What Matters for Climate Change

Last year this blog had an overview of the major factors involved in fighting climate change.  Most of that is still current, but it has also become clear that there is a lot of confusion—even in the climate movement—about consequences.  So this piece is not about the basics; it’s about the reality of what it takes to combat climate change.

To start with, Here is a list (off the top of my head) of widely-believed nonsense.  There is probably something to annoy everyone.  You can see if I’ve made a case for it by the end.

– Conservation is a primary issue

– It’s important to get solar cells on rooftops everywhere

– Recycling is important

– Local initiatives are important

– State initiatives are important

– The main game is getting our house in order

– We don’t need to do anything, since technologists will solve it by themselves

– We’re ready for electric cars to take over the transportation sector

– Current solar and wind are ready to take over everything

– Winning is simple, we just have to stop the oil companies and start deploying the good stuff.

– For climate change employment, we need local communities to decide what they really need

– The private sector is doing it all by itself

– Carbon pricing is optional

– Carbon pricing is all it takes

– We need to get a better deal than the Paris Agreement

– We’re in control of our own destiny

– We all need to change our lifestyles

– Fighting climate change will tank the economy

– Economic dislocation means taking care of miners

– Since poor people get hurt worse, climate action is a matter of charity—for social justice

– Same thing for racial justice

– Same thing for regional justice

– Internationally, this is a matter of everyone taking care of their own

– With China and India, the important thing is to stand tough to get what we want

– We have to insist that any new technology developed here gets manufactured here

 

Let’s start this off with item #1—conservation.  From within the US it’s easy to believe the fight against climate change is all about conservation.  After all, we’re up against a hard limit on tolerable levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so we’ve just got to cut down on burning in all ways.  And we’ve got to learn to behave differently in the future.

However that logic breaks down quickly.  What about all the people in China and India?  Our conservation is a blip compared with them, but we share the same atmosphere.  Do they just have to get used to the idea that cars and air conditioning aren’t for them?  They should accept permanent sacrifice for the good of mankind?  Even in the US, no amount of conservation will move people to electric cars or eliminate the CO2 production from heavy industry.

So even for the near-term we have to recognize that the fight against climate change is not primarily about conservation but about alternative energy sources.  Worldwide, we need to evolve energy sources, so that there will be enough to take care of people everywhere.  As noted in the prior piece, there is in fact no reason to fear we will ultimately lack for power.  This isn’t about learning to live with energy scarcity—it’s about creating a future for all people, all countries, and all life styles.

For that reason we need to focus on the transition to alternative sources of power.  There are two quite different types of problems to be solved:

– Generating and distributing power

The first thing to recognize is that (despite some obfuscation from the oil companies) the future is electric.  That’s the common currency for the energy to be used everywhere, in factories, in homes, in cars.  It’s what all the renewables produce today, and what will be produced by all future candidate technologies.  Electricity is easily transmitted over long distances, and can be stored for later use (although there is much still to be done for high-volume, in-network storage).

So this work includes the electrical network, the sources of energy, and the means to store it.  Since everything will move to the electrical grid, its capacity will need to grow significantly and fast.  This is a huge project, but this is ultimately just a matter of national will.  That makes it the easier part.

– Adapting applications to use it

For that you need to work through the major sectors of energy usage.  Here is the chart for the United States.

consumption-by-source-and-sector

This is a larger and more complex undertaking, requiring careful planning for each sector.  Carbon pricing is one of the few actions that can be done across the board.   As we noted previously, assuming the atmosphere is free amounts to an annual subsidy of $1 T to the US fossil fuel industry.  Even low-level initial pricing (as with CCL) sends a message for corporate planning.  However, it is naïve to believe that carbon pricing will just take care of all sectors in time to avert disaster.  Note also, for priorities, that the residential and commercial sector is the smallest by far.

We also have to think about this problem not just for the US but for the rest of the world as well.  The US Energy Information Agency has released a document that helps in thinking about that task.  (A short summary of conclusions is available here.)  It has projections of energy use throughout the world going out to 2050.  With that it includes variants of the US energy use chart (just given) for other countries.  A significant fact is that many developing countries have a proportionally much larger industrial segment than we do, as high as 70%.

The report shows some influence of climate concerns, particularly in the US and China, but overall it describes the dimensions of a disaster.  The following chart taken from the report shows a continuing growth of CO2 emissions for the entire period.   While the report itself doesn’t explicitly call out the bottom line, the numbers from the report imply that the world will hit a point of no return already by 2035—with a CO2 concentration of 482 ppm and a temperature rise of 1.6 degrees C.

eia1

In the EIA scenarios, the world does a pretty good job of migrating electric grids to renewables (or to some extent gas)—but a terrible job of moving applications to electricity.  In developed countries this translates to business as usual, but in the developing world it’s much worse.  India, for example, is seen as growing exponentially with much of the increase powered by coal.  This isn’t just a question of forcing them to meet our standards.  Heavy industry is a particular problem everywhere.

So the application area is a big job with many industry-specific issues.  The world desperately needs focused research efforts with results that can be applied large-scale worldwide.  This can’t be a matter of everyone guarding discoveries for national advantage.  Cooperative international arrangements will be key to meaningful progress.

 

Even at this high level there are a number of conclusions to be drawn:

– There is no do-nothing alternative.

Technology will deliver a viable future, but we’ll have to work to get there.  There’s no silver bullet that makes it all go away.

– Technology development is important and has to be figured into any planning, but technology concerns are not the barrier to success.

It is perfectly possible to put together a plan to get the US where it needs to be by 2030.  That’s not saying all technology problems have been solved (after all electric cars are still much too expensive), but we can see a path to success.  We shouldn’t trivialize the effort and sophistication required, but based on where we are, and given financing, it appears that the technical side can get done.  The next point is less clear.

– Changes are huge and have to be dealt-with politically.

This isn’t just a matter of coal-miners losing their jobs.  Electric cars alone will have pervasive consequences.  We have to understand that worries about change are rational, so an important part of domestic climate policy has to be an assurance everyone will be made whole.  Otherwise we will continue to face the push back seen most recently in the Australian election.

In the US there is every reason for the less advantaged to distrust the political powers that be.  In the developing world it’s even worse—you’re talking about giving up on the benefits of development for some unknown duration.  The situation is necessarily difficult.   It’s only going to work if wealthy people and wealthy countries realize it’s in their own interest to come up with the goods.  No one will escape the consequences otherwise.

– The international side is unavoidable.

There is only one atmosphere.   Every country in the world has to cooperate, or we all lose.  When the US opts out, everyone loses faith in the future—as was evident in the recent Madrid meeting.  We have to restore international unity in order to make progress.  And that will only come when every country sees a just role for itself individually.  As for the terms of the Paris Agreement—it is only a first step and actually better for rich countries than will ultimately be workable.

We cannot go into this with the attitude that the objective is to come out a winner at the expense of everyone else.  If everyone doesn’t win, we all lose.

– This is not a matter for incrementalism.

We’re not going to get there with well-meaning people insulating their houses or businesses putting solar cells on the roof.

It’s worth putting some numbers on this.  With current technology, the power output of a solar cell is 20 watts per square foot.  From that you can calculate how many solar cells would be needed to meet current US electrical demand.  The answer is about 2500 square miles, assuming they’re all in brilliantly-lit, weather-free Arizona.  (And there are serious problems in managing that one too.)  All of it gets an order of magnitude worse if we decide to go piecemeal in random, less promising locations–and that’s just for today’s electrical grid, not where we have to get to.

That’s not to say that Arizona is necessarily the solution.  The point is that there has to be a rational national policy that will actually get the job done.

 

Greta Thunberg is right—there is no substitute for major political action.  Anything less is delusion, regardless of who says it.  The 2020 election is the single, deciding climate issue today.

Perhaps we need the right metaphor.  The fight against climate change is a war.  We’re all in it together—losing is losing for everyone.  The countries of the world are allies in the sense that each of them is necessary for success.  National economies will be affected, but through national climate efforts with no shortage of jobs.

Right now we’re like the US in mid 1941.  We can see and understand the enemy, but we’re not convinced we really have to be involved.  That situation only got resolved when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and it was clear there was no other choice.  You can make a case we were lucky that it wasn’t too late.  Without the Nazi’s disdain for “Jewish physics”, they might even have gotten the bomb.

For climate, if we act today we have the elements of victory.   We also have ample evidence it’s a near thing.  A climate Pearl Harbor may well be too late—and beyond anything we want to live to see.

American Fascism in the World

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“President Trump, MAGA rally, Wilkes-Barre, Penn – 1” by The Epoch Times is licensed under CC BY 2.0

As a country we normally don’t care much about foreign affairs.  We’ve had five Democratic debates with almost no questions about it.  International issues always come out low on the lists of what people care about.

However, the time has come to care.  It’s nothing new to identify the rise of fascism in this country as a problem.  But for some of the worst consequences you need to look outside the borders.

Fascism is many things but it is above all a world view.  The mother country is God-certified superior, under assault, and fully-equipped to teach everyone else a lesson.  That feels great; life is good when you’re on top of the world, and you don’t have to care.  But it is by definition blinding in its assessment of reality.

Our current foreign policy is predicated on the idea that we’re running things and can dictate to the rest of the world.   We don’t need allies or international institutions, because we can simply tell everyone else what to do.  Allies are people you shake down because they need you, and adversaries are just waiting to get defeated by irresistible national power.

That world view might have had some reality at the end of World War II (when we were sensible enough not to pursue it), but it has little to do with reality today.  The longer we resist reality, the worse for us.

First of all our military power is strictly bounded.  Nuclear weapons are such that for now no major power can be defeated.  We can’t even do anything about North Korea.  So we shouldn’t believe that counting bombs says anything meaningful.

Our economic power is also limited.  Our declared economic war on China has thus far been anything but “easy”.  There is no sign that China is ready to capitulate, and their resulting push for national self-sufficiency has many negatives for us—in particular reduced access to the markets we think we’re opening.  That’s in addition to an overall slow-down of international growth and much of the recent intellectual property theft.  The blindness of the belief in our power is such that we systematically ignore consequences.  It is truly dangerous to believe—as a principle—that we don’t have to care.

Why do we have allies?  If you believe what’s coming out of Washington, the answer is that we have allies because, out of the goodness of our hearts, we choose to defend our friends.  Since this is pure beneficence, they had better pay up and to hell with them if they don’t.

In fact (of course) we have allies to increase our strength.  NATO came into existence, so that a next world war with Russia would be fought in Europe and not here. That role may have diminished, but it’s not gone, and Europe allies are also assets in dealing with middle-eastern terrorism and with the economic strength of China.  South Korea and Japan are similarly counterweights to the rising power of China.   Again, they are the ones on the front lines.  Shaking them down increases China’s dominance in the East.

Why do we have international institutions?  Those were created by the US as a means of increasing stability (to the benefit of our economy) and of exercising power.  The UN is imperfect institution, but its role as an international forum is essential.  The WTO is the best means that exists to push for labor and environmental standards in international trade.  Make no mistake that world trade has been good for the US economy.  If it hasn’t done as much for the population as a whole, that’s because—as in many other areas—rich donors have controlled our own objectives.  That’s our problem to fix.  International institutions are the way we, together with our allies, can exert decisive power without conflict.

Fascism is a major impediment to the exercise of US power.  Relations with China are a case in point.   Nothing says this is easy, but we certainly should be playing with a full deck.  As it is, we’ve already strengthened the hands of hard-liners, and it will be work to walk that back.  That’s still worth the effort, because conflict is a good option only in fascist fantasy.  A defined “victory” is highly unlikely, and at the very least we’re talking about:  a new cold war, lower economic growth, no access to the Chinese market, an uncontrolled and expensive arms race, no leverage on Chinese behavior, a real chance of war.  Rational national interest says forget the fascist dreams, strengthen our hand, and work on a real future.

There are other aspects to this as well.  Fascism has many other destructive tendencies, we’re promoting them worldwide, and they come back to bite us.  Racial intolerance is built-in to the world view.  We’re excusing it domestically and normalizing it elsewhere.  Modi’s anti-Muslim policies would probably have happened anyway, but our influence has damped down international outrage.  Similarly we may decry China’s treatment of Uighurs, but the impact of our outrage is weakened by our own actions.

Even more important, our fascist disdain for international cooperation has seriously hobbled the worldwide effort to combat climate change.  The US-led unanimity of the Paris Agreement was the basis for the world to make progress.  Once we broke that and encouraged others to follow, it has been more than difficult to assemble the global good-will necessary to make progress.

After World War II it was easy to believe fascism was something special with roots in German or Italian culture.  We now know better.  It is a tendency than needs to be fought everywhere.  It is a mindset that takes over from rationality and hurts most severely those who fall prey to the disease.

We’ve had more than enough of it already.  For our own sake we’d better learn to fight back.

Waiting is Losing in China and North Korea

Foreign policy these days has been drifting along.  Negotiations with China have gone up and down for many months.  Nothing is happening with North Korea.  (Kim has given some kind of threat for the end of the year, and we’re wondering if we care.)   It’s easy to assume all is sort of okay while we’re working on it.

That’s false.  With trade wars as with other wars, if you’re not winning you’re losing.  That’s true in spades today.

Let’s start with China.

As we (and Nancy Pelosi) have pointed out for some time, we began the trade war by giving up a good chunk of our leverage.  We and the EU each represent 18% of Chinese exports, so we gave up half the leverage for a Trump-style exclusive deal.

That was bad enough.  What’s worse is that the leverage goes down every day.  That involves both Chinese imports from the US and Chinese exports overall.

On the import side, China has been forced by the trade war to develop new sources for strategic products, since the US can no longer be considered a reliable supplier.  The last Huawei phone, for example, has replaced all US components.  Additionally, China has developed alternate sources for products that it restricted in retaliation for the US tariffs.   It’s now sourcing soybeans from Brazil and Argentina, relationships that are expected to survive any US trade agreement with China.  In other words our leverage as a strategic supplier to China is decreasing dramatically.  What’s more, this gives a pessimistic picture of what is to be expected of US exports to China even after a deal!

For Chinese exports, there’s no question that the Chinese economy took a hit from the  US tariffs.  However they have looked to beef-up exports elsewhere and also to stimulate their own domestic market.  After the initial hit their balance of payments has shown resilience:

china_balance

Another round of US tariffs would hurt again (at the expense to us of a very visible and regressive tariff tax), but there is no sign that the Chinese are going away.  As they continue to work on replacing the US market, time is on their side.

With North Korea, even with the continued sanctions, production of nuclear weapons and missiles is continuing unabated.  The threat posed to the US by those weapons should not be taken lightly.  The destructive power of nuclear weapons is such that only a few are necessary to assure victory.  Japan was defeated by two, small-grade weapons and a faked threat of more.  In theory a successful cyber attack combined with a nuclear threat could defeat anyone.  North Korea is a world leader in cyber attacks.

What’s more, the strategic value of those weapons is going up all the time.  As we threaten to withdraw support from Japan and South Korea, the regional status of North Korea grows.  Do we really think Kim will give it all up?  (And can we deny that other countries will want to follow his example?)   It’s not what Kim might or might not announce in December that’s the issue, it’s what has been going on all along—while he’s been Trump’s buddy.

So in neither case are we working quietly toward a solution.  We’re just plain losing.

On Climate—We Have to Beat Trump or Nothing Else Matters

Our piece on Inslee’s climate proposals included a video clip from MIT professor Henry Jacoby on the international side of climate change.  That clip deserves more than a passing reference, because its implications go far.  In its own way this is truth-telling for a story that has been largely ignored

 

Just to repeat the obvious, there is only one atmosphere.  All the carbon dioxide from everyone gets mixed up.  Since we represent about 15% of the world CO2 production, we only control 15% of what happens to us.  We can feel good or bad about how well we’re doing with our 15%, but the other 85% comes from everyone else.

For that other 85% it should be emphasized that there is no world government to deal with it.  The only way to make progress is for all of the world’s nations to unite on a process that makes sense, on a national basis, for each country involved.  That was the achievement of the Paris Agreement—there is no other mechanism for going forward.  (We’ve talked elsewhere about justice and economic impact.)  US withdrawal means we will be stuck with consequences of that other 85%, regardless of what we as individuals or cities or states can do.  Let’s see what that means.

US involvement created the Paris Agreement after decades of international squabbling.  Obama’s active intervention also raised Chinese consciousness to stop their rapid increase in CO2 production—as seen in the following chart:

s11_2018_Projections

The Paris Agreement is not a single step, but a process.  The path to success involves regular revisions of national targets according to a succession of 5-yearly updates.  The next such update is in 2020.

Progress won’t happen by itself.  It only works if everyone keeps on-track—and US withdrawal undermines it all.   Now that we’re out, the Germans and the Japanese are replacing nuclear plants with coal, and the Chinese (while retreating from fossil fuels in their own country) are pushing coal and oil elsewhere with their Belt and Road initiative.  With the US committed to (and encouraging) cheating, the 2020 updates are in jeopardy, and there is a real question if the poor countries of the world will be in any position to deal with the 75% of CO2 emissions reductions that Professor Jacoby notes must come from the developing world.  Rich countries like us are only going escape the consequences of climate change if they can get back in the game to make progress with poorer ones.

As long as Trump is the US President, we are giving up on what happens with most of the sources of the CO2 in our atmosphere.  That means, regardless of what we do for ourselves, we are committed to a national disaster.

So it’s important to keep things in perspective.  It’s good for the US to commit the effort necessary to meet our climate objectives.   But we should not delude ourselves about what controls our destiny.  The highest priority for climate action is to defeat Trump.  Between now and the election there is no other climate priority that comes close.

Inslee’s Plan in the Green New Deal

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Inslee’s 200-page climate plan is the most detailed document any candidate has put together to address climate change.  Elizabeth Warren has said she will adopt it as is.  Many people would like to view it as a first fleshing out of the Green New Deal.

As such, it is important to recognize what the Inslee document does and doesn’t do.  Here are a few points.  (For context, this note builds upon our other recent points on climate change.)

  1. Inslee’s document is very good at documenting areas of government action necessary to address climate change.

– Undoing Trump’s many areas of damage within the executive—environmental planning and regulations of all kinds

– Reestablishing links to international organizations—the Paris Agreement and many others

– Identifying topics to be included in a plan—electric grid, carbon pricing, protecting affected workers

  1. However that is different from a plan of action.  Two issues:

– There isn’t yet a concrete plan for the core electric grid and power sources

This is completely controllable and in the critical path for everything else.

It is a strategic necessity—our generation’s interstate highway system.

It has to be planned nationally, with roles determined for renewable sources.

It will push the envelope on technology.  The Chinese are already deploying the highest capacity links ever.  Management and control software may be our strength.

– Inslee covers many topics, but doesn’t systematically prioritize sectors or work.  The following chart is key:

consumption-by-source-and-sector

                Where is lowest-hanging fruit both initially and as we go?

               What are technological and other barriers to success?

               What sequences of steps will be necessary?

               How does carbon pricing fit in?  What do we do about carbon capture?

  1. Transition costs are greatly underestimated.

– Inslee talks about protecting unionized coal and oil workers from loss of income.

– Far more affected people will be outside that core:  automobile mechanics, manufacturing value chains, service stations, etc.

– Most American car manufacturers risk being left behind—today’s cheap electric cars use South Korean technology.

– We will also—for the same reasons—need to protect workers losing jobs from other technology changes, such as AI.

  1. International aid requirements are also greatly underestimated.  This chart shows the problem:

s11_2018_Projections

– Many “All others” countries will be unable to do it alone—we will have to contribute.  That’s not just for them; it’s our atmosphere too!

– Inslee focuses on investment, but we will also need to provide financial aid and active assistance.

– MIT Professor Henry Jacoby gives a broader summary of this little-discussed truth:

 

 

  1. Inslee doesn’t cover everything in the Green New Deal.

– No claim to provide jobs for everyone (mostly high-skill jobs)

– Many claims but little detail about aid to “front-line communities”

– Minimizes management challenges of a huge undertaking—e.g. preventing corruption

  1. The technology picture is fanciful.

– We do need to develop new technologies or be left behind

– We’re not going to be world-dominant in everything—we’re not the only ones trying.

– We’re also not going to bring back the good old days of manufacturing—not any more than we did with iPhones.   Most climate jobs will be in deploying technology.

– Market opportunities are enormous, and we can expect success in our areas of strength.   But employment and equality of opportunity are part of a bigger story.  Fighting climate change by itself won’t bring nirvana.

  1. Inslee’s tariff and sector protection story is exactly what we’re forbidding the Chinese to do.

– When we need worldwide cooperation, the last things we need are trade wars and tariffs!

– Rules for fair trade have got to worked out in the WTO as part of the Paris Agreement process

– We have to accept the reality of fair competition—whether we’ve paid for the research or not.  That’s a necessity for climate and ultimately beneficial economically.

  1. Inslee’s document—like Green New Deal itself—declares an unnecessary culture war.

– We’re deploying new energy sources to replace fossil fuels.

– For the most part, we’re changing how things work, not what they do.

– The transition will involve everyone, but it’s not a culture or lifestyle question.  People will continue to drive (electric) Chevy Suburbans.

  1. We still need a program of initial major steps.  This should include items such as:

– Blue ribbon team on electric grid and power sources with dated deliverables

– Specifics on carbon pricing (why not just take CCL?—it’s progressive)

– Commit to supporting all people hurt by technology transition (& try to scope it)

– Spend real money on test systems to productize carbon capture

– Get serious about what will be needed (by year) to completely change transportation.

– Business roundtable to address application needs

– Back to a leadership role in moving forward on Paris Agreement commitments.

– Fix WTO rules to be consistent with Paris objectives.

– Better understand what will be needed from us (and others) for third-world countries do their part.

– Organize to make the most of climate jobs for the whole population.

Dealing with China

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“DSC_0844” by Studio5Graphics is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Relations with China are important.  By some measures the Chinese economy is already the biggest in the world and still growing rapidly.  The Chinese military is the most comprehensive challenge to US hegemony since the heydays of the USSR.  Chinese technology has evolved rapidly to near parity with ours.   The Chinese political system could not be more diametrically opposed to ours.

With such a significant adversary, it goes without saying that we need to manage the relationship carefully.  At the moment, though, all we’ve got is war-mongering.  The Trump people have always been big on scapegoats, and the Chinese are just as convenient as the immigrants.  A difference is that immigrants have some defenders—Trump can’t get away with just calling them all animals.  But by playing patriot, Trump has gotten away with pretty well anything about the evil Chinese.

A couple of comments:

– Since the Chinese were major allies in recovering from the 2008 crash—and the Republican Party was not—there’s a strong case that Republicans (deliberately) caused more pain to the US economy than the Chinese did.  In any case the Chinese did not pillage the US economy as frequently claimed.

– The Chinese intellectual property theft we keep hearing about had been diminishing until Trump ignited his trade war, and Chinese hardliners felt empowered to fight back.

Competition with China is a fact of life.  No amount of trade war is going to make them go away.   So “getting tough with the Chinese” is publicity not policy.  What matters is how to get results, as we’ll discuss.  Further, it should be recognized that we actually have quite a lot of influence on the form our relationship will take.

We’ll start with some background.

  1. Political and economic systems.

China is very unfree.  There is extreme control of information available internally, and consequences for speaking outside the party line can be very severe.  Recently deployed surveillance systems add another dimension of party control.

Before we get too far up on our high horse, though, we should recognize that support for the regime in the population is now very strong, perhaps stronger than ever.  The regime has delivered unimaginable economic success for a very wide swath of the population.  Just to be clear this wasn’t stolen from us—US trade is a small part of the overall Chinese economy—it is a legitimate success.  And it created a sense of pride in China that had been lost for centuries.

There were two primary factors for that success, one intentional and the other not.  The intentional part was government investment in the population (e.g. education) and national infrastructure.  That prepared the country for technological achievements that would have been impossible otherwise.  In that, China was very much like the US in the fifties—when the government sent the GI’s to college and built the interstate highway system.  Public investments we’ve forgotten how to do.

The other success factor—strangely enough—was an accidental surge of free enterprise.  As a minor weakening of collective economic control, Chinese municipalities were freed to carry out their own businesses once obligations to the state had been met.  That minor bit of freedom took over the economy.  Municipal businesses became dominant to the point that they dwarfed the (corrupt) state-run enterprises.  Municipalities ended up devoting all attention to their own businesses, to the point that they were meeting their obligations to the state with products purchased by free-market profits!

So China’s success was as a mixed market economy.  Where Xi’s new stress on state enterprises will take them remains to be seen, but it certainly raises questions.  In many ways Xi’s push to consolidate power in the state is just as radical as Trump’s push to turn everything in the US over to the private sector.  Both are abandoning past recipes for success to cults of personality and personal ideological visions.

  1. History, nationalism, and negotiation

Western imperialism in China was terrible and recent.  The Opium Wars were fought for the profits from addicting the population, and it took Mao’s hell to drag the country out of the consequences.  While the Europeans were primary players, we had a role in it too.  We have conveniently forgotten all of that, but the Chinese most emphatically have not.  Not just their leaders but the population as a whole has reason to see their current place in the sun as hard-won against forces that have done their best to keep them down.

That’s a dangerous situation.  It sounds like Germany in the 1930’s (eerily, that’s also the only other example that comes to mind of such a dramatic economic recovery).  From that example we know what doesn’t work: neither draconian efforts to keep them down nor appeasement after the fact is going to be successful.

In that context our unilateral trade wars have several bad effects:

– They complicate negotiations by mixing fair trade with measures to retain dominance.  In that the trade wars are counterproductive even domestically, by encouraging the false belief that we can “defeat” Chinese competition.

– They make negotiation a matter of pride not just interest.  Worse, they produce broader nationalist reactions in both countries.

– They lead to more destructive isolation of countries from each other, always a bad idea.

The only path that works is to make them part of the world economic order.  That such approaches work is the primary lesson from the changed world order after the second world war.  The point was discussed recently in a piece by former leaders of ten disparate countries.  The WTO is the means by which rules can be established for free trade as well as conditions of labor and environmental concerns.   As such, it is a much more effective instrument of national policy than the pot shots we’re taking now.

Let’s be very clear that this is not about being nice—it is the path of maximum leverage.  The reason why our current discussions with China are getting nowhere is because we have chosen weakness—replacing leverage by bombast for public consumption.  Under Obama, with far less economic leverage than we have today, both the balance of payments deficit and incidents of intellectual property theft declined markedly.   Both have increased under Trump.

  1. Morality, Chinese minorities, and Hong Kong

There’s a lot we don’t like about the way the current Chinese government does business.  In addition to repression of the population, there is the imprisonment of Uighurs in concentration camps and the heavy-handed suppression of democracy in Hong Kong.

Let’s start with repression of the population.  An important question is why the population is enthusiastically ready to accept that Xi’s model over ours.  Part of it as noted is the economic success and rise in stature of China.  However, another part of it is that—correctly or not—they don’t see the current version of the US as a good argument for our ideals.

The Chinese government may be repressive, but at least they have a proven commitment to improving the economic well-being of the population.  Seen from the outside the US is run for corporations—who can buy elections with impunity—and those corporations have no commitment to anything beyond return for their investors.   Government sees no reason to intervene for the well-being of the population, and the all-pervasive corporate influence leads to a relentless consumerism that dominates daily life.

Where we see in Xi a return to discredited socialist control of the economy, they see in Trump the triumph of corporate power.  It’s up to us to prove them wrong.

Until that happens, our support for the Uighurs is hypocrisy from a country that puts immigrant children in cages and demonizes its own citizens.  Support for political liberalism is strange from a regime than calls the press “enemies of the people”.   And support for democracy in Hong Kong is nothing more than the nth Western effort to keep China down.

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves about the power we really have.  Our actions on Crimea were ultimately little more than symbolic, and we could do nothing at all about Tiananmen Square.  For Hong Kong, the Chinese have already branded the unrest as a Western plot, so overt pressure can be counterproductive.  Just like the US, China is less likely to cave in to coercive power than to international outrage.  For that we need allies and behavior that matches our rhetoric.

 

Where does all that lead?  Here’s one list of conclusions:

– We must bring China into the world economic system with updated rules reflecting today’s reality.  That’s why the WTO exists.  This would have started before now with any other President.  We have a major responsibility to make it happen.

– There are other areas, climate change is an obvious example, where we have a strong need to work together.

– There are also compelling reasons for vigilance, particularly with the military.  But even there we have a large interest in agreements (with Russia too of course) wherever possible.   In particular we all need to avoid arms races and military instability.

– Economic competition with China is inevitable and will be intense.  There is no reason either we or they will be sole winners, as the differences between the societies will lead to different strengths.  That should be good for worldwide prosperity.  The most important thing for us is to recognize and play to our strengths.

– We should (at least for now) view both Xi and Trump as anomalies.  Both are roadblocks to domestic and international progress, and there is no way to know how long they will last.  But they do not define their countries or the possibilities for the future.

– Finally if we’re worried about the decline of our ideals in the world, then we should accept the challenge of living up to them!

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 Nightmare World of Our Making

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“presidential Twitter” by osipovva is licensed under CC BY 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 path of decline 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.

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

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

  • 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

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist sees highest risk of catastrophe ever

  • 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.

  • 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

Conflicts stoked between races, ethnic groups, cultures

No interest in racial justice—to the detriment of all

Cruel and intentionally divisive Immigration policy

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?

  • Weakened environmental and other standards

Air and water

Workplace safety

Food safety

  • 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

  • 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.