Jury Shopping?

            Upon taking office on 1 January 2022, New York County (i.e. Manhattan) District Attorney Alvin Bragg inherited several investigations of Donald Trump that had been launched by his predecessor, Cyrus Vance, Jr.  One, into the Trump Organization, rather than Trump himself, he let go forward to a successful conclusion.  Another centered on money paid to the adult performer who used the stage-name “Stormy Daniels.” Vance’s prosecutors had been trying to figure out that case for a long time.  Bragg suspended it.  Then he revived it. 

            The case is complicated.[1]  According to the New York Times, “falsifying business records can be a crime.”  (Emphasis added.)  That “can” implies that it also may not be a crime. Trump is said to have violated New York State law by falsifying business records.  Specifically, the Trump Organization reimbursed Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, for the $130,000 in “hush money” that Cohen paid to Daniels on behalf of Trump.  The money was listed as a legal expense. 

However, simply falsifying business records with an “intent to defraud” is a misdemeanor.  To elevate the crime to a felony, Bragg’s prosecutors need to demonstrate that Trump intended to “commit or conceal a second crime,” again in the words of the New York Times.  Current speculation holds that the “second crime” could be entering the money paid to Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, as a “legal expense”[2] when it was actually an unreported campaign donation. 

            According to the Times, “Whether hush money can amount to a campaign donation is not settled law.”  Either it is very common and undiscovered or no one but the occasional sexually incontinent politician engages in it.  One of Trump’s lawyers has argued that he paid the money purely to spare his family from a sordid story that he has long denied.  “He had to pay the money because there was going to be an allegation that was going to be publicly embarrassing for him, regardless of the campaign.”

            Making an unreported campaign donation violates both Federal and New York State law.  However, the Federal prosecutors are not pursuing this case.  Can a state official prosecute someone for violating a federal law?  Probably not.  So, that leaves prosecuting Trump for violating state election law as the “second crime.”  However, federal election law preempts state election law.  So the unsettled legal status of “hush money” at the federal level raises questions about the viability of this approach.  Still, there are legal loopholes that might serve. 

            Perhaps more to the point, the problem is how an elected district attorney is to get Donald Trump in front of what the New York Times calls a “jury in deep-blue Manhattan.”  For that matter, in Fulton county, Georgia, a District Attorney convened a grand jury to examine Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election results in the Peach State.[3]  In the November 2020 presidential election voting in Fulton county, Joe Biden won 72.65 percent of the vote.  Is this jury shopping?  Still, it may turn out that sometimes ham sandwiches are safe.          

[1] Ben Protess, Jonah E. Bromwich, William K. Rashbaum, and Kate Christobek, “Possible Case Against Trump Would Hinge on Untested Theory,” NYT, 22 March 2023. 

[2] The money went to a lawyer.  What else is it?  There’s a legal form for reporting “hush money”?  If there is, would anyone believe that someone in the Federal bureaucracy wouldn’t leak that information? 

[3] Glenn Thrush and Adam Goldman, “Trump Inquiries Pose Stress Test For Justice System,” NYT, 24 March 2023. 

Why Iraq 2.

During the run-up to the attack on Iraq, the Bush Administration insinuated that Saddam Hussein had covert ties to al Qaeda and that Iraq had been involved in the 9/11 attacks.  The administration more forthrightly claimed that Iraq’s stockpile of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) had to be put out of potential action.  So either retribution or pretribution.  Later on, both of these justifications were proved false.[1]  Deputy Secretary for Defense Paul Wolfowitz is the villain in many accounts.  He felt confident–without any hard evidence–that Iraq bore guilt for the 9/11 attacks.  Early on, Wolfowitz seems to have talked President Bush into sharing this belief.  The inability of the intelligence agencies to find significant evidence to support this belief then led to a manipulation of the intelligence that did exist.  Then the WMD justification surged forward.  Most of all, group-think and hierarchy led to a spreading certainty that Iraq posed a danger.  Later in his time as president, George W. Bush, battered and enlightened by experience, might well have stopped this “log roll.”  In the first years of his crisis-ridden presidency, however, he lacked the maturity and the experience needed to do his job. 

One striking element in the movement toward war came in the lack of push-back from responsible quarters.  In the House, 81 Democrats voted for the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, while only 6 Republicans voted against it; in the Senate, 29 Democrats voted for it, while only one Republican voted against it.  When the war went wrong, many people weaseled.  Furthermore, the claims about Iraq-al Qaeda contacts and Iraq’s possession of WMD went largely unchallenged by the media.  Later, feeling twice deceived by “lies and the lying liars who tell them,”[2] journalists and academics rejected out of hand the war-for-democracy claims.  They went in search of other motives for war.  They suggested an attempt to dominate the world oil industry,[3] faulty or manipulated intelligence gathering and analysis, and the effect of “victory culture.”[4]  What they didn’t do was to look at the history. 

After the first two justifications collapsed (along with the careers of some of the people who had offered the justifications), the Bush Administration began to claim that the war’s purpose had always and only been to replace tyranny with democracy in Iraq.  From there it would spread to the rest of that benighted region.[5]  Why hadn’t they led with this argument, since it was so close to what they actually believed? 

Perhaps the “neo-cons” believed that Americans would not support a war for democratization, while they would support a war for vengeance.  If so, they were ignoring the arguments of an eminent predecessor, both scholar and presidential adviser, Robert E. Osgood.  Osgood had believed that Idealism and Self-Interest could be reconciled in foreign policy.[6] 

[1] The former had been incredible from the start.  Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a secular state and equal-opportunity oppressor.  Al Qaeda was a movement of Sunni zealots.  When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden had offered to lead an Islamist foreign legion against him in defense of Islam’s holy places.  Nor could the intelligence community offer much in the way of evidence supporting tales of contact between the two enemies of the United States.  The second justification seemed to have more substance.  The United Nations weapons inspectors for Iraq believed that Hussein’s government had concealed large stockpiles of WMD.  However, that is true of many anti-American countries (China, Russia, Pakistan, Israel).  Why attack only Iraq? 

[2] The title of Al Franken’s 2003 “fair and balanced look at the Right.” 

[3] A bunch of this material is displayed at Rationale for the Iraq War – Wikipedia 

[4] On the latter, see Tom Engelhardt, The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation (2007). 

[5] Max Fisher, “Two Decades Later, a Question Remains: Why Did the U.S. Invade?” NYT, 19 March 2023.

[6] Robert E. Osgood, Ideals and Self Interest in America’s Foreign Relations (1953).  Got a copy on my shelf. 

Why Iraq 1.

            Why did the United States invade Iraq in March 2003? 

Taking a historical view, the roots of the invasion might be found in the first decade after Western victory over the Soviet Union.[1]  Debating the question of what to do with victory in that struggle, most people wanted a “peace dividend.”[2]  Reduce defense spending and focus on domestic issues.  However, a small coterie of “neo-conservatives”[3] wanted to use America’s position as the sole super-power to push reforms abroad.  Poverty and tyranny held a tight grip in many parts of the world.[4]  It need not remain so. 

For example, the neo-cons seem to have made a correct diagnosis of the problems of the Middle East.  Those problems stemmed not from the existence of Israel, nor from being caught up in post-World War II international rivalries, but from 500 years of Turkish misrule.  Great landowners, rich merchants, and ambitious soldiers—all of them as crooked as a dog’s hind-leg—were deeply entrenched in Middle Eastern countries.  The “neo-cons” moved from a correct diagnosis to a spectacularly wrong cure.  Essentially, “people everywhere just want to be free.”[5]  Knock over a dictator, declare democracy, put up some big box stores, and stand back. 

They had a particular concern with Iraq.  President George H. W. Bush had led the United States and an international coalition in the First Gulf War.  Much of Iraq’s military forces were destroyed in this war, but the President had stopped the allied advance stopped close to the Kuwait-Iraq border.  He had not pursued regime change.  The President’s modesty and self-restraint left a savage dictator in power.[6]  In retrospect, the “neo-cons” wanted to correct this error.  They had lobbied President Bill Clinton “to aim above all, at the removal of Saddam Hussein from power.”  In 1998, Congress passed and President Clinton signed into law the “Iraq Liberation Act.”[7]  Still, he didn’t pay them no never-mind.[8]  Hussein remained in power.  Then came President George W. Bush; then came 9/11. 

[1] The Soviet Union abandoned Communism, abandoned its empire in Eastern Europe, disintegrated into many states, and ceased to oppose the United States around the globe.  If that isn’t victory, I don’t know what is.  At the same time, it may have given then Senator and now President Joe Biden the wrong template for understanding “victory” in the Ukraine War.  He’s affable as all get-out, but not an original or independent thinker. 

[2] They got what they wanted.  U.S. military spending | National Priorities Project (archive.org)  However, the “black budget” of the American intelligence community is linked to that of the Defense Department.  Cutting defense spending cut intelligence spending at the same time that expensive information technology systems were becoming vital.  This compounded the cuts in human intelligence expertise during the rise of Osama bin Laden.  Alas. 

[3] See: Neoconservatism – Wikipedia 

[4] Indeed, the United States had supported and co-operated with many such regimes.  As Franklin D. Roosevelt reflected on the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, “He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch.”  It isn’t beyond imagining that the philosophically-inclined “neo-cons” concluded that we had got our hands dirty winning the Cold War, but now we should seek to undo that harm as best possible.  Of course, something “not beyond imagining” isn’t necessarily what happened. 

[5] See: The Rascals – People Got To Be Free – YouTube  To be fair, every decade has a lot to answer for. 

[6] The UN had authorized using force to evict the Iraqis from Kuwait, not to change the regime.  Other major powers, like Russia and China, would take umbrage if the United States changed the rules of the game unilaterally.  Iraqi society was a sectarian landmine whose explosion would lead to violence, suffering, and—in all likelihood–increased influence for Iran.  So, yes, modesty and self-restraint.  Where can we get some? 

[7] On which, see: Iraq Liberation Act – Wikipedia 

[8] He also didn’t pay any attention to the Rwanda genocide.  Americans, he thought, didn’t want another war. 

The Old Days.

            Among the thoughtful members of America’s elite[1] the predominant mood seems to be nostalgia.  Leslie Lenkowski, a professor emeritus of Public Policy at Indiana University, used a book review to describe and add to some of the recent thought on the decline over time of social solidarity in the United States.[2]  The stakes in this game are high.  Since Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, that social solidarity has been seen as the foundation of democracy. 

            The one-time “nation of joiners” has become a “nation of spectators.”[3]  All sorts of political, social, and economic changes wrought this transformation.  Some of the changes were divisive in themselves.  Income inequality has grown and people have moved toward socio-economically homogenous communities, with intellectual homogeneity as an effect.  Some of the changes reversed the instilling of a civic religion.  Common, though far from universal, military service ended after Vietnam.  Movies and other forms of mass entertainment have moved from celebrating American democracy to portraying it a device serving powerful occult interests.[4] 

Haass and Lenkowski both assign a primary role in this American crisis to the elites.  For Haass, it is up to them to encourage their constituencies in all the major institutions and areas of national life to “embrace obligations,” not just rights.  For Lenkowski, the problem lies, first and foremost, with the critics “from across the political spectrum, that bring into question American history and ideals, the fairness of American society and institutions, and the ability of individuals to make a difference in the face of supposedly hidden forces.”  Elites must act differently if America is to be restored. 

            But maybe the rot isn’t in the elites, or not only in the elites.  Maybe it is in the common man as well.  In a democracy, politicians try to give both the “interests” and the “public” what they want.  As Haass says: “We get the government and the country we deserve.  Getting the one we want is up to us.”  What have we wanted?  Low taxes, high spending, big deficits; one percent of Americans willing to do military service; low voter turnout and difficulty filling jury pools; and Not In My Back Yard coupled with a sense of grievance-as-identity. 

We’ve been here before.  At the start of the New Deal, opinion high and low turned against the culture of the Twenties.  Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke for many when he dismissed the before-time as “a decade of debauch.”[5]  The Thirties were to be a decade of collective, practical action for the common good.  The desires of the individual would come a distant second.  They ended in an un-wanted war that demanded national solidarity.  A year after Pearl Harbor, a line from “Casablanca” (1942) summed-up the change: “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” 

Is it going to take some national economic or military disaster to change our minds? 

[1] It says something about our country that a person can get into the elite without being thoughtful. 

[2] Leslie Lenkowski, “We’re All In This Together,” WSJ, 2 March 2023.  He reviewed Richard Haass, The Bill of Obligations: The Habits of Good Citizens (2023).   On Richard Haass, see: Richard N. Haass – Wikipedia 

[3] While Lenkowski cites earlier assessments of this shift, his argument is supported by the work of Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000). 

[4] See, for a few examples among many: “The Pelican Brief,” (dir. Alan J. Pakula, 1993); “Enemy of the State” (dir. Tony Scott, 1998); “Shooter” (dir. Antoine Fuqua, 2007). 

[5] Quoted in William E. Leuchtenberg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940 (1963), p. 343. 


            In Fall 1938, in the aftermath of Munich, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for the expansion of the American Army Air Force (AAF) from 1,200 airplanes to a force of 15,000 planes.  Army Assistant Chief of Staff George C. Marshall then tried to talk some sense into his boss.  Sequence, he insisted: first one thing, then the next thing.  What the AAF needed first was the construction of lots of airfields and the establishment of mass training programs for pilots, navigators, bombardiers, air-gunners, aircraft mechanics, and all the other people who would service and fly the planes.  Only after an adequate infrastructure had been created would it be desirable to build the planes.[1]  There are lessons in this little anecdote. 

Wind and solar power provide “clean” energy, while carbon-burning electricity generation create about 25 percent of the country’s “greenhouse gases.”  Clean energy suffers from constraints related to location.  They take up a lot of space and they work best where there is a lot of sun and wind.  So they are most easily constructed in areas remote from the urban areas of mass energy consumption.  Transmission of the energy from point of generation to point of use is handled by the nation-wide network of power lines and transformers.[2] 

Aye, there’s the rub.  The “nation’s antiquated systems to connect new sources of electricity to homes and businesses” is grievously delaying the transition from dirty to clean energy.[3]  What does “antiquated systems” mean exactly?  Power companies have squeezed out obscene profits by skimping on maintenance and modernization, right?  Apparently not.  Rather, there are other long-existing barriers not addressed by the climate legislation of the Biden Administration. 

The American electricity distribution grid took a long time to construct, beginning in the 1920s.  Eventually it reached a stable state, with only a handful of new power plants being added every year.  After spectacular “blackouts” in the 1960s, attention turned to improving reliability.  Stable transmission systems led to the creation of a stable body of human capital.  In this case, it was power engineers who could understand the complex systems.  In short, there are two related bottlenecks in any rapid shift from one form of electricity generation to another. 

This is evident in current experience.  New projects seeking access to the grid system apply to the power authority in their region for permission to connect.  The current system is badly clogged because there are only a limited number of power engineers to assess the projects.  In 2012, it took two years for projects to gain approval; in 2022 it took four years.  Once the limited and over-loaded pool of power engineers completes an assessment, the applicant is often told that they must foot the bill for new transmission lines.  Long waits and unanticipated high costs have already derailed many “green” energy projects.  The large subsidies for clean energy generation, rather than transmission, offered by the Biden Administration are likely to make matters much worse. 

So, sequence: first one thing, then the next thing.  Which we’re not doing. 

[1] Robert Dallek, Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1933-1945 (1979), pp. 172-174.  The Thirties and Forties witnessed rapid technological innovation in aircraft.  Building the planes before you had the infrastructure would guarantee that those aircraft were obsolete by the time you had the people to fly them. 

[2] See: North American power transmission grid – Wikipedia 

[3] Brad Plumer, “U.S. Solar Goal Stalled by Wait on Creaky Grid,” NYT, 24 February 2023. 

The Biden Economy.

            President Joe Biden will soon announce that he will run for a second term.  Here’s the Democratic best-case interpretation of the performance of the Biden Administration during its first two years in power.[1] 

            In the view of Brian Deese, the chief economic official in the White House, the Biden Administration has performed very well, if not flawlessly.  The Administration’s 2021 stimulus bill promoted a “strong and equitable economic recovery.”  The Biden Administration also has “invested” in a wide range of industrial and infrastructure initiatives.  Many of these initiatives can be designated as climate-related.  Furthermore, the administration also has launched a hodge-podge of other policies which have not yet born fruit, either sweet or bitter.  Chief among these have been an attack on corporate concentration and talking-up the value of labor unions. 

            There have been failures as well.  Running for office during the Covid emergency, Candidate Joe Biden promised his voters all sorts of new government benefits.[2]  President Joe Biden could not entirely deliver on his promises.  He did deliver a big temporary increase in the child-tax credit. 

            Much more important has been the problem of inflation.  In Democratic reasoning, the American economy has turned in a feeble performance for much of the Twenty-first Century.  Therefore the 2021 stimulus bill erred on the side of optimism.  The Biden Administration did and could not anticipate the large and sustained rise in prices.  However, in the Democratic interpretation, the primary drivers of the inflation were the disruptions of the supply-chain and the spike in energy prices.  The former sprang from the Covid pandemic; the latter from Russia’s attack on Ukraine.  Neither of these could have been anticipated.  In any event, the error had only “somewhat limited consequences.”  Unless you were buying groceries or gassing-up the car. 

            Take a longer view.  The Clinton Administration (1992-2000) held office during—and claimed credit for—a boom/bubble in the tech economy.  Then that bubble burst just after the Bush II (2000-2008) took office.  Hot on the heels came 9/11.  The government poured in money and encouraged Americans to consume, rather than sacrifice for the war effort.  Then the long-ignored housing bubble collapsed.  First the Bush Administration, then the Obama Administration (2008-2016) poured in money to cushion the blow.  Apparently not enough money, because the “Long Recession” dragged on.  Then the Trump Administration (2016-2020) applied big tax cuts and deregulation.  Democrats ridiculed the resulting boom as a ”sugar high.”[3]  Then came Covid and more heavy government spending, first under the Trump Administration and then under the Biden Administration (2020- ). 

            So, in what kind of shape is the long-term private economy?  It looks like many of the spikes in economic activity spring from government stimulus in one guise or another.  If so, then the performance of the underlying “real” economy may not be too solid.  Economists offer complex analyses of this issue.  In layman’s terms, however, the stimuli seem like nostalgia for a bygone age of American economic prowess as much as emergency economic policies. 

[1] David Leonhardt, “Assessing the Biden Record as His Economic Team Transitions,” NYT, 23 February 2023. 

[2] Universal pre-K, paid family leave, expansion of the child tax-credit, and increased elder care.  At the same time, Biden endorsed many government programs to counter climate change. 

[3] Although it isn’t clear why deficit-expanding tax cuts create that “high,” while deficit-expanding spending doesn’t. 

Civil Society.

            What is the relationship between the Individual and Government?  In the Western tradition of political thought, the answer to that question has been “civil society.”  However, the term “civil society” has meant different specific things at different times.  For the Greeks, it was the achievement of the “good life” through the “polis” (city-state); for the Romans of both the Republic and the Empire, the state and civil society were identical.  For Western Europeans of the Middle Ages, the term had no meaning in the decentralized system of feudalism and the social-economic system of serfdom.  During the Early Modern Period (c. 1500-1750), Absolute Monarchy became the ideal political form, even if reality rarely matched the ideal.  However, Absolute Monarchy’s ever-advancing claims to regulate aspects of life, provoked a reaction.  The most important thinker of this reaction was John Locke, who elaborated the existing “social contract” theory of politics as a check on absolutism. 

A bunch of thinkers then piled-on to Locke’s argument.  Hegel, De Tocqueville, and Marx all argued, in their various ways, that civil society meant the limiting of government power by the spontaneous creation and functioning of independent groups in a society.  The Nineteenth Century Liberal ideal of a small state rested, in part, on a faith in “voluntarism”[1] in a healthy society.  Massive population growth, industrialization, and political conflicts transformed the context of this argument.  In particular, the rise of the modern dictatorships between the two World Wars expanded the reach of government into private and associational life.[2]  The Nazis and the Soviets, in particular, either subordinated or destroyed and replaced with their own creations all independent social organizations. 

In theory, the emergence of “problem-solving” representative governments in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries should not produce the same collapse of civil society.  Yet, at least in the United States, that seems to have happened in the years since 1950.  More than twenty years ago, Robert Putnam argued that the long stretch of years after the Second World War witnessed a grievous decline in associational activities.[3]  Putnam’s explanations for this decline do not include the expansion of government substitutes.  However, Republicans have not hesitated to treat state expansion beyond certain limits as pathological.[4] 

Regardless of the cause of as social atomization, the atomization seems real.  One result is a “crisis of loneliness.”[5]  Democrats and Republicans may differ over whether the answer is to be found in government action or in private initiative.  The health of both private individuals and of democracy may be at stake in finding the right answers. 

[1] “See a problem, solve a problem.”  So, youth groups, sports groups, church groups, professional associations, trade unions, civic associations, hobby clubs.  NB: Night clubs and strip clubs don’t count. 

[2] On the Fascist dictatorships, see Victoria de Grazia, The Culture of Consent: Mass Organizations of Leisure in Fascist Italy, (Cambridge UP, 1981); Julia Timpe, Nazi-Organized Recreation and Entertainment in the Third Reich, (Palgrave Macmillan UK 2016).  For the Soviet Union, see the photographic exhibit of Peter Marlow, Recuperation and Recreation in Soviet Russia: Holidaying Behind the Iron Curtain • Peter Marlow • Magnum Photos   

[3] Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000). 

[4] This is particularly the case for federal welfare policies pursued since the “Great Society” of the Sixties.  However, the deluge of government spending during and after the Covid pandemic has become a prime target for Republicans who criticize dependence upon government payments.  In their eyes, it undermines self-reliance and self-respect. 

[5] John Leland, “How Loneliness Is Damaging Our Health,” New York Times, 20 April 2022; and Vivek Murthy, “Addressing the Public Health Crisis of Loneliness,” Addressing the public health crisis of loneliness – Bing video 

Banana Wars.

            “Yankee ingenuity… is inventive improvisation, adaptation and overcoming of shortages of materials.”[1]  Basically, opportunity-seeking and -seizing.  Lorenzo Baker (1840-1908) typified Yankee ingenuity.  Raised on pre-resort, hard-scrabble Cape Cod, by age 30 he was master of a small schooner trading between New England and the Caribbean.  In 1870, he brought back a load of bananas to see if anyone would buy.  They would, in quantity and at a 1000 percent profit.  Henry Meiggs (1811-1877), another Yankee, and his nephew Minor Keith (1848-1929) came at the banana trade from another direction.  They were building railroads in Central America, receiving vast tracts of land from the government and employing lots of laborers.  They turned their land grants into banana plantations, mostly for export.  In 1899, Dow’s company joined with Keith’s company to form the United Fruit Company.[2]  How did this lead to wars? 

            Bananas contain a lot of potassium.  “Potassium fends off a sense of existential dread.”    Hence the American interest in Central America and the Caribbean.[3]  Alternatively, for decades, American business had a lot of drag with the United States government.  In the Caribbean and Central America, the Marines supported the United Fruit Company and other businesses when troubled by local unrest.[4]  “Which will you have?” 


            1898: The Spanish-American War left Cuba under American control and Puerto Rico and the Philippines as American possessions.  The US occupied Cuba from 1898 to 1902, from 1906 to 1909, in 1912, and from 1917 to 1922. 

            1899-1902: Philippine-American War, a bloody “counter-insurgency.” 

1903: Panama “seceded” from Columbia,[5] then signed a treaty with the United States.  The treaty allowed the US to build a Panama Canal and gave the US sovereignty over the route. 

1903: US troops landed in Honduras to protect American lives and property.  They came back in 1907, 1911, 1912, 1919, and 1924-1925. 

1912: US troops landed in Nicaragua to protect American lives and property. 

1914: US troops landed in the Mexican port of Vera Cruz. 

1915-1934: US troops occupied Haiti, waging small wars against anti-American forces. 

1916-1917: US troops entered northern Mexico in a fruitless[6] hunt for Pancho Villa. 

1916-1924: “disorder” in Santo Domingo led the US to occupy the country for eight years, fighting anti-American forces out in the bush for much of the time. 

1927-1932: US troops intervened in a civil war in Nicaragua in 1927, then hung around until 1932.  From 1930, President Herbert Hoover wound-down interventions. 

            “US troops” mostly meant the Marines.  Operations involved much improvisation and adaptation.  Rich experience led to the USMC’s “Small Wars Manual” (1940).  Presciently, Jim Mattis urged his officers to read it before invading Iraq. 

[1] Yankee ingenuity – Wikipedia 

[2] See: United Fruit Company – Wikipedia  Now Chiquita.  The life of Henry Meiggs offers a fascinating view of the “Well, it warn’t illegal when I done it” phase of American business history. 

[3] I borrow the syllogism from Robert Stone, A Flag for Sunrise (1981). 

[4] Lester D. Langley, The Banana Wars: An Inner History of American Empire, 1900–1934 (1983). 

[5] Wanna buy a bridge? 

[6] HA!  Eeez pun, yes? 


            Reading the newspapers, it might be possible to formulate a rough explanation of the term “populism.”  It begins with the observation that the problems of the modern world are highly complicated, long-term, often inter-connected, and—in the eyes of some–materialist. 

The highly complicated nature of problems means that they are best understood by experts, rather than by the common person.  Examples include the federal judiciary, which regulates national law; the Federal Reserve Board, which broadly regulates the level of economic activity; and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which represent the professional opinion of the United States military.  The bench is full of lawyers, the Fed is full of economists, and the Joint Chiefs is full or warriors.  None are elected; all are insulated from political pressures.[1] 

Many problems are not only complicated; they are also of long duration.  In contrast, elected officials tend to have a two-year, four-year, or—at most—six-year existential time horizon.  Climate change offers a good example of this effect.  Faced with stiff resistance in the Senate, President Barack Obama sought to use executive agreements and Executive Branch rule-making to enshrine carbon reduction policies that reach out as far as 2050.  Within a few years, President Donald Trump could just withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accords and tell his own cabinet Secretaries to start undoing the Obama rule-writing. 

Inter-connections abound.  To take only one example, climate change is likely to set off large-scale population movements across national borders.  It’s likely to increase the frequency, size, and economic impact of both wildland fires and of cyclonic storms.  It makes a case for an urgent transition away from carbon-burning without any sustainable replacement energy technology—except new generation nuclear reactors—offering a swift and scalable replacement. 

American politics (but not only American politics) has been dominated for at least a century by the bi-partisan belief that, more than anything, voters want money so that they can buy stuff.  During the Depression, the Roosevelt administration adopted a policy of “tax-spend-elect.”  Using this policy, Democrats held the White House from 1932-1952, 1960-1968, 1976-1980, 1992-2000, and 2008-2016.  Fed up with losing, Republican eventually adopted the policy of “tax cut-spend-elect.”  It worked.  Using this policy, Republicans went from winning the White House 45 percent of the time to winning it 60 percent of the time. 

            Insisting that complicated problems are best understood and managed by highly educated professionals dedicated to “public service”[2] inevitably discounts the value and views of the common person.[3]  Voters can be easily distracted by controversies over things like transgender monuments and Confederate bathrooms, but elites can claim to govern in the common interest. 

However, a long string of failures can undermine deference to elite guidance.  So can non-materialist values or goals among common people.  The result can be an upwelling of wrath on the part of at least some of the common people.  This is what is labeled “populism.”[4]   

[1] Currently, none of these is in good repute, what with the excesses of judicial activism, failure to fend-off inflation, and the flunked wars.  All have deep reservoirs of previous good conduct to help see them through choppy waters. 

[2] It’s public employment, not “service.”  Very often it leads to highly remunerative private employment.  Revolving door (politics) – Wikipedia and Goldman Sachs – Wikipedia 

[3] Blazing Saddles – Simple Farmers You Know Morons – sub esp – YouTube  It wasn’t always so.  “Freedom of Speech” – NARA – 513536 – Freedom of Speech (painting) – Wikipedia 

[4] The basic conflict between “elites” and “populists” is portrayed in The Bloodening – YouTube

Refugees 2.

            The last decades of the Twentieth Century and the first decades of the Twenty-First Century witnessed a sharp increase in international migration from Developing countries toward Developed countries.[1]  The conditions greatly differed from the post-1945 refugee situation. 

In a first round of resistance to mass migration, target or destination countries acted in a reasonably civilized way.  Passengers on international air flights were required to present a visa from the country to which they were traveling before they were allowed to board.  The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) established the principle that refugees and asylum-seekers should remain in the country of “first arrival” while their application to enter a Developed country was reviewed by the government of the destination country.  So, someone fleeing Rwanda would first arrive in the neighboring Congo, then apply to become a Baptist preacher or radio announcer in the United States.  The countries of first arrival hold the refugees while their applications were reviewed (and rarely approved).  In return, the Developed countries pay for the maintenance of the refugees in big camps in the country of first arrival. 

When that didn’t work, the gloves came off.  The insoluble disaster that is Haiti provided a taste of harsher measures to come.  Beginning in the 1980s, large numbers of Haitians made perilous small-boat journeys toward the United States.  American law holds that anyone setting foot on American soil has the right to apply for asylum as a refugee.  The Reagan administration ordered the Coast Guard to intercept the refugees at sea and turn them back.  Beached in Haiti, many of them just began the voyage anew.  In 1991, tiring of this game of whack-a-mole, the George H. W. Bush administration began diverting the refugees to Guantanamo.  More recently, huge numbers of people from Central and South America have tried to enter the United States through Mexico.  This has created a very real crisis at the Southern border. 

            The tide of refuge-seekers rose around Europe and Australia as well.  Refugees from the Syrian civil war provided a spearhead.  Angry with the European Union, in 2015 Turkey’s Recep Tayib Erdogan got them moving toward the Aegean Sea and EU member-state Greece.  From there long caravans walked north toward the heart of the EU.  People from many other places joined the flow.  Then came the collapse of order in Libya after the American-led air assault.  First, crime gangs took over the ports and began exporting African migrants.  European navies began picking up survivors of ship-wrecks, then started pre-empting the ship-wrecks by working closer to the Libyan shore.  The EU eventually found a solution in paying the Turks to stop sending refugees and hiring the governments of African countries along the overland routes to Libya to block passage.  For their part, the Australians have used their navy to intercept migrant craft at sea, then sent the migrants to places like Christmas Island. 

Now the Britain and Denmark have struck a bargain with Rwanda to send asylum-seekers there while their applications wend their way.[2]  Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s ruler, is shining-up his country’s international reputation.  Rwanda already receives refugees from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan.  On the surface, at least, the refugee center at Gashora, Rwanda, offers good value for the money: clean, orderly, and fenced.  Doubtless he will have imitators since the problem of unwanted migrants isn’t going away soon. 

[1] Max Fisher, “How Domestic Politics Unravel The World’s Pledge to Refugees,” NYT, 18 April 2022. 

[2] Abdi Latif Dahir, “Rwanda Offers Refuge, But Critics Are Skeptical,” NYT, 10 October 2022.