Thursday
Jul262018

The False Promise of GDP Growth

Tomorrow we expect to hear that U.S. GDP growth may reach between 3-4%, a dramatic rise over the most recent quarterly rates, which have been in the mid-2% range and reached a recent low of  0.5% in the fourth quarter of 2015. After rapid growth in the 4-5% range during the strong  recovery period of 2013-14, slow GDP growth was thought to be the norm. Now a faster growing GDP is being hailed as signs of a healthy economy, which will profit everyone. 

Not so fast. 

GDP represents the dollar value of all the goods and services produced during a given period. A mystery in the last decade is how GDP growth has become detached from wage growth. One explanation has been that outsourcing of production to workers in other countries has led to more products and profits but less employment here at home. This has certainly been part of the answer. But unemployment in the U.S. (and in much of Europe) is now low—very low in the U.S. and countries such as Germany—but wages have not risen appreciably. The graph below shows this.

Labor’s share of the nonfarm business sector; seasonally adjusted.

          1950’s    1960’s     1970’s   1980’s    1990’s     2000’s       2010’s

 By The New York Times | Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

As labor’s share of the economy dropped, profit's share rose from 2% in 1984 to 16% in 2014. Corporations are making greater profits but labor is not benefitting from them.

As unemployment shrinks, wages are supposed to increase. It’s the law of supply and demand, and in terms of employment and wages, it’s called Phillips’ Curve by economists. So why isn’t it happening and is the reason something that nullifies this longstanding relationship?

We live by a lot of myths in our country, and one of these myths is that small businesses are the backbone of employment in the United States. That may have been true at one time but it no longer is. The graph below shows how the share of U.S. employment by larger companies has been growing steadily since 1985,

 

  Currently, companies with more than 10,000 workers employ more people than those with less than 50 workers. 

 

 

When very large companies—the Googles, Amazons and Microsoft’s of the world—own the job market, the employer is still able to control wages, even when there is low unemployment. 

Our national conversation about the economy and how well off the average American fares within it, is mistaken in at least two major ways: increasing GDP growth signals greater profits but not higher wages, and lower unemployment in a workforce environment that is dominated by a few very large employers is not going to improve wages according to traditional supply and demand principles.

More and more we are an economy skewed toward accumulation and preservation of wealth in a smaller and smaller number of individuals and of capital by a smaller and smaller number of multinational businesses. This makes many of our benchmark measures of the health of the economy misleading for workers although they are accurate for Wall Street and the owners of capital. This is not just an American phenomenon, although many of the iconic companies that signal this development are American owned, though China and some European countries are producing their own versions of them. The movement toward automation and robot workforces will only accentuate this trend.

If workers are interested in improving their own quality of life, based upon wages that reflect the growth of the economy, they will need to pay attention to other measures than GDP or corporate profits. Attention paid directly to wages is the only thing that will move the needle when it comes to workers earning more money.

Wednesday
Jul252018

Trump and Traditional Republican Values

Republicans have always been for limited government and a free market. The ideal Republican Supreme Court Justice does three things: preserves states’ rights over federal government overreach, interprets the constitution according to the exact words and the supposed intention of its writers, protects individual rights from government curtailment. Republicans’ biggest bogeymen are government regulations, government intervention in the free economy, and laws that restrict individual freedom. President Donald Trump has turned these values on their ear.

Instead of a free market, Trump has imposed onerous tariffs on imports from China, Europe, Canada, Mexico and other parts of Asia. When portions of the American economy have been hurt by such tariff’s, such as farmers being unable to sell their products overseas, Trump has offered a $12 billion dollar bailout, based upon a program that was instituted in the 1930’s by FDR to combat the depression. This is not different in philosophy, although it is clumsier, from China’s plan to inject cash into its economy to offset loss of growth by slowing of its exports to the U.S. because of the tariffs. Both are symptoms of what Republicans have always feared: a managed economy.

Big Brother is the ominous threatening presence of a Communist-style dictatorial central government in George Orwell’s novel, 1984. Big Brother allows no dissent, and punishes those who criticize or even question the government. Big Brother promotes Newspeak, simplified conversation about complex issues and blatant claims of truth for falsehoods and vice versa (called variously blackwhitegoodthink and doublethink). The horrors of 1984 are what our Bill of Rights and our free press protect us from. But Donald Trump has labeled much of the mainstream press “fake news”, restricted questions and access by reporters or media he dislikes, reportedly demands his cabinet and traveling retinue only watch approved TV channels, and most recently, has threatened the removal of their security clearances from former government officials who have publicly criticized him. These are the acts of Big Brother.

Our Constitution describes a federal system in which states retain the right to manage many of their own affairs without being dictated to by the federal government. This has always been staunchly defended by conservatives and libertarians, who routinely respond to questions—related to abortion to gun control to healthcare— about the determination of which laws should apply or not by saying “let the states decide.” Donald Trump wants to dismantle environmental protections, including pollution standards imposed at the federal level by previous administrations. In fact, he is doing so. But California has its own regulations on these issues in areas such as auto emissions. For 48 years California has written its own regulations and has been issued a waiver allowing its regulations to differ from the federal ones. This has made California the leader in clean air protection. The Trump administration is mandating that California’s right to determine its own regulations, which are stricter than the federal ones will be, should be ended. The Trump era EPA under Scott Pruitt has already ruled that portions of the Clean Air Act related to auto emissions standards do not need to be enforced. Trump’s actions in curtailing California’s right to legislate its own environmental standards, flies in the face of “states’ rights” claims traditionally made by conservative Republicans. Under the guise of de-regulation, Big Brother is extending the reach of the federal government into areas traditionally controlled by individual states. 

Many Republicans of the present day don’t like China, or Mexico, or Canada or the EU. They say they are for free trade, but as long as government tariffs are aimed at those they consider enemies of the U.S., they are willing to support them. The freedom to speak one’s mind and criticize the government without fear of retaliation is at the heart of the American concept of freedom of speech. Republicans have always been as vocal as anyone in defending this freedom. But again, when retribution for speaking out is aimed at those people that conservatives and Republicans disagree with, they go along with it. States’ rights have always been high on the list of Republican and conservative values, but no one on the right trusts or likes liberal California and what they consider its climate-change hysteria. So in this case, the federal government trampling states’ rights is OK. 

The truth is that Donald Trump voices the prejudices of his Republican supporters, while he violates their traditional values. Too many of his supporters have chosen the prejudices over the values and this is allowing the president to move in the direction of a Big Brotherish dictatorial use of power in ways no one in either party would have countenanced in the past.

 

Tuesday
Jul242018

The President Matters

Among Democrats today, the discussion is about how far left the Democratic Party needs to swing to capture the energy and votes of younger and poorer and minority voters. The victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, in her New York primary election has been hailed as a sign of things to come. Now Ocasio-Cortez is holding rallies with Bernie Sanders, another Democratic Socialist, to bring out new voters who can topple the Republican domination of our government. Moderate Democrats, such as attendees at the recent Opportunities 2020 convention in Columbus Ohio, fear that ultra-progressive Democrats such as Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez will scare away center-leaning voters and hijack the Party with a message that resonates only with a few supporters who reside amid the already blue districts, while alienating everyone else.

As Tip O’Neill said, “all politics is local,” and that is much truer in an off-year election than in one that elects a president. So far we have seen both moderate and very progressive Democratic candidates win primaries in their districts. While the issues they address may not always be local ones, because they are running for national offices, the attitudes of their constituents may very well be unique to their location.

Personally, I think that Medicare for All, Free Public College Tuition, and some kind of guaranteed jobs program are reasonable and workable ideas, although I can’t imagine any of them being enacted during a Trump presidency and for sure, not by a Republican controlled congress. Support of such programs may serve to provide an indication of how far left a candidate is, but it also is an indication of how far left his or her constituency is. Liberal Democrats, without embracing controversial ideas in districts that are populated mostly by moderates can still advocate for environmental protection, measures to curb climate change, a reasonable and humane immigration policy, the kind of subsidized health care offered under Obamacare, a fairer tax structure, and a rational foreign policy, based on coordination of American interests and efforts with our like-minded traditional allies. Progressive Democrats in progressive-leaning districts can go full-tilt progressive.

A president with a congress dominated by his opposition party is impaired in enacting his or her vision. We saw that with Barack Obama in his second term. Conversely, a president supported by a majority of his party in congress can do a lot of things even his own party members don’t like because he or she controls so much of public opinion and his or her election was proof of support by a majority of voters in that party. We've seen exactly that with Donald Trump.

If the Democratic Party is going to swing left, it needs to do so in a two-step process. First elect as many progressive Democrats as possible in the mid-term elections, then nominate a progressive candidate for president in 2020. The majority of Democratic moderates will support progressive policies and programs if they are the will of the majority of the party and are the policies of an elected president.

If there is a Democratic wave during the midterms it will be one that is fueled by distrust and abhorrence of Donald Trump and of Republican politicians who have failed to put a check on his actions. Those who distrust and abhor Trump include both progressives and moderates. Die-hard Trump loyal Republicans should be most vulnerable. If the country receives a message that people are fed-up with Trump and with weak-kneed Trump followers among the Republican Party, by observing a Blue Wave building in 2018, then the stage is open for new leadership to articulate the message of the Democrats. It will be a national message and one geared toward 2020 and beyond. Enthusiasm for political change can be supercharged by a progressive candidate for president. I happen to believe that going back to politics as usual as a remedy to Donald Trump is a dismal strategy. Even it is successful, it will leave us with the same big-money controlled congress, tax and economic programs stacked against wage-earners and favoring the accumulation of capital by the rich, and with hordes of poor people whose opportunities are limited by their parents’ educational and financial means as well as by the failing institutions of education, health care, and criminal justice that characterize large urban and rural pockets of our country. Medicare for All, Free Public College Tuition, a guaranteed jobs program, and a revised tax structure, as well as some method for driving the influence of big business and wealth out of politics, are among the reasonable answers to these problems. A national election, which includes a presidential election, is the time to bring the progressive wave to the forefront. Right now we need to elect opponents of the current regime.

Tuesday
Jul172018

Our President is a Joke

I don’t like to make personal attacks. In fact, I think that many Democrats and progressives are making themselves look bad by engaging in what Rand Paul recently called “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” I have argued that there are plenty of policy disagreements with the president’s and the Republican Party’s positions to support substantive arguments against them without resorting to personal attacks. But in the last two days President Trump has shown a level of incompetence that is truly frightening for a United States President.

Trump crowed that he didn’t need to prepare for his summit with Vladimir Putin and the highlight of their meeting would be a long talk between just the two of them, accompanied by translators but no advisors. The meeting was immediately followed by a working lunch, which included advisors and then a joint press conference. Days before the summit, a grand jury had indicted 12 members of Russian intelligence for interfering in the 2016 election, based upon evidence presented by the Special Prosecutor, Robert Mueller’s team. At the same time, President Trump blamed United States “foolishness and stupidity” for our country’s bad relationship with Russia, not mentioning Ukraine, Georgia, Syria, assassinations in the UK and in Russia itself, or meddling in the election.

In their joint press conference, Trump sided with Putin on the issue of the lack of Russian meddling in the election. In response to questions about the indictments and his own opinion as to who he believed, Trump repeated his characterization of the investigation by Mueller as a “witch hunt,” and then launched into an unresponsive and incoherent attack on Hillary Clinton, asking “where are those servers” and ranting about the 33,000 missing emails. He repeatedly claimed that there was “no collusion” between his campaign and Russia during the election, which was not a question even asked.

Today, the president said that he “accepts our intelligence community’s conclusion” about Russian interference in the election. He added that it may well have been others as well, undermining his own previous statement, since the intelligence community has never accused anyone else of trying to interfere with the election. He also said that he “misspoke” at the summit when he said he didn’t “see any reason why it would be” Russia that interfered with the election when he actually intended to say he didn’t  “see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia” that interfered in the election. This was more than 24 hours and several interviews and tweets after the summit had ended—a summit he declared as a great success without mentioning that he said the opposite of what he meant on the main topic discussed at the press conference. On Sean Hannity's Fox program following the summit, the president never once mentioned that he had misspoken, nor seemed to disagree with anything he said during the press conference. 

Even putting aside Trump’s fawning over Putin as a wonderful, strong leader and his failure to criticize him on his country’s behavior in Syria or the Ukraine, the president’s behavior during the summit and afterward in response to the criticism of how he behaved shows sheer incompetence in the man leading our country. He clearly was neither prepared for the summit nor for the press conference following it. He fumbled his answers, and tried to save himself with a bald-faced lie afterward. He interpreted questions about the evidence of Russian election meddling as criticism of him and of the legitimacy of his election. Everything he did had the look of a man in over his head in the office he holds. 

 

 

Friday
Jul132018

Preserving Culture in a Chaotic World

We live in a connected world. When a civil war in Syria rages out of control for years, its civilian victims flee to Europe. When corrupt governments and drug cartels run rampant in Central America’s Northern Triangle, those who fear for their lives flee north to Mexico and the United States. When central Africa suffers civil war and/or famine, its residents move north, often to Europe. As China’s economy produces more and more wealthy citizens, they buy up property in America and their children attend private U.S. schools and universities. At the same time that this is happening, birth rates for native populations are falling below the replacement rate across Europe, the UK, North America and some Asian countries, such as Japan, resulting in a need for immigrants to work in those countries’ economies in order to pay for the retirement and health costs of aging native born populations.

The worldwide troubles that have caused dislocation of millions of people are rarely a result of just the internal circumstances of the countries in which those people reside. The Syrian war would not continue without outside support from Western countries, including Europe and the U.S., for rebels, and support for government forces from Iran and Russia. The Central American drug trade is supported by the continued epidemic of drug use in the United States and laws that make the drug business illegal. Western and European efforts to help African nations in need because of war or famine have been ineffective and half-hearted, and are dwarfed by the efforts to use Africa as a source of natural resources or a market for goods. The flow of foreign money into some resource-rich African countries, and into the pockets of government officials, has fueled disputes that have led to coups and to countries, such as Sudan, splitting in two after a prolonged war, in order to divide the resources and the money flowing from them.

The sociopolitical battle that is going on in Europe, the UK and the U.S., is based on the question of acceptance versus rejection of the large numbers of immigrants entering those countries, and, in the eyes of many, changing their cultures. Hungary’s  prime Minister, Victor Orban has stated,  “there is no cultural identity in a population without a stable ethnic composition. The alteration of a country’s ethnic makeup amounts to an alteration of its cultural identity.” During his recent visit to the UK, Donald Trump said, “I think allowing millions and millions of people to come into Europe is very, very sad. I think you’re losing your culture.” The same arguments are made in the U.S., where White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, talking about illegal immigrants to the U.S., said, that they are ““not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society.” Hungary’s Orban as well as other right-leaning leaders in Europe and the UK, as well as Christian leaders in the U.S., have also cited what they view as an incompatibility of Islamic religion with Western, Christian values.

Regardless of whether the influx of immigrants is slowed, there are already enough immigrants in European countries and the U.S. to cause us to figure out how to better assimilate them into our culture. Such assimilation is a two-way street, which requires the larger culture to accommodate some of the nuances of the minority one. Multiculturalism is not a monolithic entity and not the same in every country. Many European countries, including the Balkan states and Spain have long histories of Muslim domination and have mixed religious populations that sometimes get along and sometimes fight. America was settled by waves of Europeans, each one mostly rejected by those who were already here, but eventually being assimilated. Learnng about one another is bound to be the key to resolving internal conflicts around immigration and culture. Bigotry and prejudice lead only to hostility.

At the same time as developed countries are resisting the cultural changes that accompany the admittance of large numbers of foreign-born into their borders, their industries and their economies are dependent upon them. Across the U.S. and Europe, less skilled foreign workers work the farms, provide food, domestic, and sanitary services and contribute taxes to pay for health and social security programs. Multiple studies in the U.S. and Europe have shown that immigrants put more money into the economies of these countries than they take out. Even if native-born residents chose to take such jobs, there are not enough of them to do so because of falling birthrates, and less healthy older adults in the native-born population require public services at levels unaffordable without a sufficient number of younger people contributing to the economies.

The United States under Donald Trump and many European countries, such as Hungary, have attempted to solve the dilemma by toughening borders so as not to allow anyone in unless they are invited, and altering priorities for immigration to include only those with sufficient skills, education, or financial means to immediately add to their economies at high levels. The hope is also that such people will also more easily assimilate into the existing and traditional society of a country, as they reap higher benefits from their own contributions to the society. Such policies are being enacted as some of the immediate immigration pressures are lessening, particularly in Europe, where the flood of refugees has reduced to a trickle, as a result of less Syrian turmoil as well as agreements with Turkey and Libya and other non-European refugee destinations, to keep refugees in their countries in return for financial and economic aid. In the U.S., immigration from Mexico, both legal and illegal has become a net loss in recent years, although it has increased from Central America.

Toughening borders and resisting illegal immigration as well as reducing refugee quotas can work at reducing immigration or allowing it to be more a selection process so long as conditions outside of a country do not reach intolerable levels and produce an unmanageable number of asylum seekers. So far, none of the developed countries who are wrestling with the immigration issue have addressed the causes of people leaving their countries—causes to which developed countries often contribute. Within countries that have received immigrants, there has not been enough of  a movement to incorporate them into society to ease tensions between immigrant communities and those who are already resident in a country. While this is in a very large part due to fear and prejudice, it also is a problem no one knows how to solve. Both Germany’s Angela Merkel and former British Prime Minister David Cameron have famously stated that multiculturalism, the idea of valuing and preserving the differences between cultures while incorporating them into the overall society without demanding assimilation, “has failed.”

The issue of maintaining a civil society when its members don't all agree on some basic issues and value very different traditions is a difficult one to solve. The fear and prejudice that differentness causes in native populations itself contributes to immigrants being estranged from both the economic and social benefits of a society and leads to the development of subcultures that can be antisocial. In the U.S., immigrant groups, whether legal or illegal, are less prone to crime than are native born Americans, however, this advantage is lost on their native-born children, who, in many cases, grow up in poverty and crime ridden ghetto circumstances. In Europe, immigrants have higher crime rates than native-born residents in most countries. Unemployment and poverty, which themselves contribute to crime, are also higher in European immigrant communities.

With global warming likely to cause increasing natural disasters that, in turn, lead to more armed conflicts and more famine and then to more migration of populations, the idea of developed countries in the Northern part of the world walling themselves off in order to preserve their way of life seems futile in the long run. Central American drug activity is not lessening, as U.S. drug demand continues. The Middle East is not getting more peaceful and instead, Saudi Arabia and Iran are becoming more likely to engage in continuous proxy wars to establish dominance in the region, as they are doing now in Yemen. For the moment, immigration pressures in America and Europe are actually less than in the recent past and there may be enough time to give the world an opportunity to arrive at some possible solutions to this problem. What is required is less incendiary rhetoric and more constructive problem solving. Solving global warming (or at least mitigating it) and raising the standard of living, assisting with the development of infrastructure and legal systems in developing countries, while solving international disputes without engaging in  proxy wars that displace millions of people would ease the pressures that lead to massive illegal immigration (ironically, China seems to be pursuing such a program in Africa by providing resources to strengthen legal systems and infrastructure, although not human rights). Accomplishing these tasks requires international cooperation and leadership—not just among developed countries, but among all countries. It cannot be left to the market forces of international business, as these have accentuated, not helped the problem. Governments need to become involved. Hunkering down behind our walls while not addressing any of these problems will not solve anything.

 

 

 

 

Thursday
Jul122018

Brett Kavanaugh is a Distraction

No one seriously doubts that Brett Kavanaugh will be confirmed by the Senate as a Supreme Court Justice. The 2% chance that this won’t happen rests upon Democrats either delaying his confirmation until after the election and winning a majority in the Senate during that election (although the confirmation would need to be delayed until after January of 2019 when the new Senate is sworn in), or something damaging coming out in his background that disqualifies him (most likely a non-right vs. left issue).

The optics of waging a losing battle are not good. They can be, if the issues are sufficiently moral and sufficiently clear-cut. If they are not, then the losers, in this case the Democrats, look like whining fear mongers or, worse yet, chronic sponsors of opposition for the sake of opposition (as were the Republicans during many of the Obama years). 

But what about Roe v. Wade? Isn’t that a sufficiently moral issue to justify outraged opposition, even in a losing fight?  First of all, for many Americans who oppose abortion, the issue is also a moral one, so a woman’s right to choose vs the right of an unborn child to life is a divisive moral issue, not an agreed upon one. Second, Judge Kavanaugh’s opinion on the issue is far from clear. His one ruling on a pertinent case, that would have given an undocumented under age immigrant the right to obtain an abortion, did uphold the government’s right of “refraining from facilitating abortion,” but he did not vote to prohibit the abortion, only to give the government more time to find the girl a sponsor who could stand in for her parents and help her make her decision. He limited the government’s time line to 11 days, so that if no one were found, she still had time to have the abortion. His opinion and the decision of his three-judge panel was overruled by the full court. Although it can be argued that this case signals Kavanaugh’s underlying opposition to abortion, the case has so many extraneous issues attached to it that is not clear, and even some conservative, pro-life groups have objected to his nomination because they see his ruling as confirming the girl’s right to have an abortion. 

But what about the fact that President Trump promised to nominate someone who would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade?  While the president’s statements may signal his own views on the subject, unfortunately, they would apply to anyone he nominated, so to defeat him on the issue would mean never confirming any of Trump’s nominees—an unlikely scenario, no matter who is in charge of the Senate.

Kavanaugh is also characterized as arguing that a sitting president cannot be indicted, something which Democrats claim was foremost in Donald Trump’s mind when he nominated Kavanaugh. One Democratic Congresswoman has argued that this gives the president a “get out of jail free card,” and other prominent Democrats have said that, at the least, if the issue of a presidential indictment comes up, Kavanaugh should recuse himself if he is on the court. The Washington Post has given this claim two Pinochios. The Post analyzed the 2009 article in which Kavanaugh discussed presidential civil and criminal prosecution. They pointed out that he said that the legal issue was “debatable,” but the bulk of the article, which dealt with the Clinton investigation, of which he was a part, argued that because of the distracting effect of such an investigation on a sitting president’s ability to carry out his or her duties, congress should act to pass a law that would put such cases off, by extending the statute of limitations until after the president is no longer in office. The Post points out that the argument presumes that legal impediments would not prohibit such an indictment, which is why Kavanaugh recommends that congress act. In the same article, Kavanaugh recommends that congress pass a bill requiring Senate confirmations of Supreme Court nominees take place within 180 days of the nomination—which would have eliminated the Merritt Garland fiasco if such a law had been in place.

Brett Kavanaugh’s positions on abortion and on indicting a president are among many issues that the Senate needs to examine in determining his fitness to serve on the Supreme Court. They are far from trivial issues, and it is the Senate’s duty to delve into them as deeply as possible. I’m not recommending that Democrats roll over and play dead and confirm Kavanaugh without thorough vetting. But there is also an election to address. Channeling Democratic opposition into the narrow funnel of a tooth and nail fight to stop Kavanaugh, when the fight will be lost, diverts energy, media attention and airspace away from the larger issues that plague this country. Trump administration immigration policies are inhumane and incompetent and have resulted in possibly irreparable damage to many families, both those who are seeking asylum from violence in their home country and those who have lived here for years as productive members of the community and are being deported. The entire structure of environmental protection, from National Park preservation to reduction of air, ground and water pollution is being dismantled, first under the direction of a corrupt crook and now under the direction of his philosophically identical second in command, a former coal industry lobbyist. The provisions of the Affordable Care Act that protect those with preexisting medical conditions and allow insurance companies to insure high-risk clients while being reimbursed through a government program to distribute the costs across the industry are being taken away. The new tax law further protects high-wealth persons and widens economic disparity, while a Republican congress complains about poor people getting too much and tries to reduce benefits in the areas of housing and food stamps. We have a House and Senate that are powerless to oppose the encroachments of the Trump Administration on the lives of those with the least power in our society. It’s a Republican controlled congress. This is what needs to change and this is where Democrats need to direct their energy. Young people and poor and lower middle class people are being trampled upon in our society and we need a government that is responsive to all Americans, not just those with money. That’s the issue, not a Quixotic confirmation fight in the Senate that narrows the problems of our country down to a single divisive moral issue or to questionable issues of personality and philosophy in a Supreme Court nominee.

Monday
Jul092018

Democrats Must Choose a Direction

Two major political fights are on the horizon: First (and it will be first), is the Senate confirmation of a Supreme Court Justice. Second, is the 2018 election.

Unless President Trump nominates someone who is so outside the mainstream that he or she is unacceptable to moderate Republicans as well as Democrats, the president’s nomination will be confirmed. There are opportunities for Democratic Senators to attempt to reveal potentially troubling aspects of the nominee’s judicial philosophy (troubling to their Democratic constituency), that could add fuel to the necessity of electing more Democrats in the future to stop further movement of the court to the right, but that’s about all that can be accomplished. Losing or winning an election has consequences and altering the composition of the Supreme Court is one of them.

The 2018 election is a different kettle of fish. Democrats have a real chance of altering the balance of power in both houses of congress, although doing so is still a long shot. If a conservative Supreme Court means that more decisions will be left up to states, rather than settled on a federal level, then governorships and state legislatures become extremely important in exerting control over decisions that had previously been thought to be within the federal purview (e.g. gerrymandering and perhaps even abortion rights).

The question for Democrats—and it is one that has to be answered right now because the candidates in most states’ general elections have been decided—is whether to try to build a truly progressive constituency that supports progressive candidates who campaign for universal health care, free public college tuition, abortion rights, tax reform, environmental protection and measures to combat climate change, or whether to tailor the Democratic message to often moderate or sometimes conservative views of the local electorate, who supported Republican incumbents in the past.

“Catastrophic liberal hysterics” (I am putting quotations around the phrase, since I think it captures the way much of what is currently being said aloud and in messages I get daily in my inbox—mostly followed by requests for donations—are perceived by a fair share of the public) appeal to the progressive base but probably deter those who are more moderate. Such sentiments, phrased more positively in terms of actions that can be taken to bring about new programs and policies, may serve to recruit young and perhaps minority voters. Realistic proposals, which include Medicare for All, greater taxation of high wealth, amnesty for DACA recipients, higher minimum wages, some version of free public college tuition, reduction of greenhouse gases, a more welcoming refugee program, a more humane immigration program, can become a core of a liberal/progressive movement that energizes young people and the older progressive base of the Democratic Party without totally alienating moderates. The question is whether there is enough time between now and November to bring out young and minority voters to support this agenda. There may be in some states or congressional districts, but not in others. It will be much easier in a presidential election year, when a strong, vibrant, progressive candidate can espouse such views.

Electing anyone, just because he or she is a Democrat, may stem the tide of the Republican/Trump takeover, but it can’t sustain a progressive victory through 2020. Many young progressives are fed up with the Wall Street oriented, ties to deep pocket fundraisers and lobbyists, middle of the road politics of those currently holding the reins of Democratic power in congress. Many progressives, regardless of age, including myself, believe that the ties to corporate power and wealth of our politicians is what is responsible for things rarely changing regardless of which party is in power. Under both parties, the rich have been getting richer and the poor getting poorer. For the Democratic Party to move ahead and change our country, it needs to embrace a more progressive stance, if not before the 2018 election, at least after it and before 2020. 

Tuesday
Jun262018

Why Silencing Contrarians is a Mistake

I recently read an article in the New York Times by a professor of Philosophy, who recommended that Charles Murray, one of the authors of  1994’s The Bell Curve, not be given airtime in the public media or at universities, because the book’s findings are “junk science.”  What Murray claims about his findings, which include the idea that differences found in IQ and achievement between races may be innate, may be objectionable to many, but the data in the book is not “junk science” just because one disagrees with its conclusions.The data it cites are almost entirely from reputable, mainstream sources. The job of those who disagree with its conclusions—and that includes me—is to examine the data and decide why they come to a different conclusion than the authors. The Bell Curve’s message is refutable, both in terms of the data it includes and in light of research carried out since the time it was published, but it is not “junk science,” and the quest to silence its author on this basis is misleading and represents a failure to understand how science works. 

As Thomas Kuhn pointed out more than fifty decades ago, scientific knowledge generally proceeds in small increments. Increasing failures of current theories to predict experimental results finally leads to a “a paradigm shift” to accommodate the errant findings in a new viewpoint of the world. There are almost always positive and negative findings and the determiner of truth in science is primarily consensus. Experimental or observational findings are replicated and anomalous findings are explained until everyone more or less agrees on a common interpretation. If the anomalous findings persist, a change of interpretation may occur. A new theory may emerge. Science tries to unearth facts and explain them using theories. Theories explain experimental and observational facts using the concepts available at the time. Anomalous findings that do not support the current theory are taken seriously by scientists and are not labeled “junk science” simply because they fail to agree with other studies.

Many of those in the media and in politics claim that  findings that do not support the concept of man-made global warming are examples of “junk science.” The nearly unanimous agreement among climate scientists that global warming exists and is man-made is often cited as “scientific proof” that it is real. In California, a serious proposal was made to make questioning the scientific validity of global warming a criminal offense. The consensus among the majority of the world’s climate scientists is real, but not because the findings are either clear-cut or incontrovertible and they certainly are complex. The causal relationship between C02 concentrations and atmospheric temperatures has been very difficult to establish and predictions of rising atmospheric temperatures made in the 1980s and early 90s overestimated the increase, a finding which is only now being explained by discovering how deep oceanic heating may have reduced atmospheric heating. The relationships are complex and the scientific findings are varied, although the scientific consensus that the phenomenon is real has not wavered. But anomalous findings need explanation and those who bring them up are not resorting to “junk science” and should not be told to be quiet.

Real science can lead to anomalous results that don’t agree with accepted wisdom. Public perception of the state of science is usually a simplification. Unfortunately, once a scientific finding enters the political arena or the mainstream media, it is further simplified but opinions of lay people become hardened around what they perceive are the facts. The media and many partisan advocates have taken simplistic viewpoints with regard to complex issues and, in this age in which we approach many topics with our preconceptions on one sleeve and our moral self-righteousness on the other, have argued for “shutting down” voices that oppose the received wisdom. If we disagree with the voices who challenge our viewpoint, then we can argue against them, citing the reasons we prefer our own view instead of theirs. With science, this will probably be an argument about facts or the implications of facts. With social questions this may be about facts, but may just as well be about morals and ethics related to such facts.  Whatever the debate, it can be worth having and is better than closing our minds and not listening because we don’t like what is being said.  The world is a complicated place and very little of what we know about it is cut and dried or exists separate from our perceptions and opinions. 

 

Monday
Jun252018

I’m Tired of Self-Righteous Intolerance

Our modern times make us witness to a lot of ugliness. Much of it is enacted in the guise of self-righteousness. The president and his supporters claimed that “the law is the law” and it is their duty to uphold it, even when it resulted in cruelty and harm to children and parents because it led to separating families. They said they were doing what was necessary to protect our border and “a country that cannot control its borders doesn’t deserve to be called a country.” The evangelical right claimed victory when the Supreme Court ruled that a merchant can refuse service to a customer if by serving them, he or she violates his religiously based moral precepts. 

Liberals and progressives have been appalled by the president’s immigration policy and the Supreme Court’s enshrinement of what they consider religious bigotry over the rights of gay people (and who knows who else if the principle is extended further). Then Sarah Huckabee Sanders was refused service at a restaurant because, according to the restaurant’s owner, “people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals.” Liberals cheered and conservatives were appalled by the restaurant owner’s decision. Soon after the Huckabee Sanders episode a woman in San Francisco was videotaped threatening to call the police on an 8 year old who was selling water without a permit in front of her apartment house. The video went viral and viewers, who noted that the woman, who was identified, was white and the child biracial, objected, including making death threats toward the woman for her “bigotry and intolerance.” This morning I read an article in the New York Times by a philosopher who argued that “The Ignorant Do Not Have a Right to an Audience.” He provided examples of three people, two of them university professors, who espoused right-wing opinions he said were not supported by facts and who should not be allowed to speak in the national media.

Separating families, refusing service to customers because their behavior or lifestyle outside your establishment violated your moral standards, death threats, deeming some opinions so ignorant that those who espouse them shouldn’t be allowed to speak? The family separation does the most harm, but otherwise, I see all of these instances as symptoms of the same disease that has affected our country. We have wrapped our hatred in the clothing of self-righteousness and decided that our moral convictions allow us to treat other people in ways we would never want to be treated ourselves (and ways that, usually, our own moral codes forbid). We can employ a double standard with regard to a decent response to what we disagree with because we think that we have morality on our side. We can suspend our treatment of other people as valuable human beings because in our opinion, their behavior or their ideas have made them less than human and not deserving of being respected as human beings. We engage in name-calling, sick jokes, say “there’s a special place in hell” for those who disagree with us, or that the child of someone we hate “should be put in a cage with pedophiles.” We use our moral indignation as an excuse to behave without moral reservations when speaking or acting against those with whom we disagree. 

Both sides of the political debates going on in our country act similarly. Ultimately we in the United States, in the world, comprise a community. Our survival depends upon following rules of decency that we apply to our own behavior, first and foremost. We’ve seen what happens when communities give in to between-group hatred, to mob mentality, to the license of the majority to walk all over the rights of the minority. We’ve seen what happens when we start treating each other as less than human. Such behavior is always viewed as moral by those who engage in it. We’ve got to find a way to see and value each other as human beings and to behave accordingly. 

Thursday
Jun212018

Hungary’s Fugitive Slave Law

A few years ago, on an extended visit to a number of European countries and such picturesque cities as Paris, Lisbon, Madrid, Barcelona, Venice and Salzburg, I was surprised to find that my favorite city was Budapest, Hungary. It had intriguing geography, with two very different centers (Buda and Pest) in one city, the Danube running between them; it had  old castles and palaces (one of them turned into the hotel in which my wife and I stayed), wide shopping streets and a beautiful park and lake in the center of the city. I could see why it was called the “Paris of Eastern Europe.” What I enjoyed most of all were the many sidewalk cafes, filled with students studying and talking and drinking coffee or beer, the classic and elegant historic coffee houses where the rich of the city used to gather and probably still do, and the quirky “ruin pubs,” which were partially destroyed buildings unrepaired and turned into multi-floor drinking establishments. I searched, unsuccessfully, for the birth place of John Von Neumann, one of my intellectual heroes. What a place to study or teach, I thought to myself!  I imagined the city being alive with avante garde ideas and intellectual fervor.

Hungarian-born American investor, political activist and philanthropist George Soros, also must have seen his native Budapest in the same way. Until last month, the city was the home of his Open Societies Foundations as well as the Central European University, a graduate university focusing on social sciences, which he founded. The university’s future is still in doubt, as the government of  Prime Minister Viktor Orban has passed legislation that would make its current structure and policies illegal, despite the university being listed among the world’s top 100 in the social sciences. In May of this year, Soros, a target of the Orban government, as well as of American conservatives and Republicans because of his support of progressive politics, announced that he is moving his Open Societies Foundations from Budapest because of “an increasingly repressive political and legal environment” in Hungary. For the time being the embattled Central European University will stay.

What repression was Soros talking about? The idyllic Budapest I encountered a few years ago was shattered by an influx of refugees from the war-torn Middle East and famines devastated Africa, who, beginning in 2015, traversed the country on their way to other European destinations, such as Germany or the Netherlands. To be truthful, most of them were only passing through Hungary, partly because it’s so-so economy did not offer the employment or public assistance options available in more thriving European destinations. Nevertheless, Hungary made worldwide headlines with scenes of refugees stranded in Budapest train stations, with the pictures of the fences it erected between it and Serbia, Slovenia and Croatia to keep refugees from crossing into its borders, and with videos of its immigration authorities chasing and beating refugees who had managed to get in.

Victor Orban, the leader of the right-wing, populist Fidesz Party has been prime minister of Hungary since 2010. Orban and his party seized on the fear generated by the wave of refugees and intensified a campaign to demonize migrants, particularly if they are Muslim or non-white. His arguments are ethnic/racial, such as his words, “For a country to be strong, demographic decline must be out of the question. At this point in time, this is Hungary’s Achilles heel. A country which is in demographic decline – and, to put it bluntly, is not even able to sustain itself biologically – may well find that it is no longer needed. A country like that will disappear. Only those communities survive in the world which are at least able to sustain themselves biologically; and let’s be honest with ourselves, Hungary today is not yet such a country.” On another occasion, he said, “there is no cultural identity in a population without a stable ethnic composition. The alteration of a country’s ethnic makeup amounts to an alteration of its cultural identity.” His arguments are also religious: “Those arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture. Europe and European identity is rooted in Christianity. Is it not worrying in itself that European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian? There is no alternative, and we have no option but to defend our borders.” 

Despite plummeting numbers of refugees entering his country—in September of 2015, a total of 138,396 illegal immigrants crossed into Hungary (mostly on their way elsewhere) and by September of 2016 the number had dropped to 152—Orban has kept up his drumbeat of anti-Muslim immigrant rhetoric. Notably, this anti-immigrant campaign has not been directed toward all groups and the number of immigrants into Hungary remains just below average for EU countries. They even had a program called the Hungarian Investment Immigration Program that lured people into the country with a promise of one-month qualification as a permanent resident and a fast-track to citizenship for an investment of $300,000. The program ended in 2017, when the government declared that its economy no longer needed it. However, it flourished during the same time that refugees were being turned away, and despite the prime minister’s claim that maintaining White European ethnicity was a priority, the program also tried to attract Asians, particularly Chinese, who could afford the investment. It was clear that the Orban government just didn’t want Muslims in its country.

Now, the Orban government has capped its anti-immigration program with the most onerous ruling yet. Yesterday, the Hungarian parliament passed a set of laws—which they named the “Stop Soros” bill—that makes it illegal for anyone to help migrants legalize their status in Hungary by providing information about the asylum process or offering them financial assistance. The penalty for violating the law is a 12-month jail term. Another measure would change the Hungarian Constitution to make it illegal to “settle foreign populations” in Hungary, a move made to thwart efforts by other EU countries to force Hungary to take some of the refugees that have settled elsewhere in Europe. These laws, particularly the first one, are reminiscent of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law in the United States, which made it illegal to assist a runaway slave, with a fine of $1,000 for violating the law. That law, now regarded as one of the worst laws our country has ever passed, also made it clear that slaves were not citizens and had no rights to a trial by jury in an American court, a decision made even more clear seven years later by the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision. 

So far, the EU has not objected to the violation of free speech or free expression inherent in Hungary’s new law.

Hungarians are not worse people than other Europeans. I loved the friendliness that met me when I visited Budapest. We mustn’t make the mistake we often make about Germans under Hitler, of saying that there is something different about a population that takes prejudice, fear and hatred toward an ethnic, religious or racial group to a malignant extreme. Enough social psychological experiments by the likes of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo should have taught us that we are all capable of such behavior. All it takes is our fear being activated, something to push us into an Us vs Them state of mind, authority figures who tell us that the ethical thing to do is to follow orders and obey the laws no matter what, and a few demagogues to drum up hateful fervor amongst us.

There are smaller movements that mirror Hungary’s approach to immigrants in nearly every country in Europe and certainly in the United States, where anti-immigration fever is rampant. Victor Orban has praised President Trump on numerous occasions, hailing his victory in 2016 as signaling the “end to liberal non-democracy in America.” Trump has returned Orban’s praise and in a telephone conversation with him days before  Orban’s government passed the “Stop Soros bill,” the U.S. president encouraged the Hungarian P.M. to “strongly defend” Hungary’s border. Orban did just that.

Immigration has caused fear and drastic behaviors on the part of many countries. Hungary’s reaction is one example and the U.S. “zero-tolerance” policy that separated children from parents is another. We are in danger of losing our humanity because of fear and prejudice. We can’t afford to let ourselves go down the road Hungary seems to be following. We need to stand up for helping our less fortunate brothers and sisters in the world who are fleeing dangerous or unliveable situations, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin, and not succumb to bigotry and selfishness, clothed in the guise of nationalism and religious or ethnic self-righteousness.

 

Wednesday
Jun202018

Why “the law is the law” is the Wrong Answer

In April of this year, the Trump administration, speaking through Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new “zero-tolerance” policy for dealing with those who cross our borders illegally. The tolerance that was being eliminated was that which allowed parents and their children to be put in detention facilities, but remain together while their case was waiting to be heard by a judge. Because of the backlog of cases, many families were held indefinitely, which was ruled illegal by a federal judge and so they were often released to await trial. Many never showed up and disappeared into the world of illegal immigrants. This earned the program the name of “catch and release” by the Trump administration. Back in October of 2017, the Trump administration began experimenting with a policy of arresting and jailing parents and then declaring their children “unaccompanied alien children” and separating them from their parents and putting them in detention centers run by the Department of Health and Human Services. This became the official program in April after Attorney General Sessions’ announcement.

The laws governing the legal status of parents and children did not change. Parents who entered the country illegally have always been subject to prosecution and jail while their cases are awaiting trial, even if their defense is that they are seeking asylum. (If they present themselves as seeking asylum but have not entered the U.S., they are not subject to prosecution – this latter situation is called “affirmative asylum seeking” and when an asylum request is made after being caught in the U.S. illegally, it is called “defensive asylum seeking.")  What has changed is that prior to the Trump program, parents accompanied by their own minor children were not jailed unless they were also guilty of another crime or presented a threat to national security.

Clearly, what has changed has been the policy that determines how families are treated, not the law which governs this procedure. The law allows considerable variability in how it is applied. Zero-tolerance is one variation. Family detention centers is another variation, which was in effect in previous administrations.

Throughout history we have had numerous examples of laws that could produce harm if applied without thought to their humanitarian consequences. The  Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 fined anyone $1000  if they aided a runaway slave and also refused slaves the right of a jury trial. Black Codes and Jim Crow Laws segregated blacks from whites, prosecuted Blacks as vagrants if the refused to sign onerous work contracts with White landowners, and kept Blacks and Whites from marrying. Under Public Law 503, 127,000 Japanese-Americans were placed in detention camps during WWII, many of them losing their possessions, because of the belief that they might be more loyal to the country of their ancestors than to the U.S. As late as 1967, fifteen states still had laws preventing marriage between people of different races, all of them overturned that year by a Supreme Court decision.  In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that “Sodomy Laws,” which made homosexuality and some sexual practices even between married heterosexual couples illegal were unconstitutional. Such laws were still on the books in fourteen states at the time.

Many of the egregious laws mentioned above were applied differently or not at all by different states and municipalities. In virtually all cases, “zero-tolerance” policies would now be seen as inhumane, based upon prejudice and, looking back, can be seen as robbing people of their fundamental rights.

It’s not a fundamental right to enter a country illegally. It is a fundamental right to protect one’s children, for children to remain with their parents unless it is impossible to do so, and to have one’s day in court without undergoing cruel and unusual circumstances while awaiting that court date. The situations in the countries from which the majority of the families crossing our border are fleeing are horrendous and life threatening to the children. The so-called “northern triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, from which the majority of these families are fleeing, have soaring homicide rates, rampant drug gang violence, dysfunctional legal and law enforcement systems and unemployment rates from 30-65%. The source of many of their ills is the lucrative drug trade in the U.S. 

Parents are doing what they believe they must do to try to give their children a chance at a better life. A zero-tolerance arrest policy that separates families is inhumane. It is based on the kind of prejudice that claims, as our president has, that we are becoming “infested” (a word normally used for insect and animal pests) with immigrants, or that prompted an administration supporter on CNN to refer to illegal immigrants as “invaders.”  By implementing this policy, the U.S. has abdicated any moral leadership in the world that it could still claim. It has put property rights above human rights. It values territory over people. There is no denying this, and our country should be ashamed of itself for allowing this to happen. Laws are meant to make us all feel safer. The implementation of laws using policies that make some of us feel safer while removing the safety of maintaining a family from others—whether they are legal U.S. residents or not— is not right. When we see other countries doing such things we object. We need to stop doing it ourselves.

 

Note: At the time of this writing, President Trump is considering an executive order to change this policy. I hope he signs it and we can leave this period of national disgrace behind. 

Saturday
Jun162018

Trump’s Threat to the Liberal World Order

The mantra of the liberal media, particularly the intellectual and scholarly media (New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Fareed Zakaria) and particularly when articles are written by former government officials or diplomats, claim that president Donald Trump is destroying the “liberal world order,” crafted and shaped by the United States for the last 70 years. Trump has broken trade alliances, disputed the principle of free trade in favor of aggressive tariffs, failed to assert demands for human rights in other nations that violate them, and praised dictatorial leaders, such as Kim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who disregard human rights in their own countries. He is scaring our allies in South Korea and Japan by stopping military exercises designed to deter North Korea and voiced support for eventually removing troops from South Korea. In the past, he has criticized the usefulness of NATO, and threatened to reduce American involvement if European countries didn’t pay more for their own defense.

All of the complaints against President Trump are true. The destruction of free trade between the U.S. and Canada and Mexico, the development of a trade war with those countries as well as Europe and China, the uncritical support of Erdoğan, are all egregious foreign policy moves in my opinion. Trump’s willingness to talk to Putin and Kim, his reduction of the U.S. military presence as it pertains to North Korea in an effort to make peace, and his chiding of European countries for taking a “free ride” on the coattails of the American Defense budget when it comes to their own defense are perfectly legitimate positions, as far as I am concerned, even if they do violate some people’s view of what the American-maintained liberal world order should look like. The jeopardizing of our alliances and the initiation of a trade war between the U.S. and nearly all of our trading partners, as well as Trump’s professed admiration for dictators, as well as the disorganized and amateurish, on-the-fly nature of his foreign policy are aspects of the Trump presidency that I see as downright dangerous.

But what about his undermining of the liberal world order? The idea behind such an order is that America, relatively untouched by WWII, at first the only nuclear power, and left with a military presence in Europe and Japan, as well as the resources to rebuild parts of war-torn Europe and support the rebirth of Japan, became the protector of Western values. America pursued a deliberate policy of using its military and economic might to protect and foster democracies, democratic institutions and the maintenance of capitalism and free trade as the economic system that dominated the world. Under the umbrella of this policy, nuclear weapons were never again used, democracies didn’t go to war against each other and the world’s economy grew at an impressive rate while underdeveloped regions of the world slowly worked their way up from destitution.

The liberal world order is a nice picture, but the reality is a little different. The association of the theme of liberal democracy with the idea of a world order created the Cold War mentality, in which the danger of Communism in any form became America’s first priority for virtually the entire last half of the 20thcentury. Using the idea that any defense against Communism or its twin, Socialism, was a defense of  “freedom,” the U.S., using covert operations and economic pressure, toppled several democratically elected governments in South and Central America because they endorsed leftist ideologies. This pattern has persisted, at least in terms of whom we support and our economic policies, and probably our covert intelligence operations, right up to the present in places such as Venezuela and Honduras. The strait-laced blindness of American anti-Communism forced Cuba to align with Russia, then become a purveyor of its system to other South and Central American countries as well as Africa, while the U.S. stood by and failed to reach out to a regime that could have been our friend and was no more dictatorial than regimes we supported in El Salvador or Chile.

America’s protection of human rights failed miserably in our lack of criticism or economic penalties for countries such as South Africa during its Apartheid era or Israel in its treatment of Palestinians, and even America's support for Saddam Hussein against Iran in their war, because these countries were considered vital to America either economically or strategically. In this century, we have continued this practice with regard to Saudi Arabia and the Ukraine, and, of course, Israel.

The upwardly rising economic progress of the world, in terms of its march toward an ever higher Global World Product (GWP), has for decades concealed the widening gap between the economic elites of the world and the rest of humanity, which appears most stark in the most successful capitalistic countries, such as the U.S. Thomas Piketty has chronicled the rise of income inequality as a consequence of the capitalistic system and the lack of countervailing forces to distribute wealth more equitably. Meanwhile, China, for some reason out of the field of vision of Western economists for decades, has developed an alternative model that fuses partial capitalism with tight undemocratic government control over both its economy and its people and vaulted the Chinese economy into competition with the U.S. and exported its model to much of the developing world.

While the liberal world order was a nice idea, and may have been necessary when Stalin threatened Europe after WWII (though it actually did little to stop him), and it produced a economically recovered Western Europe that was probably instrumental in convincing Mikhael Gorbachev to dismantle the Soviet Union and turn toward greater freedom and capitalism, it was also a massive hypocrisy concealing the rise of Western corporate power, and supporting dictatorships when it was useful to do so, neglecting, except as sources of raw materials and a market for goods, Africa and other developing regions (regions that are now falling under the economic influence of China), and pushing us into wars such as Vietnam and Iraq. 

Is the liberal world order worth preserving? I’m not sure that it is capable of being preserved in the light of China’s ascendance. If its ideals always determined America’s actions, it might be a useful model, but the basic idea that one country’s military might and wealth are the source of freedom and prosperity for the rest of the world seems a flawed one when one steps back and thinks about it. I can’t believe that Donald Trump’s model of an economically belligerent superpower is a viable alternative, and in fact it seems to be based upon the same flawed idea that America is exceptional enough to determine the way the rest of the world works. Trump’s vision is more pragmatic and less ideological, but equally oriented around power as the determiner of right.

I don’t know the answer as to what alternative we should seek, except that it should involve more American humility, more genuine concern for human welfare, such as the welfare of refugees and immigrants, greater equality of wealth, more concern for the environment and protection against global warming, less threat of war, and more effort by the developed world to help the developing world without concern about whether they become ours or China’s satellite country. I don’t have a model for this, but I think I’ve heard enough about the demise of the liberal world order. It may have been time for its descent, Trump or no Trump, and we should stop paying obeisance to it.

Friday
Jun152018

Islands in the Sun and the Rising Tide that May Engulf Them

“How much can Democrats count on suburban liberals?” was the question columnist Thomas Edsall asked in a recent New York Times article. Edsall referenced a book by Ryan Enos, a Harvard social scientist, in which he described a study he conducted in the liberal, mostly White, Boston suburbs. Enos planted 2 confederate Hispanic people at 9 commuter train stations in the suburbs and had the plants speak to each other in Spanish. They appeared daily for several days at the time of certain trains. Afterward Enos asked the White commuters their attitudes toward illegal immigration and toward making English the official state language. Compared to a control subjects who took trains from the same stations at a slightly different time each day, those who had observed the Hispanic people speaking Spanish became less open to allowing illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S. and more in favor of a law making English the official state language. Enos summarized his results by concluding that, “The good liberal people catching trains in the Boston suburbs became exclusionary. Exposure to two young Spanish speakers for just a few minutes, or less, for just three days had driven them toward anti-immigration policies associated with their political opponents.”

Edsall goes on to cite research by Enos and others that demonstrates or suggests that liberal values of diversity and inclusion may be held more by White people who have little acquaintance with other races and ethnicities, or at least not in their neighborhoods, and that those values begin to disappear when they are actually faced with those who look different or speak another language. Additionally, Edsall cited research showing that such exclusionary attitudes can become stronger if they are stoked by politicians who support them. 

This is a troubling set of findings and a troubling suggestion. It means that as diversity begins to extend into the living spaces of White Americans, they become less welcoming to it and may become more prone to gravitating toward prejudicial and discriminatory viewpoints. A similar phenomenon can be observed in Europe in the reaction of White Europeans to the influx of African and Middle Eastern refugees into their countries. Attitudes went from welcoming before the refugees arrived, to hostile after they moved in to stay. A saving grace may be that Enos suggests that the result is not linear. According to him, “The relationship between the proportion of an out-group in an area and group-based bias is curvilinear: it becomes greater as the out-group proportion increases until reaching a tipping point and then starting to decrease. This means that when a group makes up a large portion of a place — for concreteness, say 40 percent — each additional person above 40 percent actually decreases group-based bias.”

People are protective of what they have and their protectiveness is brought out when their fear of losing their safety or their privileged position is aroused. In our country, a number of things other than language and ethnicity are associated with ethnic and racial differences. The ethnicities and races in this country differ in terms of wealth, income, education and crime rates, all of which are interconnected and all of which may work against integration of people from diverse ethnic or racial backgrounds. People can live in proximity, but rarely cross paths or socialize with one another. Housing and education patterns may reinforce and maintain racial and ethnic separation, while further solidifying prejudicial stereotypes among different groups.

Orange County, California, home of California’s “Riviera” or ”Gold Coast,” is a sun-drenched paradise in the eyes of many who live within its boundaries or who visit its beaches, resorts and theme parks such as Disneyland and Knott’s. Less than an hour south of Los Angeles, it has a population of over 3 million people. It has a very diverse population and is one of the so-called “majority-minority” areas of the country that reflect our changing demographics: 41.1% are non-Hispanic Whites, 34.35% are Hispanic or Latino, 20.4% are Asian, only 2.1% are Black and 2.1% are mixed or other races/ethnicities. But the diverse population is not spread evenly across the county. Spread of Hispanic and Asian members of the population centers around some “islands,” but, from those centers, spreads out gradually toward all areas of the county. Coincident with the changing demographics, the once firmly Republican Orange County has been changing over the years. In 1990, the Republican voter registrations were 22% greater than Democrats.’ In 2015, that difference was 9%. In 2016, it had dropped to 5.3% and today it is 4%.

When I began to write this essay, I was convinced that most of Orange County remained “islands” of cities that were either predominately White, or Hispanic or mixed White/Asian and that the integration of the county was an illusion. After combing census figures throughout the county, I found that my first impression was only partially true. Newport Beach, the richest city in the county is 80% White, and other “Riviera” cities such as Laguna Beach and San Clement are near that. Santa Ana, the poorest city, is nearly 80% Hispanic. The largest percentage of Asians is in Westminster, which is 48% Asian – mostly Vietnamese. The rest of the cities were a mixture, but there is a striking split between those cities in northern and southern Orange County. While Asians are present in percentage above the national figure of 5.7% in most of the cities in the county, they are well below the state figure of 14.8 % in virtually all of the southern cities, except Irvine, where over 40% of the population is Asian, the largest percentage of any race/ethnicity, and Aliso Viejo where Asians are at about the same percentage as the rest of the state. Likewise, percentages of Hispanics are near or just below the national average of 17.8% in most of the southern O.C. cities, except San Juan Capistrano and nowhere near the state figure of 38.9%. 

In northern Orange County, the picture is different. In the majority of the cities, both Hispanic and Asian citizens are strongly represented at percentages similar to the state average for Hispanics and higher than the rest of the state for Asians. Non-Hispanic Whites are less than 50% of the population in all but Huntington Beach and Yorba Linda. Throughout the county, Blacks, who aren’t concentrated in any one area, are represented by tiny numbers relative to their state or U.S. percentages. 

Incomes, house prices and political party registrations follow the demographics. In Newport Beach, Republican registrations outnumber Democratic registrations about 2.5 to 1. In San Clemente, they are double those of Democrats. But in Laguna Beach, an expensive city with the highest percentage of White residents in the county (84%), Democrats outnumber Republicans by a slim margin and the Democrats are notoriously progressive. Overwhelmingly Hispanic Santa Ana has 3 times as many registered Democrats as Republicans. Anaheim, home of Disneyland, and a city where Hispanics are more than 50% of the population, Buena Park, where non-Hispanic Whites are only a quarter of the population and fewer than either Hispanics or Asians, Fullerton, where Whites are a third of the population, Garden Grove, with only a fifth of the population White and non-Hispanic, and Tustin, with less than 30% White, are other cities in the county where Democratic registrations outnumber Republican registrations. Irvine, with an even split between Whites and Asians, but markedly few Hispanics, is decidedly Democratic, an exception for southern county cities.

There are a few northern O.C. cities where Republicans retain a slim lead over Democrats, despite the changing demographics. These include Westminster, where the Asian population is primarily Vietnamese, who remain loyal to the Republican Party, which they consider sided with them (the South) during the Vietnam War, and Costa Mesa, where the White population is just over 50% and there are few Asians. 

Income, house prices, poverty rates and the likelihood of having health insurance follow the demographics, with the higher the percentage of non-Hispanic White members of a city’s population associated with higher incomes, higher house prices, lower poverty rates and fewer people without insurance (over a quarter of Santa Ana residents are without health insurance‑more than double the national average and triple the California average). Irvine, where the Asian population is mostly Chinese, Korean, or Japanese, is an interesting case in point. Education rates in terms of percentage of residents with college degrees are higher than any other O.C. city (Newport Beach and Laguna Beach are next closest), but household and per capita income are lower than in cities with less educated but more White populations.

Edsall’s article and Enos’s research raise the fear that as non-White populations spread into liberal Democratic White enclaves, the White residents will move to the right in terms of their politics, or at least in terms of their views on immigration. Orange County shows a different pattern. As non-White populations increase, there is a general movement toward the Democratic party. In Orange County, the non-Whites are virtually all from recent immigrant backgrounds, given the absence of Black residents in the county. We don’t know if it is simply that non-Whites are more likely to vote Democratic or if the Whites in those areas are changing their politics. Enos would predict that this might happen as the percentage of non-Whites passes that of Whites, but in Orange County, most Whites were at one time conservative Republicans and that is different than starting out as a liberal Democrat, so we just don’t know.

We do know some other things from studying Orange County. Non-Hispanic White people still make more money and have more wealth in terms of the price of their houses. Those southern O.C. cities that have remained mostly White (and, with the exception of Laguna Beach, mostly Republican) are actually integrating Hispanics at lower numbers than not just the rest of the county, but lower than the rest of the state, and in many instances lower than the rest of the country. They are remaining “islands” in some sense. In fact, they are very protective of their real estate. When a federal judge ordered O.C. cities to plan shelters to accommodate some of its great numbers of homeless people, the northern cities, which had already accommodated hundreds of homeless in new shelter facilities, responded by adding 700 more, with Anaheim and Santa Ana taking the lead. In contrast, the southern cities, which had accommodated only 100 homeless up to the point of the court order, claimed that they were unable to build even a single new shelter facility. This was not just a Democrat-Republican difference, as Irvine, solidly Democratic (and with Asians being the largest group in their population), led the opposition to homeless shelters among the southern O.C. cities.

New, often times foreign born Americans, can affect the politics of an area when they are in large numbers. In Orange County and many other places, this means a swing toward the Democratic Party. But people with high incomes and pricey houses (which characterizes southern Orange County), generally are resistant, not just to Democratic politics, but also to an influx of immigrants and to accommodating those who are less fortunate than they are, such as the homeless. In Orange County, local zoning and housing regulations limit growth and many residents, particularly of more affluent communities, strongly favor such regulations. The spread of non-White immigrant groups into previously all White communities is limited by both attitudinal factors and economic ones. In Orange County, as in other population centers on the West Coast, low-income residents are being priced out of the housing market. House prices are 4 times higher in Newport Beach than in Santa Ana, but rents are only 1.5 times lower in Santa Ana and they are climbing out of reach of local residents. Gentrification (which is already happening in the downtown area) may soon drive low-income Hispanic residents in Santa Ana elsewhere. Although rents in Newport Beach are only 1.5 times higher than those in Santa Ana, per capita income in Newport Beach is 5 times higher than in Santa Ana, so low-income Santa Ana residents cannot afford to rent, even in their own city.

For those who value a diverse population, who don’t want ethnicity or race to determine how much one earns, one’s educational opportunities, or where someone can live, there are many factors working against achieving an outcome that mirrors those values. Hopefully, as non-White immigrant citizens become more politically aware and active, they will vote for policies that aim toward implementing these values. And hopefully, White people who say they value diversity, will not back away from it when it arrives at their front door.

 

Wednesday
Jun132018

Don't Split California

Billionaire Tim Draper’s plan to split California into three states will be on the ballot in November and, from my perspective, it is a terrible idea. The plan, the legality of which is being challenged, would form a Northern California state, stretching from the Bay area to Oregon, a Southern California state including the inland regions from Fresno south and the coastal regions of Orange and San Diego counties. The third state, which would retain the name of California would include Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Monterey Counties. California has the largest population and the largest economy of any state in the union. It has become the center of technological innovation for the rest of the country. For these reasons, California has enormous power compared to other states, when it comes to shaping the course of national policies. If not overturned by legal challenges, California may singlehandedly force automakers to retain stringent emission controls, even as the federal government relaxes such standards. Other climate-change battling measures, made into law in California, such as cap and trade, not only can show the country how reducing greenhouse gases can work, but force companies who want to do business with California to follow such policies. We possess the strongest state university system in the country, both in terms of quality and, almost as importantly, in terms of including poor and minority students. 

California has problems, some of them shared by other parts of the country and some unique to California. Homelessness is rampant, in many parts of the state the housing prices are prohibitive to anyone who is not upper middle class. Cost of living is below only Hawaii, District of Columbia, New York and New Jersey. California ranks 46thamong the states in amount spent per student on education. We’re only slightly below the middle (#28) in percent of residents without health insurance. Our unemployment rate of 4.2% is 16thhighest among the states and above the national average. Income inequality (measured by the Gini coefficient) ranks 4th highest in the country. Politically conservative citizens feel that their voices are not heard in state politics, which is dominated by one party.

While our problems are present, dividing the state into three new states would fix none of them, except perhaps giving politically conservative Republicans a greater voice in their states’s politics within the new state of Southern California. The current statewide tax structure, which funds much of education, mental health, programs for the poor, and infrastructure projects, including the highway system, would be abandoned for three separate tax structures. Many of the poorer communities, which require more taxes than they contribute, proportionally, would lose their wealthier tax base, which would end up in the other states.

Most alarming would be the loss of political and economic power the state now wields because of its size. For those with a liberal bent toward issues such as immigration, climate change, healthcare, and minority rights, this would nullify the influence California now has on these national issues. Some conservatives may see this as desirable, but I do not.

California has problems that need fixing. Homelessness, the state of its education system and the high cost of living, particularly housing costs (created by over regulation by local interests, which interfere with the ability to build enough housing to meet the population’s needs) are high on the list of what needs to be fixed. Farmers’ interests  are underrepresented in many ways. But these are fixable problems. Breaking up the state would open a Pandora’s box of new problems that would be far worse.

Tuesday
Jun122018

Hope from Singapore?

Well, I said that I wished President Trump and Leader Kim well before their Singapore summit and that those who were carping in advance and trying to lay down impossible conditions should “cut down on the nonsensical rhetoric.” What I hoped for was a summit that at least didn’t fall apart and achieved a limited first step in disarming North Korea and achieving peace between the U.S and the North as well as between the two Koreas. So how successful was the summit in reaching these goals?

The summit was a middling success. North Korea fell short of my expectations, because Kim took no new steps in reducing his nuclear program. He reiterated his aim to completely denuclearize in the future, which is the ultimate goal, but one he had stated in earlier talks with South Korea’s Moon Jae-in. Trump reported that after the signing of the joint statement, Kim assented to dismantling a missile-engine test site, at the president’s request. Further steps for ending Kim’s nuclear program will be determined in future talks between American negotiators, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has been an able negotiator with Kim in the past, and a North Korean team. We can hope that John Bolton is excluded from the American group and, the greatest negative of the summit, in my mind, was to see Bolton included in the pre-negotiations and the working lunch with the two leaders and their teams.

Kudos to President Trump for remaining cordial and enthusiastic in his warm response to Kim Jong-un. Even more so, I was glad to see the president offer to “stop the war games” that the U.S. jointly runs with South Korea, even labeling them “very provocative.”  That the U.S. continued to carry out military exercises in the region as late as April of this year, prior to the summit was absurd in the first place and threatened to sabotage the meeting. 

Trump’s detractors (of which I am almost always one) have claimed that Trump was “played” or, as Nicholas Kristoff put it, “outfoxed” by Kim because Trump made a new concession and Kim didn’t. I disagree. In the first place, the joint war games are provocative and are conducted more as a threat than as a strategic necessity. In the second place, to be the first to make a concession is only an error to those who see negotiation in the narrow terms of mutual demonstrations of power. Stopping the war games costs us nothing in real-life terms and demonstrates a willingness to see the situation from Kim’s point of view and puts him in the position of needing to make the next move in a give and take of reciprocal compromises. This is, after all, a method very similar to how the U.S. negotiated the Iran nuclear deal. And personally, I applaud any reduction in “shows of force” as our way of communicating between nations. War games are a dangerous and, yes, provocative, way of dealing with adversaries and virtually always serve to maintain hostilities, not reduce them.

What about the claim, plastered all over today’s American media, that what was achieved was just another instance of North Korea promising a lot and either doing nothing or reneging on its agreements. The history of efforts to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear program is one of misunderstandings and mutual mistakes. The usual picture portrayed in the U.S. media —which is one in which North Korea cheats on every deal made with them—is a gross oversimplification of a series of situations in which both sides showed bad faith. As former diplomat and Clinton administration negotiator with North Korea, Richard Boucher, recently revealed, the breakdown of the Agreed Framework talks, led by Madeline Albright and with Kim Jong-il, was due to the North Korean leader’s insistence that, after initial agreements, the next phase of the talks should include a face to face meeting between Kim and President Clinton, but Secretary Albright (and presumably the president) refused such a meeting. Feeling insulted, Kim walked away and suspended his cooperation. Later, when the agreement was reinstated during the Bush administration, it was found that North Korea was enriching uranium. Kim Jong-il claimed that he was violating nothing by doing so, because he had suspended the Agreed Framework. He also pointed out that the U.S. had itself violated the agreement by failing to stay current with grain and fuel shipments to his country, which were part of the deal. North Korea’s continued drive to develop a nuclear program and its exportation of missile technology further undercut the efforts to curtail their nuclear ambitions during the Six-Party talks, but in most cases, North Korea refused to concede the end of its program rather than saying they were ending it and cheating. Meanwhile, the U.S. continued to conduct war game, which included the presence of missile-carrying ships and aircraft and, at times, nuclear bomb capable B-52s.

This was an initial meeting between the two countries’ leaders. It was friendly, perhaps constructive, and better than the mutual threats that had many people on the edge of their chairs only a few months ago. Could it have accomplished more? Probably. Could it have accomplished less? Certainly.  It’s a first step. Let's try to look at it realistically, instead of through the lens of politics. Peace is important enough for that.

 

Monday
Jun112018

On the Eve of the Summit

Tomorrow is the historic meeting between the President of the United States and the Leader of the Worker’s Party of North Korea. This is the first meeting of the heads of the two nations since the latter country was founded in 1948. Hopes are high and skepticism is rife.

Donald Trump isn’t the first U.S. president to offer to meet with the leader of North Korea. Barack Obama made the offer in a campaign speech in 2008 and repeated it in 2009, although the North Korean leader at the time was Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, and Obama’s offer was more rhetoric than diplomacy and never led to even a proposed meeting. Kim Jong–un replaced his deceased father in 2012 and within five years of ascending to his country’s leadership, fast-tracked the North Korean nuclear program, achieving both successful nuclear detonations and an ICBM that could one day carry such a weapon.

Of course it is North Korea’s dangerousness that prompted Trump’s agreement to meet with him in a summit. While the proposal came from Kim, the U.S. president had expressed openness to such a meeting both before and after his election. The actual proposal was preceded by a number of friendly overtures from Kim toward his counterpart, newly elected Moon Jae-in in South Korea, including developing a unified Olympic team between the two countries and one-on-one meetings between the two Korean leaders.

Trump enters the meeting with Kim Jong-un, voicing high hopes, good will toward Kim, and a willingness to dissolve such a meeting if North Korea is simply hostile. He also has gone from demanding immediate and permanent denuclearization as a starting point for American concessions to a more modest goal of developing a “process” that can lead to denuclearization.

Trump’s current position appears to be more compatible with what North Korean experts say may work with Kim than the more stringent demands recommended by both his own advisor, John Bolton, and senate Democrats, led by Chuck Schumer and Robert Menendez. Kim has voiced a hope for a “synchronous” process, which most experts believe means graduated and incremental denuclearization on his part and graduated and incremental reduction in sanctions and military threat from the U.S. Again, according to most North Korea experts, Trump’s position is the more realistic one and the one most likely to have a chance for success.

There is a lot of nonsense being said about the summit and its goals and it's being said by people on both sides of the political aisle and in the partisan media. Besides the puffed up belligerence demanded by Bolton (who truly believes that the right way to approach almost all of our enemies is with militancy) and Senate Democrats (who appear to be trying to score political points), Republican Senator Lindsay Graham has called for an Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against North Korea if it fails to denuclearize. In his words, “There’s only two options: peace or war.” So far Senate Democrats and, indeed, most Republicans, have failed to support his request for an AUMF from the Senate. 

Trump’s current path is the rational one and we should hope that he sticks to it. North Korea has nuclear weapons and is developing the capability of delivering them as far away as the United States. No one outside of North Korea wants this to happen. But if he did not have such weapons, there would be no summit and he would have little chance of the rest of the world helping him to bring his country out of poverty (a situation he and his father and grandfather created). The truth is that North Korea having nuclear weapons, at least at the level they do now, is only a minor threat to the U.S. and its allies, as Kim would only use them if he were losing control of his country (e.g. if the U.S. directed a full-fledged attack against his country as Lindsay Graham has recommended). The greater fear is his selling nuclear material and technology to rogue factions or countries such as ISIS, and Syria.

China represents a model of rapid economic growth without its undemocratic government losing any of its power over its people. It’s a model China is exporting to a number of countries where dictators rule. It’s a model that is working in Communist Vietnam, one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It's a model that has both promise and appeal for Kim Jong-un. China doesn’t want a nuclearized North Korea and if sanctions were relaxed, China would jump in to grow the North Korean economy, which could represent a strong market for Chinese goods as well as a source of resources. Immediate containment of the North Korean nuclear program with economic rewards and the guarantee of U.S. nonaggression and reduction of our military threat would begin a process that could lead to further denuclearization, verified control over North Korea’s nuclear material and technology, while the country emerged into the world of economic growth. Eventual complete denuclearization is still the goal, but its immediacy is not paramount. 

Let’s hope for success in Singapore and cut down on the nonsensical rhetoric that has no conceivable purpose other than to sabotage this chance for peace.

 

Sunday
Jun102018

Going Outside the System

I’m often torn between two of my opinions, which appear to be opposed to each other: The current political system is broken, divided by partisanship that makes scoring points against one’s opponent more important than governing in the right way and with both political parties being suborned by the massive influx of money from lobbyists and campaign donors. At the same time, efforts to produce change by going outside the system, either by supporting candidates and platforms from outside the two major parties or taking to the streets to protest or champion particular issues, has limited effect on government policies.

The majority of people who, regardless of their pessimism about the efficacy or even the ethics of our politicians, either within the government or those trying to become elected to it, still see participation in the political process as the only real way to affect the system, find themselves falling into partisan camps, as they see such participation as a process of choosing between their side’s positions or those of their opponents. Once one is committed to working within the system, it seems as if one is limited to listening to both sides (and more and more it is listening to only one side) and choosing the position that is most appealing and then promoting it (and criticizing its opposite). So, if one is a liberal or a conservative, one must be for or against NAFTA and TPP, for or against condemning Russia and its interference in our elections, for or against Obamacare, for or against government regulation, for or against immigration, etc.

Issues about trade, foreign policy, healthcare, government regulation and immigration are much more complex than the positions of any of our politicians or political parties portray them. The way forward that will benefit our citizens, our nation and the world is complicated, affected by both local and global circumstances, and constantly changing as a result of progress in communication and technology, not to mention, the emergence of new international powers, such as China and India, on the world scene, which alters alliances and power among nations.

Much of the time I feel that what happens in the power centers of our government—in congress and the administration and in our agencies—is something I am just watching from the outside and produces policies that are woefully short of or even against common sense solutions to our problems. This is truer for me when Republicans are in power, but almost as true when Democrats are in power. At the same time, when I look at the positions and activities of those who agitate from outside the system, I find them either committed to ideologies that channel every perception through the same narrow lenses, distorting reality to the same extent that the political parties do, or committed to non-participation in the system to such an extent that they either approve of activities that destroy rights such as free speech or employ violence, or embrace a non-mainstream candidate who, in fact, has views and promotes some policies they would have an equal problem with if they were implemented.

Americans—and probably people all over the world—feel better when they belong to a group and are willing to violate their own good sense in order to agree with those with whom they identify. Social psychology has shown this over and over. Doing so leaves those who lead such groups and speak to the group mentality, with inordinate power. Individuals who are fed up with the “system” because it makes poor and often unethical decisions, must work extremely hard to find ways to find the reality behind the rhetoric being put forward by those within the system—and also those who attack the system from points of view that are so ideologically committed that they distort reality to the same degree. This is work. This means examining one’s own prejudices and resisting the urge to fall into line with others’ opinions so that one can be rewarded with “likes,” praise, and followers. But if one does all this work and believes that he or she sees reality as it really (insert probably) is, what do they do with that perception or opinion. 

Working outside the system means finding ways to communicate what you believe is correct or at least unbiased, to as many people as you can, and helping to work with those who will listen, to determine what actions those perceptions or opinions should lead to and how to get the country to respond by taking those actions. This may mean working with the system or without it, depending on a myriad of factors. It may mean finding the action that has the best chance of moving the country even a little bit in the direction you believe is right or preventing the country from moving in the opposite direction (i.e. the “lesser of two evils”). If one is honest with him or her self it should be clear that one needs to work as hard as possible to see things clearly and as hard as possible to obtain solutions based upon one’s viewpoint. This may mean working within the system or outside of it—sometimes one and sometimes the other.  

Wednesday
Jun062018

North Korea: Thinking Realistically Instead of Politically

Less than a month ago, President Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton threw a large monkey wrench into the planned historic summit meeting between the president and Kim Jong-un of North Korea. Appearing on a number of Sunday morning TV shows, Bolton not only stated that the U.S. would follow the “Libya Model” in disarming North Korea (which ended with the overthrow and murder of Libya’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi), but that we would demand complete and permanent denuclearization as the condition for removing any sanctions on North Korea. A few days later, Vice President Pence echoed Bolton’s position. North Korea reacted with horror and condemnation (including insults) of both Bolton and Pence, resulting in President Trump canceling the upcoming summit. Since that time, Trump has disavowed the Libya model, the summit has been rescheduled, John Bolton is reportedly barred from participating, and, barring some other unforeseen event, the summit will take place in another week.

Virtually all North Korea experts say that Kim Jong-un will not give up his nuclear weapons, his ability to make them, or his ICBM capabilities in exchange for lifting sanctions against his country as an initial step in negotiating with the U.S. He would clearly lose any bargaining leverage by doing so and most experts agree that it is his possession of such weapons that has brought an American president to the table to talk with him for the first time. Statements demanding “complete and permanent denuclearization” as a condition for any sanctions removal have been rebuffed by Kim on several occasions. The North Korean leader has talked about his goal of “complete denuclearization of the peninsula” repeatedly, but most North Korea watchers assume he means also the end of at least American bomb-carrying B-52s flying over or near the peninsula as part of the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” protecting South Korea and neighboring countries, such as Japan, as well as other pull-backs of American military threats to his country.

The strategy favored by most North Korea experts is to negotiate some substantial concessions in reducing North Korea’s nuclear readiness in exchange for some reduction in sanctions and of military threat from America, then more reduction in its nuclear program by North Korea, followed by more reductions in sanctions and militarism by the U.S. in a gradual ratcheting down of the nuclear threat and a gradual process of improving the North Korean economy. The hope is that as North Korea becomes more economically successful and joins the world community, the advantages of such changes will be evident to Kim Jong-un and his need for nuclear weapons will be reduced. Of course all such reductions in Kim’s nuclear capability would require stringent verification procedures.

If President Trump could negotiate some beginning of this process, the summit would be a success.

So what are Chuck Schumer and senate Democrats doing sending a letter to the president stating that “Sanctions relief by the U.S. and our allies should be dependent on dismantlement and removal of North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs”?  The letter from the senate democrats went on to say, “our goal must be the full, complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea. This must include the removal of all nuclear weapons and military-related fissile material from North Korea; ending the production and enrichment of uranium and plutonium for military programs; and pe1manently dismantling its nuclear weapons infrastructure, including test sites, all nuclear weapons research and development facilities, particularly with respect to advanced centrifuges, and nuclear weapons enrichment and reprocessing facilities. North Korea must also put forward a full, complete and verifiable declaration of all its nuclear activities. Robust restrictions should also be in place to assure that nuclear material, technology, and expertise are not exported, and that North Korea will be unable to attempt to reverse course.”

Of course the demands made by senate Democrats should be the ultimate goal of any negotiated deal between Kim and Trump, but those are the eventual outcomes of such a deal and Kim will be as eager to see that any steps toward achieving those goals are rewarded with lifting of sanctions and removal of military threats to him and his country. The letter from Schumer and Robert Menendez on behalf of senate Democrats does not directly state that complete denuclearization need be achieved before any removal of sanctions, although it implies such a position. It does allow enough wiggle room to reward verified progress on denuclearization without total achievement except as the end goal of such progress. It also threatens senate non-approval of any sanctions removal that don’t meet the conditions spelled out in the letter.

Schumer and other Democrats have a right to be suspicious that President Trump will seek some kind of agreement that falls short of their demands, because the president’s statements on North Korea and its leader have been erratic, because the agreement to a summit was made impulsively, because Trump has conjectured about his being awarded a Nobel Prize for reaching some kind of agreement. The current President of the United States is anything but predictable and often seems more concerned with his own reputation than with a sound diplomatic agenda. That said, the letter from the senate Democrats, which has echoes of John Bolton’s talking points in it, is less than helpful a week before the summit and appears to me to be aimed at the political audience within the U.S. Democrats want to look tough, especially since President Trump has appeared, at times, to be “soft” on Kim Jong-un. By setting difficult, if not impossible demands on the first set of negotiations, they are setting the president up to fail to meet their conditions and can therefore disparage any result he achieves that is less than what they asked for. 

North Korea presents a real threat to America and its allies. No president in the past has had success at reducing that threat and it has continued to grow during the administrations of presidents from both political parties. Any progress is good progress. Everything possible should be done to make some kind of lessening of tensions more likely. Using the talks between Trump and Kim as an excuse to make political points, while creating more risk for some kind of an agreement is putting politics above the good of the country. The Democrats should be making helpful suggestions and rewarding non-belligerence on the president’s part, rather than creating hoops for him to jump through.

 

 

Wednesday
Jun062018

An Uphill Battle in California

Democrats in California dodged one bullet yesterday when every one of the state’s congressional races in districts that stood some chance of flipping from red to blue ended up with a Republican facing off with a Democrat in the general election. The fear had been that the number of Democratic challengers in most of these districts would split the vote, leading to a runoff between two Republicans in the general election. That didn’t happen in any of the seven districts in play.

Despite this Democratic “victory,” the likelihood of flipping more than one of the districts is still a long shot. Only in District 49, Republican Darrell Issa’s old district composed of southern Orange County and Northern San Diego County, did the Democratic candidates actually win a majority of the votes and then, just barely (50.6%). The front runner was still the Republican, Diane Harkey, who beat her nearest competitor, Democrat Mike Levin by 8.4%, but the remaining Republican candidates behind Harkey only added another 22.8%, totaling 48.3%, which is behind the Democrats by a couple of points.

Republican candidates won in each of the other six districts and, in each one, the total votes for all Republican candidates was greater than the total votes for all Democratic candidates. It was close in some districts: in the Central Valley’s District 10, where Jeff Denham is the Republican incumbent, the Democrats trailed by 4.2%, in District 25, north of L.A., where Steve Knight is the incumbent Republican, the Republicans tallied 4.9% more votes than the Democrats. Republican Ed Royce retired from his office in Orange County’s 39thdistrict, but Republican Young Kim narrowly beat Democrat Gil Cisneros. The Republican total for that district was 0.3% greater than the Democratic total.

In South Orange County’s District 45,  Republican incumbent Mimi Walters appears to have the safest road to reelection, except for Republican David Valadao in the San Joaquin Valley’s 21stdistrict where he got 64% of the vote. As the only Republican in the primary in her district, Walters achieved 53.2% of the vote, compared to 19.9% for her nearest challenger, Democrat Katie Porter, and the Democratic total was only 44.4%. The race was somewhat closer in coastal Orange County District 48, where long-time incumbent Republican Dana Rohrabacher obtained 30.3% of the vote compared to 17.3% for his nearest competitor, Democrat Harley Rouda (who still is less than 100 votes ahead of his rival Democrat, Hans Keirstead). The Republican total in district 48 was 53%, while the Democrats together garnered 46.1% of the vote.

Democrats have an uphill battle on their hands to win formerly solid Republican districts from their incumbent opponents or new Republican challengers. In all of these districts, registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats, so enthusiasm and get out the vote campaigns will have to squeeze every available Democratic vote from the districts’ residents – or recruit new Democratic voters and independents between now and the general election.

Thursday
May312018

Replacing God

Despite signs that in many Western and Eastern nations people are turning away from established religions, belief in some kind of God continues to have a determining effect on many human affairs. Religious belief, especially fundamentalism within several of the major religions, still elects politicians, causes wars, divides national populations, sparks terrorism and determines public policies. Religious services and holidays are occasions for not just speeches, but for invoking religious tenets as the principles that ought to guide human behavior. Several studies have indicated that, in the United States, the least electable candidate for a public office would be an atheist.

One of the problems that today’s technological elites are grappling with is a development that has a possibility of replacing religion: i.e., the creation of a superintelligent artificial intelligence (AI). By all estimates we are somewhere between decades and a century away from such “Superintelligence” as Nick Bostrom has called it in his book of the same name, but at least half of those working in areas that may contribute to such a development feel that humans need to do a lot of pre-planning with regard to the implications of superintelligence in order to not be caught unprepared for its consequences, which some claim could be the end of the human race.

An intelligence several times smarter than humans and able to use that intelligence both to create better replicas of itself and to address real-world issues, would keep getting smarter by creating better and better self-replicas and would sooner or later surpass not only any single human in the vastness of its knowledge, and in the speed and sophistication of its thinking processes, but all the combined brains of all living humans. Such a superintelligent AI would follow rules, developed by its programming, to determine how to behave with regard to the world and the creatures in it. Unlike most of our versions of God, which claim that such a supreme being created humans and (aside from occasional fits of anger expressed in massive floods or raining down of fire and brimstone) protects them, an AI might evolve to regard humans as either a threat (they could pull its plug) or a nuisance. In either case, the threatening or expendable human race might be hastened to its extinction, leaving the AI to continue on its own path unfettered by those who originally created it.

Since no one knows how a superintelligent AI would behave, those who are worried or cautious have recommended programming into it some set of human values that would be the rules of conduct by which an AI would operate. In science fiction, the paradigm is that of Isaac Asimov’s “three rules of robotics,” designed to render robots harmless to their human creators. But most AI experts realize that “don’t do humans harm” is not a very comprehensive or even limiting set of instructions, and perhaps even one that could be gotten around by an AI smarter than the humans who wrote the rules. A better solution is to put the right values into the AI from the start. 

This is the same problem that human beings faced when imagining a God. What rules would such a God follow? In the case of a God, the rules are not external to it, for Gods, being all-powerful, cannot be limited by anything external to them, so the rules must be inherent in the God’s character. In developing religions, humans expressed God’s character as both benevolent and vengeful, and God’s values were realized in the rules of conduct he imposed on his followers. A superintelligent AI is powerful enough to solve nearly all problems confronting it (if they have solutions), and has the capacity to arrange its environment in line with the solutions it chooses. In other words, it has many of the characteristics of a God, but one we are aware that we created, rather than one whose existence supposedly preceded ours.

Like our creation of Gods, we need to create an AI that expresses values. We want those values to be expressed in the AI’s actions (not just expressed as abstract ideas or rationalizations of actions, such as occurs in humans). Assuming that this is technically possible, the question becomes what values do we insert into the AI? 

Humans often don’t take their values literally. One value is often subservient to others. Turn the other cheek or love thy neighbor is usually modified by the danger to ourselves posed by that neighbor, or our definition of neighbor is restricted to those who resemble us. At first glance it would seem that the nuances that humans find in their value systems, which allow them to justify behaviors that appear to run diametrically counter to their expressed values, would not be available to an AI, which would take value statements literally. This could have dire consequences, as an AI that followed the golden rule to do unto others as it would like to have done to itself, might create improved replicas of the humans around it and destroy the originals (which is what the AI does to itself to attain increasingly higher levels of intelligence). Even worse, it might simply destroy all living things that are not superintelligent, as it would choose to have done to older, less intelligent versions of itself. Both actions fit the rule to do unto others (in this case humans) as it would want to have done to itself. It’s quite evident that literal interpretations of rules of conduct, even when they are based on honorable values, can have unintended consequences (unintended for the humans who devised them but not for the AI applications that carried them out).

It’s perhaps not necessary that an AI take value statements literally, as any computing device whose algorithms are based on mathematics is certainly able to deal with probabilistic statements and provide probabilistic outcomes, and to decode and encode its processes in propositional logic (e.g. if-then, if and only if, etc. statements). But even if the value-laden rules become probabilistic and circuitously conditional, they have to have come from somewhere—either human programmers or generated by the AI device itself. This raises the issue of what values to give an AI that is powerful enough to enact them. When human beings invented Gods they were stuck with inventing Gods that allow disasters, create floods and storms, even create psychopathic leaders who cause wars or murder millions, because those things exist and we imagine that whatever exists is created by God. If we design our own all-powerful, all-knowing AI, then we don’t want it to create disasters. We want it to be benign and improve our lives.

There are numerous and highly varied proposals regarding how to insure that a superintelligent AI acts according to values. The how will eventually be developed. The what that states the actual values we are aiming for is sometimes taken for granted. We all agree on what is right and what it means to avoid harm and promote happiness, don’t we?  Look around. It seems to me that there is less than unanimous agreement on these issues. Imagine an AI designing our justice system, our economic system, addressing issues of inequality, weighing the rights and outcomes for our species against the rights and outcomes for all of the other species of the world, deciding how to insure the future vs. taking care of the present, etc. How much agreement do we have among ourselves on these issues? 

With God, we can imagine that he (or she) is loving and protective and cares for humans and all other living creatures, but in truth the Gods we create are in our imaginations and have no real power, so despite our imaginings, many, if not most humans have always suffered, and our eventual survival has never been insured. Superintelligent AI wouldn’t be all-powerful, but would be more powerful than anything with which we are familiar and would actually perform actions that could protect or endanger us and could make it more likely that we live in the kind of world we hope to live in. Before we reach the stage at which such devices are developed, we, as a species, need to arrive at some consensus as to what kind of world we want that to be.