Climate of Fear XXIII.

In 2015, the Obama administration signed the Paris climate agreement.  This involved countries committing to reach “net zero carbon” by about 2050.[1] 

This seemed to many Americans to be an impossible lift.  For one thing, History seemed to be against such a swift transformation of energy production and consumption.  It took several hundred years to shift from wood to coal; a century to shift from coal to oil.  For another thing, there are the technological problems.  Meeting the goal will require technologies and scientific processes that do not yet exist.  In 2019, carbon (oil, gas, coal) provided 80 percent of American energy (and 84 percent of world energy), while solar and wind provided only 3.7 percent.  Prime areas of research like computer science (artificial intelligence, software, data analytics), chemistry and physics, and robotics and manufacturing.  Then there is the political blow-back that would accompany putting-down carbon.  By one calculation, more than 10 million Americans work in the oil and gas sector of the economy.[2] 

Some countries have good reason to dread an energy transition.  Oil and gas provide 30 percent of Russian Gross Domestic Product (GDP); 40-50 percent of the Russian government’s budget; and 55-60 percent of its export earnings.  Oil provides 40 percent of Saudi Arabia’s GDP; and 70 percent of its government revenue.  Doubtless, Nigeria’s government is sweating the transition, if they’re aware of it.  One can also imagine the sad “BritSolar for a Brighter Future!” posters in the London Underground.   

Other countries have already embraced it.  The Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) has made a big bet on a shift to less carbon: already, 70 percent of the solar panels in the world are made in China and 80 percent of the battery manufacturing in the world is in China.  It should come as no surprise, then, that half the electric cars in the world are in China.  Moreover, Zi Jinping is a very smart and utterly ruthless.  He has restored the centralization of power in the Communist Party and in his own hands.  Finally, he is ambitious, obviously for himself, but also for his country.  He is in a position to impose substantial and radical change. 

The United States possesses an “unnatural” advantage in addressing the problem of an energy transition.  That is, the US possesses a huge intellectual and commercial innovation infrastructure.  The government plays a strong role here.  The Department of Energy has a research budget of $6.5 billion a year, much of the money devoted to the 17 Department research laboratories.  American universities conduct much energy and science related research and train the scientists of many nations.  American business can go after something if they see money on the far side.[3]  The rapid development of Covid-19 vaccines by the Trump administration’s “Operation Warp Speed” offers a good example of what can be accomplished. 

One question is whether the United States can summon the will to make such a transition.  Climate change-sceptics will drag their feet, not least because many of them stand to suffer the consequences of a transition.  Climate change-believers may be too cavalier about the real disruptions and unconcerned about their opponents.  It’s a tough time for American comity. 


[1] Daniel Yergin, “The New Geopolitics of Energy,” WSJ, 12-13 September 2020. 

[2] A big part of this stems from the “fracking” revolution which reduced reliance on burning even dirtier coal. 

[3] Thus, there are 60 private-sector nuclear energy projects under way.  If we want to save the Earth in 30 years, we may have to run some other kinds of risks. 

The Constitution in Formation.

Briefly, the textbooks would tell us that the Americans declared independence from Britain, worked up a national government, found that the rig-up—the Articles of Confederation—didn’t work well, and then adopted the Constitution that exists today.  Historians have long, unavailingly, offered a more complex story.[1] 

            A recent book restates the more complex view.[2]   By 1760, Britain’s North American colonies had achieved a level of economic and political development that would enable them to stand as a group as an independent political community.[3]  The expulsion of the French from North America ended a long-standing threat that had encouraged a reliance upon Britain.  Some debate on a federation of the colonies became inevitable.  Indeed, it had already begun during the French and Indian War.  In 1760, a new king with new ideas, George III, ascended the throne in Britain.  His stubborn determination to bend all resistance—domestic or colonial–to his policies poured fuel on the colonial debate.  Crisis followed crisis from the Stamp Act through the Townshend Acts to the “Intolerable Acts” that followed the Boston Tea Party.  Two successive “Continental” Congresses were chosen to voice and advance American concerns.  Widely-followed debates centered on the continuing issues of the desirable limits of government power and the safeguarding of individual rights.  In the end, a war for independence sought to turn beliefs into reality. 

            Between 1775 and 1781, the Americans improvised a war government out of the Continental Congress.  However, they also engaged in a re-writing of colonial charters of government into state constitutions.  Generally, the new constitutions sought to shift power from the executive to the legislature and to increase democratization.  State governments also stifled dissident opinion, notably that of Tory opponents of independence.  There was a war on after all.  This same government continued to manage national affairs after independence had been gained.  As before the war, so after the war: intense political debate had a very wide following.  In one sense, it offered a kind of political education.  In another sense, however, it was white-male-property-owning democracy in action.[4]  These debates gave birth to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. 

            Yet the debates did not stop there.  What did the words mean?  How could they be put into action?  The ferment and debate continued.[5]  To take one example, who would decide the “constitutionality” of laws passed by Congress?  We have one answer today, but others then argued that the President could decide, others that the individual states could decide.  Then, what did the “men” in “all men are created equal” mean?  Did it mean only white males or did it mean “all mankind”?  Both abolitionism and women’s suffrage got rolling in the 1830s. 

            One trouble with “originalism” is that there were different factions of “originalists.” 


[1] Old favorites include: Lawrence Gipson, The Coming of the Revolution, 1763-1775 (1954); John Alden, The American Revolution, 1775-1783 (1954); and Richard B. Morris, The Forging of the Union, 1781-1789 (1987). 

[2] Akil Reed Amar, The Words that Made Us: America’s Constitutional Conversation, 1760-1840 (2021). 

[3] That is, they could manage the public business without falling into chaos; they could pay their way in the world without help from a foreign government. 

[4] Which seems to me preferable to government by only one or a few white-male-property-owning authoritarians. 

[5] In terms of establishing the credibility of the Executive Branch, see: Carol Berkin, A Sovereign People: The Crises of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism (2017).

The Asian Century 22.

            Communism trapped China in isolation, poverty, and mass death.  State-sponsored capitalism has turned China into the second largest economy in the world and raised hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty.  Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, is very much what once would have been called a “capitalist roader.”   Ma believes that hard work and lots of it will pave China’s road to success.  He is the personification of China’s post-Mao development strategy.  To paraphrase Charlie Wilson, “What’s good for China is good for Jack Ma, and vice versa.”[1] 

            Except many young Chinese have their doubts.[2]  Many Chinese have not kept pace during China’s race to wealth.[3]  The work-load in some parts of the economy is killing: 12 hours a day, 6 days a week.  In these circumstances, Mao’s belief in “constant class struggle between the oppressed and their oppressors,” which contributed to the coming of the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” has a renewed appeal.  People have begun to denounce “exploitation and meaningless striving.”  They post on-line slogans announcing their belief that “Dying for the country?  Yes.  Dying for the capitalists?  Never.”  They describe themselves as “wage slaves” and “corporate cattle.”  They denounce Jack Ma as the human face of a whole system: “Workers are only money-making tools for people like him.”  They also criticize the Communist Party for having tilted too far in favor of the capitalists.  In these conditions, “The Selected Works of Mao Zedong” has become again a best-seller.  This time, it is also being closely read and often quoted. 

All the evidence is that Zi Jinping got there first.  China’s internet is tightly censored.[4]  Yet the torrents of complaint against the capitalists, which go as far as calls for physical elimination, flow unchecked.  Jack Ma himself abruptly disappeared from public view in Fall 2020.  Whether these measures, along with Zi’s campaign of nationalism and stifling Western ideas, will be enough to calm the waves is an open question. 

What’s missing in the nostalgic Maoist analysis?  Two things.  First, China doesn’t have any independent labor unions to bargain with employers.[5]  If such unions did exist, Chinese workers would rush to join.  Massive strikes would follow.  Second, China doesn’t have a two party political system.  There is no party with a vested interest in promoting redistributive policies.  If such a party did exist, voters would flock to it.  Wealth inequality would be blunted. 

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that a fundamental contradiction exists between the Communist Party’s monopoly of power and the needs of the workers.[6] 


[1] On Charles Wilson, not the Charlie Wilson of the movie, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Erwin_Wilson 

[2] Li Yuan, “China’s Youth Are Turning to Mao,” NYT, 10 July 2021.  See also https://waroftheworldblog.com/2021/07/07/the-asian-century-21/ 

[3] On income inequality in China, compared with in the United States and France, see: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/businessreview/2019/04/01/income-inequality-is-growing-fast-in-china-and-making-it-look-more-like-the-us/ 

[4] On the “Great Firewall of China,” see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Firewall 

[5] OK, neither does the United States.  Labor unions grew so obstructive in economic hard times that companies shipped lots of jobs to “right to work” states and automated many more.  However, they now go out of their way not to vex their workers so that those workers don’t vote to join a union.  See the recent vote by Amazon workers in Alabama not to join the Teamsters as one example.  See: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2015/03/02/american-union-stay-away-from-me-uh/ 

[6] I had a student once who described Lenin “speaking in a Marxist dialect.” 

A Big Lack of Trust.

            The rise of big business hotly followed the Civil War.  Railroads, coal mines, steel mills, oil, telegraphs, and banks all grew in size and wealth as America industrialized.  Big companies integrated horizontally and vertically.  They formed ‘trusts” to cut up the national market and set prices without reference to market forces.  Companies played a rough game with each other, with their workers, and with their customers.[1]  The aggrieved fought back in a variety of ways, none of them very effective.  State regulation of railroads, national anti-trust legislation, and guns and dynamite made headlines without braking the advance of big business. 

            Louis Brandeis, lawyer and then Justice of the Supreme Court, advanced a compelling theory of anti-bigness.[2]  Brandies argued that there could be neither competition nor bargaining in sectors where one actor dominated the market for goods, services, or employment.  Moreover, a dominant company—well the handful of men who owned or controlled it–could impose its will in other areas thanks to the wealth it accumulated.[3]  His views came to dominate legal and government approaches to the growth of big business from the New Deal to the Eighties. 

            If a criticism might be offered, it is that the approach is subjective, moralistic, and essentially aesthetic.  It didn’t try to measure whether customers were economically better or worse off from any particular size of or market domination by a company.  It believed that competition should not be carried to its logical conclusion, victory for one competitor.  It could cite many instances of bad behavior by companies without demonstrating the representatives of those anecdotes.  Fundamentally, it reflected a view that, when pushed too far, inequalities of wealth and power are unseemly. 

            This view finally sparked an effective response in the Reagan Era.  In 1978, Yale law professor Robert Bork published The Antitrust Paradox.  The “paradox” identified by Bork lay in the raising of consumer prices and the limiting of competition through anti-trust laws that effectively protected established competitors.  Bork argued that “consumer welfare” should be the standard for deciding whether some merger should be allowed.  The price and variety of goods offered to the consumer could be measured objectively.  Bork’s view gained dominance in the courts. 

            If a criticism of this approach might be offered, it is that it views humans too narrowly.  How much stuff people can buy and at what price isn’t the only measure of human happiness or welfare.  For example, trust in the larger social, political, and economic systems to give people what they believe to be a fair shake in life also is essential.  That confidence often is based in emotion and intuition, rather than cold logic.  It is subject to manipulation.[4]  It’s real.  It’s vital. 

            Now a new phase in anti-trust has opened.  The current approach has been labeled “neo-Brandesian.”  Its face is Lina Khan, the new chair of the Federal Trade Commission. 


[1] See Glenn Porter, The Rise of Big Business, 1860-1920 (1992) for a concise summary of the scholarly literature.  See Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (1953) for a mid-century popular evaluation: “There ain’t no clean way to make a hundred million bucks…. Somewhere along the line guys got pushed to the wall, nice little businesses got the ground cut out from under them… Decent people lost their jobs…. Big money is big power and big power gets used wrong. It’s the system.” 

[2] Greg Ip, “Latest Antitrust Approach Has Its Own Risks,” WSJ, 8 July 2021. 

[3] It’s probably hard to regulate anything effectively when one party can hire all the best lawyers. 

[4] American media is the last great industry largely free from government regulation.  Long may it so remain. 

Lovers Quarrel.

Historians have often examined the tempestuous relationship between Germany and the Soviet Union.[1]  The broad outlines of the story are well known.  They alternate between amity and enmity.  Long before Germany had become a “nation,” the region exerted a powerful cultural influence on Russia.  Russia, Prussia, and the Austrian Empire battled over the “bloodlands” between them in the 18th Century.  Otto von Bismarck, the Chancellor of a united Germany, built his foreign policy on managing the conflict between Russia and the Austrian Empire to avoid war.  After his fall from power in 1890, German leaders succumbed to the “spell of power.”  Their plan for war, the Schlieffen Plan, aimed to destroy Russia and France as major European powers.  German war aims against Russia in the First World War culminated in the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which largely accomplished the pre-war ambitions.  These gains were lost when the Western powers defeated Germany on the battlefield later in the year.  The Allies imposed a harsh, if just, peace on Germany.  It became an outcast, whose chief visible aim lay in restoring respectability.  Meanwhile, the Bolshevik seizure of power, their abandonment of their allies in the separate peace at Brest-Litovsk, their repudiation of pre-war debts, and their attempts to export revolution to other countries made the Soviet Union a pariah country. 

            The two outcasts found a community of interest in evading international restrictions in order to revive their power.  From 1922 to 1932, the German military and the Soviets cooperated on weapons development and military training.  The democratic Weimar Republic chose not to know about this relationship.  Initially, the German aims were short-term.  Many military leaders fantasized that it would be possible to renew the lost war within a few years.[2]  To this end, they encouraged right-wing paramilitary groups like the Nazis. 

            The renewed war in the West did not come, but—in the crisis of the Depression—the Nazis arrived in power.  Adolf Hitler, the anti-Soviet German dictator, ruptured relations with the Soviet Union.  Increasingly, the two countries became at daggers drawn.  In 1935, the Soviet Union formed an alliance with France; in 1936 Germany formed the Anti-Comintern Pact with Italy and Japan; from 1936 through 1938, Germany and the Soviet Union waged a proxy war in Spain.  Some Westerners hoped for a deeper engagement with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany.  Others hoped that Hitler’s ferocious hostility to the Soviet Union would lead him into a bloody war of exhaustion in the East that would remove the need for the West to fight. 

            Suddenly, in August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a treaty that left them free to carve up Eastern Europe.  Hitler later chose to attack Western Europe and then, in June 1941, the Soviet Union.  Even in 1941, many Germans regretted this rejection of Russia.   


[1] John W. Wheeler-Bennett, Brest-Litovsk: The Forgotten Peace, March 1918 (1938), and “Twenty Years of Russo-German Relations: 1919-1939” Foreign Affairs Vol. 25, #1, pp. 23-43; Hans W. Gatzke, “Russo-German military collaboration during the Weimar Republic,” American Historical Review, Vol. 63, #3 (1958), pp. 565-597; Walter Laqueur, Russia and Germany (1965); Gerhard Weinberg, Germany and the Soviet Union 1939-1941 (1972); Barbara Jelavich, St. Petersburg and Moscow: tsarist and Soviet foreign policy, 1814-1974 (1974); Harvey L. Dyck, Weimar Germany and Soviet Russia, 1926-1944 (1984); Geoffrey Roberts, The Soviet Union and the Origins of the Second World War: Russo-German Relations and the Road to War, 1933-41 (1995); Aleksandr M. Nekrich, Pariahs, partners, predators: German-Soviet relations, 1922-1941 (1997); Ian Johnson, Faustian Bargain: The Soviet-German Partnership and the Origins of the Second World War (2015).

[2] From 1890 to 1945 Germany’s leaders repeatedly failed to adjust aspirations to resources.  Disasters followed. 

The Asian Century 21.

            Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.  The descendant of Albanian immigrants to Italy, the son of a father disgraced and imprisoned for embezzlement, born with a body that betrayed him early in life and killed him in middle-age, and resident one of Italy’s many impoverished areas, Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) grew up just about as hard as was possible.  On the other hand he showed himself a brilliant student with wide-ranging interests.  In full revolt against a God who had condemned him to personal misery and a society that condemned the poor to social misery, Gramsci became a revolutionary socialist and then, after the First World War, a Communist.  The Italian elites preferred a Fascist policeman to a Communist revolution on the horrifying Russian model.  Once Benito Mussolini took power, the Italian left received a savage hammering.  Gramsci spent the last eleven years of his life in prison. 

At least it gave him time to think and write.  He filled thirty notebooks with his thoughts on a wide range of issues.  Gramsci’s ideas continue to exert influence today.  One of his ideas advanced the role of what is called “cultural hegemony.”  Traditionally, Marxists portrayed the bourgeoisie as retaining power through force.  Gramsci creatively extended this explanation by arguing that the bourgeoisie also retained power by propagandizing their values and culture to the rest of society as normal.  The schools and newspapers, the church(es), the newspapers and book publishers, and today he would add movie studios, television networks, and hip-hop music all propagate the values of the “hegemonic culture” of the established order.  In short, any alternative to the established system could not be legitimate.[1] 

Why do his ideas matter today?  Well, look at the contemporary People’s Republic of China (PRC).[2]  Since taking power in 2012, Xi Jinping has worked in a sustained way to entrench what has been called “Neo-Maoism” as the only thinkable way forward for China.  Partly this involves cultivating an image of Xi as a beneficent ruler who is promoting prosperity, making government more responsive to citizen needs, and rooting out endemic corruption.    

He also has launched a brutal repression of anyone who challenges the government or the “status quo” it represents.  Civil rights activists, defenders of the rule of law, aspiring union organizers, dissident intellectuals and artists, Christians and Muslims have all been persecuted.  Rigged trials, judicial and punitive torture, and administrative imprisonment have been reported.    

Most significantly, however, Xi has worked to limit and shape what Chinese people can know and believe.  He has banned serious study of the era of Mao Zedong as “historical nihilism.”  The schools teach a “George Washington chopped down the cherry tree” version of recent Chinese history.  The government has been creating a “social credit” system to grade (i.e. reward or punish) individuals for how well they conform to government-defined social norms.[3]  The internet is closely watched and increasingly tightly controlled.  “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” has become the official, “normal,” and hegemonic thought.  Gramsci’s probably going “See, I told you so.” 


[1] I can’t recall a good biography of Gramsci.  I read some of his stuff in graduate school and rejected it out of hand.  More recently, I have come to take a different view.   Same goes for Noam Chomsky and Herbert Marcuse.  My reading of them, I mean, not their attitude toward Gramsci.  Not that I want Elizabeth Warren writing the tax laws. 

[2] Andrew Nathan, “An Anxious 100th Birthday for China’s Communist Party,” WSJ, 26-27 June 2021. 

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_Credit_System 

The Meaning of Murders in Mexico.

            Steven Pinker is a big believer that things have been getting better for humanity in many ways for a long time.        At the dawn of the Twenty-First Century, you could look at Central and South America for signs of progress.[1]  At the start of the century, Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) finally yielded its monopoly on political power in favor of multi-party democracy. 

From 1929 to 2000, the PRI deployed patronage to hold power.  Along the way, as in any other one-party state, corruption became endemic.  Obviously, in retrospect, one of the most important tasks of post-PRI government would be to build up honest and competent public administration right from the base to the peak of government.  It was going to take time. 

Mexico turned out not to have any time.  At the same time that Mexico moved toward multi-party democracy, another improvements took place.  Columbia won its long war against drug cartels.  Mexican crime gangs who had served as conduits for Columbian drugs now took over production as well.  Then they fought each other—and any interlopers—for control of the trade.  Along the way, policemen, prosecutors, and judges “on the pad”[2] became a valuable resource.  This happened just as Mexico tried to abandon the PRI’s policies.  Now a “vacuum of corruption” sent public officials in search of new patrons.  

            The drug cartels appeared invulnerable to the normal justice system.  The “narcos” even began to become celebrated public figures.[3]  In 2006, the Michoacan cartel let loose a carnival of highly public, grisly killings.  Also in 2006, Felipe Calderon squeaked through a close election to become president of Mexico.  Calderon decided to fight the drug cartels as hard as possible.  Knowing that the local police and courts were in the pockets of the cartels (and that they were incapable from long habit in any case), Calderon opted for a response from the national level.  Resources were diverted from local government to the military, which had the firepower to shoot it out with the gangs.  The government targeted the cartels’ leaders. 

            It worked—up to a point.  Cartels were de-capitated over and over again.  Factions formed and succession battles blazed in the streets.  However, the younger and wilder new drug lords led smaller gangs than had the older cartel chiefs.  They had less cash piled up; they had fewer connections with cops and judges; their connections to suppliers and distribution networks were thinner.  Many of them got pushed out of the business.  These losers in the Jurassic Park of Mexican drug dealing branched out into other forms of violent crime.  Kidnappings for ransom, armed robberies, and extortion all rose sharply.  This pushed the war between drug gangs and between the gangs and the government into the lives of ordinary civilians. 

            All across Mexico the government is losing not just the war against crime, but the war for its own survival.  Popular revulsion against the corruption and ineffectiveness of the government is leading to gangs becoming the effective government in many places.  Or it is leading to private self-defense initiatives—militias, security contractors, lynchings–that ask nothing of the state. 

A failing state on the southern border should deeply concern citizens of the United States. 


[1] Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, “Mexico’s Record Violence Is a Crisis 20 Years in the Making,” NYT, 29 October 2017. 

[2] Old NYPD parlance for crooked cops.  See: Peter Maas, Serpico (1973). 

[3] See for example, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcocorrido   

Where we are with Iran.

            The radioactive isotope U-235 can be “enriched” to higher levels of purity by the use of special centrifuges.[1] Enriched to low levels (3.67 percent), U-235 can be used as fuel for nuclear power plants.  Enriched to very high levels (90 percent), U-235 can become the basis for a nuclear weapon.  Enrichment is a slow business in the early stages, but each successive step becomes much faster from higher levels of purity.  According to one expert, it might take a month to enrich U-235 from 20 percent to 60 percent, then a week to go from 60 percent to 90 percent.  However, more centrifuges are required to achieve each higher level of purity.[2] 

            The development of nuclear material is one step.  The development of the technology of making an actual weapon, and the development of ballistic missiles are additional steps.  There is nothing to say that these steps have to be done sequentially, rather than in parallel.    

            Iran had developed a large infrastructure of uranium-enriching centrifuges, along with other elements of nuclear weapons development.  Alarmed, the international community imposed increasingly severe economic sanctions on Iran.  Eventually, the Iranian government agreed to negotiate. 

            The 2015 international agreement limited Iran to possessing 660 pounds of U-235 enriched to 3.67 percent and required the shut-down of many of its centrifuges.  In return, Iran won removal of some—but not all—of the international economic sanctions.  Many other issues regarding Iran’s foreign and military policy were set aside for further negotiations.  Many economic sanctions were retained as leverage for these proposed future talks. 

            President Donald Trump soon abandoned the 2015 agreement and plastered Iran with sanctions.  Iran then began moving away from compliance with the 2015 agreement.[3]  Iran increased its supply of U-235 that had been enriched to 3.67 percent; enriched some of its U-235 to 20 percent; restarted some its centrifuges; and blocked international inspectors from some of their agreed work.  According to a February 2021 report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran now possesses ten times the amount of enriched U-235 allowed under the agreement.  If processed into weapons-grade material, that would be enough for three nuclear weapons.  In addition, Iran has “largely ignored” an agreement on missiles and has allowed an agreement to expire that permits the security cameras to view Iran’s nuclear fuel.[4] 

            There are several ways of interpreting the series of measures taken by Iran.  One way is to see it as slicing the salami, seeing exactly what it can get away with without provoking an attack.  Another way is to see it as a slow ratcheting up of pressure to both force a revival of the 2015 agreement and to improve Iran’s position in negotiations. 

            In the nature of the production process, holding down both the amount of enriched U-235 and the number of centrifuges are key.  In mid-April 2021, Israel caused a major “mishap” at the centrifuge facility at Natanz.  Perhaps several thousand centrifuges were destroyed. 


[1] Rick Gladstone, William J. Broad, and Michael Crowley, “Iran Says It Won’t Make Bombs, But It May Be Inching Closer,” NYT, 18 April 2021. 

[2] Thus it would take 500 centrifuges to move from 20 percent enrichment to 60 percent enrichment, and 600 centrifuges to move from 60 percent to 90 percent enrichment. 

[3] As American bombing in Vietnam showed, this latter strategy doesn’t always work.

[4] David E. Sanger, “On Iran, Biden Walks a Tightrope Between Force and Diplomacy,” NYT, 29 June 2021. 

The Iran Problem.

            For decades, Shi’ite Iran pursued nuclear weapons, developed ballistic missiles, and supported terrorists around the Middle East as proxies in its war with Sunni Muslims.  With the American people clearly wary of any new war in the Middle East, President Barack Obama’s administration negotiated a multi-national agreement with Iran on part of these issues.  In return for relief from some of the painful international economic sanctions, Iran agreed to limits on its nuclear weapons development program for a limited time.[1]  President Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned the agreement.[2]  Both Iran and the Democrats bitterly criticized Trump’s action.  The election of President Joe Biden, then, seemed to promise a ready return to the agreement by both parties.  Nevertheless, difficulties arose in completing this restoration.[3] 

            For one thing, Iran’s government now wants more than it got from the Obama administration.  It wants more sanctions relief to allow it access to international financial services.  It wants to keep the nuclear-fuel production capacity it built up after President Trump abandoned the agreement.  To increase pressure on the Americans, it announced that it would raise the cap on enriching uranium from 3.67 percent to 60 percent, cutting the time needed to produce nuclear weapons if talks broke down. 

            For another thing, the United States government now wants more than it got from the Obama administration.  It wants immediate agreement to limits on Iran’s ballistic missiles and its support for proxy terrorism.  Furthermore, the United States wants to push out the duration of the agreement to prevent Iran from building a weapon for much longer than the original agreement.[4] 

            For yet another thing, Israel sees Iran’s government as a deadly enemy.  It sees the nuclear weapons program, the ballistic missiles, and the regime’s constant denunciations of Israel as warnings of a new Holocaust.  Israel has done everything it can—short of a bombing campaign conducted in co-operation with a nearly-as-skittish Saudi Arabia—to slow down Iran’s weapons programs.  Israeli intelligence purports to believe that Iran is much closer to making a weapon than do Americans.  The Israelis disliked the original deal, will really dislike any softer deal, and may see a no-deal as lighting a fuse. 

            The Iranian regime that negotiated the agreement with the Obama administration[5] has passed its sell-by date.  The Biden administration’s negotiations  took place under the shadow of a looming Iranian election likely to be won by “hard-liners”[6] who had criticized the original agreement.  In fact, this is what happened.  In contrast, the recent Israeli elections changed nothing except the prime minister. 


[1] I supported the agreement then and support it now.  That doesn’t mean that the critics of the agreement didn’t have valid points.  It’s just a case of “half a loaf is better than none” when the alternative is to start bombing. 

[2] His administration either re-imposed or created new sanctions for a total of 1,500. 

[3] Steven Erlanger and David E. Sanger, “Two Nations Divided By a Common Goal,” NYT, 10 May 2021. 

[4] Since these seem to have been the major Republican complaints about the original agreement, it would appear that we are actually experiencing Donald Trump’s second term, just without the egregious personal behavior.  See also: China policy, North Korea policy, Afghanistan policy, illegal immigration policy. 

[5] President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. 

[6] “Hard liners” is a term from the Soviet-American Cold War.  American observers often conjectured that a struggle took place within the Kremlin between “hard-liners” and “soft-liners” or “moderates.”  For a time, British diplomats applied the same sort of analysis to understanding the pre-war Nazi regime.  At least in the latter case, the distinction between “hard-liners” and “moderates” was purely wishful thinking.  Probably an example of projection. 

What is not said.

            Wealth and income inequality have become a much-discussed issue in American politics.  Democrats emphasize the injustice and aesthetics of recent income and wealth inequality.  Narrowing that gap has become a primary concern for many Democrats.  One way to achieve this is to increase what Europeans call “social provision” of services and money to lower income groups.  The “human infrastructure” component of their plans call for government spending on child-care, universal pre-K, free community college, and expanded spending on health-care.  Once created, such entitlements do not go away.  They only expand. 

A second way is to substantially raise taxes on both the income and the underlying assets of the wealthy.  The maximalist version of the current infrastructure bill nicely illustrates this double policy.  As one New York Times reporter puts it: they “see a rare opportunity to harness the political popularity of infrastructure spending to achieve their long held policy of raising taxes on the rich.”  Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), chairman of the Finance Committee, puts it succinctly: “What we’re doing is generating revenue, but we are also making a major area of American government more fair, so people don’t feel they’ve been played while the rich person gets off scot-free.”[1]  In sum, the Democrats have long desired to tax the rich and they think that they have finally found a winning justification. 

The tax proposals chiefly target corporations, the fossil fuels industry, and wealthy individuals.  First, the tax on corporations would rise from the current 21 percent, the “small business” tax break for certain partnerships and limited liability companies (LLCs) would end, and so would a provision that taxes the fees of private equity firms as capital gain rather than as income.  The tax breaks currently allowed to fossil fuel companies would be redirected to benefit “clean energy” companies.  The top tax rate on individuals would rise from 37 percent to 39.6 percent, and the tax on capital gains for those earning more than $1 million a year would rise from 20 percent to 39.6 percent.  It is hoped that such measures would generate $2.5 trillion in revenue over ten years. 

One thing that is not discussed is alternative uses for the increased tax revenue.  Over the last 20 years, the real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the United States has slightly more than doubled.[2]  Over the same period, the national debt has risen from about $6 trillion to about $27 trillion.[3]  That is, it has more than quadrupled.  From 2016 to 2020, the national debt increased from 106.6 percent of GDP to 127 percent of GDP.  This has taken place in an environment of near-zero interest rates.  If interest rates had to rise to counter either a serious inflationary surge or speculative bubbles, then the cost of that debt would rise as a share of the budget. 

Suggesting that the increased revenue go to reducing the debt to a more manageable size would be met with hoots of derision.  No one is going to want to pay for benefits that their predecessors received, but for which they refused to pay.  Herein lies the lesson. 


[1] Both quotes are from Jonathan Weisman, “Bipartisan Infrastructure Talks Collide With Democrats’ Goal to Tax Rich,” NYT, 21 June 2021.  Conservatives would contest the “scot-free” designation.  In their view, the top 10 percent of income earners paid 71,7 percent of federal income tax on adjusted gross income, while the bottom 50 percent of income earners paid 2.94 percent of the federal income tax on adjusted gross income.  See “Letters to the Editor,” WSJ, 26-27 June 2021.  As my beloved sister-in-law said when asked to define “fair”: “more, a lot more.” 

[2] See: https://www.statista.com/statistics/188105/annual-gdp-of-the-united-states-since-1990/ 

[3] See: https://fiscaldata.treasury.gov/datasets/historical-debt-outstanding/historical-debt-outstanding