For Sanity on North Korea

This note is in part a response to an article in yesterday’s New York Times pointing out correctly that no one understands what the North Koreans are after.

What is most disturbing about the current situation is that no one seems to be trying to find out.  Two things, however, are clear:

  1. Kim Jong-un is trying very hard to provoke a hysterical response from the US.
  2. We are doing an excellent job of giving him exactly the response he wants.

So the conclusion is that he wants something from us.  Based on past behavior of the North Koreans, it can even be that he wants money (and security to spend it).  There is nothing in Kim’s past that says that he is either suicidal or stupid.  He is undoubtedly happy with our behavior thus far, since he can assume we’re too scared to walk away from the bargaining table.

So we should stop playing his game and cool it.  And above all let’s find out he wants and deal with it.  He gains nothing by an actual attack.  His bargaining position is based 100% on our hysteria.  The longer we postpone this, the better for him.

In the current situation any military action by the US is an unjustifiable atrocity.

The Phony Issue of Globalization

Globalization as a phenomenon is irrefutable.   The world continues to become more interconnected by any measure you can think of.  National economies are so interdependent that it’s hard to untangle the threads.

Globalization as an issue is something else.   There is a long list of globalization problems:  it picks winners and losers economically, it makes some people feel like the country has changed out from under them, it destroys the sense of community.

The trouble is that globalization is responsible for essentially none of that.  Our real problem with globalization is how much we can blame on it.

Let’s start with jobs.  We begin with a frequently-cited quote from Harvard economist Lawrence Katz on automation versus globalization for jobs:  “Over the long haul, clearly automation’s been much more important–it’s not even close.”  That gets us part of the way there.  It’s not primarily globalization.  As many studies have shown, Trump’s core supporters lost their good union jobs for many reasons, not just globalization.

However, that’s history.   What matters is now, and the jobs story gets more lopsided all the time.  For today, one can say unequivocally that no set of tariffs is going to bring back those good union jobs.   And the future looks worse.  Self-driving cars and machine translation are key indicators of where things are going.   One article about Artificial Intelligence puts it this way: “the A.I. products that now exist are improving faster than most people realize and promise to radically transform our world, not always for the better …  they will reshape what work means and how wealth is created, leading to unprecedented economic inequalities and even altering the global balance of power.”

There is a growing jobs problem, and it’s not globalization.  We’re moving ever faster into a two-tiered society with participants and (increasingly many) non-participants in the technology-driven economy.  But we would rather futz around with NAFTA, because apparently that plays better.   By continuing to blame globalization as the jobs problem, we end up doing crazy things.  We’re actually skimping on education and research!  One thing we really can do for Trump’s core is make sure their kids have futures, but we’re not even trying.  Instead we’ve got a budget plan that vilifies the unemployed without any notion of what jobs are waiting for them.

That’s jobs.  What about alienation, feeling the country has been overrun with immigrants?  Is that really globalization?  There’s a key to that one too:  no one is talking about Swedes and Germans.   It’s Mexicans and—whether we want to admit it or not—blacks.  Just about any study of the last election talks about the importance of race.   “Immigrants” is a keyword; race was always part of it.  Violence after the election was immediately directed against blacks.  With Obama as President, the Republican party has been deliberately stoking racism for years.  Trump just whipped it up into something more obviously ugly.  Globalization is a smoke screen for deliberately-provoked racial hatred.

How about community?  We now have a whole media wing promoting the idea that cultures can’t mix:  Trump’s Mexican rapists and Bannon’s calls for holy war are just starters.  We’ve always had that sort of stuff in this country (Jews, Italians, Irish…), but we’ve always emerged better for what had been vilified.  Human beings have a built-in fear of strangers.   As they get to know each other they tend to get along.   But they can be whipped into a frenzy by demagogues who choose to exploit that fear for their own advantage.  Trump is certainly not the first to ride scapegoating to power.   Globalization is a convenient bogey man.

So globalization itself is not the issue.  What we really have in this country (and elsewhere)  is demagoguery–self-serving lies under the flag of fighting globalization. And the lies are damaging, as they undermine both national competitiveness and individual well-being.

There are no simple solutions, particularly now that so much has entered the legitimized mainstream.  But there is still a good use for “globalization”–the next time you hear that that disadvantaged workers need the government to fight globalization, you know exactly who’s looking to win!

The President of China

There has been a lot of talk recently about China’s growing presence on the world stage and how the US as predominant power should react to it.  With that in mind we go to China, just outside the Forbidden City, where the Chinese are planning their strategy…

Xi Jinping: There are many factors we need to consider, economic and political.  Today we are an economic servant to the West, building their iPhones and other toys.  We need to learn to take their place.

Planner: The Americans have many advantages.  They have excellent universities and their pick of talent from all over the world.  They have an interlocking system of university, government, and private research labs.  It’s hard enough to catch up, much less to lead.

Xi: We have to go step by step.  I’ve heard that many of their new companies are led by foreigners.  We can cut into that and certainly lure our own people home–a little xenophobia would help.   As for education and research, we know that government money is critical both in government labs and in the universities.  We have to find a way to slow down that money and then duplicate their system here.

Planner: Sounds like a lot of work, but we’ll start on it.  They’ve been working for decades to get where they are.

Xi: We need to get more specific now.  What are the lead technologies we can use to establish our dominance?

Planner: It’s hard to answer that question.  Software is always there; the particular new twist seems to be Artifical Intelligence.  That ties in with robotics.  Biotech.  Probably the biggest thing is energy–climate change means the whole world will have to convert.

Xi: The Americans are big players in all of those, but progress is very international.  If we can get them to isolate their people we can win.  Energy is too big–we need to limit their role.

Planner: They were a driving force behind the Paris Climate Agreement.  Maybe we can sabotage that.

Xi: Great.  Good first step!

Xi: The next subject is politics.  The Americans have been leading the so-called ‘free world’ forever.  Everybody works with them; no country wants to be left out.  All major international agreements of any kind go through them.  They’ve done very well that way–they are the richest, most dominant country in the world.  Our economy is tiny compared to theirs–how can we match their influence?

Planner: The only way I can think of is to get them just to quit. Get out of our way so we can take over.

Xi: I don’t understand.

Planner: It seems that over the years the Americans have come to believe their own propaganda–that all of their international agreements and institutions were setup out of pure beneficence!  Nothing to do with remaining the richest, most dominant country in the world.  They even think that about foreign aid.

Xi: You’ve got to be kidding.  No one else thinks that.

Planner: All we’ve got to do is push them over the brink:  No international institutions, no foreign aid–all unaffordable charity and a foreign plot.

Xi: You really think you can pull that off??

Planner: Well, just a minute.  We need some kind of slogan.  Something catchy…

Planner: I’ve got it!!  AMERICA FIRST.

Xi: Welcome to the Chinese Century.


Terrorist in Chief

What is most remarkable about Trump’s speech exiting the Paris Climate agreement is what he doesn’t say.

There is no actual denial of climate science or of the consequences of doing nothing.  And there is no alternative proposal to address any of it.

Instead there is a bunch of economic nonsense from National Economic Research Associates–who specialize in producing alarmist numbers for the coal industry–and some elaborate misinformation about asserted unfairness of an agreement that was negotiated over years with pluses and minuses for everyone.  (When he ends by talking about “other countries laughing at us”, it’s hard not to think of the Saudis after they snookered him with their sword show and got everything they wanted with no concessions in return.)

Basically all he says is that he is entitled to ignore all consequences of climate change for this country and every other country in the world in order to make good on a campaign promise to the coal industry (it remains to be seen if miners will benefit).   He can’t claim ignorance of the consequences for the earth and the US economy, because he received clear indications of what he was doing from an astonishing collection of major business groups throughout the country.

On that basis Donald Trump stands to be responsible for more death and damage than all other terrorist groups combined.

So Trump has finally earned one of his superlatives–he is Terrorist in Chief.

Our Russian Affair

Once again it seems that the media has chosen to downplay a really important and dangerous issue, i.e. the risks of our current love affair with Vladimir Putin.

The scariest thing about it is that despite the seriousness of Russian efforts to influence the election, the articles treat Putin’s objectives as something obvious that we understand–he didn’t like Clinton and thought it would be easier to work with a businessman like Trump.  All of that is just supposition.  In fact, the single most important thing to know is the extent of Trump’s business dealing with Russia, and that issue unaccountably appears to be dead.   The actual bottom line for the Russian affair is that there is NO real understanding of Putin’s objectives OR the leverage he has to achieve them.

I keep thinking of a passage from the old Jack London novel White Fang.  It is about two wolves, one a beautiful young specimen and the other an old damaged cagey one.  They cooperate to get rid of a common adversary.  When they’re done, the young one relaxes and licks his wounds.  His ally, however, immediately kills him.

The US can choose to cooperate with Russia, so that the two can rule the world without challenge—but there is no reason to believe that cooperation is Putin’s endgame.  The combination of Putin’s geopolitical ambitions with the poor Russian economic situation certainly seems to argue for more.  The transition from ally to cut-throat adversary can occur at any moment, and the threat posed by Russia is real.  The other part of the metaphor worth remembering is that neither strength nor beauty mattered in the end.

We’ve had two recent examples of Putin’s ruthlessness:

– The Syrian truce–which was never more than a opportunity to move troops into position for attack.

– The Olympics–which proved that Russia was willing to stomp on the most basic standards of conduct even for a relatively minor goal.

We have an incoming President who refuses to divulge his business relations with Russia even after the Russian hacking of the election.  Further, the example of Russian hacking during election shows that the Russians are in fact an active danger—the scope of which is certainly not fully known.  That is, of course, only one example of what Putin might have in mind.

So Putin has some deliberately-hidden degree of leverage on US policy, and the Russians are an active threat.  A buddy-buddy relationship is going to make that worse, and there’s not an awful lot of indication that anyone is even going to be careful.

Which means there’s a better example to keep in mind—the Trojan horse.

Time for Trump’s Taxes

One of the worst media lapses of the campaign was to let Trump get away not divulging his taxes.   No one ever dreamed that any candidate would commit such a lapse of civic ethics—or that such a candidate would not be held to account.

Now after Trump’s refusal to divest himself of his businesses and his continuing love affair with anything Russian (most recently his attack on the CIA over Russian hacking and his appointment of a Putin buddy to run the State Department), the time has come to demand accounting.

Every political official, columnist, and blogger should demand this.   It shouldn’t even be a partisan issue—the public has a RIGHT TO KNOW.