Saturday
Jan192019

Does Free Speech Have Territorial Limits?

Recently, demands by foreign governments, such as China, Vietnam, and Saudi Arabia that U.S. owned internet sites, including Google, Twitter, Facebook and Netflix conform to these countries’ laws on censorship have produced a lot of controversy, both within and external to the companies who are deciding how to respond to such demands. Among those making comments, a strong voice is heard for the need for these companies to  “stand up” for the American value of freedom of speech. This raises issues of whether this value is one that is relative to the country in question or whether it should be regarded as a universal value, i.e. an “inalienable right.”

The controversy with regard to internet-based companies is complicated, because it often involves at least two questions: should a media provider follow the laws of the country in which its product is being offered if those laws violate American values? and should a media provider provide information to the government of the country to assist that country in tracking down those who seek or post what they consider subversive material? These are two very different issues.

It is ordinary for companies who do business in countries that are not where they are located to follow the laws of that country. We fully expect foreign countries to comply with our laws in the United States as a condition for them doing business within our borders. Companies that do not do so have been prosecuted and punished by U.S. courts. But United States laws regarding freedom of speech and expression are broader and more permissive than any other country’s.  Hate speech based on race or religion is an example. While hate speech is publicly condemned and often censored by media companies, it is not illegal in the United States, and so we can have websites and media organizations that do post hate speech and are allowed to do so. Hate speech is illegal, however, in most European countries, including notoriously permissive Finland, where both hate speech and blasphemy of any religion are prohibited, France prohibits not only hate speech, but also insulting its flag, its national anthem or any public official, which is similar to Germany, which prohibits disparagement of the Federal President or state symbols and insulting any religion. Many European countries forbid Holocaust Denial. 

In China, Vietnam, Russia, and many Middle Eastern or African countries, freedom of speech is severely restricted, especially with regard to sexual content, criticism of the government, praise for alternative forms of government and, in many countries, especially predominantly Muslim ones, criticism of religion, religious figures or religious organizations (but this is also true in several European countries that are predominantly Christian). Many of these restrictions seem foreign and unnatural to Americans, but should we demand that they not be enforced against American companies that do business in those countries? The arguments that those countries’ governments make can be convincing, for instance when Russia prohibits access to gambling sites, alcohol sales sites and some pornography sites. Insult to Mohammed or the Koran is a serious offense in most Muslim countries and isn’t it their right to enforce laws prohibiting such insults (even some European countries also have similar prohibitions against insulting Christianity or other religions)? It seems to me that pushing our freedom of speech laws onto other countries is both myopic about cultural differences and is not something that commercial internet companies should be expected to do or be criticized if they agree to restrictions that would not apply in the U.S.

Turning over information to another country about those who violate its laws by posting or searching for banned or suspicious content, which China and Vietnam have asked companies to do, is quite another matter. Doing so makes the commercial company that does it complicit in that country’s restriction of freedom and violates what would be allowed in the United States. This is more than foisting our values onto another country; it is becoming a tool of that country’s oppression of its people. It is qualitatively different than not carrying content or allowing searches that violate a country’s laws.

I would welcome further discussion about this topic, which is not clear-cut in terms of the ethics of the situation.

 

Friday
Jan182019

Paying the People Who Teach Our Children

Teachers play a crucial role in American society. For most of our children’s education about science, mathematics, history, government, literature and the arts and even a venue for athletics and social interaction, we depend upon our schools, and at the heart of our schools are the teachers. Watching my children, grandchildren, and now my nieces and nephews go through the public school system, both its mainstream and its special programs, I have mostly been impressed with the quality of the experience and especially the quality and dedication of the teachers. As part of all of these children’s family or extended family, I realize how much I have relied upon teachers to teach all of these family members the things they need to know to thrive in our society. It is not an overstatement to say that our children's teachers are the most important influences on their lives second to family.

The public education system is the best bargain we get in our society, but it is in jeopardy. For the most part, the quality of the education your children are going to receive is dependent upon where you live. Local funding, state funding, neighborhood culture including safety, and donations by parents determine the quality of the education a child receives. America ranks relatively high in most surveys of per pupil expenditures for elementary and secondary education among developed countries—anywhere from second to fifth. Teacher salaries rank nearly the same. However, according to a National Center for Education Studies, in 2016, salaries of 25-29 year old graduates with bachelor’s in education or elementary education were paid less (around 40,000 per year) than 22-26 of the 32 fields of study surveyed, about 8,000/year or 17% below the median, despite their unemployment rate of 2.1% being the lowest, except for nursing, of all the fields. Teacher salaries and per pupil expenditures vary widely across the United States because of education funding being dependent primarily upon local sources, and in Los Angeles, salaries for new teachers (including benefits) are closer to $55,000 per year, about a third higher than the national average. The cost of living in Los Angeles exceeds the national average by almost 50%.

Teachers are exceedingly important for the well-being of our society and their low unemployment numbers suggest that they are in high demand. Their salaries don’t reflect this, and, in Southern California, where the cost of living is very high, they are, by most standards, underpaid. In addition, as numerous teachers and any parent can attest to, teachers spend long hours both in and out of the classroom doing their jobs, paying for many of their classroom supplies, and many offer after and before school help to their students for no extra pay. 

School districts have many sources of funds, most of which are based on average daily attendance, so the number of students is a strong determiner of how much and where the money for education goes. This has led to the argument that charter schools, which have burgeoned from 10 in LA in 2000-2001 to 228 in 2016-2017, are robbing our traditional public schools of funding. Charter schools are public schools, supported by public education funds, are free to their students, but are less regulated and usually not unionized in terms of their staff. Charter schools are not the same as voucher programs, which allow families to choose schools, even private schools, and often remove funds completely from the public school system and put in in the private sector.

Most unionized teachers and many of us who support unions in general and traditional public schools as the backbone of our public educational system, tend to be opposed to the growth of charter schools because of their competition for funds with traditional public schools. Many people also argue that they provide a deficient educational experience, compared to traditional public schools, primarily because they follow fewer regulations. It turns out that this is mostly wrong. The gold standard Stanford University Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), which uses charter school and traditional public school students matched on relevant variables, in both national, state and local studies, has consistently shown that charter schools outperform traditional public schools (TPS), especially for some types of students. CREDO produced a report in 2014 on Los Angeles Public Schools, comparing student achievement to matched students in traditional public schools  (TPS).

The CREDO study results were striking. Students enrolled in charter schools showed statistically significant growth beyond their TPS matched controls in and this was true of every type of student (White, Asian, Black, Hispanic, in poverty, English language learners) except those who had a history of being retained or were special education students. White, Asian and English language learner children in charter schools exceeded their TPS counterparts only in reading and not in math, while Black and Hispanic students whether or not in poverty, exceeded those in TPS in both reading and math.  The positive gains for charter school attendance held for urban and suburban schools and at elementary, middle and high school levels. The results were substantial, and often reflected a third of more of a year’s progress difference, especially if the students were from families in poverty compared to similar TPS students.

Teachers are underpaid relative to other professions, although California teachers are not particularly underpaid relative to other states’ teachers, although in our urban and some of our suburban areas the high cost of living reduces their effective salaries.  Teachers are in demand and have both low salaries and low unemployment, defying the law of supply and demand, probably because they are limited by requiring public money for their salaries and must compete against many other public interests. That they receive such low salaries compared to other professions may reflect either lack of respect for the profession among the public or simply resistance to public spending and the greater taxes that would be needed to increase their salaries.

Curtailing the growth of charter schools is not an answer to better funding for the TPS system, nor for increasing TPS teachers’ salaries, especially since charter schools have such positive results. It may be that regulations for charter schools need to be strengthened, although that remains to be proven. What definitely is true is that we need to elevate the status and income of teachers and this means we need to invest more money in both our TPS and charter school systems and raise teacher salaries to match their worth in our children’s lives. It is incredible that people who play such an important role in shaping each new generation of Americans are compensated so little, relative to their worth. Such increases in salary and education funding will take changing the public’s willingness to pay more, not just protests against the existing administration of the system.

 

 

Monday
Jan142019

College Education in America: The Facts

Yesterday I read an article in the New York Times describing the plight of a rural Midwestern public university that was eliminating some of its liberal arts and humanities majors and faculty in order to accommodate the more “practical” needs of its students and in response to a shrinking student body, which was partially attributed to falling birth rates and partially to young people leaving the area for the city. The article suggested that this might be a pattern that was becoming typical of other public universities. I decided to do some research to determine if this was a pattern in American post-secondary education.

Is college and university attendance growing or shrinking in the U.S?

Overall college and university graduation has been increasing slightly each year with an increase of about a million students every ten years for the last 25 years and only projected to slow very slightly through 2027 (Statista). Enrollment increased faster between 1965 and 1990 and jumped during 2010 and 2011, probably due to job opportunities falling and young adults choosing college instead of a job during this latter period. About 75% of students are enrolled in public institutions and 25% in private universities or colleges. From 2000-01 to 2015-16, enrollment in associate degree programs increased at a higher rate (74%) than the increase in enrollment in bachelor degree programs (54%) (National Center for Education Statistics, NCES).

Not only are the raw numbers of college graduates continuing to increase, the percentage of young adults with post-secondary degrees is increasing. A higher percentage of females than males obtain associate, bachelor’s and even post-graduate degrees, and this difference has widened between 2000 and 2017 (NCES). In terms of ethnicity, a higher percentage of Asians obtain college degrees, although the percentages for Asians has remained stable between 2000 and 2017, while substantially increasing for all other ethnicities (except Native Americans), narrowing the gap between Asians and all others, but with the gaps between White an Black and White and Hispanic remaining the same, despite all of these ethnicities making substantial increases. In the total population of U.S. people between the ages of 25-29, the percentage with an associate degree or higher increased from 38% to 46% between 2000 and 2017, and the percentage who obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher increased from 29% to 36%. Having a college degree or even just some college education was associated with greater likelihood of employment than just having a high school diploma, and this difference increased between 2000 and 2017 (NCES). For the year 2016, having an associate degree increased average income by 20% over having a high school diploma, and having a bachelor’s degree increased average income by 57% for people in the 25-34 year old age range. These differences narrowed slightly between 2000 and 2016, and at that time all incomes had declined from 2000 levels, reflecting the continuing effects of the recession (NCES), although the recent growth in employment and wages may have brought these levels back up.

How does family income affect obtaining a college degree in the U.S.?

Parents and students themselves in the U.S.still pay for the lion’s share (47%) of college education through income and savings according to a 2018 study by Sallie Mae. Parents’ income and savings covered 34% of the costs and student income and savings covered 13% of the cost. Scholarships and grants covered 28% of college costs and borrowing covered 24%, with parent borrowing covering 10% and student borrowing covering 14%. These figures suggest that family income is a strong factor in determining who obtains a college degree, and a 2016 report from Johns Hopkins University confirmed this. Young people whose families fall in the lowest economic quartile in the U.S. graduated from college at a 14% rate while those from the highest quartile had a 60% college degree rate. Even comparing students with similar high school grade and test score levels, found a 33% differences in college graduation rates between low SES and high SES students, suggesting that differences in academic preparation  is a factor, but not the major factor in determining the effects of SES on college graduation rates. The Johns Hopkins report indicates that major factors affecting college completion rates as a function of income are the cost, the need to balance work and school for low income students, and attendance at institutions with lower graduation rates among low income students. 

What are U.S. students studying and has that changed?

According to NCES, at the bachelor’s degree level, degrees in business have been increasing and represent 19% of degrees awarded in 2015-16, although degrees in health professions and related programs have shown the largest increase and now represent 12% of all degrees conferred. Biological and biomedical sciences and engineering, as well as psychology have all shown an increase in awarded degrees from 2000-01 to 2015-16. Social sciences and history increased degrees from 200-01 to 2011-12, then decreased up to 2015-16, although still representing 8% of all degrees conferred, which remains more than any other field except business or health professions. Overall, 18 % of bachelor’s degrees were awarded in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).

Associate degrees show a different picture than bachelor’s degrees with 38% of degrees awarded in liberal arts, sciences, general studies and humanities, which were also the fields showing the greatest increase in degrees conferred between 2000-01 and 2015-16. Health professions and related programs showed a steady increase in degrees from 2000-01 to 2011-12, then a drop that continued through 2015-16. Only 8% of associate degrees were conferred in STEM fields in 2015-16.

While one would think that two-year degrees might be more in technical areas related to, for instance, computer science, the fact that they are often in liberal arts or general studies and seldom in STEM fields is surprising.  Perhaps this reflects students who are planning to transfer taking distributive courses outside of their major while at community colleges, or perhaps community colleges offer fewer STEM courses. It’s not clear to me, but having seen my son obtain a single year of intensive training in IT technology and becoming fully employable and well-paid (better than his Ph.D father), I can’t see why more students wouldn’t obtain a two-year degree in a technical field, and I don’t know what they would do with a two-year liberal arts education if that’s where they stop.

Do ethnicity or gender affect choice of major?

The statistics also show what was, for me, a surprising finding that our stereotypes about race and gender as it relates to higher education are pretty accurate. Compared to men, women predominate in multidisciplinary studies, health professions, liberal arts, and general studies, and psychology, while men predominate in computer science and engineering. Gender numbers are balanced in social sciences and history. In terms of race, Asians are substantially overrepresented in STEM fields, at both the associate degree level and the bachelor’s degree level.

Conclusions

American colleges and universities are not suffering a loss of students, nor are they expected to in the next ten years. Neither are liberal arts, humanities, and social sciences becoming passé as majors, although there has been a slight decline in degrees awarded in these fields since 2012, but they still make up a sizeable share of the student body.

We often hear that college is not for everyone and that a flaw in our American attitudes about education is that it regards a four-year college degree as a qualification for success when other, more technical or practical training programs could better meet the needs of many of our young people. It remains true, however, that obtaining a college degree, particularly a bachelor’s degree or higher has a strong positive effect on likelihood of employment and on income in the U.S. 

College and university education is not changing much, at least in terms of enrollment, degrees and fields of study and who goes to college and obtains a degree, but college is still expensive and family income is a major determinant in who gets a degree. Most U.S. students attend public colleges and universities. Although these may be less costly than private institutions, cost is still a major factor in determining who attends and who graduates from college. The largest source of funds in paying for college remains parental income and savings. Academically strong students from high income families are two times more likely to graduate from college than similarly academically strong students from low income families, and the ability to pay for college as well as choice of college if one does attend college are major factors determining these differences.

What also stands out is that two-year degrees don’t seem to meet the needs of people who stop their education at that point. A “well-rounded” education, which includes a good dose of humanities, social sciences and other liberal studies is still obtained by most graduates, but the failure of our two year institutions to provide STEM related associate degrees to the students who attend them is difficult to understand.

Reducing college costs and/or increasing financial assistance could narrow the gap in college graduation rates between rich and poor families. But it’s also true that in our current system, poorer students who often aim for associate degrees, often major in fields that don’t lead directly to better employment.  Our two-year degree programs are not responding to needs in the  STEM fields, and are mostly providing degrees in non-specific general studies, humanities, and liberal arts.

In my opinion, liberal arts social science and humanities education remain important even if more students, particularly those who attend two-year schools, need to major in STEM fields. I regarded some of my humanities courses in history, literature and philosophy as the most worthwhile parts of my education in terms of enriching the overall quality of my life and sharpening my critical thinking and appreciation of a wide variety of viewpoints.  When our social and political system requires that its citizens be informed about history and learn how to detect their own biases and how to evaluate arguments and data it is still desirable that as many of our citizens as possible receive an education that gives them the background and skills to do these things. Recent surveys by the Pew Research Fund and others, have found that “millennials” are woefully uninformed about history, government, science and even about our American constitution (see my earlier article: “How to Combat Russian [and Others’] Misinformation"). Remember that only a little over a third of Americans of this age have a four-year college degree. A lot of broad education can get done in high school, and this is another reason to not turn high school into purely vocational or technical training and, in our technology dominated society, make at least two-year technical/science education after high school more accessible and more typical.

Many people have their own opinions and goals with regard to our United States post-secondary educational system, but I hope that this essay will provide them with some fact-based information to inform their opinions.

 

 

 

 

Monday
Jan072019

We Have Met the Enemy and...

A recent series of articles in the New York Times has revealed that progressive Democrats, who supported, but were not connected to the Doug Jones campaign against Judge Roy Moore for the Alabama senatorial seat, mounted at least two “false flag” operations to discredit Moore. Both operations, funded for $100,000 each, used social media—Facebook and Twitter— to post fake ads that tried to divide Republican voters in an effort to help Jones’ chances in the election. In one operation, a group of Democratic supporters which included Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn and Jonathan Morgan, CEO of a cybersecurity firm called New Knowledge, which has provided the government with information on Russian meddling in the 2016 election, pretended to be Republicans who supported an alternative candidate to Judge Moore and also managed to get Russian bots to respond to the Moore campaign, giving the impression that he was a favorite of the Russians. The group who mounted the operation claimed it was an “experiment” to see how Russian-style tactics worked in a real election. Hoffman of LinkedIn claimed to have no knowledge that his money was being used in a fake campaign and issued an apology and disavowal of such tactics.

 The second operation, whose funders remain anonymous, according the NYT, employed progressive media consultants, including Matt Osborne and Beth Becker, as well as Evan Coren, whom the NYT identified as an employee of the Information Security Oversight Office of the National Archives. This operation developed a Facebook page and Twitter account called  “Dry Alabama,” which posed as conservative Republicans who wanted to illegalize the sale of alcohol in Alabama. Its aim was to drive a wedge between Republican business interests who opposed alcohol prohibition, and fundamentalist Christian Republicans who favored it, as an effort to split Moore supporters. 

The money for both operations was funneled through an organization called Investing in Us, whose mission is, according to their website, “to bring entrepreneurs and investors to join the resistance in fighting for the American dream.” They say,  “We know from experience how individual liberty and the rule of law can build a prosperous future.” Dmitri Mehlhorn, co-founder and managing partner of Investing in Us and a fellow of the Progressive Policy Institute, who has helped a number of progressive candidates including LA’s mayor Eric Garcetti, may or may not have known how the money that went through his company was spent.

Doug Jones, the Democrat who narrowly won the election, has denounced the fake media operations and called for an investigation and prosecution of the perpetrators. Matt Osborne, who worked on the “Dry Alabama” campaign, told the NYT, that he thinks Republicans use similar methods and, “If you don’t do it, you’re fighting with one hand tied behind your back. You have a moral imperative to do this — to do whatever it takes.”

The revelation that Democrats—not the Party itself, but some of its well-connected progressive supporters—have used the same devious tactics that they accuse Russia of using, and which they say requires a federal investigation, is appalling. The claim that Republicans do the same thing (without evidence of the truth of such claims), so that makes it legitimate to “fight fire with fire” is ludicrous, since the arguments against such tactics are usually phrased as moral and ethical ones and the reason for deploring or even prosecuting them is to preserve the integrity of our election process. What I find as appalling and even more frightening is that the commentary to the Times’ articles has included many who are strongly in favor of such tactics. Typical of such comments are, '”It’s hard to get worked up about dirty tricks "false flag" operations that may or may not have helped defeat a truly heinous candidate for the US Senate,” or “There are thousands of instances of the GOP using these tactics. It’s awful but it’s the system right now: you can’t bring a knife to a gun fight.” The consensus of those who support such tactics seems to be that winning is more important than how you play the game, because the Republican opponents represent enough “evil” to justify using whatever means are necessary. 

You can’t preserve the moral high ground by abandoning it. Progressive values have always included a strong moral component: wealth doesn’t bring happiness if it's accompanied by the poverty of millions; keeping us safe from threat isn’t right if it necessitates keeping those who suffer injustice and danger from finding refuge within our borders. You can’t cheat to assist a candidate with honorable values gain office. Your efforts become tainted by your own dishonesty. The current administration provides an easy target for opponents to point their fingers and say that the ends justify the means in fighting it. But they don’t. Pointing out that our opponent has done as bad or worse is not a justification for our own misbehavior. If we succumb to such tactics and behavior then, in the immortal words of Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

 

 

 

 

Saturday
Jan052019

Humility is as Good as Self-Righteousness

A provocative opinion column in the New York Times by author Judith Shulevitz about the morality clauses many writers are now being asked to sign before publication of their works struck home with me. She points out that publishers can now often cancel or withdraw book contracts if the writer  “becomes the subject of public disrepute, contempt, complaints or scandals,” in, for instance, the words of a contract with Condé Nast magazines. We've seen the same thing in other areas of art and entertainment, such as the cancellation of Kevin Spacey’s, contract on House of Cards for alleged sexual misconduct, or Roseanne’s removal from her television series after a racist tweet. Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Neil deGrasse Tyson have suffered similar fates. 

Most of us agree that an entertainment company has the right to fire a public personality who behaves immorally if that person violates the company's own ethical policies, harms his or her fellow employees, or behaves in a way that detracts from the product in which she or she is featured. The current social climate seems to demand that the mere accusation of such behavior requires immediate suspension of the accused, which pushes the limits of intolerance and fairness, since there are bound to be some situations in which the accusations are groundless. 

Artists who are not entertainers and do not have a public persona that portrays them in a certain light, are public figures only by virtue of their works. Numerous of our greatest artists of the past not only violated the social norms of their time but were sometimes jailed because of that. Composers going back to Haydn and forward to Barber, Britten and Bernstein were gay when being gay was not only frowned upon, but also illegal in many places. So were writers such as Wilde, Proust, Baldwin and Capote and artists such as Hockney, Warhol and Haring. Hemingway, London, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and two of my favorites, Chandler and Hammett, were all chronic alcoholics, and R. L. Stevenson, Philip K. Dick, Aldous Huxley and Baudelaire used drugs. Many writers, such as Algren, O’Henry, Dostoevsky, and London spent time in jail.

The act of producing art, even morally profound art, is not reserved for those who are morally pure themselves. If that were so, we would not only be robbed of some of our greatest art, but perhaps of any art at all. An artist’s life is no more moral than that of any of the rest of us, and we all have moral lapses and make ethical mistakes at some times in our lives. A society that is so self-righteous and intolerant that it demands that anyone who produces something for public consumption be morally above reproach is being hypocritical.

Our modern society no longer punishes homosexuality, at least not officially, and in fact, anti-gay speech may result in harm to a public figure’s career (e.g. Kevin Hart). The changing attitudes toward homosexuality and gender identity, which have taken place in the last few decades, ought to be a warning to all of us that social mores are culturally defined and subject to attitudinal changes. It’s not an exaggeration to say that profound art outlives cultural attitudes and often transcends them across cultures. Our self-righteous indignation and intolerance should not blind us to appreciating the beautiful artistic achievements that can be produced by deeply flawed human beings. Suppressing the art of those who don’t meet our moral standards can have long-term negative consequences for the quality of our society. 

 

 

Thursday
Jan032019

Power Politics and the Border Wall

One quarter of the U.S. government is either shut down or working without pay. These are real people and real services being affected, as are the ordinary citizens who rely on them. Neither the president nor Democratic congressional leaders appear ready to back down from their stated positions. Both blame the other side’s recalcitrance for the government shutdown. 

We’re all hopeful and even optimistic that a compromise will be found that provides a way out of the present stalemate and reopens the government. We’re optimistic because such shutdowns, which have become almost commonplace in recent years, are always solved, eventually.

Everyone is handwringing and blaming the other. Both sides are playing to their bases and accusing the other of doing just that. Many of us are members of one of the other of those bases, and most of us are no more willing to give up our position than are the negotiators who represent us. Many people are convinced of the necessity of a wall and at least an equal number of people are equally convinced that it is unnecessary and a symbol of malignant immigration policies. For either side to give in is regarded as a sign of weakness and ideological insecurity.

Compromise, tradeoffs, horse-trading, and even bluffing are time-honored negotiating strategies in politics. Watch Steven Spielberg’ film, “Lincoln” to see how this worked during the administration of one of our greatest presidents at a time when our nation was truly in a crisis. So, in some sense, the present situation is just par for the course. A minor blip in the course of running the government in a democracy.  Look at the U.K., were the Brexit question has paralyzed the British government. That’s a bigger problem than our current shutdown. But pointing out that other governments are in worse shape than we are doesn’t solve our problem here at home.

How are standoffs resolved? The answer is almost always compromise; a solution that allows both sides to give a little while saving face. Yesterday’s meeting between the president and congressional leaders had none of that. Both sides simply reiterated their earlier positions, with the Democrats also proposing to put forward a bill to reopen the government and postpone the border security question until later. The president rejected that proposal. 

A “no money for the wall” proposal is equally stubborn as a “five billion for a wall or nothing” proposal. Democrats can increase their monetary offer and insist on the money being spent only after a thorough and transparent assessment of the best way to enhance border security, without insisting on ruling out a wall. The president can accept the idea that he will use the appropriated money in the most logical way possible, given the results of such a study. It’s likely that such studies already exist, so we’re not talking about going back to the drawing board. We could get a wall, a better fence, more fence, more border guards—whatever experts have determined will work best for different parts of the border. 

There are a number of ways a compromise could be reached on the border security issue and its funding level. The politicians are playing to their bases and we, who belong to those bases, are being as irrational and stubborn as they are. It’s our wrath they are afraid of. We all need to learn to compromise if we want our government to work.

Tuesday
Jan012019

Thoughts for 2019

As  2019 begins, I face it with both hope and trepidation. I’m just an ordinary citizen, in charge of nothing, except through my vote in electing my political representatives. That vote is powerful, as we found out in the 2018 elections and as I personally found out when the Democratic congressional candidate for whom I made phone calls and knocked on doors beat a 30-year right wing Republican incumbent in one of the most traditionally Republican districts in the country. And the same thing happened in a lot of places. That’s one of my sources of hope. Another is the gradual acceptance of more progressive views within the mainstream Democratic Party, although their competition from voices of caution and moderation may quiet them or throw the party into destructive division. In my own neighborhood of Orange County, California, Asian and Latino young voters made themselves heard as they voted in larger numbers (still not large enough) than in the past, and supported liberal and progressive candidates. 

The trepidation comes from many sources: climate change and U.S. foreign policy are two areas where we find ourselves, as a nation, heading down fruitless and destructive paths. Closer to home, watching all the promising, eager young people around me facing bleak futures in terms of affording a place to live, while those with more meager means join the legions of homeless wandering our urban streets, worries me. I see little avenues for progress in terms of housing our citizens, at least in our major urban centers, particularly on the two coasts. Those who already have housing, don’t want to build more of it—it congests their streets and ruins their views and their skyline. Politicians, even liberal ones, are generally afraid to challenge property owners who support low-growth restrictions on building. We advertise our progressive views by calling our cities “sanctuaries,” but there is no place but the streets or a property owner’s garage for those who make low salaries, are service industry workers who provide the luxuries for the rest of us, but can’t make ends meet.

The nation seems to be accepting the reality of man-made climate change, but our elected leaders and government agencies are moving backwards to fight it. A minority of the population fights against accepting the reality doing nonsensical things such as blocking access to charging stations for electric cars and accusing the scientific world of being engaged in a conspiracy, while fighting or resurrecting a coal industry that can’t sustain itself economically. The world in general is moving too slowly to stop the oceans from rising, the temperatures from warming, and the weather from worsening and courting the population shift disasters that will ensue from these things. Even cognizant Americans continue to buy gas guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks, while our government lowers mileage standards for our vehicles.

Our foreign policy is in chaos, although to be truthful, it has been unfocused or disastrous for decades, and other than being disorganized, today’s foreign policy is no worse than yesterdays. None of us, including our government has a good idea of what we are doing in either Afghanistan or Syria. The critical voices of our policies are as often hawks who want to fight Russia or Iran wherever they have influence, regardless of the likelihood of winning anything as they are doves who want us to quit fighting on the side of those who are as bad as our enemies and to quit supplying support and munitions to those that wantonly kill civilians. Nobody has a vision of what our world position ought to be. This same confusion extends to our economic and diplomatic positions. The only voices that achieve coherence, even if not being sensible, are those who favor isolationism or those who seem to want global business to determine what’s good for the world. Even progressive politicians, for all their criticism of our current policies offer no reasonable vision of how we ought to be fitting into, much less leading, the world. 

2019 promises to a tumultuous year on the political front with a divided congress and both sides eager to stick it to the other and no one thinking of the long-term good of the country. It marks the beginning of the political season for the 2020 elections, and both individuals and groups will be stepping forward to present their cases. I am trepidatious, but hopeful that some of them will think critically and put the real problems we face ahead of their zeal to capture a headline or damage their opponents. 

We’ll see. In the meantime, I’m hoping for good and improved health for myself and my family and friends, no financial worries, great jobs for my young relatives, and happiness for all.

Wednesday
Dec262018

Birth Rates, Immigration, Robotization and Climate change

When I was in college—fifty years ago—the rapidly growing world population was one of the biggest threats to the future of humanity and our planet. Biologist Paul Ehrlich’s book, “The Population Bomb” was a best-seller. Predictions were dire and most concluded that social changes could not be made rapidly enough to stave off overpopulation. Today, there are few voices raising an alarm about the size of the population—in fact, most of the alarms are related to falling birth rates in countries which are already at or below the replacement rate and are worrying about young workers to support an aging population. Most predictions are that the population will level off near the end of this century and remain stable or begin falling by 2100. 

No one is sure why fertility rates decline in urban, developed countries, only that they do. Even within the countries with the largest populations—India and China—the fertility rate in urban centers is below the replacement rate, although that is not true in the rural areas. China is alarmed enough about its low birth rate that it not only abandoned its one-child policy, it now offers incentives for larger families, as does Japan, which, for the third year, did not reach even one million births and is already suffering from too few workers to support its older citizens. Only in the least developed countries, almost entirely in Africa, is population growing, and as the African continent becomes more urbanized, most population scientists are confident that it will begin to show lessening population growth and eventually level off.

In developed countries such as those in Europe or the United States, population growth, when it is occurring, is largely due to immigration. The influx of new people from foreign cultures, with their own languages and often, religions, combined with either poorly developed technical skills of the kind needed in today’s modern countries, or discrimination in hiring that keeps many of them unemployed, has created politically explosive social pressures within the countries that receive these immigrants. At the same time, the most well-trained technical and scientific members of developing societies are migrating to developed countries that are hungry for young, talented workers, creating a “brain drain” in many developing countries. In the United States, more than a quarter of all new businesses are started by immigrants and nearly half of Fortune 500 companies were begun by immigrants or their children. A quarter of the U.S. engineering and technology companies started between 2006-2012 had at least one immigrant as a key founder of that company. 

At the same time, the United States, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Macedonia, Austria and France have built or begun building walls to keep out immigrants.

Beginning with Malthus, and including Ehrlich, most population alarmists have focused on food production as the factor that would create the biggest crisis with an every-growing population. Food production has kept up with population growth, although distribution of food to all segments of the world population has not and we still have famines, caused as often by man-made conditions such as war as by climate. That may be changing as droughts and floods become more prevalent due to climate change. Common sense tells us that an increasing population causes more pollution and climate-heating carbon emissions, and the industries involved in raising a country’s economic level add to this. More cars and more fossil fuel powered electricity generating plants are a major source of carbon emissions. 

Many of those alarmed in countries with falling birth rates are concerned about the economic consequences of having an older population without a sizeable tax-producing young workforce. At the same time, they do not want an influx of unskilled migrant workers who might not contribute as much as they cost to support with social programs. While the latter equation of cost vs. tax benefit is largely a fiction, not supported by facts, it is realistic enough to spur anti-immigrant feelings among current citizens. An alternative solution to the dearth of young workers in what are becoming highly technical industries is the use of robots or automation to replace human workers. This has occurred already in some industries, such as auto-making and retail clerking. Of course robots don’t pay taxes, so our tax structures would need to change to take into account replacement of human workers by robots. Nevertheless, large scale replacement of humans by robots in the workplace seems like a viable way to adjust to a shrinking population. Japan has even replaced home health care workers with robots in caring for its elder citizens. Battery-powered robots would also produce a smaller carbon footprint, most of it related probably to their manufacture.

Some population and climate specialists have minimized the effects that lowering the world’s population would have on human-produced climate change. However, such speculations have used modest reductions in population as the basis for their predictions, and have not taken into account all the human-related sources of carbon and methane emissions. A accelerated radical reduction in population—much more than a leveling out—would produce less need for automobiles, for heating and air-conditioning, for manufacturing, for the use of livestock for food (which produces its own methane emissions) and would allow us to leave more virgin forests in place and even replace some that have been removed for farming or housing. 

Saving our planet requires many simultaneous actions. One of those that is appearing to happen naturally (and no one is completely sure why) is the reduction in birth rates in developed urbanized population centers that is eventually destined to reduce our world population. Spurring this process along and not trying to mitigate it for short-term economic considerations could be very helpful in fighting climate change. Welcoming the robotization or automation of some industries would take the economic burden off of population growth as a remedy for having fewer young workers. Investment in non-human intensive industries that don’t use fossil fuels, would allow developing countries to curtail their own population growth. Stopping wars in Africa and the Middle East and drug trafficking in Central America and Mexico would also lower immigration of unskilled workers into the United States. 

Developed countries must take the lead in terms of curbing their own emissions, assisting less developed countries to modernize their countries without creating greater pollution, stopping instead of supporting wars, and working on international problems such as drug trafficking instead of building walls to keep drugs and people out. Population shrinkage can be a major factor in reducing climate change, but only within a larger context of working on these other issues as well as continued efforts to find ways to reduce everyone’s carbon footprint. The future has possibilities and walls and wars and building up our own population through increasing the birth rate are not solutions that will help. 

 

Friday
Dec212018

Against Ideological Conformity

Once again, reading David Brooks’ column in the New York Times has led me in a productive direction. This time, Brooks, in an opinion piece titled, “A New Center Being Born,” cited a position paper by the Niskanen Center, a think tank of largely former libertarians, which makes a strong argument in favor of empiricism and moderation over ideological orthodoxy in choosing a direction for our country. This is a position I have often championed, so I decided I needed to read the paper, which has the title, “The Center Can Hold: Public Policy for an Age of Extremes.”

The basis of the paper as described by Brooks, is that “People with single all-explaining ideologies have a tendency to let their philosophic blinders distort how they view empirical reality.” Despite voluminous historical evidence that adherence to ideological purity as a guide to politics or governance has resulted in economic and political failures, and often in tyrannies, many people nowadays continue to make such adherence the backbone of their political stances and litmus tests for which programs or politicians they will support. Perhaps at no time in our country’s history has this been more true than today, where not only do conservatives oppose liberals, but reactionary populists oppose radical progressives, the latter two groups being particularly keen on adhering to their own philosophies and punishing anyone who deviates from its orthodoxy.

The Niskanen Centre’s own research has examined, in detail, the idea that knee-jerk (even when the knees are politically well-positioned or scholarly) conservatism and liberalism, the right and the left of today’s mainstream politics, have identified their causes with opposition to or the embrace of “big government.”  Thriving competition and free markets are identified with minimalist government and deregulation, by conservatives, while liberals associate the same factors with accumulation of wealth by small elites and increasing income disparity. When the authors of the paper look at the facts, they find that those countries with the largest tax and expenditures related to social welfare programs also are ranked highest in freedom to enter and compete in business and reward for entrepreneurialism. As they point out, “The freest economies generally feature big welfare states.” 

One simple fact, which the authors point out flies in the face of the views of small government advocates is that “the comparative advantage governments have in pooling risk produces enormous utility for society as a whole.” This makes it more economical and equitable for governments to step in and manage health insurance, disability insurance, unemployment insurance, and programs for the poor and to do it as large-scale programs that serve equally across the country. They make the point that government intervention and spending for social welfare is not the same as government regulation, and the private sector is poor at adequately servicing high-risk or low productivity members of society, who become even more costly when piecemeal regulations try to provide an uncoordinated safety-net for those who are left behind.

But government regulations also aren’t a monolithic entity. The authors say that our current regulatory system  can be “broadly defined as insider domination of the policymaking process resulting in regulation for the benefit of the industry rather than the public. This dynamic has led to badly distorted policies that throttle innovation and growth even as they redistribute income and wealth to a favored elite at the top of the socioeconomic scale.” In other words, most regulatory policies are written to preserve and protect those businesses and people with the most assets. Fewer regulations would actually make our economy more innovative, more open to new players, easier to enter and to exit for good and bad ideas, etc. 

The paper is chock-full of knowledge and insights and is well worth reading. Whether one agrees or disagrees with its examples and recommendations, its central argument rings true: One can take nearly any topic—welfare reform, immigration, Wall Street regulation, global warming, healthcare, criminal justice reform, education—and it will turn out to be true that the degree to which one views these topics through an inflexible ideological lens, whether one that is oriented right or left, determines the degree to which facts are ignored or distorted, and solutions suffer because of that. There is a wide world out there in which lots of social experiments have taken place or are taking place right now, and looking at the information to be gained from these experiments can inform us as to what effects we are likely to receive from different programs and policies. If we try to pick those programs and policies that have worked the best, and also fit in with our democratic values, we are likely to find that they don’t fit neatly into any one ideology, and some may even fit what we ordinarily think of as opposing philosophies. In these cases, we need to go with what an honest appraisal of the facts and their implications tell us, not make decisions based on whether the programs agree with our philosophies. The results we achieve will probably be somewhere in the middle, not at the extremes. But they will be more likely to work.

Reference: https://niskanencenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Niskanen-vision-paper-final-PDF.pdf

 

Thursday
Dec202018

Syria: Did Trump Get it Right This Time?

President Trump’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria has been met with little applause from either his supporters or his opponents. Congress has left it to some of Trump’s often most ardent supporters, such as Lindsay Graham, to slam the president’s decision. Senator Graham said,"This is a stain on the honor of the United States," and added, "I think it's disastrous to our own national security." Senator Marco Rubio, a sometimes Trump supporter and sometimes opponent, said the president’s decision to withdraw troops is “a colossal, in my mind, mistake—a grave error that is going to have significant repercussions in the years and months to come.” Democrats have been more restrained, mostly criticizing the lack of coordination of the president’s decision with others in our government or with our allies, and signing onto a letter from a bipartisan group of Senate Armed Services Committee members, which called the president’s decision “a premature and costly mistake that not only threatens the safety and security of the United States but also emboldens ISIS, (Syrian leader) Bashar al Assad, Iran and Russia.”

In contrast to the muted response from Democratic politicians (and even some approbation from Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee), liberal news media such as CNN and the New York Times have been harshly critical of the president’s decision, while FOX News has been mostly silent. 

Criticisms of the president’s decision have been that it has been applauded by Vladimir Putin (“Donald is right!”), that it is contrary to what Trump’s advisors, such as National Security Advisor, John Bolton have recommended, that it appears based on an erroneous assumption that ISIS has been defeated, that it allows Iran and Russia unchallenged influence in Syria, and that it walks out on our defense of Syrian Kurds from attacks from Turkey.

In their zeal to find another reason to attack the president, many of his liberal opponents are glossing over the fact that the thought behind his decision is similar to that of Barack Obama, who wanted to withdraw troops from Iraq, Afghanistan, and who resisted sending troops into Syria, although he finally relented (which John McCain and Lindsay Graham said was “too little, too late”). Ordinarily, advice and pronouncements of John Bolton, a Bush-era Neo-Con hawk, are disregarded or attacked by the liberal media. Many of Trump’s opponents appear to be talking themselves into a hawkish military position just because the president took an opposite tack. 

The truth is that President Trump may have done the right thing but in the wrong way. What is right is that the American policy of supporting anti-Assad rebels, who also fight ISIS, is a misguided policy, especially now that Assad seems firmly in charge. Trying to contain Iran or being a counter-balance to Russia, both Assad allies, by keeping 2000 troops inside Syria, is fruitless as well as misguided. With Iran and Russia as staunch allies, both of whom are fighting ISIS themselves, American troops on the ground aren’t necessary, and they increase the likelihood of an open conflict with these troops from other countries. Likewise, we have no business trying to support Kurdish fighters against Turkey.  

What Trump did wrong, was not listen to or coordinate with his advisors, inform congressional leaders, or discuss at length with the military. He made an arbitrary decision, based on his intuition and his desire to fulfill a campaign promise, probably also to distract from losing the fight over the border wall and the increasingly ominous findings from the Russian investigation. He exhibits the style of an authoritarian dictator who makes decisions on the basis of whims and tantrums. This time, the decision may be correct, even if the method of arriving at it is far from presidential.

 

Tuesday
Dec182018

How to Combat Russian (and Others') Misinformation

Russian meddling with the information consumed by many Americans on social media has raised issues about how to combat misinformation and deliberate  attempts to disrupt our social system by planting divisive information on the internet. At the same time, the mainstream media is concerned about so-called “fake news” and “alternative facts,” promulgated by the president, by political partisans, by corporate lobbyists, or by the media themselves. The picture that emerges from all of the revelations about this type of meddling, either from Russia or domestically, is of a public that is swayed in different directions by manipulative entities with nefarious intentions. The question becomes how to protect ourselves from this threat.

Besides the Russians themselves—or the New York Times or CNN if one agrees with the president—the culprits in spreading misleading or untrue information and the entity on which the burden of correcting the problem falls are the social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. Many politicians and political commentators have called for increased government surveillance and regulation of the content of these social media outlets, including stepped-up methods of identifying untrue news posts.

Social media began as a way of connecting friends via the internet. It has become a major communication channel for information about the world and the society, and as a source of news. A recent Pew Research survey found that 68% of Americans get at least some of their news from social media.

Censoring news and deciding what news is truthful and what is not is a difficult task in a nation that guarantees free speech and freedom of the press. Deciding what is misleading, even if it is true, is an even harder task. Choosing to ban posts on the basis of the country of origin (e.g. Russia) runs counter to the worldwide web philosophy and purpose, and resembles something an authoritarian county might do, not one that guarantees freedom of expression. There is wide room for disagreement on what is true and what is not as well as what is misleading and what is not—just ask CNN and FOX News viewers about each other’s favorite news outlet. The president thinks Saturday Night Live should be investigated for what he calls its “one-sided coverage.”

As I said, censoring news and informational posts is a very tricky business, especially if done by the government, but also if done by private media sources we all rely on. The latter, however, do not fall under our laws guaranteeing free speech, although many people expect them to honor that concept in what they allow to be posted.

It’s important to remember that misinformation and outright lies as well as all other methods of manipulation of attitudes and belief  are most successful when the person being manipulated is deficient in his or her own knowledge base. A maximum amount of freedom of expression is healthy in the context of a well-informed public, who can weigh information against what they already know to be true. In this regard Americans appear to be poorly informed easy prey (to be honest, this is also true in many other countries). 

Here are a few of the results of reputable surveys on what Americans know or don’t know about their world:

Science

81%  of Americans can’t identify a single living scientist.

48% believe evolution is true.

39% know what the big bang is.

20% believe the sun revolves around the earth.

History:

23% of Americans don’t know from which country the U.S. achieved independence.

41% don’t know what Auschitz is (66% of millennials)

22% of millennials haven’t heard of the Holocaust or don’t know what it was.

86% of Amercans can’t identify where Iraq is and 82% don’t know where Afghanistan is.

Politics and the Constitution:

70% of Americans don’t know that the constitution contains the Bill of Rights

55% believe that Christianity was written into the Constitution. 

52% can’t name a single Supreme Court justice (57% under age 35)

 

37% of Americans can’t name a single first amendment right

33% of Americans can’t name a single branch of the government

26% can name all three branches of government (down 12% since 2011)

53% believe that undocumented aliens have no rights under the U.S. constitution

18% believe that Muslims don’t have the same rights as other U.S. citizens

15% believe that atheists don’t have the same rights as other U.S. citizens

38% of American-born U.S. citizens fail the citizenship examination given to new citizens.

 

Americans are woefully lacking in knowledge about world history, U.S. history, geography, and their own political system, including the constitution and the government. This makes them easy prey for misinformation, since they don’t possess correct information in the first place. Sometimes this lack of information can make people view the exercise of guaranteed freedoms as a threat to our democracy and system of government. Younger Americans are less knowledgeable  than older Americans, by and large. This should be troubling for those who are looking to our younger generation to make better decisions about issues such as climate change, tolerance, and equal rights than the older generation.

It is not clear why Americans are as uninformed as they are, but the tendency to obtain information from social media probably adds to this, and certainly a poorly functioning educational system does also. This also means that efforts by the government to regulate information will not be scrutinized in as informed a way as it should be by citizens who lack basic knowledge about our first amendment rights in the first place. Effort to silence divergent opinions may be applauded by those who are unaware that expression of such opinions is a basic right guaranteed by our constitution. Again, this is especially troubling if those who are least informed are our younger citizens whose energy on behalf of their political interests is most easily aroused.

In addition to our country’s efforts to identify foreign sources of information manipulation designed to affect our society’s well-being, I would urge that we focus on educating our citizens to allow them to assess information for themselves and decide what sounds true or makes sense from a position of a sound knowledge base.

 

 

 

Saturday
Dec152018

We're Hurting the Most Vulnerable Members of our Society

Three headline-grabbing moves by the Trump administration and/or its supporters  this week showed the degree to which heartlessness, in the guise of conservative politics characterizes our present government. Its policies are directed at hurting the most vulnerable people in our country, often in favor of helping the rich or corporations. 

Twenty Republican dominated states, led by Texas, went to court to object to the Affordable Care Act on the grounds that, since its individual mandate, which had been declared a constitutionally approved tax, had been invalidated by the government charging zero taxes as the penalty, that this invalidated the entire Affordable Care Act, including its provisions for financing additional Medicare enrollments and mandating equal coverage for those with pre-existing medical conditions. Despite the Affordable Care Act being federal law, the U.S. Justice Department refused to defend either the individual mandate invalid or coverage for pre-existing medical conditions. Many congressional Republicans also backed the lawsuit. This week a Texas judge ruled in favor of Texas’ suit and declared the entire Affordable Care Act unconstitutional. If this decision holds up in appeal, it would mean millions of Americans would lose health care coverage, would lose federal subsidies for their premiums, which are the heart of the Act, and those with pre-existing medical conditions would find themselves unable to be insured or faced with soaring premiums. President Trump hailed the judge’s decision as a victory. The working poor and the sick are the ones who will be hurt if this decision is upheld.

Under President Obama, a policy was passed that required loans given to students at for-profit colleges that misrepresented their job placement success and graduation rates or failed to provide the education they had promised, to be forgiven and students be made re-eligible for grants such as Pell Grants. Under Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education had delayed implementation of the forgiveness program for two years and sought a remedy more friendly to the colleges. Thankfully, a federal judge ordered the Department of Education to begin implementing the program immediately, over the objection of the Trump administration appointee, DeVos. The students affected are generally lower middle class, seeking employable skills and many of them went heavily into debt to finance the education, which they failed to receive.

Finally, after threatening to deport Vietnamese refugees who escaped from Vietnam prior to 1995, when diplomatic relations were established between the U.S. and  the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the Trump administration has proposed going ahead with such mass deportations.   Going further than originally proposed, not only those non-U.S. citizens who have committed crimes would be deported, but also those who don't have adequate documentation of their resident status in the U.S. These are people who have been in the U.S. for at least 20 years, and most of then longer, with families and jobs and who would not be welcomed back into the present Vietnam. An agreement struck between the U.S. and the Vietnam government in 2008 protected these same pre-1995 refugees from being deported, but it needs to be renewed every five years and this is the anniversary of the second renewal. Thousands of Vietnamese, a group that have been very successful in becoming integrated with American society and made great contributions to the country and local communities, would face deportation. In my own work in the mental health field I am familiar with many refugees from these early years who came to the U.S. traumatized, had only sketchy documentation, as they escaped with only their shirts on their back Some of these people also subsequently suffered mental illnesses, which often got them arrested for such crimes public disturbance or assault, when they were exhibiting symptoms of mental illness. They are not criminals, but they have a record. They have families who depend upon them and upon which they depend. These families would be torn apart if this order is followed.

What these three situations have in common is that those who will suffer, or in the case of the Department of Education inaction, already have been, are some of the most vulnerable members of our society. This is a heartless attitude by our government toward these people and should be abhorred, not applauded by our leaders, including our president and his party. Instead, it seems part of an overall approach that disregards the welfare of  those people who are least able to defend themselves. These are shameful examples of uncaring governance.

Thursday
Dec132018

Big Business Really is the Enemy of the People

A revealing article in the New York Times discusses how oil companies, led by refiner Marathon Petroleum, mounted a major lobbying effort aimed at both the Trump administration and congress, to rollback auto emission standards because using less gasoline means refining and selling less gasoline and they would lose money. The administration’s proposed rollback, to freeze standards at 2020 levels, goes even further than those proposed by the automobile industry (who still opposed the Obama standards that required essentially doubling fuel mileage in new cars sold after 2025).

At the same time, Amazon decided to expand its centers to two new locations and city, county and state governments offered the company owned by the richest man in the world, millions of dollars worth of incentives to locate the centers in their areas, often at the displeasure of local citizens. 

The pharmaceutical industry, medical device makers and suppliers, and private health insurers have all opposed measures to rein in their costs and to put them under government controls, as is done in most other developed countries, even to the extent of opposing allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices from the industry.

Numerous studies of the effects of the Trump tax cuts, lobbied for and applauded by corporate America, have shown that the major benefits have been to stock market prices and corporate profits, even though wages and employment have continued to rise, but basically on the same trajectory they were on prior to the tax cuts. 

These are just some examples of the enormous power of big business to shape American policies, whether they are formulated by congress or the administration and its various agencies. In many cases, these policies run counter to the welfare of the majority of the American people. Most Americans are concerned about climate change, but our policies choose oil, coal, and auto industry profits over emission reduction. Millions of Americans are underinsured and devastated when they are hit by major illnesses, or even costly, medication-intensive chronic illnesses and old age. Wages have barely kept up with inflation and are sorely lagging behind the costs of living in major coastal metropolitan areas, particularly in the area of housing. The economy continues to grow and corporations and investors continue to flourish while the U.S. has the widest income inequality among developed countries, has the highest healthcare costs and some of the worst healthcare outcomes, has fewer doctors/per capita and fewer doctors being trained than most developed countries, has crumbling infrastructure and a failing educational system, and and is back in the business of polluting the environment.

In 2014 Gilens and Page, two academic researchers from Princeton and Northwestern Universities, studied approximately 1800 U.S. government policy decisions from 1981-2002 to determine whose interests determined the outcome of the decision. Their conclusion was that “Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” We can assume that nothing has changed. 

What can be done? Wresting the control of government decision-making away from the “economic elites,” i.e. the wealthy, and “business interests” is a formidable task. The first step, I believe, is to elect, and continue to elect, representatives who favor policies that are in the best interest of the majority of citizens. In some cases, this may mean simply replacing those who have been in Washington so long that they are so deeply in the back pockets of corporate lobbyists that they can’t get out or refuse to. In other cases, it means electing people who support the right programs, which means paying attention to real issues not dog-whistle identity issues and muckraking. Politicians can’t just be against the corruption or behavior of their opponents, but need to be for real policy changes that put citizens back in the driver’s seat in choosing what the government does. And of course, changes start at the top. As we have seen, who is president matters. We also need transparency in how decisions are made. Behind-closed-door negotiations, such as occurred with the Trans-Pacific Partnership during the Obama administration, which allowed corporate priorities to dictate the terms of the deal, can’t be allowed.

What about taking to the streets? It seems to be working in France, but it’s not usually directed toward pocketbook issues in America. The Native American opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline had some success, and might be a model for protests on environmental and pocketbook issues. Unions have been weakened in the U.S. They used to be major political players and could offset some corporate interests. They were often a source of street protests and worker actions. There has been some resurgence of union-led protests in the fast-food, hotel and restaurant and nursing sectors, even in education, but unions need to grow in strength for workers to regain control of issues such as wages, healthcare and retirement.

Few of our current politicians seem to agree with the points I’ve made above. Some new faces, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, being the most prominent, do seem to get it and are exposing the deep sources of corporate influence in congress. Her revelation that new congress members’ orientation program at Harvard was basically run by and dominated by corporate and Wall Street lobbyists and didn’t include any voice of unions, workers, teachers or ordinary citizens, showed how our elected officials are quickly indoctrinated into a system that is rigged to satisfy the interests of big business. We need to elect more people like her and we each need to do our homework to understand what the issue are and how our candidates for office and those already elected feel about them. We live in a democracy and we should be in charge of what it does.

 

 

 

 

Tuesday
Dec112018

It's the Cost of Gas and Food and Rent, Stupid.

I have no idea whether France’s recent turmoils over a gas tax increase, the high cost of living, and high taxes and low wages for the working poor, combined with tax cuts for the wealthy, means anything for United States politics. The French have a history of taking to the streets and causing public mayhem as a way of sending a message to their government. Here in America, our protests are as likely to be directed at our fellow citizens, at corporations, or at cultural norms and practices, as at our government. The last protests against the government, rivaling those in France, that I can remember, were against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in the 1960s.

Much of the same dynamic that instigated the French protests is at work in the United States. Tax cuts have favored the wealthy and corporations. For ordinary workers, slow growth in wages has not outpaced the inflation rate. In our largest cities, it is impossible for minimum or even low-wage earners to pay for rent, and families are forced to live with other families under the same roof to make ends meet—either that or join the growing number of working homeless. Despite low prices for oil, gas prices have not gone down, and U.S. sanctions against Iran are threatening to increase them, in the same way that tariff policies are increasing the price of a number of products, affecting food, automobile and clothing prices. Republicans have tried to chip away at healthcare benefits under Obamacare, with their proposals threatening to leave millions of sick and working poor vulnerable to catastrophic medical bills or having to forego treatment.

Progressive voices have focused on increasing minimum wages, a fight that has been led by unions more than politicians. But the bastions of progressivism, which are the large, liberal cities, mostly on either coast, have created situations that are unlivable for the working poor and often even for the lower middle class. The progressive fights have been about identity issues related to ethnicity and gender and climate change more than about living conditions and financial viability for the working poor. The needs of coal miners, oil industry workers and farmers, who fear environmental measures as further eroding their precarious financial situations have not been addressed by progressive leaders.

In France, the “yellow-vest” protesters were more or less leaderless, and appear to have consisted of those who are directly affected by the government policies they are protesting. In America, our progressive protesters are mostly college students and upper-middle class liberals. We have very few national leaders who come from the ranks of the working poor or the dispossessed. We rightly celebrate the election of Muslim, Black, Asian and women representatives to a congress made up of mostly old White men, but it’s nearly impossible for a person without means to even run an election.

Are we headed for a situation like the one that occurred in France? Probably not in the near future, but the underlying factors are similar in our two countries. I don’t want to see violent street protests and having to take to the streets at all, suggests to me a failure or our democratic system of elected representation. I’m financially comfortable myself and am solidly middle class, probably a function of the age in which I grew up and worked and of my gender and skin color, as much as anything else . But some of my relatives and many of my friends are facing very difficult circumstances. The nieces, nephews and grandchildren I have urged to get good grades and a college degree face an employment situation where they will be able to get a job but not afford to pay rent. My relatives and friends who have serious medical conditions and earn enough to have to buy their own insurance live in terror of losing their insurance or being hit with gigantic medical bills because they could not afford insurance that didn’t have large deductibles or co-pays. Those without a college education find their wages slipping even further behind the cost of living and have no prospect of things getting better. 

Someone has to speak for those who are barely making it, or not making it at all, in our society. We have a lot of new progressives in congress (nearly 100 in the House of representatives). I hope these elected representatives address the issues I’ve outlined above. Our public consciousness is focused on the shenanigans of a corrupt administration, on identity issues and college campus speakers, and on celebrities whose lives don’t resemble ordinary people’s at all (I read as many stories of the tragedies of famous Malibu residents as of the ordinary people in Northern California devastated by recent fires). Many people are not making it in our society, yet are working hard to try to make ends meet. That’s not right and, as a society we need to do better. It’s up to progressive politicians to try to fix things.

 

Thursday
Dec062018

We're Losing the Battle Against Global Warming

Global warming is the crisis of our times. Some politicians and many Americans continue to point to fluctuations in temperature, historical shifts in climate, and minority scientific opinions as sufficient evidence to delay any current action. Such arguments ignore the vast bulk of scientific evidence and opinion, sometimes claiming it is some kind of conspiracy among climate alarmists. Other politicians, from all over the world, agree that climate change is a problem and that it is only stoppable by human effort, but, even while declaring it a crisis, put measures to combat it low on their list of priorities when it comes to changing policies.

Several recent reports have shown that the world’s current efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and to slow rising temperatures are not working. The last four years have set a record for worldwide high temperatures, and a new report from the Global Carbon Project showed that greenhouse gas emissions rose 1.6% last year and are on track to rise another 2.7% this year. China and India are the worst offenders, but the U.S. has also shown an increase in emissions and only Europe showed a decrease. There are many culprits: increased gas consumption is one, use of coal in energy generation is another, burning of forests and deforestation another. 

The Paris Climate Agreement was one global effort to get countries to agree to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but targets were set too low and most have not been met by the participating countries. The U.S., historically the largest contributor of greenhouse gases, although now being surpassed by India and China, has removed itself from the agreement citing the argument that the climate gains it would bring about are not sufficient to offset the economic losses, and that it required the U.S. to spend too much money to fix a problem that was being exacerbated mostly by other countries, who were not doing enough themselves.

Climate change is not the kind of problem that can be fixed by only part of the world acting or by employing policies that treat reducing emissions in isolation from other international policies. In many cases, economic growth and reduction of emissions are opposing factors. In a highly developed country such as the U.S. or many European nations, it may be possible to substitute growth in the renewable energy industry for continued investment in fossil fuel production or use. But in developing countries, including China and India, as well as countries in Asia and Africa that are trying to use industry to lift large populations out of poverty, this has been deemed unrealistic, and not only do the countries themselves choose to use fossil fuels, a global player such as China is funding their use in other developing countries as a method to help its own economy and increase its international influence.

Arms races and wars funnel money away from infrastructure development and research that could allow renewable energy to replace reliance on fossil fuels. The practice of using purchases or embargos of fossil fuels flowing from middle eastern countries as part of global defense and economic strategies perpetuates reliance on oil and natural gas as energy sources because of their role in these strategies. 

The developing countries outside of China, cannot forego reliance on fossil fuels for energy or even on the practice of massive deforestation (often through burning, which releases carbon and doesn’t capture any of it back because the trees are gone) without substantial financial help and incentives from richer countries such as the U.S.. While some argue that this is America paying for other people’s environmental programs, the long term savings from the results of the climate change that these developing countries will cause and are causing, more than offsets the short-term costs.

A truly global effort to stem climate change and global warming will require a total restructuring of international relations. Neither America First or China First will work and, in fact, such international competition is a major threat to our world’s environment. Add to that local greed, head-in-the-sand ignorance on the part of our leaders, and vested interest in the status quo by governments and private industry. All of these things have to change. Leaders have to realize that protecting their economies now is a meaningless exercise when the costs of combating extreme weather, rising oceans, droughts, floods and crop failures begin escalating until they become much greater than most economies can bear. Protecting one’s border and culture will fall by the wayside when whole populations of low-lying or drought-plagued regions of the world create millions of new refugees who need to be accommodated.

Global warming is an outcome that our entire world economic and social structure makes inevitable. Small changes or local decreases in emissions are not going to change things. The kinds of worldwide changes that need to occur require a rethinking of international relationships. The world needs to come together and work on the problem together. The short term pain will be substantial and will demand backing away from the kinds of competitive world-view that has characterized national agendas for centuries. But someone needs to address the issue, or we are all going to suffer.

Saturday
Dec012018

"Let Them Take the Train"

The French Revolution has some lessons for our modern world. Over and over, during both the beginning and the end of the revolution that changed Europe forever, concessions by the King or modifications of governance by the ruling Directory were overshadowed by the dire economic straits of the people. When the need for bread competed with enlightenment ideas, bread won. The final straw was that continuing economic woes resulted in First Consul and later to be Emperor, Napoleon.

Emmanuel Macron in France is suffering from the elitist label, capped by his raising of the fuel taxes that stresses already financially strapped Frenchmen, particularly outside of Paris, where jobs are scarce, there is no Metro,  and travel by automobile is mandatory to get from place to place. His climate protection goal of reducing fuel use and plowing money into environmental protection is seen as an elitist dream that overrides his concern for the common man.

The lesson here is that economics can easily overrule idealism, especially during periods of economic distress. As in the United States, it might even be that perceived economic distress is as important as the actual thing. The Republican Party has been able to legislate and tax in ways that profit the wealthy while giving minimal benefit to the middle class and none to the poor without causing a populist backlash. The Democrats, however, are hammered for choosing the environment or immigrants, or diversity, over the economy. They are continually called elitists, despite trying to present the message that they are for the common man.

Climate change has not been an immediate fear for many people, especially those who are struggling on a day today basis. The fear of leaving a ravaged planet to our grandchildren is too far off to matter. This is changing as extreme weather events occur more often and are tied to climate change. Both scientific studies of future weather patterns and current hurricane, blizzard and fire disasters provide evidence that the less well off are particularly vulnerable to these catastrophes, since they not only live in their paths but they have few reserves to help them avoid or recover from disasters.

But elitists need to beware. Proposals that coalesce support among the socially conscious privileged, but have the potential to cause pain among the less well off, less privileged, need to be looked at very carefully and everyone’s needs have to be taken into account. President’s Trump’s campaign message about saving the environmentally destructive coal industry won him votes in Pennsylvania, and California Governor Brown’s gas tax increase to provide money for highway improvements was a bitter point of contention between liberals and conservatives, although an effort to repeal it fell far short in November.

The street protests in France are a warning. They are not against spending government money, since they also are in favor of more government assistance on several issues, but they are against raising taxes in a way that hurts the common man and meets goals endorsed by elites. They also are against the perceived deaf ears of the country’s leader, who appears to have little understanding of the plight of those who are suffering in the current French economy. These are all lessons for progressives here in the U.S. One problem is that arguments, even for programs that benefit the average person and against programs that favor the super rich, need to be couched in terms that are meaningful to everyone and not just those who are highly educated, read liberal publications, have leisure time, and talk only to each other.

Friday
Nov302018

The Shape of the Future

I eagerly read Elizabeth Warren’s article in yesterday’s online Foreign Affairs, called “A Foreign Policy for All.”  I was disappointed in the generalities, the doctrinaire set-pieces against growing inequality and the decline of the middle class, and the lack of any real picture of what her future world would look like. I agreed with her focuses on the need for a healthy domestic economy that works for everyone as a necessity in maintaining America’s place in the world, on cutting our exorbitant military spending and the foolishness of our military adventures over the last several years, and on the evils of a tax system that favors the wealthy. She included enough criticisms and accusations about President Donald Trump to make her article indistinguishable from most liberal/progressive attacks, however she rightly criticized U.S. policies from the last decades, well before Trump, that have profited multinational companies and the wealthy at everyone else’s expenses.

I’m ready for a serious discussion from someone other than an academic about a view of the future that seeks to remedy the ills of the present and the policies and political stances that perpetuate them. As long as our politicians mostly seek to provoke knee-jerk agreement from supporters by reciting dog-whistle arguments about wealthy elites, corruption, falling behind the Chinese, and middle class stagnation, I doubt that we will hear such a serious discussion from any of them.

Here is some of my view of what a future should look like:

Domestically, the plight of America’s poor is much more dire than that of its middle class, they just don’t vote often enough to make them anyone’s focus. America’s income inequality is disproportionately large compared to most other countries and it is largest in some states that appear to be doing well, such as California and New York, and in those doing least well, such as Louisiana and Mississippi, suggesting that the design of our current economic/social system has some basic flaws that are not being overcome by nationwide economic success. I would like to see a renewed “war on poverty” that focuses upon education, infrastructure rebuilding and job training, forging government-industry partnerships. Such an effort must also address the two dramatic scourges that cripple those trying to move from one socio-economic level to another, which are health care costs and housing costs/shortages. I believe this will take a large government investment of funds and some innovative government programs. It will also take a more graduated income tax system that relies on higher taxes for the wealthy to fund programs that address the problems of those most hurting in our current economy. In terms of healthcare, the arguments have already been made that a federal program such as Medicare for All is the best answer. In terms of housing, some courageous politicians will have to address issues such as the need for rent control and the ability to supersede local building restrictions in order to build more high-rise housing in communities that currently restrict such building in the name of preserving their (privileged) quality of life.

Issues such as global warming, settling of border disputes, intellectual property rights, cyberwarfare, and nuclear proliferation are not able to be solved by individual nations acting bilaterally. The interests of global business and international peace and economic progress cannot be completely disentangled, and business interests and government must work together. The TPP was a case study in how not to negotiate a trade agreement, because the negotiation was done in secret, the negotiators were either directly multinational businesses or were heavily influenced by them, and the result would have put protection of multinational companies ahead of protection of the citizens of the countries that were participating. That doesn’t mean that such trade agreements are evil or futile. What it means is that we still need to negotiate such agreements, the larger often the better, but the negotiators need to be government entities that we, as citizens are in control of, and the negotiations need to be open and transparent and subject to minute oversight by our elected representatives (as was not done with TPP when Obama asked for “fast-track” authority to approve the deal without congress really examining it). Without such international treaties and agreements, we are going to view every one of those issues as a competitive one that will ultimately turn into a race for supremacy or hegemony. But, as we’ve seen with NAFTA, such agreements affect every one of us. I strongly believe that the days of the United States going it alone in order to keep “America First” are over and that we need to become part of larger cooperative groups—perhaps different groups for different issues—hopefully ones that can eventually bring the whole world into them. Needless to say, a worldwide effort to stem global warming is near the top of the list.

 

Our future world will continue to wrestle with the tension between cooperation and competition. I recently listened to an interview with progressive Democratic congressman Ro Khanna, who said that we need to make winning against China a centerpiece of our economic/foreign policy. To my mind, that’s the wrong kind of thinking. A future world is guaranteed to have both China and the U.S. as economic powerhouses. Which is larger may not really matter. Our economic systems are moving toward similar models and addressing similar issues. It is the stance of our governments toward their people that differ more than our economic policies. China exerts more control over not just its country’s business practices, but also freedom of speech and the press, internet communication, worker independence, and citizen input into government decisions than does the U.S. China is not a democracy and does not intend to be one. They are assisting many developing countries to pull themselves out of poverty, and supporting repressive government practices in those countries while they’re doing it. That isn’t the American model—or shouldn’t be. But it’s not necessarily a threat to us, and it’s not something we need to combat by figuring out how to contain China. If our system of freedoms is superior, we need to show that it is by example and by the countries that we assist doing well. Assisting another country by selling them arms or backing up their military adventures, or remaining silent as they violate citizen rights in order not to jeopardize our business dealings with them is not teaching anyone a good lesson about America’s way of helping others. Until we learn how to do it right, we don’t need to spend so much time on figuring out how to combat China’s approach. There are whole areas within less wealthy, sometimes developing, countries that a foreign policy that ties aid to progress in easing repression can address: drug trafficking in Central America, health, clean water and food distribution issues in Africa, the structure of loans to economically unstable South American countries, relocation of populations within drought and flood plagued areas of Asia and the island nations that are being hit hardest by the effects of global warming.

These are broad strokes of a future foreign and domestic agenda that could be what politicians address if they are serious about fixing the problems that will limit our country’s ability to succeed in the future. This is some of my view of the kind of future world I would like to see. It’s not a view that relies on tearing anything down and starting over, but one that reaffirms our American value system and tries to make the way our country works be good for all of our citizens as well as the rest of the world.

Tuesday
Nov272018

The Hypocrites Win

Two recent events brought home to me the degree to which our political partisanship in this country allows hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty to flourish. The first of these events was President Trump's fight with Chief Justice Roberts about whether our court system reflects political bias. The president referred to a judge who ruled against him as an “Obama judge” and the Chief Justice claimed that judges were impartial and didn’t side with the side of the person who appointed them. The hypocrisy occurred when the liberal media and Democratic politicians applauded the Chief Justice and jumped all over the president for undermining the integrity of the judiciary in the public’s mind. It’s hypocritical because we just went through a Supreme Court nomination process that brought out feelings and statements on both sides about the bias that would enter the Supreme Court if the president’s pick were confirmed. Furthermore, news articles routinely mention which president appointed a federal judge when they report on a decision, implying that it is a factor that matters. Numerous articles have highlighted the number of Trump judiciary appointments, often with alarm, and fights over delaying or speeding up the confirmation process are routine in the Senate, based on the assumption that the judicial appointments will reflect the politics of the president who appoints them. Yes, President Trump called into question the independence of the judiciary, but so have many others. As usual, the president used derogatory worlds to describe the Ninth Circuit Court Of Appeals, just as he has the media, the Democratic Party, and various politicians and celebrities, and of course, the Mueller investigation. He impugned their integrity, as he usually does with his opponents. And yes, this leads many Americans to distrust most of our government and institutions. But questioning the integrity of the court has been a favorite pastime of people on both sides of the political arena and of many in the media. It’s intellectually dishonest to imply that it’s not been.

The second event is more important, in my mind. Thirteen government agencies released a new report on the effects of climate change and the need to do something to remedy it. The president, of course, said he didn’t believe it and cast doubt on the accuracy of the report, implying that it was holdovers from the Obama administration that authored it. That’s par for the course with President Trump, for whom we’ve stopped expecting statements that are either intellectual or honest. What is more alarming is the reluctance of conservative pundits and politicians to accept the conclusions of the report—and many others like it, which have been published by organizations from the scientific establishment, the U.N., other governments, and our own government. I heard an otherwise well-informed and intelligent conservative journalist on Meet the Press preface her distrust of the report with the statement, “I’m not a scientist,” meaning that she couldn’t come to a conclusion herself about whether climate change is man-made based on the report of a group of government scientists. My guess is that she doesn't doubt many other things that scientists claim, such as that nuclear fission can create atomic bombs, or that Neptune is a gaseous planet, or that CT scans and MRIs have improved cancer detection, yet I’m sure that she isn’t a scientist in those fields either, nor does she understand all of the science behind them. Her reluctance to accept the conclusions of the report, and the reluctance of many conservative, intelligent Americans to accept the scientific community’s conclusions about the effects of human activity on climate change reflect a political stance in favor of perceived economic growth over environmental protection. To claim that they don’t believe the conclusions because they're not scientists, or because a tiny minority of the scientific community quibbles with those conclusions, is hypocritical because they don’t apply these criteria to other conclusions from the scientific community that don’t challenge their political biases. What is tragic is that these people—often opinion leaders—are grasping at excuses in order to justify reservations about an issue that has the potential to disturb life on our planet on a massive scale. 

Why do I focus upon the hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty involved instead of the issues themselves (i.e. integrity of the court or climate change)? The answer is because our discussions about issues these days have devolved to the point that we accept it as routine that someone will violate standards of truth and balanced assessment in favor of his or her point of view and will use one standard for judging statements made on his or her side of an argument and another standard for statements on the other side of the argument. We fill our airwaves with programs pitting panelist from one side of a question against those on an opposite side and we act as if listening to both sides give exaggerated opinions somehow constitutes getting at the truth. Any attempt to hold both sides up to equal scrutiny is labeled ”false equivalency” and castigated for not firmly taking a side. The result is a country that believes different versions of the truth, that refuses to examine the arguments from another perspective, and applauds partisan dog whistles. Many of our citizens gladly accept and even join in this abandonment of the search for truth, and the majority of our leaders and media are afraid to call out such hypocrisy and dishonesty when it occurs. The result is a country whose direction will be determined by political stances, by the emotional power of arguments and by the loudness of voices, not by considered assessment of the facts.

Saturday
Nov242018

Making Democracy Work

A headline today is that, in Paris, 8,000 people are protesting because taxes on gasoline and diesel are being raised and they can’t afford it. Street protests, whether they are entirely peaceful or whether they turn violent, have often become a force for social change. From the Boston Massacre, to the storming of the Bastille, to the Paris barricades during the Algerian War and the street demonstrations in America during the Vietnam war to January 25thprotests in Egypt, to the Homs uprising in Syria, such protests have often led to turning points in the evolution of nations. Although there are people who are dedicated to the idea that such populist expressions of will are the only real way to change the policies of a country, the majority of people who live in democratic countries with constitutionally determined governments are committed to social change through representative government actions, such as voting and political involvement. 

For many people, the political establishment seems to have broken down. In their minds, either wealth and business interests have co-opted the decision-making apparatus by infusing representatives and elections with money, or a liberal, big-government mindset has robbed individuals of their rights to live as freely as they choose, which means saying what they want, owning a gun, and protecting one’s property at all costs. On both of these sides extremists, and, increasingly it seems, extreme-leaning moderates, believe that in order to gain his or her rights or to protect them, a person needs to be prepared to take the law into his or her own hands. A (handful in most cases) of Antifa and Black Bloc protesters smash windows and attack right-leaning speakers and their supporters. On our border with Mexico, armed civilian “militia” have assembled to stop illegal immigrants from crossing into the U.S. A conservative media person has had his house spray-painted and threats made to him and his family. Several recent domestic terrorist acts, some of which killed people and some of which tried to kill them, have been carried out by people who were convinced by social media that they needed to take it upon themselves to stop groups or individuals who are subverting our country (in the most prominent of these instances, such sentiments were fueled by anti-Semitism and racism).

Many peaceful protests have rallied support for women, or for particular causes, and may even have resulted in suspension or change in deleterious activities such as building an oil pipeline or systematic racism in police procedures, or neglect of the rights of women. Peaceful protest is a time-honored legitimate political activity in a democracy, and is a way for people to express their opinions and bring egregious actions to awareness when our traditional government mechanisms fail to do so. Peaceful protest may involve violation of laws, when those laws are seen as lacking in justice, but their power is in remaining peaceful and focusing attention on the social justice issues at stake. They are not simply a way to intimidate others and are not directed at one’s fellow citizens.

For representative democracy to work, it must be responsive to the will of the citizens, not to special interests, whether they are from the business sector or the privileged elite. For democracy to work, citizens must believe that their own needs are being served by the government they elected. This is not always happening in the United States and may not even be happening very often. But to fix the problem takes both a willingness to do so, and a belief that representative democracy is a better choice than bowing to the will of those who are willing to pursue the most extreme means, especially when those means involve violence or the threat of violence. 

In the last mid-term election we saw voters throw out long-time politicians who they believed were not serving their needs. Whether the newly elected will be able to change the way our government works is still in question. But way too many people stayed at home and did not vote, did not take to the streets to try to convince their fellow citizens who to vote for, and spent their time either ignoring politics or grousing about the system and listening to those who agreed with them without trying to make the system change. 

Our system isn't perfect even if everyone participates. Some of its mechanisms are outmoded: the Electoral College or the gerrymandered voting districts, or campaign finance laws, for instance. But it will respond to the people if the people get involved. I am greatly fearful of a country where armed citizens believe it is their right to take the law into their own hands. Our system was designed to make such activity unnecessary. If it doesn’t work, it is because the system is no longer in the hands of the ordinary men and women who make up the country. But participating and making representative democracy work is the only solution that preserves democratic mechanisms that can work if we all commit ourselves to making them work.

Friday
Nov232018

A Bigger Problem with Saudi Arabia

A disturbing story in today’s New York Times focused upon Saudi Arabia’s negotiations with the United States to purchase the plans to build its own nuclear reactors, ostensibly for the peaceful purpose of providing electrical energy. Since the manufacturer would likely be Westinghouse, an American company, although the real manufacturing might be done in South Korea under a Westinghouse license, such a deal is seen by Energy Secretary Perry and others in the White House as a win for the American economy. The downside is that the Saudis insist that they make their own nuclear fuel, which means the possibility of producing enriched uranium that could be used in weapons. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has already said that if Iran produces a nuclear weapon, he will also.

Putting aside the wisdom and the question of the right of any country adding nuclear power to its energy production infrastructure, the global issue that is raised is the wisdom and the right of another country arming itself with nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and arming itself would be a violation of that treaty. 

The problem is deciding what should be done when a country is in an adversarial relationship with another country that has nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia and Iran are sworn enemies and, have been fighting a proxy war in Yemen, which has involved Iranian-backed rebels shooting non-nuclear missiles into Saudi Arabia. The Middle East is volatile and more nuclear weapons are the last things that are needed (right now Israel is the only nuclear-armed country in the region). The problem is that, if one party in an adversarial relationship that involves military threats develops nuclear weapons the other party feels bound to do the same in order to achieve a détente, based on mutually assured destruction.

The United States, in concert with other world leaders, thought it had an agreement with Iran that would have prohibited it developing enriched nuclear fuel and the means to build a bomb for at least 15 years. That agreement is no longer in place, and the U.S. sanctions against Iran that it ended have been resumed. In the Saudi’s mind, Iran is more of threat than before.

Control of the spread of nuclear weapons only works if it is based on international cooperation both between the most developed countries, most of which are nuclear-armed, and developing countries that are considering the nuclear pathway. 

For sure, this is a situation in which a short-term transactional strategy is not the best approach. President Trump has, in the past floated the idea of arming South Korea and Japan with nuclear weapons to offset threats from North Korea and China to those countries, but since that time has apparently thought better of it. The U.S. should not consider arming Saudi Arabia as a counter to an armed Iran (as we already do with non-nuclear arms). We also should not base our actions on the argument that whatever we don’t sell Saudi Arabia will be sold to them by China or Russia, so we lose because they still could become nuclear-armed, and we lose billions of dollars in business. This is the explicit argument being used to justify massive non-nuclear arms sales to Saudi Arabia, those arms being used in costly and inhumane wars such as Yemen.

The U.S. can assist Saudi Arabia in building non-lethal nuclear energy plants, but to do so requires that we attach rigid strings to any deals with them—strings such as inspections of their facilities, and probably even prohibition of manufacturing their own fuel. In order for us to make such demands, we need to know that other countries, notably China and Russia, and to a lesser extent, Pakistan and North Korea, do not offer them nuclear assistance without such controls. This means strengthening our cooperation with nuclear-armed or nuclear-sophisticated countries that are part of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, so that none of us does anything that increases the risk of nuclear war. This is an arena where we can’t afford to see China and Russia as rivals, where America First has no place, and where everyone agrees that neither economic success nor strategic jockeying for influence outweighs global safety.  

I hope to God that both our own and other world leaders keep this in mind. This is an issue that deserves strong bipartisan political and ordinary citizen support for the basic principles of curbing the threat of nuclear war and stopping nuclear proliferation.