Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Sanity and Chaos

Although the markets seemed to settle down from the volatility in February, this week seemed like another week of chaos and instability in the public sphere.  I felt overloaded from political narrative this week and was in dire need of some serious discussion of the current state of the economy and where it is likely to head from a respected observer of the economy that doesn’t necessarily have an axe to grind, so I signed up to hear Martin Feldstein speak this week at the Chicago Counsel of Global Affairs.  I felt that attending a Feldstein talk might be a good tonic when you are desperately seeking sanity.

Feldstein painted a pretty rosy picture of the economy at the moment, terming it “picture perfect” but fragile.  Unemployment is at 4.1%, with college grads at 2.3%.  Inflation is only at 2.2% and excluding food and energy is at 1.8%.  Consumers are in a pretty happy place.  

Yet, Feldstein says that this happy equilibrium is very fragile.  He cites abnormally high asset prices caused by unusually easy monetary policy for a decade as a source of fragility.  Investors have bid up share prices so that the PE ratio is 70% higher than the historical norm.  Long term bond prices and short term rates are abnormally low.  If PE ratios reverted to the historical average we would have a reduction in share prices by 40% and the subsequent reduction in consumer demand would take 2% off GDP.   Feldstein asserted that the Fed should have started raising rates three years ago.

If and when we do get a downturn, the Fed will be constrained in its ability to pull us out of it.  With interest rates so low, it will not be able to cut rates much further.  It can buy bonds but the effect of bond buying is small.  Our ability to apply fiscal stimulus will also be constrained.  The debt/GDP ratio was 35% ten years ago.  It is now 75% and headed to 100% by the end of the decade, so Congress may not want to increase debt or cut taxes to stimulate the economy. 

In addition, Feldstein said that Social Security is in trouble.  Lifespans have increased by 3 years since it was last reformed in 1983, and we should do it again and raise the age at which full benefits are available to 70.   Our budget is 2/3 entitlements and we need to slow the growth of benefits—for instance, people with high incomes currently pay nothing and that aspect should be reformed.

Feldstein also commented on two distorted perceptions about the economy.  First is his belief that income and GDP are higher and faster than the official statistics imply.  He said that we should “stop crying that there is no middle income growth,” because that assessment is not correct.  Our economic data cannot take into account and measure betterments in services and products, but he admits that he does not know how to measure that, despite many efforts over the years.  The second distortion is regarding wealth inequality.  Wealth is really providing for retirement.  Because the data do not take into account social security payments, claims of worsening wealth inequality are misleading, and overstate its effect.

He spoke about tariffs as well and said that the tariffs are a slight negative but he believes they aimed mainly at the Chinese and are mostly about technology transfer.  The Chinese had been engaged in overt cybertheft but were caught by the Obama administration and confronted with it.   China has shifted tactics and makes transferring technology to them a condition to doing business.  Since it is “voluntary,” the practice cannot be raised with the WTO.  The tariffs, Feldstein believes, are a poke at the Chinese and an attempt to get them to stop this practice.

Feldstein’s talk was refreshing, if anything because it was largely devoid of politics.   You may agree or disagree with the emphasis of his discussion, but he steered clear of taking any political positions, other than to heap praise on income economic advisor Larry Kudlow.

Unfortunately, despite that little breather,  the political madness continued last week:

Hillary Clinton continued on her 1000 Points of Excuses tour last week, with her assertion that white women voted for Trump because their husbands, bosses, and sons pressured them to (how many sexist comments can you pack in).  She called states that didn’t vote for her “backwards” (read: deplorables) and that Trump voters “don’t want blacks to have any rights.”  Now, before you write that last comment off to Clinton, remember that Nancy Pelosi recently commented that “Trump wants to make American white again,” and in 2012 Joe Biden asserted that “[Romney] is going to put y’all in chains.”  You have to assume that this is the divisive message that Democrats are going to run on in the midterms and 2020. 

Then there is Stormy Daniels, seeking to void the nondisclosure agreement with Trump.   Aside from the fact that Ms. Daniels is being represented by a Democratic operative, the Daniels issue is a play straight out of the Democratic playbook.  Recall that Barack Obama won the senator race in Illinois when he went public with Jack Ryan’s divorce records which claimed that Ryan tried to talk his wife into going to a sex club.  Democrats now see scandalizing consensual sex as a political strategy.

Jerry Brown, in yet another act that demonstrating that California really doesn’t want to be part of the union anymore, appointed an illegal alien to a government post.  If Trump was really bold, he would send ICE to his office during his first week on the job and deport him.

The killer of Kate Steinle, backed by ACLU lawyers, is suing the government for “malicious prosecution.”  The ACLU has gone from being a defender of free speech to a defender of illegal aliens and those that wish to practice female genital mutilation (the ACLU fought anti-FGM legislation in Maine).

Rex Tillerson was apparently fired while he was in the latrine, prompting a tweetstorm about getting canned.   There are some details of Washington personnel changes that we really do not need to know.

Andrew McCabe was fired hours before becoming eligible for his pension for leaking sensitive information and lying about it.  His firing prompted a response from Democratic strategist David Axelrod, who immediately attacked Trump’s tweet about McCabe’s dismissal but not the behavior of McCabe.   Axelrod, it will be remembered heaped praise on disgraced CPS chief Forrest Claypool after Claypool also lied repeatedly during their internal investigation.  Apparently, in Axelrod’s view there is a professional ethics exemption if you’re on the right political team.

Last week saw the nationwide student walkout and young David Hogg, the new media darling, protesting guns.  I predict that Mr. Hogg will have a prominent speaking position at the next Democratic convention, especially now that he is tying gun control to white privilege.   With universities now clamping down on free speech, and the Left pushing high schoolers to protest gun rights, you should be very nervous about the long term prospects for the 1st and 2nd Amendments.

Then of course, there was Marco Rubio, who whined about McCabe’s firing (without seeing the IG report), “I don’t like the way it happened.  He should have been allowed to finish through the weekend.” Rubio was steamrolled by the “Gang of 8” on immigration, allowed himself to be bludgeoned in a CNN debate by a 17 year old, and now is leaping to the defense of a corrupt law enforcement officer.   His latest proposal is to do away with Daylight Savings Time which seems to me to be a safer project for Rubio than having him involved in immigration or 2nd Amendment issues.  “Li’l Marco keeps getting li’ler all the time.

Former UN Ambassador and champion unmasker Samantha Power leveled a not so veiled threat at Trump, “Not a good idea to piss off John Brennan,” which elicited a wave of responses such as, “or what, Samantha?”  So a former UN Ambassador is using language of a gangster, and directed it not at a rogue nation, but at a duly elected president of the U.S.  Let that sink in.

Toys R Us is liquidating.   It came to the attention of several commentators that the company was a large contributor to Planned Parenthood and its troubles were due, in part, to not selling enough baby clothing and toys.  Talk about a snake eating its tail.

Lastly, The College of the Holy Cross, a Catholic school, which has decided to do away with its mascot, the “Crusader” because it connoted violence and religious wars and was deemed to be offensive to Muslims.   Has anyone heard of a single instance of an Islamic school, organization or political entity that changed its symbol or slogan because it was offensive to Christians or Jews?   Shouldn’t Holy Cross go all in, then, and change the name of its school?   If a society is pressured to change its culture to fit someone else’s culture, doesn’t that look more like invasion than immigration? Just wondering.

It really was quite a week.

Despite a more or less happy economic assessment from Mr. Feldstein, I fell into despair later in the week, until Sister Jean showed up trending in my Twitter feed.   Sister Jean is the 98 year old chaplain of the Loyola University basketball team (who was around for their 1963 national championship team.  Sister Jean scouts for the team and almost acts as an assistant coach.  She has been cast in the spotlight since underdog Loyola has won games in the first two rounds with miraculous shots at the buzzer.  This spry and energetic woman says that “God is on their side,” and that she “prays for the other team, too, but not as hard.”   Sister Jean also played basketball in her youth.  Imagine that?  A Catholic school being Catholic and having fun at that.

In times like these, it’s good to have folks like Martin Feldstein and Sister Jean to hang on to.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Not A Beer Summit

After 8 years of “strategic patience” (Marie Harf speak for doing absolutely nothing), while North Korea tested and refined its nuclear arsenal and missile capabilities, threatened the U.S. and its allies, murdered one of our citizens, the brutal dictator of the hermit kingdom has invited Donald Trump to a summit and, through the South Koreans,  has indicated its willingness to discuss denuclearization. Donald Trump immediately accepted the invitation. 

Trump’s acceptance prompted immediate reactions from the Left and the MSM and as well as the Right.  First, they are both howling because they claim that a meeting with Kim Jung Un is a major concession, a recognition that other presidents have not been willing to grant.  Second, the meeting carries a great deal of risk since there has not been sufficient preparatory work at lower diplomatic levels to achieve real substantial agreement.  Most other “summits” are capstones after months of pre-negotiation work, not as an opening move.  Third, as the New York Times noted today, Trump accepted on the spot without really consulting with his advisors or other key players such as China and Japan.

While all there is some validity to these concerns and they should not be dismissed, meeting with Kim Jung Un is a risk worth taking.

Why the summit makes sense.
First, we are on the brink of war anyway, and the consensus among military planners is that a war on the Korean peninsula would be catastrophic, would involve millions of casualties and would likely spread beyond the peninsula and go nuclear very quickly.   We have played out other options and the North Koreans have demonstrated that they can either withstand or evade sanctions.  With each tick of the clock, the choice has devolved into a binary one--- a deal or all out war.

Unlike Islamists that are apparently willing to die for the cause, the North Korean regime does not appear to be suicidal.   Kim Jung Un knows that an attempted nuclear strike would end his regime.  A single nuclear armed submarine carries 25 or so warheads and there are two patrolling in his neighborhood.  This is in addition to our B2 bombers and other ICBM’s which are trained on Pyongyang and other targets.  We have 3 carrier groups in position and the North Koreans have little in the way of a navy or air force that can match us.  The U. S. has been war gaming this scenario for decades.  With the addition of even a small number of ICBMs able to reach the US mainland soon (if not now), our military leverage over North Korea will never be as great as it is today.   While we would be in for a difficult and costly fight (our last 3 wars in Asia have been difficult ones—1 win, 1 loss, and 1 tie), we would certainly prevail, but the calculus would change once it was certain that North Korea could hit any spot on the continental U.S. with some reliability.

The second important reason to go forward is that North Korea’s arsenal is much more than about North Korea.  It is more about Iran.  North Korea does not seem to have great regional expansionist desires.  Iran does.  The incomplete and poorly negotiated JPCOA not only permitted Iran to continue to develop its missile systems, it gave them cash to do so as well as to sow chaos in the region.  Nuclear arms capability must be viewed as a SYSTEM—a warhead and the means to deliver it.  JPCOA merely limited the warhead aspect of its system, leaving it free to move forward on with the delivery system.   There is confirmed evidence that Iran and North Korea have cooperated on missile and nuclear technology.  And North Korea has already demonstrated its willingness to be a purveyor of WMD.  It has helped the Assad regime with its chemical weapons manufacturing equipment.    A cash starved North Korea would have every incentive to sell Iran a warhead to place on an Iranian missile.  This risk that North Korea would get into the nuclear wholesale business is precisely why calls for a containment strategy (most notably, Susan Rice) must not be heeded, and its nuclear programs must either be negotiated away or stopped by force.

Third, partially as a result of pushback from liberal Democrats (starting with Ted Kennedy and continuing on to Obama), our missile defense is not reliable enough to defend against a North Korean attack.  The tests that have been successful have occurred under very controlled conditions.  And our warning systems are really designed to detect a Soviet style massive attack, not a limited nuclear attack of a single or a handful of missiles.   We already experienced an embarrassing false positive alarm this year in Hawaii.   Further, we have not yet hardened our electrical grid, so even a single warhead detonated over the continental U.S. could have devastating consequences due to the EMP (electromagnetic pulse).  Some estimates have warned that 90% of the U.S. population could perish in the months after a single detonation that fries all of the electrical systems in the U.S. 

Fourth, Trump himself is an advantage at the moment.  Trump’s presence (his action on tariffs offers immediate evidence) causes a recalibration and recalculation of the odds of military action.  His “America First” doctrine means that he will weigh America’s interests ahead of that of others.   Prior to Trump, the North Korean regime could proceed with real confidence that the U.S. would not risk heavy civilian casualties in Seoul to eliminate the North Korea threat.  Kim Jung Un may be calculating that that this may no longer be the case, and that a war with the U.S. would almost certainly end his regime and that Trump may weigh the citizens of Los Angeles more heavily than the citizens of Seoul. 

We are now out of time.   While a meeting with Kim Jung Un carries risks, I see those risks as minimal compared to the possible upside.    It is important to recall that many of President Reagan’s advisors (even the sober George Shultz) strenuously advised Reagan not to give the “Tear Down This Wall” speech at the Berlin Wall as “unnecessarily provocative” and it turned out to be as meaningful as Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech.   The recent film The Darkest Hour reminds us that there are times when it is appropriate to take a bold but risky stand.

Why you should be skeptical

Of course, I am skeptical and wary of this is a well-worn path.  We have seen this movie before, several times.   North Korea goes into bellicose mode, then launches a charm offensive to play for time and concessions, pockets the concessions and then cheats.   Seventy years of experience have told us that it is not likely that Kim Jung Un has had a sudden epiphany.  The first question you need to ask is why one would think this time might be different.  

Second, the world has learned a couple of things over the past couple of decades.  The Iraq and Libya regime changes taught North Korea that a tyrant without a nuke ends up dead.  The lesson of Qaddafi might even be a worse message than that of Hussein because Qaddafi voluntarily submitted to denuclearization and the West facilitated his demise anyway.  The second lesson that Kim Jung Un learned is that if you pretend to cooperate, at least partially, you will receive cash and goodies.  It worked for his father in 1994 and it worked for Iran under JPCOA.    Feigning compliance pays well.

Third,  while we have limited experience in Trump actually getting deals done in the public sphere,  Trump has tended to give up too much in his opening bid.  He offered the prospect of citizenship for 1.8 million illegal aliens to the Democrats (something not even Obama put on the table).  He is threatening executive action on guns and is showing a willingness to nibble away at the 2nd Amendment (including raising the minimum age to buy a rifle).   In a highly technical world of de-nuclearization and verification procedures, it is a legitimate concern that Trump will concede too much without thinking through the technical details.

Why I have a glimmer of hope.

Trump is a disrupter.   He defies the status quo and adherence to the status quo tor decades is what got us here.   Because Trump does not follow an ideological line, there is a chance—even if small--- that he can create a combination of inducements that will both be acceptable to North Korea and to the U.S. and its allies.  The deadlock in North Korea is one situation in which only a negotiator that is willing to break with ideology might be able to come up with an acceptable outcome.   Scott Adams even thought it might be a good idea to bring Dennis Rodman along to break the ice and make introductions since he is the one person who has personal experience with Trump and Kim Jung Un. 

Also don’t underestimate the pressure that Kim Jung Un is under from inside North Korea.  The fact that he murdered his brother shows that he has little trust of anyone, even in his own family.  Beneath that chubby smiling face and brimming confidence is the knowledge that all it takes is one slip up in the security apparatus.   And Trump has been putting more pressure on the regime than the prior administration.

What to look for.

What should Trump do.

This is a go big or go home moment.   Trump need to ambush Kim Jung Un in these negotiations and not the other way around.   We have had decades of Lucy, Charlie Brown and the football negotiations, only to have the North Koreans pocket concessions and then not live up to their side of the bargain.   Therefore, these negotiations should go beyond denuclearization.  It is not simply the nuclear threat that presents a problem, although that is the threat that is most pressing.  But even if de-nuclearization is achieved (and the definition of de-nuclearization is itself a big issue), the problem doesn’t go away unless you solve for the North Korean artillery.   The North Koreans have some 12,000 artillery tubes and another 2,300 multiple rocket launchers ready to devastate Seoul.  Trump needs to go further, and press on a wind down of conventional forces as well and that may hold the key to Kim’s desire to remove U.S. troops from the peninsula. 
We will know pretty quickly what the North Koreans are up to.   Trump and his team should constantly ask themselves “what’s different” this time and if Trump gets the sense that Kim Jung Un is simply repeating the pattern—playing for time, he should not hesitate to get up and leave the room.   As we learned from Reagan’s negotiations with Gorbachev in Reykjavik, it is likely that we will only be able to get to a deal if we demonstrate that we are willing to walk from it.  If that happens, I would immediately ramp up military preparations, and perhaps contemplate a limited strike to show that we mean business.

What Trump should not do.

The liberal press, along with some other detractors are carping about Trump giving the North Koreans recognition by meeting with them.  That is a red herring.   Achieving nuclear capability that threatens the homeland means that we have to deal with them, one way or another.   Unlike the Castro regime, where there was no compelling reason to normalize relations, the North Korean situation needs to come to some climax during Trump’s first term. 

What Kim Jung Un will likely seek is money and time.   Trump needs to make very clear that there will be no more money (directly or indirectly) and no more time.   The ONLY concession Trump should make on this point is to dangle out sanctions relief at some point in the future when certain verifiable benchmarks are met.   We are maintaining our carrier groups in the area and will proceed with our annual military exercises with South Korea as planned and that is a good start.  

While North Korea and Iran have learned something from the Iraq and Libya experience with respect to WMD, we have learned a few things, too.  We have been through arms negotiations with the Soviets, Iran, and several failed rounds with North Korea.  We have learned that delegating enforcement to China or Russia is a bad move.  Within a short period of time of John Kerry and Susan Rice guaranteeing that their deal with Russia solved the chemical weapons problem in Syria, sickening videos of Syrian children gasping their last breaths emerged.   Similarly, Obama negotiated away our participation in the inspection process of JPCOA and granted long warning times, and I remain skeptical that Iran remains compliant.   And we have undoubtedly learned a number of technical things as well.  This is institutional knowledge and goes beyond the personal negotiating skill of Donald Trump.  He will certainly have extensive briefing sessions prior to the meeting.  Trump also has a unique skill of being able to mock and speak with hyperbole, then let bygones be bygones as he did with Ted Cruz.   In an odd way, I suspect that Kim Jung Un knows that and respects that because he engages in similar tactics.

Yes, this is a high risk meeting.  But the risks of continuing down this path without something to break the logjam are even greater, in my view because Iran looms large in the background, and Tehran may be the ultimate end customer for North Korean production of nuclear warheads.  If there is a chance that this meeting could turn into something positive, Trump is the guy to do it.  

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Polish Folly

 Poland recently passed a bill criminalizing the use of the phrase “Polish death camps” or “Polish holocaust,” and otherwise making allegations to attribute crimes committed to the Holocaust to Poland illegal.  The passage of this law is appalling and is especially troubling in light of the march last November by 60,000 Poles in Warsaw where signs containing the phrases “clean blood” and “White Europe” could be seen.  Some of the resurgence of Polish nationalism represents pushback against Angela Merkel’s open borders policies (Merkel this week admitted that no-go zones existed in Germany), but this Polish law takes nationalism to an entirely different place and comes unacceptably close to putting Poland in the league with the likes of Holocaust denying Iran.  The Polish government should reconsider this act.

I had planned a visit to the Illinois Holocaust Museum sometime this year but the Polish actions accelerated my timetable.  I needed to connect with those events—to see the photos, the film clips, the artifacts, and hear the testimonials to make the Holocaust as tangible as possible for me.   The museum has such artifacts as an actual boxcar used to transport Jews to the camps, a pajama-like striped uniform emblazoned with a yellow star and a bowl and wooden spoon used by inmates at Auschwitz and the red, white and black swastika armbands worn by the guards.  One of the most interesting film testimonials was of an African American soldier from a black regiment that liberated one of the camps.  He astutely made the connection between slaves and the camp inmates that were wholly dependent on, and at the mercy of, their overlords.   The other testimony that made it real for me was the hologram testimonial of camp survivor, Sam Harris.   In a 45 minute Q & A, Sam described life in his poor little Polish town before the Nazi invasion, and then his life as a little boy in one of the camps, his story of survival, liberation and eventual transport to America.  His personal story was  the strongest evidence that the Polish government is dangerously misguided with this law. 

The law is a direct and egregious affront to Western principals of free speech.   It is a ham-fisted measure that attempts to control the narrative of the events surrounding the Holocaust in Poland.  Most troubling is that it tries to whitewash the complicity and sometimes participation of some of the Polish people with this horrible stain on human history.   Sam Harris’s testimony is a sobering reminder that some Poles (but not all, and not the official Polish government) were hardly innocent bystanders in the Nazi crimes.   The resentment of Jews by some of Poland’s citizens sometimes led to collaboration and complicity with the Nazis and sometimes some of the Poles themselves were perpetrators.  Mr. Harris stated that after liberation, “We were not welcome back in our own town.  Some (but not all) said to us, ‘What, they didn’t kill all of you?’”  The persecution of Jews by a number of Poles was unearthed in 2000 with the publication of the book Neighbors by Jan T. Gross which recounted the horror of the massacre at Jedwabne in 1941 (along with other atrocities), where townspeople murdered their own neighbors wholesale, without the help of the Nazi regime. 

As a side note, Lithuania appears to now be going in the opposite direction.  After decades of foot-dragging on identifying and prosecuting collaborators, Lithuania finally published a list of known collaborators a couple of years ago largely as a result of thet work of (non-Jewish) novelist Ruta Vanagaite (https://www.timesofisrael.com/is-lithuania-ready-to-own-up-to-its-holocaust-past/).  Rita Gabis’s  (who is part Jewish) meticulously researched book, A Guest at the Shooter’s Banquet, explored her grandfather’s SS past and collaboration with Nazi crimes in Lithuania.

Although the events in Lithuania and Poland are nearly 80 years old, many truths are just now being revealed.   And the Polish people should not turn to denial.   If Rita Gabis can come to terms with participation in the Holocaust in her own family, surely a proud nation should be able to within its citizenry as well.  History must be told, even the ugly parts- especially the ugly parts.   To be sure, Poland was traumatized by the Second World War.  It was occupied by two totalitarian states, losing 20% of its population, and roughly half of its professional class. 

The Poles as a people should not be exonerated nor condemned with respect to the Holocaust. The response of the Polish people was not uniform.   In his recent book, The Holocaust: A New History, Laurence Rees, for instance, singled out the Poles for being the people that were most likely to take personal risk to save or shelter Jews from the Nazis.  But there were also incidents like Jedwabne.  Actions were highly individualized and those individuals should be held to account.  

Poland should not take action to obscure the truth of those nightmare years.   The Poles, like the Lithuanians have a complicated history with Jewish oppression and the Nazi regime.  To place all blame on the Germans is to not fully disclose the truth, and not all of the truths have yet been revealed or told.

Before we get too sanctimonious about the Polish government’s action, I believe it carries with it a warning for the U.S. as well.  Immediately following the shooting at the South Carolina church by Dylan Roof, whose Facebook page depicted him with a Confederate flag in the background, Confederate flags were torn down across the nation. Nikki Haley led the charge where the flag was removed from the statehouse in South Carolina.   Removing the flag from the statehouse was appropriate, yet things went even farther.  Ebay and Amazon stopped selling any items carrying the Confederate flag (although the hammer and sickle didn’t seem to bother them), and even reruns of The Dukes of Hazard ceased to be shown on cable because the car sported a Confederate flag. 

But then things went further.  The mobs took over soon thereafter and began to tear down statues of Confederate generals in acts of vandalism.   The destruction then extended to statues of Christopher Columbus.  In New York, Bill De Blasio even considered removing Columbus’s statue, but finally relented when he discovered that he could lose the Italian-American vote and opted to keep Columbus and put markers about indigenous people instead.  In Chicago, even the statue of Abraham Lincoln was defaced in the frenzy.  Protesters covered the statue of Thomas Jefferson in black at the University of Virginia and placed a hood over it at Columbia University.  Colleges across the country went on a renaming binge, eradicating the names of any person that a connection with slavery.  A pastor in Chicago even demanded the removal of George t Washington’s statue from Washington Park.  The memorial of the all-black 54th Massachusetts and Robert Gould Shaw was vandalized in 2017 and just a few days ago a Civil War memorial in Maryland was defaced with Antifa logos.

While the push to remove statues seems to have died down, it leaves many questions.  Like the Poles, are we in danger of taking things too far?   Are we really rewriting or editing history?  While slavery was a principal reason the Civil War was fought, it was not the only reason, and regional tensions still exist and some of those frictions have gotten worse over the past decade.   Do we really want to pick at old scabs?

As the Holocaust is to Europe, slavery is to America.  It is a painful and ugly part of our nation’s history.   We cannot and should not edit it out.   Over time, the narratives and interpretations evolve.  Books are still being written about the Civil War, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee and the institution of slavery.  More recently, there are still survivors of the Holocaust that are giving their oral histories and we are learning more about events all the time.  There are hundreds of individual stories like that of Rita Gabis’s grandfather. 

Once again, Poland lies in the precarious place between an overbearing Germany and an aggressive Russia.  But I decry the recent actions of the Polish government on several fronts.  This measure is an affront to free speech.   Citizens of modern Western liberal societies must be free to construct their own narratives and interpretations of events from a set of facts.   The measure is a thinly veiled attempt to obfuscate history and shift all blame.  The events of those years are too complicated and facts simply do not support such an approach.  But while it is appropriate to criticize the Polish government over this action, we should also look in the mirror.   There have been recent instances in which we in America have started to show signs that we might be willing to head down the same path and engage in a little rewriting ourselves.

Sam Harris’s message was powerful, “A bully must be stopped.  There are bullies in the world and we need to stop them before they become Hitler or Stalin.”

And it is true whether the bullies come from the left or the right.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Trump's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week

Viewed in isolation, the presidency of Donald Trump must be like being married to that hot younger woman with an effervescent personality that is also a lunatic and has a major drinking problem.  There are days when it’s hard to imagine having more fun.  And then there are days when I imagine you wake up and decide that you just can no longer go on like this.

Last week was one of those weeks.   Trump hit a trifecta.

After getting off on the right foot in his response to the Parkland shooting by talking about the real issue—mental health, Trump began to backtrack.   He hinted that he might consider doing away with bump stocks by an executive order.  Then Trump egregiously announced his willingness to “take the guns first, go through due process second.”   During the Obama administration, I recoiled at Obama’s “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone,” approach to governance, as he stretched the boundaries of executive powers as far as he could reach without going through the legislative process.  Trump threatened (but so far has not acted) to do the same.  

Then, Trump’s imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminum sent shudders down my free trade spine.  Sure, I’ve heard some of the rationalizations:  that the Chinese don’t play fair, that the tariffs will have a nominal effect on GDP, that it is important for our national security.   People like Laura Ingraham and Charles Payne who are ordinarily counted as conservatives defended Trump on the imposition of tariffs.  But almost all serious free market economists revolted against it.  This is crony capitalism at its worst and while I have some sympathy for getting tough on China, we save not had this kind of protectionism in decades and the entire weight of the evidence pushes against such measures.   This is a tax on consumers and consumers of steel and is a partial offset to the tax relief given to business.   Worse, it sets a global tone and invites retaliation.  The effects may not be felt immediately because we are currently in a pretty strong global recovery, but they will be felt.  Paul Ryan’s last ditch effort to get Trump to back off failed and that is yet another worrisome sign---that Trump will not listen to cooler heads.

Finally, Trump’s reaction to Xi Jinping’s success in getting rid of term limits in China was breathtaking.   While it was taken out of context, and apparently said in jest, it gave fodder to all those that claimed that Trump had totalitarian instincts:

“He’s now president for life.  President for life.  No, he’s great.  I think it’s great.  Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.

As someone who reacted strongly to Thomas Friedman’s column when he displayed admiration for the Chinese political system because that “gives them the ability to solve big problems,” I cannot today countenance an irresponsible and anti-democratic statement like that out of Trump, even if he was kidding.  The media stand ready to pounce on Trump for any statement that gives credence to any of the narrative labels it has created for him-- totalitarian, racist, sexist, xenophobic, Islamophobic.  Trump needs to avoid giving up softballs like that.  After his "locker room" comment, it was as if Trump were caught on camera leering at some young woman, commenting, "Gee, look at the rack on her."  After harboring hopes of liberalization, three important countries have swung the other way-- Russia, Turkey and China. Others like Venezuela, are a complete mess.   In a world that seems to be slouching ever closer to totalitarianism, that kind of messaging is simply abhorrent and should not be joked about.

One top of it all, Trump’s communication director Hope Hicks resigned last week, creating even more turmoil in a White House experiencing continuous churn.

There is no coloring it any other way-- last week was the worst of his administration, if you are a Constitutionalist, a conservative or a libertarian.

But not to be outdone, Progressives worldwide gave us an entire litany of absurdities to scratch our heads over.
  • ·        Barack Obama, in a speech in Boston asserted that “Government workers work harder than private sector workers.”  Try saying that sentence out loud while keeping a straight face.
  •           Democrats are now using survivors of the Lakeland massacre to raise money.  The party that supports Planned Parenthood (remember auctioning off baby parts?) is now leveraging grief and death to fill its coffers. 
  •       The New York Times published a 9,000 word essay on the economic collapse in Venezuela and does so without actually using the word “socialism” in it.·
  •           Apparently learning nothing from Zimbabwe, over 25 years after the end of Apartheid government in South Africa, the South African Parliament voted to take land away from whites.  Another Venezuela in the making.
  •            Notorious anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan has met with member of the Congressional Black Caucus and confirms that DNC Vice Chair Keith Ellison was a member of Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam.
  •          Democratic utopian state California now has a 20% poverty rate and is ranked dead last in quality of life.  Take that, Mississippi.
  • ·        Democratic leader Chuck Schumer voted against a Trump judicial nominee purely on the basis of his skin color.   Take that, Martin Luther King.·  
  •           Angela Merkel finally admits there are “no go zones” in Germany after years of denial.  Take that, rule of law and liberal democracy.  You are now subordinate to the new laws of multiculturalism.
  •          Barack Obama decided to skip Billy Graham’s funeral (as he did Antonin Scalia’s).  Any bets on whether he will attend Al Sharpton’s? 
  •          With many legislators (and some retailers already doing it) clamoring to raise the age at which you can buy a rifle to 21, it will now be the case that an 8 year old can decide his (or her) gender and get hormone treatments, but a 20 year old returning from a tour in Afghanistan won’t be able to buy a rifle at Dick’s.  
  •           For the second year in a row, a transgender won the state girls’ wrestling title in Texas.
  • ·        Today, we learned that Facebook actually surveyed some users if they thought an ‘adult man’ should be allowed to request ‘sexual pictures’ from a 14 year old.   This prompted me to ask whether Anthony Weiner had gotten a seat on the board of directors of Facebook.

 It is with a bit of irony that Steve Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment now received generally good reviews in the New York Times this week.  Its thesis is that humanity is doing just fine.

It was a harder argument to make after last week, I think.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Human Shields....and Swords

Amidst the endless talk on social media and the mainstream media on the Parkland shooting, another policy position is being espoused by the Left (aside from the predictable hysteria about gun control)—enfranchising high schoolers.  Soon after the shooting, the MSM enlisted a number of them as spokesteens for their anti-gun agenda.  Most notably, student David Hogg immediately emerged as a media darling.  He came off as poised and well-spoken, and the media flocked to him—so much so that his articulateness raised suspicions that he was being coached and had pre-prepared talking points.  

Hogg, (along with a few others), has been elevated to rock star status and has now become the reigning authority and point person on gun policy in the U.S.  He has been omnipresent in the media, blathering on and on, blaming the NRA, NRA supporter Dana Loesch, and the governor of Florida for the shooting while exonerating the people whose job it is to protect children—the F.B.I. and the Broward County Sheriff’s office, urging boycotts of the State of Florida and companies that have ties to the NRA.  He has refused to return to school until gun restriction legislation is passed.  Liberal Democrats haven’t had such a marquee spokesperson since Sandra Fluke was hawking free birth control a few years ago.  The cynic in me is inclined to believe that young Mr. Hogg and a few of his other classmates are perfectly comfortable standing on the dead bodies of their fallen classmates to propel their future media careers. 

Some on the Left are proposing to take this further and are now calling for the enfranchisement of these teens.  Harvard professor Laurence Tribe and Bloomberg contributor Jonathan Bernstein vociferously advocated lowering the voting age to 16, and even lower, if possible.  Tribe asserted “This #ChildrensCrusade will transform America” and that “Teens between 14 and 18 have far better BS detectors, on average than ‘adults’ 18 and older.  Wouldn’t it be great if the voting age were lowed to 16?”   Joshua Douglas at CNN similarly threw in for the kiddie vote, “The real adults in the room are the youth from Parkland Florida who are speaking out about the need for meaningful gun control laws.”  Bernstein argued that it will increase voter participation by getting in the habit of voting early in life and said the voting age might be lowered to as young as 13.

What’s puzzling about this sudden push by the Left to grant children a political voice and full participatory rights in our republic is that until the Parkland shooting, the Left was actively extending childhood.  Obamacare permitted them to stay on Mommy and Daddy’s health insurance until age 26.  Our higher education system had infantilized them and even left leaning Salon and the New York Times voiced concern about delaying adulthood (see, e.g. Judith Shulevitz’s article from a few years ago https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/22/opinion/sunday/judith-shulevitz-hiding-from-scary-ideas.html).  Colleges coddled them in  “safe spaces” and mandated “trigger warnings” to protect them from ideas that might hurt their feelings.  They passed out coloring books, crayons, teddy bears to help COLLEGE students cope with the results of our electoral process.  Likewise, it was only a few short weeks ago that the New York legislature was considering passing regulations forcing P&G to make Tide Pods less appetizing because teens were harming themselves by eating detergent pods.  But now the Left has done an abrupt about face and is clamoring to grant full voting rights to individuals that have not earned their first paycheck yet and whose mommies still pack their lunches and do their laundry for them. 

What gives?

The Left is following the Rahm Emanual dictum, “Never let a crisis go to waste.”  Never mind that the Parkland shooting represents a total breakdown at all levels of government in its duty to protect us.   That tragedy is being seized on to advance a pet objective of the Left—to either erase or water down the 2nd Amendment so much that it becomes meaningless as to its primary purpose, which is to underpin the social compact (But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security- Declaration of Independence).   Some sort of package restricting guns, ammo or the ages at which they will be permitted will now almost certainly pass.  With untouchable children serving as both shields and swords, some erosion of the 2nd Amendment is now inevitable.  

But should children be granted the right to vote?  Absolutely not.

While it is entirely appropriate to permit the survivors to emote and express themselves over what happened, it does not follow that it entitles the kids to a full ticket to our political system.  The first clue lies in the CNN “Town Hall” meeting.   The disrespect shown Rubio and Loesch by the “Town Hall” itself is a compelling argument for why children should not be voting members of our society.  It was a one sided affair in which the NRA was labelled “child murderers,” Loersch was accused of being “owned” by the NRA and Rubio was charged with not caring about children.   Adolescents make adolescent arguments that are devoid of fact and analysis and that was on full display last week.
The abdication of government to protect these children ---to be the parent permits the children to try to assume that role.  In a household that is run by a drunk or a drug addict, children often try to pick up the slack and assume responsibilities they are not ready to handle, often with disastrous results. 

That is, in part, what is happening here.  Young Mr. Hogg is being lauded as “courageous” by the MSM.  Meanwhile the highly trained paid state actor armed with a weapon stood outside and did nothing as children were slaughtered.   Children should not be given a vote because the adults in our society have, in some cases, abdicated their responsibility.

The advocacy of enfranchising children arises out of desperation by the Left.  The Coastal Elite had assumed that the election of Hillary Clinton, and another four or eight years of regulatory growth and increased influence over the judiciary would cement its grip on political power for generations.  The election of Donald Trump smashed those progressive dreams.   The Left’s initial reaction was to label Trump’s election as “illegitimate” and they began by attacking the electoral college.   While certain attempts are still ongoing, eliminating the electoral college and electing a president via a straight popular vote will not be an easy thing to pull off.  The other attempt at increasing political power of the Democrats was to eventually enfranchise illegal immigrants.   Trump dangled out the prospect of a one-time enfranchisement as bait but with lots and lots of strings attached and so far, the Democratic leadership isn’t biting.  

Floating the idea of enfranchising children is simply another attempt at creating another pool of voters for the Left.   Contrary to Mr. Tribe’s assertion, high school kids do NOT have a superior BS detector—they actually swallow lots of BS, and sometimes with Tide Pods along with it.   They most often have uncontrolled emotions, their pre-adult brains have been scientifically shown to underappreciate risk, and they are usually some years off from contributing to our society.  But under the aegis and indoctrination of progressive school boards, the energy, malleability and quixotic idealism would make high schoolers a perfect voting bloc for Democrats if you could possibly get them enfranchised.

The enfranchisement of children will not happen.  The Left and MSM will be content to let them carry their water over gun control.  But over time, the Left will keep chipping away at the 2nd Amendment and taking it apart in pieces until one day we will wake up and it just won’t be there anymore.

The Parkland atrocity and its aftermath is yet another instance in which the West has failed to protect its children, every bit as much as it failed last spring in the U.K. when an Islamic terrorist bombed the rock concert in Manchester.   Our government failed to protect these kids from being slaughtered and to make matters worse, the political Left is exploiting them to advance their agenda and hoping to enfranchise them to increase their political strength, shamelessly using them.  Sadly, our divided politics and partisan media won’t even let children grieve.  We should let them grow up before tossing them into the political fray.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The 15:17 to Paris

Clint Eastwood is, in my view, our greatest living director.   At age 87, Eastwood continues to churn out quality films.  His latest The 15:17 to Paris stays with his one of his favorite themes-personal heroism under extreme circumstances.  Like Sully, which dealt with the Miracle on the Hudson landing by Chesley Sullenburger, 15:17 to Paris recounts the true story of fate placing the right people at the right place at the right time to save the lives of perhaps hundreds of innocent people. 

I began my blog post by writing a traditional review of Eastwood’s film, but events this week caused me to take a detour.

The 15:17 to Paris follows the story of three childhood friends that are normal boys doing boy things growing up.  They came from single parent homes with all the attendant issues.  None of the guys were portrayed as exceptional students.  Spencer Stone had “difficulty fitting in” and apparently had ADHD.  It tracks them through middle school mischief and then into the service, where Spencer Stone struggles along and almost gets bounced out, but through sheer perseverance, he makes it through and gets both hand to hand combat training and EMT training, both of which turn out to be vital skills in foiling the attempted terror attack.

Eastwood uniquely blended professional actors with the actual heroes playing themselves as central characters in this film.  The end of the film also was the actual awards ceremony where then President Francois Hollande honored these young men for their courage in saving the passengers.   The reviews of the film have been somewhat mixed so far.  Of course, since the actors were not professional actors, many film critics criticized the film as being a bit stilted, and that is a fair criticism.      

But the shooting of the police commander in downtown Chicago and the Parkland massacre changed the complexion of the film in my mind and my perspective on it.   I like the film now more at the end of the week than when I saw it.    Because it is more than about heroism.

The 15:17 to Paris is also a tribute to American men and American self-reliance, much like American Sniper.

In Chicago last week, a police commander was shot and killed in downtown Chicago when he answered the call to assist in apprehending a heavily armed and Kevlar dressed man in the State of Illinois center.  Commander Paul Bauer rushed to help his fellow officers confront a four time drug felon and paid the ultimate price.   Later this week Aaron Feis, a football coach at Douglas High School was killed when he threw himself in front of the students to shield them from the shooting rampage of Nikolas Cruz.  And then to top it off, a JROTC high school student, Colton Haab, sprung into action, herding his fellow students into a room, covered them with Kevlar, and stood by the door with a fire extinguisher and a 2  x 4 ready to attack the gunman should he make it to the door.  “My main goal was to make sure everyone got home safe to their family,” he said.  The young man is 17 years old.

In light of these events, I saw The 15:17 to Paris in an entirely different light.  It stands as a tribute to American manhood.  

The evening of the Florida shooting, oracle of the Left liberal law professor Laurence Tribe tweeted out:
In literally EVERY mass shooting I can recall, the shooter has been a male.  That doesn’t speak well for my gender, I’m afraid.  But it suggests to me that the NRA’s worst excesses are driven by doubts about masculinity.  Small hands, big guns.  A lethal equation.

Tribe’s absurd tweet captures the demonization of all men by the Left.  We live in an age where men and manhood are under assault from academia,  popular culture and from the mainstream media.  The Women’s March in which both men and women march around in pink pussy hats and deride “the patriarchy” (whatever that means).   Academics and critics of the military complain about “toxic masculinity.”   Transgenderism is celebrated in the press (the New York Times just published a big article about the first lactating transgender mother).   Abercrombie and Fitch recently tried to make a big splash with its gender neutral kids clothing line.   Major elements of the #metoo movement paint all men as predatory creatures.   On college campuses, men have been stripped of due process rights in their sexual relationships, and now stealing a kiss on a date can be deemed sexual assault and subject a young man to expulsion with little chance to tell his side of the story and little recourse (a raft of lawsuits against universities are working their way through the courts or are being settled).  Little boys have even been suspended from school for making a fake gun with their thumb and forefinger.

Yes, men are sometimes capable of acting beastly.

But we see in The 15:17 to Paris and in the events this week that men, good men, real men with traditional qualities that we used to celebrate in men—bravery, courage, physical strength, decisiveness, self-sacrificing, protecting—still come in handy when true evil threatens.  In the climactic scene, when Stone is engaged in desperate hand to hand combat with the assailant, it occurred to me that only a man would have had a chance at successfully thwarting the terrorist.

The police commander was protecting the citizens of the city and laid down his life for them--- all strangers.   The football coach at Douglas High School did not hesitate to fling his body between the shooter and the kids whose job it was to protect.   Spencer Stone instinctively acted to charge and overpower the terrorist who was poised to take the lives of hundreds of passengers on that train, severely injuring himself in the process.  And even young Colter Haab cooly reacted to the danger, shielded his classmates, and demonstrated that he was willing and able to attack the attacker and sacrifice himself if necessary to protect his fellow students.

There is one small scene where Stone helps an aged man off the platform and into his proper seat on the train.   That older gentleman is the person that men like Stone are programmed to protect. 

I was struck by the convergence of film and real life this week, and Eastwood’s use of the real heroes in his film.   On the Thalys train, in the State of Illinois building, and on the high school campus in Florida, real men ran toward the danger and not away from it.  

Because that is what real men do.   Especially when agents of the State are not around.  The Left can continue to try to chip away, blend genders, and de-masculinize our society, but when there is real, life threatening danger present, and the situation is dire, you want real men around.

Laurence Tribe’s sneering comment is standard stuff from the Left, fired off from the safety of the ivory tower at Hahvahd.   There is not a doubt in my mind that under similar circumstances, he would be cowering under the Kevlar rather than standing guard at the door.

Go see The 15:17 to Paris.  It is a movie for our time.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

System Failures

The most important function of government is to protect its citizens from harm and its primary function is to keep them from physical harm inflicted by foreign invaders and from other citizens.   We bind together and give up a little bit of freedom for this purpose.   And as I argued in my blog post on May 23 of last year (http://commonsense-mark.blogspot.com/2017/05/our-children.html), no other function is greater than the protection of our children.  Children represent the future of our society (and a principal reason for discord in the EU since they aren’t having any).   The fundamental tensions in our society revolve around what protection means and the limits to the power of the State to exercise those powers, particularly under the 2nd Amendment and the 4th Amendment to the Constitution.  The proliferation of firearms and the advance of technology have created new issues under those provisions.   Additionally, the growth and bureaucratization of our federal government have made it so that our security is reliant on complex systems and processes to keep us safe.  These systems and processes need to be rigorous and as free of political taint as possible.

They are failing us, massively.

Last month, a false alarm in Hawaii sent people scurrying in terror as a low level government employee “pushed the wrong button” at closing time, making the island’s inhabitants believe that a North Korean missile attack was imminent.  People screamed, hid children in sewers and braced for what they thought was a nuclear attack.  It took 48 minutes to broadcast an all clear signal.  Imagine the horror for those long minutes that these people thought might be their last on earth.  The employee in question has been fired and “had a history of confusing drill and real-world events.”   The FCC has so far ascertained that the Hawaii Emergency Management system had “inadequate safeguards” and had no way of dealing with a false alarm.  Later, the governor said that he couldn’t sent out the all-clear because he couldn’t remember his Twitter password.   This pathetic Keystone Kops charade is unacceptable in a world in which multiple threats face us.  With North Korea’s presumed missile capability, Hawaii is one of the most vulnerable places in the U.S. and that system needs to perform flawlessly.  The U.S. has been under nuclear threat since 1957 and North Korea first tested in 2006.   The Hawaii failure was at two levels.  First, the system permitted a low level, poor performing employee to set off a false alarm.  That failure was compounded by the failure of the governor to give an “all clear” signal for more than 45 minutes.   In a matter that represent the most fundamental duty to protect—to accurately warn against a devastating existential threat--- government showed that it failed.

The second failure has arisen from the mechanisms that are also specially designed to protect us—the F.B.I. and the FISA courts.   The FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) courts were created in 1978 to approve wiretaps and data collection for foreign surveillance, originally as a tool in the Cold War, then pivoting to the war on terrorism after 9/11.  While the facts are still unfolding, it appears that the F.B.I., with the tacit or explicit consent of Barack Obama (and likely funded by the Clinton campaign using one or more intermediaries) utilized the agency to surveil the Trump campaign and transition.  It’s pretty clear that the agents involved in procuring the background information necessary to present to the FISA court were hyperpartisan, and appeared much more interested in derailing or undermining Donald Trump than they were obtaining foreign intelligence.   And it has all the earmarks of an Obama/Clintonesque structure—pretext, plausible deniability, layering through different entities and individuals.   Make it so complex that it takes years to peel the layers and cut through the intermediaries to get to the truth.   And I remind you that Barack Obama has shown few inhibitions about using the mechanisms of the State to go after his political enemies.  He was able to become senator only because his campaign somehow obtained access to the sealed divorce court records of Jack Ryan, and publicized them, effectively derailing his campaign.

FISA Courts, like the I.R.S. and the F.B.I. should be sacred institutions, free of partisanship as possible.  For all the caterwauling about Trump’s “totalitarian inclinations,”  it is the political use of the policing arms of the State that defines a totalitarian regime (see China, Iran, Russia, Venezuela).  The F.B.I. is now taking on the smell and taint of a 3rd world surveillance state.   Once it heads down that path, its credibility as a protecting agency is lost.  By entangling itself in the political process, the F.B.I. has systemically failed us.

To make matters even worse, the F.B.I. came under fire by the New York Times for its slowness in uncovering the devious deeds of Lawrence Nassar, who molested hundreds of young girls.  The Times article said that from the time he first came under scrutiny by the F.B.I. to the time he was exposed, at least 40 additional girls had been molested by this beast.  It blamed, in part, the lack of coordination between the agency and local law enforcement for its sluggishness in response to the complaints it was receiving.  The New York Times front page article on Sunday, February 4 details the bureaucratic ossification that enabled Nassar to continue to perpetrate his despicable deeds long after the agency was first made aware of them.   While I frequently am at odds with the New York Times, I applaud them for calling out the F.B.I. in this instance.   Its primary purpose is to protect and there is no greater priority than the protection of our children.  And its response to Larry Nassar was a massive failure.

When government gets too big, too cumbersome and meddles in too many things (eg California criminalizing plastic straws and NY attempting to make Tide pods “less appetizing”), it begins to lose function executing on its most important functions.   Government at its core must protect.  The failure of Hawaii’s missile warning system, the failure of the F.B.I. to keep partisan taint out of the FISA surveillance system, and its failure to protect the victims of Larry Nassar are clear warning to us.  These recent failures are large and dangerous.  The Hawaii missile alert system could mean life or death to our citizens.  The F.B.I. failure in issuing F.I.S.A. warrants has serious 4th Amendment implications, and its further failure to act with dispatch permitted dozens of young girls to be hurt.

We are living at a time when SYSTEMS need to work properly.  The threats we face from nation states and nonstate actors have never been so numerous and capable of using technology to hurt Americans.  Government needs to be dramatically reduced so that it can focus on its core purpose.