can play the disruptor. And it reflects yet again his bottomless ignorance about the world, the willful ignorance of a fool who thinks he knows it all. And perhaps also Trump, even in his literally diseased mind, could see that his record so far is not his lie of triumphant accomplishment but a train wreck. Trashing Paris was at least one thing he’d said he’d do that he could actually do. To him a no-brainer. Too bad it really is brainless.

In the Rose Garden he said the world was laughing at us for agreeing to Paris, and that will stop. Trump has an uncanny thing for turning reality exactly inside out. They weren’t laughing at us then, but now they are, while shaking their heads sadly.

Does religion cause violence?

May 28, 2017

A congressional candidate physically assaults a reporter — and gets elected. What the f— is happening to this country? And meantime atrocities are committed with cries of “Allahu Akbar!” — “God is great!”

Once again my wife gifted me with a book to challenge me: Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence.

The rap is that religion, by instilling a notion of absolute truth and a limitless sense of righteousness, inspires violence. As witness all the persecutions, religious wars, the Crusades, the Inquisition, all the way to 9/11 and ISIS. Some say this outweighs any good religion does, and we’d be better without it.

Armstrong, a leading historian of religion, has a different take. She aims to get religion off the hook, with (the back cover says) “a passionate defense of the peaceful nature of faith.”

Well, for a book about “the peaceful nature of faith,” it sure is soaked in blood, amply living up to the title. It is a depressing, horrifying read. Yet, in chronicling one atrocity after another, Armstrong’s basic point is that religious belief per se is not their root cause. Instead, religion has often been cover for what is really more about politics, power, and lucre.

In pursuing those, some actors are more cynical than others. And while, for men at the top (and it’s mostly been men) cynicism may have reigned supreme, for the foot soldiers in the killing fields religious zealotry often provided the indispensable motivator.

Armstrong does repeatedly stress what she considers to be the peaceful teachings of most religions. Yet there can be a cognitive disconnect. She puzzles over how the Crusaders, for example, could reconcile what she calls their psychotic violence with the teachings of the faith they were supposedly fighting for. But she also explains how battle and slaughter themselves can inspire a kind of extremist ecstasy. I would add: especially when coupled with a sense of supreme religious righteousness. So religion is, indeed, very much part of the problem.

It is also important to understand that through most of history, political power was not the thing we know today. The idea of the state serving the needs and interests of the citizenry is quite a modern concept. Previously, the state was essentially a vehicle of predation, with whatever good it did being calculated to keep the populace sufficiently submissive that their pockets could be efficiently picked for the benefit of the rulers.

Luther

God was part of the formula by which the powerful ruled, for their self-aggrandizement. Armstrong makes the point that only in modern times has “religion” come to be seen as a thing unto itself. Previously it was integrally bound up with the whole culture, including its political and power structures; “separation of church and state” would have made no sense to those populations. But Martin Luther argued for it, saying that religion should be something private, interior, and that marrying it with state power was an unending source of trouble.

Locke

And the philosopher John Locke made a similar case from the standpoint of human liberty – that it was just wrong to try to compel religious belief. But it took some further horrors (like the Thirty Years War, killing 35% of Europe’s population) to convince sensible heads that Luther and Locke were right.

Note too that before modern times there was really no such thing as economic growth. That meant one state (its rulers, really) could get richer only at the expense of another. A further impetus to warfare in which, again, religious pretexts were very useful.

The emergence of the modern state curbed a lot of the violence that was so endemic. Today most governments do at least try to serve their citizenries, and prosper better through trade than war. This is a key reason why violence has in fact so markedly declined (as well explained in Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.) A noteworthy exception today is Syria – very much an old time predatory state (if at this point you could even call it a state). And then there’s ISIS, whose demented violence is not really attached to any state, in the modern sense, either.

But that religion per se, religion itself, still causes violence is all too evident. Bangladesh, and especially Pakistan, experience intensifying lynchings of accused “blasphemers.” And it’s not the work of just a few extremists, but a widespread cultural pathology. A Pakistani student was recently dragged from his dorm room, by classmates, and brutally killed, on some vague accusation of blasphemy.

Speaking of violence, I was unable to finish the book – it fell victim to the January Fort Lauderdale airport shooter. I went to Fort Laud for a coin show and planned to fly home that Friday evening. Because of the shooting I could not fly till Sunday. I scheduled a cab for 6:00 AM and a 5:45 wake-up call. The call didn’t come, but I awakened at 5:54, and rushed out. In the rush, the book got left behind.

Niebuhr

I will end by quoting Reinhold Niebuhr: religion is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people.

The trouble with democracy

May 23, 2017

Democracy has always been central to my political philosophy. For all other modes by which some person or group rules, one must ask: by what right? By what right, for example, does China’s Communist Party reign? “The mandate of Heaven,” China’s ancient concept justifying rulership, is a mystical affront to reason. Citizen acquiescence might be invoked, but what can that mean without real choice? China’s reality — demonstrated in 1989 — is rule at gunpoint.

This is the problem of legitimacy. Another is accountability. Without it, you get the arrogance of power, corruption, oppression. All this undermines societal cohesion. We evolved for social cooperation because that boosted group survival. But communal loyalty is eroded when people are governed without consent.

However, what if voters themselves act to undermine society, by making terrible choices? As they have lately done in Britain, Turkey, Poland, and America of course. Philippine voters elected a murderer president, who has sanctioned thousands of extra-judicial killings. In France’s presidential first round, the one sensible choice (my opinion) managed less than 24% of the vote.

Philippine President Duterte

This wasn’t always such a problem. Sure, demagogues and bad ideas are nothing new. But, especially in advanced countries at least, voters used to take their civic responsibilities somewhat seriously. Extremism was shunned. Fringe parties remained on the fringes. And character counted. America’s first 44 presidents were not all great, but number 45 would, in past times, never even have passed the laugh test.

So has something important changed in modern society? We’ve long heard a lot about “anomie,” modern life divorcing people from the wholeness of harmony with nature — or some such folderol. Rubbish, I used to think. But maybe something of the sort does underlie this voting behavior.

“Social capital” refers to the intangible ways people relate to one another that make society work. Trust is a key element. It’s trusting that the stranger on the street won’t pull a knife and rob you. That when you buy something you’ll get what you pay for. That societal institutions, government most importantly, will function more or less as they’re supposed to. Of course none of this can be infallible. However, these are the default assumptions of underlying trust that shape our participation in society.

But surveys show people’s trust toward others is declining. Note that it’s not people being less trustworthy than in the past. It’s just that many of us think they are. Yet this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if it makes folks behave in ways that contribute to an overall atmosphere of lesser trust. Meantime, social trust is partly learned. With repeated positive interactions with others, you build up a basic attitude of trustingness. But modern life is reducing face-to-face interactions, with social media, video gaming, and people staring at screens cutting down time spent in the physical company of others.

People also used to be more willing to trust and, frankly, defer to the judgments of those they acknowledged as being their betters, including public officials, experts, business leaders, educators, scientists, and other elites. But that kind of deference has been eroded not only by less trust in general, but also by a reigning ethos of egalitarianism. The idea that every human being has equal dignity and worth is great. Yet it leads many people to imagine their own opinions (no matter how ill-informed) should carry weight equal to anyone else’s. Especially when opportunistic politicians flatter those opinions.

It all comes together. Declining social trust makes people less willing to defer not only toward elites but toward what is seen as the greater communal good. Social solidarity is impaired by an egalitarianism that exalts the individual and validates one’s own needs, desires and, yes, prejudices. Falling trust in institutions extends to sources of information, with society no longer having widely accepted arbiters of truth. Now everybody can have their own truth. No wonder voting behavior has changed.

This includes less voting, too, worldwide — especially by younger people. At fault may be disappearing civics education, and politics turning them off. Polls show declining belief in the value of democracy. Perhaps it’s also growing solipsism. People today expect to be entertained. Voting is not a fun thing, but a communitarian act; you know one vote won’t determine the outcome, but represents participation. Declining participation undermines democratic legitimacy, contributing to a vicious circle of disengagement. Trump’s vote was only 27% of the eligible total. (And he would not have won, nor would Brexit, had younger people voted equally with older ones.)

Churchill famously said democracy is the worst form of government, except for all others that have been tried. This is being tested. But I’m not ready to give up. And Venezuelans today are battling to save their democracy. At least some people still get it. Elected governments, alone, still have a good answer to the “by what right” question.

The decline of Western civilization and its values

May 4, 2017

David Brooks is my favorite commentator writing today. I don’t always agree with him — too much religion — but in most ways his head’s screwed on right and his work repays attention. A recent column crystallizes well my own global perspective.

Brooks starts by citing Will and Ariel Durant’s popular mid-20th century multi-volume opus, The Story of Civilization. It was really the narrative of Western civilization and the values undergirding its flourishing, including reasoned discourse, property rights, and a belief in human progress. I would add accountable democratic government, open markets, and scientific inquiry. It was the emergence of these Enlightenment ideas that propelled the West’s phenomenal achievement in improving people’s quality of life.

But this narrative, especially in universities, has lost its mojo — intellectually speaking. People don’t read the Durants, or their like, any more. Indeed, the construct “Western civilization” has actually fallen into bad odor, as “a history of oppression.” Now we are being educated to distrust, rather than honor, what it means. “The great cultural transmission belt broke.”

This intellectual reversal has had huge real-world impacts. There have always been forces eager to tear down what the West stands for. But now the citadel has few defenders against these onslaughts. So we see the rise of “illiberal” strongmen — Putin, Erdogan, al-Sisi, Xi, Trump — who, unlike previous bad guys, don’t even give lip service to democratic Western values.

Turkey’s recent vote turned its back on them. Democracy is no longer seen as the wave of the future. In “advanced” nations, the center doesn’t hold. In Europe mainstream political parties lose ground to fringe ones with fierce ideologies. In America, where you’d expect universities to be redoubts of intellectual freedom, the opposite is seen — destruction of those values, as nonconforming voices are literally shouted down. America’s president (an historical ignoramus) cozies up to some of the world’s worst thugs.

“The basic fabric of civic self-government seems to be eroding following the loss of faith in democratic ideals.” The percentage of young Americans polled who say it’s “absolutely important” to live in a democracy has dropped from 91% in the 1930s to only 57% today. In his campaign, “Trump violated every norm of statesmanship built up over these many centuries” — and every norm of civic decency — and too few voters seemed to care.

Brooks sadly concludes that defenders of the great tradition of Western values are now down to “a few lonely voices.”

Count me one of them. I wrote The Case for Rational Optimism in 2009 when those Western values — and rationality — still seemed ascendant. Today fools prance triumphant around bonfires of reason. I’ll end with Schiller’s words: “Against stupidity the very gods themselves contend in vain.”

Michael Flynn — Lock him up

May 1, 2017

Are we trapped in a very bad movie — or grotesque reality show?

Michael Flynn — whom President Pussygrabber said was treated very unfairly — after he himself fired him — had joined in chants of “Lock her up!” at the GOP convention.

Flynn was not fired for incompetence (like the previous time he was fired), nor for his insane Islamophobic rantings, but for lying. To Mike Pence. (Lying to the public, in this administration, is perfectly okay. Especially calling journalists liars when they report the truth.)

We have since learned that Flynn also concealed tens of thousands of dollars paid him for “work” for RT, the Russian TV station that’s Putin’s lie-spewing propaganda vehicle, and for a company linked to Turkey’s democracy-crushing regime. Why they’d hire such a creep is a mystery. It’s disgraceful that any American would sell himself to such nasty foreign thugs. Even more disgraceful that our president would associate with such a man, let alone appoint him national security advisor. But — as with Bill O’Reilly — maybe Pussygrabber actually thinks Flynn did nothing wrong. After all, Pussygrabber congratulated Turkey’s President Erdogan on having himself made dictator! (Erdogan, and a parade of other authoritarian rulers, like the Philippines’ literal murderer Duterte, have been invited to the White House.)

Manafort and crony

Meantime Flynn was not even the only Trump henchman literally on the Kremlin payroll. So was Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign chief for a time. Manafort also worked for Viktor Yanukovich, the pro-Russian Ukraine president, so corrupt and vile that Ukrainians threw him out.

And speaking of creeps, Trump has gushed his admiration for radio’s Alex Jones, who has to be just about the biggest all-around creep in today’s America. He called the Newtown shootings a hoax. And speaking of “just about,” Trump has called his first 100 days “just about the most successful” in U.S. history. He crowed that getting a Supreme Court justice confirmed in the first 100 days hadn’t been achieved since 1881. Didn’t mention this “achievement” was due to Republicans’ refusal to act for the past year.

But getting back to Flynn: now it’s further revealed that those payments he took apparently violated federal law. When retiring from the military in 2014, Flynn was explicitly warned against taking foreign government money without advance Pentagon approval. There’s no evidence he sought that waiver.

Lock him up.

Turkey’s tragedy. France next?

April 17, 2017

Yet another bad day for optimists and believers in progress. It really feels like the lights are going out.

Turkey matters, a lot. This key nation has been a NATO bulwark, and poster boy for the idea that democracy and Islam can be compatible. That idea just took a huge hit with Turkey’s referendum vote approving President Erdogan’s proposed new constitution, basically abolishing checks on his power and making him a dictator.

How could anyone vote for that? But Erdogan already had a strong core of voters who back him no matter what (sound familiar?), who feel forgotten by the country’s elites (sound familiar?), and religious fundamentalists (ditto). And then he exploited last year’s coup attempt to whip up a nationalist hysteria against legions of imagined enemies, domestic and foreign. The constitutional change was presented as a way to smack down those bad guys once and for all. Indeed, anyone questioning this was demonized as an enemy of the people.

Erdogan

This was accompanied by a vast repression. With the coup attempt as pretext, Erdogan has jailed tens of thousands, and around a hundred thousand others have been sacked. This includes huge numbers of not only military personnel, but lawyers, judges, journalists, politicians, civil servants, teachers; a gigantic witch-hunt persecuting anyone whose fealty to the regime is questioned. And of course no criticism of the proposed constitution was tolerated. Opponents were cowed into silence. Erodgan had already destroyed independent press and media in Turkey.

Evet means yes

Considering all this, it may seem remarkable that half the country still had the intestinal fortitude to vote “no.” Yet given the ugly climate of repression and fear Erdogan has created, it’s sobering that half the country would vote to endorse and even worsen it.

An optimistic hope is that having finally achieved his long-sought aim, Erdogan will ease up. But giving bad men more power does not make them better. Erdogan actually started out in 2003 as a good guy, doing a lot right. But then power corrupted him, making him a monster of megalomania. He’s already shown what extremes he’s capable of, even under the old system with some constitutional brakes. Removing those brakes is insane.

Suffering particularly is Turkey’s persecuted Kurdish minority. In his earlier, better incarnation, Erdogan was moving toward resolving those ethnic tensions. But then he switched back to violence, as part of his program to foment nationalist hysteria. Now the repression of Kurds is utterly vicious. This too is insanity for Turkey’s future.

The next light flickering is France’s. I wrote recently about its presidential election, whose first round is April 23. Conventional wisdom says Marine Le Pen, the Trumplike populist, will place first, but surely lose the subsequent run-off. Conventional wisdom had said Trump could not win either.

Pray with Macron

When I wrote last, it seemed the likeliest second round would be Le Pen against Emmanuel Macron, whose economics are rational. But I have no confidence in the French voting uncharacteristically for such a candidate. And indeed the one now surging in the polls is Jean-Luc Melenchon, a far left firebrand, backed by the Communist party, who appeals to France’s inveterate romanticist hostility to globalism, trade, and markets. A run-off between Le Pen and Melenchon — Skylla and Charybdis — could well be curtains for the European Union.

Putin and the Kremlin have been messing with France’s election too, trying to undermine Macron and boost Le Pen — for the same reason they backed Trump — to cripple an adversary nation. This should, in a rational world, put French voters off Le Pen in droves. But every day it seems the world grows less rational.

The Syria strike

April 8, 2017

Having been a relentless critic of Trump, I will give the Devil his due. I approve of the Syrian airstrike. I’m glad it was done.

President Obama’s passivity on Syria was execrable. Early in the conflict we might very possibly have achieved something greatly serving our interests. Inaction as well as action has risks and consequences; in this case they were horrific. And then the “red line” fiasco made things even worse, shredding U.S. credibility. Obama let himself be played for a fool by Putin with a phony deal to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, which they were never seriously going to honor. And when Assad later resumed chemical attacks, Obama had little choice but to look the other way. The latest chemical attack was indeed one of many, if perhaps a particularly egregious one.

Around a hundred were killed, which Trump said significantly changed his view of the Assad regime. A really stunning thing to say, considering the 400,000 killed in this 6-year-long atrocity, with millions (half Syria’s population) made refugees (whom Trump still refuses to help), and the well-documented reports of industrial-scale torture venues where tens of thousands, including many children, have been murdered in hideous ways. After all this, a hundred deaths changed his mind? Does he even have one?

At least, in contrast to Obama’s sorry record, Trump not only acted, but acted swiftly, with no second-guessing or crawling fecklessly to Congress for an unlikely approval. And at least, as David Brooks commented, this moves Trump toward a somewhat normal presidency, with America again the upholder of an international system.

“How many ears must one person have before he can hear people cry?”

However, while our action was long overdue, it wasn’t much of one. Hardly even a pinprick, it changes nothing (and might actually prolong the war, that we still have no plan for ending). Better an airstrike on a significant target, like a command-and-control facility. Like, say, the presidential palace. And better yet if Assad is home.

Trump’s foreign policy: a feckless fog of foolishness

April 5, 2017

You know the slogans: America first. Make America great again. No more playing patsy for other countries.

The reality: the opposite.

But this, like all Trump’s “policies,” is not a matter of considered strategy. Instead it’s the product of his incompetence, mental disorder, vile character, and monumental ignorance about how the world actually works. He’s stumbling around in a feckless fog of foolishness.

Trump says China is “raping” us on trade. So what’s the first thing he does? Kills the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP, as Thomas Friedman points out, was our made-in-America deal with 12 other Pacific nations to shape regional trade to our interests and values. A powerful move against China on the global chessboard. Trump’s cancelling it hands China a tremendous victory. Now it’s China that will make the region’s trade rules, and those other countries will be forced to play China’s game – not ours.

Calling the TPP a bad deal was another of Trump’s huge lies. Likely he never bothered to check the facts, choosing instead to pander to voters phobic about trade. The TPP would have been a super deal for us, benefiting our most dynamic industries, and with unprecedented labor, environmental, and human rights standards. It would have lowered prices for our consumers on imported goods. A Peterson Institute study concluded the TPP would have boosted annual real U.S. incomes by $131 billion, with no job losses.

And then Secretary of State Tillerson goes to China, hiding from the press, and kowtowing about mutual respect and nonconfrontation – music to the ears of China’s Communist bosses as they aggressively strive to dominate their region and banish U.S. influence.

And remember how America used to be a magnet for all the world’s best and brightest? Coming here to build their careers – greatly enriching and strengthening America in the process. But Trump has effectively put up “Keep Out” signs, signaling all those smart energetic foreigners they’re not welcome here. Surely many more Chinese technology whizkids (whose talents we actually desperately need) will now choose to stay home – again boosting China to our detriment. Foreign tourism, unsurprisingly, is way down too, another self-inflicted economic wound.

Also, in the global game, trust and credibility are a golden currency. It does not help if the world sees our president as a pathological liar. He touts himself as the Great Deal Maker, but what country will trust his word? Not to mention his insulting and picking fights with our friends. Further, we have lost the moral high ground from which to push other nations on issues like corruption, transparency, human rights, and adherence to the whole panoply of international norms of behavior. Trump cozies up to bad guys, even saying the U.S. is no better than Russia! And America’s biggest asset in world affairs has been its attractiveness as a culture others want to emulate. Trump is trashing that asset too, in countless ways blackening America’s international image. Nobody wants to emulate this crassness.

Then there’s Trump’s proposed budget, drastically slashing funds for the State Department, foreign aid, the UN, climate change, and the World Bank. True, some of that spending is wasted (as is much military spending – yet Trump wants to shower the Pentagon with money). But the reason we do foreign aid and those other things is because they increase American influence throughout the world. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Moreover, they make a more prosperous, humane, peaceful, stable world – thus a better neighborhood to live in. A huge benefit for us: fewer countries making trouble, fewer humanitarian disasters to deal with, and bigger markets for our exports. Trump is clueless how America’s role as the linchpin of a web of international institutions makes a better world, which amply advances our interests. Withdrawing from such global engagement, behind walls of our own making, is not a recipe for American greatness.

Everything discussed above is called “soft power,” as distinguished from military might. Trump does, as noted, want to boost Pentagon spending. As if there will be another WWII or Vietnam War. Our military budget already exceeds the next seven countries’ combined. Spending even more — on capacities very unlikely ever to be needed — won’t make us better off. Especially not if it’s at the expense of soft power (which yields more bang for the buck anyway).

This is all bad news not just for us, but for the whole world. As America tosses away its global leadership role, guess which countries will jump in to fill that void? Not Denmark and Switzerland. We will not like what results. Not a nice neighborhood to live in.

That’s why the Kremlin tried to get Trump elected. They understand all this perfectly, and that Trump does not.

The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

April 2, 2017

What is more precious than freedom and independence?

The answer: nothing.

But this has a sardonic double meaning; and that’s key to The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel of the Vietnam War and its aftermath.

Nguyen is a Vietnam-born American. The book’s narrator (never named) is the bastard child of an American priest and a Vietnamese girl. Toward war’s end he is a close aide to a South Vietnamese general in charge of the police. But the narrator is the “sympathizer” of the title; i.e., a Communist sympathizer. More, he is actually working for the other side, as a mole.

Nguyen is a wonderful writer. Not just a good story-teller; the prose itself scintillates. Sentences are not given flatly, but usually with a wry kick. At one point he refers to beer tasting like baby’s piss. A lesser writer would just say piss; but that’s banal; comparing beer to baby’s piss is not. (Though even if one knows the taste of piss, would the particular flavor of a baby’s be recognizable?)

There is a delicious sex scene between the narrator in youth and a squid (destined for dinner). It recalled the episode in Portnoy’s Complaint with a piece of liver. I’ve always liked liver; I’ve never liked squid. But Thanh’s writing was so erotically charged it made me want to give squid another try.

And how about this passage:

“The Chinese might have invented gunpowder and the noodle, but the West had invented cleavage, with profound if underappreciated implications. A man gazing on semi-exposed breasts was not only engaging in lasciviousness, he was also meditating, even if unawares, on the visual embodiment of the verb ‘to cleave,’ which meant both to cut apart and to put together. A woman’s cleavage perfectly illustrated this double and contradictory meaning, the breasts two separate entities with one identity. The double meaning was also present in how cleavage separated a woman from a man and yet drew him to her with the irresistible force of sliding down a slippery slope. Man had no equivalent, except, perhaps, for the only kind of male cleavage most women truly cared for, the open and closing of a well stuffed billfold.”

This meditation (prompted of course by the narrator’s experiencing “the gravitational pull” of a woman’s display) continues further. And its cynicism is wholly characteristic. The book is mainly about politics, not sex, and reads very cynically indeed.

That was me (1973 photo by Jack Henke)

In April of 1975 the Communists suddenly win the war. Despite actually working for them, the narrator stays with the General and his entourage escaping Saigon, for America, by air. That chaotic evacuation is evocatively described. On that day I happened to be typing away on a fantasy novel, coincidentally with a comparable episode. The radio was on. And a sentence I heard on a newscast slid, perfect and unaltered, directly into my manuscript, as though I was taking dictation. One of life’s weird moments. (The novel, Children of the Dragon, was published by Avon in 1978.)

Nguyen’s narrator, after coming to America, gets involved as a consultant on Vietnamese authenticity for an unnamed “auteur” making a movie, shot in the Philippines, scathingly satirizing Francis Ford Coppola and Apocalypse Now. Meantime, he also continues doing dirty work (including killings) for the General, as the latter organizes an expatriate army to reinvade Vietnam (this really happened); while the narrator continues as a spy, reporting everything to his Communist superiors. Eventually (against their wishes), he joins the General’s ragtag force on its doomed mission, is promptly captured, and despite his mole role he’s sent to a “re-education” camp.

And so we get the obligatory “enhanced interrogation” scenes. He isn’t exactly tortured. Not exactly. But this section of the book is not for the squeamish.

I’ve mentioned cynicism. That certainly pervades the Apocalypse Now sequence. But unsurprisingly the main canvas for cynicism is America’s war role itself. Yes, that history is not entirely glorious. War is hell, and a lot of bad things happen in war. But I remain a rare unrepentant defender of our Vietnam involvement. We sought to help an independent nation, with at least some degree of freedom, against aggression aiming to impose a Communist tyranny. The justness of that cause was borne out by the aftermath, in which two million Vietnamese “boat people” risked their lives, and many lost them, trying to escape what we fought to prevent.

So I found it grating to read the narrator’s words, so full of corrosive cynicism toward America. “After all,” he says, “nothing was more American than wielding a gun and committing oneself to die for freedom and independence, unless it was wielding that gun to take away someone else’s freedom and independence.” Those words again. And your standard empty anti-capitalist blather. Set against misplaced romanticism about the Communist cause. It was easy to infer that the author was using the narrator as a vehicle to express his own viewpoint.

But not so fast. The narrator is not the author, but a character, and ironically enough, he does get re-educated in that re-education camp. The reality behind the slogans peeps through for him (and the reader). At long last, he grasps the subversive alternate meaning to the catch-phrase formula: nothing is more precious than freedom and independence — communist style. He realizes that’s what the war was fought for — for nothing.

He becomes a boat-person himself, rating his chances of survival at fifty-fifty. But those, he decides, “are excellent odds, as the chances of one ultimately dying are one hundred percent.” (Something we should always remember.)

And finally, he declares, “We remain that most hopeful of creatures, a revolutionary in search of a revolution.”