• Robust Briefing on Camp Ashraf and the Robust MEK

    December 31, 2011 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy, Embassy/State, Iran, Iraq

    Holding what might be the worst job at the State Department other than whatever is in store for me in 2012, Ambassador Daniel Fried is the Special Advisor for Camp Ashraf. He is tasked with overseeing a nice ending to a problem the US (and Iraq) have conveniently put off for almost nine years during the Occupation.

    The MEK people are still living in Iraq, at a place called Camp Ashraf, and Iraq would generally prefer that they all die, or disappear or die and disappear. The US has run the gamut of emotions and policy positions on MEK (it’s complicated), but prefer that they just disappear without the being massacred by Iraqis part. That would upset the whole illusion of democracy thing for sure.

    The UN has come up with a solution that might work. The MEK people will move from distant, tainted and often rocketed Camp Ashraf into the recently-abandoned Camp Liberty. Once the home of Iraq’s largest PX store during the Occupation, Liberty now has lots of openings for new residents. The nice thing is that Liberty is pretty close to the World’s Largest Embassy (c) and so the US can play a “monitoring” role, basically visiting once in a while to deter the Iraqis from just rolling in and killing everyone one night. The UN is later supposed to arrange something for the 3,200 MEK folks– refugee status, immigration, Publisher’s Clearing House prize, anything to get them out of Iraq before they all are ground into sausage meat by the democracy there.

    There will be “bumps” in the road. On the day the MEK agreement was signed, rockets hit Camp Ashraf. The attacks repeated on the following nights. A statement by people in Camp Ashraf said that as a first step, a group of 400 are ready “to move to Camp Liberty with their vehicles and moveable belongings on December 30.” The transfer, however, did not happen as the Iraqi government stepped in to require that people did not carry more than a travel bag to the new looted camp which now lacks basic infrastructure and drinking water.

    Ambassador Fried (his real name) held a briefing at the State Department that was quite informative, with a transcript now online. Among the many complications, he reveals that there are at least two (Iranian-) Americans among the Camp Ashraf residents. The briefing sidesteps the messy question of MEK’s status on the US terrorist list and keeps the focus on the humanitarian side, which is probably the best way out.

    Sorry but minus three points for the Ambassador for using the word “robust” three times, twice in the same paragraph, to describe the planned State Department monitoring of the MEK people at Liberty. Can you find another adjective in the New Year, please?

    Here are some suggestions:

    healthy, strong, able-bodied, athletic, boisterous, booming, brawny, built, concentrated, fit, full-bodied, hale, hardy, hearty, hefty, husky, live, lusty, muscular, peppy, potent, powerful, powerhouse, prospering, prosperous, roaring, rugged, sinewy, snappy, sound, stout, strapping, sturdy, thriving, tiger, tough, vigorous, vital, well, zappy, zippy

    (P.S. Go with “zippy” or “brawny.”)



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  • Trump and the First Amendment, Both on Trial, Again

    December 9, 2023 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy, Trump

    No former president has challenged the limits of freedom of expression like Donald Trump. At times rude and always overbearing, Trump has tested the boundaries of what can be called political speech. Here’s the latest.

    The most significant challenge to the First Amendment came during Trump’s penalty phase trial for fraud, based on his over-valuing his properties in New York to obtain favorable loan rates. Trump muscle-tussled there with the presiding judge, Arthur Engoron and, oddly, his law clerk seated beside him on the bench. Already upset over what he felt was the clerk’s overextended involvement in the trial (to include whispering in the judge’s ear) Trump seized on a vanilla selfie photo of the clerk with Democratic Senator Charles Schumer to taunt her with the phrase “Schumer’s girlfriend” and insinuate as a Democrat the clerk was inherently biased against Trump.  In the way things work in 2023, these fifth grade-level slurs plus a few Trump complaints online about Engoron himself being biased morphed into “threats” somehow. Engoron went as far as to suggest Trump was sending attack messages to his MAGA army (“targeting”) and that lives were in danger.

    In retaliation Judge Engoron slapped a gag order on Trump, later extended to his attorneys as well. The order prohibited Trump from commenting on the trial, out loud, in the press, or on social media, and specifically said the law clerk was off-limits. Trump paid little attention to the order and was fined twice, for a total of $15,000, for violating it. Trump called Engoron an “extremely hostile” judge. His lawyers said there was evidence of “tangible and overwhelming” bias. Trump’s lawyers then filed a lawsuit against Engoron challenging his gag order as a violation of the First Amendment.

    Lawyers for Engoron argued he and his staff received hundreds of anti-Semitic calls and letters. They blamed Trump’s comments about Engoron and the clerk for amplifying his supporters’ anger toward them and said the clerk is “playing Whack-A-Mole now trying to block her phone number.” “It’s not that Mr. Trump has directly issued threats to the staff and Judge Engoron, it’s that what he’s said has led his constituents” to make threats, the lawyers argued, comparing the potential effect to the January 6 riot and a violent attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband. “That is not political speech. That is threatening behavior and it should be stopped,” Engoron’s lawyers argued.

    The appeals forum which heard the case disagreed, particularly about the part saying what Trump was engaged in was not political speech. Judge David Friedman of the state’s intermediate appeals court issued a temporary stay suspending the Engoron gag order and allowing the former president to speak freely about court staff while the longer appeals process plays out. Friedman questioned “Engoron’s authority to police what Trump says outside the courtroom. He also disputed the trial judge’s contention that restricting the 2024 Republican front-runner’s speech was necessary or the right remedy to protect his staff’s safety.”

    Another gag attempt was also struck down last month, after the judge overseeing Trump’s Washington J6 case briefly paused a gag order she had imposed on him. Trump reacted to this three times in three days, calling Special Counsel Jack Smith “deranged.” Twice he weighed in about the deposition testimony of his former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, who could end up a witness at the trial. These moves prompted Smith’s team to ask the judge, Tanya Chutkan, to reinstate the gag order. She put the order back in place, though it has been frozen again as a federal appeals court considers whether Judge Chutkan properly imposed it in the first place. That temporary suspension left Trump free of all of the gag orders placed on him.

    Long term, a federal appeals court panel appeared poised to significantly narrow the gag order imposed against Donald Trump by the J6 judge Chutkan. The three-judge D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals panel raised concerns the order — which bars Trump from criticizing witnesses, prosecutors, and courthouse staff — created murky restrictions stifling the former president’s right to push back against his detractors, particularly in the heat of the campaign.

    What at first seems novel — it happened mostly on social media!– and soooooooooo Trump — the insults, the elementary school-quality teasing — was in fact at the core of what the First Amendment is all about. Political speech is among the most protected forms of speech, more so political speech critiquing the government. In fact not novel at all, Trump was engaged in the most basic form of expression designed to be protected by the First Amendment.

    Judge Engoron, standing in for King George here, played the role of evil government perfectly. He chose to use the power of government, the gag order, etc., to stop Trump (who claims the trial is political persecution in the first place) from criticizing the government, in the guise of his court, and then doubled-down by extending the order to Trump’s lawyers, and then triple-downed the whole mess saying the gag applied 24/7 to those named, all way beyond the limited point of a gag order (proper use is almost always to shield important information from a jury to not prejudice a case.) A gag order should enhance democracy by protecting the right to a trial by jury, not run rough shod over it silencing the political speech of someone on trial.

    The hardest thing sometimes to accept about the First Amendment is it often protects speech you don’t like made by people you don’t like, in this case Trump, who is presumed crude and guilty by some half of the electorate. This idea is captured in the quote”I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” often attributed to Voltaire, and apparently missing from both Judge Engoron’s and most undergraduates’ education. Those who bleat support for Israel/support for Palestine has no place on campus fall squarely into the same narrow box as Engoron, wanting to block speech which personally threatens them but does not rise to the level of threat established by the Supreme Court, or offends them, somehow believing the First Amendment does not protect “hate speech.” While speech might be offensive — or even feel threatening — to some people, to others “it is an expression of a political opinion, an unfiltered reaction to a recent event, or an attempt to rally support for a cause. The freedom to share provocative ideas and spark robust debate about political issues is essential to democracy, social justice, and progress.”

    That’s exactly what Trump is doing, criticizing his trials and their participants in real time via press conferences and especially social media, all protected by the 1A. Victory Trump, victory First Amendment.

     

     

     

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  • NYT v. Sullivan Unfortunately Lives to Fight Another Day

    October 27, 2023 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America

    Justice Clarence Thomas said it “comes at a heavy cost, allowing media organizations and interest groups ‘to cast false aspersions on public figures with near impunity.’” It is New York Times v. Sullivan, America’s defining defamation law and it unfortunately lives to fight another day. Or mess one up.

    Thomas, along with others on the Supreme Court, declined earlier this month to revisit the landmark First Amendment decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, rebuffing a request (the case involved a man falsely accused in the press of being a felon) to take another look at decades-old precedent that created a high bar for public figures to claim defamation in civil suits. Since 1964 the media relied on the case to fend off costly defamation lawsuits brought by public figures. The ruling established the requirement that public figures show “actual malice” by the press before they can succeed in a libel dispute.

    Defamation is untruths commonly referred to as libel if in print. Five standards have to be met when the defamation takes places between the media and a public figure: 1) the defamatory words have been published; 2) The person being defamed was identified by the statements; 3) The remarks had a negative impact on the person’s reputation; 4) The named Defendant wrote the defamatory remarks; 5) The published information is demonstrably false or was published with a reckless disregard for the truth. That means it was published without investigating whether it was accurate.

    New York Times v. Sullivan held the First Amendment protects media even when they publish false statements, as long as they did not act with actual malice. What happened in the case was civil rights leaders had run a full-page fund raising ad in the Times, describing “an unprecedented wave of terror” by the police against peaceful demonstrators in Montgomery, Alabama. Not all the bad things they accused the cops of doing were true, and made the police look worse then they were. So L.B. Sullivan, in charge of the cops in Montgomery, sued the New York Times for libel, claiming they printed something they knew was false to harm his reputation. After losing in a lower court, the Times appealed to the Supreme Court and won.

    The Times argued if a newspaper had to check the accuracy of every criticism of every public official, a free press would be severely limited, and that the 1A required the margin of error to fall on the side of the media in the cases of public officials. In short, mistakes were going to be made even with good intentions by the media. The Court created a new standard for libel of a public figure, “actual malice” defined in short as having the knowledge that something was false or published with “reckless disregard” for truth. Justice William Brennan asserted America’s “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” Free and open debate about the conduct of public officials, the Court reasoned, was more important than occasional, factual errors that might damage officials’ reputations. The standards laid out in Sullivan are why The New York Times has not lost a libel case in America ever since.

    In the recent case the Court just refused to hear (Thomas still wants to review Sullivan but said the current case is not the right vehicle for that), Don Blankenship v. NBC Universal, local media labeled Blankenship a felon, causing him to lose a run for the West Virginia Senate, he maintains. The truth is that Blankenship committed a misdemeanor and was sentenced to one day less than if the case had involved a felony charge. In arguing for Blankenship to a lower court, his attorneys wrote “The actual malice standard poses a clear and present danger to our democracy. New York Times v. Sullivan and its progeny grant the press a license to publish defamatory falsehoods that misinform voters, manipulate elections, intensify polarization, and incite unrest.”

    Attorneys for the media outlets successfully urged the justices not to take up the case, arguing the reporting mistakes were honest ones. “There is good reason why the actual malice standard of New York Times has been embraced for so long and so often,” the media organizations told the justices. “At its essence, the standard protects ‘erroneous statements honestly made.’ While it permits recovery for falsehoods uttered with knowledge of falsity or with reckless disregard for the truth, it provides the ‘breathing space’ required for ‘free debate.’ A free people engaged in self-government deserves no less.”

    Those are the standard Sullivan arguments. It’s just that Justice Thomas does not agree. The Sullivan ruling and ones elaborating on it, he wrote, “were policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law” with “no relation to the text, history or structure of the Constitution… the actual-malice standard comes at a heavy cost.” His colleague Justice Neil Gorsuch, in an earlier statement, wrote “What started in 1964 with a decision to tolerate the occasional falsehood to ensure robust reporting by a comparative handful of print and broadcast outlets has evolved into an ironclad subsidy for the publication of falsehoods by means and on a scale previously unimaginable.”

    It may indeed be time for a change. Sullivan was written for a different media world, one dominated by a handful of huge companies like the New York Times which could be held to high standards. They were assumed to be honorable in their work, and if a mistake was made it was most likely an accident. Reporting was just that, news, reported out to the people are accurately as possible. Not so in 2023. The media is a splintered mess, with teenage YouTube influencers reaching vast audiences, challenging the giants of yesterday to a share of the market. These micro-outlets have no fact checking staff, are typically run by people with no journalistic training and maybe not even a high school diploma, and are gloriously, joyfully not trying to be fair and accurate. They traffic instead in gossip and innuendo, smearing together fact and fiction because that attracts eyeballs to their work, their only standard.

    This sort of competition affected the mainstream media, which became more and more partisan and less concerned about the truth if a story brought in readers. One need only look at the embarrassing bits of what passed for journalism as major should-know-better outlets like the Times and the Washington Post reported falsehood after falsehood throughout Russiagate and indeed the entire Trump administration. Given the freedom to make mistakes in the name of the First Amendment, these organs instead took that as license to play at the line of reckless disregard for the truth. How else could a Pulitzer prize be awarded in part of placing Trump fixer Michael Cohen in Prague to meet with Russian spies, or claim a Trump Organization email server was instead a secret communications portal to the Kremlin via Alfa Bank? How could the standard in Sullivan meant to promote robust debate end up protecting a serious column in the Washington Post headlined “Here are 18 reasons Trump Could Be a Russian Asset” without the retort of a defamation suit available?

    Sullivan was meant to protect the underlying value of debate even in the face of product of carelessness and substandard journalistic methods. Its era has passed, wasted by the modern media on confections like YouTube and frauds like Russiagate. The Times of 1964 earned the right to make mistakes in service to a greater good; the Times of 2023 would embarrass its earlier self in how it has exploited such a gift.

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  • Free Speech and Fair Play are a Bitch

    July 14, 2023 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy

    If there were two lessons from the high school civics class most Americans seemed to skip that they should learn now they are: rights are for everyone and free speech sometimes protects speech you don’t like yourself. Luckily, the Supreme Court recently offered America a tutorial on both topics.

    In Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. University of North Carolina the Court made the common sense ruling that discrimination of some colors of people is a poor way to fix discrimination of other colors of people. What woke mind could possibly conceive that the 14th Amendment’s equal protection under the law meant treating a large portion of the population grossly unfairly at the expense of another? Kind of a common-sense argument but one America needed to travel all the way to the Supreme Court to resolve.

    Starting back with 1979’s Bakke and largely confirmed by the Supreme Court in 2003’s Grutter, America’s higher education institutions decided it was they who would fix systemic racism in America by offering preferential treatment by race, specifically, white and yellow colored students were considered less deserving of a good education at say Harvard, and had to sit out the Ivy League so that some black and brown kids could take their places. The word for this back in the day was not racism (which it was) but “affirmative action.” It would right wrongs. This “reverse discrimination” was allowed through some clever word play because its goal of a diverse student body was considered a “compelling state interest” that overshadowed other compelling interests, such as equal protection for all under the law. It was sanctioned by the Supreme Court of its day, but only as a temporary solution; Justice Sarah Day O’Conner in one of the key cases upholding affirmative action wrote, “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”

    It didn’t seem to work, short or long term, in significantly changing society, if black and brown activists of 2023 are to be believed. Decades of pushing aside white and yellow kids (the former privileged because once upon a time other unrelated white people owned slaves and the latter just too damn hard working and smart) for black and brown did not seem significantly change society. There are of course individual examples, both fake (blacks or browns who would have succeeded in any system) and occasionally real, true by-their-bootstraps stories once they got that helping hand.

    “When affirmative action was conceptualized, it was to right past wrongs,” one commenter said. “Then, it became sort of endless. It wasn’t just African Americans. It was Native Americans and Hispanics. And then it was women, LGBT, etc., and that wiped out the moral imperative of it a little, because diversity is not quite as strong a claim as correcting past wrongs.”

    There were other problems. Letting someone into Harvard is not the same as him succeeding at Harvard. I learned that in high school too, by the way. If some program had sent me to an Ivy school at age 18 I would have failed miserably, coming out of a non-rigorous but nice enough Ohio high school where upon graduation I had neither read one classic book nor written one proper research paper. I think Harvard expects you to know that kind of thing and white as I am, I would have floundered. I’m sure they have some sort of remedial program for their unqualified students but it seems unlikely to make up for many years of half-hearted education before it. And that exposes another dirty little secret about why affirmative action failed; America is divided by class, not race (though the two overlap in a Venn diagram.)

    America’s second recent high school civics lesson is you as an individual may not like everything other people use their freedom of speech to say and do; in fact, their deeply held beliefs may run 180 degrees from yours. Protip for exam time: this is the whole point of the First Amendment free speech clause and it was on display in another recent Supreme Court decision, 303 Creative v. Elenis.

    The crux of the case is that one side, a web designer, wanted to know what would happen if she refused to produce a hypothetical celebratory wedding page for a gay couple, claiming her religion did not allow her to support same-sex marriage. The couple would have sued because of course they would, likely claiming as a protected class by sex in Colorado, the cake maker must be forced by the government to make the cake they wanted celebrating their nuptials. Lower courts had weighed in in favor, claiming various cake makers, florists, and web designers must be forced to practice their craft (i.e., their expression, their speech) to avoid LGBT discrimination. It was as if one side had more rights than they other and would have resulted in the government of the United States using the threat of arrest or fine to force the web designer to produce speech she was opposed to.

    That’s a big no-no in a democracy, compelling speech.

    Though the state can demand businesses provide goods and services to all customers in protected categories, it cannot demand individuals engage in speech proclaiming messages that they oppose, such as in web page design. In Justice Samuel Alito’s words, a win for the state of Colorado would mean some businesses that provide custom speech for customers could be forced to “espouse things they loathe.”

    This all goes back to 1943’s West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette when during WWII the Supreme Court held West Virginia could not make Jehovah’s Witness students pledge allegiance to the American flag. The decision contained arguably the most famous finding in American First Amendment law: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” The key finding in 303 Creative is the designer is not denying a service on the basis of status of a protected class but instead refusing to engage in speech because she disagreed with its message (Masterpiece Cakeshop failed to yield a definitive ruling and is not relevant here.)

    Despite all the hub-bub, the Court correctly applied the broader civics class way of thinking in 2023, focusing on the First Amendment speech clause, and said nothing directly about the more contentious and limited religious aspect of all this, and passed on 2023’s wokist definition of discrimination. Had the recent case involved a Jehovah’s Witness’ web page and not ostensibly something to do with gay rights, you would barely have heard of the matter even though the real significance would have been about the same.

    It’s easy to forget most of what you heard in high school, especially in a one-off class like civics. But common sense can get you a long ways. It is easy to write off the Court’s decision in Students for Fair Admissions as discriminatory, with only a little thought that what it did away with — affirmative action — was discriminatory as heck. Same for 303 Creative v. Elenis, which is being promoted by the MSM as anti-LGBT thing when in fact it is an example of how robust our First Amendment is. At the Founding no one could have conceived of a free speech battle between a web designer and gay clients, but that is what the First Amendment expanded to take in. The Supreme Court has not gone rogue, and democracy is not in danger. These two recent cases prove if anything the system is flexible for the times and robust in defending the most basic freedoms a democracy is built upon.

     

     

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  • Fixing the Security Clearance Process

    May 5, 2023 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: NSA, Other Ideas, Post-Constitution America

    How do you fix the security clearance process?

    The security clearance process is not a real-time, ongoing endeavor. Instead, someone applies for a government or contractor job that requires a clearance, some sort of background check is done, and a clearance decision is adjudicated. Next case, please. Most clearances are only reviewed every five years and then investigators lean heavily on anything new or changed, and especially on the subject’s performance those five years. Even agencies that use the polygraph employ an abbreviated version of the test when renewing a security clearance. There is no 365/24/7 continuous reevaluation process. Of course records checks are done, a felony arrest properly documented might pop up, and many agencies yearly run standard credit checks and conduct random drug tests. But overall, absent something self-reported or too obvious to ignore, a clearance rides for five years, sometimes literally with no questions asked. How could it be otherwise with over five million active cleared Americans strung across the globe?

    It doesn’t always work out. As happened following the process’ failure with people like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, now with Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira, much noise will be generated about “doing something” to fix the clearance process. But what?

    Dramatically increasing the number and scope of on-the-street investigations as part of background checks will spiral wildly into crazy expenses and even longer waiting periods to complete clearances. It could bring the hiring process to its knees, and spawn more and more “temporary clearances,” a self-defeating act. This all with no assurance of better results due to both limitations on the whole concept (past behavior in a wholly different environment like high school may not be indicative of future intent under real-world pressures, as in the Teixeira and Manning cases) or simply human judgment errors. If done properly, such changes might even catch a few of the Teixeira’s out there, but to be honest, there are few Teixeira’s out there to begin with and most of them will be sending up obvious danger signals at work for a long time if anyone would pay attention before a clearance review catches up.

    In the interest of never letting a good crisis go to waste, the Biden Administration is now reportedly planning to increase its surveillance of social media and online chatrooms, as if not understanding the internet is a very big place. It is certain that many more in government will call for more aggressive “monitoring” of employees, having them sign away basically all of their civil rights in return for a job. The government will turn its vast intelligence gathering tools further inward and end up pointlessly compiling CIA officers’ credit card receipts from Applebee’s, the web browsing habits of diplomats’ children, and so forth. In truth, a lot of that is probably already going on now anyway (the CIA and other intel agencies have had for years robust counterintelligence operations designed specifically to spy on their own spies.) But you just can’t see into a person’s head, or his heart, via his bank account.

    In addition to a huge waste of money and resources, these measures will inevitably lead to more mistrust and paranoia inside government. Lack of sharing (the CIA believes things it shares with State get leaked, the Army won’t give things away to the Navy, the FBI hoards info so as to not let another part of the Department of Justice get credit for a bust, the NSA doesn’t trust anyone, and so forth) is already an issue among agencies, and even inside of agencies, and helped pave the way for 9/11.

    In addition, handing even more power to security teams will also not work well in the long run. Hyper-scrutiny will no doubt discourage more decent people from seeking government work, unwilling to throw their lives open for a job if they have prospects elsewhere. The Red Scare of the 1950s, and the less-known Lavender Scares, when labeling someone gay inside government would see him fired, show what happens when security holds too many cards. James Jesus Angleton’s paranoid mole hunting at CIA, which ruined many careers, is still a sore point at Langley. No, unleashing the bullies won’t help.

    As a wise man once said, cut through all the lies and there it is, right in front of you. The only answer to the clearance problem is to simply require fewer cleared people inside government.

    This will require the tsunami of document classification to be dammed. In FY2009 alone, 54 million U.S. Government documents were classified. Every one of those required cleared authors and editors, system administrators and database technicians, security personnel, and electronic repair persons. Even the cafeteria personnel who fed them lunch needed some sort of vetting.

    With fewer people to clear because there is less classified material to begin with, always-limited resources can be better focused. Better background checks can be done. Corners need not be cut, and unqualified people would not be issued clearances out of necessity. Processing time would be reduced. Human judgment, always the weak link, could be applied more slowly and more deliberately, with more checks and balances involved.

    More monitoring won’t help and will very likely hurt. In a challenge as inherently flawed as the clearance process, the only way forward is less, not more.

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  • MyPillow and Defamation

    October 25, 2022 // 0 Comments

    Posted in: Democracy

    Donald Trump is suing CNN for $475 million for defamation, claiming the network associated him with Adolf Hitler and portrayed him as a Russian lackey. E. Jean Carroll is in turn suing Trump for defamation in connection with him allegedly raping her. Mike Lindell is being sued for $1.3 billion for defamation in connection with remarks he made about the 2020 presidential election being false. And way outside politics in America, a foreign English Teacher in Thailand faces two years in jail for defamation over a negative online review of a resort he stayed at.

    What is defamation? Why is it so hard to prove in the U.S. but relatively easy to demonstrate in most other countries?

    Defamation is untruths commonly referred to as libel if in print, and slander if said aloud. Under current law, five standards (we’ll stick with libel but its basically the same for slander) have to be met to succeed: 1) the defamatory words have been published; 2) The person being defamed was identified by the statements; 3) The remarks had a negative impact on the person’s reputation; 4) The named Defendant wrote the defamatory remarks; 5) The published information is demonstrably false or was published with a reckless disregard for the truth. That means it was published without investigating whether it was accurate. We’ll see that last criteria is very hard to prove in most cases in America.

    The standard for libel cases between the media and public figures goes back to 1964’s Sullivan v. The New York Times Company, when the Court held the First Amendment protects media even when they publish false statements, as long as they did not act with “actual malice.” What happened was civil rights leaders had run a full-page fund raising ad in the Times, describing in detail what they called “an unprecedented wave of terror” of police actions against peaceful demonstrators in Montgomery, Alabama. Not all the bad things they accused the cops of doing were true, and made the police look worse then they were. So L.B. Sullivan, in charge of the cops in Montgomery, sued the New York Times for libel, claiming they printed something they knew was false to harm his reputation. In an Alabama court, Sullivan won and the New York Times was ordered to pay $500,000 in damages.

    The Times appealed to the Supreme Court and won. In greater context, Sullivan freed northern journalists to aggressively cover racial issues in the south, shielded from the threat of libel suits. It represented a significant broadening of the 1A.

    The Times argued broadly if a newspaper had to check the accuracy of every criticism of every public official, a free press would be severely limited, and that the 1A required the margin of error to fall on the side of the media in the cases of public officials (things work differently if both parties are private citizens.) The Court responded by creating a new standard for libel of a public figure, “actual malice” defined in short as having the knowledge that something was false or published with “reckless disregard” for truth. Justice William Brennan asserted America’s “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” Free and open debate about the conduct of public officials, the Court reasoned, was more important than occasional, factual errors that might damage officials’ reputations. The standards laid out in Sullivan are why the New York Times has not lost a libel case in America ever since. No other country has such high standards for libel, which is why a Thai resort could win its cases over something as weak as an opinion about poor service.

    A lot of journalism has flowed downhill since Sullivan in 1964, and attitudes toward trusting the media have changed. The media of 1964 set themselves the goal of objectivity, or at least the appearance thereof. In 2022 places like the NYT wear their partisanship as a badge of honor, and they overtly mock and hate people like Mike “The My Pillow Guy” Lindell. They spend years wallowing in stories of far-reaching importance with reckless disregard for the truth, whether that be fake WMDs in Iraq to kick off a war, or Russiagate to try to bring down a president. The glory days of the Pentagon Papers, or the meticulous reporting on Watergate, are long gone.

    The Supreme Court which wrote the liberal standards of Sullivan is also long gone. Last year Justice Neil Gorsuch added his voice to an earlier statement by Justice Clarence Thomas and questioned the standards set in Sullivan. Thomas, in a libel case dissent, specifically scolded the media over conspiracy theories and disinformation. He cited news reports on “the shooting at a pizza shop rumored to be the home of a Satanic child sex abuse ring involving ” and a NYT article involving “online posts falsely labeling someone a thief, a fraudster and a pedophile.” Thomas wrote that “instead of continuing to insulate those who perpetrate lies from traditional remedies like libel suits, we should give them only the protection the First Amendment requires.”

    The new conservative court may have such a revised standard in mind, but not today. Lindell recently had an defamation appeal to the Court rejected by certiorari, when the Court refused to allow review of his decision from a lower court. Michael Lindell, the founder of MyPillow, is fighting a $1.3 billion defamation suit filed in federal court by U.S. Dominion, a company that manufacturers voting machines used in several battleground states. The company claims Lindell defamed them, accusing them of helping rig the election. Lower courts were harsh in their judgment; “As a preliminary matter, a reasonable juror could conclude that the existence of a vast international conspiracy that is ignored by the government but proven by a spreadsheet on an internet blog is so inherently improbable that only a reckless man would believe it,” U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols wrote in his opinion, referring to Lindell and stating his accusation met the standard of reckless disregard for the truth.

    Justice Gorsuch reminded in his own recent dissent (not Lindell’s case) that in 1964 media was dominated by a handful of large operations who routinely “employed legions of investigative reporters, editors, and fact checkers… Network news has since lost most of its viewers. With their fall has come the rise of 24-hour cable news and online media platforms that monetize anything that garners clicks.” Gorsuch is clear this requires a reassessment of Sullivan, and for the first time in a long time has a conservative majority court seated around him perhaps ready to do so. They seem to be waiting for a stronger case than Lindell’s (a libel case involving Sarah Palin was also not adjudicated to any new standard) and in doing so likely will condemn the MyPillow guy in the interim to bankruptcy for his defamatory statements.

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  • Will Putin Nuke Ukraine?

    October 20, 2022 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Biden

    To understand why the conventional nuclear paradigm suggests Putin will not use nuclear (chemical, biological…) weapons in Ukraine, you need only ask why should he?

    The Biden arguments (“Don’t. Don’t. Don’t is Joey’s message to Moscow) are that Putin is irrational, a mad man of sorts, pressed into a corner facing imminent defeat in Ukraine and with that the likelihood of regime change. Except nothing could be further from the truth. Go ahead, name one irrational act, one mad man-level policy decision Putin has made. No, no, quite the opposite. He is not facing “defeat” in the Ukraine as territory trades hands, and can retreat to stable pre-invasion lines in the Donbas and elsewhere with little more than egg on his face, nothing close to defeat (if you’re interested in what defeat looks like, see Kabul 1989 or 2021.) As for regime change, Putin owes nothing to whatever Russian public opinion exists around him, and his pals in power, the so-called oligarchs, have, minus a yacht or two, plundered mightily off sanctions, which have driven up prices for Russian energy exports.

    The primary reason to avoid a nuclear escalation is that it would bring the U.S. or some subset of NATO into the Ukrainian war zone, and this is something Putin would fear, and indeed depending on how much force is applied, could lead to a full-on “defeat” in Ukraine. The U.S. and NATO have been preparing to fight the Soviet Union on the plains of Ukraine for some 70 years (the fall of the Soviet Union, terrorism, Iraq, etc., not withstanding) and the 19th artillery duels that characterize the current conflict would be replaced by endless U.S. precision air strikes. Imagine American A-10s, or even B-52s practically at the edge of space, tearing into those long Russian columns. About the last thing Putin wants is to fight NATO directly over chunks of the Ukraine instead of by (weaker) proxy.

    With those arguments dismissed, we look to the battlefield to see the role a nuclear escalation would play. Looking back at the historical use of nuclear weapons (solely by the United States of course) Putin has roughly four options.

    — One would be a demonstration nuke, say a sea-level low-yield blast outside Odessa designed to rattle the windows, shut off the lights, but otherwise do little harm. As the U.S. concluded in late WWII, demonstrations translate into proving you lack resolve, not that you are committed to nuclear war. Plus the mere use of the nuke pulls the U.S. into the conflict with nothing gained by Russia.

    — Second would be a nuclear attack against a large concentration of Ukrainian troops. Apart from irradiating the territory he hopes to conquer, Putin could achieve something similar, close enough for government work, with an extreme massing of artillery and airpower. A big boom to clear a path, but without the U.S. coming in as an aftereffect. Why go nuclear when the same outcome is available via conventional weapons?

    — Third would be a leadership decapitation strike based on good intelligence that would eliminate President Zelensky. This one a) presumes near-perfect intel (see the American’s failure trying the same gag at the start of two Gulf Wars, shock and awe, which missed Saddam despite all of the resources of the United States) b) that the same could not be accomplished with massed artillery and most importantly c) that Zelensky is really the one-man Washington-Churchill-Patton the western media portrays him as and his loss would have the impact the western media believes it would. If a Zelensky deputy rises from the literal ashes and demands revenge from the people, the gambit fails, maybe even backfires.

    — Last would be the destruction of a Ukrainian city, causing mass civilian casualties and creating nuclear terror to force a swift surrender, the same as with the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the other Japanese cities which would have fallen if surrender had not happened fast enough. Despite the firebombing of Tokyo (never mind Coventry and Dresden) WWII proved to America nothing raises terror like the use of nuclear weapons. Skin melted in Coventry same as at Hiroshima (which used to be known as Ground Zero until a one and only successful air strike hit America) but it is Hiroshima we remember most. In Ukraine this would be intended less as a Strangelovian exchange than a tactical escalation.

    The problem with option four, the nuclear destruction of Kiev, or of the western city of Lviv (to destroy the supply chain providing arms through Poland) is world opinion. By the time the U.S. destroyed two Japanese cities’ worth of women and children the world was weary, weary with war itself and weary of earlier atrocities. Compared with the Holocaust, Nanjing, and the firebombing, the nuclear end of WWII allowed the U.S. to get away with it by taking place within the context of horrific violence. Nothing such is a factor in 2022; Putin was after all the aggressor in this latest fight and there is no Auschwitz to distract. And as much as Putin is less dependent on world opinion than say the U.S., he is dependent. He needs India and most of all China to see him as a good enough guy to buy and resell his oil and gas. If anything would drive Germany to suck it up and endure a frigid winter without Russian energy it would be such an atomic attack on Ukrainian civilians.

    President Biden has made it clear any use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine would be “completely unacceptable” and “entail severe consequences.” But his administration has remained publicly ambiguous about what those consequences would be. The key element would be to press Putin to back down, not to force him to double down. For example, a nuclear demonstration explosion by Russia could see the U.S. sinking another Russian ship in the Black Sea and the tit-for-tat might be complete. But a more robust American response, say the carpet bombing of a Russian field division, might only press the Russians to try again.

    For risk of escalation, Biden should not respond to nukes with nukes. The risk is too great. Neither Putin nor Biden should be the one history books record as the man alongside Harry Truman neck deep in WWII to use nuclear weapons. Having come of political age during the Cold War, Biden should know better than to talk loosely of nuclear weapons, as should Putin. It is crudely reassuring the people who see the greatest possibility of nuclear combat are the MSM hoping to generate clicks and views off the increase in tensions, not the two men who know in their bellies nothing in the Ukraine is worth it.

    At some point in every war gamed scenario where one side does not just call STOP the lizard brains take over and one thing leads to another until someone starts wondering in Washington and Moscow if they’ll live to see their kids go off to school Monday morning. We are already playing a lower-level game of chicken with the Russians in Ukraine and should not look to opportunities to really see who swerves first should come that threatened nightfall.

     

     

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  • Negotiations Continue on Guns and Abortions

    August 1, 2022 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America, Uncategorized

    We don’t really negotiate much in the U.S. and so we’re bad at it. Even when we are forced to “haggle,” we employ rituals, like the salesperson at a used car dealership “checking with his manager” on our offers, or the dance between real estate agents that goes along with buying a house. Car offers come back from the mysterious manager as impossible, and offers on a house are just refused, no chance to talk because two layers of agents stand in the way. That’s why we cannot find any common ground on abortion and gun control. We do not know how to be reasonable.

    The American style of negotiating is to demand everything and settle for nothing less. So we’re taught to make our first offer the final offer (it works a little different when the issue is simply money, then we ask for an outrageous amount and “bargain down” after the other side offers an equally outrageous small amount. Starting anywhere near your actual price is considered a sign of weakness.) We don’t like gray areas and we don’t like to feel we’ve lost out on something. So being asked to support something on its face reasonable like allowing two people in love living together in a home they co-own to marry means buying into a whole LGBTQIA2+ agenda that somehow includes forcing kids to listen to drag queens read stories aloud about sexually ambitious caterpillars and their same-sex tadpole pals. Seeking restrictions on abortion ends up cruelly forcing rape and incest victims to carry to term.

    We do the same thing in broader swathes, when reporters who misuse pronouns or support the Harry Potter author are not just sidelined or argued with, but canceled, deleted, defunded, disenfranchised, literally thrown down the memory hole to just take their opinion and go away, leaving only your opinion standing. The presumption is even on the most ideological of arguments there is a clear right and wrong only. We have evolved speech to match this mindset, things like “my way or the highway,” “all or nothing,” and “in or out.”

    Back in the day when I worked for the State Department every summer embassies abroad had to ask for funding for summer hires to help us catch up on clerical work. There was only so much money around and not everyone could get all they wanted. At first I did what was standard, ask for ten people knowing I only needed five, with all sorts of silly justifications I had to eventually walk back. One year I played it different. I wrote in detail what five people would do, what would not get done with only four, and why six would be a waste of personnel. That year and the ones that followed were the easiest ever; Washington and I jumped right to the meat of the problem and nobody was forced to belittle the other on the road to negotiating a compromise.

    That’s what did not happen recently in overturning Roe v. Wade. Though Roe was poor jurisprudence and Constitutionally hilarious, it was the product of negotiation. First trimester abortions were basically allowed, second term were generally allowed, and third was more or less up to the states.  Roe produced a workable solution to a very complex problem, uniquely American as it combined religious, moral, and Red and Blue thought into what was often falsely presented as a binary decision — abortion was legal or not. The compromises in Roe were far from perfect or widely accepted, simply the output of a beleaguered Court willing to talk about something the rest of America would not.

    The problem was Roe’s supporters and opponents almost from day one set about trying to take a compromise solution and make it an absolute. States latched on to their freedom to dictate third semester rules by gleefully promoting gory end term abortions where a viable baby was aborted. There can be good medical reasons to consider this, but the issue was not presented that way, it was “a woman’s right.” Same on the other side. Clever legal tricks were deployed so that, sure, you can get a first trimester abortion, only not where clinic regulations and hospital affiliations were manipulated to make it near impossible to meet the standards. As was intended. No one was going to sit back and allow compromise to stand.

    The Court itself is not immune; in combination with the gutting of Roe (another all or nothing type decision) Judge Clarence Thomas opened the door to ending Federal law allowing for same sex marriage. If you can’t have all the rights you should have none of them he seems to be saying to the Left. Specifically, Thomas was threatening Griswold v. Connecticut, a 1965 decision that declared married couples had a right to contraception; Lawrence v. Texas, a 2003 case invalidating sodomy laws and making same-sex sexual activity legal across the country; and Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 case establishing the right of gay couples to marry. How again are those directly related to the hyper-complex issue of abortion?

    More importantly, has anything changed in society that requires a new look, something gone amiss? No, the only thing that has changed is a different side now holds a majority on the Court and wants to run with it. They have no more interest in compromise than the demonstrators massing around Justices’ homes in hopes of harassing them into compliance with the mob, or AOC on TV screaming people are going to die.

    Same for gun control, the other recent Supreme Court decision. In New York State Rifle v. Bruen, the Supreme Court again swung widely. The existing law, basically saying the right to bear arms in the 2A did not automatically mean a right to openly carry arms in public, had been misused by anti-gun states. In Hawaii, for example, every single open carry permit had to be approved personally by the chief of police. Multiple chiefs over a period of recent years found no reason to approve even a single permit and in the past 22 years there have been four open carry permits issued in Hawaii; all or nothing, as if somehow not one applicant in recent memory was capable of safely openly carrying a weapon. So the response from the now-conservative Supreme Court was to do away with provisions governing carrying a weapon. The counter-response from those states who are anti-gun, such as Hawaii, is to promise to jerry-rig their laws with outrageous training requirements or exorbitant fees to somehow get around the Court’s perceived free-for-all, and to cite recent mass shootings (which had nothing to do with handguns or open carry laws) as fear-inducing excuses. Nobody sees any of the middle ground of reality.

    And that is why the Supreme Court’s rulings on abortion and gun carry law resolve nothing. In the extreme progressives will simply wait it out until it is 1973 again, and the Court will have turned over to a more liberal group of jurists who will reinstate black to replace white or vice-versa. The real answer on abortion, a rough and robust debate in Congress followed by a set of compromises, or an equally rough and robust debate at the state level, will never come. Americans are not very good at negotiating and so usually pay more at the car dealer than they should. The same problems plagues us on much more serious issues regarding abortion and the Second Amendment and that ends up costing us a lot more.

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  • Sarah Palin v. New York Times v. and the First Amendment

    February 19, 2022 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy

    What is Sarah Palin up to suing the New York Times for libel? Is she really trying to change the First Amendment and does she know what she is doing?

    Palin v. The New York Times Company is now before a district court in New York, and no matter the verdict is also certainly headed for the Supreme Court. It seeks to overturn precedent from 1964 that gave America some of the world’s strictest libel laws, laws which depending on which way the wind is blowing (i.e., if the media is red or blue and if the offended politician is red or blue) either allow for fake news and misinformation, or protect the 1A rights of a free press. So oh yes, the Palin case is political.

    The story began on June 14, 2017, when a left-wing activist shot at Republican politicians playing baseball on a field in Virginia (wounding, among others, Louisiana’s Steve Scalise). The NYT wrote “Was this attack evidence of how vicious American politics has become? Probably. In 2011, when Jared Lee Loughner opened fire in a supermarket parking lot, grievously wounding Representative Gabby Giffords and killing six people, including a 9-year-old-girl, the link to political incitement was clear. Before the shooting, Sarah Palin’s political action committee circulated a map of targeted electoral districts that put Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized cross hairs.”

    The Times quickly issued multiple “corrections,” pointing out it had “incorrectly stated that a link existed between political rhetoric and the 2011 shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords. In fact, no such link was established. The editorial also incorrectly described a map distributed by [Palin’s] political action committee before that shooting. It depicted electoral districts, not individual Democratic lawmakers, beneath stylized cross hairs.”

    Palin filed a libel suit, quickly dismissed, stating the Times defamed her in claiming her PAC’s advertising somehow incited people to violence, and the Times darn well knew it was not true. After five years of wrangling, Palin got the case reinstated and it is now ongoing in New York.

    Under current law, four standards have to be met to succeed. Palin has to show 1) what the Times wrote was false. Not in contention, they knew it and issued corrections; 2) the article specifically referred to Palin; yep.  3) That what the Times wrote was defamatory, which caused Palin harm and 4) the Times knew what it published was false or that in publishing them it showed a reckless disregard for the truth. Number 4 refers to the standard of “actual malice.”

     

    The standard for libel cases between the media and public figures goes back to 1964’s Sullivan v. The New York Times Company, when the Court held the First Amendment protects media even when they publish false statements, as long as they did not act with “actual malice.” What happened was civil rights leaders had run a full-page fund raising ad in the Times, describing in detail what they called “an unprecedented wave of terror” of police actions against peaceful demonstrators in Montgomery, Alabama. Not all the bad things they accused the cops of doing were true, and made the police look worse then they were. So L.B. Sullivan, in charge of the police response in Montgomery, sued the New York Times for libel, claiming they printed something they knew was false and harm his reputation. In an Alabama court, Sullivan won and the New York Times was ordered to pay $500,000 in damages.

    The Times appealed to the Supreme Court and won. In greater context, Sullivan freed northern journalists to aggressively cover racial issues in the south, shielded from the threat of libel suits. It represented a significant broadening of the 1A.

    The Times argued broadly if a newspaper had to check the accuracy of every criticism of every public official, a free press would be severely limited, and that the 1A required the margin of error to fall on the side of the media in the cases of public officials (things work differently if both parties are private citizens.) The Court responded by creating a new standard for libel of a public figure, “actual malice” defined in short as having the knowledge that something was false or published with “reckless disregard” for truth. Justice William Brennan asserted America’s “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” Free and open debate about the conduct of public officials, the Court reasoned, was more important than occasional, factual errors that might damage officials’ reputations.

    The standards laid out in Sullivan are why the New York Times has not lost a libel case in America ever since.

    In the Palin case, to avoid disturbing the precedent, the Times is arguing their article did no harm to Sarah Palin. She continues to bop around the national political arena doing whatever it is she does. Palin’s side is leaning on the precedent directly, arguing the Times had no evidence whatsoever that her PAC had incited anyone, never mind the instant shooting case, and that the Times employee who wrote the original article thus exhibited “reckless disregard” for the truth and claimed “the reason he didn’t check these facts is simple. He didn’t care.” The case is in early days, but everyone already can map out what the arguments are going to have to be, based on the criteria in Sullivan.

     

    A lot of journalistic slush has flowed downhill since Sullivan in 1964, and attitudes toward trusting the media have changed. The media of 1964 set themselves the goal of objectivity, or at least the appearance thereof. In 2022 places like the NYT wear their partisanship as a badge of honor, and they overtly mock and hate people like Sarah “Caribou Barbie” Palin. They spend years wallowing in stories of far-reaching importance with reckless disregard for the truth, whether that be fake WMDs in Iraq to kick off a war, or Russiagate to try to bring down a president. The glory days of the Pentagon Papers, or the meticulous reporting on Watergate, are long, long gone.

    The Supreme Court which wrote Sullivan is also long gone. Completely separate from Palin’s lawsuit, last year Justice Neil Gorsuch added his voice to an earlier statement by Justice Clarence Thomas and questioned the standards set in Sullivan. Thomas, in a libel case dissent, specifically scolded the media over conspiracy theories and disinformation. He cited news reports on “the shooting at a pizza shop rumored to be the home of a Satanic child sex abuse ring involving ” and a NYT article involving “online posts falsely labeling someone a thief, a fraudster and a pedophile.” Thomas wrote that “instead of continuing to insulate those who perpetrate lies from traditional remedies like libel suits, we should give them only the protection the First Amendment requires.”

    Siding with Thomas, Justice Gorsuch reminded in his own recent dissent in 1964 media was dominated by a handful of large operations who routinely “employed legions of investigative reporters, editors, and fact checkers… Network news has since lost most of its viewers. With their fall has come the rise of 24-hour cable news and online media platforms that monetize anything that garners clicks.” Gorsuch is clear this requires a reassessment of Sullivan, and for the first time in a long time has a conservative majority court seated around him perhaps ready to do so. This all in the face of likely presidential candidate Donald Trump, whose criticism of libel laws, focused on Bob Woodward’s books about his presidency, is well-known.

    Sarah Palin’s case against the New York Times comes at this junction in history. It leaves many with a bad taste in their mouths, particularly those who generally support broader First Amendment rights. A ruling which lessens the standards in Sullivan and ultimately leaves Palin the winner (libel laws are technically state-level torts, but the Supreme Court defines the boundaries in line with the Constitution) would have a chilling affect on the media. Maybe not super-media like the Times which has money for lawyers and relishes a good 1A fight, but smaller outlets who could not afford to defend themselves. Everyone remembers the demise of Gawker.

    At the same time, if the Court rules against the Times and allows a new standard which encourages more public figures to sue, it will only be the media’s own fault. Given the freedom under Sullivan to have close calls always fall their way, too many in the MSM purposefully exploited that treasure, using the 1A as a dummy front for sensationalizing garbage and outright partisan propaganda. It is unlikely in a post-Sullivan world Russiagate would have become a three year media event. In that instance, as the truth was exposed and falsehoods revealed about even the minor players, their libel suits would have stopped the whole thing cold. As Justice Gorsuch wrote, the Sullivan standard Palin is contesting has offered an “ironclad subsidy for the publication of falsehoods” by a growing number of media that can disseminate sensational information with little regard for the truth. Maybe its time to change that.

     

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  • Two Truths, a Question and the Problem with Incitement

    January 14, 2022 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy, Trump


     
    One truth is the 2020 campaign never really ended. On paper Joe Biden became president and Donald Trump became a real estate developer again, but in reality Biden is simply a placeholder and Trump an active candidate for the presidency in 2024.

    A second truth is in the law, unlike in propaganda and journalism as it is practiced today, words have very precise and specific meanings. Terms like assault, for example are well-defined by decades of case law. You can write gobbledy guck about things like a “verbal microaggressive assault” but that’s just for the rubes; don’t expect the case to make it to court. The same for terms like incitement, hate speech, and conspiracy. Never mind terrorism, treason or sedition.

    The question is: after five years of failed, false accusations against Trump (Russiagate on down), how valid of an election strategy is it to twist vernacular definitions into quasi-legal ones? After so many instances of crying wolf (walls closing in, tick tock, etc,) will doing it all again over the events of January 6 actually win votes for the Democratic candidate, or will voters finally realize the Emperor’s arguments about Trump have no clothing and stay home?

     

    Absent some Pearl Harbor-scale event, it is difficult to see what the Dems can run on in 2024. It is unlikely the Democrats will emerge from the 2022 midterms with a new majority, meaning all of their domestic agenda promises are shot. They are likely to lose the battle over Roe, and accomplish little on immigration other than the half-arsed decision to stop enforcing immigration law on the southern border. Even if Mother Nature casts a vote and cleans up Covid somehow, it will be difficult for Democrats to take much credit. They have no clear plan for unfutzing the economy and any progress made will be seen as catch-up at best. Tearing down statues and appointing transpeople only goes so far.

    Their whole strategy for 2024 is to make people believe Trump tried to overthrow the Constitution on January 6, and having failed sulk away to embrace the electoral process and just run for president again. It’s a tough ask. Propaganda/journalism have failed to sway many minds. To succeed it’s going to require something real, an actual court finding Trump actually guilty of an actual crime that meets the expectations set after flinging around words like treason and sedition. Some goofy tax problem in a New York state court or empty process crimes like “conspiracy to…” which dragged the Russiagate mess, will not be enough.

    The issue? In the law, unlike in propaganda and journalism as it is practiced today, words have very precise and specific meanings. Problem One is there was no coup. Presided over by Trump non-accomplice Mike Pence, Congress did its job. Biden took office. Trump went home. The rioters went home. After a year of efforts none of the 700 some prosecutions have been for anything close to sedition or treason, mostly just fluffy versions of trespassing. None claimed they acted on orders from Trump, Don Jr. or the Pillow Guy. Despite all the over-blown Powerpoints and texts, there was no realistic path toward a coup taking place. That is a very high bar to climb over and prove something serious like treason. You need a fire to prove arson.

    So the Dems and media are left with some lawyering to do, in their minds the equivalent of taking down Al Capone on tax violations. The problem is Capone really did fail to pay taxes. Trump’s actions were instead legal under the First Amendment. The smoking gun can’t have been loaded with blanks.

     

    So the focus ends up on the one thing Trump actually did do on January 6, speak at the Stop the Steal rally. Dems argue his words constitute incitement. You can reread them, but it would be more productive to spend some time learning what actually is and is not incitement.

    A democracy can’t lock up everyone who stirs up a crowd. Speech which inspires, motivates or stirs up the blood cannot be illegal as it is the very stuff of democracy. Trump thought the election was unfair and had a Constitutional right to say so. Democracy could not exist if the law held every speaker responsible for whatever people who heard him talk did later. A finer line was needed.
    The first try at restricting “dangerous speech” was Schenck v. United States, which produced the misunderstood line about not shouting Fire! in a crowded theatre. It would be for the later case of Brandenburg v. Ohio to refine the modern standard for restricting speech. It tightened the criteria to 1) the speech explicitly or implicitly encouraged the use of violence or lawless action; 2) the speaker intends their speech will result in the use of violence or lawless action, and 3) the imminent use of violence or lawless action is the likely result of the speech. Brandenburg is the Supreme Court’s statement on what government may do about speech that seeks to incite others to lawless action.

    The key to Brandenburg is intent. You have to prove, not just speculate, the speaker wanted to cause violence. A hostile reaction of a crowd does not automatically transform protected speech into incitement. Listeners’ reaction to speech is thus not alone a basis for regulation, or for taking action against a speaker. The speaker had to clearly want to cause some specific illegal act. You need to prove Trump wanted the crowd to attack the Capitol (he instead tells them to walk there and cheer on the legislators “who do the right thing” and “to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard”) and set out to find the words to make that happen.

    In the 1982 Claiborne v. NAACP the Court ruled civil rights leaders were not responsible for a crowd which, after hearing them speak, burned down a white man’s store. The state’s argument, rejected by the Court, was that no matter how they disguised their codewords and dog whistles, the leaders just knew their inflammatory rhetoric would drive the crowd to violence. Nope, said the Court, the standard is simple, the actual words spoken.

    The law is similar for sedition, seeking to overthrow the government by force. This is intimately tied to the concept of free speech in that any true attempt at illegal overthrow, as well as any legitimate criticism of the government, will both include persuasion and stirring up of crowds. The line between criticizing the government and organizing for it to be overthrown is a critical juncture in a democracy. The law requires the government prove someone conspired to use force to overthrow the government. Simply advocating broadly for the use of violence is not the same thing as violence and in most cases is protected as free speech. That’s why no one from January 6 has been or will be charged with sedition or treason or anything similar. For example, suggesting the need for revolution “by any means necessary” is unlikely to be seen as conspiracy to overthrow the government by force. Actively planning such an action (distributing guns, working out the logistics, actively opposing lawful authority, etc.) could be considered sedition. But that’s not what happened with Trump on January 6.

    Most of the rest of the guff around Trump and January 6 is even emptier of substance, things like “giving aid or comfort” to those committing sedition, conspiracy to forcibly “prevent, hinder or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or corruptly impede any official proceeding. The Dems focus in this sphere is on what Trump did not do to stop the riot, particularly his taking three hours to issue a video request for the rioters to go home. The over-arching problem is that crimes generally require you to do something. Not doing things, or not doing them fast enough to the Dems satisfaction, is hardly a chargeable crime.

    The clearest sign there is nothing real behind the exaggerated claims surrounding January 6 is that after an impeachment, a calendar year passing, and 700 some low-level prosecutions, nothing much has been proven. As with Russiagate, the more time that passes with nothing but media-generated smoke the less likely there is anything more. Even die-hard Trump Derangement Syndrome sufferers like Laurence Tribe are reduced to weakly calling for more robust investigations instead of beating the drum for execution. Time for the left to lump Merrick Garland in with Robert Mueller as a great failure.

    There is certainly room to judge Trump’s actions on January 6. But that judgement must come from the voters, not a kangaroo court, if you want to talk about preserving the rule of law.

       

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  • Seeing the Future: The 2024 Presidential Campaign

    December 13, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Biden, Democracy, Post-Constitution America, Trump


     
    I punched Elon Musk in the nose. I figured, why not, he’s a jerk. Little did I know my punch would dislodge a chunk of artisanal tofu he was in the process of choking on and save his life. To say thanks, he offered to pay for a private Spice Girls reunion (minus Posh) for me on the next Space X flight. I hesitated, and he smiled wickedly and said “Or you could be the first man to test my time machine…”

    I landed right in the middle of the 2024 presidential campaign.

    It had been a hard run for the Democrats. After a harrowing primary season with several hundred candidates confused voters, the Party simply started listing them on the ballots as the black one, the gender-ambiguous one, Beto, the guy who looked like Beto but was from Ohio, and no-chance Governors I, II, and III. Even this proved too much, and in the end Democrats nominated a visibly intubated Joe Biden for a second term. There was no attempt to hide the fact that Joe might be technically dead, with various medical devices animating him. Dr. Jill would always be at his side and catching her lips moving while Joe “talked” was a popular Tik-Tok meme. Kamala was listed for legal purposes as the VP but made no public appearances. It was unclear she still lived in North America.

    Biden’s problems had accumulated over the last three years like a bad Sunday night snowfall. The Biden infrastructure plan, once called Build Back Better and priced at $3.5 trillion, had been ground down after years of debate to just offering free parking at some sporting events. A Dem plan to turn chanting of “F**k Joe Biden” into a joke fake Tindr profile proved embarrassing, as did suggesting America’s next aircraft carrier be named the USS George Floyd. Finally, after the Great 2022 Midterm Massacre, the Democrats gave up on actual legislation and stuck entirely to renaming Civil War memorials after modern day trans heroes. The final blow to Democratic power came when the Republican majority beat up the last Democratic senators in the cafeteria and stole their lunch money (“an attempted coup,” reported Maddow.) Colbert is still talking about it, threatening to tell a teacher on them all.

    Foreign policy-wise, Biden was further embarrassed when the Taliban legalized casino gambling and turned Afghanistan into a global celebrity mecca. The last Americans were finally evacuated on George Clooney’s private jet. Desperate, the Biden administration tried to pick a fight with China. Things got hot after a Chinese warship supposedly rammed an American one in the Gulf of Tonkin, but the nascent war was stopped by Jeff Bezos. Bezos, through quiet acquisitions, had secretly become the world’s largest arms dealer, and ended the fight before it really began by cutting off supplies to both countries. By summer 2024, the only thing left for Democrats to run on was the slogan “Red, White, Blue, Not Orange” and rumors Trump had plans for a new hotel-casino in Kabul.

    Candidate Trump had not yet chosen his running mate. Instead of the usual nominating convention setting, Trump planned an Apprentice: VP Edition live TV special. After vetting multiple candidates by blood type (“The 25th Amendment may require him to donate organs to me,” Trump tweeted. Yeah, that’s back, too) the candidate planned what the MSM dubbed “political-style Squid Games” to make the final decision. Behind his new signature slogan, I Won’t Tell Your Wife You Voted for Me, Trump filled stadiums. By the end of summer he had mostly abandoned actual speeches in favor of simply scowling from the podium and spitting. MSNBC claimed Trump was secretly messaging voters that his saliva contained magic powers, while CNN focused increasingly on videos of its reporters punching random Trump voters in the stomach under its new ownership by the Bill, Hillary, Chelsea, and Jeffrey Epstein Foundation.

    The real news from 2024 is that the actual voting process had changed so much no one was sure how a winner would be chosen. Championed by California, actual “mail-in” voting began a year before election day and allowed anyone to vote via Twitter RT for Democrats, while requiring Republican voters to solve a series of increasingly complex puzzles to reveal the one polling place open to them in-state. Texas on the other hand passed new legislation stating all voters would be assumed to vote Republican unless otherwise noted, and allowing citizens to sue anyone who voted Democrat outside of Austin. As the country approached November 2024, there were 51 distinct and radically different systems. Afghanistan, which had applied for U.S. statehood, was being allowed to vote in 2024 after Jeff Bezos’ personal intervention following his acquisition of 98 percent of its arable land. Bezos’ earlier suggestion, that all voting be done via Prime Points, was pushed forward to 2028.

    The future is grim. The once robust rumble-tumble political system had reached the point where the only viable candidates were two geriatric lab experiments. For the first time in history the sum of both candidates’ disapproval rating was over 100 percent. The voting process itself had devolved into something so crooked and complex the only thing left for the final fall from democracy would be to replace it with actual gladiatorial combat among Red and Blue voters. The absolute only thing American agreed on other than making AOC the permanent host of SNL was a bad idea was that no one believed any election results. The other thing generally understood was in the end who was elected president did not really matter much. No matter who was being kept alive in the Oval Office-ICU, nothing substantive was going to change. The real decisions were being made for sport and profit by the hyper-wealthy. Or it may be that we are just ungovernable. Seeing the future made the future looks hazier than ever before.

    As for the rest, I need to be careful about what I disclose but the new iPhone costs more than the last one. Mick Jagger’s pact with Satan for eternal life seems intact. The most popular movie of 2024 is Casablanca II with Lady Gaga playing the Bogart role, and the most popular job for recent grads is borrowing money from the patriarchy (your dad.) And don’t throw away those Covid masks, you’ll still be wearing them in 2024.

       

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • America Won’t Be Fighting a War with China over Taiwan (So Why the Fuss?)

    October 30, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , , , ,
    Posted in: Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State


    The United States and China will not go to war in our time over Taiwan. China is not engaging in provocative actions leading toward an invasion. So why the fuss?

    I’d prefer to let the argument speak for itself, but my background is relevant. I threw away my Mao (and Che) T-shirt sophomore year. I don’t have a grey pony tail. I know Beijing is not a democratic regime, much like America’s allies across the Middle East and Africa are not. I’ve been in Taiwan when it was under military rule, and China under autocratic rule. The food was great, but I do not want to live that way. So none of this is about defending that. As a U.S. diplomat, I served in Taiwan, Beijing, and Hong Kong, as well as Korea and Japan, and speak a bit of all their languages. Many of my former colleagues, who managed their careers better, now hold senior positions in State’s China and East Asian bureaucracies. I certainly don’t speak for them, but I speak to them.

    Focus is also important; this is about war. It is not about China being unfriendly to democracy in Hong Kong; why act surprised, the government does not like democracy in Shanghai or Guangzhou either. But when we talk about democracy in the area, let’s not forget Hong Kong was taken from Imperial China by force by the British, who exploited it as a colony for most of its history. It was peacefully returned to China in 1997, not taken by China militarily any time along the way. Taiwan was an unimportant and undemocratic place inhabited mostly by indigenous people until 1949, when the Nationalists displaced the locals to create the enclave of the Republic of China. It existed under strict military rule, with U.S. support for the thugs in power, until around 1988. So democracy in China writ large is a fairly new thing. Many might wish to see America as concerned about democracy in Saudi Arabia as it is in Hong Kong.

    China has always been America’s as-needed partner, friend today, adversary tomorrow. An ally during WWII, the U.S. backed away in 1949 after Mao took power, considering China one more link in world Communism’s march to global supremacy. Then in the midst of the Cold War Nixon “opened” China and the place was remade into a friendly bulwark against the Soviets. In 1979 the U.S. diplomatically recognized Beijing and unrecognized Taipei. The U.S. and China then grew into significant trading partners until sometime during the Obama years when China, without a clear precipitating event, morphed again into an adversary (the U.S. called it a pivot toward Asia.) Trump, and now Biden, have since upgraded China into a direct threat. In one of his few unambiguous foreign policy speeches, Biden said “On my watch China will not achieve its goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world.” Biden went on to claim we were at an inflection point to determine “whether or not democracy can function in the 21st century.” Along the way China has always stayed pretty much the same. It’s our fear of the same China which changes.

    Those U.S. fears are mostly bunk. Take for example the boilerplate articles about Chinese “incursions” into Taiwan’s air space. Chinese aircraft are not overflying Taiwan. They are flying within Taiwan’s self-declared Air Defense Identification Zone. Look at a map of that zone, and other zones declared by Japan and China. Taiwan’s zone, the one Beijing is flying in, actually is large enough to cover thousands of miles of the Chinese mainland itself; PLA planes are in violation when sitting on their own runways. Taiwan’s zone also overlaps Beijing’s Air Defense Zone which overlaps Japan’s and Korea’s. Japan’s Air Defense zone also overlap’s Taiwan’s to take in a small island which is disputed between Tokyo and Taipei, a diplomatic fist fight the U.S. ignores. Criss-crossing everyone’s zones are American aircraft conducting “freedom of navigation” exercises (known in Beijing as “incursions.”) Chinese air flights are provocative only to the uninformed, or those who want them to be seen as provocative. Left unsaid: as China was supposedly provoking a fight in the air this October, the U.S. was simultaneously conducting some of the largest multi-national naval exercises in the Pacific since WWII.

    As for that invasion of Taiwan Beijing is accused of planning, no one has ever explained why they would undertake such a enormous risk in the face of little gain. Instead, the articles claiming Beijing is readying for war are like those science fiction movies which begin with the premise most people have disappeared from earth, or some apocalyptical event took place, and then the story of the survivors begins. All the complicated stuff is left unexplained.

    No one seems to examine the reasons China has no reason to invade Taiwan. China and Taiwan do loft rhetorical bombs at each other, particularly around CCP events and political holidays, while maintaining a robust economic relationship. Between 1991 and March 2020 Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. Pre-Covid, travelers from China made 2.68 million visits to Taiwan. China applied in September to join the new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. A week later, with no opposition voiced by Beijing, Taiwan applied to join as well. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. “One country, two systems” has not only kept the peace for decades, it has proven darn profitable for both sides. As Deng Xiao Ping said of this type of modus vivendi, “who cares what color a cat is as long as it catches mice.” China might one day seek to buy Taiwan, but until then what incentive would it have to drop bombs on one of its best customers?

    A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would also require China to fight the United States. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which established the framework behind the U.S. relationships with Beijing and Taipei makes clear Washington will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States” and that the U.S. will “maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” The language, unchanged since the roller disco era, is purposefully one of strategic ambiguity. It was crafted by the parties concerned specifically to incorporate flexibility, not signal weakness. Diplomats on all three sides understand this. Anyone saying the U.S. needs to rattle sabers at China to demonstrate commitment to Taiwan would better spend his time trying to explain away our abandoning Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Arab Spring.

    Apart from the potential the nuclear destruction of the Chinese state (the U.S. has 10 nukes for every one China does) why would China even considering risking war with the U.S.? Total Chinese investment in the U.S. economy is over $145 billion. U.S. investment in China passed $1 trillion. When Covid shut down world logistics, everyone learned the American economy is voluntarily dependent on Chinese manufacturing and vice-versa. The Chinese are literally betting the house on America’s success.

    Because there is no plausible scenario in which China would want to invade Taiwan, we need not dwell on the military impracticality of the thing. A failed invasion of Taiwan would topple Xi. Chinese amphibious forces would be under fire from Taiwan’s F-16s armed with Harpoon anti-ship missiles practically as they left harbor and tried to cross the Taiwan Strait (Harpoons have a range of 67 miles; at its narrowest the Strait is only 80 miles wide. Taiwan will soon field a land-based anti-ship missile with a range of over 200 miles.) How many could even reach the beaches? Estimates are China would need to land one to two million soldiers on day one (on D-Day the Allies put ashore 156,000) against Taiwan’s fortified rocky west coast, navigating among tiny islets themselves laden with anti-ship weapons. China’s primary amphibious assault ship, the Type 075, carries about 1,000 men, meaning something like a 1000-2000 sorties. China currently has only three such ships. Its troops are unblooded in combat. Meanwhile American and British carriers and submarines patrol the waters. American aircraft from Guam, Okinawa, and Korea would shut down the skies, and decimate Chinese aircraft on the ground via stealth, drones, and stand-off missiles. This is not Normandy. It is also not the counterinsurgency struggles which defeated America. It is the Big Power conflict played out in the Strait instead of the Fulda Gap, the war U.S. has been preparing to fight against someone since the 1960s.

    But one of the most compelling arguments China plans no war is they haven’t yet fought any wars. No shots have been fired over the disputed islands, which have rabidly disputed for decades. Taiwan broke away in 1949 and after a handful of artillery exchanges in the 1950s, no shots have been fired. China never moved militarily against British Hong Kong from 1841 forward, or Portuguese Macau from 1557. Chinese President Xi’s rhetoric about reunification is essentially the same as Mao’s. Nothing really seems to have changed to the point where a stable situation has suddenly become unstable enough to lead to war, yet the Financial Times warns “The moment of truth over Taiwan is getting closer” and the NYT headlines “U.S. and China Enter Dangerous Territory Over Taiwan.” The WSJ decided on its own China is ready to “reunify their country through any means necessary.”

    The war fever splash in U.S. media comes with curious timing. The U.S. is provoking a new Cold War to ensure an enemy to struggle against, guarantee robust defense spending for decades, and to make sure there is no repeat of the “peace dividend” that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s the same playbook run from 1945 to 1989 against the USSR. Expensive arms development needs a target: the Soviet Union served well in that role until around 1989, when in the midst of declaring themselves the world’s last superpower, Americans also demanded less spending on the military. A new enemy was quickly found in various flavors in the Middle East, first in Saddam Hussein and then, after 9/11, in basically most Arabs. The terrorist boogeyman was shushed off stage this summer as America retreated from Afghanistan. We’re unlikely to return to the Middle East in force, especially with oil no longer the principle driver of American foreign policy.

    And so to China. Chinese plans to invade Taiwan may be the new WMDs, a justification much talked about but never to materialize. Chinese weapons advances are the new missile gap, and Asia the new frontier in the faux struggle between the forces of good and another damn group of foreigners bent on world domination. Indeed, if anyone seriously believed war was likely, even imminent, where are the calls for diplomacy, a regional summit, some kind of UN help, to resolve tensions? The U.S. doesn’t even have an ambassador in Beijing nine months into the Biden administration.

     

     

    However impractical an invasion might be, how unnecessary, or how risky, hasn’t China declared repeatedly it will reunite with Taiwan? Yes. But if you want to cite Chinese propaganda as evidence of actual intent, it is best to pay attention to the details.

    It was the United States itself that most clearly asserted the shared tripartite goal was reunification, declaring as part of the diplomatic break with Taiwan “there is only one China and Taiwan is a part of it.” Chinese President Xi regularly reiterates reunification as a goal, but always stresses the process is historical (as in, it is inevitable and we just need to be patient, don’t wait up for it to happen) and must be peaceful. Sorry, if you’re going to quote Chinese propaganda statements as proof of intent, you can’t cherry pick out only the scary parts. It makes no sense to trust Xi on the plan but claim he’s lying about the (peaceful) execution in the same breath.

    Not by coincidence most of these reunification proclamations occur around important political holidays. One of Xi’s most recent invocations was in a speech marking the 110th anniversary of the Xinhai 1911 Revolution, aimed at the foreign Manchu Qing dynasty. The chosen occasion is important, because Xinhai, ideologically midwifed by Dr. Sun Yat Sen, is acknowledged by both the most hardcore Communists and the most fervent Nationalists as the common origin point for modern China. This is drilled into every schoolkid on both sides of the Strait and forms a common vocabulary among their diplomats. The point is to understand Xi’s remarks in the same context as the Chinese, not John Wayne, likely do.

    In Sun’s spirit Xi reiterated a vow to peaceful reunification with Taiwan. He urged the Chinese people “stand on the right side of history and join hands to achieve China’s complete reunification,” invoking the way the people who would form the Communist and Nationalist parties worked together against a common enemies — the Manchus, then warlordism and feudalism, then the Japanese, and perhaps someday the Americans. Xi, talking to his own people and those on Taiwan, sketched a shared vision a long way from the PLA amphibious assault the West fears. Xi was also aware that the day before his speech HMS Queen Elizabeth, USS Carl Vinson, USS Ronald Reagan, and Japan’s Ise conducted joint carrier operations in the China Sea featuring the soon-to-be-nuclear-capable F-35 aircraft.

    Far from anything new or provocative, Xi’s rhetoric was consistent with 70 some years of speeches maintaining Beijing has no quarrel with the people on Taiwan, who are today mostly Mandarin-speaking ethnically Han Chinese same as in Beijing. Instead, the theme has always been a few bad apples in Taiwan’s government are preventing all Chinese from seeing they need to work together. To invade Taiwan, China would commit itself to killing Chinese, something that would cause Xi to lose legitimacy in the eyes of his own people; the Mandate of Heaven still applies. Meanwhile, on Taiwan, the current president more or less acknowledges the official line of a reunited China someday but quickly says there are more important things on her mind, like making money. Many in the West failed to notice it was Dr. Sun’s portrait which hung behind both leaders as they spoke. The idea that all these factors boil down to “China is gonna invade Taiwan” is beyond silly. America’s obsession with Taiwan independence is more Washington’s problem than Taipei’s.

    Philosophically Chinese leaders have for thousands of years believed in historical cycles. They waited close to 300 years to end the foreign Qing dynasty. They waited out Britain for hundreds of years for the peaceful return of Hong Kong. Such things come up in conversation with Chinese diplomats as casually as talk about the weather. Chinese diplomacy is patient, not short-term optimistic or spasmatically reactive. There is no fierce urgency to reunification. Sun Tzu: One waits to win.

     

    In contrast stands America’s foreign policy. A comparison of countries where the U.S., and China have military intervened post-WWII is telling. Chinese troops entered Vietnam only after the U.S. began its own campaign of regime change there. China entered the Korean War only after the U.S. Army threatened to cross into Chinese territory. Both of these events are celebrated in the People’s Army Museum in Beijing as examples of defending the homeland’s borders. The Museum, in addition, features an American U-2 spyplane shot down over the mainland. The Museum also has exhibits showing the U.S. purposely bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, killing three and destroying the diplomatic sanctuary. The U.S. claimed it was an accident, but history makes clear it was retaliation against an undefended target accused of spying in former Yugoslavia. How many American embassies has China bombed?

    China got its first blue water aircraft carrier last year; the U.S. has maintained multiple carrier groups in the Pacific since WWII, recently facilitated the permanent deployment of two British carrier groups in the area (their first big show of naval force in the area since losing Singapore to the Japanese) and will sell nuclear submarines to Australia with the understanding they will patrol the South China Sea. The U.S. recently brought India into the Quad Pact agreement against China, and convinced Japan to abandon its official neutral stance on Taiwan to support the U.S. Japan has quickly grown into a multiple carrier blue water naval force under American encouragement and with American technology; an unprecedented pledge by Japan’s ruling party seeks to double defense spending and underscores the nation’s haste to acquire missiles, stealth fighters, drones and other weapons that can target China.

    For the first time in decades U.S. forces are officially stationed on Taiwan. The White House recently announced the existing U.S.-Japan security treaty now extends to some additional disputed islands, and the Philippine security treaty covers Manila’s claims to Chinese-occupied islets. The U.S. maintains military bases in a ring around China’s eastern coast. Economically, Barack Obama via the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) tried to isolate China from the Asian trade sphere. Trump imposed and Biden maintains punitive tariffs on goods out of China. This autumn Congress will take up the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act, which would authorize Biden to initiate (nuclear) war on China without any input from America’s elected representatives.

    So who in fact is acting provocatively in the Pacific? Which side is saber rattling, and which simply responding the way a dog barks to warn off an aggressor?

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Biden’s China Policy is Dangerous

    October 16, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Biden, Embassy/State

    Joe Biden’s China policy is unnecessarily adversarial. It is impractical and dangerous. It plays out as if U.S. foreign policy is run by WWII reenactors.

    China was artificially reimagined as an enemy-in-a-box as the wars of terror sputtered out and America needed a new Bond villian. Biden envisions China as an autocratic foe for democracy to wage a global struggle against. “On my watch,” Joe said, “China will not achieve its goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world.” Biden went on to claim the world was at an inflection point to determine “whether or not democracy can function in the 21st century.” In Biden’s neo-Churchillian view, the U.S. and what the hell, the whole free world he believes he is president of, are in a death match with China for global hearts and minds.

    One problem in this world view is the unbelievable hypocrisy underlying America’s claimed role. Biden seems oblivious the U.S. mows down Muslims by drone and cluster bomb even while it self-righteously tsk tsks China for bullying its Uighur minority. After our two decade hissy fit of invasions and nation building brought kleptocracies and terrorists to lead countries, we dare bark that China is not democratic. We seem not to notice our lack of clothing when we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with petty tyrants and dictators strewn around Africa and the Middle East. We see no issues demanding democracy in Hong Kong while ignoring its weakening across the United States (never mind not having had much to say about democracy in Hong Kong when it was a British colony stolen by war from Chinese sovereignty.) A pretty weak resume when you’re aiming at Leader of the Free World.

    Apart from sheer hypocrisy, there are other reasons to wonder how China ended up America’s sworn enemy for Cold War 2.0. The relationship otherwise does not look much like that of our old nemesis, the Soviet Union. The Russkies had a nasty habit of rolling tanks across borders, as of course does the U.S. Sometimes it was even the same country — how’d that Afghanistan thing work out? In contrast is the utter lack of countries China has invaded since WWII. Unlike the wheezing old Soviet economy, China is the world’s second largest economy, and one deeply tied, integrated, and in a symbiotic relationship with the U.S. China is the second largest foreign holder of U.S. government debt just behind Japan, with massive investments across the board inside the United States.

    Not counting Hunter Biden (we kid) the total Chinese investment in the U.S. economy is over $145 billion. The Cold War joke, countries with a McDonald’s never made war on each other, seems under revision. The Chinese are literally betting the house on America succeeding. Meanwhile, U.S. investment in China has passed $1 trillion. As we learned when Covid briefly shut down world logistics, the American economy is voluntarily dependent on Chinese manufacturing and vice-versa.

    With all this co-dependent commerce it is also increasingly unclear what we have to fight about, and what we have to gain in picking a fight. About the best the war influencers can come up with are lurid predictions that Chinese investments are a secret tool to control the U.S. (as opposed to any other investors [Jeff Bezos, cough cough] domestic or foreign, yeah right.) They claim “someday” China will “weaponize” its investments and harm the U.S. Left unexplained is how China would need to take a $1.1 trillion bath on its Treasuries alone, never mind slamming closed its largest export market and having to find a way to use unfinished iPhones as a food source.

    So why the lust for a new Cold War? The problem Biden faces on China, and everywhere else really, is the biggest player in today’s foreign affairs is the military. In many parts of the world (particularly Asia and Africa) the combatant commanders are putative epicenters for security, diplomatic, humanitarian, and commercial affairs. One reason is range: unlike ambassadors, whose budget and influence are confined to single countries, combatant commanders’ reach is continental. Unlike the White House, whose focus is ever-shifting, the military has the interest and manpower to stick around everywhere. Colonels grow up to be generals. Generals outlast administrations.

    The military has written America’s adversarial China policy. Following the old Cold War playbook, the goal seems to crank up tensions and exaggerate threats until confrontation looks inevitable but never really happens. Here’s how that plan recently exposed itself with China.

    Australia just ditched a $66 billion contract for French diesel-electric submarines to instead buy U.S. nuclear-powered submarines. This is alongside a new alliance which will also see Australia, the U.S., and the United Kingdom share advanced technologies. The genesis was the U.S. military’s muscular diplomacy, ramping up for a war with China they hope will power their budgets for decades. A side deal with Britain to station its newest aircraft carriers in Asia was certainly part of the package. This brings both the British and the Australians, nuclearized, into the South China Sea in force. An arms salesman just wrote Biden’s China policy.

    For what? China fusses with its neighbors over ownership of a handful of islands in the neighborhood, hardly worth risking total nuclear war over. See, it’s the nukes that rule out another Falklands. Even so, the U.S. can’t help but contribute to the saber rattling. The White House recently announced the existing U.S.-Japan security treaty now extends to the disputed Senkaku islands and the Philippines security treaty covers Manila’s claims to Chinese-occupied islets in the South China Sea. Flashback: once upon a time it was the Soviets who were supposed to invade disputed islands held by Japan. Never did.

    China and Taiwan make sport out of lofting rhetoric at each other, all the while maintaining a robust economic relationship that defines modus vivendi. Between 1991 and March 2020, Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. Pre-Covid travelers from China made 2.68 million visits to Taiwan. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. What incentive would China have to drop bombs on one of its best customers? Um, how about… none?

    As they say, follow the money. The money leads toward rapprochement, right under America’s nose. Barack Obama sought the economic isolation of China. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was a 2016 proposed trade agreement among most everyone in Asia except China. Trump withdrew the U.S. from TPP in 2017. In 2018 the remaining countries negotiated a new consolation prize-like agreement called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership which meant little without the participation of economic superpowers U.S. and China. Yet while Biden has made no moves to bring the U.S. back into the play, and has kept Trump’s tariffs in place against China, Chinese diplomats have been busy beavers.

    In an end run timed to mock the American submarine deal with Australia, China applied in September to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. A week later, with no opposition voiced by Beijing, Taiwan applied to join as well. Radio silence on both applications from Washington, who, as a non-participant in the group, doesn’t even have a vote on the matter. And Biden has made clear he has no plans to join in the future. Ironically, the genesis of all this, the Obama TPP, was designed to force China at dollar-point to reform itself and be More Like Us. Who is it now that seems to be setting the rules of today’s international system in both trade and diplomacy? China is offering favorable access to its lucrative market to diplomatically influence the alliance on its own terms. All the U.S. has to offer its allies is a subordinate and expensive role in a new Cold War.

    Where is the State Department? Nine months into his administration Biden still does not have an ambassador in Beijing, leaving China policy in caretaker hands. His nominee for ambassador, Nick Burns, is an old State Department hack, having made a career by bending over backwards in both directions as administrations changed. Coming out of a spokesmodel-type retirement university job, Burns will be read by Beijing, if he ever gets there, as a placeholder, a political crony handed a sweet, mostly ceremonial, final job.

    Elsewhere, Beijing seeks to make friends with its “belt and road” trade and investment initiative in Asia. If the America’s Afghan War had any winners, it’s probably the Chinese, who found some common ground with the Taliban (look it up, it’s called diplomacy, often done even with your enemies) and thus potential access to their vast mineral resources. American businesses meanwhile demand from Biden’s deaf ears he clarify the economic relationship with China.

    While Biden passively allows the military to prepare for war under the sea, China is winning in the competition over our heads in a game Biden does not seem to even know exists. American foreign policy credibility and its confrontational strategy has been shown to be a farce. America is still a big, mean dog, but our ability to influence events around the world is limited to barking and biting and only works when barking and biting is the solution. When anything beyond threats is needed, say when dealing with near-peers like China, we have few if any tools but to reimagine legitimate competitors into enemies. Our policy toward China, like our president, is a failed artifact from another era.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Special Immigrant Visas (SIV): A Brief, Sad History

    September 4, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Biden, Iraq, Military

    The story of Afghans fleeing their country seeking Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) is the story of the war.

    In the hubris of conquest 20 years ago, no one could conceive the U.S. would need to evacuate locals who worked with us. Instead, they would form the vanguard of a New Afghanistan. Admitting some sort of escape program was needed was admitting our war was failing, and so progress implementing the SIV program was purposefully very slow. When it became obvious even in Washington that we were losing, an existing State Department perk for local employees was hastily remade into a covert refugee program.

    Even then, with no one wanting to really acknowledge the historical scale our failures, the SIV program was never properly staffed to succeed. Instead it was just tarted up to appear to be doing something good while never having any plan in place to do good, like the war itself. Admitting we had a refugee program for countries we had liberated was a tough swallow. Now, at the end, the Afghans who trusted the SIV program — trusted us — will randomly be rushed through the pipeline to make a few happy headlines, or left behind to their fate on the ground. No one now in the government actually cares what happens to them, as long as they go away somehow. At best the SIV program will be used to create a few human interest stories help cover up some of the good we otherwise failed to do.

     

    The current SIV story starts with the end of the Vietnam war, the desperate locals who worked for us at risk as collaborators, clambering aboard the last helicopters off the roof of the Embassy, followed by thousands of boat people. A sloppy coda to an expected unexpected ending. This is what the SIV program was supposed to be about, you know, never again.

    During the first few years of the Iraq and Afghan wars (“the Wars”), the official vision in Washington was that the Wars would transform the countries into happy meals of robust prosperity and nascent democracy. Congress, imaging early local hires as our American Gurkhas, loyal brown people serving us, wanted to thank those who provided such service. They created a visa program modeled after the existing Special Immigrant Visa (SIV). The State Department employed the SIV program abroad for many years. Local employees, say a Japanese passport clerk working in Embassy Tokyo, after 15 years of service could be rewarded an SIV to the Homeland. Such a prize would encourage workers to stay around for a full career, and course they wanted to be like us anyway.

    Congress had the same vision for the Wars. In 2006 they authorized 50 Special Immigrant Visas annually to Iraqi and Afghans working for the U.S. military. The cap was set at 50 because the visa was intended only for the very best, and besides, the locals would mostly want to live in their newly democratized countries anyway.

    What seemed like a good idea in the hazy early days of the Wars turned out to not make any sense given events on the ground. Military leaders saw their local helpers murdered by growing insurgencies Washington pretended did not exist. The limit of 50 a year was a joke as soldiers helped their locals apply by the hundreds. Political winds in Washington went round and round over the issue. An amendment to Section 1059 expanded the total number of visas to 500 per year in Iraq only for two years. But to help keep the pile of applications in some form of check, lower ranking soldiers could not supply the necessary Letter of Recommendation. That still had to be addressed to the Ambassador (Chief of Mission) and signed by a General, Admiral or similar big shot. The military chain of command would be used to slow down applications until we won the Wars.

    Despite a brave face, the SIV program quickly devolved into a pseudo-refugee route to save the lives of locals who helped us conquer. Section 1244 of the Defense Authorization Act for FY 2008 upped the number of Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to 5,000 annually through FY 2012 for Iraqis (but not Afghans, we thought we were still winning there.) The changes reduced the necessary service time to only a year, but added the criteria “must have experienced or are experiencing an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of that employment.”

    Importantly, the critical Letter of Recommendation no longer had to come from an inaccessible big shot per se. Officially the Letter still had to be co-signed by brass but in fact could be written by a lower level supervisor, such as the U.S. citizen who directly supervised the local. The Letter needed only to include a brief description of “faithful service” to the U.S. Government, nothing more. As conditions on the ground deteriorated, the standard of proof required to demonstrate the “ongoing serious threat” was reduced to a self-statement by the local. Visas out of the 5,000 allotted not used in one year could be rolled over into the next year. Documents could be submitted by email, ending the almost impossible task of accessing the fortress Embassies.

    Though officially absolutely not a refugee program, SIVs were made eligible for the same resettlement assistance programs as regular refugees. SIV. The State Department would even loan them, interest free, the travel cost to the U.S. “Feel good” companies like Amazon and Uber offered special hiring consideration. You can read the full details of how to apply online. It all sounded good. But by the time one war ended, despite over 100,000 Iraqis being generally eligible for SIVs, the State Department only issued around 2,000 principal visas.

     

    Like the Wars themselves, what seemed a good idea on paper was lost in the desert. In reality simple steps devolved into dead-ends, like whether the letter needed to be on DOD letterhead, a minor thing that became a game-ender if the American supervisor had left the service and was living stateside. The ever-prissy State Department also warns “all letters of recommendation should be proofread closely. Letters of recommendation with significant spelling and grammar errors may delay processing.”

    But the biggest hurdle was always the security advisory opinion, SAO, a background clearance check showing the applicant was not a bad guy. The problem, exacerbated in the Wars’ countries where names and dates of birth can be flexible, is the loyal translator hired in haste in 2010 and known to Sergeant Snuffy as “Suzy” might also have been trying to save her family in 2020 by passing information to the Taliban, if not the Chinese, Afghanistan was always the Great Game after all. The SAO was a whole-of-government file check and took time; average processing was over three years. (Aside: I had a State Department colleague whose job it was to work these. Because the CIA would not release its most secret files, once a week he had to drive over to Langley and take handwritten notes inside a vault. If his boss had a concern, he had to go back a week later to resolve it. He did not close many cases.)

    Despite over 26,000 SIV visas available for Afghans (the Iraqi program sunsetted in 2014) at no point in the two decade war were more than 4,000 principals ever issued in a year (inflated numbers from State include tag-along spouses and children for each principal applicant.) The estimate is some 20,000 active Afghan SIV applications are still somewhere in the pipeline. Congress even created a whole new application category, Priority 2, simply for those who could not quite meet the statutory requirements of the SIV program. As recently as July 30, 2021 Congress authorized 8,000 additional SIVs for Afghans, so supply is not the issue, processing is and always has been. One NGO which helps Afghans in the SIV process bemoans their efforts to speed up things have stumbled across three administrations, seven Congresses, seven Secretaries of Defense, and five Secretaries of State.

    None of this is new. State had agreed in 2018 to clear the backlog of SIV applications as part of a class action lawsuit but never did. A 2020 State Department Inspector General report found the SIV program’s understaffing made it unable to meet a congressionally mandated nine-month response time. SIV staffing levels hadn’t changed since 2016, despite a 50 percent increase in applicants. There was only one analyst dedicated to SAO security checks. The program was supposed to be overseen by a senior official but the position was left unfilled for three years. State never built a centralized database to verify applicants’ USG employment and instead relied on multiple computer systems which could not connect to each other, leading to workers manually typing in information. A little late, but in February President Biden issued an executive order demanding another review of delays. Meanwhile, in the first three months of 2021 the State Department issued only 137 SIVs.

    There is now pressure on Biden to “do something” about the SIVs in Afghanistan. What happens to the ones left behind is up to the Taliban. For those evacuated, to where and what purpose? Will they still be wading through the bureaucracy years from now, out of sight in refugee camps? Or will the SIV rules be thrown out and everyone rapidly approved to avoid another Biden disaster?

    That’s the beast of the Afghan War, SIV version, all too little, too late, all uncertain, all based on thrown together plans, stymied by hubris, failure to admit we screwed up, and a failure to coordinate a whole-of-government approach. So people suffer and people die in chaos in some far away place. Again.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Democrats and the Economy: The New Slaves of Hawaii

    June 19, 2021 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage

     

    We don’t have to ask what happens when Democrats mess with the economy. We have Hawaii, frozen in COVID fear, a wonderful laboratory with the “what” as clear as a petri dish full of bacteria. It stinks. A case study in Democrats and the Economy.

     

    Hawaii exists in distinct state-lets, enclaves, socio-economic islets, maybe microbiomes. The Hawaii most people know is of course beautiful Waikiki, a place that if the darn Russians had not coined the term Potemkin Village would have taken the name for itself. Waikiki is fake, joyously fake, a kind of mellow version of the Vegas swindle, as if Ikea was the designer instead of 1950s mobsters. It exists only to separate tourists from their money. The beach is indeed gorgeous (but man-made, even that is fake) the ocean delightful, and prices are kept reasonable enough that it is accessible to a large number of people, as opposed to say Tahiti or Aruba. And for the most part the only locals a visitor will encounter are there to serve them. Back to Waikiki in a moment.

     

    A small but very important sector behind the facade of Waikiki are the wealthy, people whose two bedroom apartments near Honolulu are in the millions and whose stand alone homes on the Windward shore are in the multimillions. They live on the beaches tourists don’t visit, just barely maintaining the illusion of government-mandated public access to that soft white sand via thong-wide hidden paths between their walled compounds. The Obamas bought such a place, though many of the other super wealthy are from Asia. A careful look at names on tax records allows one to map the various Asian bubbles and recessions, with clusters of Japanese there, Chinese here, Koreans nearby, etc.
    These people have nothing to do with the rest of the Hawaiian ecology except one crucial role: they are the apex taxpayers who fund the extensive social welfare system semi-taking care of much of the rest of Hawaii. Benefits packages in Democrat-ruled Hawaii are the highest in the nation, an average of $49,175, and untaxed. For the last nine years Hawaii spent more on public welfare benefits, about 20 percent of the state budget, then it did on education. More than one out 10 people in Hawaii get food stamps, plus free lunches at school and for the elderly. Hawaii already vies with California for the nation’s highest state income tax.

    The other sources of revenue are Federal defense spending (not part of this safari) and tourism. I told you we’d get back to Waikiki soon. Visitors to the paradise of Oahu may or may not notice all those decaying apartments outside their Uber’s window between the airport and Waikiki, the tent villages on the remote beaches or along the surface roads. Few tourists get off the highway and explore, and few diverge from the round-the-island one day rental car pilgrimage to poke deep inland. It’s OK, tourists are not supposed to, and in fact are really not too welcome in many spots. This is where the bulk of Hawaiians live in a cross between what resembles rural West Virginia in per capita rusted cars and one of the nicer third world countries like Jamaica, deep in poverty but gaily painted.

    Hawaii is nearly always one of the top states in terms of homelessness, poverty, unemployment, food insecurity, and diabetes. The people behind those statistics live in a relationship with the ultra-rich that is mostly like those little fish that swim inside a shark’s gills. Unseen and unminded, somewhere between symbiotic and parasitic, depending on your politics. It is precisely such relationships which define the Third World.

     

    The thing is in many ways this eco-econosystem sort of worked pre-COVID. Because it lacks the racial tensions that burden places like New York (whites are a minority in Hawaii at 25 percent, blacks only two percent) crime is almost all intramural, people victimizing each other inside their own neighborhoods. Think of Hawaii’s poor more as herbivores who occasionally fuss over territory when really necessary and New York’s as carnivores always looking for a fresh killing grounds just because. Drugs are a horrible problem off the beaten path, but in the eyes of the rich, not really a problem as the drugs stay “over there.” Until recently when Mexican imports began arriving like invasive junk fish in a cargo hold, even Hawaii’s favorite drugs — weed and meth — were even a local product.
    COVID upset the finely-balanced system. Suddenly fear gave government the chance to run fully amuck, with nothing to limit even the stupidest ideas. Everything was done by emergency decree, no debates, no votes, no process.
    Step One was a decision to slam the door hard on Hawaii’s second largest industry, tourism, once accounting for 24 percent of the economy, and throw tens of thousands of people out of work, crippling the businesses down the food chain from them where they spent their money at the same time. Did those workers come from the Gold Coast, the multi-million dollar homes of Kahala or the always voted one of the world’s best beaches areas near Kailua? Of course not. The working poor lost their jobs. But Hawaii already had in place a robust unemployment insurance system, whose benefits were made fatter by Federal supplement money. None of these workers missed the benefits from their old job as they never had any benefits in the first place.
    Fast forward 16 months of COVID and now the Hawaiian government would like some tourists to please come back and leave money. The government would also like workers to return to their Waikiki jobs to dance hula, serve drinks, and rub suntan lotion on all those white fish-bellied visitors. The old workers are mostly saying no, and the media is awash with articles about how the jobs are unfillable and woe is us if the tourists cannot be served. Lacking capitalism’s favorite cheap labor solution, massive numbers of usable illegal aliens, the jobs are so soulless and pay so little the only way to fill them is to force people by cutting unemployment benefits and no politician in Democratic-controlled Hawaii seems ready for that.

    Those “unfillable” jobs pay about $10-12 an hour, and so the employer can stay exempt from paying into Obamacare, limit workers to under 20 hours a week. That’s $240 a week, before it being fully taxed and with social security deducted, plus the costs of going to work, such as transportation, chipping away at the edges.

    Because the Hawaiian government still restrains trade by holding bars and restaurants to limited capacity and opening hours, any job working for tips is artificially capped. As the Hawaiian government is the only U.S. state left which still requires COVID tests for entry (that program alone has cost the state over $60 million in direct costs, even as travelers are saddled with paying $120 or more per test) and is among the dwindling few that still requires full masking, many tourists stay home. Arrivals are down some 50-75 percent overall, with the once-lucrative Asian trade hovering at zero. Everytime a plane lands some media flunky headlines “Tourism is back!” but they’ll be saying it for a long time. Think cargo cult.
    The way 25 other state governments found to force people to work for low wages is to do away with the Federal supplement portion of unemployment, so people can choose between about $130 a week unemployment or $240 a week working. Hawaii, as committed to its social welfare state as any college political science sophomore is committed to his vision of socialist utopia, has no plans to drop the Federal unemployment money. While everyone thinks on what’s next, the economy is dependent on unsustainable Federal  funding, such as a bailout of $196 million in “Biden Bucks” via the American Rescue Plan Act. Another “solution” to the lack of willing workers is for the government to restrict tourism, and/or charge tourists higher fees to visit popular sites because no one can imagine that would send holidaymakers to Disneyland instead.
    Meanwhile, Hawaii has long had a brain and brawn drain problem, with both tradespeople and college graduates moving out to the mainland U.S. COVID restrictions have only made this worse as the state clings to its masks like it is still 2020. Running underneath it all like a bass line are some of the highest gas prices in a long time and accelerating inflation, the latter another example of what happens when Democrats muddle in the economy.
    At some point the Hawaiian government is going to have to decide if it will loosen COVID restrictions to flood in more tourists, and/or give out less unemployment money (because ain’t nobody got time to raise wages) if it want to return to a running economy. Or maybe Biden will do it for them, as he plans to end the Federal supplement everywhere in September to mark our second lost summer. If not, thanks to government intervention all along the system, the media will be running labor shortage articles until someone on the Ron Burgundy Action News team figures out $400 in unemployment money is a bigger number than $240 cleaning toilets.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Jeffersonian or Springsteenian Democracy?

    February 23, 2021 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy

    That Super Bowl commercial could have been so much worse. 

     

    “This is Bruce ‘Born to Run’ Springsteen, and when I’m driving down Thunder Road in my Pink Cadillac listening to some Radio Nowhere looking for a Red Headed Woman, I know these aren’t my Glory Days any more. So it ain’t no sin to be glad for Cialis. Come on up for The Rising!”

     

    Or imagine Springsteen promoting a reverse mortgage, or some prescription drug with an X and Z in its name, ending with Bruce saying “Check with your doctor, and tell ’em the Boss sent ya.”

     

    I can forgive Bruce for recycling footage and the same damn clothes from his Western Stars movie in that Super Bowl commercial. I’ll give him a pass for the faux accent which no one in New Jersey, or maybe anywhere in earth orbit, actually sounds like. I’ll even forgive his semi-annoyed tone (“I’ve told you people all this before but I guess I gotta go over it one more time.”) And no worries about whether Bruce sold out or not. Of course he did. He has always been clear (see his autobiography and Broadway show) that he is mostly an actor playing a character called “Bruce Springsteen.”

     

    What I can’t overlook is Bruce is just wrong. The answer does not lie in Americans reaching the middle, as Bruce sternly instructs in his infomercial, but respecting the end points on either side as valid positions.

     

    Let’s start with the Boss himself. Despite all the guff shoveled around the media about Bruce avoiding politics for so long, that has never been the case. Very early in his career Springsteen appeared at the No Nukes concerts. Not the “let’s have some nuclear power plants but not too many” concert. His opposition to the Vietnam War grew to opposing America’s jingoistic wars broadly. His stance on economic inequality is the cornerstone of his songbook — think Nebraska and Ghosts of Tom Joad. He supported BLM before it had its own initials; remember American Skin (41 Shots) from 2001?

     

    Bruce has also always been about partisan politics, scolding the Reagan administration throughout the entire Born in the USA album, and actively campaigning for four Democratic presidential candidates. He even joked-not joked about moving to Australia if Trump was re-elected.

     

    A guy who calls himself The Boss has never been about seeking the middle, as he says is our goal in his commercial. He has always taken positions, proudly and clearly. And that is more than OK, it is what America should be about.

     

    The Founders made clearer than a ringing Clarence Clemons sax solo vigorous debate was critical to their vision of a democracy. They baked that into the Constitution via the First Amendment, ensuring free speech and the right to assemble. And no middle ground there — it says “Congress shall make no law…” and with narrow exceptions the Supreme Court has kept it that way for a couple of hundred years.

     

    The Founders had no problem with compromise when that seemed the best they could do; in the extreme they even bargained enslaved human beings into being counted as only 3/5 of a white man. But the thrust was never toward a goal of 50-50, a simplistic Springsteenian middle ground instead of the balanced Jeffersonian one. The founding documents gave equal powers to very unequal states. The whole sloppy mess of democracy is full of 2/3 of this and majority that.

     

    There would come very different ideas on once established things like whether women could vote. But after a robust process women got the vote, an extreme position. There was no meeting in the middle, say granting women a partial vote, or only letting them vote in national elections. The key is the mass of Americans accepted the result, and the ladies getting the vote seems to have worked out for us all.

     

    When we try to meet in the middle we usually end up with most people unhappy. In Roe v. Wade the Supreme Court tried to hit some theorectical middle in granting nearly unfettered abortion rights in the first trimester, giving the states more decision making for the second, and leaving third trimester abortions as the very difficult decision they are. The results were that from the instant the opinion was issued one side demanded even freer access to abortion while the other tried to make access difficult at every step. Roe is settled law but not a settled issue.

     

    Contrast that with the decision by the Court to allow same-sex marriage. One side of that debate just plain lost, and the country moved on to the sideshow of arguing about baking cakes for the receptions. Meh.

     

    What is missing today in the majority of our Red-Blue is neither side understands the process. The goal is no longer to debate and resolve and move on. Today there is little respect for the other side and no empathy, just contempt and disgust. Their opinion is not only wrong, it is insane, dangerous, bonkers, a literal threat to our survival as a nation. How many times did we hear about the end of the rule of law, the end of democracy, fascism via racism, and that the Reichstag was burning during the Trump years?

     

    More than anyone’s ideas being wrong, we see him or her as a horrible person just for holding those ideas. The goal today is not to beat the other idea on the playing field. It is to cancel the speaker, deplatform him, hunt him down, demonize him, make it so he can’t find a job, burn his books, smite him with Terms of Service, eliminate his ideas if not the speaker himself. Or maybe impeach him as a private citizen, strip away his right to run for future office, force him out of his own house in Mar-a-Lago, and I don’t know, hear the lamentations of his women. The middle ground is a killing field.

     

    We end up believing that accepting the results of an election is optional if our candidate loses. We take “credible accusation” as a new standard, but only of course when it produces our desired results. Doxxing someone online or assaulting them in a restaurant is justified if he commits thoughtcrime. It has gotten to the point where even journalists have joined the scolds and censors to crusade against the First Amendment today to silence an opposing view without a thought to what will happen tomorrow to their own ideas when the wind shifts.

     

    So Bruce, would you take another crack at this commercial? You can keep the same B-roll images, even that kinda silly cowboy cosplay outfit (would a 20-year-old you have worn that into a seaside Jersey bar?) but let’s rewrite the script:

     

    “We demand diversity now in everything but thought and don’t see the irony. We’re in danger of losing what we strived and fought for, respect for different opinions. Don’t work toward the middle. Who has risked everything for a half-baked compromise? Anyone ever washed a rental car? No, you think hard, and you stake out a position, knowing the other guy is doing the same. Then you talk it out, you argue, you stomp your feet, write Op-Eds, and organize protests. You don’t repress speech you disagree with, you listen to it, then counter its ideas with better ones.

     

    “Then you turn it over to the wise tools the Founders granted us. They differ from issue to issue. So an election, or a Senate vote, or a court decision. And then you accept that outcome with neither celebration nor triumph and you respect those whose ideas didn’t make it. That’s our common ground.

     

    “It’s not about trying to all think the same way. It is about grasping for a higher rung because we don’t. We all live in one country and we all in the end want a life where we can care for family, do honest work, and join in this prayer for our freedom. The messy, awkward, slow way forward is well-marked for us.

     

    “Also, please buy this Jeep. Patty’s on me to put in a new pool at home before spring.”

     

     

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Unblock TV Box Reveals All About COVID, America, and Maybe Sweden

    June 10, 2020 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: 2020


    So is this it? The last COVID column? Writing from New York I feel behind the curve (we’re still locked down) much as returning from Iraq and wanting to tell everyone what I saw only to learn most people had already changed the channel.
    We didn’t all die fighting over the last ventilator. Human colonies still exist in Georgia and Florida. Six Flags is gonna reopen soon. Joe Biden re-appeared in public (masked so he couldn’t hack up a new “gaffe,”) Trump is still president, the stores are full again with iJunk from China and despite any real imagined “Second Wave” (remember ISIS? The Yazidis? Kurd genocide?) it looks like most Americans are kind of done with this. We tend to binge watch now anyway, and the good part is over.
    Not for me. To pass the time inside while I wait for America’s governor to realize the COVID zombies on NYC streets are actually just our homeless emerging from the subways to molt, I’ve been watching TV news from around the world.
    I bought a Chinese-made streaming device of ambiguous intellectual property rights morality that delivers over 700 free TV stations from around the globe. I’ve made a little obsession watching COVID news from dozens of countries in English where I can find it, some in languages I know a little of, some in languages I can’t even identify. Grossly unscientific as well as probably a little illegal, but if you watch enough of it the patterns become very, very clear.
    No nation on earth tore itself apart over a virus response like the U.S. There was plenty of debate globally over the right thing is to do, but it all appeared intended to be productive and not politically-motivated destructive in nature. Not to say the U.S. media didn’t try to show the leadership they claim the world wants from us; while the BBC headlined new vaccine trials, CNN ran a report based on “sources” claiming the four countries which make up Great Britain are at odds with each other over how to respond. CNN even helpfully reminded Americans “Wales and Northern Ireland too often feel like an afterthought.” Indispensable nation FTW!
    In Italy, the news simply reported the Prime Minister announcing the sensical “We’re facing a calculated risk opening in the knowledge that the contagion curve may rise. We have to accept it otherwise we will never be able to start up again. Italy would end up with a strongly damaged economic and social structure if it waited to relax distancing measures until a vaccine becomes available.” The headline on what would have triggered calls for impeachment if not in the U.S. translated into something like “Relaxing social distancing is a calculated risk.”
    Perhaps most importantly of all, I found no other nation where a large number of people were convinced their leader was literally trying to kill them, to the point nightly news in America is still weeks later falsely reporting Trump wanted people to drink bleach. This is more than one item on this list. It is the core of America’s failure, the willingness to believe their government is not simply men who make mistakes, but men out to kill them. You can’t get past that, forgive it, correct it.
    No other media I found globally did what the NYT did on May 24, just ahead of Memorial Day, devote its front page to the names of COVID-dead Americans, the first front page in four decades to be just words, no photos or graphics. One has to go back to LBJ and the Vietnam War to find something similar — hey hey LBJ how many kids did you kill today? people chanted — holding the president himself directly responsibility for the deaths of individual Americans. LIFE magazine later devoted most of an issue to the photos of the men who died in Vietnam one week (which included Memorial Day 1969), a shocking sum of a failed policy. In 2020 the social/MSM toadies took the Times’ bait, and superimposed images of Trump golfing over the names. For readers who know history, the connection to Vietnam was undeniable. The direct responsibility link seems however more a creation of 2020 than the realization it was in 1969. The message’s intent was unambiguous: he killed them.
    I found no other nation where a large number of people were convinced their neighbors were also literally trying to kill them by not wearing masks, or any place where the decision to mask or unmask is seen so significantly as a political one. In Taiwan the government said people should wear masks, and then distributed them, and made extras easy to obtain. In other places cops hand masks to people who aren’t wearing one. Everyone in Japan just put them on. Americans weren’t sure where to find them and had to create their own masks via little handicraft projects, and then have to make heart-felt decisions multiple times a day under the judgement of strangers. Outside the U.S. a mask seems to just be a mask, whether you’re wearing one or not.
    People nearly everywhere they are able to criticize their government did so, and the debate in the UK and elsewhere over decisions was robust (they don’t all like their leader, either.) But nowhere except the U.S. was everything on TV so centered on blame, looking backward, rather than getting it right, look forward.
    No where else did armed protesters challenge their government. No place else where government decisions on which stores to allow open are so closely tied to broader over-arching national political themes. In no other place did anyone cry “give me nail salons or give me death.” I saw nowhere else where the response was so geographically different, where in one region bars were open and in another the police arrested people for not having a mask.
    America is the only place using the virus to justify less public transportation.
    With the possible exception of China responding to U.S. criticism, I cannot find any place that made the virus into a signature foreign policy issue, and feinted toward punitive actions to come. Borders got shut, then opened, as expedients, not as sneaky answers to unresolved immigration policy.
    No place else seems so determined to find new crises within the crisis — the virus yes, but in America we had a sub-crisis-of-the-week. Not enough tests, not enough doctors, not enough PPE, not enough ICU, not enough ventilators, no enough lockdown. And of course each sub-crises comes with its own sub-blame game.
    Not everywhere holds press conferences. Swedes tune in to the dry daily news conferences that pace like farm price reports. Of course the U.S. press have always been aggressive questioners, but I cannot find anywhere where open mockery and loaded passive-aggressive questions so dominate any discourse. This follows through to the “news” itself, so much of which is simply name calling, saying people are bonkers, stupid, mentally ill, incompetent, corrupt, and liars. This has uniquely spilled over into entertainment. It is very difficult to find anything produced in the last few years labeled in America as “comedy” that is not just name calling and mockery aimed at one side of the political spectrum. I cannot find anywhere outside these United States where media stars attack each other, where networks engage in ideological name calling, and claim each other distorts the facts to the point they are producing foreign propaganda, are anti-democratic, or are a literal threat to the nation. You get a little of that during Prime Minister’s question time on the BBC, but they are much more clever. Otherwise, you have to read the tabloids for it.
    No other nation has a cheerleading squad embedded in its media happy when a possible cure fails. Except when talking about America’s reaction, everywhere else hydroxychloroquine is just another medicine to be evaluated. Hope is rationed in America because it is a political weapon.
    I see nowhere else people wish fellow citizens get sick and die to prove a political point — You reopened too soon! You didn’t wear a mask! You voted Republican so die! Your third-party vote will kill grandma! I don’t see elsewhere the U.S.-standard told-you-so story, something with the headline “Barber Who Defied Lockdown to Cut Hair Tests Positive.”
    Racism is not unique to the United States but I cannot locate anywhere else where it is so embedded in the way the nation talked about or dealt with the virus, real stuff or imagined. Same for a search for “communities” hurt more than you by the virus: LGBT people, immigrants, Asians in general when just Chinese are not enough, special needs kids, a lip-reader who can’t understand masked people, prisoners, heroes who stock shelves, various “survivors” of other bad things, an endless search for more victimized victims. At the same time, no one seems driven to create and fetishize “heroes,” from cashiers to trash collectors. Same for countries with woman leaders; they don’t make a big deal of it but the American media sure does. The press from those women-led countries just talks about Leaders. They talk about competence in government not gender.
    No one else seemed so anxious to both undercount and overcount the virus deaths. A fair number of nations seem to want to underplay their death tolls, but nowhere is it both under and over at the same time.
    I don’t see anywhere else where whatever is on one’s political agenda (free college, debt forgiveness, public housing, social programs, guaranteed income, economic inequality, national service, freedom of religion, right to bear arms, abortion rights, the freaking post office and voting by mail) is being so directly tied to a virus response one way or another.
    So that’s it for COVID, a good couple of seasons’ worth. I’m still inside, though. Anybody heard anything good about this Netflix thing? I’m looking for something new to pass the time. Jeez, I gotta get out more.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • What Republicans Must Ask the Whistleblower

    November 19, 2019 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy, Impeachment, Trump


    The whistleblower needs to be front and center in the impeachment proceedings on TV. Here’s why.

    As the latest public spectacle unironically displaces daytime soap operas, the picture is starting to become clearer. The people testifying aren’t there to save America. They are a group of neo-somethings inside the administration who disagreed with Trump’s Ukraine policy and decided to derail it.

    The plan was unlikely intended to lead to impeachment when things began to move back in May, after then-Ambassador to the Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was fired. Contrary to the president’s policy the taxpayers paid her to represent, she had her own, and promoted confrontation with Russia over Ukraine and sought more military aid. Bill Taylor was then installed as a figurehead in the embassy and Ukraine policy was taken away from hardliners at the State Department and NSC and handed over to America’s favorite knucklehead, Rudy Giuliani, and the inexperienced, Trump-appointee, Gordon Sondland.

    The bureaucracy called a Code Red. They were needed on that wall to stand against Russia. It seemed easy enough. Ukraine was off most of the public’s radar, so some Op-Eds, Trump’s men nudged aside, and the mini-coup over Ukraine policy would have worked. John Bolton, who could have stepped in and told everyone to return to their seats or no snack time, was agog at the amateur efforts by Giuliani, and certainly no fan of a less robust Ukraine policy anyway.

    Things got out of the group’s hands when Democrats, desperate for something to impeach on after Russiagate imploded, seized on the objections over Ukraine policy as slightly more than the nothing they otherwise had (the alternative was resurrecting the Stormy Daniels-Michael Avenatti-Michael Cohen sleaze fest.) An objection over policy and who would run it was transformed into a vague smatter of quid pro quo based on that July 25 phone call, using a whistleblower’s undergrad-level prank “complaint” as the trigger.

    And that’s why the whistleblower is very relevant. He knows nothing first-hand himself (neither does anyone else, see below, but someone had to go first) admitting in his complaint all his information is second hand. He is not anonymous; Google “who is the whistleblower” and you too can know everything official Washington and the media already know about him, back to his college days. So no one needs to fret about his safety, and no one needs to ask him any questions about the July 25 call.

    Here is the question the whistleblower must be asked: how did this jump from policy disagreements among like-minded people (you, Vindman, Taylor, et al) to claims of an impeachable offense? Who engineered that jump? Was it Adam Schiff’s staffers who first met with the whistleblower? Schiff lied about that contact. Or was it a partisan D.C. lawyer who has been trolling Twitter since Trump’s election looking for someone to hand him raw material he’d lawyer into a smoking gun (an organization he is connected with had mobile billboards advertising for whistleblowers circling the White House, the Capitol, the Pentagon, the CIA and the National Security Agency to try to attract clients)?

    Did the whistleblower make himself into a pawn, or was he made into a pawn? The answer is very important because at this point how the whistleblower came to be at the ground zero of electoral politics tells us if this is a legitimate impeachment or a political assassination. The voters will have to judge that in about a year independent of the partisan votes (the weakness of the actual impeachment case is explained here) taken in the House and Senate.

    The popular impression is men like the whistleblower, Bill Taylor, and Alex Vindman are non-partisan, and there is some truth to that. They came up through a system which strongly emphasized service to the president, whomever that is. But it would be wrong to equally claim they are policy agnostic; in fact, likely quite the opposite. They see themselves as experts, and in Vindman’s case, a native son, who know better. That’s why they were hired, to advise, and under Obama their advice (for better or worse, they wanted to bring us to war with Russia) was generally followed.

    They knew they knew better than the Orange Clown who somehow ended up in the Oval Office and ignored them. They knew he was wrong, and talked and texted about it among themselves. That’s OK, normal even. But it appears they came to see Trump not just as wrong but as dangerous. Add in some taint of self-interest on Trump’s part, and he became evil. They convinced themselves it was a matter of conscience, and wrapped their opposition in the flagged courage of a (created?) whistleblower. Certainly if one hadn’t existed it would have been necessary to invent him.

    With their testimony focused mostly on their disagreements with Trump’s Ukraine policy, and their own intellectual superiority, it seems such proclamations of conscience have more to do with what outcomes and policy the witnesses support and less to do with understanding that without an orderly system of government with a functioning chain of command all is chaos. The Trump-deranged public is overlooking the dark significance of serving officials undermining the elected president because of policy disagreements. They hate Trump so much they are tolerating insubordination, even cheering it. Now that’ll bite America back soon enough. You don’t join government to do whatever partisan thing you think is right; you serve under a system and a chain of command. There is no Article 8 in the Constitution saying “but if you really disagree with the president it’s OK to just do what you want.”

    I served 24 years in such a system, joining the State Department under Ronald Reagan and leaving during the Obama era. That splay of political ideologies had plenty of things in it my colleagues and I disagreed with or even believed dangerous. Same for people in the military, who were told who to kill on America’s behalf, a more significant moral issue than a boorish phone call. But we also knew the only way for America to function credibly was for to follow the boss, the system created by the Constitution, and remembering we weren’t the one elected, and that we ultimately worked for those who did the electing. So let’s hear from the whistleblower and all the witnesses about that, not their second hand knowledge of Trump’s motivations, but their first hand knowledge of their own motivations.

    Americans in government and military are mostly decent people. Unlike some who hold power in banana republics, they are unlikely to be convinced to undermine the president for personal gain. But give them a crusade, tell them they are heroes Mueller failed to be, and they will convince themselves anything is justified. Those impure motivations are what transformed the witnesses now driving impeachment from being dissenters to insubordinate into convincing themselves they needed to make a stand. Vindman gives it away, saying he twice “registered internal objections about how Mr. Trump and his inner circle were treating Ukraine,” out of what he called a “sense of duty.” Duty to what?

    The not very anonymous whistleblower is only 33-years-old, but of the mold. Ivy League, CIA, language guy, a Ukraine specialist who found himself and his knowledge embraced by Obama and Biden — the right guy in the right place — until he was set aside by Trump with new policy. Taylor fancies himself the last honest man, shepherding U.S.-Ukrainian policy through rough waters, having been ambassador to Ukraine 2006-2009. Yovanovitch was a partisan, representing her own vision, not that of the elected leadership, because she was sure she knew better after her years at State. Best and the brightest. They were professional, seasoned dammit, look at their resumes! The uniform!

    If they came to being whistleblowers and then players in politics honestly, then were simply side-slipped into becoming pawns, they should be quietly retired, this generation’s Colin Powell. But if they are agent provocateurs, they need to be fired. That’s why we need to talk to the whistleblower, to understand that difference.

     

    That’s for them, now for us. If this all was just a hearing on bad policy planning and what happens when knuckleheads like Rudy Giuliani get involved, it would make interesting history. If this was a long-overdue review of U.S. relations with Ukraine, it would be welcome. But as an attempt to impeach the president, it is a sordid, empty, brazen, political tactic hardly worthy of the term coup. It sets a terrible example of what we will tolerate from the bureaucracy if we hate the incumbent president enough. It opens the door to political opportunism, and informs real would-be insubordinates how to proceed more effectively. It signals chaos to our allies and opens opportunity to our enemies.

    There’s a fine line between necessary dissent and wicked insubordination, between conscience and disobedience, but there is a line and it appears to have been crossed here. The attack is no longer on policy, on which Taylor and Vindman may lay some claim, it is on the president and only the voters should have that say.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • I Miss Journalism

    October 5, 2019 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: 2020, Democracy, Trump

    stripper with money

    I miss journalism. I used to enjoy the news. People said things, events happened, and the “news” told me about that. Some were better at shrinking away human bias than others, but by sticking to a solid handful of outlets you could get a decent sense of what was happening.

    Now, columnist Max Boot in the Washington Post has finally put into writing what we have all known for some time: that sort of journalism is dead. The job has shifted to aspirational writing, using selected facts alongside made-up stuff to cause something to happen.

    What Boot made black and white is he does not commit journalism anymore to create Jefferson’s informed public. He writes to drive Trump from office and overturn the 2016 election, regime change, my bitches. Max: “Much of my journalism for the past four years has been devoted to critiquing President Trump and opposing the spread of Trumpism. But no matter how many columns or sound bites I produce, he remains in office… I am left to ask if all my work has made any difference.” While reasoned editorials and Op-Eds supporting and opposing policies have always been a part of journalism, what Boot spent the last few years doing was creating and supporting others who created narratives designed to drive Trump himself from office. They manufactured reasons for him to resign, to drive actual impeachment, or at last resort, influence voters too dumb to know what’s good for them.

    We more or less knew this was true even before senior staff at the New York Times had to remind reporters they were “not part of the f*cking resistance,” or before CNN advised the House “go for the jugular vein” and impeach Trump, but it is helpful to see it in daylight. After all, democracy dies in the darkness.

    The uber-created narrative was Russiagate. None of the core substance was true. Trump wasn’t the Manchurian Candidate set in place by Putin in a long con, nor was there a quid pro quo for Russian election help. Yet the media literally accused the president of treason by melding together otherwise unrelated droplets of truth — Trump wanted a hotel in Moscow, some ads were run on Facebook — that could be spun into a narrative which would bring Trump down, if not send him to SuperMax. What was true was of little consequence; what mattered was whether the media could create a narrative the rubes might believe.

    The critical flaw in Russiagate (other than it did not actually happen)) was the media creating an end-point they could not control, Robert Mueller. Mueller, an old school, Deep State man to his core, was made into an Avenger, the Last Honest Man, the Savior of Democracy as the narrative first unfolded and then fell apart like cardboard box in the rain. After Michael Cohen’s Mueller’s dismal testimony, promoted to a crescendo for three full years across the media, there was nowhere to go.

    A much better example which follows the same Bootian construct but which will play out without end is the mash-up story Trump is manipulating both the inner workings of government in the specific and American foreign policy on a global scale for personal gain via… hotel fees.

    At first glance it seems like a non-starter. Trump’s hotels are as much a part of him as the extra pounds he carries. He campaigned as a CEO and announced early on he was not going to leave any of that behind and divest.

    But even as the first cold slap of Trump’s election victory filtered past nascent attempts at unseating him, claiming he lost the popular vote (in baseball and the Electoral College, you win with the most runs, not the most hits, kids), or that votes were miscounted (they were not) or that the sleepy EC would rise from Hamilton’s grave and smite Trump (it did not), a narrative was being shaped: Trump could not become president because of his business conflicts of interest. Some went as far as to claim swearing him in would itself be an unconstitutional act.

    An early proponent was Harvard professor Lawrence Tribe, who dug around in the Constitution’s closet and found the Emoluments Clause, a handful of lines intended to bar office holders from accepting gifts from foreign sovereigns, kings and princes to prevent influence buying. Pre-Trump, the last time the issue was in actual contention was with President Martin Van Buren (no relation) over gifts from the Imam of Muscat.

    The media ran with it. They imagined out of whole cloth any foreign government official getting a room at any Trump hotel was such an emolument. Then they imagined whatever tiny percentage of that room profit actually went to Trump himself represented a bribe. Then they imagined despite the vast complexity of U.S. relations, Trump would alter course against America’s own interests because some guy rented a room. It was Joker-like in its diabolicalness, the presidency itself merely a prank to hide an international crime spree!

    Then they made it happen. The now-defunct leftist site Think Progress ran what might be Story Zero. It was based on an anonymous source claiming before Trump even took office, under political pressure, the Kuwaiti Ambassador canceled a major event at one hotel to switch to Trump’s own DC hotel. It all turned out to be untrue. “Do you think a reception of two hours in the Trump hotel is going to curry favors with the administration when we host thousands of U.S. troops in Kuwait? When we have in the past and still do support American operations in Afghanistan and Iraq?” the Kuwait ambassador asked when some other outlet got around to his side of the story. But no matter.

    Though the Emoluments Clause is quite specific, the media then decided every time anyone stayed at a Trump property it was corruption. Even when Trump visited one of his own homes it was corruption because the Secret Service paid Trump for the privilege!

    Now none of that should have mattered. The Secret Service has always paid for the facilities they use for their work because the government cannot commandeer private property or demand/accept free stuff (which of course, ironically, could be seen as a bribe), not from Marriott and not from the Trump Organization. Joe Biden still charges the Secret Service rent on a cottage he owns, so that they can protect him when he visits home in Delaware. Taxpayers shelled out for eight years of Secret Service protection so his spouse, Jill, could hold a paid teaching job at a Northern Virginia community college.

    Never mind. When a business executive stayed at a Trump property, it was corruption. For example T-Mobile booked nine rooms at a Trump hotel, ostensibly to influence a $26 billion merger’s federal approval. Those rooms were worth about $2700. Of course the president, who can shift the stock market for millions with a tweet, prefers to make his illegal money off jacked up hotel bills. Think small has always been a Trump trademark.

    Reuters headlined how foreigners were buying New York condos from third party owners (i.e., not Trump or his company), but it was in a Trump-managed building after all and maybe the monthly maintenance fees would qualify as mini-emoluments? Every apartment sold to a Russian-sounding surnamed individual was corruption fodder. Trump was accused of “hiding” foreign government income at his hotels when servers at the bar failed to ask cash customers if they were potentates or princes (the headline: “Trump Organization Says It’s ‘Not Practical’ to Comply With the Emoluments Clause.”)

    And of course that Air Force crew staying at a Trump place in Scotland. That the hotel forged its relationship with a nearby airport long before Trump became president, and that the Air Force had been using the same airport and hotel hundreds of times long before Trump became president, didn’t stop the New York Times. Another piece speculated the $166 a night the Air Force pays for rooms was always part of Trump’s financial plan for the floundering multi-million golf course.

    Along the way all sorts of other co-joined narratives were tried and dropped: Stormy and Avenatti, the SDNY as Savior, Sharpiegate, something about security clearances, Trump outing a CIA asset inside the Kremlin, imminent war with ChinaIranVenezuelaNorthKorea, a recession that never seems to catch on, the Battle of Greenland, shady loans from Deutsche Bank that never materialize, taxes! taxes! taxes! and more. Some appear and disappear before a rebuttal can even be written. Others die out for awhile with the embers blown to life as needed, such as the idea diplomacy is “earned” by bad guys; that falsehood has impeded progress with North Korea and now on ending the war in Afghanistan (but was OK with Obama and Iran.)

    Places like CNN simultaneously claim Trump is a warmonger and incapable of diplomacy while mocking his efforts to practice it. They claim he has weakened the State Department and then are incredulous when he tries to use it. Forgotten is how around this point in the Bush admin we had started wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There was the abandonment of a great American city to Katrina. The Patriot Act stripped us of our privacy. Torture, kidnapping, and indefinite prison without trial became US government policies. With Obama we had around this point attacked Libya triggering a massive refugee crisis which killed so many and is still disrupting Europe, ignored the Arab Spring, laid the groundwork for civil war in Syria, drone murdered several American citizens, and spent trillions to dig out of the financial crisis Bush let happen.

    But to really see how weak the corruption narrative is, you have only to compare it to how the media chose to cover similar questions in the past.

    Outside of anti-war outlets, the Bush family’s long involvement in the oil industry in general and closeness to the Saudis in particular was never really tied to two generations of Bush presidents making war across the mideast. Vice President Dick Cheney’s job running Haliburton and accepting delayed compensation from them even while in office had nothing to do in the MSM with his encouraging no-bid contracts for his old company to run the backstage parts of Iraq War II. There were certainly no talks of impeachment.

    Imagine if the media treated every appearance by Obama as a book promotion? What if each speech was slandered across the channels as corruption, Obama just out there selling books? Should he have been impeached for commercializing the office of president? At the very least this issue should have been discussed by Max Boot on cable news shows.

    The Trump Organization pays to the Treasury all profits from foreign governments. In the 2018, $191,000. The year before the amount was $151,470. So Trump’s in-pocket money is zero.

    Meanwhile Obama’s profit was $15.6 million as an author during his time in office (he has made multiples more since leaving office, including a $65 million book advance.) In the two weeks before he was inaugurated as the 44th president, Obama reworked his book deals. He agreed not to publish another non-fiction book during his time in office to keep anticipation high, while signing a $500,000 advance for a young adult version of Dreams From My Father.

    Obama’s books were huge sellers in China, where publishing is largely government controlled, meaning Obama likely received laundered payments via his publisher of Chicom money (Emoluments Clause!) while in the Oval Office. Obama’s own State Department bought $79,000 worth of his books to distribute as gifts abroad.

    As with Trump, nothing Obama did was illegal. There are no laws per se against a president making money while in the White House. Yet no one bothered to raise the Emoluments/corruption question for Obama, and the State Department purchasing $79,000 worth of his books was forgotten fodder for FOX. No one ran stories Obama sought the presidency as a bully ATM machine. No one claimed his frequent messaging about his father was designed to move books. No one demanded hearings on his profits or inquiries into how taxpayer funds were used to buy up his books.

    Only Trump, and Max Boot has confessed why. The media has created a pitch-and-toss game with Democrats, running false, exaggerated or purposely shallowly-reported stories to generate calls for hearings, which in turn breath life into the corruption story for another round.

    “Undeterred by lackluster public support for impeachment,” the New York Times reports, “Democrats have sketched out a robust four month itinerary of hearings and court arguments that they hope will provide the evidence they need to credibly portray Mr. Trump as corrupt and abusing his power.”

    Like Russiagate, this is all an assemblage of droplets of truth which will not lead to criminal charges or impeachment. Unlike Russigate, however, there is no Robert Mueller buzz kill to come, only a vague narrative which can be refreshed as needed, with the only end in sight being Trump somehow driven from office before November 2020, or beaten in the election. Until then, Max Boot and his ilk still have journalism’s new job to do. Journalism is now all for resistance, for condemnation and arousal.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • 2020: 100 Points for Slytherin!

    July 23, 2019 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: 2020, Democracy, Trump


     

    Under Plan A Democrats imagined their way into believing they would never have to run against Trump in 2020, or that he would limp to the finish line so battered, with the country in such shambles, that it would be no contest.
     

    We saw the near-final act of Plan A when Robert Mueller’s testimony, scheduled for July 17, was postponed for some unknown reason. That it’ll be close to four months since the report came out when Mueller testifies (he’s already said he will say nothing not already in his report anyway) tells the story of how massive a failure the Dems’ attempt to oust, derail, or impeach Trump has been.

    Yeah, there’s still time on the clock, but even the loyal fans are leaving their seats early. They remember similar collapses of the story line for Stormy Daniels (the case is now “dormant”), the emoluments clause (Trump just won a major case), but-his-taxes, Puerto Rico, the National Enquirer, Kavanaugh, security clearances, Putin’s secret agent stuff, all the president’s flipping men, the end of NATO, etc. Democratic strategists are left hoping a convicted pedophile saves them with dirt on Trump, or maybe Mueller breaks out in Tourette’s Syndrome at his someday hearing and demands impeachment. You can only announce the world is ending 7 or 8 or 27 times before people start to have doubts.

    The incessant hyperbole has left the electorate numb. It reached its anti-peak (for now) on July 4, when a garbled speech by the president was whipped into “Tanks on the Mall” and a rehearsal for “Triumph of the Will II: More Triumphant.” Detainee facilities became concentration camps, with America pitched as the new Wiemar to Millennials still searching for Wiemar, misspelled, in Wikipedia.

    Instead, the economy is strong. Wages are up. Job reports are robust. Stocks are at all-time highs. Trump is polling the best in his tenure, and matches Obama at this same point in his presidency. And here are 12 economic models showing incumbents under similar economies won. The Dems in response are stuttering to claim Obama fixed the economy via time travel, or hoping America falls into recession putting millions out on the streets to own Trump.

    Of the many other disasters the Democrats hoped for — race war, civil war, war with China/Iran/North Korea/Venezuela, all the end-of-democracy stuff – Trump didn’t start the fire. There has been no Washington-led regime change in Libya triggering massive refugee flows and resetting EU political balances. Trump is likely to be the first president since WWII not to start a new conflict while in office.
     

    The Democrats need a Plan B. That appears to be Joe Biden, essentially a test crash dummy with “Not Trump” written on its face in Sharpie, a candidate with all the energy of one of those animatronic presidents from Disneyland. No voter will fall in love with Joe, be impassioned by him or whatever message he gets around to. Biden is someone to settle for. That makes turnout a problem. Remember the Gore, and then Kerry, juggernauts which failed to defeat an empty George W. Bush?

    All in a way a shame, because the current primary is the one the Dems should have had in 2015. Had the DNC not put in the fix for Hillary, it is more than possible Biden (or Bernie) would have beaten Trump. In 2016 neither carried the progressive baggage and purple state fears to the degree they do now. Plus they would have run against the theoretical Trump, the really scary one who was going to start all those wars, implement Handmaiden’s Tale, and wreck the economy, instead of the noisy but in the end mediocre Trump of record.

    So on to Plan C, “Operation Fresh Faces.” That gets off to a slow start with Bernie. In 2015 he was full of transformational ideas, now diluted into the mainstream so you can support the gist of Bernie and not have to explain to your friends why you’re voting for a Seinfeld outtake.

    The rest seem to be devoted to alienating as many mainstream voters as possible. Kamala Harris (along with Warren, Sanders, and others) wants to eliminate employer-based health insurance, something over 70% of Americans who have such insurance are satisfied with. Only 13% of Americans prefer a system with no private plans. Are the Dems going forward with a 13% policy idea? Or will they try (again) to sell a flawed Obama-era insurance program as the gold standard?

    All the Dem candidates are also sure the economy is a mess. Yet a poll shows 71% of Americans say the economy is very or somewhat good. At the debates, several candidates advocated for gun confiscation. All promoted restriction-free abortions when the majority of Americans see the issue as more nuanced. Harris made 1970s discussions of school busing a centerpiece while the other candidates happily promoted open borders and free healthcare for illegal immigrants, apparently in the misguided notion illegal immigrants are the largest Democratic voting block left. And that was on the smart night: the earlier debate featured talk about publicly-funded abortions for pregnant trans men. The answers on most other topics sounded like they’d been run past HR first.

    Cory Booker is now campaigning to be your best black friend if you’ll choose him as VP. His latest move as Mayor of Crazytown was a stunt where he led deported migrants, Moses-like, back into the U.S.

    Kamala Harris imagines herself a contender, unaware she will likely lose the chance even at VP when the party asserts itself for Biden or maybe Warren. She seems to be sticking in the race too long with low numbers and saying too many naughty things to have a shot at VP herself. Warren is a woman of free-dom – free college, free medical care, a magic wand to do away with $1.5 trillion in student loans, maybe a pony for the kids. And everyone loves reparations. Who’ll pay for all this? Um, “the wealthy.”

    Mayor Pete? He hoped to run as a warrior, smiting LGBT hate at every step when most non-media people just tuned him out. He confessed to failing to fix the police force in South Bend, a wane admission when you’re asking to run the whole country. Buttigieg has his own give away, the (Frederick) Douglass Plan, which includes $10 billion for black entrepreneurs, $25 billion for black colleges, and a goal to reduce the prison population by half. He stresses this is in addition to the reparations he also supports.

    Beto, Robin to Pete’s Batman, is murmured to now be an intern on the Hickenlooper campaign; you gotta get some experience somewhere. The Pelosi-AOC sideshow (AOC daily sounds like a whiny undergraduate sure she knows more than the professor) alongside all this inspires little confidence in how a Democratic government would get anything done post-2020.
     
    Who is going to vote for these people? Harris in particular made an aggressive move to alienate purple voters, putting Americans on trial for views they held in the past on things like busing. Joe Biden stood in for everyone who may have felt one way then, and another way now, but realizes in 2019 they are being teed up as the enemy. There’s no answer possible in 2019 when you’re called a racist; it ends every discussion. A purple voter may legitimately wonder how they might be treated under a Harris administration. Is it payback time? It seems a very short-sighted strategy for a candidate, an even worse one for a leader.
     
    A lot can change in the 15 months until the election, but will it? Trump is Trump is Trump. Anyone studying his first years in office unemotionally knows outside the daily faux-atrocities the media credits him with via “sources” and “reports” he is mostly tweets. He is very good at sounding like a Red State warrior while actually doing little. Expect more of the same; after all, it has worked so far.

    That leaves Plan D. No matter what the media will say, Texas and Georgia are not in play for a national election. Neither are California and New York. The election rests with purple voters in a handful of states. Yet the Democratic party seems to think it can win without any of the 35% of Americans who call themselves moderates. It drifts in a belief Twitter is real life, “likes” are votes, and Dems should all be running for president of social media. That’ll just end up with as many surprised by the results in 2020 as were in 2016.

    The party’s last hope is to hope there are enough Trump Haters who will vote for whomever the Dems shovel up, to overcome the purple voters who either stay home, or are so frightened of what progressives have in store they will treat Trump as the devil they know.

    Trump as the safe candidate, think about how that came to be. For those keeping score, it is 100 points for Slytherin at this point.
     
    BONUS:

    In case all that does not terrify purple voters enough, the media meanwhile is presenting AOC, elected with an 11% turnout against an opponent who did not campaign, as the new, new face of the party. Elect a Democrat in 2020 and see who is waiting in the wings!

    Ocasio-Cortez daily sounds more like an undergraduate so sure she knows more than the professor, shouting Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden are racists (did Barack know?) even as Congressional Black Caucus members are accusing a progressive group aligned with Ocasio-Cortez of trying to oust African American lawmakers.

    Nancy Pelosi seems to be the first in her party to understand AOC and her ilk are not leaders, though too many pretend they are. They mirror their contemporaries whining on social media. Government isn’t a job or a duty, it’s just a platform from which to “raise awareness,” a Millenial phrase meaning to be deeply offended about the most recent shiny object online, and then doing nothing about it.

    These progressive voices dominate because in 2019, who in the Democratic body politic is allowed to disagree with bleating about oppression? Progressives have become rhetorical bullies, demanding other ideas be shouted down. It sounds good on Twitter, but imagine how poorly it echoes across kitchen tables in Michigan and Pennsylvania.
      

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • North Korea: Call it Diplomacy 101, Not a Photo Op

    July 1, 2019 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Iran, Trump


     

    You have to negotiate with your enemies. Fact of life, whether they are autocrats or segregationist Senators. They “have” what you want, the power to stop you from achieving your goals. And of course you have to give something up, nobody surrenders power or nukes for free. This is nothing new. Call it Diplomacy 101.
     
    Yet in 2019 stupidity has been weaponized, so people who deplore the lack of progress in Congress now discover they hate Biden because he worked with certain Senators decades ago. And people who criticize Trump for gutting the State Department argue against diplomacy, trying to dismiss small steps with North Korea, or China, as photo ops, playing at being naive that diplomacy happens in small steps.

    The latest is the attack on Trump because he might “allow” North Korea to keep some nuclear capability even after some U.S. sanctions are rolled back. Well, North Korea has had nukes since 2006, so that means Bush, Obama, and now Trump have “allowed them.” Once a nation goes nuclear, they largely get to decide what they are allowed to do. Ask Israel.
     
    One might also look at the Iran nuclear deal Obama made for perspective. It was a good thing, reduced tensions in the Middle East, and would have helped set the stage for more complex relations with the United States had Trump not canceled it, or had Obama had the political oomph to have created a formal treaty and not an “agreement.” Iran reduced its nuclear threshold state, but was never required to go to zero.

    The news today shows how easy it was for Iran to ramp up from Obama-negotiated levels. So the idea Trump might seek a reduction in North Korean nuclear capability is in line with Obama’s deal with Iran, though of course any reduction of actual weapons in Korea is a bigger step forward than just a step back on capability in Iran. And even that took 20 months for Obama to pull off. In the end, if North Korea reneges on any agreement, sanctions removed can be reimposed.

    People demanding Trump bull into a room and say “Nukes, number one and we’re done” want the process to fail. Wipe clean the cartoon image of Kim as a madman. North Korea currently has nuclear weapons as the guarantor of its survival; that is a starting point, not a debatable one. If the United States and South Korea want the North to give up those weapons, something has to replace them as that assurance of survival. The ask here is extraordinary—only one nation in history that self-developed nuclear weapons, South Africa, has ever given them up, and that was because their purpose, the survival of the white apartheid regime, disappeared into history.

    A new magic word dominates the MSM, “legitimacy.” Despite their near-universal hatred of Trump, when convenient he is apparently important enough somewhere to be able to bestow Legitimacy” on foreigners, which can be a bad thing vis-a-vis North Korea. The Etruscans, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Eritreans, and Everyone Else from A to Z have been conducting diplomacy with adversaries of all flavors, titles, and moral standards since before the word was even invented by the French. A leader whose family has been the sole ruler of his nation for seven-some decades, who controls nuclear weapons, whose country has a seat at the United Nations and embassies in multiple countries around the world, already meets any practical test of “legitimacy.” Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons exist whether or not he meets a sitting American president, or ex-presidents Clinton and Carter. The only chance those weapons might someday be gone rests on such meetings.

    There is also a fear fanned by the MSM Trump will somehow give something important away, as if he might sign over the deed to Oregon to Kim late one boozy night. Negotiations are of course rarely an even exchange. But how long will you sit at the table if someone else seems to win every hand? Everyone has to at least feel they can win, so they don’t have a reason to cheat and thus stay in the game. Even when stakes are high, the good news is that it’s hard to give away “the store.” The store, whatever form it takes, usually isn’t something that can be irrevocably stopped, boxed up for shipment, or destroyed forever. Never mind the checks, balances, and bureaucratic brakes built into something as complex as the United States government, or even what may appear to be mostly a one-man-rule system. Diplomacy 101 encourages a thoughtful approach to score keeping, knowing the score only really matters at the end anyway.

    Diplomacy is almost always a process, rarely a singular event. The media trying to trick us into imaging one or two or ten meetings which do not resolve a problem is failure willfully overlooks the history of the Cold War, with its many steps forward and backward, but which more or less held the peace. That latter point — the absence of war — is the standard of measure, not what one thinks of Trump.

    History provides another example, Richard Nixon’s summit with Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung. That 1972 meeting ended over two decades of isolation between two nuclear-armed countries, and is universally hailed as brilliant diplomacy. But looking back, the main takeaway, the Shanghai Communique, is full of vague phrases promising to meet again and somehow make “progress toward the normalization of relations” and “reduce the danger of international military conflict.” The status of Taiwan, which had almost brought the Americans and Chinese to war, was dealt with in almost poetic terms, able to be read with multiple meanings.

    There was no timeline for anything, no specific next steps listed, nothing about China’s horrendous human rights situation. It took seven more years before full diplomatic relations were restored, yet scholars see the visit as one of the most impactful ever by an American president, to the point that the term “Nixon to China” is now shorthand for a breakthrough leaders’ meeting.

    The China agreement (and the one in Iran) was reached the old-school way, by sitting down at a table over many months and negotiating. Diplomats consulted experts. People in suits, not in uniform, did most of the talking. The process, perhaps unfamiliar to a post-9/11 generation raised on the machismo of “you’re either with us or against us,” is called compromise. It’s an essential part of a skill that is increasingly unfamiliar to Americans: diplomacy. The goal is not to defeat an enemy, find quick fixes, solve every bilateral issue, or even get even for Otto Warmbier. The goal is to achieve a mutually agreeable resolution to a specific problem. Such deft statecraft demonstrates the sort of foreign policy dexterity American voters have seldom seen exercised.

    Also now take a moment to think this through from the North Korean side (know your enemy.) It would take a blind man in the dark not to notice one obvious fact about the Greater Middle East: regimes the U.S. opposes tend to find themselves blasted into chaos once they lose their nuclear programs. The Israelis destroyed Saddam’s program, as they did Syria’s, from the air. Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya went down the drain thanks to American/NATO-inspired regime change after he voluntarily gave up his nuclear ambitions. The Israelis and the U.S. took a serious shot at Iranian nuclear capability with the STUXNET virus. No one could miss how North Korea’s membership in the regime-change club wasn’t renewed once that country went nuclear. Consider that a pretty good reason to develop a robust nuclear weapons program — and not give it up entirely. Let’s also note the world has lived with North Korea as a nuclear state for some 13 years, through three U.S. administrations and a change of leadership in Pyongyang.

    Any nascent agreement reached does not make North Korea and the United States friends. It does, however, open the door for the two countries to talk to each other and develop the kinds of financial and trade ties that will make conflict more impractical. After more than seven decades of hostility, that would be no small accomplishment.

    Future Trump-Kim-Moon tripartite negotiations (and please don’t underplay the role of South Korea’s Moon in all this) may lead to a better peace, it may set the stage for a next generation of leaders, or it may be just an asterisk in the history books alongside the sit-downs in Singapore and Vietnam when judged years from now. But to mock it for partisan political reasons this week is to prove one’s own ignorance of how these things work.

      

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Bullies Like Me

    June 30, 2019 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: 2020, Democracy, Trump

    Harvard revoked a Parkland student’s admission, a survivor kid who supported the Second Amendment. Two former Central Park 5 prosecutors lost their jobs 30 years after the case, because of a Netflix movie released last week called “When They See Us.” By the time you read this, the Left will have forced another voice off Twitter, and bullied another small business for offending their rules on gender and cake.

    I learned about bullying in a small Ohio high school you never heard of, both by being bullied and in some of the most shameful days of my life, as a bully myself. I came to understand bullies are frustrated by their own lack of power (there’s always someone bigger going after them) and, unable to do anything to the real target, find someone weaker to torment. It is never meant to be a fair fight. There’s also a third element, the adult in the room who stays quiet and lets it all happen. A football coach or room monitor in my high school, the elders at Harvard in 2019 America.

    Trying out for football at my high school meant being bullied by the varsity. If you were lucky they only stole your food and made you embarrass yourself singing to the group. For others, it was sodomy with soap bars or caustic creams smeared in your jock. It went on after the coaches would mysteriously disappear during certain practice breaks. Some guys quit the team, some just endured, some sought empty relief bullying others. I was in that last group, mercilessly teasing a poor kid weaker than me, during lunch periods when the room monitors would mysteriously disappear; nobody really liked him. I was cruel in a way I wish I hated then the way I hate it now. He was an easy target who I thought 44 years ago was a way for me to feel better. I couldn’t beat up the varsity football team who humiliated me, so that kid was their surrogate. Nothing I have done before or after makes me more ashamed.

    I know about bullying. So let’s not pretend what is happening around us, politically driven by the Left, is anything but bullying. Deeply frustrated the living embodiment of anti-progressive values was elected in 2016 over a candidate genetically created as the Successor in the post-Obama utopia, the Left went looking for someone weaker than them to work out its rage on after Trump proved too tough a target (see the Mueller Report, now three months old, so ineffectual most in Congress see no need to even read it.)

    One writer made the frustration clear: “America finds itself in the grip of an endless and inscrutable daily mystery: How is it possible that the president — whose chief occupations seem to be tweeting, lying, lying about what he tweeted, watching television, and committing crimes — is not on the hook for anything? Not for the lying, and not for the criming [sic], and not even for the endless truculence and meanness.”

    So the Left picks on kids now because they can’t get Trump. Harvard, dismissing how its past presidents brought their slaves to live on campus and how it filled its endowments from the exploitation of slave labor, never mind its decades of discriminatory practices against Jews and other “undesirables,” takes away Parkland survivor Kyle Kashuv‘s scholarship because a couple of years ago he used the term “n*ggerjock” in texts to “friends,” who then sent those to Harvard Admissions demanding his head. Use the wrong words, no matter how long ago or in what context — my high school coaches called us f*ggots when they felt we weren’t working hard enough — and it is not your action which is attacked, it is you. Kyle Kashuv is a racist now and forever and literally it appears beyond reeducation. Like the guy who hit that one home run junior year and thinks he is forever a baseball player.

    (As an aside, imagine some people you once texted as friends, screenshotting those messages and then sending them on to the school you were going to attend, hoping to wreck your academic world.)

    Kashuv of course was one of the Florida Parkland kids, those celebrity school shooting survivors, but not one of the nice ones who stood beside George Clooney and demanded an end to the Second Amendment. Kyle supports gun rights. So while his ostensible sin was a teenage wasteland version of racism, his actual transgression was being an easy surrogate for Trump. Meanwhile, Twitter played the role of the leering varsity players standing in a semi-circle cheering on the violence being done to a freshman.

    Same for Harvard’s Ronald Sullivan, a lecturer at their law school, and faculty dean at one of Harvard’s residential houses for over nine years. He was fired for serving on #MeToo poster child Harvey Weinstein’s defense team. The bullies who attacked him claimed his decision to represent a person accused of abusing women (Weinstein has yet to go to trial and thus would be presumed innocent in some alternate universe) disqualified Sullivan from “serving in a role of support and mentorship to students.” Sure thing. Except Sullivan was really fired as a surrogate for Weinstein who is a surrogate for Trump, who still managed to get himself elected after bragging about pussy grabbing. Harvard law school’s adults stood silent in practice while teaching classes in theory about how a robust defense of even the worst defendants is a cornerstone of justice.

    Linda Fairstein and Elizabeth Lederer prosecuted the Central Park 5 in 1989, helping wrongly convict five juveniles of rape. Fairstein kept her job at the NYC District Attorney’s office until 2002, and went on to write 20 best-selling novels. Lederer is still a prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office and had taught law at Columbia for the last seven years. However, a week after a Netflix dramatization which took liberties with the facts (among other things, the movie ignored evidence some of the teens were likely accomplices in the rape and committed other violent crimes ) of the 30-year-old case came out, online mobs and university students successfully demanded Fairstein’s publisher dump her, and Columbia force Lederer to resign. Ken Burns’ more careful documentary about the same case didn’t call forth the same fierceness, but then again it came out in 2012 in the warmth of the Obama years. Today, Fairstein and Lederer are the designated surrogates for Donald Trump. Trump, who in the 1980s shot his mouth off about nearly everything in his hometown of New York City, is being blamed for helping unfairly convict the boys because of statements he once made. People are demanding he, along with Fairstein and Lederer, issue an apology.

    In Washington DC, another author was driven out by bullies. Her offense was reporting a black worker (breaking the rules by eating on the Metro) a crime of racism in 2019. “See something, say something” is the mantra unless it involves squealing on a POC, when it becomes fodder for the anti-Trump bullies. The Metro worker, who claimed she was “humiliated” by all the attention she got for breaking the rules, didn’t face any disciplinary action.

    The same bully mentality is in force against small businesses who chose not to bake cakes for LGBT couples; the same bullies who celebrate the First Amendment’s lack of applicability to social media making decisions on who to allow in the store demand the power of the courts when it favors them. Even when the courts  ultimately actually defend the bakers, the Leftist bullies relish the power to bankrupt offenders with legal fees, or try to crush them with mob-driven boycotts. The literal Heckler’s Veto has found a home with the bullies as they successful shouted down Charles Murray, Ann Coulter, Richard Spencer, and others.

    Among many black writers (one labels himself a “wypipologist“), Caucasians from Canada to the Caucasus mountains are mocked for all that they do, now surrogates for Trump. “Woke” female comedians use the same calculus when they make jokes about small hands, micro-penis’ and boyfriends who can’t satisfy them. If anyone tries to defend themselves (“um, you know we’re not all like that”) the bullies swarm with accusations of mansplaining, privilege or the catch all, whataboutism.

    The attempted political assassination of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was the most extreme example of bullying by the Left. There certainly has never been a more obvious Trump surrogate (though Paul Manafort is a close second): Kavanaugh the misogynist, Kavanaugh the gang rapist, Kavanaugh the serial liar, Kavanaugh the Old Straight White Man (apres Trump, a slur in itself.) The Left’s goal wasn’t to show the nominee was unqualified as a jurist, but that he was unqualified as a human being, to humiliate him with innuendo and gossip in front of his family and the nation hoping he’d quit the team. Due process and a modicum of fairness? It wasn’t supposed to be a fair fight.

    The Heckler’s Veto on social media is a national past-time, where, frustrated by Trump’s instinctive skill for the medium, bullies use their malleable Terms of Service to deplatform people whose ideas they hate as hate speech. We have lost the ability to even understand the term hypocrisy anymore. Political commentary meanwhile has devolved into name calling. Samantha Bee called Ivanka a “feckless c*nt” and Stephen Colbert referred to Trump as “Putin’s c*ckholster” in ways my old coaches, or any schoolyard bully shouting f*ggot, would have understood.

    The conventional wisdom for those bullied is you’re supposed to fight back. But any good bully creates a situation where the victim can’t. Whether backing him into a toilet stall with three big football jocks as he’s abused or leaving no avenues of appeal while gloating how the First Amendment and the coach who somehow sees nothing won’t protect him, the bully assures his victim’s humiliation. Everyone else just stands back, not wanting to get involved, humiliated themselves by their lack of courage or concern.

    But it is actually all for society’s own good, you see. In 2019, the bullies gild themselves as striking blows against racism or sexism, as if solving those societal problems needed just one more gun-loving Florida kid kicked to the curb. My tormentors claimed it was all part of toughening us up for the football season, and about building comradery as they too had once been humiliated as freshmen. It was actually all for our own good.

    It is not good. Take those feelings of emptied self-worth and humiliation felt as a victim, and multiply them across a society. Remember how you felt standing by doing nothing while it happened, and spread that through an electorate. Think over how watching those coaches look the other way made you feel, or when the media picked up the chorus that the kid, the prosecutors, whomever, deserved it for being a “racist.” Oh, we are something terrible.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Trump, Privatization, and the Passion of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin

    April 15, 2018 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Other Ideas, Trump

    As some seek to further privatize veterans health care, with hundreds of billions of dollars at stake, sacrifices will have to be made. Let’s hope few fall on the veterans themselves.


    Former Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. David Shulkin once held the title of least controversial Cabinet secretary in the Trump Administration. He was confirmed in the Senate by a vote of 100-0, and for most of his time in office enjoyed broad bipartisan support as he sought to reform veterans’ health care.

    That all changed for the lone Obama Cabinet holdover when Donald Trump sacrificed Shulkin on March 28 in favor of White House physician Rear Admiral Dr. Ronny Jackson. Though pushed out ostensibly over a damning ethics report, Shulkin’s story is really one of whether or not further privatizing health care for veterans is the right way to fix a damaged institution. Shulkin being pushed out is a big story that has been both understated and oversimplified in the press as mostly just another episode of the Trump chaos soap opera.

    Shulkin himself pulls no punches. “I believe differences in philosophy deserve robust debate, and solutions should be determined based on the merits of the arguments. The advocates within the administration for privatizing VA health services, however, reject this approach,” wrote Shulkin after his dismissal. “They saw me as an obstacle to privatization who had to be removed. That is because I am convinced that privatization is a political issue aimed at rewarding select people and companies with profits, even if it undermines care for veterans.”

    Despite the quick-fix appeal of privatization in the face of a VA clearly not meeting fully the needs of its population (Shulkin took over the VA in the wake of a report citing a “corrosive culture that has led to poor management, a history of retaliation toward employees, cumbersome and outdated technology, and a shortage of doctors, nurses and physical space to treat its patients”), is a system morphing toward “Medicare for veterans” the answer?

    In its simplest form, privatization means that instead of seeking care at a VA facility at little-to-no charge, veterans would be free to visit any health care provider in the private sector, with Uncle Sam picking up most of the tab. The VA would shift from directly providing care in its own facilities to become the insurance company of dreams. In many cases long waits to access a VA facility would diminish, veterans in rural areas would most likely have less of a travel burden, and patients could better match their needs to a provider. The latter could be especially important to LGBTQ veterans. It’s hard to argue against choice.


    The issue is money. According to one report, moving vets to private providers would double spending in the immediate term. By 2034, the cost of VA health care could be as high as $450 billion, compared to a baseline of less than $100 billion. And even those numbers may be too low; as Vietnam-era vets require more expensive end-of-life care, and as waves of veterans from the past 17 years of the War on Terror enter the system, costs will rise. The challenge is clear; between 2002 and 2013, the number of annual VA outpatient visits nearly doubled to 86.4 million. Hospital admissions — the biggest driver of costs — rose 23%.

    Under any calculus veterans health care is big money and proponents of privatization want to pull as much of it as possible into the commercial sector. But where would the money come from? Major veterans’ organizations opposing additional privatization worry disability benefits and other core VA programs such as education would be cut back. Others speculate a privatized VA system would quickly go the way of civilian insurance, with limited networks, increased co-pays, and complex referral systems, all as a way of passing increasing costs on to the patient. As for many under Obamacare, vets would be caught in the gap between being able to have insurance, and being able to afford health care. Choice can come at a price.


    The specialized needs of many veterans are part of the reason for the specialized veterans’ health care system. Despite much justified criticism, the VA serves the needs of many of its patients well. In the critical area of psychology, VA performance was rated superior to the private sector by more than 30%. Compared with individuals in private plans, veterans with schizophrenia or major depression were more than twice as likely to receive appropriate initial medication treatment. RAND concluded separately “the quality of care provided by the VA health system generally was as good as or better than other health systems on most quality measures.”

    The VA also has expertise in prosthetics, burns, polytrauma, and spinal injuries rare in civilian life. The VA has a lifetime relationship with its patients, leading to broader implementation of preventive care and better integration of records. These advantages could be lost as more choice under a largely privatized system could result in significantly less choice at the VA in areas where it matters most.

    The risk is throwing out the baby with the bathwater, as increased privatization will inevitably mean shuttering some VA facilities. The solution lies in a system which pairs the best of privatization with a reformed government-run veterans health care system. Paring off some services into the private sector while retaining those unique to the VA, all to the satisfaction of Congress, demands an administrator with extraordinary bureaucratic skills. The Trump administration was very likely wrong when it decided Shulkin was not that man.

    Though painted as a solid opponent of privatization, as he was fired Shulkin was already pushing the VA to further privatize its audiology and optometry programs. He oversaw change that led to 36% of VA medical appointments being made in the private sector. Shulkin’s Veterans Choice Program (VCP) allowed access to private doctors where the VA couldn’t provide specialized care, when wait times exceeded standards, or when travel to a VA facility represented a hardship. Shulkin was advocating for the program’s expansion when both his funding and his tenure ran out.

    The VCP program was consistently underfunded, in part due to the unpredictability of month-to-month expenses that will plague any privatized system. However, some of the underfunding was political; one holdout was Senator Jerry Moran. Moran wanted the program tapered off in lieu of his own bill calling for the greater leaps into privatization Shulkin remained skeptical of.

    As Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary, Dr. David Shulkin was an experienced medical administrator who had specialized in health care management at some of the nation’s largest hospitals. The new secretary nominee, Dr. Ronny Jackson, is a fine Navy doctor who has served two presidents, but comes to the job with no experience with an organization the size and complexity of the VA, already the government’s second-largest agency.


    Questions will be asked at what will no doubt be contentious confirmation hearings about whether Jackson can rise to the challenge, or if privatization advocates will take advantage of him to rush ahead with their own preferred changes, to their own financial gain.

    Hanging in the balance? Nine million veterans who rely on the VA for life-sustaining care in return for the sacrifices they have made.




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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Why Leave Well Enough Alone in Jerusalem?

    December 13, 2017 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Embassy/State, Trump


    “Today we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital,” President Donald Trump said. “This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality.” Trump’s formal recognition of Jerusalem as the capital, reversing some seven decades of American policy, is arguably the most unnecessary decision of his time in office, and the clearest one to date to have consequences that will linger far past his tenure. The decision may yield some domestic political advantage for the president, but at irrational expense globally.
    Apart from the short-term violence likely to ensue, understanding the depth of Trump’s mistake requires digging a bit into how diplomacy works. There are many facets (I served as a diplomat with the United States Department of State for 24 years) that can seem almost silly to outsiders but are in fact a very necessary.

    Jerusalem is where Israel’s President presides, and where the Parliament, Supreme Court, and most government ministries are located. In practical terms, the capital. Unlike in nearly ever other nation, however, the United States maintains its formal embassy elsewhere, in the city of Tel Aviv. It keeps a consulate in West Jerusalem, claimed by Israel since 1948, a consular annex in East Jerusalem, the Old City annexed by Israel in 1967 and sought by many Palestinians as the future site of their own capital, and an office in the neighborhood between East and West Jerusalem, directly on the so-called Green Line, the 1949 armistice line between Israel and Jordan. Diplomats from all nations, as well as Israeli officials, understand that in formal terms an embassy is the head office located in the capital, and a consulate is a kind of branch located outside the capital. But they also know from experience in Israel which door to knock on when you need to get business done, regardless of what the nameplate reads out front.

    And to an outsider that might seem like a lot of wasted effort. But diplomats are required to represent the position of their country, and to place that at times in front of “reality” itself. If the sign on the door in Jerusalem says “embassy” then the reality is everyone must slam on the brakes. Everything else may need to wait while the big picture is settled. But as long as the sign says “consulate,” well, we can agree this business about where the capital of Israel is located is complex, but anyway, there are some important matters that need to be discussed…
    This kind of thing is not unique to Israel. A similar system has been in place in Taiwan since 1979 and has kept the peace there.

    In 1979 the United States recognized the reality of the People’s Republic of China, with Beijing as its capital, and shifted formal relations from Taiwan. Instead of an embassy in Taipei, the United States established the American Institute in Taiwan, officially not a part of the American government. An actual registered non-governmental organization, with offices in a nondescript office building in Virginia, the Institute benefits from the Department of State “ providing “a large part of funding and guidance in its operations.”

    Because United States policy is there is only one China and that Taiwan is a part of it, there is no ambassador at the Institute; the chief representative is called the director. People who work for what anyone else would call the Taiwan government are “authorities,” not “officials.” A whole sitcom worth of name changes and diplomatic parlor tricks keeps the enterprise in Taipei not an embassy of the United States.

    But what seems childish actually allows all sides — Washington, Taipei, and Beijing — to focus on the practical, day-to-day work of relations without having to address the never-gonna-resolve-it-in-our-lifetimes geopolitical questions first. That’s why these things matter. They matter because appearance and symbols matter, in East Asia, and especially in the Middle East. That’s why Trump’s decision to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and potentially relocate the embassy pulls down the curtain, turns on the lights, and spray paints day-glo yellow the 500 pound gorilla in the room. It will vastly complicate nearly everything.

     

    In the case of the United States and Jerusalem, the kabuki which has more or less maintained the status quo is the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995. That law required the United States to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999, and said Congress would withhold 50 percent of the funds appropriated to the State Department for overseas building operations if the deadline wasn’t met. The Act also called for Jerusalem to be recognized as the capital.

    The thing is that the Act left open a politically-expedient loophole, allowing the president to repeatedly issue a waiver of the requirements every six months if he determines that is necessary for national security. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama dutifully issued the waiver. Trump also reluctantly did it a few months ago, and then again just after announcing his recognition of Jerusalem to give the State Department some bureaucratic breathing room. Though as stated by the mayor of Jerusalem, “They just take the symbol of the consulate and switch it to the embassy symbol — two American Marines can do it in two minutes.” That would make the American Embassy the only embassy in Jerusalem. Reports say Trump will not designate an existing facility as the embassy and instead plans to build a new structure somewhere in Jerusalem, a process that will take years.

    Under the Jerusalem Embassy Act, the American embassy stayed in Tel Aviv, business was done in Jerusalem as needed, and everyone with a hand in the complex politics of the Middle East could look the other way, whichever other way best fit their needs. It was an imperfect solution, not the failed plan that did not lead to formal peace between the Palestinians and Israel as Trump characterized. The shadowplay status of Jerusalem worked.

     

    No more. Trump’s action in recognizing Jerusalem demands all of the players set aside whatever other issues they have in Israel, not the least of which is the Palestinian peace process, and now take a stand on America’s changed position.

    Of immediate concern will be America’s relationship with Jordan. Jordan has thrown in heavily with the United States, allowing its territory to be used as an entry point into Syria for American aid. The United States and Jordan more broadly have a robust and multi-layered security relationship, working well together in the war on Islamic State and in the peace process. It has been a steady relationship, albeit one based on personal ties more than formal agreements.

    Yet following Trump’s announcement, Jordanian King Abdullah bin Al-Hussein warned of “dangerous repercussions on the stability and security of the region.” Beyond modern geopolitics, the issue of Jerusalem runs deep in Jordan: it was Abdullah’s father, King Hussein bin Talal, who lost the city to Israel in the 1967 war, and Abdullah himself is officially the custodian of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. Even as protests broke out in areas of Jordan’s capital inhabited by Palestinian refugees, American diplomats working in Amman will find every facet of the relationship colored and their skills tested — no Arab ruler can be seen being publically pushed around, perhaps humiliated, by the United States.

     

    A second body blow could come in America’s relationship with Egypt. Even more so than Jordan, Egypt’s rulers must act in awareness of public opinion, with memories of the Arab Spring still fresh. In response to Trump’s announcement, Egyptian parliamentarians called for a boycott of American products, including weapons. Egypt is also no stranger to the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism, and one Egyptian minister warned Trump’s decision would shift focus from fighting terrorists to inflaming them; the symbolic role retaking Jerusalem places in the radical Islamic canon cannot be under estimated. All of this comes at a sensitive time: Cairo, for the first time since 1973, has reached a preliminary agreement to allow Russian military jets to use Egyptain airspace and bases.
    In the coming days there will very likely be acts of violence, street protests, and announcements globally condemning Trump’s decision. But long after the tear gas clears from Cairo’s side streets or Amman’s public squares, American diplomats will find themselves hamstrung, entering negotiations on a full range of issues having to first somehow address the action taken by President Trump. This one was not an unnecessarily bombastic tweet that runs off the bottom of the page, or a crude remark likely to fade with the next news cycle: this time the president overturned an American policy of nearly seven decades’ standing which will have consequences far beyond his own tenure.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Puerto Rico: Disaster Management Works, Just Not Always on TV

    October 8, 2017 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Embassy/State, Trump


    It seems there’s a template for Trump versus the Hurricanes: he won’t do enough, it isn’t being done fast enough, everything will collapse (ready Katrina headlines) and then the draining, heroic reality of the response takes hold. With more stormy weather ahead for this administration, it’s time for a better understanding of how disaster management works.

    A disaster destroys in hours infrastructure that took decades to build. Millions of people plunge from first world to third world status in real time. The things that separate a Texas suburb from a Nairobi slum – clean water, sewers, power, hospitals, roads – disappear.

    Meanwhile, the media tends to focus on drama and controversy. They often overplay the story via anecdotal reporting (“Here’s Mrs. Hernandez without electricity, she says [pause] with no help in sight”) and underplay the work being done, especially at the beginning of the response where progress is hard to see. First responders on laptops methodically solving supply problems are not very mediagenic, after all.

    At the moment of disaster, the Big Bang, needs are at 100% while the response is at a zero point. The response starts in deficit. It always looks grim, especially to participants and outside observers unfamiliar with the process that is starting. They want what is a marathon to play out like a sprint.

    In dealing with a major disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the military follow a standard playbook. I know, I worked with both on and off for two decades while with the State Department. I trained with them, and was on-the-ground during the Kobe, Japan earthquake (6,000 dead) and Asian Tsunami (280,000 dead.) I worked the Washington DC-end of many other disasters. I read after-action reporting from 20-30 other such events. That’s a (much) younger me pictured above in the headgear you have to wear on military helicopters.

    The critical initial step is a needs assessment, from which everything else flows. Responders need time to visit sites, confer with local officials, and determine what is needed and where the needs are greatest. It is a slow process in a chaotic environment, delayed by weather, roads, and communications. From the outside it can look like nothing is being done; Mrs. Hernandez still doesn’t have electricity even as helicopters are flying around, apparently ignoring her!

    The needs assessment gets the right help to the right places in order of priority. As an example, I was part of a liaison team with the American Navy at Phuket, Thailand following the Asian Tsunami. Without any local input, the first helicopters brought in huge fresh water bladders. It turned out most of the water was unneeded; the city had warehouses full of the bottled version. The Americans weren’t helping!

    It took a day for us to track down, but the most urgent need the Navy could address was a buildup of medical waste at local hospitals. Waste pre-disaster was trucked out daily; the tsunami wrecked the roads, and so boxes of soiled bandages and infected sharps accumulated. When American resources turned to help dispose of that, hospitals were able to run at peak, and lives were saved. The water bladders lay abandoned in parking lots around town.

    Other decisions that can flow from a needs assessment might include restoring power to one school to shelter fifty families before fixing fifty individual homes. It can mean blocking people from calling internationally so limited cell capacity can be directed to local 911 calls. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, for example, set as a priority reopening dialysis centers across Puerto Rico. Somebody else didn’t get helped first to make that possible.

    At the early-to-intermediate stages of a disaster response people in less affected areas will wait in long lines for supplies. It looks bad on TV, but can actually mean the system is working, as help was directed to a higher priority. It takes good reporting to know if that’s the case. Instead, “success” is often too quickly defined as “make everything back to the way it was before the storm.”

    The military plays a key role in disaster response. The problem is Americans are conditioned to believe there are unlimited resources of all types, instantly movable to where they are needed.

    Military units tend to have war fighting as their primary job, and most are somewhere doing that, or training to do that. Shifting to a disaster mission can happen quickly but not instantly. Lots of people showing up with can-do attitude is vitally important. But just as important is gathering the right skills – electrical engineers, teams that desalinate sea water for drinking, and sewage crews (3.4 million people’s waste festering with fecal-borne disease is a dreaded secondary killer in this disaster.) The process can always be started sooner than it was, but it can’t be done effectively until needs are known.

    Much mockery has been directed at Trump’s statement about Puerto Rico being an island, surrounded by “big water.” His phrasing was callous, but the fact Puerto Rico is an island is significant. Unlike Texas or Florida, no one can self-evacuate, by car or even on foot. Same for incoming aid. Everything must travel by plane, or, more likely, ship.

    Planes and helicopters can do great things, but they lean toward small scale. Puerto Ricans now need some two million gallons of fresh water a day. A gallon weighs about eight pounds, so that’s 16 million pounds of water. A C-130 cargo plane can carry some 42,000 pounds. So that’s 380 flights a day, every day, just for water. There are bigger aircraft, but the bottom line is always the same: you simply have to move the epic quantities required to respond to an epic island disaster by ship to a port, then inland by truck.

    That last step, moving supplies from a port (or airport) to those who need them is known as the “last mile” problem. It haunts every disaster response.

    Success with the last mile depends on local infrastructure. If it was neglected before the disaster, it will never be better (and often worse) than that during the disaster response. Next comes the need for trucks, fuel for those trucks, drivers, security, and personnel and equipment to offload the ships and pack the trucks. If you’re missing one link in the chain the aid does not move.

    From the outside it’s easy to see these as excuses for why more hasn’t been done for desperate people. They are instead practical realities men and women are wrestling with right now on the ground. It can be a complex, methodical process, addressing a single problem (get water to that village) as a cascading string of nested problems. While the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s remark that Puerto Rico relief is the “most logistically challenging event” the United States has ever faced seems exaggerated, it does underscore the size of the job at hand.

    So don’t be distracted by the Tweets. While no response is ever fast and robust enough, this is not Katrina. That was the result of a system breaking down, one that has been fixed and is operating in Puerto Rico now. Even as the hard work goes on, people will remain outraged not everyone has everything at once. Lack of drinking water remains a critical issue. And there will be tragedies to report; responses are always imperfect, and Hurricane Maria was a tremendous storm. The loss of life in Puerto Rico is at 16, though will climb as rescuers reach more remote areas. For Harvey, the death toll was at least 70, Irma 72. Katrina saw 1,833 fatalities with over 700 people still missing.

    But a tipping point will take place, where adequate services are restored and people will start to see the help they need. Problems will reduce from regions without power to villages without power to an isolated home without power.

    None of this is intended to be a Trump apology. I have seen disaster management up close myself, and dirtied my own hands doing it. Standard actions and pacing that are lost in the politics surrounding events in Puerto Rico are there. Everything else right now seems to be just Twitter wars.




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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • The US: A Nation Of Immigrants With a Bad Immigration Policy

    August 2, 2017 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Embassy/State, Trump



     immigration good for the United States? Mostly yes, but sometimes no. But that’s the wrong question to ask, so try this one: is the policy, law, and regulation of immigration haphazard at best and clearly not serving the nation’s needs? Absolutely.

    That America is a nation of immigrants is far from a trope; no other nation on earth has been so formed by immigration, from its national myths to the hard core realization of its industrial revolution to its current draw of immigrants, from the most highly-skilled to the most unskilled, from around the globe.

    At the same time, no other nation so intertwined with immigration has as ambivalent attitude toward it as expressed through law and policy, and no other nation whose economy is intimately tied to immigration has a set of laws so seemingly divorced from that. America, at best, jerks forward and backward on immigration issues based on often largely uninformed thought, at times racist emotion and good old political pandering.

    Let’s take a deep dive into the way American immigration currently works, its benefits and pitfalls, and what might be done to maximize those benefits and avoid the worst of the pitfalls.

    What is the State of Immigration Today?

    Immigrants are those seeking, legally or not, to live permanently in the U.S. There are also non-immigrants, persons such as temporary workers (from the unauthorized agricultural worker to the skilled H1-B programmer), as well as students, and the like.

    But nothing seems to dominate the American political mind more than undocumented immigration (or maybe terrorism, but even that is often conflated with immigration issues.) From Candidate Trump planning to build a wall on the Mexican border, to Candidate Clinton offering various legislative schemes to immigration-savvy Hispanic voters, the topic is very much a part of the American conversation.

    Conservatives seize on every violent crime report that features an undocumented immigrant perpetrator, while liberals point to immigration’s economic benefits and the humanitarian aspects of united families. Pretty much everyone chokes up to see new immigrants become citizens in front of the flag.

    Under the current way, immigration works in America, people arrive via three main streams: undocumented immigrants, legal immigrants joining family members, and legal skilled workers. The latter two categories are also known as Green Card holders, or Legal Permanent Residents (LPRs). Most will upgrade to full-on U.S. citizens. There are also those who immigrate by winning the visa lottery, refugees, legal semi-skilled workers, and other niche sub-categories.

    Let’s take a look at each of the three main streams delivering immigrants to the United States.

    Undocumented Immigrants in the United States

    A huge hole in any discussion of undocumented immigrants is no one knows how many of them there are. Intelligent estimates range from 11-20 million, quite a spread, especially given the very vague math behind the accounting. And even the low estimates seem, well, high. Between 1880 and 1930, the magical Ellis Island period of nearly unfettered immigration into the U.S., the total intake over 50 years was 27 million people.

    The walk-ins, mostly Mexicans, make up about half of America’s undocumented immigrants. Something like 40% of soon-to-be undocumented immigrants in the U.S. enter legally, on tourist and student visas, and then simply stay. But the lack of any comprehensiveness tracking system means nobody can be too sure.

    And because the group is indeed undocumented, who they are is also unknown. How many will work at all, how many will take low-level jobs and how many will move into well-paid positions and possibly seek legal status at some point is tough to sort out. In Florida, a neat number are older Brits settled into the sunny retirement communities there. Undocumented people self-select to come to the U.S., and so there is no sorting out of things, no connection to America’s economic and job needs.

    Keep an eye on that last sentence, about no connections to America’s economic needs, as we turn to family reunification-based immigration.

    Family-Based Immigration to the United States

    The second stream of immigrants into the United States are persons legally entering under America’s family reunification laws; the process accounts for about two-thirds or more of all lawful immigration to the U.S. every year. American citizens and Legal Permanent Residents can apply to bring their relatives to the U.S., to include in one way or another (the categories can be complicated) foreign spouses, unmarried children, parents, adopted children, fiancées of American citizens, married sons, married daughters, and brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens.

    Family reunification has long been the cornerstone of American immigration policy. Many early immigrants to America, particularly those fleeing religious or political persecution in their homelands, migrated as families. In subsequent centuries, a head of household often came first to the new land and later sent for his family. Prior to 1965, when the current family reunification law was first codified, the timeliness of family reunification in the U.S. depended almost entirely on how long it took for this first family member to secure a job and raise enough money for his spouse and children.

    The family reunification system was and is still largely based on immigrants applying for other immigrants. Immigrants from countries that send a lot of people to the U.S. later bring more people from those same places in. Thus Mexico, the Philippines, China, India and the Dominican Republic dominate the current immigrant pool in a kind of statistical snowball.

    But at least families can get together, right?

    Wrong. Because of that snowball effect, and because Congress places numerical limits on the number of most family reunification-based immigrants, the waiting lines grow exponentially. Over the years Congress was pressed into creating country-by-country limits for the most robust sending nations. Those limits have become unmanageable under the first-come, first-served system. The most-backed up is the processing of siblings of American citizens from the Philippines. That process is now only taking those applications (“priority date”) first filed in 1992. Applicants literally pass away waiting for their turn.

    The family reunification system, which once made sense in a growing nation anxious for workers of all kinds, now represents something of a 19th-century legal hangover. Because the only qualification is that family tie, America gets the loser drunk uncles alongside the brilliant sister physicists. It’s a crap shoot. There is no sorting out of things, no connection to America’s economic and job needs.

    Now keep an eye on that last sentence, about no connections to America’s economic needs, as we turn to skills-based immigration.

    Highly Skilled Immigrants in the United States

    Immigration based solely on skills is the smallest stream of legal entries into the United States. While some 140,000 persons enter yearly under this overall umbrella (by comparison, the U.S. admits about 70,000 refugees each year), only about half of those fall squarely under what can be considered highly-skilled categories (keep in mind we are discussing immigrant visas, Green Cards, that allow permanent residency and employment in the U.S., and not more well-known non-immigrant, temporary, visas such as the H1-B. There are, for example, some 700,000 H1-B visa holders in the United States at present, a guesstimated 20% of the IT workforce alone.)

    Aside from the highly-skilled immigrants, employment-based immigration still for some reason retains a category for unskilled workers, another for those whose jobs require less than two years training, and one for those whose work only requires an undergraduate degree. Like all permanent working immigration, those categories are numerically limited by law (with additional limits for Chinese, Indian, Mexican and Philippine citizens.) While the numbers of un- or semi-skilled worker immigrants are small, that such categories exist at all in 2016 (priority date backlogs mean that cases currently being processing were first filed in 2003; what business can wait 13 years for an unskilled worker to arrive?) and in the face of large numbers of undocumented immigrants already in the U.S., explains much about the unfocused nature of America’s immigration policy.

    The tighter numerical limits on some countries, especially China and India, are designed to make the system “fair” by leaving room for immigrants from other places, and have no connection to the higher standards of education, and thus presumably higher quality workers, there. So an especially gifted Chinese programmer must wait her turn to allow a mediocre photographer from Spain in first.

    Across the spectrum of work-based immigration, almost no mind is paid to what skills the immigrants bring to the U.S. Unlike countries such as Canada and Australia that use “point based” systems to try and prioritize those with especially needed skills, the U.S. requires only that its work-based immigrants be skilled, at well, something. And then they get in line, first-come, first-served.

    No need to add that line about no connection to America’s economic needs again, right? You get the picture by now.

    Is Immigration Good for America?

    The answer is pretty much a clear yes. Always has been. Easy to imagine it always will.

    America’s 19th-century industrial revolution could not have happened without the influx of workers into the nation. Cities such as New York were built literally by hand by early Irish and Italian immigrants, who brought strong backs and ready skills in with them. Scandinavian immigrants settled the vast northern territories of the U.S., adapting their home agricultural techniques to cold lands most existing American farmers weren’t sure what to do with. Chinese immigrant labor built the great railroads of the West.

    Do we really need another list of famous immigrants and their contributions? Albert Einstein, Joseph Pulitzer, Intel founder Andy Grove, Google creator Sergey Brin, Yahoo’s Jerry Yang, Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright, along with Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Neil Young, David Bowie, Tracey Ullman and Mario Andretti. Pick any field and you’ll find within it significant achievements by immigrants, and their sons and daughters.

    Economic Benefits of Immigration

    Immigration is infrastructure. Every person who brings his/her skills and labor contributes to the growth of the United States. Each of those persons who acquired his/her skills abroad did so at no cost to the U.S., and each of those people making a contribution inside America improves the nation’s competitive level at the expense of the losing country — the brain drain from one, the brain gain to the other. In a 21st century global economy, that represents a significant advantage to nations that understand infrastructure is much more than bricks and mortar. It’s brains.

    Economically, immigrants broadly (many studies are unable or uninterested in parsing out who is undocumented and who is legal) represent a significant presence at nearly all strata of America society. Some 46 percent of immigrants work in traditionally white-collar positions. And while immigrants only make up 16 percent of the workforce in general, they make up over 20 percent of dental, nursing and health aides, and double-digit numbers of all software developers.

    While immigrants on average initially make less than their native-born peers, in many communities all family members are expected to work and pool their incomes. The percentage of immigrants below the poverty line, at 20%, is only slightly higher than the national average of 16%. No data is available, however, as to how long immigrants remain below the poverty line, as compared to citizens.

    Immigrants also show a greater entrepreneurial spirit than many native-born Americans. In a 2012 report, the Partnership for a New American Economy notes “over the last 15 years, while native-born Americans have become less likely to start a business, immigrants have steadily picked up the slack. Immigrants are now more than twice as likely as the native-born to start a business and were responsible for more than one in every four U.S. businesses founded in 2011, significantly outpacing their share of the population.”

    Immigrant-owned businesses in the U.S. generate more than $775 billion in sales and pay out more than $126 billion in payroll each year. There are also hefty tax payments alongside all that money. One in every 10 workers at privately owned U.S. businesses works at an immigrant-owned company. Altogether, immigrant-owned businesses collectively created four million of the jobs that exist today in the United States. And much of that economic growth comes from exports, as immigrant-owned businesses are 60% more likely to export than non-immigrant businesses. Who better than a Guatemalan expat to sell U.S. goods in Guatemala? And of course, exports are a major plus for an economy, pulling foreign money in.

    Immigrants and their children founded 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies, which collectively generated $4.2 trillion in revenue in 2010, more than the GDP than of every country in the world except the United States, China, and Japan. A little less than 20 percent of the newest Fortune 500 companies – those founded over the 25-year period between 1985 and 2010 – have an immigrant founder. Those whose concepts of immigration are based on images of fruit pickers think far too small.

    Does Undocumented Immigrants Bring Economic Benefits?

    Undocumented immigrants and the American payroll and tax system create an odd windfall for Social Security, paying an estimated $13 billion a year in social security taxes and only getting around $1 billion back, according to the chief actuary of the Social Security Administration (SSA).

    As most undocumented workers who are not paid under the table lack legal Social Security numbers but still need to fill out tax forms for their employers, many/most use fake or expired social security numbers. The money comes out of their paychecks and is sent off to SSA, and is seen by the workers as a cost of their new life in America. As the social security numbers are bogus, no one comes calling to collect benefits on them and risk exposing the fraud. The SSA estimates unauthorized workers paid $100 billion into Social Security over the past decade.

    Those same undocumented immigrants pay almost $12 billion in federal, state and local taxes. Tax contributions from ranged from less than $3.2 million in Montana with an estimated undocumented population of 6,000 to more than $3.2 billion in California with more than 3.1 million. It is one thing to cheat on immigration law, quite another to try and escape the tax man. Not convinced? Roll into any large immigrant neighbor in the Spring to see tax preparation services popping up alongside the small groceries and ethnic restaurants.

    People paying taxes is good. Social Security can always use more money. New businesses are good for business. Jobs create jobs. Employed people spend money in their communities. Exports make America stronger.

    If you’re still not sure about immigration, imagine some sort of immigration Rapture, right out of the television show The Leftovers, where one day every immigrant to the U.S. magically disappears. Look at the money above, and imagine the economy without it. Look at the jobs that would no longer exist or be created in the future, and impact on our health care system of the loss of workers, the children who would no longer be paying tuition at colleges, and the loss of cultural diversity. Any argument against immigration needs to begin by negating all of the above, in dollars and cents.

    Indeed, if immigration to the U.S. did not exist, it would be necessary to (re)create it.

    Is Immigration Bad for America?

    Most arguments against immigration rely more on emotion than data, and always have.

    Looking back into America’s past, each successive wave of immigrants was demonized by the preceding ones, or criticized with old world prejudices carried over along with the luggage. And so cheap Italian labor was going to take away jobs from people who a decade earlier were going to take away jobs from whomever got there first. Jews coming to America ran into anti-Semitism reminiscent of Eastern Europe, likely practiced by some of the same people from home who just had gotten on a earlier boat. During the World Wars German saboteurs were the scary boogie men jihadists of their day. None of these things makes for a very strong anti-immigration argument.

    That said, immigration as it stands now in America, where the largest numbers of newcomers are undocumented people from Mexico and Central America, clearly does hold down wages and fill up the lowest level jobs. That large numbers of such immigrants are clustered in border states and cities like New York only adds to the problem, as the burden is not spread anywhere close to equally. To counter, however, critics point to the unanswerable question of how many of those jobs would be taken by Americans without a substantial increase in the minimum wage.

    One area where wage suppression seems a clear concern is in the tech industry, where a Green Card is often offered as a form of compensation in lieu of a better salary. Many immigrants from the tech industry first arrive in the U.S. via temporary H1-B working visas. In return for accepting lower than market salaries, their companies sponsor them for permanent status. Once in possession of a Green Card, the worker may move on, to be replaced by a new H1-B person from abroad.

    Immigrants, legal and otherwise, do send money “home” and always have, money that is pulled out of the host economy. Globally, India is the top recipient of such remittances at about $72.2 billion, followed by China with $63.9 billion and the Philippines at $29.7 billion. The money flow is so important to economies such as the Philippines that the government established the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration to manage the flow of workers out, and money back in. The World Bank estimates the real size of remittances is actually “significantly larger” than recorded as there are unrecorded flows through the formal and informal sectors.

    Note that those are worldwide numbers, for all Indians working away from home all across the globe. The outflow directly from the United States is harder to establish, though Mexico, with the majority of its overseas workers in the U.S., receives $24 billion a year in such remittances. It is also difficult to know who is sending the money; the remittance businesses don’t ask if the sender is a citizen, a legal immigrant or undocumented.

    No one can argue that large sums of money leaving the U.S. is a good thing, but one can also argue that money earned belongs to the worker to do with as s/he chooses. And of course many wealthy Americans export significant sums to avoid taxes or as investments, never mind American corporations who offshore their profits to bypass U.S. taxes.

    Immigrants in general, and illegal immigrants specifically, do add to the costs of public education in the United States. The 1982 Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe struck down a state statute denying funding for education to undocumented immigrant children and simultaneously struck down a municipal school district’s attempt to charge such children an annual $1,000 tuition fee to compensate for the lost state funding. The ruling made clear states can’t deny free public education to its children on the grounds of their immigration status. For communities where large numbers of immigrants arrive seasonally to do agricultural work, are paid under the table, and thus do not contribute in taxes, this can be a significant financial burden.

    The collection of welfare, food stamps (now known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP) and other social programs by immigrants is a touch-point issue for persons opposed to immigration. One study showed the welfare payout to all immigrant-headed households, legal and illegal, was an average of $6,241, compared to the $4,431 received by a citizen households. Unexamined in that data are the questions of which of those benefits were earned, such as Medicaid, by working people, and which went to the American citizen children of immigrants. As citizens, those children are fully entitled to the same things offered to any American, no matter the status of their parents. The dollar amounts alone do not answer the question asked.

    Food stamps are not available to non-U.S. citizens, with exceptions for some refugees, the disabled, the very old and the very young, what all but the most cynical would consider a humanitarian necessity. Critics, however, point to the easy availability of fake citizenship documentation and suggest persons not legally entitled to SNAP receive it anyway. Some no doubt do, but no one has any hard numbers on the problem.

    Alongside the social benefits arguments, critics of immigration point to crimes committed by illegal immigrants. Statistics do not, however, support this argument per se, but the money side of the issue does sting.

    According to Department of Justice, some 14 percent of federal prison inmates are illegal immigrants, though many locked up only for immigration violations. In state prisons, illegal immigrants account for less than five percent of all inmates. Some argue that without illegal immigrants present in the U.S., none of those crimes would have been committed at all, and none of the prison costs would have been paid. A study done in 2010 estimated administration of justice costs at the federal level related to criminal immigrants at $7.8 billion annually. The comparable cost to state and local governments was $8.7 billion.

    Lastly, any accounting of the burden immigrants place on American society should include the $18 billion spent annually by the federal government on immigration enforcement.

    The State of Immigration in Other Countries

    Comparing immigration among various countries is very difficult, as policy is deeply tied to each nation’s history and culture. What works in one country has no business in another, and it is hard to find a place where immigration plays anywhere near the role it does in the United States.

    That said, Old Europe may offer some lessons in how to get thing mostly wrong. Old prejudices and young idealism seem to control views on immigration, and centuries of homogeneity, driven by established culture, language and stable borders, make assimilation tough. Few economies are expanding beyond the professionals produced domestically anyway, and much of the true immigration debate is tangled up in lurching refugee policies, themselves often driven by outside forces, such as American pressure to “deal with” the Syrian crisis.

    Japan is an especially egregious example of dysfunctional immigration policy, essentially one of no legal immigration at all. Despite declining birthrates and soaring numbers of the elderly such that the country is experiencing a shortage of workers, prejudice toward outsiders dating back hundreds of years or more stops discussion of an obvious solution: bring in new blood from abroad. Instead, Japan delays some obviously approaching day of reckoning with the idea that robots will fill in the labor gap.

    Another interesting case is China. With an expanding economy, China has first looked internally to its large population. As high tech needs grow, the nation has essentially created a hybrid class of immigrants, Chinese educated abroad who are convinced to leave jobs in the U.S. and Europe to return home. While not immigrants per se, these Chinese bring a mix of foreign education and diversity typically only available through traditional immigration. Plus there are little-to-no assimilation issues. India has similar options available.

    Overall, while terms like “good” and “bad” can be seen as relative, as best we can tell, the benefits of immigration to the United States outweigh any negatives. Add them up yourself.

    The “Hypothetical Immigration” Reform

    Immigration per se is hard to argue against. The preponderance of evidence over decades points to the nation-changing economic, cultural and social benefits gained by the United States. Any costs must be calculated, as in any business situation, against the benefits.

    While immigration itself is hard to rationally argue against, it is equally hard to argue against the need to reform immigration policy (some might say “create a policy” instead of accepting the de facto one that has evolved on its own.)

    If the goal is to enhance the benefits to the U.S. of immigration while lowering the costs, the present system fails so badly that it remains a miracle that any good comes out of it at all. The working/skills based immigrants are untethered to America’s economic needs, the family-based system is backlogged and make little sense in the 21st century, and no one even knows how many undocumented immigrants are in the U.S. or what they are doing.

    So What Do We Do To Fix Immigration in the US? 

    Anyone, candidate for office or otherwise, who tells you s/he has pat solutions to America’s immigration situation is lying, misinformed or simply pushing some political position. And yes, yes, any proposed change will be difficult, costly, time-consuming, impossible to get through Congress (the last comprehensive immigration reform, absent all the security-related legislation post-9/11, took place in 1986). So, if it is easier to swallow, think of the following as a kind of thought experiment, a pie-in-the-sky wish list.

    Here are some ways things that might change.

    – America must move away from its over-emphasis on family-based immigration, especially for categories such as siblings and adult children that are so backed up as to be meaningless. The system may have been the right thing at the right time in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it is long past its over-due date here in the 21st.

    – Whatever the current work/skills immigration system is based on, it should be remade into a points system directly tied to American economic needs. Skills needed in the economy should be assigned points to be matched up with applicants. Need electrical engineers more than web developers? Prioritize. Change the priorities as often as needed, and move resources from the family-based side to the skills side so that cases are processed fast enough that demand and supply match up. Adjust the intake so as not to disadvantage existing workers.

    – Better data. How can one work on a problem that is not actually understood? How many undocumented immigrants are there, where do they come from, what do they do when they are here, how much do they pay in taxes and Social Security, and how much do they draw out via social programs? In addition to the big unknowns, in nearly every instance where “facts” are available, data that supports immigration comes from pro-immigration groups’ research, and the opposite for “negative” information. Fully objective data is nearly impossible to find, and parsing out all of the statistical anomalies and bad scholarship is very difficult.

    – Reform immigration record keeping. One under-discussed problem in collecting data on undocumented immigrants is the determination of who is and is not “illegal.” U.S. immigration law takes up more shelf space than federal income tax law, and in many ways is more complex. For example, if you were stopped and told to prove your citizenship by a police officer, exactly how would you do that? The only iron-clad documents that prove citizenship are a U.S. passport or travel card, a Certificate of Naturalization, or a bona fide U.S. birth certificate. Few people carry those around, and fewer law enforcement personnel can tell a real one from a good fake. There is no national database of citizens and Americans resist a national ID card in favor of a pastiche of driver’s licenses and ragged cardboard Social Security cards. Green Cards are issued for life, and some old timers have one with a photo of their twenty-five-year-old self on it.

    As another example, student visas are valid for the period of time the bearer remains in full-time education. In theory, assuming no departures from the U.S., a teenager could be legally given a student visa for four years of high school, that she used for another four years of undergraduate education, followed by three years of grad school, followed by a work-study period of employment, followed by a 90-day grace period until required departure. It is all legal, but sorting that out roadside is near impossible.

    – Trump’s hyperbole aside, America does need some sort of effective border control. It is clear that large numbers of people are able to simply walk in. That “policy” is no policy.

    The State Department issued some 12 million non-immigrant visas (student, tourist) in 2015. Most visas are valid for five years, meaning there are some 60 million of them out there at any one time. In addition, citizens of 38 countries, such as Canada, Japan and Britain, can enter the U.S. for tourism or business without visas.

    Altogether, as an example, during 2011 alone, there were 159 million non-immigrant admissions to the United States, visa and visa-free. No one knows where they are. Presumably most returned home, but, since the United States stands alone among industrialized nations (travelers in the Schengen zone are an exception) in having no outbound/exit immigration control, no one knows. Various programs are in evolution, but almost all involve the airlines gathering data when people fly, instead of making an inherently governmental process the business of the government.

    Student visa holders are only tracked by their schools, who report to the Department of Homeland Security. As one can imagine, Harvard and Ohio State take this job seriously, the Podunk School of Cosmetology less so.

    – If, and only if, all that gets done, an amnesty to reset things seems justified, and will allow the U.S. to better judge the status of its reformed immigration policies.

    – Finally, outside of legislation and regulation, it is time for America to move past the angry falsehoods and full-on hate that drives too much of the conversation on immigration. Same for the myths that immigration is so enshrined in the American story as to be untouchable. The questions to answer and the problems to solve are with us. We need to get down to it.



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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Sour Grapes: Iran Wins the Iraq War, and I Scooped the NYT by Six Years on the Story

    July 23, 2017 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Embassy/State, Iran, Iraq


    The New York Times is featuring a piece stating Iran is the big winner of the U.S.-Iraq wars, 1991-2017.

    So what does winning in Iraq look like, asks the Times? About like this:

    A Shia-dominated government is in Baghdad, beholden to Tehran for its security post-ISIS. Shia thug militias, an anti-Sunni and Kurd force in waiting, are fully integrated into the otherwise-failed national Iraqi military. There are robust and growing economic ties between the two nations. An Iraqi security structure will never threaten Iran again. A corridor between Iran and Syria will allow arms and fighters to flow westward in support of greater Iranian geopolitical aims in the Middle East. And after one trillion in U.S. taxpayer dollars spent, and 4,500 Americans killed in hopes of making Iraq the cornerstone of a Western-facing Middle East, American influence in Iraq limited.

    It seems the Times is surprised by the conclusion; it’s “news” for some apparently. The newspaper ran the story on its hometown edition front page.

    But sorry, it wasn’t news to me. I tried writing basically the same story in 2010 as a formal reporting cable for the State Department. Nobody wanted to hear it.

    At the time I was assigned to Iraq as an American diplomat, with some 20 years of field experience, embedded at a rural forward operating base. All the things that took until 2017 to become obvious to the New York Times were available to anyone on the ground back then with the eyes to see.

    The problem was what I wrote could never get cleared past my boss, and was never allowed to be sent to Washington. The Obama administration message was that America had won in Mesopotamia, and that we would be withdrawing to focus our national efforts on Afghanistan. “Everything that American troops have done in Iraq — all the fighting, all the dying, the bleeding and the building and the training and the partnering, all of it has landed to this moment of success,” said Barack Obama. “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self reliant Iraq.”

    So it was off-message – I was off-message – and thus needed to be ignored. The area where I was assigned in Iraq had a heavy Iranian presence, both special forces working with Iraqi Shia militias to help kill Americans, and Iranian traders and businessmen selling agricultural products (the Iranian watermelons were among the best I’ve ever eaten.) Bus loads of Iranian tourists were everywhere. Most were religious pilgrims, visiting special Shia sites, including mosques that had been converted by Saddam into Sunni places of worship which had been restored to their original Shia status, often with Iranian money, following America’s “victory.”

    In fact, somewhere in Iran are a tourist’s photos of me and his family, posing together in the area outside Salman Pak. He begged me for the souvenir photo op, never having met an American before, telling me about the small local hotel he hoped to finance for Iranian pilgrims in the future. I’d sure like a copy of the picture if he somehow reads this.

    Even after my boss deep-sixed my reporting in 2010, I still thought there was something to this Iranian thing. So I spoke to the designated “Iran Watcher” at the American Embassy in Baghdad. Her job was to monitor and report on Iran-related news out of Iraq, albeit from well inside the air conditioned Green Zone, without ever speaking to an Iranian or worrying that her convoy might be blown up by an Iranian Special Forces IED.

    I told her about the watermelons, those delicious Iranian fruits which were flooding the markets in the boonies where I lived. The melons were putting enormous pressure on Iraqi farmers, whose fruit was neither as tasty nor as government subsidized. The State Department Iran Watcher was quick to point out that I must be wrong about the Iranian fruit, because she had only yesterday been in a meeting with the Iraqi agricultural minister who had explained the Iraqi government’s efforts to seal the border had been wholly successful; she’d seen a translated report! Things went downhill from there, and the Embassy offered only canned peaches in syrup at lunch. Damn things tasted like the can, and there was a joke about the truth being too bitter to swallow I was too tired to make.

    A year later, 2011, back in Washington DC, I set down the same broad ideas about Iran victorious in layperson’s terms and was turned down as an op-ed by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and others. One editor said “So you’re telling Barack Obama he’s wrong? That the surge failed, the war wasn’t won, all those dead Americans were for nothing and Iran came out on top? Seriously?” I was made to feel like I was wearing a skirt in an NFL locker room.

    The best I could do with the knowledge I had that in yet another way the war had been for nothing was to settle for being treated as a kind of novelty, a guest blogger at Foreign Policy. Here’s the article I wrote there, scooping the New York Times by six years.

    As for the U.S. government, I’m still not sure they’ve gotten the story on Iraq.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • I Am a Fictional Author

    June 8, 2017 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: #99Percent, Other Ideas

    As regular readers know, my new book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, is a work of fiction, by which I mean I acknowledge that I made up more of it than a typical journalist will admit to.

    “Fiction” also allows me to pretend that pathetic episodes from my own life that are in the story didn’t happen, and allows me to mock obvious real people by simple saying “All characters are fictional and any resemblance to persons living or dead is merely coincidental” (Lawyers: Kidding!)

    Since my personal goal this time around is to involve fewer government agencies than got involved with book one, We Meant Well, I can’t believe I didn’t stumble on to this fiction thing a long time ago except for my resume.

    That said, I have come to learn that fiction writers are expected to be different. As a non-fiction writer about the failed reconstruction of Iraq, I just showed up and wrote down what happened. I could have hired a stenographer to follow me around Iraq, and just signed off on the text. Again, you mature, you grow, it’s a journey.

    Fiction writers it turns out are supposed to be characters in their own right, quirky, fascinating people you want to spend time with drinking inexpensive but marvelous wines in Brooklyn, saying words like “quirky” and “robust” (the wine, not the author.) Apparently being a fat, bald old guy with a chip on his shoulder isn’t enough to sell fictional books.

    So, some changes will need to happen.

    Though I overpaid for LASIK a few years ago, I henceforth shall wear the thick black glasses that made everyone in the 1950s look like a dork. It seems the whole thing is based on living a life of total irony, without ever letting on you actually know what irony is.

    I’ll wear only black shirts with old jeans, and a twenty foot scarf wrapped a bunch of times around my neck, ’cause nobody’s done that look. I’ll look like Yassar Arafat with a bad cold.

    Or black turtlenecks.

    Or black t-shirts. Unironed.

    Perhaps a fedora, or, when I’m feeling especially plucky, a jaunty beret.

    Tattoo in Chinese characters whose meaning I do not know. I will later learn the giant thing permanently inked on my arm actually only means “table.”

    I will use more foreign words. For example, I will use the French tableau frequently, which actually does mean “table,” to describe pretty much whatever the hell I want and you’ll nod.

    I will be seen with someone, such as Lindsay LohanMiley Kardashian Cyrus, who is edgy. (Miley, tweet me up, you got the digits. Payment in blow, like before.)

    I hate smoking but I will often smoke. A pipe for author photos, hand-rolled tobacco in public.

    I will listen only to bands so obscure that they haven’t even formed up yet.

    Sell the dog, get an exotic cat. Say “animals are so pure, unlike people, they just know love.”

    When out to dine with other self-important people, we shall order only “small plates.” I don’t know what that is– are they what used to be appetizers? Are they just tiny portions of the stuff that used to come on big plates? No matter.

    Other things I will say often: Amazing, take it to a new level, my passion, pivot, robust, my journey. I will go out for a coffee while you go out “for coffee.” I will refer to other famous people as “the new Gatsby” (I have never been able to finish reading anything by Fitzgerald but I saw most of that movie and was sober for the first half.)

    I will raise false modesty to an art form. When people ask what I do, I’ll say “Oh, I scribble down some things for people. Perhaps you’ve seen them– in a little paper called the New York Times?”

    I will refer to obscure artists as “the best ____ of his generation” not only to sound douche, but in hopes that someone will do me a reach-around and refer to me as the best of my generation.

    I will claim to do all my writing on some cutting edge Apple product you can’t buy yet, or with a special 19th century pen on hand-crafted paper, or maybe (quirky!) on a reconditioned Selectric typewriter. I will refer to the crap I write as “my craft.” I will “practice it.”

    I will refer to my fictional characters as if they were real people. Not in the Seinfeld way, but as if they were actually people I could see and talk to. Though I do something like this now when on an Everclear-Oxy bender (Law Enforcement: Kidding!), it will be cool because those characters are me, man. So tableau, oui?

    I will write blog posts like this:

    Up early. Enjoying free range, gluten-free coffee, watching the street scene unfold. Life. So much suffering– I feel it all– but you can’t get cut off. Felt a breeze, a whisper, a feeling, a kiss, in my hair, across my face. Then spilled my coffee, but f*ck society, I don’t care.

    Do cool people still say “ciao?” No? I will restart the trend.

    I will only consume products that are described as artisanal. The electricity in my green lifestyle will be generated by unionized Peruvian shamans whom I visited (well, flew over enroute to Colombia to score Miley’s blow) to appreciate their indigenous lifestyle first. I will feel a relationship to all I encounter, starting with Cyrus once she’s coked again.

    I will start saying my children are adopted, or refugees, or maybe rescues, and make them wear makeup so they look “foreign.” Sorry kids, it’s for daddy’s job. Pretend it’s Halloween. You will see photos of me mentoring third world children on one of my many give-something-back foreign tours. Nobody does this crap with kids in the U.S., so it’s important that the Instagrams have some foreign props or backgrounds. You can Photoshop that if I don’t have time for the travel, right?

    All my media interactions will be meta. I will slouch. I will mumble. I will say publicity does not matter to me, I just want to get my real message out. I will turn the tables and ask questions of the journalists. I may refuse to talk about my book at all and just focus on my concern for the dying tribes of Peruvian shaman electricity generators. Like it seems every modern male author, I will have to work into my book some faux-humble reference to my sexual prowess and/or gifts.

    I will go to rehab. Not because I need to, but because that is where you make the right connections in the business. I will say things like “the business.”

    I will often discuss my favorite writers, but I will not say “favorite,” I will say meaningful. You will not know any of them and will not have heard of their work. I will name one writer you do know, but in a pretentious way, such as “I find Ernest’s later work such a mind blow.”

    I will acquire an agent I only speak to by phone but refer to as my best friend and artistic soulmate. S/he will be one of the 2,367 agents in New York who have turned me down now through three books. My agent will wear thick black dork glasses. Um, any agents reading this, seriously, I’m still at the same number. OK to call late or early or on Sunday.

    I will be a fictional writer. You will love me for it.



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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Dear President Trump: Do Not Prosecute Wikileaks

    May 31, 2017 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America




    Chelsea Manning, whose information about the war in Iraq first brought Wikileaks to the attention of Americans, will leave prison as a free woman on May 17.

    However, the U.S. government’s attempts to punish people for bringing war crimes from Iraq into daylight continues, in the form of prosecutions directed against Wikileaks and/or its founder Julian Assange.

    I recently signed an open letter in support of Wikileaks, as drafted by the Courage Foundation. Here it is.


    Dear Mr. President,

    We are journalists, activists and citizens from the United States and
    around the world who care about press freedom and are writing to you in
    response to the latest threat of prosecution against WikiLeaks for its
    journalistic work. We ask you to immediately close the Grand Jury
    investigation into WikiLeaks and drop any charges against Julian Assange
    and other Wikileaks staff members which the Department of Justice is
    planning.

    This threat to WikiLeaks escalates a long-running war of attrition
    against the great virtue of the United States — free speech. The Obama
    Administration prosecuted more whistleblowers than all presidents
    combined and opened a Grand Jury investigation into WikiLeaks that had
    no precedent. It now appears the US is preparing to take the next step
    — prosecuting publishers who provide the “currency” of free speech, to
    paraphrase Thomas Jefferson. It is reported that charges, including
    conspiracy, theft of government property and violating the Espionage Act
    are being considered against members of WikiLeaks, and that charging
    WikiLeaks Editor, Julian Assange, is now a priority of the Department of
    Justice.

    A threat to WikiLeaks’ work — which is publishing information protected
    under the First Amendment — is a threat to all free journalism. If the
    DOJ is able to convict a publisher for its journalistic work, all free
    journalism can be criminalised.

    We call on you as President of the United States to close the Grand Jury
    investigation into WikiLeaks and drop any charges planned against any
    member of WikiLeaks. It was a free and robust press that provided you
    with a platform on which to run for president. Defending a truly free
    press requires freedom from fear and favour and the support of
    journalists and citizens everywhere; for the kind of threat now facing
    WikiLeaks — and all publishers and journalists — is a step into the
    darkness.

    Sincerely,

    Trustees of Courage




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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • What Are The NAFTA and TPP Trump and Clinton Fought About in the Debate?

    October 20, 2016 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: #99Percent, Economy

    Detailed_Triangle_Trade



    In the presidential debates, Trump and Clinton referenced the NAFTA and TPP trade deals. What are they and are they good, or bad, for America?


    What Are NAFTA and TPP?

    The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which went into force in 1994, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is still pending ratification in the U.S. and elsewhere, are international trade agreements.

    Trump is unambiguously, totally, absolutely, hugely opposed to both deals and any others in the future. He has held that position from Day One.

    Clinton, less so. NAFTA was pushed through by Bill, and Hillary continues to defend it. As Secretary of State she strongly advocated for the TPP. She continued that advocacy during the first part of her campaign, right up until Bernie Sanders started to score points against her by opposing it. Hillary then shifted to also opposing it. No one knows what her stance will be if she is elected.

    Meanwhile, the Obama administration is still hoping to force TPP through a lame duck Congress following the election. Hillary would then be free to shrug her shoulders come January and claim the TPP is not her responsibility.



    The Basics Of Trade

    International deals like NAFTA and the TPP are designed to promote more trade, more goods and services, and sometimes more workers, moving across borders. The deals typically reduce taxes and tariffs, change visa rules, and sometimes soften regulations that keep foreign products out. The phrase used most often is “lower the barriers.”

    So, if widgets made at a higher cost in the U.S. can be made more cheaply in Vietnam and then imported into the U.S., something like TPP can facilitate that by lowering American tariffs on widgets. Meanwhile, Vietnam might be required to change its agricultural import system to allow American genetically modified fruit into Hanoi’s supermarkets.

    Looking at You, NAFTA

    NAFTA is a good place to start in learning more, as it involves three countries — the U.S., Canada, and Mexico — that generally get along, play reasonably fair, and already had a robust cross-border trade. Lots of non-variables there. Plus, since NAFTA’s been around for over 20 years, there should be a decent consensus on how it worked. That will provide a real world example to weigh against a newcomer like the TPP.

    You wish.

    There are numbers. For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says increased trade from NAFTA supports about five million U.S. jobs. Unemployment was 7.1% in the decade before NAFTA, and 5.1% from 1994 to 2007. But then again unemployment from 2008 to 2012 has been significantly higher.

    You can find similar ups and downs on imports and exports, the value of goods, and the like. Some are clearer than others; since 1993, U.S. exports to Canada and Mexico have climbed 201 percent and 370 percent. The problem is trying to attribute them. Global economics is a complex business, and pointing to a singularity of cause and effect like NAFTA is tough. And NAFTA, remember, was just three countries. The TPP would draw in 12 nations.


    Cui Bono?

    The Latin phrase cui bono means “who benefits?,” and is used by detectives to imply that whoever appears to have the most to gain from a crime is probably the culprit. More generally, it’s used to question the advantage of carrying something out. In the case of things like NAFTA and TPP, the criminal context might be more applicable.

    NAFTA made certain products cheaper for American consumers, as manufacturing costs are lower in Mexico than Idaho. American companies who found new export markets abroad also saw a rising tide of new money. That’s the good part (for a few.)

    However, allowing American firms to make things abroad and import them into the U.S. free or cheap moves jobs out of the United States. A current case cited by Trump is Carrier. Carrier sent 1,400 jobs making furnaces and heating equipment to Mexico. Mexican workers typically earn about $19 a day, less than what many on Carrier’s former Indiana assembly line used to make in an hour.

    Carrier will see higher profits due to lower costs. They put Americans out of work.

    The Losers

    Economists will often claim that such job losses are part of the invisible hand, how capitalism works, duh. The laid off workers need to learn to code and build web pages, migrate to employment hot spots such as California like a modern day Tom Joads. But pay a visit to nearly anywhere in what we now blithely call America’s Rust Belt, and see how that’s working out.

    Retraining industrial workers just does not happen overnight, even if there was free, quality education (there’s not.) Indeed, since the beginnings of the hollowing out of America, it has not happened at all.

    The risk is also that retraining takes unemployed, unskilled people and turns them into unemployed, skilled people. Training is only of value when it is connected to a job. Remember, even if all those unemployed Carrier people somehow learn to build web pages, America’s colleges are churning out new workers, digital natives, who already have the skills. Even Silicon Valley’s needs are finite.

    Everybody Wins, Except for Most of Us

    Economist Robert Scott claims over the last 20 years, trade and investment deals have increased U.S. trade deficits and cost Americans their jobs. For example, the agreement allowing China into the World Trade Organization led to trade deficits that eliminated 3.2 million jobs between 2001 and 2013. Meanwhile, the United States already faces a trade deficit with countries in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership that cost two million U.S. jobs in 2015.

    In his 2008 book, Everybody Wins, Except for Most of Us, Josh Bivens showed increased global integration harms working Americans. Bivens estimated that the growth of trade with low-wage countries reduced the median wage for full-time workers without a college degree by about $1,800 per year in 2011.



    A Broader View

    If one is asking whether or not international trade agreements are good for America, one needs to think bigger. On a whole-of-society level, economics is about people. We all want American companies to make money. It’s also great that Walmart is full of low-cost consumer electronics from Asia, or Carrier air conditioners fresh from Mexico, but you need money — a job — to buy them.

    Think broader, and you’ll see economics is about people. Let that answer the question for you about whether international trade agreements are good or bad for America.


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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.