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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

We Need a New New Deal, Not a Green New Deal

The Daily Escape:

St. Augustine Beach, FL – 2015 photo by Wrongo

(Wrongo and Ms. Right leave today for Florida and their annual week-long visit with Wrongo’s sisters. We’re leaving 19° for 70°. Blogging will be uneven, unless Trump wins his wrestling match with Kim, or India and Pakistan declare war.)

Raul Ilargi:

“There are lots of people talking about how they much disagree with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, how silly she is, how dumb and impossible and irresponsible her Green New Deal is, but I think they’re missing a point or two. First of all: what’s the alternative? Who would you trade her for? Would you rather things stay the same?”

Wrongo thinks that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez seems savvy beyond her years. The septuagenarians in Congress can’t present themselves as she does, because she’s 29 years old, born in 1989. She’s in the first generation to grow up with a ubiquitous internet. For her elders, like Wrongo, that’s an acquired skill.

Wrongo has been thinking a lot about capitalism reform. Changing capitalism to take advantage of lessons learned in the past 50 years should be seen as a good thing, not the first step on the path to socialism as Republicans would have everyone believe.

And the Green New Deal is more New Deal than green. It emphasizes reforming our current economic system by deficit financing a new jobs program aimed at improving our infrastructure. The new infrastructure should create clean power, zero emissions vehicles, and high quality jobs that pay prevailing wages. It would be financed by a new tax structure that adds revenue while tilting the tax burden away from individuals to corporations and the uber-wealthy.

Wrongo isn’t a fan of Ocasio saying she’s a socialist. That’s most likely a bridge too far for America in 2020. It’s also unnecessary. Calling what she, Bernie, Elizabeth Warren and a few others have as policy goals are, for the most part, reform of capitalism.

Of course, cynical politicians can say that the Green New Deal is not realistic. That takes you back to establishment Democrats like Hillary, Pelosi, Biden, Booker, Harris and a few more we can’t hear. That’s fine if you want young Americans to invade a few more foreign nations, or you prefer growing income inequality for people here at home. Otherwise, they would all be terrible political leaders, particularly if you believe those policies must stop.

Turning to the “Green” part of the Green New Deal, Benjamin Studebaker offers a great perspective: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“…at this point, we have integrated the global economy so thoroughly that there may now be many irreducibly global problems that cannot be solved at the national level, even with an American commitment….We don’t have the global political institutions we need to handle problems like this, and every time we try to create them voters balk, accusing us of trying to destroy their cultures and deprive them of “sovereignty” and “national self-determination“, as if there were any meaningful sense in which they still had these things to start with.”

His point is that the US now produces only 15% of total global emissions. More from Studebaker:

“The EU commands a further 10%, while other rich states (such as Japan, Australia, and so on) add another 8%. This means that the rich states only control about a third of total emissions. China controls nearly another third (about 30%), and the rest comes from the remaining developing countries, with India and Russia making the largest contributions (7% and 5%, respectively) of that bunch.”

These developing countries are continuing to increase their emissions. This means that reductions from rich states are cancelled out by the growing emissions of developing countries.

Studebaker concludes that it’s beyond the ability of the US to go green unilaterally, and if we did, it wouldn’t bend the arc of global warming sufficiently to make a meaningful difference.

What we can do is provide an example for the world. We can do the right thing, precisely because it is the right thing to do. And along the way, reforming capitalism will quickly improve the lives of average Americans.

We can form a coalition around capitalism reform that includes most people in the bottom 90% of the economic pyramid. It can include Democrats, Independents and a few Republicans, most of whom would never be part of Bernie’s democratic socialism, or AOC’s Green New Deal.

There will be some version of the Green New Deal that starts in the near future. Let’s call it reform of capitalism, and get started on it today.

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Monday Wake Up Call – Green New Deal Edition

The Daily Escape:

Double Rainbow, Kauai, Hawaii – 2018 photo by Charlene Renslow

There has been plenty of talk about the introduction of a Green New Deal (GND) as an answer for what ails America. Here is the text of HR 109. Everyone should take a few minutes and read it.

The power of the GND is that it addresses the power imbalance between established political and business interests in the US and the rest of us. The GND injects compassion into our democracy. Justice for workers is compassion. Care of the environment for future generations is compassion. A more equitable distribution of wealth is compassion.

From Ed Walker:

“The Green New Deal is an overarching statement of political goals for the Democratic Party, something the party has not had for decades. It lays out a vision of a future inspired by the best the party has to offer, Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, which he laid out in January 1941 as the US stared at the unfolding crisis in Europe…..It is a combination of Roosevelt’s unfinished goals and the massive work done by liberals to expand the reach of the Constitution to previously disfavored groups. It offers hope and possibility as we confront the crisis of environmental disaster.”

Most people think the GND is about fixing the environment. That’s true, but there is a larger theme running through it, the reform of capitalism.

Capitalism is at the core of our country’s growth and place in the world. It has created wealth for all. In accordance with its tenets, a few of us are fabulously rich, while the majority of us are not. It also imposes economic costs on the 99% while sucking up most benefits for those at the very top. As Ed Walker says:

“You don’t see the rich living next door to petroleum processing plants or airports or gravel pits or trash dumps. You don’t see their kids suffering from asthma caused by factory pollution or heavy truck traffic or worse. You don’t see them unable to pay medical bills or take their kids for needed medical attention. That’s for the little people.”

The GND’s most important virtue is that it doesn’t assume that the entire burden of the disruption caused by economic growth (if the GND becomes law), should be borne only by the 99%. It insures corporations will not grab vast profits, or control adaptation to the new economy for their sole benefit.

For example, when the price of natural gas dropped, capitalists stopped using coal, and coal miners lost their jobs, their insurance, their homes and their futures. Under the GND, when natural gas is phased out in favor of alternative sources, displaced workers will have a job and health care, because the GND offers a job guarantee and universal access to health care.

The knee-jerk reaction from Republicans (and many Democrats) is that the GND is socialism, and it’s impossible to implement in a free society. It is true that HR 109 is designed to rebalance the power about who decides the future of the nation. It explicitly favors the interests of the vast majority. It explicitly limits the power of corporations to dictate what response will be made to the threat of climate change.

This isn’t socialism, it’s an overdue reform of capitalism. Our companies, in particular the large global firms, can no longer be trusted to do the right thing when it comes to the welfare of Americans. For the past 70 years, people accepted that they would do well if American companies did well.

Globalism has made a lie of that ideology. Corporations must pay taxes. Corporations must be responsible for bearing the economic costs for all of us that come from their decisions.

Capitalism reform is a serious challenge not just to corporations and the rich. It is a serious challenge to our current political parties. Democrats claim to be the party of the people. The GND will force them to prove it.

The GOP represents the interests of corporations and the rich against the interests of working people. The GND makes this clear. It offers voters a contrast with the Republican/MAGA vision for this nation.

Both parties claim to want the best for the country’s future. Thinking about the GND forces them to come up with positive programs, or to do nothing in the face of mounting inequality, and a zero-sum political economy. Some have compared a GND transition to the abolition of slavery. Slavery was immensely profitable, and the benefits went to relatively few. And those few held all the political power in the South. It led to war.

Meanwhile, the media focuses on the horse race of ideas, and the cost. Can the Green New Deal pass? How could we ever pay for it?

Democrats and Republicans opposed to the GND must explain why even more neoliberal capitalism will accomplish what voters say they want. Republicans will continue to argue that the GND will turn us into Venezuela or worse.

But the rest of us now have a vision for a better future.

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The Kids Are All Right

The Daily Escape:

Autumn in Larch Valley, Banff National Park, Alberta CN – 2008 photo by Andy Simonds

For the past few days, Wrongo has been writing about both ideas and people that could help to shape a reform of American capitalism.

We’ve talked about Bernie Sanders, Richard Murphy, Alan Curtis and Alexi Yurchak, and the Yellow Vests in France. Today, let’s focus on America’s youth, at least some of them:

More than 1,000 young people and allies flooded the Capitol Hill hallways and offices of Democratic representatives to demand that elected officials listen to their youngest constituents—as well as some of the world’s top scientists—and back the bold proposal to shift the US to a zero-carbon energy system by 2050 in order to save the planet from an irreversible climate catastrophe.

The protesters were mostly members of the youth-led Sunrise Movement, 800 of whom had attended a training on lobbying members of Congress and their staffers the previous evening. They carried signs reading, “Do Your Job,” “Back the Deal,” and “No More Excuses“. Here is a picture of them in the halls of Congress:

Before you get all crazy about the (apparently) professionally-made signs, here’s a web site where you can easily make them. More from Common Dreams:

Many also wore T-shirts emblazoned with the following message: “We have a right to good jobs and a livable future,” two key components of the Green New Deal, which would create 10 million jobs in the first decade by putting Americans to work building a green energy infrastructure…

At least 143 of the demonstrators were arrested as they lobbied in 50 congressional offices. But, they had an impact. The number of Democratic lawmakers now supporting a Select Committee on a Green New Deal has now reached 31, twelve of whom signed on this week. How it came together reveals how the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), will use its growing membership.

The Caucus agreed with incumbent members who were willing to have a select committee so long as actual lawmaking authority remained in existing committees.

This wasn’t all due just to the kids. Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has spent the past few weeks wrangling support for the Green New Deal as well. The outcome was the result of a collaboration between the CPC leaders, Ocasio-Cortez, and the Sunrise Movement.

Wrongo doesn’t know if a Green New Deal is a good idea or not, but much of the message will resonate with voters. Who will be against “good jobs and a livable future”?

And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is showing that she has really good political instincts.

We should be happy that these kids are speaking from their hearts. They are practicing for when they will need the strength to fight the hard political battles of their generation. But, why aren’t we seeing a million parents fighting alongside their kids?

We also should remember how undervalued kids are in America: We under fund their schools. We are providing only low-wage service economy jobs for most of them when they grow up. We hardly care whether they are covered under a health insurance plan. We take them from their parents at the border.

No wonder they are learning to act, since we, their guardians, seem unwilling to act for them.

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Monday Wake Up Call – August 13, 2018

(Wrongo will be taking the next few days off. He has blog fatigue, and also needs to work on some deferred maintenance here on the fields of Wrong. He’ll be back later this week, unless events require him to jump back in sooner.)

The Daily Escape:

Abandoned house, Wasco, OR – 2018 photo by Shaun Peterson.

We wake up today to Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister of Greece’s, review of “Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crisis Changed the World” by Adam Tooze posted in The Guardian. Tooze is an economic historian at Columbia University in NYC.

This isn’t a review of Tooze’s book, which sounds fascinating. Rather, it’s a meditation on one of Varoufakis’s ideas in his review of the book. Varoufakis says: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Every so often, humanity manages genuinely to surprise itself. Events to which we had previously assigned zero probability push us into what the ancient Greeks referred to as aporia: intense bafflement urgently demanding a new model of the world we live in. The financial crash of 2008 was such a moment. Suddenly the world ceased to make sense in terms of what, a few weeks before, passed as conventional wisdom – even McDonald’s, for goodness sake, could not secure an overdraft from Bank of America!

Tooze focuses on the causes of the Great Recession in 2008, and the implications for our 10-year long economic recovery. He observes that neoliberalism’s mantra about markets had to be shelved to save the US economy: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Whereas since the 1970s the incessant mantra of the spokespeople of the financial industry had been free markets and light touch regulation, what they were now demanding was the mobilization of all of the resources of the state to save society’s financial infrastructure from a threat of systemic implosion, a threat they likened to a military emergency.

We have no idea where the current aporia will take us, particularly since this “moment” has already lasted 10 years, and the hard-won economic progress may be easily reversed. Varoufakis continues:

Moments of aporia produce collective efforts to respond to our bewilderment. In the late 18th century, the pains of the Industrial Revolution begat free-market economics. The crisis of 1848 brought us the Marxist tradition. The great depression produced both Keynes’s General Theory and Friedman’s monetarism.

We are clearly at a point of intense bewilderment. What direction is correct for our economy and our society? The concept of aporia may explain why no real solutions have emerged in the past 10 years.

Tooze thinks that the world economy today is at a similar point to where it was in 1914. That is, we’re headed to a global war based on the competition of the advanced economies for resources (this time, it’s markets, water and energy), while the Middle East is at war, competing to determine which variant of Islam will be transcendent.

Varoufakis thinks we are more likely to be where we were in 1930, just after the crash. Since 2008, like back then, income inequality has continued to grow, and we have a potential fascist movement in the wings. Varoufakis asks if today’s politicians have the vision, or the ability, to corral corporatist power on one side, and the emerging nationalist movement on the other.

We’re into the post-2008 world, one in which the owners of society, the largest corporations along with the international capitalists, portray austerity as our only answer. They stress the need for continued globalization and the upward transfer of wealth via tax cuts as the best chance to survive and prosper after the 2008 crash.

This is global capitalism at work: Continuing to extract all the wealth that it can in every economy with a compliant government.

People are getting near a breaking point. They want a better life, and they want to regain political control. The challenge for capitalists and their politicians is: Can they continue to distract the base, keeping them compliant with corporatism and the financialization of our capital markets?

Capitalism ought to fear nationalism, because a nationalist movement could easily rally the poor and the middle class against Wall Street and corporate America. But, for the moment, capitalism seems to be stirring the nationalist pot. To what end?

Whether a fight against Wall Street and Corporatism will emerge, whether it will evolve into a fascist-style rallying cry remains to be seen.

We’re too early in this iteration of aporia to know or to see where we are going clearly. We need an alternative to today’s global capitalism because the track we’re on could easily turn the world into a gigantic Easter Island-like landscape.

What alternative to today’s capitalism (if any) will develop? Will ordinary people have some say in the alternative?

Stay tuned.

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Will Tariffs Bring Prosperity?

The Daily Escape:

Detail of art painted on a truck, Pakistan – 2017 photo by Caren Firouz. South Asian “truck art” has become a phenomenon, inspiring gallery exhibitions.

Will new tariffs help our economy? The view of a typical Trump supporter:

Some of us are happy about these tariffs because it starts a long overdue conversation about trade: Everyone knows that the press, congress, economists, and the multinationals love existing policy, and that most of them couldn’t care less about trade imbalances. If this is the only avenue our democracy has to change trade policy, then we’re all for it.

Yet, the conventional wisdom is that Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum will do more harm than good. There are several concerns. To the extent we need steel and aluminum to use in our domestic production, it will cost more, and prices will have to go up, assuming that the manufacturers are unwilling to lower their profit margins. Ultimately, those increased costs hit the American taxpayer.

Another concern is retaliation. Our trade partners can block our exports, or charge retaliatory import tariffs of their own. Just 12% of US GDP are exports, so we’re less exposed to that threat than other economies that have a larger percentage of their economies dependent on exporting. However, jobs can be easily lost if China, Brazil, or the Euro Zone block some of our exports.

Trump’s rationale for new tariffs is two-fold. First there is a national security risk caused by diminished capacity in sensitive industries. Second, good jobs will come back to America if we produce more stuff.

Let’s deal with national security first. No doubt we have surrendered some of our strengths in sensitive products and technologies. But, it’s not a critical issue for steel or aluminum. We can get them from many countries that are currently our allies.

Artificial intelligence, advanced semiconductors, and software are an entirely different matter. There are legitimate national security-based rationales for restriction in those areas.

But, we are in trouble with some of the exotic steels that the Defense Department uses in weapon systems. For example, the Belgian firm Fabrique Nationale is the prime contractor for a lot of the high end small arms. Some of these specialty steels are only manufactured in annual production lots. Trump’s tariff won’t shift the production of those exotic steels to domestic sources.

So even in the few cases in which a tariff might serve a national security purpose, the Trump tariff will fail.

And while the Chinese dump steel below cost on global markets, most others (Canada, Brazil) do not, and we buy a lot more from them than we do from China. And there is no scenario whereby Canadian steel exports are a “national security” risk, Trump’s primary rationale. And the Trumpets seemingly can’t see the difference between primary aluminum (China exports nearly none) and semi-manufactured aluminum products, such as bars, plates, and wire rod, which they export a lot.

But, don’t foreign governments subsidize their steel industry? China does. However, that means that China is essentially giving us cheap steel. The question for Trump is: Will we gain enough jobs in our domestic steel industry to outweigh the losses to us in higher prices across all industries?

Maybe, but it hasn’t worked that way in the past.

Tariffs help lazy and/or incompetent businesses. Imposing new tariffs will just put off the day when the toxic combination of bad management, lack of investment, poor infrastructure, and bad government causes these protected industries to implode.

If you are a manufacturing company that is internationally competitive and well run, how would you like it if your steel and aluminum suddenly became 25% more expensive? All to protect some other lazy SOB who hasn’t invested in his plant in 20 years?

The correct response should be to find out why your product isn’t competitive, and then fix it. Much of American industry has done that, by automating, by moving abroad for cheaper labor, or to be closer to raw materials.

Ultimately, Trump’s tariffs will just postpone the day when our uncompetitive sectors must modernize, or go under.

And that result is always a net loss of jobs.

The best think tank idea is to establish tariffs (or quotas) based on the amount industries pay their labor in foreign countries vs. what US employers pay. If the foreign country’s prices are lower, than a tariff would kick in. This would help us with US firms who manufacture overseas. They would have the choice of paying higher wages to US laborers, or paying a tariff on their imports to the US.

Trump’s message is: If you want unfettered access to the US market, make it here. If the US consumer pays more, that is a price he’s willing to take to have the manufacturing base.

This is a debate worth having.

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Capitalism Is Past Its Sell-By Date

“This is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people no longer. It is a government of corporations, by corporations, and for corporations…” Rutherford B. Hayes (March, 1888)

Nearly 130 years ago at the height of the Gilded Age, President Hayes had it right. Capitalism then was an economic free-for-all. Today, capitalism again is rewarding too few people. And data show that the problem is worse than we thought. The WSJ reported on a study by economists from Stanford, Harvard and the University of California that found:

Barely half of 30-year-olds earn more than their parents did at a similar age, a research team found, an enormous decline from the early 1970s when the incomes of nearly all offspring outpaced their parents.

Using tax and census data, they identified the income of 30-year-olds starting in 1970, and compared it with the earnings of their parents when they were about the same age. In 1970, 92% of American 30-year-olds earned more than their parents did at a similar age. By 2014, that number fell to 51%. Here is a chart showing the results:

wsj-30-year-olds-make-less

And we know that real median household income in the US today is basically the same as in 1989. The paper doesn’t provide specific reasons for the decline in incomes for younger Americans, but it generally blames slower economic growth and, especially, the rapidly widening income gap between the top 20% and the rest of society.

They found that the inability of children to out-earn their parents is greatest in the Midwest. This underlines that those who voted for Trump have a point: The Midwest has been hit harder by import competition, especially from Japan and China, and by technological changes, than other regions of the US.

When looking only at males nationally, the decline is even starker: In 2014, only 41% of 30-year-old men earned more than their fathers at a similar age.

There are some issues with the study worth mentioning: Most kids born in the 1940s did well in their thirties, maybe because their parents were 30 during the Depression and WWII. By the 1960s, an industrialized economy brought significantly higher wages to 30 year olds. A high denominator in the ratio of parent’s income to child’s income (compared to the past) made it more difficult for succeeding generations to exceed their parents’ incomes.

The economy also has shifted in the past 30 years and is now service-based, as factories moved overseas, and automation became prevalent. This change swapped higher wage manufacturing jobs for mostly lower wage service jobs. That alone could make it all but impossible for young adults to hit the ratios that their parents did relative to their grandparents.

Maybe the American Dream didn’t die; it just never really existed in the sense of broadly-based income mobility. Have another look at the chart, upward mobility (as measured by making more than your parents) has been declining since the mid-1940s.

Why? Between rising globalization and rapid advances in automation, we now have more people than jobs. And no matter whom we elect, this trend will continue. Those manufacturing jobs are never coming back. Even in China, robots are now displacing workers in factories.

We don’t need “good paying manufacturing jobs”; we need good paying jobs.

This is the most serious challenge capitalism has faced in the US. Without improving personal income, there will be fewer who can afford college, or afford to buy the things that capitalism produces. Low personal income growth puts sand in the gears of our economy.

The left offers a critique of contemporary global capitalism but no real practical alternative. Neither does the right, but their memes of America First, nostalgia for a golden (gilded?) age, and more tax cuts seem like less of a stretch than a Bernie Sanders-like frontal assault on capitalism.

No one in either party has a plan for a world in which robots displace the demand for labor on a large scale. And the under-30 cohort is now spending at least 4 times more (in the case of Wrongo’s university, 10 times) for a college education than what their parents paid, and they are earning less.

If people matter at all to our leaders, and if 90+% of them lack the means to live without working, America must make employment our top priority, despite the fact that many have been deemed redundant by capitalists in the private sector.

Surplus labor drives the price of labor down; allowing the employer class to afford a pool boy, or a nanny, or another cook.

And it makes the waiters more attentive to Mr. Trump.

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Are We Facing an Undemocratic Future?

What do you think when Trump appoints so many retired generals to cabinet-level posts in his administration? The positive side of the argument is that these are talented, well-educated individuals who bring a worldview and experience on the global stage that Trump himself lacks.

The other side of the argument is that the authoritarian president Trump risks making his government much more authoritarian than it needs to be. This from Roger Cohen in the NYT:

A quarter-century after the post-Cold War zenith of liberal democracies and neoliberal economics, illiberalism and authoritarianism are on the march. It’s open season for anyone’s inner bigot. Violence is in the air, awaiting a spark. The winning political card today, as Mr. Trump has shown…is to lead “the people” against a “rigged system,”…The postwar order — its military alliances, trade pacts, political integration and legal framework — feels flimsy, and the nature of the American power undergirding it all is suddenly unclear.

We sound like a nation that is ripe for political upheaval. Citizens are not only more critical of their political leaders, they have become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives.

Yascha Mounk, a lecturer in government at Harvard, has spent the past few years challenging one of the bedrock assumptions of Western politics: That once a country becomes a liberal democracy, it will stay that way. That bedrock assumption is called “democratic consolidation” in political science, but Mounk’s research suggests that isn’t correct anymore.

In fact, he suggests that liberal democracies around the world may be at serious risk of decline. Data from Freedom House, an organization that measures democracy and freedom around the world, showed that the number of countries classified as “free” rose steadily from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s.

But since 2005, Freedom House’s index has shown a decline in global freedom each year. According to Mounk and his research partner Roberto Foa, who reviewed the data, early signs of democratic destabilization exist in the US and in other Western liberal democracies. They found that the percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a democracy has plummeted, and it is especially low among younger generations. The survey was based on 2014 data. Here is a graph from the Mounk-Foa study:

percent-who-say-democracy-is-essential-us

The graph shows responses by age cohort. Younger Americans have substantially less need to live in a democratic society than do older individuals. (The grey shaded part of graph is the 95% confidence limit for the responses to the survey). Remarkably, the trend toward acceptance of nondemocratic alternatives is especially strong among citizens who are both young and rich.

Mounk and Foa found that support for autocratic alternatives is also rising. Drawing on data from the European and World Values Surveys, they found that the share of Americans who say that authoritarianism would be a “good” or “very good” thing had risen from 18% in 1995 to 35% of rich Americans:

support-for-authoritianism-by-income-us

While citizen support for authoritarian rule remains in the minority, it can no longer be dismissed as a fringe group. They support “a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament and elections” and they want “experts” rather than the government to “take decisions” for the country. (In the study, “Upper income” is defined as the top 20% of income. “Lower Income” was defined as the bottom 50% of income.)

Overall, the rich are also now more likely than lower income citizens to express approval for “having the army rule.” While 43% of older Americans, including those born between the world wars and their baby-boomer children, do not believe that it is legitimate in a democracy for the military to take over when the government is incompetent or failing to do its job, the figure among millennials is much lower at 19%. In the US, only 5% of upper-income citizens thought that army rule was a “good” or “very good” idea in 1995. That figure has since risen to 16%, so the young rich are much more autocratic than their rich elders.

The clear message is that our democracy is now vulnerable. What was once unthinkable should no longer be considered outside the realm of possibility. This is partially the result of an educational system that does not teach even basic civics, much less the meaning of the Constitution.

Generations have grown up believing that they can casually read the document and understand what constitutional law is. Young Americans have never known the threat of an undemocratic system, so their fear of autocracy is far less than it is in the minds of their elders.

Trump is the prime example of this. And according to Mounk’s findings, he has a receptive audience in the young and the wealthy.

Would that be enough to undermine democracy in the US?

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What’s JOE – 2035?

Haven’t heard of JOE- 35? Not surprising, since it is very difficult to find any mention of it in any major media news outlet. Google JOE- 35, and you get a series of links for a cast stone fire pit that is 35” in diameter.

Wrong. It refers to the “Joint Operating Environment 2035” [pdf] (JOE – 35), issued in July by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It lays out the environment that the military and the nation will be facing 20 years from now. It is written as a guide to how the Defense Department should be spending resources today in order to protect against tomorrow’s threats. They identify six broad geopolitical challenges the US Military will have to deal with in 20 years:

  • Violent Ideological Competition: irreconcilable ideas communicated and promoted by identity networks through violence. That is, states and non-state actors alike will pursue their goals by spreading ideologies hostile to US interests and encouraging violent acts to promote those ideologies.
  • Threatened US Territory and Sovereignty: encroachment, erosion, or disregard of US sovereignty and the freedom of its citizens.
  • Antagonistic Geopolitical Balancing: increasingly ambitious adversaries maximizing their own influence while actively limiting US influence. That is, rival powers will pursue their own interests in conflict with those of the United States. Think China in the Philippines.
  • Disrupted Global Commons: denial or compulsion in spaces and places available to all but owned by none. Think that the US will no longer be able to count on unimpeded access to the oceans, the air, space, or the electromagnetic spectrum in the pursuit of its interests.
  • A Contest for Cyberspace: a struggle to define and credibly protect sovereignty in cyberspace. That is, US cyberwarfare measures will increasingly face effective defenses and US cyberspace assets will increasingly face effective hostile incursions.
  • Shattered and Reordered Regions: states increasingly unable to cope with internal political fractures, environmental stress, or deliberate external interference. That means states will continue to be threatened by increasingly harsh pressures on national survival, and the failed states and stateless zones will continue to spawn insurgencies and non-state actors hostile to the US.

The report also warns that the rise of non-state actors such as ISIS, described in the report as “privatized violence“, will continue, as will the rapidity by which those groups form and adapt. The spread of 3D-printing technologies and readily available commercial technology such as drones, means those groups can be increasingly effective against a fully equipped and highly technological US military.

The study says:

Transnational criminal organizations, terrorist groups, and other irregular threats are likely to exploit the rapid spread of advanced technologies to design, resource, and execute complex attacks and combine many complex attacks into larger, more sustained campaigns…

John Michael Greer has a review of JOE-35 that is worth reading in its entirety. His criticism of the report is that:

Apparently nobody at the Pentagon noticed one distinctly odd thing about this outline of the future context of American military operations: it’s not an outline of the future at all. It’s an outline of the present. Every one of these trends is a major factor shaping political and military action around the world right now.

Like so many things in our current politics, the JOE projections are mostly about justifying current procurement/pork barreling by a linear extrapolation of today’s threats. That, and the institutional blindness that sets in when there have been no real challenges to the established groupthink, and the professional consequences of failure in the military are near-zero.

The JOE list may not be imaginative or fully predictive, but that doesn’t make it wrong. None of the problems they forecast are going away. For instance, the use of ideology to win and shore up support from potential fighters and allies is as old as ancient times, so why would ideological conflict NOT be an issue in 2035?

Threats to US sovereignty and territory go along with the Joint Chiefs’ recognition that the US is an empire most likely on a downward curve, unless there is great change in our policies, domestic and foreign.

In this sense, the report is quietly critical of our politicians.

The admission in the JOE report that we will be actively required to defend our home ground by 2035 is a mark of just how much our geopolitical environment has changed since 9/11.

It is indeed worth your time to read both the JOE report, and that of John Michael Greer very carefully.

Both will make you smarter than reading about the latest Trump outrage.

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What Can Vietnam’s Success Teach Us?

Wrongo was against the Vietnam War. He was drafted right after college into the US Army while America was fighting the Viet Cong. Once in the military, he was twice on orders to go to Vietnam, but luckily, ended up serving his time in Germany, running a nuclear missile unit.

He has several army buddies whose names are inscribed on the Wall in Washington, but that was 50 years ago, and he holds no grudge against Vietnam, or its people. So, the remarkable recovery that Vietnam has made from the war, their now friendly ties with the US, and their success in becoming a middle income country ought to be instructive to our foreign policy establishment.

From the Economist:

Foreign direct investment in Vietnam hit a record in 2015 and has surged again this year. Deals reached $11.3 billion in the first half of 2016, up by 105% from the same period last year, despite a sluggish global economy. Big free-trade agreements explain some of the appeal. But something deeper is happening. Like South Korea, Taiwan and China before it, Vietnam is piecing together the right mix of ingredients for rapid, sustained growth.

Since 1990, Vietnam has averaged GDP growth of nearly 6% a year per person, lifting it from among the world’s poorest countries to middle-income status. This is similar to India’s or China’s growth, but China then went on to average double-digit growth for years. Check out this photo of today’s Ho Chi Minh City, what GI’s once called Saigon:

Stark Tower 2

The tall building is 68 floors high. It is the Bitexco Financial Tower, but locals call it “Stark Tower” because it looks like Tony Stark’s headquarters in the Iron Man films. While it is the city’s tallest building now, next year it’ll only be the fourth tallest.

So, how did this communist country do it? By moving from state ownership of the means of production to a mixed model. Vietnam’s Doi Moi policy opened up Vietnam to the rest of the world. They revamped much of the legal system to create a transparent and attractive place for foreign investment. This has given foreign companies the confidence to build factories. Foreign investors are now responsible for a quarter of annual capital spending. Trade accounts for about 150% of national output, more than any other country at its level of per-person GDP.

They established the Ho Chi Minh Stock Exchange in 2000, and de-nationalized many state-owned companies, opening doors for foreign investment. Equity was sold to both foreign and domestic investors, and in some cases, foreign ownership can now be 100%. In 2015, total Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) was $13 billion.

Vietnam shares a border with China. As Chinese wages rise, some firms can easily move to Vietnam for lower-cost production, while maintaining their links to China’s supply chain for parts.

Vietnam has a relatively young population. China’s median age is 36, while Vietnam’s is 30.7. Seven in ten Vietnamese still live in the countryside, about the same as in India, compared with only 44% in China. This reservoir of rural workers should help hold down wage pressure, allowing Vietnam to build up labor-intensive industries, a necessity for a nation of nearly 100 million people.

Public spending on education is about 6.3% of GDP, two percentage points more than the average for low- and middle-income countries. In global rankings, 15-year-olds in Vietnam beat those in America and Britain in math and science.

Although Vietnam has benefited from foreign investment, only 36% of its firms are integrated into its export industries, compared with nearly 60% in Malaysia and Thailand. While Samsung plans to invest $3 billion in consumer electronics production in Vietnam, there will be very little domestic content, except for packaging. More local value-added must be found to keep GDP growth high.

There are big problems: The fiscal deficit in 2016 will be more than 6% of GDP for the fifth straight year. As mentioned, domestic content in exports is low, and imports of consumer goods purchased by newly prosperous workers fuels a trade deficit.

Vietnam is now classified as a middle-income country; so it is about to lose access to preferential financing from the multilateral development banks. In 2017, the World Bank will start to phase out concessional lending.

Vietnam is successful, despite our dropping 3.5 times the number of bombs on it that we dropped in WWII, while killing more than a million Vietnamese.

For America, Vietnam’s success, despite our past efforts to devastate it, should cause us to reflect on how and why we are a guns-first country when we deal with the third world.

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