The Importance of Learning from Others

November 27, 2018

Americans have been reluctant to accept the importance of studying other countries. We tend to divide them into good and evil and assume that’s all we need to know.

As a teenager I was interested in science and in classical music. For both, I thought it wise to learn some German. But few schools taught it in the wake of World War II. Germans were the enemy.  But two World Wars provided reason enough to study German. President Roosevelt understood how vile and dangerous Hitler was long before Pearl Harbor and took steps to prepare the American military because he could and did read Hitler’s Mein Kampf in the original German.

Americans, however, seem more concerned about being subverted by knowledge of foreign places than by the costs of ignorance. It’s as if many of us have an inferiority complex about our own culture. White racists bask in western European skin color even while screaming America first. America has enormous worldwide influence, but many Americans continue to fear comparison to worldwide knowledge.

From the Napoleonic wars through the Franco-Prussian and two world wars, old World European nations repeatedly attempted world dominance and took a hundred million people to their graves. This country created or supported numerous international institutions to keep Europe at peace, the Soviet Union at bay and level out the boom and bust cycle of international economics, but too many Americans fear those same international institutions as if they were the work of foreign hands designed to subvert us.

The costs of ignorance are serious. Too many American Administrations have treated Saudi Arabia as an ally though it is run as a savage and medieval country, and too many, except for Obama, couldn’t accept talking or negotiating with Iran despite repeated overtures to the U.S. and the fact that they are one of the most westernized, even Americanized, countries in the Middle East. We’ve made similar mistakes trying to control who governs in Central and South America, Vietnam, and other countries. America seemed incapable of appreciating the strategic sense and the long game behind Obama’s attempt to strengthen America’s position in the Far East. It may be too late to recover the ground lost to China.

It’s time to get over our terror of learning about and respecting other peoples. It’s an odd terror for a country made up of so many different peoples. It’s an odd terror for a country in which we can walk out of a bus or train station in cities like New York and enjoy the kindness of strangers who themselves come from all over the world. It’s an odd terror in a country where we talk with taxi drivers about their immigration to and joy at being here. It’s a terror that undermines the benefits of our universally admired university system.

Does one really have to be from somewhere else to appreciate the strengths of our own country? Must appreciating our own country rest on ignorance of others? Or can we trust ourselves to learn about others, to appreciate their strengths as well as faults, to build on and incorporate their accomplishments into our own as we have done in art, literature, music, theatre, dance and so many other arts and sciences, to learn from others as well as from each other as we build our own strengths? Or are we really afraid that recognizing the strengths of others will sap our own?

The internet attributes to many people, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Sam Levenson, a family friend of ours, that we must learn from the mistakes of others because we don’t have time to make them all ourselves. First, however, we need to encourage each other to explore and learn.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 27, 2018.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Harden The Electrical Grid

September 11, 2018

I’d like to follow up last week’s commentary with an aspect of the damage done by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico that should be a warning to all Americans.

Virtually all experts will tell you that the American electrical grid is vulnerable.

Without electricity virtually nothing works. Electricity is essential to all our meters and gauges and thermostats and doorbells – virtually everything that we work with, is electrical.

I tried to compose this commentary while taking a walk in my neighborhood but suddenly I noticed that the screen was stuck on a particular word. And then I got a message that my phone had disconnected from WiFi. Wi-Fi and everything else is electrical. All of our Communications are based on the electrical system. Cell phones, telephones, radio, television, cable – everything is based on electricity. Old fashioned wired telephones, known as landlines, were the rare system built with a separate power source and that’s one of the reasons why we kept a landline in our house along with our cell phones. We wanted to be able to communicate even when the grid went down.

I’ve been in several power outages of varying lengths. When New York City had an outage of several days we got places on foot. New York City is designed for foot traffic with sidewalks and lots of little business areas in reach for most of us. But the elevator didn’t work in my elderly cousin’s apartment building and she was trapped on the 5th floor. She couldn’t get downstairs and was dependent on the kindness of neighbors to bring her food. Of course, in a power outage our refrigerators don’t work. Many of our kitchen stoves won’t work even if they run on gas because they depend on electrical starters. Our thermostats won’t work and the heat won’t come on even if it’s a gas, oil or other non-electrical system because they depend on an electrical spark. Almost all factories, machinery, offices, shipping and stores depend on electricity for necessary functions. Everything crashes without electricity. Hospitals don’t function without electricity so  most have invested in backup generators but they are very expensive to run for any length of time.

It turns out that the gas pipeline system is dependent on electrical supplies for many of its functions. Without electricity, the modern world we live in is at a standstill as Puerto Rico has been for months.

But the grid is vulnerable. It can and does go down for accidental, malicious and natural reasons. To hand China or Russia the power to bring the good old U.S.A. to its knees, just don’t harden the grid. The internet was originally created by the Defense Department – that’s right, the federal government Department of Defense – because it had identified vulnerabilities in the land-based private telephone system. Patriots on both sides of the aisle need to see that the electrical and internet grids are hardened, fast.

— This commentary was originally scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 11, 2018. The broadcast by NPR and WAMC of the hearings on the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh, however, pushed back the originally scheduled broadcast. We plan to broadcast it at a later date but I am posting it now nonetheless.


Racists and Self-Interest

August 14, 2018

I have no illusions that anything I can say would convince white nationalists to flip their political sides. Nevertheless, I think it is important to engage them.

There is of course a strong moral argument based on the Enlightenment, reflected in the Declaration of Independence, that all of us are born equal. But let me see if I can engage anyone with arguments based on their own self-interest?

First, I don’t know how many of the white nationalists have had their DNA checked by 23 and Me or similar organizations. They might find that their own backgrounds are multicultural much like the rest of us. And I’m not sure how many of the white nationalists want to reject or deport their own grandparents or other ancestors.

Beyond that, racial, religious and ethnic nationalism is basically what is called, in language stemming from game theory, a zero-sum game. That is to say, we have a pie of specific size and fight about how to cut it up. But that’s a faulty premise. In fact, the larger the group that participates in the productive process, the more there is for everyone to do. The success of this country was based on our own common market among the states from the very beginning from the Canadian to the Florida border. That gave us a big advantage and propelled this country into the forefront economically within a few years. The European Union was developed and has been prosperous for much the same reason. And there is plenty of factual data that multi-cultural workforces lead to expanding their businesses much more than homogenous ones. It’s easy to look at a single job and notice who has it and who might have had it, but without looking at whether that job and many others would exist in a narrower market one does not have anything close to a full picture. So, I don’t think trade among multiple different cultures, or the development of complex multi-cultural economies are zero sum games. I do think they expand opportunities for us all. And the economic risk from trying to cut oneself off from that is stagnation and decline.

I have another concern about rejecting multi-culturalism: China, not to mention the rest of Asia. One of the things Obama realized, a realization no less true or false if one objects to the color of the man, was that the nations of Asia were focused on their economic advancement, were working hard to grow and were quite successful at it. That was behind his hope to “pivot to Asia.” But our own treatment of people from all the Asian countries, as visitors, residents and citizens, can strengthen or weaken our relations and our cooperation in foreign and economic policy. Perceived as racist, we can become the target of attack. Nations like China and India have the size and fire power to be problems. In briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court in the early 1950s, both the Democratic Truman Administration and the Republican Eisenhower Administration argued for an end to the separate but equal doctrine partly because it made international diplomacy difficult.

I don’t even want to talk about the possibility of internal war. Both for our country and for each of us, white nationalism is a dangerous mistake.

After writing this, we took our grandchildren to Tanglewood for a Young People’s Concert. At one point the BSO played Leonard Bernstein’s music for the rumble in West Side Story, a retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in Manhattan. The rumble pitted the white Jets gang against the Puerto Rican Sharks. It ends in universal disaster. In the suite that Bernstein created from the music, as Tony lies dying in Maria’s arms, the harsh, jagged music for the rumble dissolves into the lyrical, wistful music of Somewhere There is a Place for Us. Somewhere indeed. My granddaughter caught tears rolling down my face. Bernstein like Beethoven before him believed that music could somehow bring us together. I wish it were so.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 14, 2018.


Others on the Plight of America

June 23, 2018

Permit me to recommend three articles. Each goes well beyond Trump but Trump is an engine of each.

Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale who wrote The Road to Unfreedom, reviewed Benjamin Carter Hett, The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic. Comparison with contemporary America are uncanny. Snyder ends his review saying “The conclusions for conservatives of today emerge clearly” from this history of the fall of German democracy: “Do not break the rules that hold a republic together, because one day you will need order. And do not destroy the opponents who respect those rules, because one day you will miss them.” But recent events suggest little respect for those lessons.

Kori Schake, deputy director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote The Trump Doctrine is Winning and the World is Losing. Summarizing a magnificent article is difficult but for me the kernel was that “if the United States doesn’t sustain” cooperation among the world’s democracies, “a rising power will eventually force it to defend its interests or succumb.” That’s been the pattern of power transitions except the transition from Britain to the United States, “an exception born of their democratic similarities, and one unlikely to be repeated between the United States and China.” At this point the U.S. handed over leadership in Asian trade to the Chinese with our withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and weakening alliances among democratic nations allows China to intimidate weaker countries and reshape Asian geography and maritime rules without cost. Moreover, the costs of the American led world order were small and declining, especially by comparison to the benefits.

And David Sanger, national security correspondent  for the Times and author of the forthcoming The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age, after exploring the extent of cyber-sabotage and American vulnerability, shows the cost of not dealing with growing Russian capability because of its political implications.

Will America choose another Roosevelt to pull us out of this deepening vortex of destruction or will it choose a Hindenburg to hand the reigns to a beast preparing to roast, gas and kill us all?


Are We Overplaying Our Hand?

May 29, 2018

I’ve tried to state these comments not in all or nothing terms but in more realistic degrees. My question is what happens to the extent that a country overplays its hand?

That the U.S. pulled out from the nuclear agreement with Iran, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany and the United Nations Security Council means, first, that the U.S. will surrender some commerce and trade to Iran’s other trading partners and that some of the others will move to fill some of the gap. If the U.S. tries to assert secondary sanctions against companies based abroad that trade with Iran, that will certainly offend others of our trading partners, including the E.U. and its members. They are likely to conclude that they cannot allow the U.S. to determine their trading practices and rules. If so, they can look elsewhere. Some companies can decide that trade with the U.S. is unpredictable and decide to scale it back. In other words, one consequence of the pull out can be that the U.S. becomes a smaller, less attractive country to trade with and a less powerful international voice. We may want to isolate Iran but we might increase our own isolation instead.

I objected to the arbitration provisions of the Trans-Pacific Partnership because it gave too much power to corporations to free themselves from labor and environmental regulation – grounds of little interest to the Trump Administration. But when the U.S. pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, China stepped up to fill the vacuum. That’s a real cost that could have benefitted from continuing diplomacy rather than precipitate withdrawal. Insisting on having our own way can leave us celebrating our purity of principle but also isolated and irrelevant. And to the extent other countries can’t trust American politics and reach agreements with the U.S., America’s power and influence shrink.

Democracy generally depends on compromise. When people refuse to compromise, they lose the ability to reach a policy that the country can pursue successfully. We pursued a policy of containing communist countries for more than 50 years and it succeeded because the two parties preferred to work together than make a political issue out of that strategy. Republicans like to credit Reagan, but it was initiated under Truman, in line with the recommendations of George Kennan, and followed by Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush – presidents from both parties. These men were too wise and honorable to follow or reject policies because someone else started it. The ability to reach a consensus across party lines meant that it was stronger than party and America was strengthened as a result.

Some people who portray themselves as patriots want the U.S. to act independently of what other countries and international organizations want. But it’s questionable whether that’s actually patriotic because ignoring real world constraints runs us up against walls of resistance and sacrifices too much. The U.S. has about 1/23 of the world’s population. Running the other 22/23rds by sanctions, threats and intimidation is a heavy lift, likely to backfire. Wisdom comes harder. But it is important.

  • This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 22, 2018.

Making America Puny, or Is the Emperor Naked

January 9, 2018

Trump talks tough. His world strategy seems to go it alone in every context.

  • He antagonized Canada over NAFTA and Mexico over the wall.
  • He antagonized Britain by forwarding Nazi propaganda.
  • He aggravates the international refugee crisis that is roiling Europe.
  • He withdrew from world agreements to combat global warming.
  • He denies that Iran has been living up to its obligations under the Iran nuclear agreement despite the conclusions of international inspection agencies.
  • After screaming about the size of his button, quiet and patient South Korean diplomacy forced Trump to agree to pick up a phone.
  • He withdrew from Asia and the Trans-Pacific alliance and left that part of the world to China’s tender hands.
  • He abandoned an international consensus over the status of Jerusalem. Israel has demanded a great deal from us, including the antagonism of the world’s billion Muslims. But nothing is too much.
  • He doesn’t like the UN or our support of it even though it has made this country central to international everything. But who needs everything?

Tough, tough, tough, he’s talks tough alright, but he is increasingly alone. Some Americans like to say we are number one. But with mounting disputes and fewer allies, are we more than a lone tough in a bar brawl?

If we are irrelevant to the free world, who’ll care what happens to us? If our policies undermine the free world, who will come to our defense? If our only friends are strongmen who repress their own people, will they turn on us whenever it suits them? Antagonizing the world, risks being swamped by a hostile world. This is not the America of George Washington which could avoid entangling alliances while protected by the enormity of the oceans. The oceans are puny now that tiny North Korea can aim across them.

True military power is based on industrial might, not exports or raw materials. You could read the emergence of Germany and America in industrial statistics before they became world powers. But Trump hasn’t yet brought himself to support investments that would strengthen industrial power at home, like new and renovated infrastructure, science and education. Expanding coal mining and gas pumping, of which we already produce plenty, serve the world market, not industrial power at home, while American industries have begun a massive shift to other sources of energy. Oil and gas have been staples of weak third-world nations that have descended into catacombs of corruption – much as we have been doing – corruption spurred worldwide by extractive industries.

True world power is a combination of industrial, military and moral power. It requires leadership, engagement and understanding of the complexities of other nations’ needs and values. The alternative is a war against all in which America, no matter how much it claims, can and will be swamped by a hostile world. Trump’s bluster exposes our weakness, not our strength.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 9, 2018.

 

 


Is America For Sale? Is Trump Motivated to Sell Us Out?

June 20, 2017

Two lawsuits have now been filed over Trump’s violation of the emoluments clause.[1]

Emoluments is an eighteenth-century word rarely heard before Trump became president. It’s a rare president who ever came into office with assets that could motivate him to sell us out. And still rarer the president who refused to give up all interests in such investments. But Trump has refused to sell his assets or put them in a blind trust. His assets therefore are at risk here and abroad and their value is closely related to Trump’s dealings with foreign powers and domestic corporations and investors.

Foreign governments understand how to press his buttons. Like any lobbyist who curries favor with those in power, these governments understand that they may get better treatment if they patronize his enterprises. China granted numerous trademarks and other business advantages to Trump enterprises. Officials from China and many other countries use his hotels, lease or buy facilities from him, dine at his restaurants and thereby shift substantial amounts of money to him as well as help him publicize his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. All of this has raised the market value of Trump’s properties as all these foreign and domestic supplicants want to show Trump how they can feather his nest.

Now Trump has reversed positions he took during the campaign and his first weeks in office toward his foreign and domestic business partners and authorities. He reaffirmed the one-China policy, and backed off China’s expanding control over the South China sea. Trump abandoned his criticism of Saudi Arabia, and fell solidly behind it in a dispute with Qatar, where the U.S. has its largest regional base. Trump consistently excludes Saudi Arabia from his immigration bans though Saudis have dominated the terrorist events of the past two decades.

Was that because it was good for America or because foreign governments and officials gave him the rights he wanted for his enterprises abroad. With Trump we can never know.

The name for Trump’s behavior is corruption. Corruption includes using public power to gain personal wealth or profit, or accepting benefits that could lead a public official to take action contrary to the public interest. It’s almost impossible to prove a bribe – I’ll do this for you if you give me that. Politicians, lobbyists and other supplicants avoid the language of a deal and let the quid pro quo be inferred and implied. Numerous federal, state and local statutes prohibit public officials from accepting anything of value precisely because the quid pro quo is never stated but  always understood.

Whether Trump’s motives are pure or disgusting, he is in fact showing everyone how private advantage can be extracted from public office and laying America open to corruption. In many countries you get no help from government officials without bringing ever more costly “presents” to them. Trump’s behavior threatens to extract our energy and innovation for the benefit of Trump, his family and friends. That’s the essence of corruption and corrupt governments reduce their peoples to beggars.

This country worked hard to ensure an honest, dedicated, civil service. Despite all the jokes about government employees, our civil service has been the envy of most of the world. All of us will pay for Trump’s private empire.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 20 2017.

[1] Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics In Washington v. Donald J. Trump, U.S.D.C., S.D.N.Y., Jan. 23, 2017, https://s3.amazonaws.com/storage.citizensforethics.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/23140054/CREW-DJT-Final.pdf and District of Columbia v. Trump, US.D.C., D.Md., June 12, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/12/us/politics/100000005161070.mobile.html. And see Jackson Diehl, China and Saudi Arabia have seduced Trump into being their sweetheart, Washington Post, June 11, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/china-and-saudi-arabia-have-seduced-trump-into-being-their-sweetheart/2017/06/11/d4001330-4c67-11e7-a186-60c031eab644_story.html?utm_term=.dae3f8d62c7a, Sui-Lee Wee, Trump Adds More Trademarks in China, New York Times, June 14, 2017, B5, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/13/business/trump-china-trademarks.html, and David Marsh, Trump’s China First Policy, MarketWatch, June 6, 2017, http://www.marketwatch.com/story/trumps-china-first-policy-2017-06-06.

 


%d bloggers like this: