19 September 2017

Trump's Axis of Evil

The President singled out five evil regimes in his speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations today. His threat to "totally destroy" North Korea if necessary will certainly get the most attention, but while he issued no similar threat to Iran, his indictment against the Islamic Republic was more sweeping. Dismissing its republican pretensions as the "false guise of democracy," Trump takes the Sunni line that the Shiite power is the greatest destabilizing force in the Middle East. This remains inconsistent with his once-more avowed "America First" policy, since Sunni rather than Shiite terrorists have been carrying out attacks on the United States since 2001, but he may believe that Shiite aggression is a root cause of Sunni militancy. In any event, he seems satisfied that the Sunni states are taking positive steps to suppress terrorism, while beleaguered Syria, an Iranian ally, remains one of the bad guys. Continuing westward, the President turned his hostile attentions to Cuba and Venezuela, again hinting at American intervention in the latter country. Of course, the Bolivarian regime has been on the neocon hit list for more than a generation now, presumably because Americans want Venezuela's oil resources in pro-American hands. Whether that really counts as an "America First" strategy by established Trumpian standards is hard to say. Of these countries, only Iran can plausibly be deemed an aggressor in its region, however it justifies itself on anti-imperialist, anti-zionist or anti-Sunni grounds. North Korea simply wants a deterrent to regime change, Syria remains in a state of civil war, and Cuba and Venezuela are in no position to export revolution. Calling all of them out today simply puts Trump in line with recent presidents in letting a personal distaste for certain forms of government or leadership styles influence his foreign policy, despite his repeated insistence that he doesn't wish to impose American culture or ideology on other countries. I don't think he's become an ideologue all of a sudden, but he does seem to have succumbed, almost inevitably, to the American tendency to personalize geopolitics by reducing conflicts of national interests to the pathologies of evil men. Of course, Americans seem to think of domestic politics the same way lately, so this shouldn't surprise us, though it should still disappoint us. Trump's speech probably will disappoint everyone here but the neocons. It will alarm liberals and anti-interventionist types with its menacing rhetoric toward North Korea and its "Rocket Man," while it may more deeply disappoint base supporters who might have hoped to hear their hero stick it to Islam on the ultimate global stage. No doubt Trump himself will think of it as the greatest speech ever delivered to the UN by an American President, but who's really keeping score?

18 September 2017

Utilitarianism and trade policy

The International Trade Commission is considering whether to recommend the imposition of a tariff on solar panels imported from China. Two American manufacturers want a tariff that would "effectively double" the prince of Chinese panels, according to Justin Worland's report in the September 25 Time magazine, in order to make the American product competitive. The Heritage Foundation and a number of U.S. solar energy companies are lobbying against a tariff.  One lobbyist compares a solar-panel tariff to "cutting off your entire body to save your pinky." Their argument is that as many as 250,000 jobs, including installers and repairmen, could be negatively impacted by a tariff designed to benefit the approximately 8,000 people who manufacture panels in the U.S. While one may suspect that the "massive negative impacts" of any tariff are exaggerated by its opponents, the argument raises a fair question, and an important one for the President who'd be in a position to act on the ITC recommendation.

Populist trade policy tends to be protectionist on a sort of "no job left behind" principle, while free traders are more likely to see tariffs as robbing Peter the consumer to pay Paul the manufacturer. Worse still from their perspective, a political decision to conserve any American manufacturing industry is a case of "picking winners" instead of letting the Market, in its infinite wisdom, do its necessary work. Free-trade apologists would point to the quarter-million solar energy jobs as proof of the overall benefit of a free-trade policy, on the assumption that far fewer jobs would exist were the American manufacturers able to impose their preferred prices on everyone else. On classic utilitarian grounds, they'd seem to be correct, so long as you assume that all or even most of those jobs depend on the availability of cheap imports. Should 250,000 jobs be jeopardized to keep 8,000 people at work in a domestic industry that has, arguably, already failed in the global marketplace? The "greatest good for the greatest number" argument definitely doesn't favor a tariff, but it could be argued that a focus on literal numbers is an overly simplistic utilitarianism, while a "greatest good for the whole" argument might justify maintaining and encouraging an American solar-panel industry, even if that requires fellow Americans to pay more for panels than they'd like.

Whether the U.S. ought to have a healthy panel-manufacturing industry capable of meeting domestic demand is the sort of practical question our representatives should spend more of their time debating. I find such debates interesting because they seem to belie the individualist ethos of many free-market conservatives. It's probably more accurate to say that the implicit utilitarianism of their free-trade position belies their oft-expressed anti-collectivist bias, since it means that they're willing to sacrifice any number of individual workers, or at least their jobs, to the collective economy. I suppose they could argue that they remain individualists at heart because they uphold the supreme right of individual consumer choice against selfish manufacturers who would limit our choices, but whenever they condemn a domestic industrial sector to the death they feel it inevitably deserves, they are unavoidably sacrificing individuals to the collective. They might not be killing anyone literally on the altar of free trade, but they may well make life more difficult for thousands or millions of people, depending on the industry in question, and consumer choice doesn't always seem like justification enough for that.

15 September 2017

A fireable offense?

The White House press secretary crossed a line earlier this week when she implicitly recommended that ESPN fire anchorperson Jemele Hill for having called the President a "white supremacist" in a tweet. The network only went so far as to dissociate itself from her statement, and to publicize her acknowledgment that the tweet was inappropriate. Needless to say, this hasn't satisfied some people who, as usual, see a double standard at work. They recall that ESPN fired baseball analyst Curt Schilling for posting "anti-transgender" content on his Facebook page, and feel that Hill's comment about the President was at least as offensive as Schilling's post. On the other side of the debate, no doubt, distinctions will be drawn between Schilling's presumptive "hate speech" and Hill's personal political commentary. More so than in the Schilling case, the Hill case has been controversial because, as an anchor, she is presumed to speak in some way for ESPN. My call would be that unless her Twitter account has "ESPN" in the name anywhere, it should be seen as representing no other opinion than her own. That would be true for Schilling's Facebook page, too, but there, apparently, whatever he said or shared about trans people was deemed beyond the pale for a public figure. Should we feel likewise when someone makes a charge against the President in the face of his explicit repudiations, however little believed, of white supremacism? Trump himself, who appears to have only just joined the discussion today, seems to demand no more than an apology while claiming, as he always does, that his critics in the media are and have been losing popularity. Is he entitled to even that? Those who recall his unapologetic dabbling in birtherism think not,while many others, rationally or not, find his statements against racism grudging at best and probably insincere.

Is there any formula for moral equivalence between Hill's anti-Trump tweet and Schilling's anti-transgender whatever? It's hard to see the former as "hate speech" in the usual sense of that term, since Hill was criticizing an individual, albeit on subjective suspicion, while Schilling presumably disrespected an entire group of people. Trump supporters may feel disrespected by Hill's tweet, but it's hard to believe that their sense of identity is offended in any similar way -- presuming, of course, that any transgender person took offense upon actually reading Curt Schilling's Facebook page. It could be argued, however, that these social-media smears are approximately equivalent in their slanderousness -- that there could be a moral equivalence between disrespecting a group of people and maliciously lying about an individual. Is it slanderous to call Trump a white supremacist? Some would say it's self-evidently so in light of Trump's statements post-Charlottesville, but can they forbid anyone from thinking that the President was practicing white-man's taqiyya on this explosive subject? It won't be hard to find people ready to argue that this or that action of the President, including even his reiteration yesterday that both white supremacists and their antagonists had shares in the blame for the Charlottesville violence. In the 21st century, can a public official (or anyone) compel people to take him at his word by treating the refusal to do so as slander? Can Donald Trump -- or, some might ask despairingly, any white person -- prove a negative on this point so conclusively that no one would have a right to question his stance? It seems impossible, especially when the proof demanded by many is conflated with ideological tests by those who see Republican economic policies as racist in some way. This may seem unfair, but it explains why many people see the press secretary's statement as an un-American attempt at intimidation, and not as a defense of the President's honor. Nor is this anything new in our history. The difficulty of establishing the truth of certain points of controversy probably was a big reason why calling someone a liar 200 years ago was effectively to challenge him to a duel, or to invite a beating in the street. You might not be able to make someone believe you, but you might have a better chance at simply shutting him up. Back then, of course, dueling was a gentlemen's game, and it was a gentleman's prerogative to cane an inferior in the street for calumny. We probably don't want to go back to those rules in our more egalitarian age, but we still need to work out a new etiquette for the social-media age, as it becomes increasingly easy for people, whether presidents or reporters, to speak their minds without thinking.

13 September 2017

The ACLU comes through

Writing in the September 28 New York Review of Books, American Civil Liberties Union national legal director David Cole cites with alarm a 2015 poll indicating that "40 percent of millennials think the government should be able to suppress speech deemed offensive to minority groups."  You're more likely to think this way the younger you are, it seems, since only 12% of people aged 70 and over at the time of the survey agreed with that view. Cole attributes this unhealthy attitude to "several arguments, all ultimately resting on a claim that speech rights conflict with equality." Those arguments rest on a zero-sum calculation of discourse, presuming that "the weak are silenced [when] the strong speak, or if some have more to spend on speech than others," as well as an assumption that speech hostile toward minorities "reinforces harms" already done to them. For now, under Cole, the ACLU goes against this tide of opinion. It defended the Charlottesville "Unite the Right" marchers when the city tried to relocate their August rally away from the site of the Robert E. Lee statue they meant to defend. It's yet another case where right-wingers benefited from the intervention of an organization they often affect to despise, but their hypocrisy shouldn't influence judgments of the ACLU's record of defending unpopular and provocative speech. In his article, Cole explains that his organization defends speech rights just about to the absolute limit. They'll defend people who advocate violence, relying on a 1969 Supreme Court decision finding such advocacy unlawful only when "it is intended and likely to produce imminent lawless action." In other words, "the government should be overthrown in a violent revolution" might be OK, but "attack the government now" wouldn't be.

Currently, the ACLU draws the line only when people plan to carry weapons during their demos, since that's something different from speech. Cole justifies this loose approach by noting that "Our history illustrates that unless very narrowly constrained, the power to restrict the advocacy of violence is an invitation to punish political dissent." On a related note, he finds it strange that many self-conscious minorities want governments to have more power to suppress speech when 1. "in a democracy the state acts in the name of the majority, not the minority" and 2. "if we were to authorize government officials to suppress speech they find contrary to American values, it would [at present] be Trump -- and his allies in state and local governments -- who would use that power." In general, while "One can be justifiably skeptical of a debate in which Charles Koch or George Soros has outsized advantages over everyone else, [one can] still prefer it to one in which the Trump -- or indeed Obama -- administration can control what can be said." Unfortunately, I doubt whether those whose views Cole challenges will be swayed by his logic. Their demands for government power to suppress oppressive speech are inseparable from a demand for power for themselves, after all. I think they're just smart enough not to empower anyone like Trump to silence them, though they still need to consider, should they get power in turn, that they may not always have it. As for minority rights and majority rule, it wouldn't surprise me if some radicals actually look forward to something like the concurrent-majority form of government envisioned by John C. Calhoun, the great defender of slaveholders' rights, in which protected groups (slaveholders in Calhoun's case, take your pick today) could check the potential tyranny of the majority through veto powers, local nullification or other expedients. Civil libertarian groups like the ACLU rarely get on well with radicals, and I confidently expect to see Cole attacked in the letters columns of subsequent issues for his apparent blindness to the moral imperatives behind the movement to silence oppressive speech. But just as the right sneers at the ACLU one day and seeks shelter with them the next, the left will do likewise inevitably. The ACLU's work must often seem thankless, but so, probably, does much essential work in a democratic republic.

12 September 2017

Will Trump lead to a three-party system?

While the Republican party holds the majority in both houses of Congress,  last week seemed to show that a deal between an ostensibly Republican President and the minority party was all it took to get the debt-ceiling increased for another three months. That signaled fresh disarray in the GOP, since a united front should have sufficed to thwart any alliance between Trump and the Democratic party. Republicans were caught flat-footed by Trump's swerve. Not long before, he was threatening to veto any bill to raise the debt ceiling that did not include funding for his beautiful border wall. Now, anticipating emergency spending for hurricane relief, he backed a Democratic plan to raise the ceiling without the spending cuts demanded by the fiscal conservatives and deficit hawks in Trump's own party. For some GOP congressmen, this was the latest betrayal; for others, perhaps, it was the first. It provoked fresh speculation on Morning Joe and other talking-head shows about a Republican crack-up separating the ideologues from the Trumpists, the latter defined by little but their personal loyalty to the President and their likely emulation of his pragmatic/opportunist/ad hoc approach to politics. Of course, some observers have been waiting for the last quarter-century for the GOP to split, or ever since Pat Buchanan's primary campaigns. At first it was expected, or hoped for, that the libertarians would split from the social conservatives. Now the threat seems to be the departure of voters who share Buchanan's economic nationalism, and probably a degree of his cultural conservatism, but are otherwise as unpredictable as their current hero. The debt-ceiling decision may or may not prove a definitive moment in retrospect, but it's immediately telling the the President, if I understand his motives correctly, was willing to waive all previous conditions for the sake of hurricane relief, while rank-and-file Republicans spent the days of Harvey and Irma arguing over who among them had been hypocritical for demanding relief now while voting against it in the past, or whether past bills were more pork-laden than current measures. At times like this the cut-the-bullshit approach that Trump's admirers attribute to him -- rightly or not -- seems more like the right one. At the same time, his deal with the Democrats should refute for good the old argument that businessmen in politics will be fiscal conservatives. That argument never should have held water, given how often businessmen like Donald Trump go into debt in order to carry out their projects, or declare bankruptcy to further their interests. As President, Trump clearly isn't going to fit into anyone's mold. You can try to label or pigeonhole him based on some position he's taken that you admire or (more likely?) despise, but he's never going to be that predictable because he's never going to be an ideologue. Whether a new party can emerge and contend credibly for power without an ideological base is a big question for the future, but if Trump is tempted to break with the GOP, there's probably no better circumstance imaginable for the instant credibility of a new political party than if it has a standing President behind it. Such speculation should be kept on a low burner, however, until after next year's congressional primaries, when we'll most likely see whether Trump and Breitbart can bend the Republican party to their will. If they can't, then all bets are off.

11 September 2017

What if you had to vote?

There's an interesting exchange on the letters page of the September 28 New York Review of Books on the subject of voting. Peter Heerey, the former chair of the Australian Electoral Commission, comments on a recent article by Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen, two Nobel prize winning economists, favoring the Instant Runoff Voting system by noting that Australia has a ranked-preference system similar to what the economists advocate. As a reminder, the idea is to rank all the candidates running for office in order of preference, so that if your first choice is eliminated for failing to meet a threshold of minimal support, your vote will count instead for your second choice. Around the world, the real driving idea behind such arrangements is to enable people to vote their consciences for left-of-center candidates without guaranteeing the election of right-of-center candidates. Heerey notes that Australian elections have a safeguard against extremism in the form of compulsory voting. "Arguably compulsory voting lessens the need to appeal to a party's hard-core supporters, to make sure they vote," he writes, "Thus debate tends to be less polarized."

Maskin and Sen respond with a cautionary note about compulsory voting, which might not achieve optimum results in American elections. "According to US data, citizens who don't vote tend to be less well informed about candidates and issues than those who do," they writes, "Compulsory voting might well introduce a raft of additional voters who are more susceptible to the false claims and simplistic solutions of extremists."

In Australia, compulsory voting apparently minimizes extremism, while American observers fear that it would empower extremists. Why the difference? The appealing answer would be that Australians, being obliged to vote, feel obliged to educate themselves on the issues. By educating themselves, they immunize themselves, presumably, against "false claims and simplistic solutions." How likely is this, actually, in the land where Rupert Murdoch was born, or anywhere? It sounds more plausible to assume that Australia requires people to vote whether they've bothered informing themselves or not. This, in fact, could explain the moderating effect of compulsory voting, since candidates must appeal to voters who, as Heerey claims,  most likely aren't really politicized, much less radicalized. If the U.S. is different in a way that makes an extremist result more likely, would that be because more uninformed people would be voting, or because more people would be voting who have already been radicalized? Many Americans claim that they don't vote because the major parties have nothing to offer them. Such people aren't necessarily uninformed about issues, though they may be uninformed about solutions, or they may have their own ideas about solutions that aren't usually echoed by the major parties. It might be premature even for Nobel laureates to dismiss all their ideas as "simplistic," and their forced entry onto the voter rolls might influence election campaigns the other way round from what Maskin and Sen fear. It might not be a matter of these marks falling naively for some demagogue's "false claims and simplistic solutions," but of canny politicians adopting more extreme positions simply as a matter of reaching out to a potentially critical mass of new voters. In short, if similar electoral systems were to produce radically different results in two countries, something other than "uninformed" voters would most likely be behind it. If compulsory voting in the U.S. would produce a more extreme or radical result, the most likely reason is that Americans already are more radical than Australians. The question than becomes whether elections should be arranged to prevent extreme or radical results or whether they should, as Maskin and Sen appear to believe, reflect "what voters really want."

06 September 2017

Equality of powerlessness

Here's an insight culled from an otherwise typically vacuous David Brooks column: "I had assumed that as society got more equal we would all share a measure of equal dignity. But it turns out that without an obvious social hierarchy we all get to feel equally powerless." He's commenting on the rage and fear felt by nearly every distinct group of people in the country, but the comment begs some questions, most obviously: how much does our sense of having a secure place in society depend on the existence of a "hierarchy," either in the broadest sense of a structure or the more familiar sense of a class or caste system? Brooks seems to describe a historic development similar to what Pankraj Mishra presents in Age of Anger, in which the spread of liberal capitalism worldwide leaves people uncertain of their place in society, or of whether they have a place at all. That, apparently, is the price of freedom as understood by capitalist culture. To be free to make your own place, all bridges must be burnt behind you. You either make your own place, or you have none. Until recently, it was relatively easy for any American to make a place for himself, or even herself, thanks to American economic dominance. As the playing field levels out and economic rivals compete at a lower level than most of us can accept, a sense of insecurity spreads nationwide, even among supposedly privileged classes. That feeling is exacerbated by the apparent collapse of any code of mutual respect as everyone plays the ever-popular game of musical deck-chairs on the damaged ocean liner, othering and anathematizing each other. Growing numbers of otherwise conventionally conservative people are horrified by their belated discovery that the freedom touted as their birthright and their guarantee of success has evolved into an unrelenting requirement of constant adaptation fueled by the competitive imperative to economize through imposed obsolescence. Many of these newly-horrified masses may lash out at lower-echelon scapegoats, but don't mistake their hostility toward their nearest competitors for an enduring failure to recognize the competitive order for what it is. For some, the only way to protest the competitive order is to go after the weakest or least-welcome competitors, on the assumption that their presence only perpetuates an oppressive system, or proves its oppressive nature. The simple hope here is that there'll be places for everyone after those who don't really belong are cast out. But while populism, for want of a better term, seeks to secure places for all its constituents -- the people here and now -- capitalism continues to be driven by an opposite imperative to reduce the number of places in order to increase profit and "productivity." As a populist politician, President Trump seems to be trying to transcend his own capitalist instincts, to judge by his desire to create jobs at all costs, with whatever consequences to the environment or other factors. His core constituents most likely are people who are sick and tired of having constantly to adapt to myriads of forces, cultural as well as economic, with decreasingly realistic hope of achieving security. Eventually they're simply not going to be able to blame everything on people who are "different" in some way or other, but if there's to be a real solution to the dilemmas of our time, it probably won't come any faster by preaching at people to stop blaming each other. Whoever offers a solution to the larger problem first, without all the moral exhortation, may well see hostile groups joining forces with them, whether they really like each other or not, against the real common oppressor. What comes after that will depend on whether any or all of us can learn to think differently about the pavlovian buzzwords that trigger us -- "freedom" most of all.

05 September 2017

The tears of antifa

While the President was being sort of presidential, trying to deal with the hurricane and flood damage down in Texas -- and it looks like he'll get another chance to do this sort of thing shortly -- last week was a bad one for the antifa movement. Not only did the mainstream media portray them as the aggressors in the latest round of violence in Berkeley, but the host of The Daily Show mocked them as a "vegan ISIS." There was definitely enough going on for antifa and their apologists to throw shit fits in social media, basically accusing anyone who criticized them of being soft on Nazism. They're accusing the media of playing the moral-equivalence game, as if anyone was saying that whatever ideology antifa espouses is morally equivalent to Nazism, white supremacy or fa. With fanatics like these, it's hard to tell whether they're missing the point of most recent criticism, or whether they simply don't give a damn what anyone outside their safe zone thinks. The reason it's hard to tell is that some of them probably believe that merely espousing white supremacist, white nationalist or even "white identitarian" views is a form of violence to which violence is an appropriate response. Most people won't go that far. They may find such views grossly offensive, but they can hardly be expected to equate them with a physical assault, unless you count the queasy gut feelings white supremacy may induce in some audiences. The antifa narrative is that the people they go up against actively advocate mass murder, but in practice they seem to go after just about anyone in a MAGA hat. They may assume that a person so topped has murder in his heart, but you know what happens when they assume? They make an ass out of themselves, and more and more people are noticing. Antifa is an embarrassment to anti-Trump opinion as a whole. By perpetuating the assumption that every Trump supporter is a white supremacist, antifa also perpetuates a stereotype of anti-Trump opinion, namely that it's founded on nothing but the assumption that Trump and his supporters are white supremacists. What does antifa have to offer as a positive, unifying agenda around which an effective anti-Trump coalition can rally? Nothing, really. Their entire existence seems founded on a belief that any threat to equality or social justice can simply be beaten into submission. That would be a puerile view of society, and just the one you'd infer from the their bullying tantrums. Sadly, their "if you're not with us, you're against us" attitude is all too typically American at this point in history.