The Asian Century 6 18 July 2019.

Normally, China pursues a policy of self-regarding isolationism.  Britain’s “McCartney Embassy” of 1793 offers a good example.[1]  “Sometimes you’re the windshield; sometimes you’re the bug.”[2]  Occasionally, however, China abandons isolation for engagement with the outer world.  Neither isolation nor engagement offers China an un-mixed blessing.

Take the late 19th Century, for example.  China’s defeats in the Opium Wars led to the infiltration of Christian missionaries into much of the “Heavenly Kingdom.”  Many of Western ideas expounded by the missionaries clashed with widely shared Chinese beliefs and social relationships.  The Chinese proved much like Will Rogers’ minister preaching on sin: “He was agin it.”  Hostility to the enforced contact with the outside world boiled over between 1899 and 1901 in the so-called “Boxer Rebellion.”[3]  Widespread attacks on foreigners and a long siege of the foreign embassies in Beijing resulted in a multi-national invasion.  Western victory over China in the war that followed did not make China more Western.

A century of turmoil in Asia followed.[4]  By the first decade of the 21st Century, once-Marxist China had embarked upon the process of becoming a capitalist behemoth.  This required a renewed encounter with the West and its beliefs.  Chinese students, experts, and exports went abroad; Western investment, experts, and imports came in.  It proved to be a remarkable period of “opening.”

Since the 1990s, in what amounts to a new Boxer Rebellion, the Communist Party has begun to slam the brakes on certain kinds of contact with the outside world and on sources of dissent.  There are about a million Muslims in “vocational schools,” political activism outside the Communist Party is repressed, and a “Great Firewall of China” censors the flow of information and ideas.[5]

The government censors blacklist and block access to sites like Google, foreign social media, and news publications.  At the same time, the pull of the China market is so great that foreign technology companies may accommodate the government’s demands.  The censors also keep watch on China’s own social media platforms because these have a much greater potential to facilitate political activism of the sort that produced Egypt’s Tahrir Square movement.

China’s economic transformation has wreaked havoc with economies and political systems in many countries.[6]  Now it’s “techno-authoritarianism” may serve as a model for aspiring tyrants elsewhere.

There is a rationality to this effort that escapes many Westerners.  China’s economic transformation has been faster and deeper than the equivalent experiences of Western countries.  Much about the experience has been disturbing, even traumatic, for many ordinary Chinese.  The potential for massive unrest in response to that dissatisfaction could overthrow Party leadership and derail China’s transformation.  In case it isn’t obvious, that’s an explanation, not a defense.

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macartney_Embassy

[2] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_rbjg2k6cI

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boxer_Rebellion#Causes_of_conflict_and_unrest

[4] OK, that’s something of an understatement.

[5] James Griffiths, The Great Firewall of China (2019).

[6] See: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2019/07/15/the-asian-century-3-15-july-2019/

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My Weekly Reader 20 June 2019.

If you don’t like the Donald Trump Presidency, then there are some questions you need to address.  First, is Trump what the Brits call a “one off,” or is he the leading edge of a new wave in American politics?[1]  Second, what led to Trump’s election?  No, it wasn’t the Russians.  No, it wasn’t Hillary Clinton’s incompetence as a politician.  Both are real, but the decisive factors lay elsewhere.  On the one hand, Donald Trump decided to target the grievances of white, working-class men.  On the other hand, Donald Trump decided to run as a Republican, rather than in his natural home as a Democrat.  Like “Bud” White, “he’s not as stupid as he seems.”

The grievances of white working-class men are real.  Once upon a time, they were the mainstays of the “New Deal Coalition” that put Democrats into the White House from 1932 to 1952, from 1960 to 1968, and from 1976 to 1980, along with various majorities in Congress.  Unionized working-class jobs gave blue-collar workers middle-class incomes.  Then they fell by the wayside for complex reasons: mostly mechanization, but also the two successive oil “shocks” of the 1970s, organized labor’s attack on struggling employers in the 1970s, foreign competition, and ideological shifts in the two major parties.  Then, in the 1990s, China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) under favorable terms compounded the problems of American industry.

As a result, men’s industrial employment declined, new jobs shifted to other geographic areas;[2] new jobs required “college” rather than “vocational” education; and the social world of the “left behind” disintegrated (single motherhood, alcohol and drug use, general demoralization).[3]

No one in either party had bothered to address those grievances.  The suburban base of the Republicans lives in blue oxford-cloth shirts and Dockers (or the female equivalent).  The Democrats have embraced “identity politics,” which excludes the identity of the white working class.  These are “post-industrial” societies.

As a result Trump’s campaign could drag into the ranks of the Republicans a bunch of normally Democratic voters or non-voters.  The opened the possibility of a Republican presidential victory that must have seemed far-fetched if any of the other munchkins running for the nomination won in the primaries.  Republicans lined up behind Trump and they will do so again in 2020.  They get to pack the federal courts for the lifetime of the appointees.  They get to stall and roll-back the imperial decrees of Barack Obama.

Are we—as a country—better for it?

[1] That’s a disturbing thought.  In twenty years we could be talking about John Carpenter’s “Trump Tower: Power Outage.”  In 2025, radical environmentalists (but I repeat myself) sabotage the federally-mandated coal-fired generating plants that power New York City.  Suddenly, the nightlight of the city-that-never-sleeps go dark.  The elevators (and escalators) and AC and cable-television stop working.  Chaos breaks out in the streets below, but atop Trump Tower a “celebrity roast” of former members of the Trump Administration is underway.  Comments by Jim Mattis, Reince Priebus, H.R. McMaster, Hope Hicks, Sarah Saunders, Jim Comey, Jeff Sessions, Rex Tillerson, Nancy Pelosi, Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, etc.  I suppose the deranged killer haunting Trump Tower could wear a Robert Mueller hockey mask.

[2] Try selling your house if you live in Erie, PA.

[3] See: Isabel Sawhill, The Forgotten Americans (2019) and Oren Cass, The Once and Future Worker (2019).  If this is what happened to white Americans, then what are we to make of the impact of “liberal paternalism” on African-Americans since the 1960s?

My Weekly Reader C 19 June 2019.

Why does any of this historical background matter?  It matters, first, because—in these contested times—I have to insist that Belief Systems evolve in response to changing conditions.  For two centuries and more now, Liberalism, Conservatism, and Socialism have all had to make their peace with Reality.[1]  It matters, second, because I’m getting fed-up with people who spout off their “smarmy, silly, half-baked opinions”[2] without any historical context.

Nineteenth-Century Liberals didn’t like Democracy.  In their minds, the “common man” wasn’t capable of dealing with the complexities of modern life.  If all men got the vote, then a horde of ignorant, selfish, short-sighted, and grasping voters would be led around by a ring through their nose.  They would vote for stupid people and stupid things in hopes of making their own lives materially better over the short-run.[3]  To a historian, this amounts to the Leninist criticism of labor unions: dumb-ass working people will prefer higher pay and shorter hours to Revolution.[4]  (Historical events have demonstrated that Lenin foresaw things accurately.)

Scholarly investigations by psychologists recently have added to our understanding of democratic choice.  One of the most important of these observers has been Cass Sunstein.[5]  His book Nudge[6] argued that people suffer from cognitive biases and mis-perceptions that inhibit the “rational choice” beloved of economists.  As a result, individuals often make choices that re not in their material best interests.  Moreover, people are effort-economizers.  They will choose the easiest thing at any given moment.[7]  Sunstein and Thaler proposed requiring people to “opt-out,” rather than “opt-in” to things like retirement savings plans, and that people who failed to choose a health plan should be assigned to the best available.  It’s easy to see how such an approach might be generalized.

What if the duty of the liberal state today is to liberate people from making errors?  People often do stupid things, either out of a lack of information, or bias, or lacking the time to study complex issues, or stupidity (d’uh).  Should the liberal state seek to “guide” choices in critical areas?

If the answer is yes, then who determines the “best” choice?  Bureaucratic and academic experts?  Once upon a time, eugenics had wide support upon educated people.  Today, the majority of Alabama voters oppose abortion on virtually any grounds.  Today the New York State legislature has approved a plan to oppose climate change.  All are examples of experts going nuts.  Then, what happens if people defy the approved “best” choice?

If the answer is yes, then where do we draw the line?   Donald Trump is, to my mind, plainly unfit to be president of the United States.  However, he won enough votes in the Electoral College to become president.  Should expert opinion over-ride the constitutional system?  If so, who controls entry into ranks of “expert opinion”?

[1] Whereas, Soviet Communism did not.  RIP.  Well, actually, Roast in Hell.

[2] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9hkhKVq5rM&t=10s

[3] See: anything at all in the NYT since November 2016.

[4] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o_5bH-MLblE

[5] On Sunstein, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cass_Sunstein  See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Kahneman on the underlying research in psychology.

[6] Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (2008).

[7] For example, racial prejudice is what might be called a “heuristic device.”  Saves time and thought.  Alas.

My Weekly Reader B 19 June 2019.

What “gave” first was Nineteenth Century Liberalism.  First, the sudden advance of modern science and medicine after 1850 explained a host of public health problems in a new way.  These discoveries compelled liberals to accept a huge—for them—expansion in the role of government to address the problems of cities: sewers, clean water supplies, public baths, street cleaning, streetlights, mass transportation, and a police force.  Then came interference in the labor market through the regulation of hours and working conditions.  Then they accepted democracy in the form of votes for adult males.  Then they accepted universal, compulsory, and free primary education.  Then came higher taxes, focused at first on the very wealthy to pay for these new services and functions—and for the public employees who made them work.  The goal here lay not in expanding government power for its own sake, but in using government in a positive way to create environments in which the Individual could fully achieve his/her potential.[1]  This wasn’t just a Liberalism that broke down previous barriers to Individual achievement.  It was an adaptive Liberalism that broke down the established barriers to Individual achievement created by the effects of previous Liberal reforms and difficult social changes.[2]

Then came the immense crisis of the first half of the Twentieth Century: two world wars and the Great Depression.  The First World War introduced economic planning, conscription both for the military and for industrial work, an end to free trade, the beginning of “managing” the money supply, and passports to control the movements of individuals.  The Twenties saw capitalist experiments with a managed and planned economy.  The Great Depression made governmental control of macro-economic processes a “normal” thing.[3]  How to maintain full employment amidst price stability?  Keynesian “demand management,” that’s how.  Government spends to take up the slack in business-cycle capitalism.[4]  The Second World War’s financing showed how to do this in peacetime as well.

It didn’t stop there.  Liberalism shifted it gaze to breaking down the barriers—Beliefs and Behaviors–that stopped Individuals in marginalized groups from reaching their potential.  The “Warren Court” attacked the oppression of Individuals by government at all levels and in all forms: racial discrimination and “Jim Crow” laws; sexism and “privacy” (contraception); censorship; policing (Miranda, etc.); housing conventions that barred property sales to African-Americans and Jews; and abortion.

Did “Liberalism” over-reach?  Perhaps.  Only time will tell and all political prognostications (i.e. consulting the gizzards of dead animals) are without value.  (Sad day for the op-ed writers, No?)  The current anti-liberal argument would be that modern Liberalism has embraced “identity politics” (i.e. privilege), “statism” (i.e. executive branch decrees and rule making), and the suppression of free speech (i.e. “name and shame” campaigns).  “Ah dunno.”

[1] For English Liberalism, one key author here is T.H. Green (1836-1882).  I read one of his books in Matt Temmel’s class on English history at the University of Washington.  Didn’t understand a word of it.  Rediscovered Green later.

[2] OK, “a fighting priest who can talk to the young.”

[3] See: Alan Brinkley, The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (1995).  Really good book.

[4] Great idea in a large sense, but—JMO—does that mean that capitalism loses some of the purgative effects that come with normal business slumps?  Do wages stay too high, do marginal businesses survive, do over-investment and poor choices go un-punished?

The New Russia Investigation The Usual Suspects 13 June 2019.

Paul Manafort.

During the Cold War, the United States applied the Roosevelt Standard to foreign rulers: “He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch.”  Paul Manafort made a very good living by helping improve the image of some very bad people.  He represented Jonas Savimbi, Ferdinand Marcos, and Joseph Mobutu in the corridors of power.  All of this activity aligned with American foreign policy.  Then the Cold War ended.  Suddenly, the “sons-of-bitches” had to swim for it.  So did Manafort.  He found an apparent new gold-mine in working with the post-Soviet Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska.  Much of this work focused on Ukraine.

Ukraine had escaped from the Soviet Union upon the collapse of the evil empire.  However, old antipathies and affinities survived in the new country.  Basically, the farther west you go, the more Russophobe the people become[1] and the farther east you go the more Russophile the people become.  From 2004 to 2010, Manafort found work trying to improve the political chances of the Russophile presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovitch.  It should have been obvious that this work aligned with post-Soviet Russian foreign policy.  Reportedly, sometime between 2006 and 2009, the American Ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor, told Manafort that he was working against the interests of the United States.  Apparently, Manafort did not heed this warning.[2]  In 2010, Yanukovitch won the presidency in an election judged fair by international observers.[3]  In 2014 he aroused massive opposition among the Russophobes by reversing course on an application to join the European Union.  He certainly did this at the behest of Vladimir Putin.  Soon, Yanukovitch was both out of office and out of Ukraine.  According to one account, the FBI then opened a criminal investigation of Paul Manafort.[4]  It was still running when the FBI began its investigation of suspected conspiracy between the Russians and the Trump campaign in Summer 2016.

What did the FBI investigation launched in 2014 discover?  Did it discover that Manafort had scored big-time, but hadn’t reported his earnings to the IRS?[5]

Michael Flynn.

Michael Flynn had an impressive career in military intelligence during the “Global War on Terror.”  In April 2012, his ascent peaked when President Obama nominated him to lead the Defense Intelligence Agency.  Two years later, Flynn announced his retirement.   Normally, it seems, people get three years in that position, so he was leaving early.  Why?

On the one hand, there’s the whispering campaign.  It was “leaked” to the press that Flynn had a chaotic management style; he didn’t play well with others; he abused his staff; he wasn’t a team-player; and he had a loose grip on facts.  These seem like personality traits.  Nobody noticed them before while promoting him from Lieutenant to Lieutenant-General?  So I don’t think this is very credible.

On the other hand, there’s the counter-whispering campaign.  It has been suggested that Flynn repeatedly told the Obama White House that much of the opposition to Bashir al-Assad came from conservative-to-radical Muslims.  The “moderates” weren’t much present on the battlefield.  This seems to have contradicted the “narrative” preferred by the White House.  Eventually, the White House got fed up.

Then there’s this.  In February 2014, Flynn attended the “Cambridge Intelligence Seminar,”[6] run—in part–by Stefan Halper.  Reportedly, Halper found it alarming that Flynn seemed very close to a Russian woman who also attended the seminar.  Someone else shared these concerns with American “authorities.”[7]  The woman involved was Svetlana Lokhova.[8]  She denies that she spoke with Flynn for any extended period or that they had a personal relationship.  Did American authorities believe that Flynn had been caught in what John Le Carre novels call a “honey trap”?  The Director of the CIA at the time was John Brennan, subsequently an engaged participant in countering President Donald Trump’s allegations about the intelligence community.

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holodomor

[2] Why not?  Perhaps because he was making a lot of money and the American government wasn’t offering him an alternative income.  Perhaps because he was trying to get his guy elected president of a new democracy.  America is all about exporting democracy.  What’s more important, democracy or getting the American candidate elected?

[3] See: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/feb/08/viktor-yanukovych-ukraine-president-election

[4] See: https://www.newsweek.com/donald-trump-paul-manafort-michael-flynn-russia-robert-mueller-turkey-620215  One might be forgiven for wondering if the investigation was pay-back for Manafort having ignored Ambassador Taylor’s warning.  If it was pay-back, it soon hit pay-dirt.

[5] If so, then what—exactly—was Robert Mueller doing with his time for two years?  The Russian hacking information came from the NSA and pretty damn quick at that.  Carter Page and George Papadopoulos were low-hanging fruit easily plucked.

[6] On the larger framework of the Seminar, see: https://thecsi.org.uk/  NB: The reported views of Sir Richard Dearlove are interesting.  For a recent iteration of the Seminar, see: https://www.hist.cam.ac.uk/seminars/intelligence

[7] See: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/18/us/politics/trump-fbi-informant-russia-investigation.html

[8] Her version of the encounter can be found at https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-39863781  See also: https://thefederalist.com/2019/05/28/lawsuit-suggests-spying-trump-campaign-started-early-2016/

Just typing out loud here 12 June 2019.

You challenged me on my enthusiasm for Joe Hill’s “Rebel Girl.”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e_tz3wPgLUw  Didn’t have a good response at the moment, but it got me thinking.  My mind works slower than do those of most people.  Hence the delay.

To my mind, the Democrats are generically anti-business.  Sure, they talk about income inequality and anti-monopoly and this, that, and another New Deals.  But what they mean to apply is an anti-business policy that will fall on all businesses, great and small.  Taxes.  Regulations by decree.  You never see Democrat candidates who have ever worked in/for a business.  You never see ones who have had their own business.  Barack Obama was a “community organizer.”   (George McGovern’s post-presidential experience is instructive here.)  They’ve all spent their lives as lawyers or “in public service.”  Public service is just another way of saying “public employment.”  You don’t get laid off in a recession and you get good benefits.  For following an elaborate set of rules.

They have a fantasy of returning to the Fifties: a few big industries that don’t have any global competition; high wages and good benefits achieved through government-sponsored union-bargaining; owners who inherited their wealth from their rough-and-ready ancestors who actually created it; and a horde of professional managers who deploy B-School-certified skills in return for a generous, but socially-acceptable, salary.  That—at best—is what the Democrats want to recreate.  Basically, Rudolf Hilferding seventy years on.   (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rudolf_Hilferding )

None of this has anything to do with contemporary reality.  It has been one, but only one, of the factors that have driven the American economy—and society—into the ground over the last fifty years.

Yes, there is a lot to criticize in Republican policies.  Mostly, to my mind, it is the starving/shrinking of the necessary regulatory functions of the Federal bureaucracy.  To take some examples: the IRS can’t audit; the FAA has shifted airline safety to the plane manufacturer (singular); the FDA can’t keep up with the companies trying to poison us for fun and profit.  Theodore Roosevelt theorized that only a strong government could mediate the conflicting demands of Capital and Labor.  Republicans are gutting the system projected by their second-greatest president.  The reduction of the corporation tax to international (i.e. Canada) norms seems to me a good idea.  All the tax cut-spend-elect stuff to counter Democrats’ tax-spend-elect stuff is wrong, but wrong for both parties.  And wrong for the American voters who gobbled it up.   Maybe “snorted” would be better?

As for “bigness,” see Ellis Hawley, The New Deal and the Problem of Monopoly.  Yes, we’ve been down this road before.

In the end, what I’m fighting for is my Dad and all the people like him.  He didn’t want to work for the government and he didn’t want to work for a giant business.  He had done both (Army, Shell Oil).  He just wanted his own show.  Win or lose, it was on him.   What’s wrong with that?  He provided a service that people wanted.  He paid his employees the best he could.  Wasn’t great money, but it was the same deal for them that he made.  They weren’t working for the government or big business.  There weren’t procedures to deal with.  Just people.  He and my Mom did a lot of unpaid work to make the business run.  I guess I don’t see much difference between my Dad and an artist: they’re both self-actualizing and creative.  Along the way, he put a roof over our head and food in our mouths and paid his taxes.  Some of those taxes went to pay for public competition with his private business.  Why?  Because not all high-school teachers wanted to coach, so some of them would rather work extra as driving instructors.  Teachers had a union, but private business did not.

 

American Opinion on Abortion 12 June 2019.

For a baseline, most Americans support Roe v. Wade.  To be clear, in that decision the Supreme Court of the United States (popularly SCOTUS) “ruled that during the first trimester, governments could not prohibit abortions at all; during the second trimester, governments could require reasonable health regulations; [and] during the third trimester, abortions could be prohibited entirely so long as the laws contained exceptions for cases when they were necessary to save the life or health of the mother.”[1]

Oddly for a democracy, many Americans don’t hold the same opinions on abortion as do their elected representatives.  Many people—both Democrats and Republicans—reject the maximalist positions of their parties.[2]  Some 40 percent of Democrats oppose abortion “for any reason” and some 29 percent of Republicans support abortion “for any reason.”  Better than a third (36 percent) of Hillary Clinton voters in 2016 opposed using Medicaid money to pay for abortions, and better than half (58 percent) of all Americans opposed using Medicaid money to pay for abortions.  Basically, that’s the Hyde Amendment, which Joe Biden has just repudiated.

Why have the two parties missed out on this reality?  Well, they haven’t missed out.  They just don’t care.  Take the abortion-uncertain Democrats as one example.  They are more rural, more Southern, more politically “moderate,” less-educated[3], and more religious than most Democrats.  Basically, they live in areas and represent demographic groups that Democrats know they can’t win anyway.  So, why concede anything to the dissenters?  The same is probably true of Republican dissenters.  They’re probably more urban, more Northern, more educated, less religious, and more “moderate” than most Republicans.  Republicans aren’t going to win these regions or groups anyway, so why concede to the dissenters?[4]

Then–and this will be creepy for liberal Democrats–African-American Democrats (but I repeat myself) split 50-50 on abortion “for any reason.”[5]  At the same, public opinion supports abortion when the child is the result of rape or incest, or when the pregnancy endangers to life of the mother, or when the child would be born with some defect (i.e. Down syndrome like my sister Bronwyn[6]).

Anyway, abortion-rights is for Democrats what gun-rights is for Republicans: the issue mobilizes one-issue true-believers.[7]  No fixing America this way.

[1] According to a Gallup Poll, 60 percent of people support abortion in the first three months of pregnancy.  That would be within about 12 weeks.  That is, once a woman has figured out that she is pregnant, and has had some time to figure out how she feels about being pregnant, and has thought about whether she can manage a child, and has figured out how she will feel about terminating a pregnancy.  Put that way, people opposing abortion in this framework are just an immense collection of assholes.  IMHOP.

[2] Nate Cohn, “Crisp Battle Lines on Abortion Blur When Surveys Ask Voters,” NYT, 9 June 2019.

[3] Think about this for a minute.  Democrats with less education are more moderate than Democrats in general, let alone Democrats with more education.  Could one argue that more-educated people—Democrat and Republican—are messing-up our country?

[4] See: Clayton Christenson on Disruption.  Start at the bottom and eat upward.

[5] If I recall correctly—always a tricky issue—African-Americans also oppose gay rights.

[6] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sQ_4m2ocxhI  “Go fuck yourself you fucking child!”

[7] In 2015, there were 13,286 firearm deaths, excluding suicides.  According to the Center for Disease Control, in 2015, there were 638,169 abortions.  Put this way, gun control advocates are dealing with the lesser of two evils.  For those people who think that life begins at conception, abortion is a rolling-Holocaust.  Forced to choose between a child molester and a child murderer, about half of Alabama Republicans sat out the election.