Brett Kavanaugh is a Distraction

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

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

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

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

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

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


Democrats Must Choose a Direction

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

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

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

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

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

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


Why Silencing Contrarians is a Mistake

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

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

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

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



I’m Tired of Self-Righteous Intolerance

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

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

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

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


Hungary’s Fugitive Slave Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Trump’s Threat to the Liberal World Order

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Don't Split California

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

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

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

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

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


Hope from Singapore?

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

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

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

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

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

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



On the Eve of the Summit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Going Outside the System

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

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

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

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

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

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


North Korea: Thinking Realistically Instead of Politically

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




An Uphill Battle in California

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

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

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

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

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


Replacing God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



So Long Nobel Peace Prize!

Hours after North Korea, with Western reporters watching, publicly destroyed the tunnels composing its underground nuclear test site, President Trump announced his withdrawal from the upcoming summit meeting with Kim Jong-un. The president cited  “the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement,” as the reason for his decision to  cancel the meeting. Curiously, he also said, “If you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write. The world, and North Korea in particular, has lost a great opportunity for lasting peace and great prosperity and wealth. This missed opportunity is a truly sad moment in history.” These last words seemed odd, given it was he, Trump, who canceled the meeting, not Kim.

While Trump boasted, that “everyone thinks” that he should get a Nobel Prize, “but I would never say it,” he was right, in that many in both the conservative and liberal media and no less than former president Jimmy Carter, himself a Nobel recipient agreed that a successful summit could mean that Trump deserved such an honor. But alas, the Nobel Prize, is, for the moment, off the table. 

Things had been getting rocky for the last few weeks, most conspicuously since National Security Advisor, John Bolton, who, less than a year ago, recommended that we “eliminate the regime by reunifying the peninsula under South Korean control,”  and suggested that military force, including bombing North Korea was the way to do it, went on several television shows. Bolton said that North Korea must achieve "complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation."  before the U.S. lifts any sanctions on them and that we should follow the “Libya model” in requiring they ship all of their fissionable material to the U.S. for disposal. He called the Libya model successful, despite the fact that following his relinquishment of his nuclear program, Gaddafi was overthrown by a U.S. militarily supported  revolution and died a horrible death at the hands of a mob.

Even the most naïve observers of U.S./North Korean relations were aware that Bolton’s words would inflame Kim Jong-un, who has, for years, told his supporters that he will not allow North Korea to suffer the fate of Libya. Soon after the Bolton pronouncements, Kim Kye-gwan, North Korea’s foreign minister, responded that his country has no intention of unilaterally giving up its nuclear weapons program, and, lambasted Bolton by saying,  "we do not hide our feelings of repugnance towards him."  The foreign minister went on to say that, "this is not an expression of intention to address the issue through dialogue. It is essentially a manifestation of awfully sinister moves to impose on our dignified state the destiny of Libya or Iraq which had [sic] been collapsed due to yielding the whole of their countries to big powers."

Although President Trump tried to walk back Bolton’s comments by claiming, “the Libyan model is not a model that we have at all when we are thinking of North Korea,”  he followed that with a thinly veiled threat that, “now, that model would take place if we don’t make a deal, most likely.” Later, Vice President Pence, on FOX News, reiterated Bolton’s point that “we need complete and verifiable and irreversible denuclearization, and there's opportunities and benefits for North Korea once we reach that point of no return.” After that, he drove home the threat about treating North Korea like Libya, saying, “ And you know, as the president made clear, you know, this will only end like the Libya Model ended if Kim Jong-un doesn't make a deal.”

North Korea reacted. It’s vice foreign minister, Choe Son-hui, said, Vice President Pence  made“unbridled and impudent remarks that North Korea might end like Libya.” She called Pence’s remarks “ignorant and stupid” and ended her statement with the words,“Whether the U.S. will meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown is entirely dependent upon the decision and behavior of the United States.”


Whether it was the final saber-rattling in Minister Choe’s  statement or her characterization of Vice President Pence, Trump reacted by saying that, “based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting.” He couldn’t resist a little saber-rattling of is own, reminding Kim Jong-un that “you talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.” Minutes after presenting the text of his letter to the Korean leader, president Trump said he hoped that a summit could some day take place, but, in case it didn’t, “our military, which is by far the most powerful anywhere in the world ... is ready if necessary.” 

So the immediate prospects of a summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are over. 

Kim Jong-un, like his father and grandfather before him, has always been prone to intemperate statements, as have those in his government. He is known to be thin-skinned and petulant, and most of all paranoid about being overthrown by the U.S. in some sort of regime-change action—either a full-scale war or an assassination. He has doggedly built up his nuclear program to the point that it poses a threat to other countries. Virtually everyone knowledgeable about international affairs believes that Kim’s intention is not to use his weapons in a self-destructive war (unless he is faced with imminent annihilation), but to use them as a powerful bargaining chip to secure economic progress and diplomatic respect for his country. To do so is a difficult threading of the needle, given that he can’t give away his bargaining chip at the outset and even well down the road, because if he loses it, he has no leverage with other nations. The only solution is that his country is able to reverse its economic stagnation and present such a non-belligerent face to the world, that, at some point, a threatening nuclear arsenal is no longer needed for Kim to obtain the goals that he is hoping for, and because of the cost of maintaining it, becomes, in fact, a liability.

Unfortunately, U.S. policy, despite peace overtures by Kim Jong-un, was not able to modify itself to meet the situation. It appeared that President Trump, who seems to have rushed into the agreement about a summit without either  checking with his advisors or thinking about what it would entail, and perhaps even Secretary Pompeo, were ready to talk and negotiate with Kim, but the circus of advisors that the president has around him – most publicly, Bolton and Pence—could not keep the U.S. position consistent or even coherent. Furthermore, Trump himself began to wobble, fearing that he might look as if he was giving in to Kim, which could make him look weak, and eventually holding out one hand in friendship (with gushing praise for the North Korean leader) while threatening Kim with the fate of Libya and its leader, Gaddafi with the other.

North Korea and Kim Jong-un are a difficult to predict temperamental and highly secretive mess when it comes to a negotiating partner. The United States and its president are supposed to be the adults in the room. Unfortunately, the U.S. and its president acted with almost no coordination among the members of the administration, with impulsive statements being the rule of the day, and with no coherent plan concerning what they wanted to achieve in negotiating with Kim. The entire charade was topped off with the president’s nonsensical letter praising and castigating Kim at the same time, canceling the summit because of feeling slighted by words that were no more belligerent than those of his own administration, and then portraying North Korea as the one that caused the summit to be canceled.

If ever there was a demonstration that immaturity and lack of competence can be a disaster in foreign relations, this is it.
















A Party in Search of a Vision

One thing everyone seems to forget is how close Bernie Sanders came to winning the Democratic nomination for president in 2016 and how much he appealed to the same group of lower middle class Rustbelt voters who deserted Clinton for Trump in the general election.

Bernie Sanders had a coherent message, at least on the domestic and economic front. He wanted to tax the rich more, he wanted to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn the Citizens United decision so that corporations would have less say in politics, he wanted to provide government funded healthcare for everyone, he wanted to pay for free tuition to public colleges and universities, and he unashamedly called himself a democratic socialist and held up the social democracies in some Scandinavian countries as model for the United States.

Led by Senator Corey Booker, a group of Democratic senators, all potential future presidential hopefuls, has embraced many of Sanders’ proposals, including various versions of a “guaranteed jobs” program, Medicare for all, free college tuition, and immigration reform. They don’t label themselves democratic socialists and they are vague on the kind of rethinking of our nation’s way of doing things that their programs would require. This leads them to easily be labeled as unrealistic because they are proposing unaffordable programs.

A major problem for Democratic progressives is that most of their proposals will require a lot of federal spending and that runs counter to the mainstream Dems’ worries about the deficit and their fear of driving away traditionally centrist voters by sounding too progressive. They are willing to promote removing recent tax cuts for the wealthy but unclear what the reason for that is, except perhaps fixing our deteriorating infrastructure and funding a rejuvenated Obamacare. Their mantra is that their aim is to restore the middle class of America to prosperity, primarily through wage increases.

Wages have stagnated over the last few decades, but the problems facing 2018 America are not that the middle class is languishing and needs a break, but that the lower middle class is falling so far behind the upper middle class that they can’t pay rent, buy a house, or have a medical problem without risking bankruptcy. Things are worst at the level of income just above the federal poverty guidelines and below them. Housing assistance meets the needs of less than a quarter of the people who qualify for it, social mobility is at a standstill because low wages are so low, educational opportunities are expensive, jobs for the less educated are either drying up or pay too poorly for anyone to survive without having more than one of them. 

Two things would fix these problems: 1) the progressive programs proposed by Sanders, Booker, Warren, Harris, etc. and 2) greater funding for the programs already in place, e.g. housing assistance, food stamps, Head Start, etc. In order to fund these fixes, it is necessary not just to remove recent tax cuts for the wealthy, but to revise our tax structure more in line with that seen in Scandinavian social democracies so that it is more progressive, i.e. those at the top of the income brackets are taxed even more, including on their investments, which is where the truly wealthy get their money.

To propose such changes in our tax structure requires a degree of boldness only Bernie Sanders, among mainstream politicians, has shown in the past. To embrace the idea that America will become a nation that uses the wealth of its citizens to insure the welfare of everyone, not just a few, requires the strength to redefine our vision of our country. Presently we have the worst healthcare, the shortest lifespans, the greatest poverty and the greatest income inequality and probably the poorest infrastructure of all the developed countries. Anyone who argues that we are doing well following the present system is denying reality. We need not just band aids, but a new vision and plan and we need more Democrats to embrace such a vision and plan.



What the Democrats are Getting Wrong about the Russia-Trump Investigation.

The New York Times and several other news organizations have reported that the FBI used an informant to follow up leads that indicated that some Trump associates had talked to Russians about the election, by having that informant talk to those Trump associates and report his findings to the FBI. Apparently this informant, a college professor who may now be working in the U.K, is someone both the FBI and CIA have used in the past and his identity is being protected so that either he, or those he has gathered information from in the past, are not put in danger. At least that’s the story being conveyed, mostly second hand through reporters, by the FBI.

President Trump has seized upon the report of this informant to claim that the FBI placed an informant in his campaign to spy upon him and his associates and that the operation may have been politically motivated by members of the Obama administration. Trump has demanded a Department of Justice investigation of the identity and activities of this informant and the circumstances surrounding the decision to use him. Democrats are in an uproar.

According to most Democrats and the liberal media, Trump has misunderstood a normal FBI operation designed to track down evidence of Russian interference in our election, misinterpreted as planting a “mole” in his campaign, and falsely attributed political motivation to government employees who are just doing their job and are mostly apolitical anyway. Even more worrisome, the president has breached a divide between the White House and the Justice Department that has, for at least 30 years, insured that no president ordered or interfered with Justice Department investigations, because such interference would be political and taint the objectivity—or at least the reputation for objectivity—of the DOJ and its investigative arm, the FBI. Hillary Clinton has accused Trump of creating a “full-fledged crisis” of democracy by his actions. James Clapper, former Director of the NSA, has labeled Trump’s call for an investigation of the FBI’s activities, “a disturbing assault on the Department of Justice.”

While all of the Democratic and liberal media complaints may be true, from a political point of view they miss some very important facts: In the first place, Trump may be just trying to gain cover by distracting people from the accusations against him and turning the FBI and the Mueller investigation into the ones being accused, but he is also voicing the opinions of FOX news, Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich and a number of others, who, have considerable following among American voters. A large part of the population, although they may not be focusing on the Russian investigation most of the time, hear FOX and hear the president and believe that he is right. They have always seen the investigation into Trump campaign collusion as politically motivated. They fastened on the revelations about anti-Trump emails back and forth between FBI agents Peter Sztrok and Lisa Page, as evidence of a vaster FBI plot against Trump’s campaign. At the least, the finding that two members of the FBI were that brazen about their political feelings, makes pronouncements about career federal employees being apolitical sound questionable, if not ludicrous. They point out that James Clapper, who is regularly interviewed by CNN and other liberal media outlets seems the last person to trust when he declares that the government doesn’t spy on its own citizens, since under his watch, the NSA did just that, and Clapper committed perjury in front of the Senate when he lied about it.

President Trump’s demand for an investigation is politically motivated nonsense, but only in the eyes of his opponents and not in the opinion of a very large number of voters who are suspicious of the political motivation behind everything anyone in government does. Yes, it has become a tradition for the president to not order DOJ investigations because that gets us back to the Johnson and Nixon eras when the DOJ was used for political purposes. But this time the president is asking for the DOJ to investigate itself in the person of the FBI, not some private citizen or political group. That may be a dangerous precedent, but it’s not the same thing as the kind of surveillance of private citizens and organizations as was done in the past.

The bottom line is that without an investigation and greater transparency about what the FBI was doing when it used an informant to collect information about the activities of people involved in the Trump campaign, about half the country will believe what the president and FOX news say, whether they are right or not. And when the election comes, we will have the same situation we had last time of a president who is able to win votes by portraying himself as both the staunchest opponent and the greatest victim of the Washington establishment. Instead of the truth that such an investigation might provide, we will continue with back and forth opinions and accusations that force people to form their beliefs, not on the basis of facts, but on the basis of allegiance to one side or the other. Only revealing what actually happened will force people to face the truth—whatever that might be.


The Demise of American Leadership

One of the things that I hear all the time is that President Donald Trump is removing the United States from its position as leader of the Western, democratic world. Granted, he has withdrawn America from treaties and agreements that we were the leaders in formulating: TPP, Paris Climate Agreement, Iran Nuclear Deal, dealing with trade, climate change and nuclear proliferation, respectively. In their place he has engaged in unilateral trade wars, denied man-made climate change, dismantled environmental protections within the U.S., and increased tension in the Middle East by violating U.N. resolutions and moving our embassy to Jerusalem while further demonizing Iran as the cause of all Middle Eastern unrest. Granted, he may yet achieve a breakthrough in reducing nuclear tension in Korea, and we don’t know the outcome of trade negotiations with China, but that only means that some unilateral negotiation strategies can be fruitful. It doesn’t lessen the fact that Europe and other North American countries no longer look to the United States for leadership.

Before we bemoan the void in leadership created by the new American nationalism and unilateralism, we should examine the kind of leadership our country has provided. Following WWII, the United States led the reconstruction of Europe by instituting the Marshall Plan, giving billions of dollars for rebuilding infrastructure in Western Europe. At the same time, we pursued the Truman Doctrine, a plan for America to defend the West against Soviet communism by a combination of economic and military assistance. This doctrine led directly to the formation of NATO and the idea that the chief protector of Western European democracy was the nuclear umbrella provided by the U.S. (as well as troops stationed inside many European countries). Under this doctrine, American military spending swelled, while that of our allies languished because it was not needed, given our protection. One result has been that, over the years, U.S. infrastructure and social programs have fallen further and further behind that of the countries who didn't devote as much of their budgets to defense—because we were.  Another consequence of the American focus upon military might and our apparent ability to deter even a power as great as the Soviet Union with our (mostly nuclear) military threat, was a national view within the U.S. that America was invincible. Our military strength became a cornerstone of our national identity. The Vietnam War, as revealed by both its eventual outcome and the Pentagon Papers, gave us a lesson in how maintaining this picture of invincibility could lead to distortion of truth, and to a dogged pursuit of victory while minimizing obstacles until we were faced with defeat. Even when such a defeat was obvious, the myth that liberal dissidents within and outside of the government forced us to fight “with one hand tied behind our back,”  (which meant we resisted “nuking” North Vietnam, or in the words of General Curtis LeMay, “bombing them back to the stone age”) left the proponents of American military might with a way to rationalize losing a war. Then we reasserted our national self-esteem by winning wars against ragtag opponents in Grenada, Panama and Haiti while surreptitiously helping to overthrow elected governments who we feared would spread communism in various parts of the world. We reasserted our leadership by leading a Western coalition into Kuwait to drive out Saddam Hussein, then we attacked Iraq (minus some, but not all, of our allies, this time), for a misguided reason, leaving that country in ruins, strengthening Iran, and giving birth to ISIS. We invaded Afghanistan in a war that is setting records for its length and has no end in sight, and we led NATO in a war in Bosnia. In Libya, we encouraged and finally, using our military, backed up both our European allies and revolutionaries on the ground in overthrowing the country’s dictator,  leaving a dysfunctional hotbed of terrorist activity in the aftermath.

On the economic front, the U.S. led the convergence of national economies into an international one, which, over a period of years, led to more and more wealth being concentrated in the pockets of fewer and fewer people (often the owners and CEOs of multinational corporations), one result of which was a worldwide recession when some of the financial players got too careless and too greedy after their lobbying succeeded in deregulating the way they did business in the U.S. When China became an economic threat, our business interests determined that losing business to China was a national threat to the U.S., and, as the “leader of the free world’s economy,” we and our allies, behind closed doors, formulated the TPP, whose chief aim was to combat the influence of China. Unfortunately it also would have placed the interests of the member nations behind the interests of the private companies who were writing and negotiating the treaty (which is why progressives such as Bernie Sanders opposed it). The American economic leadership that we are accused of abandoning by deserting the TPP is one that serves American business, not necessarily the American people (they are not the same thing or we would not lead the developed world in income inequality). President Trump didn’t leave the TPP because he realized this; he left it because he wanted to have no constraints on how he negotiated trade deals unilaterally. The Trump administration economic policies have shown no indication that they will reduce inequality, and in fact, they are almost sure to increase it.

So this is what American leadership has been about. When I hear critics of America’s current administration complain that we are squandering our position of leadership in the Western world, I am less alarmed when I reflect upon what that leadership has been like. Many Americans view world leadership as a competition in which America needs to be number one, ahead of China and Russia, but they ignore the quality of that leadership. Perhaps this is a good time, while we appear to be vacating that leadership position, to reflect on how we want to lead instead of just how to reassert our leadership.



Synchronicity or a Perfect Storm?

A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control, shared across various media indicates that the birthrate in the United States has continued to fall, reaching a 30 year low last year. Although many critics are surprised that a trend they attributed to the recession has continued during full employment, they perhaps should not be, as the U.S. was somewhat of an outlier among developed countries when its birthrate was not dropping precipitously. In fact, the birthrate has, for several years, been below the replacement fertility rate (the number of children per woman needed to maintain the present population) of 2.1 children per woman. The fertility rate now resides at 1.8 children per woman, with only women over 40 showing an increase over previous years. This brings the U.S. in alignment with the nearly 100 countries (out of slightly more than 200) with below replacement rate fertility listed by the World Bank, led by Korea, Portugal, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore and including virtually all of the EU countries and Eastern Europe plus China, Japan and Russia. There is almost a linear inverse relationship between a country’s economic well-being and its fertility rate. Worldwide, fertility rates have been falling since when, in 1950, the worldwide rate was 5 children per woman to the present level of 2.5. 

Remembering doomsday predictions from forty years ago about overpopulation’s threat to the world, I find it amazing to see how rapidly birth rates have declined. The world is still vastly overpopulated for its resources, and there are still large pockets of high birth rates, but none that are not coming down. Now the discussion in developed countries is how to maintain a workforce that can pay enough taxes to sustain the retirement of older people, as people live longer and require not just more food and shelter, but more medical and nursing care. The answer for most countries had been immigration – often from less developed countries (with higher birthrates) to more highly developed countries —increasing the workforce from the bottom up as well as bringing in more educated and technically trained immigrants at the higher levels of employment from some countries with very high populations and less economic promise, such as India and Pakistan.

Within the United States we are not just at a 30 year low for our birthrate, we appear to be heading toward a similar low for immigration. Although data are only available for refugee admissions, at this time, which have been reduced by over 80% in the current year, other Trump administration programs have ended Temporary Protected Status for 300,000 legal refugees from six countries, including Haiti, Nepal, Sudan, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Syria, this last country from which new refugees have been virtually shut off in 2018. The president’s stated aim is to reduce immigration in general, although a comprehensive immigration bill is nowhere near being agreed upon by congress. 

Falling birthrates provide an economic and social crisis for many countries, because older citizens who leave the workforce must be supported by the taxes from the work of younger members of the workforce and these older workers cannot be replaced if the population shrinks. Most countries with falling birthrates have tried to solve this problem through immigration. Indeed, the continued growth of the U.S. population has been via immigration for several years. There are exceptions, such as Japan, which maintains strict limits on immigration but has a shrinking population. Japan’s answer has been twofold: people now work longer into old age than they used to in Japan and the country employs automation on a widespread scale, so that greater numbers of workers are not needed. The statistics regarding Japan’s aging “problem” are staggering. 30% of the population is over age 65 and this number is rising. Japan has the longest lifespan in the world, of over 83 years, and its fertility rate is a mere 1.4 children per woman and has been low for decades. In the past, the retirement age was 55, but over the last several years that has risen, first to 60, then 62 and by 2025 will be 65. In addition, although mandatory retirement applies to most industrial and business jobs with large companies, it does not apply to self-employment and does not prohibit reentry into the workforce, which is a common practice among retirees. In fact more people over age 65 work in Japan than in most Western countries, including the U.S.

On a recent trip to Japan, my wife and I noticed how much of their daily business encounters were automated—from buying tickets on the trains and metro to ordering food in a restaurant—requiring fewer live people to do the tasks. Behind the scenes this practice is even more pronounced in manufacturing and even in healthcare, where robots do work from assembling cars to providing companionship to elderly nursing home residents. Japan may signal the wave of the future as other countries more slowly arrive at similar situations of a mostly older population.

These three factors: low birthrates, reduced immigration and increased automation are all either happening or are on the near-horizon for the United States. They each have their own independent causes, but they will all converge to impact our country (and eventually other countries) at the same time. Some speculations seem warranted:

In order to compete in the world’s economy, the workforce needs to be of sufficient numbers and skills to maintain and grow our gross domestic product. With a shrinking birthrate, the workforce needs can either be met by immigration or by automation. If immigration is also shrinking, then automation will supplant human workers (the solution seen in Japan, in which older persons rejoin the workforce is less feasible in the U.S., where lifespan is lessening, not increasing, and most people only work past retirement age—which is already higher than Japan’s— if they are forced to). Certainly automation in the form of robots or autonomous construction and farming machines can be used to replace manual labor, much of which is now done by immigrants. At the same time, however, automation is also rapidly taking over clerical tasks, even much of the work of educated and skilled workers, such as lab techs, medical techs and even that of lawyers and doctors in some situations. We are already seeing much of engineering done by computer. Computing technology and artificial intelligence are improving at explosive rates and replacement of humans in the workforce seems to be an inevitable consequence of this. So we will not only have fewer workers contributing to the taxes that support an aging population, we will have less work for those who are working age.

With a combination of a smaller workforce due to fewer people and fewer workers due to automation, payroll taxes will lose their significance as a major way to raise money to pay for the country’s infrastructure, defense, and social programs. On the other hand, the economy will very conceivably be doing very well, as automation increases productivity. Tax revenues will need to be based on wealth, rather than income, particularly if, as is being experimented with now, basic income is provided to everyone via tax revenues.

In addition to raising taxes, there is the problem of how unemployed or partially employed people of working age spend their time so they feel productive and satisfied. Right now, all sorts of unhealthy behaviors accompany unemployment, particularly chronic or widespread unemployment, e.g. drug use, alcoholism, suicide, and obesity. Our national consciousness will have to a lot of readjusting to do to make life without full employment fulfilling. There may be a number of types of employment, that, if they weren’t currently associated with low wages and if wages weren’t necessary for meeting daily needs, might be better done by automation, but enjoyably done by humans. For instance, all the human interface jobs of waiter, receptionist, caregiver, even cook, gardener, carpenter, etc., if wages were not the main source of income, might be enjoyed by many people and doing them well could be a source of pride and fulfillment. Eventually, wages would need to be divorced from one’s sense of worth and self-esteem.

The new age is sneaking up on us and our conversations, except at the edges of our society, are mostly stuck in the same mode as they were decades ago in terms of wages and employment, work and taxes. To insure that these converging factors of changes in birthrate, immigration, and automation don’t blow us over, but offer instead, new opportunities, we need to start making plans for how to include them in our models of the near future.


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