Exported and Armed Prohibition

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“Prohibition Repealed: New York Times, 5 December 1933” by cizauskas is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As a nation we seem to be baffled by the problems of drug-based criminality south of the border.  Why can’t those people live like us?  What makes us so superior?

For those questions it’s worth emphasizing that we used to have problems like that too.  Our problems were self-inflicted, but the phenomenon was similar.  Let’s talk about Prohibition.

Prohibition was a reactionary revolt much like what we’ve got with the Christian right today.   The heartland was able to stick it to the godless, immigrant-infested cities.  No more alcohol to corrupt our body fluids.

That repressive crusade was just too overarching to succeed.  It resulted in an immense network of criminality to meet demand.  Criminality pervaded every corner of the country, and the kingpins captured the news daily.  It could and did happen here.

Let’s compare with the situation in Latin American.  North of the border there is vast money to be made with illegal drugs, and the resources available to stop it are ludicrous by comparison.  Big surprise they’ve got a problem.  We have drug problems too, but we also have resources of the US.

What kind of help do they get?  They can’t even get us to slow down the sale of military-grade weapons underpinning the drug wars.

It’s like the wall.  Let’s just keep problems out.  We’ve exported and armed Prohibition.

The World We’re Making

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“STATUE OF LIBERTY” by airlines470 licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The first Democratic debate began with a question to Warren about the economy: “Since most Americans think the economy is doing fine, why do you need all those plans for change?”  She responded by pointing out that the “great” economy was primarily benefiting only a lucky few.

Even that, however, understates the issue.  It’s not just that unemployment rates don’t tell the whole story about what it means to be working for a living.  It’s that there is so much run amok with the direction of the country that the unemployment rate doesn’t begin to stand-in for the strength of the economy or the well-being of the country overall.

For that we need to pull together many strands and formulate a picture what it would mean to have four more years of Trump—the kind of world we are making.  This note attempts to make a start.  We can be explicit about many things.  Our decline from the confident image of the Statue of Liberty was clear from early on, but now we have more specifics.  We should leave no doubt about the risks we run.

In doing this, one goal is to avoid what I felt was a problem with the Clinton campaign.  Trump kept talking about change, but we didn’t get across the danger in those changes: what they would mean for ordinary daily life, for the environment, for the courts, for democracy in America.  Who’s to say if that would have made a difference, but many people were certainly surprised by what they got.  If nothing else, it would have called out the risk of non-voting.

What follows is an outline with a few supporting points and references.  As noted this is a start.

  1. Climate change continues unabated

More unprecedented floods, hurricanes, temperatures, etc.

By leaving the Paris agreement we broke the international unanimity that was the best chance for progress.

               Each lost year is time we won’t get back

  1. Back to the 19th century on woman’s rights

Roes vs Wade hangs by the thread of Roberts’ desire for Court legitimacy.

One more Supreme Court vacancy, and we all live in Alabama.

  1. Loss of American technological superiority

Disdain for science and technology in government

Non-support of research and education

Ignoring climate change technologies

Choosing big, established companies over innovators (Net Neutrality)

Xenophobia and racism encourage entrepreneurs to go elsewhere

=> Lower standard of living

=> Real threat to our military security

  1. Erosion of opportunities for middle class life

Education—weakening of public education and more generations in debt

Attacks on unions

Healthcare at issue—ACA hobbled with no other proposal in view

Continued declines in good jobs for people without degrees

No recognition of the problems created by technology change

Cutting the safety net—If you don’t succeed you’re a loser

  1. Nuclear proliferation and risk of nuclear terrorism

Encouraging nuclear proliferation by statements and actions (N. Korea vs Iran)

More players means more chance of theft or sale

Belligerence normalizes nuclear weapons

  1. A population divided against itself

Conflicts stoked between races, ethnic groups, cultures

No interest in racial justice—to the detriment of all

Cruel and intentionally divisive Immigration policy

  1. A world filled with senseless conflict

Major hit to both security and prosperity

Trade wars instead of alliances and international norms

New arms race already announced

Policy rooted in weakness—from fighting on all fronts

Conflict as the first choice— “Trade wars are easy.”

Other wars too?

  1. Weakened environmental and other standards

Air and water

Workplace safety

Food safety

  1. Bubble economy based on debt

Good times prolonged by deficit-funded stimulus

Proven recipe for cycles of boom and bust (back to the 19th century here too)

No Republican history of help during downturns

  1. Undermining of democracy in the US

Increasing government by fiat (“executive order”)

Restriction of voting rights

Politicization of the Justice Department

=> Democracy is not a luxury—it made us what we are.

 

Weakness and Strength

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“King of Hearts” by Duong Vu licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

We’ve talked here before about effects of bullying.  This time we want to be even more basic—weakness and strength.

If you want to get something done, it’s important to get others behind you.   In almost any task or context, few people are able simply to impose their will.  Building alliances is the means to power—for individuals and for countries.

There was a time after the second world war when the US, as last unscathed power, could do whatever it wanted.  That’s of course the era Trump recalls with MAGA.  But we’re no longer in that world, and we do ourselves no favor by pretending it’s still true.

Krugman had a recent NYTimes piece talking about the limits to our power in the trade wars.  However to my mind he didn’t go far enough with his argument.  It’s true that our power is limited, but we also refuse to think seriously about how to get things done.

China is of course the case in point.  Despite Trump’s initial declaration that “trade wars are easy”, this one has been up and down for many months with constant chest-beating and accusations of evil.  There is still no clear idea of the timetable or eventual conclusion.  One thing that is certainly true is that there is already a legacy of hostility and suspicion on both sides—with consequences that will survive any deal.

That situation is not a fact of life, it’s a fact of weakness.  We represent 18% of China exports, and by going it alone that’s all the leverage we’ve got.  The EU represents another 18% with essentially the same grievances.  Normal behavior is to ally our interests and get to the conclusion with overwhelming power.  The Business Roundtable of Corporate CEO’s recognized that from the beginning.   However, Trump wanted a special deal with his name on it, so he chose weakness instead of strength—leaving us all to live with it.

We can even go a step farther.  As a way of exercising power, international institutions are actually useful for this kind of problem.  That’s why, despite the “threats to our sovereignty” rhetoric, those institutions exist.

China is still classified as a developing country for the WTO. Everyone expected that to change, with new rules to be negotiated. That is where the US + EU leverage would normally be brought to bear.

And negotiation in that context has two more advantages:

1. First the negotiation becomes a matter of standards for international behavior, not a question of national honor. That keeps the focus on technical issues rather than face-saving.

2. It requires us to separate what are real matters for rules of commerce (open markets, intellectual property, conditions for labor) from whatever barriers we might want to place in the way of Chinese technological development.

That may sound like a limitation, but it is actually an advantage.  It makes us think about competition for what it is, rather than as something we can cure with a big stick.  There is plenty that we’re not doing to strengthen our own act.

The bottom line here is simple.  We have chosen to fight a trade war with China out of weakness.  That weakness has already had consequences in terms of relations between countries and will also be expressed in the terms of any final agreement.

We can be explicit about what that means.  We have chosen a path that will lead to less access to the Chinese market (already the biggest economy in the world) and more hostility between countries.  On that second point we have already announced a new arms race—which will cost both countries (and the rest of the world economy) dearly.

None of this has to be.   It’s weakness instead of strength.