Thursday
May312018

Replacing God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thursday
May242018

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday
May222018

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.

 

Monday
May212018

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.

Saturday
May192018

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.

 

Friday
May182018

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.

 

Tuesday
May152018

America's Shameful Stance at the U.N.

Following a bloody day of protest at the border wall separating Israel and the Gaza strip, in which 60 Palestinians were killed, most by live fire, by Israeli Defense Forces, nearly every permanent and non-permanent member of the UN Security Council made forceful statements condemning the Israeli use of lethal force. In contrast, Nikki Haley the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., defended Israeli actions and blamed all of the violence on “Hamas terrorists” which she said, "backed by Iran have incited attacks against Israeli security forces and infrastructure.” She claimed that “The common thread in all of this is the [destabilizing] conduct of the Iranian regime, a regime that insists on promoting violence throughout the Middle East, while depriving its own people of basic human rights.”

Virtually every member of the Security Council, except the United States, acknowledged Israel’s right to defend itself and its borders, but questioned whether shooting unarmed civilians, including women and children, was a “proportional” response. Most of the countries, including staunch American allies such as the U.K. and France, called for an investigation into Israel’s actions, but on Monday, the U.S. blocked a Security Council draft resolution calling for just such an investigation. Most of the other members of the Security Council discussed the inhumane conditions under which Gazans live and have lived for years and the negative effects of Israeli occupation (while some claim that Gaza is self-ruling and not “occupied,” it is walled in, entrance and exit are by Israeli checkpoints, and the economy and standard of living are controlled by Israeli sanctions, while neither Gaza nor the West Bank are treated as part of an independent country). Everyone but the U.S. reaffirmed their commitment to a two-state solution, which necessitates recognition of Palestine as an independent country as well as Israel’s right to exist alongside of it.

In addition to claiming that the blame for the deaths in Gaza fell upon Hamas and not Israel, Ambassador Haley also said that “ some suggest [the violence] was connected with yesterday's opening of the United States embassy in Jerusalem.” Her answer was that moving the embassy to Jerusalem "does not undermine the prospects for peace in any way.” A number of member states pointed out that U.N. Security Council Resolutions 476 and 478, both passed 14-0 in 1980 (with the U.S. abstaining on both), prohibited Israel from altering the neutral and shared character of Jerusalem, condemned Israel for declaring all of Jerusalem as its capital, and forbid member states from locating their embassies in Jerusalem. Speakers from member states implied or stated that the U.S., by moving its embassy to Jerusalem, was flouting international law and adding fuel to the protests.

Violence of the nature seen in Gaza on Monday is rarely solely the responsibility of one party, but firing live ammunition at unarmed protesters, whose most extreme weapons, which observers said that most protesters did not have, were rocks and occasional burning bottles of gasoline floated by kites in the direction of the Israel border, but who mostly were simply trying to reach or sometimes breach the border wall, so that dozens were killed, including children, and hundreds wounded, cannot be sanctioned. In fact, no one in the Security Council but the U.S. did sanction it. In its effort to show solidarity with Israel, which, under Benjamin Netanyahu has shown disdain for Palestinian rights, has expanded Israeli settlements in occupied territories that could become part of an independent state of Palestine, and has sided with the U.S. in blaming almost all Middle Eastern unrest on Iran, the U.S. has backed every Israeli move and acted unilaterally in moving its embassy and recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Even if those are strategic moves in some sort of chess game against Iran, on Monday, Israel clearly violated all civilized standards of conduct by indiscriminate killing of civilians. Every other country in the U.N. Security Council recognized this and condemned Israel’s action. It is a shameful day for America when our own government sanctions such actions instead of condemning them and when it spent the day that so many lives were lost celebrating an event in Jerusalem that the rest of the world has declared illegal.

Monday
May142018

Immigration and Assimilation: General Kelly's Words

General John Kelly, the president’s Chief of Staff, recently made headlines when he said that illegal immigrants are “not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society. They’re overwhelmingly rural people. In the countries they come from, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm…They don’t integrate well; they don’t have skills.” He also said that they “are not bad people. They’re not criminals. They’re not MS-13.” Were Kelly’s words evidence of his anti-immigrant, and perhaps racist, bias, or was he basing them on facts and was just stating a reality that pro-immigration people are prone to deny?

First of all, Kelly was talking about illegal immigrants, although his words have been taken to signal the attitudes and opinions of the Trump Whitehouse, toward immigrants in general, which, in turn, dictates its policies. The responses to Kelly have been quick and split, depending upon the immigration bias of the responders. Some have charged that Kelly’s opinions represent a bias against immigrants that is at odds with what the data show. Others have said that Kelly is just “telling it like it is.” Most of what has been written on both sides of the debate has shown flawed reasoning or inaccurate information. So what is the truth about how immigrants assimilate? I ask the question with regard to immigrants in general, not just illegal immigrants, because one accusation is that Kelly mentioned illegal immigrants but really meant all immigrants. That’s not really a fair way to analyze the issue, if Kelly meant what he said. But it is helpful to determine if illegal immigrants differ from legal immigrants, while examining the assimilation of immigrants in general.

The immigrant population in America is varied and any discussion that treats “immigrants” as one group is bound to obscure real differences and real issues that may be pertinent to U.S. immigration policy. Besides the division into legal vs. illegal immigrants, we can also divide immigrants by country or region of origin, by ethnicity, by race, and by reason for immigrating. 

Since 2010, the largest number of new immigrants to the U.S., legal or illegal, have been Asian (India and China), followed by Hispanic (Mexico and Central America) and Canadian. Mexican immigration has dipped below the number of Mexican-born immigrants leaving the country, although South and Central American immigration continues to grow. Across the board, immigrants have lower rates of crime than native-born Americans. There are wide differences in level of education of those who arrive, depending upon region and ethnicity. Asians, particularly from India or China, tend to be well-educated, as do Africans, while Mexican and South and Central American immigrants tend to be under-educated compared to the U.S. native born population. Illegal Hispanic immigrants are usually less educated than legal Hispanic immigrants, often without any high school education. Second generation children of all immigrants, either native or foreign born children, tend to be better educated than their parents and children of Asian and African immigrants are better educated than the average native-born American. Hispanic education levels of children of immigrants have lagged behind the native-born American average, but are rising and, since 2013, children of Hispanic immigrants have surpassed native-born Americans in college entry rates (but not graduation rates).

Many immigrants continue to speak their native language as their first choice, and some never become proficient in English. Asian and African immigrants are more likely to arrive being near-proficient in English. Hispanic immigrants are the most likely to not become proficient in English, but the longer they are in the U.S., the more proficient they become and their children virtually all are English-language proficient. Studies have shown that those immigrants’ children who are proficient in two languages do better in school than those proficient in English only.

One of the issues in the conversation about assimilation is whether or not maintaining cultural enclaves in which one immigrant ethnicity dominates in terms of residents, businesses, and language (e.g. Little Havana, Little Saigon, Koreatown, Chinatown etc), is helpful to assimilation or harmful. The answer is not simple, but appears to be that if the ethnic culture is close-knit and supports education, civic participation, and lawfulness, the children who grow up in that culture tend to do better than most native-born Americans in terms of education and jobs, even though they are likely to leave the enclave after they are adults.

Hispanic immigrants tend to use public safety-net services at a higher rate than native-born Americans, but those who do, use fewer services than native-born Americans who use such services. Incomes of Hispanic immigrants lag behind those of native-born Americans and other immigrant groups, and studies are inconclusive as to whether this reflects primarily educational differences or the effects of discrimination, which also limits incomes of native-born African Americans and Hispanics as well as Hispanic immigrants.

These are some of the facts. Whether illegal immigrants are less able to assimilate into the U.S. society, as John Kelly asserted, is also dependent upon one’s definition of assimilation. Most people still consider assimilation to mean replacing one’s native language with the language of the dominant culture, becoming better educated, increasing income, learning the cultural ways of the dominant culture and moving from ethnic/national enclaves into the broader society. This was the pattern of acculturation that characterized Europeans who came to the United States in the past. But in 1993, Portes and Zhou proposed “segmented immigration theory,” which suggested that new immigrants may take many different paths to assimilation, often to a subculture within the country, rather than explicitly to the dominant culture. Some scholars have suggested that two factors that are important for changing the patterns of assimilation in America are the decline of manufacturing jobs, which brought middle class status for those who could learn new skills but needn’t have higher education, and the fact that many new immigrants were racially or ethnically different than the majority of European background Americans and that, while every group from Italians to Irish, received some form of discrimination in the past, the entrenched discrimination based on race and ethnicity that characterizes the U.S. made traditional assimilation difficult. A third factor is the immigration of highly educated and often economically successful (mostly Asian) immigrants. Given these factors, segmented immigration leads to at least three possible outcomes: The first fits the traditional model, in which both the immigrant and his or her descendants begin to use the dominant language, become better educated, move toward the middle class, and completely integrate with the dominant society (which remains European-based, English-speaking). The second pathway is acculturation to a, usually urban, economically challenged subculture where their native language (if not English) is spoken as often as English, educational attainment has a low value, and use of government social safety net programs proliferates. In such subcultures, gang and drug activity may or may not be prominent. A third alternative is acculturation to a economically successful subculture in which education has a high value, traditional language and traditions are valued and maintained, but succeeding generations become English proficient, well-educated, and financially well-off. Members of the succeeding generations may or may not move from the ethnic enclave into the mainstream society in terms of residence, but nearly always do so in terms of work. Each of these pathways is considered a variety of assimilation. 

As America changes and white European-ancestry characterizes the single largest group of citizens, but not the majority of them, other versions of assimilating to America emerge. It is a narrow view to regard only the traditional model of assimilation as a successful one. Studies of Vietmanese, Korean, and Chinese enclaves, as well as some African immigrant enclaves, have shown that the children of immigrants who maintain their culture in such environments within the U.S. outperform the children of native-born Americans both educationally and financially, even if their immigrant parents were less educated and less financially well-off than the average native-born American. It is these parents and their children who have fostered the term, “the immigrant paradox” in which immigrants with fewer apparent resources than most native-born Americans produce children who are more successful.

What about those who assimilate to subcultures that are, by almost any standard, less successful in terms of educational and financial achievement, both among the immigrants themselves and their children? Studies of such communities have shown that the same factors that promote success in other immigrant subcultures promote success in the less successful subcultures, i.e. social cohesion, pressures for civic responsibility, local institutional leadership, and absence of discrimination. If these factors are present, then the next generation of these immigrants will also be successful. What this may mean is that it is impossible to talk about successful assimilation simply by focusing upon the personal qualities immigrants bring with them when they arrive in the U.S. The community to which they attempt to assimilate makes a tremendous difference, and that community, in turn, is strongly affected by the social, legal and economic policies of the larger society. Assimilation into a subculture that is a product of discrimination, which offers flawed institutions such as schools, banks that discriminate in terms of loans to businesses or for home mortgages, and which are poorly and sometimes prejudicially policed, offers little opportunity and certainly much less than is available to other immigrant groups or the majority of native-born Americans (except those who continue to suffer from ongoing racial prejudice and discrimination, i.e. African-Americans).

What does all of this mean with regard to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s opinions? I think it means that dismissing his remarks as evidence of either prejudice against or lack of concern for immigrants or accepting his remarks as an astute observation about the true state of immigrants in America is too shallow of a conclusion. Immigration and assimilation are not easy topics about which one can make generalizations. We all have to guard against oversimplifying the issues out of naiveté or in order to make a point. Not all immigrants are the same. To be honest, Kelly was talking about illegal immigrants, which is a subset of all immigrants (about 25% at the moment, with the percentage shrinking). But he also conceived of assimilation as a monolithic process, which, from what he said, he regards as dependent mostly upon the characteristics of the immigrant, and not the type of environment which meets them on this side of the border. If this is how he thinks, then his views (and perhaps those of the administration) are naive and outmoded in the light of current research on the subject.

America will continue to wrestle with the immigration issue, but we need to be wary of thinking of it in simplistic and outmoded terms, whether we are favoring or criticizing our government’s approach to it. We also have to hope that a view of immigration that is enlightened by recent research and thinking about the issue characterizes how our government develops its policies.

 

 

 

Sunday
May132018

Tribalism vs. Truth

We live in a time when, with regard to political opinions, tribal identity—defined as allegiance to conservatism, Trumpism, neo-Nazism, Republicanism, Democratic-ism, liberalism, progressivism, radicalism, feminism, antifa-ism, you name it—is more important than reason, or to adherence to truth, and perhaps even to morality. Each of these identifications is a strongly in-group/out-group phenomenon. A number of recent studies have shown that Americans—and more often educated Americans rather than less educated Americans—tend to believe and espouse opinions based on their desire for solidarity with their similarly opinioned peers, more than they are concerned with either the truth, consistency, or sometimes even the message’s agreement with traditional opinions of those on their side of the political debate. 

Some examples: Trump supporters, often members of unions who have traditionally been liberal, who are often plagued by healthcare issues, both medical and monetary, are opposed to the Affordable Care Act, which provides them medical services they could not otherwise afford. Their strongest reason appears to be that liberals and a Black former president favor such healthcare and the politician  who they feel most speaks their language (Donald Trump), has demonized it. At the same time, liberals, who have traditionally favored rapprochement with Russia, who have been suspicious of the FBI and CIA, who have opposed the tactics and power of these organizations, as well as the motives of their appointed leaders, now voice alarm that our president is “sowing a lack of faith in our law enforcement and intelligence institutions,” and that he is too friendly with the Russian leader. Even when a breakthrough occurs in relations between the U.S. and North Korea, with a prospect for denuclearization of the latter, it is liberals who raise an alarm about the U.S. being “duped” by Kim Jong Un, and about a president, whom they claim is saying too many nice things about the Communist leader in an effort to gain his cooperation. Liberals have traditionally been doves not hawks, but when the president becomes a dove, his opponents become hawks.

Gina Haspel’s nomination  by President Trump for CIA Director is in jeopardy because nearly all Democrats oppose her on account of her being in charge of CIA facilities that used torture to attempt to extract information from political prisoners. Although Haspel has stated that she would not allow torture in the future and would hold the agency to a “higher moral standard,” liberal newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times have editorialized that “her failure to fully explain her actions while torture was being inflicted on her watch, and her refusal to unequivocally declare such behavior immoral, are deeply troubling.” Haspel was Deputy Director of the CIA under Director Mike Pompeo, who is now President Trump’s Secretary of State. The editorial board of the LA Times urged rejection of her nomination. At the same time, former CIA Director, General Michael Hayden is being feted by liberal media outlets, and interviewed extensively by the likes of  CBS, NBC, CNN, and NPR, and even given opinion column space in the New York Times because he is strongly opposed to President Trump’s policies, and the president’s attacks on the intelligence agencies. Yet former Director Hayden, who was also head of the NSA during the run-up and beginning of the War on Iraq and who supported the claim that Iraq had WMDs, and was the NSA Director during its instigation of warrantless wiretaps and broad collection of phone data, is completely unrepentant about the use of torture methods such as waterboarding on his watch as CIA Director, and regards them as not useful only because they do not receive “backing” from the citizens and government officials, not because they are either immoral or ineffective. The different treatment of Haspel and Hayden appears to be due entirely to whether or not they are supportive of or hostile to President Trump. A similar situation applies with regard to James Clapper, former National Intelligence Director, who defended and, in fact, lied about the NSA wiretapping program when testifying to congress. Clapper, one of the primary villains in the eyes of those who saw the government as intruding into the private lives of its citizens, without warrants or authority, in the guise of national security, has become a staple of the former-government-employee-but-now-Trump-critic circle, whose words are quoted and apparently now believed by those on the left.

In addition to espousing views based upon agreeing with one’s perceived peers and disagreeing with one’s opponents, instead of upon the merits of the viewpoint, the tribal mentality and the group solidarity it attempts to achieve, leads to a typical tribal mob mentality as a method for attacking opponents. We’ve been used to conservative religious colleges and universities restricting the kinds of opinions allowed to be expressed on their campuses by students, faculty or guest speakers, but now the same phenomenon is rampant across more liberal educational institutions. Speakers, faculty, or student leaders who question the role of race or misogyny in our society are the subject of protests for expressing such opinions. Speakers who are sympathetic to Israel or suspicious of Islam as a religion are disinvited from speaking or driven off campus when they show up. Differences in opinion are no longer debated, they are forbidden, and each side does it to the other. Freedom of Speech, the rallying cry of the left for decades, is now seen as a cover for voicing dangerous opinions that need to be silenced for fear that they will become “normalized,” meaning that some people might believe them or at least allow them to be expressed as if they were harmless.

Innocent until proven guilty has been a bulwark of our legal system and determines the way suspects can be questioned, held by law enforcement, guaranteed legal representation, etc., but since the rise of the “Me-too” movement, men accused of “sexually predatory behavior,” which ranges from rape to intimidation to disrespect, have lost their jobs or been forced to resign, and publicly tried by both the news and social media. At least one person, fired by the Canadian Broadcasting Company, was acquitted when the complaints against him came to court, but he was not given back his job. An NPR broadcaster was fired after allegations of “bullying and sexual misconduct,” although the station’s own investigation found that his behavior “was not sexual in nature and did not constitute sexual harassment,” but did create “an abusive work environment.” Serious sexual misconduct, bullying, abusive use of power, particularly against women, have been revealed in the entertainment and media industries as well as elsewhere, including the U.S. congress, and such revelations certainly should come out and such behavior exposed. I am even convinced that what has been exposed so far is just the tip of the iceberg in a culture that allows men in all aspects of business and government, as well as in the home, to use their power to abuse women, including more often than not, sexual abuse of some nature, however, no one seems concerned about the lack of due process that has characterized the reactions to these accusations. Instead, a mob mentality has dictated how those who are accused are treated. Even as I say this, I recognize that my own comments will probably provoke harsh recriminations from those who see me as being disloyal to the issue of the abuse of women. My whole point is that adherence to truth and our agreed upon rules of justice should outweigh loyalty to a group or position.

If I seem to be more critical of liberals than conservatives, it is because I am. I don’t think liberals are more guilty of tribalism or of disregarding truth or reason than conservatives, in fact I think they are less so. But I hold liberals to a higher standard. Conservatives routinely overrule reason or even truth with religious considerations or with blind patriotism. They are more likely to adhere to rigid viewpoints that are not open to new or conflicting information. They value submission to hierarchical authoritarianism, as in “the bible says it,” or “the government ordered it,” or “the founding fathers said it,” or “if it was good enough for my parents, it’s good enough for me.” They favor punitive measures over understanding ones, blame leniency for criminality, etc.  Liberals, on the other hand, have usually favored reasoning over belief, justice over punishment, experimentation over tradition. Most of all, liberals, in my mind, have insisted that the ends don’t justify the means. One doesn’t sacrifice a few to save many, one doesn’t tell lies to achieve even a noble end, one doesn't employ inhumane torture to gain even valuable and potentially life-saving information. It’s not more important that our team win than that we play the game fairly. So I have high expectations for liberals, and I’m afraid they have been letting me down lately. We have a model for using any means possible to achieve one’s ends, including lying, misinformation, bias, and drumming up zealous fervor among one’s peers, in the behavior of our current administration. Liberals should not try to combat this administration by falling into the same pattern of behavior.

 

Saturday
May122018

The Liberals' Dilemma: NIMBY vs. YIMBY

Virtually all the major cities of the West Coast, from Seattle to Portland to Los Angeles, are embroiled in controversy about how to meet their housing crises. Some pundits have called this an issue that creates a “liberal vs. liberal” division (primarily because most of the people in these cities are liberals). It has been characterized as a fight between older, wealthier NIMBYs (Not in My Backyard), and younger less affluent YIMBYs (Yes in My Backyard), both of whom, on the West Coast, may be liberals. Everyone says he or she wants more affordable housing, but not necessarily in his or her neighborhood. The majority of urban planners and those sensitive to the ecological problems caused by swelling populations are agreed that higher density housing, particularly in cities or their immediately surrounding suburbs, paired with greater use of mass transit and walking instead of automobile driving, is the eventual answer to both housing and pollution problems. The major obstacle to achieving this end is local control of building regulations.

Large West Coast cities and even their close-in suburbs do not have an excess of unused land. New housing must replace old housing—or at least old buildings. This is a major part of the problem. Old buildings, particularly housing, represent neighborhoods and they have residents in them. Tearing them down displaces people and alters the character of a neighborhood, either by making it look different or bringing in new residents who differ in income, ethnicity, job status, education and a variety of other characteristics from those who formerly lived in the neighborhood. For these reasons, most communities have stringent local regulations regarding replacing buildings and dwellings. Unfortunately, these local regulations also serve to restrict the number of new homes that are built, particularly large multi-family structures, and are one of the major factors in not being able to meet the housing needs of the current population.

Besides the objections based on history, aesthetics, and culture, to demolishing structures and building new higher density ones, there is the problem of losing housing that is affordable. Often such housing is affordable either because of its poor condition and the deterioration of the neighborhood in which it sits, or because of policies such as rent control. Clean, new multifamily residences attract more affluent renters or buyers and price out former neighborhood residents, worsening the problem of finding affordable housing for people of limited income.

Some of these problems can be remedied and some can’t. Seattle, for instance, has allowed single-family home neighborhoods to be excused from its new higher density building policies, as well as historic neighborhoods, and it also mandates a percentage of units to be reserved for affordable housing for those with limited incomes. Proposed Senate Bill 827, the California bill that is still being discussed in the legislature, which removes restrictions on housing near transit hubs and corridors, mandates finding temporary housing for those who are displaced during new construction and guarantees a place for them in the new buildings at the same rents they paid previously (for one year, at last reading of the proposed bill). It also allows city regulations for affordable housing to remain in place if they exceed its own requirements for 10%-20% of new residential buildings to be affordable housing, depending upon the number of units in the building. Its author, San Francisco State Senator Scott Wiener (D), has also changed the requirement to reduce height restrictions so that 45-foot tall buildings would be allowed instead of the 55-foot heights originally contained in the bill. The problem of losing rent-controlled apartments is not solved and neither is the disruption or destruction of the ethnic and aesthetic character of old neighborhoods. 

Some of the battles on the above issues are being fought by groups that represent limited income renters as they express their fears of losing the homes they already have. But the main objections to demolishing old buildings and building taller, higher density new multi-family structures, particularly outside of the central city, are being voiced by older residents who don’t want to see more congestion in their neighborhoods, tall buildings that they believe will mar their aesthetic landscape, and an influx of younger, less affluent renters who will not fit their profile of older, wealthier homeowners. On the West Coast, most of these people are Democrats and most are liberals. These are the people who don't mind paying more taxes to take care of the poor, but don’t want to lose the position and lifestyle they feel they have earned and which is symbolized by the neighborhood in which they can afford to live and the house they own (which for many of these people, represents their greatest source of wealth). 

Rebuilding our cities and suburbs so that they can accommodate higher population density, so they favor use of mass transit or biking or walking over commuting by car, and so they provide affordable housing for our growing, or even our present populations, is necessary to avoid making housing unaffordable to all but the rich (who aren’t the ones who actually make the cities run) and to cut down on auto emissions and make life livable for those who work in the cities and their close-in surrounds. This may be painful for those who enjoy their current environs and lifestyle, but unless people are willing to sacrifice it, we will all  eventually suffer and those with the least resources will, as usual, continue to suffer most.

 

Wednesday
May092018

Trump's Brash Decision

Trump supporters ended yesterday in a state of gleeful excitement. Once again their fearless leader contradicted his European counterparts, liberal pundits, and the Obama administration that preceded him and went his own way, reimposing sanctions on Iran and effectively ending the Nuclear Deal with that country. Supporters of the president and Iran hawks praised the decision and predicted that either it will bring Iran back to the negotiating table, its tail between its legs, or provoke a war between the Iranians and Israel, started by one side or the other. Either outcome appears to be OK to them.

Iran’s economy is shaky and the regime faces lots of pressures at home from a citizenry that hoped for more success after the lifting of sanctions following signing the original deal. Many of them blame the squandering of resources on military adventurism in Syria and Yemen, which are also factors that figured in Trump rejecting the nuclear deal as ineffective in reining in Iran’s regional ambitions (which was never the purpose of the deal… but so what?). Is it possible that Iran, desperate to keep its economy afloat and its regime in power, will accede to reining in its Middle East empire building in order to avoid a resumption of sanctions? It’s possible. The U.S. still employed some sanctions outside of the nuclear deal and if those were removed, along with not resuming those connected to the deal, this could be a strong incentive to Iran. But such a decision on Iran’s part would mean a reversal of a direction they have been going for some time and with some success (e.g. Syria and Iraq). It’s also possible that the U.S., with its ear to the voices of Benjamin Netanyahu and John Bolton, isn’t really interested in Iran making concessions, but wants the Grand Ayatollah and everyone who runs the current government overthrown and is betting that a bad economy  will lead to enough civil unrest to accomplish that.

Then there’s the possibility that Iran will be bold enough to resume nuclear development and their facilities will be destroyed by either the U.S. or Israel or both, prompting a war with Israel that Trump and Netanyahu believe they can win (and which may draw Saudi Arabia into it), leading to the same kind of regime change scenario a failing economy would provoke.

Anything could happen. The alternative to the above possibilities is that Europe, Russia, China and Iran will all keep working with each other, that American attempts to curtail those other countries’ commerce with Iran via sanctions will be unsuccessful, and that the U.S. will find itself talking to the wall while the rest of the world moves on. Iran hopes so, Russia and China would love such an outcome, and European leaders are probably dreaming about it, but the truth is, that American businesses are powerful enough that sanctioning anyone who trades with Iran by cutting off their American business could cripple many foreign companies and they probably aren’t going to risk doing that.

Notice that none of these options is very satisfactory. Iran probably won’t fold under pressure. Regime change in Iran is both unlikely and, if it occurs, most likely to provoke the messiest, bloodiest, most drawn-out conflict between Sunni and Shia partisans in the region that has yet been seen. For America to be frozen out of the international power structure and the global economy, everyone else would need to be more cooperative with each other and more willing to pool their resources and neglect their differences than they are likely to be. China, Russia and Europe would all need to get on the same page. Not likely.

So we’re left with a disruption with unknown consequences. That’s Trump’s style and he obviously sees himself as nimble enough as a negotiator and as a businessman and now world leader, to be the one who is most able to take advantage of the situation. There’s only one scenario out of the smorgasbord of possible outcomes that works for everyone, and that is that Iran agrees to renegotiate the deal, making it last longer and including curtailment of some of the activities that feed into regional unrest (funding and arming of terrorist groups in Yemen and Syria, development of missile systems). Trump took an awful chance in hopes of gaining such an outcome (unless he really will only be satisfied with regime change in Iran), and much as I strongly believe he made a mistake and actually didn’t know what he was doing, I hope he’s successful. I usually like Trump to be wrong, because I don’t like it when someone who makes decisions out of ignorance, lies about the facts, and brags about the sagacity that he clearly lacks, is right, but not when the cost of him being wrong is as devastating as it might be in this case.

Sunday
May062018

Fiddling While the Country Burns

CNN, the Washington Post and the New York Times—President Trump’s three favorite “lying mainstream media” targets—are spending an inordinate amount of air space and ink on Trump’s lies, his affairs, his attempts to cover up his affairs, his attempts to obstruct the Mueller investigation on Russian meddling in the election and possible Trump campaign collusion. As a president, Donald Trump is a poster boy for a thin-skinned, poorly informed, demagogue who has no regard for the truth but an uncanny ability to touch the sensitive points of his base with his inflammatory rhetoric, and he comes across to most informed and reasonable Americans as an insult to the office of the presidency. That said, these qualities, which bring out the anger and disdain of the intellectual elite and much of the media, are not the biggest danger posed by his presidency. After all, Kennedy and Clinton were probably just as sleazy and dishonest with regard to extra-marital affairs, and Johnson and Nixon, particularly the latter, were just as thin-skinned and prone to retribution against their enemies. Probably no one was as ill informed about world affairs and foreign policy, but in these arenas, Trump appears to be stumbling into some successes.

What sets Donald Trump apart from previous presidents and from the liberal democratic agenda set by his immediate predecessors is the policies he favors, and, by appointing ideologues into positions of power in his cabinet or as heads of federal agencies, he is changing the direction the United States is moving in ways that are truly harmful to our long term well-being. 

Under Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency has either rolled back or failed to enforce virtually all of the Obama-era protections of our environment and efforts to forestall climate change. Under the disgraced Tom Price, the Department of Health and Human Services cut the Obamacare enrollment period in half and slashed advertising and outreach for the program. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Ben Carson, has proposed raising the portion low-income renters pay for HUD housing and adding work requirements for eligibility. Under the direction of Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General, the DOJ civil rights division has issued instructions to seek settlements without consent decrees—which would result in no continuing court oversight of civil rights violations by local jurisdictions. Under Trump’s appointee, Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Department of Education no longer requires civil rights investigators to obtain three years of complaint data from schools or school districts to assess compliance with civil rights law.

These changes are just the tip of the iceberg. Donald Trump, as president, has severed our involvement in the Paris Climate Accords, is threatening to pull out of the Iran Nuclear Treaty, and has affirmed his support of a return to coal and oil as our primary fuels, despite overwhelming evidence of their role in causing global warming. On top of that, he has strongly supported arming as many Americans as possible and resisted any efforts at gun control (something in which he is joined by our congressional politicians on both sides of the aisle). His tax plan is based on the notion that tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy will result in a cash-powered economy that will raise wages for everyone. His plan for immigration is based on closing the borders to those who aren’t financially able to contribute to America, to relatives of immigrants who are already here, and generally to those from regions he calls “shithole countries,” which are mostly poor and non-white. His proposals favor Christians over other religions as new immigrants.

To give him his due, Trump is against foreign military involvement, and has resisted getting bogged down in the Syrian conflict (although what exactly is the American policy with regard to Syria is unclear). Despite or perhaps even because of his bombastic rhetoric with regard to North Korea’s nuclear threat, we are seeing a historic thaw in North and South Korea relations and some chance at seeing denuclearization of North Korea. Despite the threat that Trump’s trade war rhetoric poses to our economy, so far, the progress in wage increase and unemployment decrease that began under Obama has continued unabated during the Trump presidency bringing us to near record progress in the economic area.

But generally, Donald Trump’s agenda is one that is both anathema to liberals and progressives and, in most cases, runs counter to the majority American public sentiment. Polls show that most Americans favor Obamacare, want gun control of some sort, don’t want a border wall and are open to a path to citizenship for non-criminal undocumented immigrants, especially those in the DACA program.  Similarly, the vast majority of Americans believe in climate change and favor clean air policies that are being reversed by the Trump administration. So why are Trump’s opponents spending all their time on Stormy Daniels and Russian collusion? Where are the proposals to restore and even advance the programs that Trump is cutting and to align our national policies with those favored by most Americans?

There are proposals out there, but we hear little of them. Probably because it gains such wide and rabid support, our media ignores real issues for sensational ones. Even everyday Americans would rather argue with each other than attempt to find proposals they could all agree on. Our politicians are non-functional in the most part. And the loyal opposition—the Democrats— are fiddling with backstabbing accusations and innuendo while the country burns.

Saturday
May052018

Twenty-first Century Societies

Approaching the third decade of the 21stcentury, our world is divided (as it has been ever since the American and French revolutions) in terms of the kind of societies people choose to live in. Following World War II, the main division was between Western capitalistic democracy and Russian and Chinese Communist Totalitarianism. After the demise of the Soviet Union and the rise of China as an economic power, the Western “liberal democracy” model seemed to be dominant, at least outside of Russia and China, but with the renewed strength of Russia and the increasing power of China, plus the effects of unfettered capitalism on causing an increase in economic inequality, as well as the stressful influences of massive immigration on Western societies, we now have several models of society competing with one another on the world stage.

Liberal democracy remains the choice of most Western countries and their citizens. It is characterized by limited regulation of private enterprise, insurance of basic freedoms, such as speech and the press, global business supported by international treaties, and the imposition of Western values on recalcitrant countries. The virtues of this system  are its protection of basic rights through laws and the maintenance or development of a high quality of life because of the success of capitalistic economies. The downsides are the increasing concentration of wealth in the pockets of a few, the domination of corporate interests over government policies, and the tendency for those countries, such as the U.S., France, Germany, and the UK, who espouse liberal democracy to use force to impose their value systems on other countries, e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and the Balkans, leading to almost constant military conflicts.

As a reaction to the growing income inequality, which has left many citizens of capitalistic countries either without work or without sufficient wages to survive, and the fallout from wars and famines, which has caused massive migration from war-torn, poor countries to the more peaceful and prosperous Western democracies, there is a movement toward increased Nationalism in the U.S. and much of Europe. This movement emphasizes rejection of international agreements that limit individual countries’ economic choices (TPP, the European Union), and fear and rejection of immigration as  a threat to culture, freedom, and order. While such nationalism tends to embrace capitalism and sometimes less government regulation of business, it also favors imposition of laws that protect the traditional majority’s religious and cultural practices and restrict those of newly arrived immigrants (e.g. anti-hijab laws, anti-public prayer laws). In many countries, such as Germany, France, Italy and Poland, those who espouse this new nationalism, have aligned themselves with groups that are traditionally prejudiced against racial and ethnic minorities, sometimes because they share such views and sometimes because it is politically expedient.

The Nordic countries have to a greater or lesser extent, depending upon the country, embraced something usually called Social Democracy. The basic idea is that the goal of society is to insure a good quality of life for all of its members and it is the role of government to formulate policies and laws that do this, by regulating an otherwise capitalistic economy and the distribution of wealth within that economy. High taxes, especially on those above the median in income, extensive public support of such things as healthcare and education characterize these societies. At the same time, they are democratic, and leaders and policies can be changed when  they become unpopular with the electorate.  Although social democracies represent some of the most successful countries in term of health, education and life satisfaction, recent developments, such as the imposition of austerity programs in the wake of a world economic recession and pressure on public programs because of the burden of massive influxes of immigrants, has caused a resurgence of support for more private control of the economy and more stringent laws regarding use of public funds for those without means who are not citizens of the country. This has been combined with anti-Muslim and anti-ethnic prejudice favoring traditional cultural values and a turn toward Nationalism.  So far, political attempts for nationalistic parties to gain power have been defeated in countries such as the Netherlands and Finland. At the same time, these countries’ social successes have been lauded by some progressive politicians in the U.S., such as Bernie Sanders, who has held them up as a model for America.

While the Western world has been arguing about liberal democracy vs. nationalism, vs. social democracy, China has been expanding its world influence through a state-managed economy that encourages but controls capitalism, massive investment in underdeveloped countries in Asia and Africa, and massive export of goods manufactured with low-priced labor or whose costs have been partially subsidized by the government to bring them below the cost of goods produced elsewhere. This is the State-Managed Capitalism model and it has been particularly influential in Africa, where countries such as Ethiopia have benefitted from Chinese investment in infrastructure projects, while allowing Chinese companies to ship resources from their country, and have essentially copied the Chinese model of keeping  a tight rein on human rights, especially as they are related to challenging the government’s authority. China is becoming the largest investor in Africa as well as several Southeast Asian countries, and, while directing much of its efforts toward securing resources such as oil and cobalt, has also found a market for its own goods. But China has also opened its markets to African  and Asian goods and has figured out that promoting education, infrastructure modernization and other projects that raise the quality of life in African and Asian countries and bring more of their people into the middle class while modernizing their industries, has long-term benefits as these countries become economic partners, not just third world countries being plundered for resources. China now is highly regarded by many Africans. It has more peacekeepers in Africa than any other country, as it also prizes working with countries that are not at war either with other countries or within themselves, and in fact, seems to value peace and security in its economic partners more than individual freedoms and human rights—a policy China, itself, has followed  in its rise to economic dominance. This Chinese model, of strong  central government control but encouragement of capitalistic business practices and raising of living standards of its citizens as a first priority, is one that many developing countries may choose to adopt, especially if China is helping them through investments.

These are four models of how countries and inter-country cooperation should operate in the coming years. Each has its reasons for being and its upsides and downsides. As Americans, we should realize that we do not live in a vacuum, and our choices as to what kind of society we want are going to determine how we interact with the rest of the world. Both liberal democracy and the Chinese model presume that it is part of a dominant country’s obligation to extend its policies beyond its borders.  For Nationalism and Social Democracy, this is less true, although Nationalism tends to be highly defensive in terms of not allowing other nations’ policies to determine its own and favoring its own needs over those of the rest of the world in areas of trade and security. This may or may not lead to increased militarism on the part of highly nationalistic countries. As we have seen, worldwide events, such as Middle Eastern wars, African famines, and a global recession can affect how people feel about their form of government and economy and what appears to be satisfactory during times of peace and plenty, can appear to be highly flawed in times of stress. Since increasing climate change as a result of global warming is on the horizon, if not already here, bringing with it more immigration and infrastructure destruction, we can anticipate that what seems right at the moment may not appear so in the future for many people of the world.

 

Friday
May042018

Is Low Unemployment the Answer to Poverty?

The jobless rate in America is below 4% for the first time since 2000. A good part of the most recent dip in the jobless rate is from people leaving the job market, but still, of the roughly 63% of the U.S. population that are seeking a job, 96.1% have found one. These improvements in unemployment rates have been shared with the African-American and Hispanic workers who are also at all-time lows in unemployment. Wages are still low for many of these jobs, relative to what is needed to live comfortably, and although wages have been increasing, much of the increase is due to the 18 states that raised their minimum wage this year, and increased salaries for higher paying jobs (or those dependent upon immigrant workers, who are entering the country at lower rates). On top of that, the inflation rate of 2.45% is nearly equal to the rate of increase in wages of 2.6%. So far there is little evidence that the tax cuts in the 2018 tax bill have led to increased wages, as opposed to stock buybacks for most large corporations. 

These numbers indicate a need to examine proposals for meeting the needs of the poorer section of our population. There are still pockets of high unemployment in the U.S. and some ethnicities have lower rates of employment and lower wages than others, but the differences are less stark than they have been in the past, although, as we saw in 2008, this situation could reverse itself at any time. Still, this may mean that proposals for a guaranteed minimum income or for continuing to raise the minimum wage may be more to the point than proposals for a guaranteed job (although most of such guaranteed job proposals have included an increased minimum wage).

There remains a wide discrepancy between the incomes of many Americans and the cost of living. Housing costs in some regions of the country and healthcare costs throughout the country continue to exceed the means of many Americans, and inability to pay medical bills remains the biggest reason for U.S. bankruptcies. More than half a million U.S. families are bankrupted by medical bills each year, affecting between 1-2 million individuals.

Income inequality is a fighting term for many Americans, either because they view it as the bane of our Western capitalistic system or because they view it as a red herring, which rests on a socialistic or communistic assumption that everyone should have the same amount of everything. A less controversial gauge of unfairness may be to examine how many Americans are living in conditions that are strikingly below what  most people would regard as an acceptable middle class existence, while still working as hard as they are able to support themselves and their families. Nearly 13% of Americans live below the official U.S. poverty level (roughly $25, 000/year for a family of four), and nearly half of those live in “deep poverty,” which is less than half of the income defining the poverty threshold. Two thirds of those who live below the poverty level receive no housing assistance, and 65% of them spend more than half of their income on rent. Poverty levels are defined uniformly for the 48 contiguous states although costs of living differ markedly between regions. Obviously, a family of four making 25,000 per year in coastal California has a very difficult time getting by, especially if they have no housing assistance. Furthermore, most families even at double the poverty level have no wealth (defined as what they own, such as a house or car, or available money in cash or investments), and would not be able to pay for food or housing if they were out of work for even three months.

Our slowly growing economy has almost no chance of meeting the needs of our poor, whose numbers, in terms of percentage of the population, have not appreciably declined for decades. Housing and healthcare remain the most problematic items for the poor, including those in the lower middle class brackets of even two to three times the poverty level. Increasing wages would help, but the current rate of increase is far too low to make a difference in their lives.

The only real chance to address the needs of those Americans who are in poverty or are too poor to be able to live safely and comfortably in our society is to raise wages dramatically and to reduce housing and healthcare costs (and of course, not cutting and actually fully funding safety-net social programs now in existence). Supplementing wages using tax credits (such as the earned-income credit) derived from increased taxes on the wealthy, would be one route, universal, government supplied or insured healthcare would be another, and deregulating building restrictions on dwellings, especially in our urban centers and their immediate peripheries, so that more affordable housing (and just plain more housing) could be built is another route. All of these measures may have to be pursued if we expect to have some chance of allowing a more satisfying life for more Americans. Conservatives are banking on tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy to pour more money into the economy so that wages increase, but this has not happened in the past and doesn't look as though it is happening now and would only address a portion of the problem. More dramatic proposals need to come from and be enacted by our politicians.

 

Wednesday
May022018

Were Are Our Kids Going to Live?

I just returned from a visit to Asia—Vietnam, China and Japan—and was impressed with the array of urban housing approaches I saw. Upon my return, I also was faced with the ongoing debates about trying to achieve affordable housing in my home state of California. I wondered if any of the things I saw in Asia could apply to the U.S.. Besides my tourist-level observations, I did a little research on Vietnam, China and Japan to try to find out an answer.

Despite a population whose average income is just over $2000 per year, house prices in Vietnam are almost comparable to those in the U.S.. Although I love the frenetic atmosphere of downtown Ho Chi Minh City, the housing needs of the population are being addressed on the southern periphery of the city in former wetlands, not downtown. New City is a masterplanned  area where multi-storied high rises, alongside single and multi-family conventional neighborhoods, house thousands of families, where many international businesses have located, where the area has been designed to be pedestrian-friendly, where major highways separate automobiles from motorcyles. The aim is to make living and working less hectic, to include green spaces and pedestrian walkways between work and home, and to attract international business. 

The problem with New City is that most Vietnamese haven’t joined the country’s middle class yet and such housing as is being developed is financially out of their reach. In fact, the disparity in quality of housing between the average poor Vietnamese and his or her upper middle class counterpart is increasing. 

What is going on in Ho Chi Minh City resembles what is going on in China. In Beijing, the highest density neighborhoods are not in the city’s core, but around the periphery where the skyline is filled with multistoried high-rise apartments, often 30 stories high, and where many businesses have chosen to locate near workers. Nearly all the expansion in Beijing’s population has occurred in these suburban neighborhoods – which bear almost no resemblance to the typical American suburb of sprawling neighborhoods of single family homes. China has encouraged migration to cities, and in most people’s estimation, has built too much, too fast, giving its high-rise apartment communities the nickname, “the great housing wall of China.” To Western eyes, they are ugly, reminding one of failed public housing projects in the U.S., but they partially serve the purpose of diffusing growth from the central core of the city and easing congestion, especially when businesses occupy the same area as the housing centers. China’s middle class includes a substantial upper income group and many of the poorer workers who migrated to Beijing have been unable to afford housing in these new buildings or have been excluded from it. In recent years, the number of such migrants has decreased as they are priced out of the housing market or deliberately excluded (Beijing residents have priority for housing and other services), much as is happening in California cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles.

In Vietnam and China, so far, high density, high-rise housing has further separated the well-to-do from the poor and left the latter group out of its benefits.  

Any Western visitor to Tokyo is impressed by the politeness of its citizens, the lack of traffic congestion, the cleanliness of the streets and sidewalks (despite a dearth of wastebins – people apparently bring their trash home to dispose of it), the orderliness and extensiveness of its subway and train system, and most of all it’s restroom facilities where, even in public toilets, “washlets” are provided, which offer hot or cold streams of cleansing water, sometimes heated seats, and are always immaculate. But what about their housing? Unlike Beijing or Shanghai or New City in Vietnam, I could discern no overall pattern to housing in Tokyo. High rises are juxtaposed with one or two story buildings, wooden structures are alongside concrete glass and steel buildings. 

In contrast to California and many European and Asian big cities, housing prices in Tokyo have not skyrocketed, nor have rents. This isn’t because the population is shrinking. Although low birth rates are lowering the Japanese population, that is not true of the Tokyo-Yokahama megacity, which is still growing and is the most populous city in the world. From what I have learned, the key to meeting housing needs appears to be the fact that the national government overrules local control of housing regulations, and property owners can do whatever they want with their properties, including demolishing them and building higher apartment buildings—which many have. New housing starts in Tokyo exceed those in Britain or California. Construction regulations are strict because of the danger of earthquakes, but if someone wants to build a tall, ugly building next to their neighbor’s traditional house, they can. And they do. There are parts of Tokyo that are not pretty and, as I said earlier, one is impressed with the obvious contrast between a well-planned transportation system and a haphazard looking skyline. But Tokyoites are apparently happy. They remain in the city, migrate to the city and have created a lifestyle that is user friendly.  

Does any of this transfer to the U.S., or even should it? Most people believe that the future will include higher density urban areas. We have a housing shortage in the U.S. and it is not just in California, although California dominates in lists of cities with such shortages. But Cleveland and Columbus Ohio and Indianapolis, Denver and Atlanta also have shortages, as well as New York, Boston and Seattle. Some of these cities have space to expand outward, while others, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Boston don’t (Riverside, California, a city that has absorbed those leaving Los Angeles for cheaper housing now has a shortage of its own). In Seattle, “upzoning” has allowed increasing the heights of buildings within the city in selected neighborhoods, and requires developers to devote some of their properties to affordable housing. But neighborhoods have complained of losing their ethnic flavor (Chinatown and Little Saigon) or becoming unsightly (University District).  Single-family home neighborhoods have largely been exempted from upzoning in Seattle. In California a proposed state law would allow higher buildings near transportation hubs, with similar requirements for affordable housing. In both Seattle and California, the fear is that the vast majority of the new housing will be too expensive for the people who it displaces.

I’m not sure what the answers are for meeting our housing shortage, particularly a shortage of affordable housing for people with low and lower middle class incomes. I saw some approaches in Asia that offer alternatives, but they have achieved mixed results. I think we need to look at a myriad of ideas and to combine the goal of more affordable housing with ecological considerations, such as better public transportation, more walkable city environments, use of “smart glass,” net-zero emissions buildings, district (instead of individual building) heating, so we don’t try to solve a housing nightmare without taking advantage of all of the advances in producing limitations on carbon emissions and fostering carbon return to our environment.

It will take both thinking outside of the box and giving up some of our cherished ideas about what our cities and suburbs should look like to solve our housing problem.

 

 

 

 

Saturday
Apr282018

Let’s Talk About North Korea

After more than a year of off-the-wall threats thrown back and forth between North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump, including the infamous “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his” Tweet of President Trump, and including Kim calling Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard,” while Trump belittled him with the sobriquet, “Rocket Man,” the two national leaders are getting ready to have face to face talks with each other. This follows an about face by Kim after increased development and testing of his nuclear weapons to the point that most experts believe he poses a real threat to his Asian neighbors, such as Japan, and perhaps to the U.S. President Trump met those threats with threats of his own, of “fire and fury” if Kim should engage in military action and with actual increases in sanctions against both his regime and anyone who did business with them. 

It is unclear what brought the turnabout in Kim Jong Un’s behavior. Nearly all experts believe that his development of nuclear weapons is designed to give him a bargaining chip in negotiations with other countries, particularly the U.S., and the sanctions on his nation are continuing to cause immense economic hardship. It may well be that, in Donald Trump, Kim found an American president who actually frightened him in terms of his unpredictability and apparent willingness to respond to Kim’s antics with military power. Certainly, the ascension of Moon Jae-in, an avowed proponent of rapprochement with North Korea, to the presidency of South Korea, has made a world of difference. Moon has taken the lead in thawing relationships between the two Koreas, achieving a diplomatic coup by inviting North Korea to participate and even partner with South Korea in the Winter Olympics in his country. Their recent breakthrough one-on-one discussion, with both leaders stepping across the border into the other’s country and agreeing to end the long-standing and never-completed Korean war, as well as to cement friendly relationships and agree to complete denuclearization of the peninsula, is a development never before reached in North and South Korea relations since the fighting between their countries ended in 1953.

Most Americans, and indeed, world leaders, including those from other Asian countries, are hopeful about the new developments in Korea, but skeptical. The most celebratory messages regarding the agreement between the two Korean leaders have been contained in President Trump’s Tweets, which have declared, “KOREAN WAR TO END!”

Skeptics warn that we have heard this tune before, both during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, when Kim’s father agreed to cessation of his nuclear program, but was found to have only kept it out of sight while he violated the terms of the agreement. They point out that Kim’s regime will still be one of the most egregious in terms of its violations of its citizens’ rights and its downright cruelty to those within its country who oppose it. They remind us that Kim had both his uncle and his brother assassinated. Most experts agree that Kim’s only bargaining chip is his possession of nuclear weapons and that he would be foolish to give them up completely. They point out what happened to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi after he gave up his nuclear program and the U.S. supported rebels who ousted then murdered him, and to Saddam Hussein, who also discontinued his nuclear program and was overthrown and executed by the U.S.  Kim has heard Trump talk about tearing up the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration, and presumably would be wary of the U.S. sticking with any agreement it made, when a new administration comes to power.

What President Trump will do when he talks to Kim Jong Un is anyone’s guess. Both men are unpredictable, probably the American president more so than the Korean leader. The cooler heads of H.R. McMaster and Rex Tillerson are now absent from Trump’s circle of advisors, replaced by the considerably more hawkish John Bolton and Mike Pompeo. So far the U.S. has insisted that Kim must agree to dismantling his nuclear program for talks to start. That demand will not be met before he and Trump meet. As an initial demand before any other items are discussed, it seems self-defeating, as no Korean expert believes that Kim will agree to it and would be foolish if he did. He would be giving away any parity with the U.S. before negotiations even began. 

Many are urging unrelenting sanctions and continued military threats as the best way to deal with Kim Jong Un. They believe that these strategies have borne fruit already, bringing Kim to the bargaining table and getting him to suspend his nuclear tests for now. They could be right. Perhaps, in the face of an immoveable American president, Kim will throw in the towel and agree to whatever we demand. This seems highly unlikely. Instead of such a confrontational approach, perhaps by following the lead of Moon Jae-in (whose country is much more vulnerable to a militant North Korea than is the U.S.), and rewarding each friendly step that Kim Jong Un takes, with incremental reductions in sanctions as well as reduction in the U.S. military threats, such as ceasing such threatening acts as our joint South Korea-U.S. military maneuvers, we can show him the benefits of conciliation. 

Kim Jong Un has an infant nuclear program with a few bombs and newly developed long-range missiles. The U.S. has a military presence of nearly 25, 000 soldiers across his border in South Korea and has pledged to respond to an attack from his country on his neighbors South Korea or Japan, with military force, including use of nuclear weapons—the so-called “nuclear umbrella” that allows us to ask other nations not to develop nuclear weapons themselves in return for us pledging to use ours to defend them. When he was Director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo was in favor of regime change in North Korea.  In other words, Kim Jong Un has lots of reasons for being paranoid about U.S. military intentions toward him and his country. Asking him to give up his own defense and “trust us” seems like poor advice when one looks at the situation honestly.

Rewarding each step toward developing a peaceful situation on the Korean peninsula seems preferable to maintaining a standoff with nuclear threats from both directions. We need not demand complete denuclearization, particularly not as a starting point to negotiations. A cessation of further development would be a good compromise. Lifting sanctions, incrementally, in response to Kim’s movements toward non-belligerence, seems also to be a wise strategy. Watching his country achieve greater economic success can be a big reward for Kim, and it seems likely that if he can envision a pathway toward his country achieving some of the success of his southern neighbor, he will take it. On top of that, the sanctions to North Korea have inflicted as much humanitarian grief on that country’s citizens as have the Kim family’s draconian dictatorship over the years.

It’s fine to be skeptical, but let’s not let our skepticism undermine a chance for peace.

 

 

Friday
Apr272018

It's Time for Some Boldness

Timothy Egan wrote a provocative opinion piece in the New York Times today. He tried to say what the ideal Democratic candidate for 2020 should look like. He pointed out that “Your candidate would need to be ethically clean — no Wall Street speeches, no foundations that serve as backdoor ways to do well while doing good, no sexual misconduct.” These are minimum requirements and have nothing to do with the candidate’s positions on issues, but they are necessary. In a society that searches under every pebble of a person’s life for evidence of flaws that can, by the time they are hung out to dry on the clothesline of social media, become full blown scandals, in order for a candidate to get across a message on political issues, he or she must first have a squeaky clean background.

Egan goes on to list several Democrats who are up and coming and not afraid to put forward big ideas: Gillibrand, Harris, Booker, although he finally ends up with Joe Biden, in fact titling his article, “To Beat Trump, Build a Better Biden.” I recently wrote a similar column, saying that the new wave of Democratic politicians, such those mentioned by Egan as well as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, have all espoused proposals that challenge the existing state of our political sector, which is that it is being dominated by a minority of wealthy and corporate elites.

Progressive Americans are getting tired of watching income inequality widen in the U.S, of seeing congress paralyzed when it comes to gun control, of experiencing a disastrously flawed healthcare system, while our politicians seesaw between sending it back to complete privatization and promoting poorly designed fixes that don’t alter its basic structure. We have endured wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere with no idea what our military’s aim is or our country’s stake in such wars. Our current president and his appointees have gone so far as to set the country back decades on issues such as climate change and civil rights. 

Our next president—and all the new senators and representatives elected in 2018—cannot simply undo the errors of the Trump era and put us back on the path we were following before his election, because that path doesn’t cure any of our basic ills. Instead, the new, progressive programs which have been favored by the new wave of politicians mentioned by both me and Egan—Medicare for all, free public university tuition, guaranteed jobs with livable minimum wage, strict oversight of law enforcement, fossil fuel independence and strict regulation of the banking industry—must become mainstream, acceptable ideas, which cause any Democratic politician who fails to endorse them or urges that we “go slowly” in implementing them, to risk labeling him or herself as reactionary.

It’s the ideas and policies, not the people that matter. Of course, our human way of seeing things means that we are going to accept ideas if they are put forth by attractive, likeable, charismatic and persuasive people who we feel we can trust, so certainly the spokespeople for these ideas and the politicians who make them part of their platform matter. But the ideas themselves need to be the bedrock on which we build a progressive political movement. 

And we need thinkers. It’s easy to label all the ideas mentioned above as unrealistic and too costly to implement. That’s just not true. A real progressive needs to state the obvious fact that devoting more than 50% of our discretionary budget to military and defense spending makes a lot of things unaffordable and is a way of thinking that needs to be reversed. Enough of genuflecting in the direction of the military without questioning the wisdom of its demands and its actions. Someone has to also say that it makes no sense to say that we can’t afford Medicare for all when the system we now have costs more per person than any other country’s healthcare system, including all of those that have mostly government provided healthcare. If a family pays a little more in taxes but a lot less in health insurance premiums, they have a net gain with regard to their yearly income (as Bernie Sanders has continually pointed out to a mostly deaf audience). Numerous think tanks have pointed out that guaranteed jobs with a livable minimum wage would remove the expenses for public housing, food stamps, and other welfare payments for everyone except the disabled—and those proposing such a thing have suggested picking some regions and trying it out as an experiment to see if this is true. Those in this country without college degrees make significantly less money than those with degrees and are more prone to be out of work during periods of economic stagnation. They become recipients of our tax-based programs, not contributors to them. Free public college can produce a more viable workforce, trained in skills that are more likely to be usable in the coming years.

What we need for the future is fewer cautious politicians who are tied to their campaign donors’ needs and who think that proposing anything bold is more dangerous than carping at their opponents and acting as if they are progressives while they do nothing. As voters we need to avoid being so sidetracked by a focus upon identity-based grievances and accusations that we never address the basic changes that need to occur in our country. The United States really does need to change and to do so we need to resolve to adopt some new ways of doing things. We need people who will sponsor such bold programs and we need a constituency that talks intelligently about them and demands them.

 

Tuesday
Apr242018

Should Trump Voters be Left Behind?

A study published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences sheds new light on the reasons for Trump’s victory in the presidential election of 2016. The major takeaways from the study are 1) personal economic hardship did not predict increased support for Donald Trump 2) feelings of threats to dominance, either related to personal identity on race and religion, or to national dominance in the world, particularly  in trade, predicted support for Donald Trump. These results were interpreted by the study’s author, Diana C. Mutz, from the University of Pennsylvania, as rejecting an explanation for Trump support as being that less educated, blue-collar, white workers felt “left behind” economically because of job loss or wage stagnation and saw Trump as offering an antidote to this. Instead, voters in general, and particularly less educated, white males, felt increasingly threatened by the fact of a declining white majority in the U.S. and declining American economic power, particularly with regard to China and partly attributable to free trade agreements. These voters saw Donald Trump as being closer to their views on these issues than was Hillary Clinton. Interestingly, immigration was not a salient issue for most voters, who were generally favorable toward immigration and Trump’s position was markedly different from theirs and may not have gained him significant support, despite the “build a wall” rhetoric of his most ardent fans.

This study stands out because it was carried out with a sample of just over 1200 people representing a cross-section of Americans, asked questions either online or by telephone in 2012 and 2016, so that the question of whether voters’ attitudes changed over time or whether candidates of the two major political parties changed positions relative to voter preferences could be answered, as well as whether the salience of certain issues changed from one election to another.

The findings show that the fear of losing dominance either with regard to one’s personal identifications on race, and religion, or with regard to the position of America in the world (which is intimately related to attitudes toward the threat of China and the negative value of free trade agreements), characterizes many less educated, white Americans, who saw Donald Trump as closer to them on these issues than was Hillary Clinton. What does this mean with regard to Democratic Party strategizing for 2018 and 2020?

Economic prosperity, particularly for those who are not enjoying as much of it as the rest of the country, is not likely to be a wedge issue upon which the two parties can distinguish themselves from one another in a way that secures extra votes. Free Trade and agreements such as NAFTA and TPP are salient to voters, but given neither party’s interest in the TPP and Trump’s failure to withdraw or make material changes in NAFTA, despite his promises to do so, as well as the unanimous bad press given to his attempts to engage America in trade wars by raising tariffs, it is not clear that the rhetoric that worked in 2016 will still be viable in 2018 or 2020. However, it seems likely that a block of voters, who feel threatened by losing American dominance, will still be receptive to messages that promise to strengthen the United States’ position as a world economic power, however these are phrased. If free trade and global cooperation are to be a position of the Democrats, then they will have to do some re-education to the American voter to convince him that these are not mechanisms by which America loses dominance (the fact that China may be surpassing America as the dominant economic power in the future needs to be taken into account, as any viewpoint that takes a zero-sum, winners vs. losers position on world economics—as Trump has—will raise feelings of threat for many voters, who will vote for candidates who promise to reverse this outcome).

As we have seen with widespread support for DACA, immigration, including proposals for a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants, is not the hot button issue that many conservative pundits and the president think it to be. On the other hand, a focus on identity issues, which appears to portray people of color and religious minorities as maligned, and which attacks white privilege and Christian hegemony, is just the kind of rhetoric likely to raise the fears of white, Christian voters that they are being displaced. 

Educating the citizenry about the actual racial biases and discrimination that exist in our country and the continuing prejudices against Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians that remain part of our culture is a necessary obligation of all of those who want to live in a more inclusive, fair society. Democrats, liberals and progressives must be aware that many of their efforts to educate are seen as elitist, “identity politics” that alienate those voters who were responsible for putting Trump in office in the last election. This presents a dilemma for those who want to capture that group of Trump supporters in order to win the next election. Denial of ongoing inequalities and discrimination may bring in some voters, but in the long run will hamper efforts that need to be made to remedy these factors. White, Christian privilege is not necessary for white Christians to live happy lives in America. So long as privilege rests upon discrimination against others and advantage for one’s group, it has to remain a target for removal from our society. The task of Democrats, liberals and progressives will be to address this issue in a way that doesn’t alienate those they want to convince. For those who cannot be convinced, they are probably better left behind.

Monday
Apr232018

Business and Government: What is the Solution?

An activist friend recently posted a question on Facebook, the gist of which was whether people believe that corporations had taken over most aspects of our society (government, education, military, etc.) and whether or not legislative action can counter such vast corporate power. She received a lot of varied answers, with most people believing that corporations have, in fact, taken over much of our society and mixed answers about what to do about it or the role that legislative action can have in fighting this development. 

Two of the major economic developments of the last quarter-century or so, which are related to each other, have been the enormous growth of the economies of non-Western and under developed countries (China, Vietnam, India, a group of sub-Saharan African countries) with a corresponding burgeoning of a middle class in nations in which they previously were extremely limited, and the growth of international businesses, whose workers are no longer in the same country as the corporate headquarters, which, in turn, may be located in a tax free or low tax country, rather than the country from which it originated. 

As a result of the first development, although extreme poverty still characterizes much of the world, income disparity is actually decreasing in many parts of the previously underdeveloped world. China, India and parts of sub-Saharan Africa have seen sustained GDP growth rates from 6%-10%, while OECD countries, with the exception of Saudi Arabia and Ireland, have seen growth from .5%-3% and mostly less than 1%. Wage increases of 40%-65% over the last eight years characterize such high-growth countries as China and Ghana. Ethiopia has expanded its educational system, lowered its infant mortality rate and modernized its infrastructure using massive government investment through taxing a constantly growing economy (although they have also curtailed human rights at the same time). Although income inequality still tends to be highest in the poorest countries of the world, the difference between developed and developing regions is narrowing, and several high-growth developing countries, such as India, Ethiopia, and Vietnam have achieved inequality below that of several European countries and the United States.

Global business has benefitted many people, particularly in some of the poorest regions of the world. Whether the profits from such business benefit the ordinary citizen or just those who, through direct ownership or shareholding, own the businesses, is often determined by government policies particularly policies on taxation and transfer of assets. Those countries with the strictest  tax and transfer laws (the highest rates for the wealthy) achieve the greatest income equality as the wealth from businesses and income producing activities is shared via redistribution through taxes. The United States leads the wealthy, developed nations of the world in income inequality, and such inequality is increasing, as a greater share of the wealth resides in the hands of a smaller percentage of the population. The corporations that do business and the people who own and run them determine government policy in the United States. Taxes do not have a strong effect on redistributing wealth within the United States, because tax policies are heavily influenced by lobbyists paid by the wealthy, and elections of our representatives are heavily influenced by campaign contributions from these same wealth and business interests. While the rise in international business has helped lift many in the developing world into the range of livable wages, it has mostly lined the pockets of the already rich in much of the developed world, particularly the United States, where corporate interests and the influence of the wealthy have controlled the political policies of both parties.

America has the largest and most costly military in the world. Despite this, the only part of the recently passed federal budget that did not engender debate from either party was the increase in military spending. The military and its weaponry is a staple of the American economy. Approximately 10 percent of the factory output in the United States goes into the production of weapons sold mainly to the Defense Department for use by the armed forces. More than half of the U.S. discretionary spending budget goes to the military and defense, and the amount has increased 13% in the last two years. Corporate lobbying and funding of campaigns influences the U.S. reliance upon a private health care system, leaving America ranked 37thin the quality of its healthcare system, despite spending the most per person on healthcare of any country in the world. In terms of the environment, despite overwhelming public support for programs to counter climate change, the U.S. is dismantling its environmental protections and its efforts to counteract global warming.

The well-known 2014, Gilens and Page study of influences on government legislative and policy decisions, which found that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence,” concluded that “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose.” In otherwords, the owners of wealth and business interests control the American political system. Although Gilens and Page looked at head to head comparisons of public support vs. “economic elite” support, in fact, on many issues, the corporate world, through its control of much of the media, sways public opinion so that people support increased military spending, resist government funded healthcare, and are often skeptical of fears about climate change. 

Corporations, particularly those with global reach have had a positive effect in raising standards of living in many areas of the world (I know it can be argued that much of the destitution in these same regions can be attributed to historical plundering of their resources and control of their societies by the international business interests of imperialistic countries, but the recent advancements due to economic growth are real). The problem is that they are also controlling much of the decision making of the governments of the world (the TPP is a good example of how corporations virtually wrote the rules for an international economic agreement that in some instances, overruled local governments’ autonomy). The decisions made by corporations are made to enhance their profitability, not to profit the people who work for them, buy their goods, or live in the countries in which they pay their taxes. Their aim is not the good of the common man. What can be done to curtail their influence?

To be realistic, the world economy is being organized by increasingly global businesses, which, while they compete, have many of the same interests. Dismantling this organization would be catastrophic for much of the world, particularly those regions that are just emerging from decades, if not centuries, of poverty. Rebellion against the governments that control both the countries in which these corporations operate and which cooperate with each other, would be equally catastrophic. We have multiple lessons from the last two decades as to what happens when people attempt to overthrow their government by force, and the most powerful governments are more heavily armed than any of those of the minor dictators who have been toppled or challenged in recent revolutions. Specific instances of egregious business activities can be fought by actions such as boycotts, strikes and public demonstrations, but the massive influence of the corporate world on the lives of everyday citizens through controlling governmental decision making must be reduced if we want to live in a true democracy. 

The natural method of opposing the efforts of the economic elites in accumulating wealth at the expense of the welfare of ordinary citizens is to use the government and its policies to regulate rather than to collude with corporate interests. Tax policies, monetary policies, healthcare and decisions about how to insure a higher quality of life for all members of a society must be made by the citizens of a country with their own interests in mind. There are voices which have pointed out how this can be done with proposals such as Medicare for all, overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, a guaranteed minimum income or guaranteed jobs. For these voices to assume center stage instead of being marginalized by assertions that they are “socialistic” or “unrealistic” the voices of the corporate world heard through the media need to be countered. This is starting to happen, as many of the above proposals have been given air and page time in the mainstream media as elected leaders such as Bernie Sanders, Corey Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren and others have espoused them. These are all proposals opposed by corporate America, and electing politicians who support them would be a beginning at taking back our country from the business interests that, in the words of my friend on Facebook, have “co-opted” it.

 

 

 

Friday
Mar092018

How to Improve our National Conversations

Here are a few observations, admittedly from an educated, white, male point of view. These all have to do with the current climate of discussion and political thought in American, more among the grass roots than among elected officials in Washington. My general belief is that discussion—on both sides of most political or cultural issues—has degenerated into illogical, often uninformed arguments. I think the following opinions, with regard to three contentious issues, are pertinent to improving our national conversation. Of course these are only my opinions.

1. With regard to the role of guns in our society:  The constitution may preserve a right for American citizens to own guns, but the reasons that amendment was put in place and its applicability to modern gun ownership is distorted within the gun debate. When the constitution was written, the United States had just won a revolutionary war against a colonial power and that war would not have been won if citizens had no access to guns. With the establishment of a federal government, there was fear that such a defense of the union would be necessary again and the U.S. had no standing army. To a lesser extent, among those who advocated rights of individual states there was also a fear that the national government could become as dictatorial as the previous colonial government, so it was thought necessary to preserve state militia’s who could defend against such an occurrence. Such militia’s needed to have the right to be armed and since they were made up of ordinary citizens, the ordinary citizen, if he belonged to such a militia, needed to have the right to own a gun. Neither self-defense nor hunting was ever the focus of the 2nd amendment. Today, the guns have changed—they include AR-15s, which fire multiple rounds at enough velocity that almost any wound can prove fatal—and the reason for owning them has changed —either sport, in the sense of target practice, or self-defense against one’s neighbors or criminals (many people own guns to hunt, but such guns have never been the focus of gun control efforts). While some people maintain that the possession of guns is necessary for citizens to protect themselves against a potentially dictatorial government—the same argument that fostered the 2nd amendment in the first place—the likelihood that this will happen, except as part of the paranoid ideation of militia groups who probably pose more of a threat to their fellow citizens than does the government, is miniscule and must be weighed against the carnage caused by hundred of thousands of people carrying guns everyday. There is overwhelming evidence that the prevalence of guns and their easy accessibility is the major factor in extraordinarily high and unique (among economically successful developed countries) murder rates and mass shooting rates within the U.S.  The idea that ordinary citizens within the United States, which bills itself as the most enlightened and socially advanced nation in the world, need to carry guns in order to defend themselves, rather than rely upon law enforcement for that function is absurd, and the statistics on how high gun possession causes more damage than it cures, is incontrovertible. This is a clear area where American ignorance has muddled the conversation.

 2.     So-called “identity politics” are what we today label political arguments that focus upon race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation or gender as major issues that ought to determine political policy. The “identity” argument with regard to each of these characteristics is that, in our society, those who fall on one or another end of the spectrum on each of these variables have historically and are currently experiencing enough disrespect and discrimination to curtail their deserved and constitutionally guaranteed freedoms or their economic and social opportunities. Those who malign identity issues claim that such injustices and inequalities either don’t exist, except within the consciousness of those who claim them, or are the result of factors other than those that determine identity (e.g. work ethic).  

Innumerable statistics and studies show that unequal outcomes in income, wealth, and health characterize racial differences within the United States. To deny this is to deny established facts. The causes of such differences are multifactorial, but overt discrimination has been shown to be one of them, and a major one. This also applies to gender differences in income and opportunity. A recent study of lending practices across the country showed systematic discrimination against people of color in obtaining home mortgages, even when income, previous defaults, debts, etc. were controlled. Possession of a home is a major component of wealth for most American families. Numerous studies have substantiated wage discrepancies between men and women in almost all industries and executive positions in businesses are overwhelmingly held by males, despite evidence that there are not systematic differences between men and women in the qualifications for such positions. These evidences of discrimination are real and they contribute to the unequal outcomes attained by different racial and gender groups in the United States.

Discrimination based on “identity factors” in the workplace, in lending, in treatment by law enforcement, and across a wide spectrum of activities has been found to be illegal and unconstitutional by our courts. Arguing for policies that prevent such discrimination represents an effort to support our constitutional guarantees as well as our national identity as a country that treats all of its citizens equally. So what is wrong with identity politics?

One way to counter discrimination is to alter the prejudices people have toward one another based upon racial, ethnic, gender etc. stereotypes. Black pride, women’s pride, gay pride, etc. are all efforts to do this. So is identifying instances of negative stereotypes being presented in the media, in our academic institutions or as a basis for decision-making in business or government. Some people believe that focusing upon such issues, as well as upon disparities in income, wealth or things such as incarceration rates based on race or ethnicity is the cause of divisions among people in this country. However, these disparities are real and so are the prejudices and discriminatory practices which support them. Pretending they don’t exist is just that—pretending. Unfortunately, however, such identification has been stretched to include subtle, unconscious, and even hidden examples of prejudice and stereotyping to the point that nearly every celebrity or political interview, every media presentation, and even every academic discussion has become a dangerous minefield in which the speaker or presenter or author must be hyper alert to possible bias in his or her expression and the gist of his or her message is sometimes lost in the focus upon such transgressions and the demand to apologize for them. It is not that such subtle prejudices don’t exist or aren’t sometimes harmful, it is that they can become the dominant focus in discussions or expressions of ideas to the exclusion of other, often valuable ideas. Furthermore, it has become increasing popular to claim that only those who belong to a certain disenfranchised group have a right to comment on the conditions in which that group finds itself or the causes of those conditions, much less suggest solutions to them. Such efforts by “outsiders” is labeled “mansplaining,” or “whitesplaining” or “cisplaining.” When opinions are excluded because of the group to which the opinion holder belongs, it not only reduces the range of opinions heard, it does, in fact, reinforce divisions between people in our society.

Our political and social processes would function at a more productive level if they did not include denial of real inequality caused by discriminatory practices in our society and if they did not include exclusion of all other factors except such discrimination in our discussions of policies and ideas and attacks on those who try to analyze these problems and search for solutions.

 3.     The United States Constitution is one of the most profound and influential documents written in the history of Western society, perhaps of the world’s societies. That said, it is not perfect; it is over 200 years old, it was written by real men, not saints, who represented a social and economic elite of the times and who embraced prejudices of their era and compromise as a method of insuring acceptance of the document by people with very different interests and opinions. The major part of the constitution details the components of the United States government and their relation to one another as well as the relation between the federal government and the states. The most contentious parts of the document have been this latter material regarding federal and state relationships and the Bill of Rights and how these first ten amendments should be interpreted in the light of changing times. The ultimate arbiter of disputes about how the constitution should be applied in modern times to modern issues is the United States Supreme Court, itself composed of 9 judges, chosen by various presidents and approved by the Senate, most often for political reasons and because of known political biases of the candidate judges, rather than for their expertise as constitutional scholars.

Neither the factors going into writing the constitution nor the choices involved in selecting the Supreme Court justices who will interpret it are any guarantee of fairness, justice, or wisdom in how the constitution determines what is allowed and what is not allowed within the United States. However, we all agree to abide by both the document and the decisions made as to how it should be interpreted, and this is the basis for our law-abiding democracy.

Some of the basic rights guaranteed by the constitution have been expanded over the years, so that, for instance, the right to privacy, while not explicitly mentioned in the constitution has been guaranteed by interpreting rights to one’s beliefs, to freedom from illegal search, from self-incrimination, and the right of due process to include a right to personal privacy in one’s behavior and decision making. This has allowed extension of the right of privacy to issues of abortion, sexual behavior, and conversations using electronic devices, no doubt not issues the founding fathers had in mind when they wrote the Bill of Rights.

By the same token that basic rights have been expanded to meet changing times, they can also be restricted. Gun control is an issue that the courts have sometimes allowed restrictions and sometimes not, depending upon their interpretation of the intention of the original words in the constitution. Those who would insist upon not interpreting such words in the light of modern conditions are simply denying the accepted way in which we have been able to make an antique document apply to our current society over the last two hundred plus years.

The United State Constitution must be a living document because common sense tells us that no document written over 200 hundred years ago in a society that had just won its independence as a nation and was an infant in the process of governing itself, in a society that only allowed land-holding white males to vote or even participate in designing the document that would govern the whole country, in a society that contained human slavery, which was based upon racial inequality and prejudice, and a society that had no telephones, internet, cars, trains, or airplanes, and in which no global entities such as the United Nations existed, could apply to our current society without modification and interpretation. This means that the freedoms and political processes described in the constitution are and should be the subject of interpretation in light of our modern society and its needs. “What the founding fathers had in mind” may or may not be what is best for us today (a simple example being that they had in mind only men voting, the continuation of slavery, and counting African-Americans as only fractions of a “person” in allocating representation to states). For those who say that, “the constitution may not be perfect, but it has worked for over 200 years,” it is helpful to remember that it didn’t work for African Americans until 150 years ago with regard to slavery and until 50-60 years ago with regard to segregation and voters rights. For women, it didn’t work until until less than 100 years ago with regard to voting rights. The constitution only “worked” on these issues after it was amended. Applying the constitution to our society is a deep, thoughtful process and is going to contain errors, but we should stop having knee-jerk unthoughtful conversations about it and take it seriously instead of as a process in which we exercise our biases or our ignorance.

I’ll save discussion of the Climate Change debate for another day.

 

 

 

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