Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

27 March 2016

Five Reasons why Herr Drumpf will not be President


[For a comparison between Trump’s twisted tribalism and the Saudi-Wahhabi ideology that is busy annihilating the Middle East, click here.]

1. Character matters
2. The “problem” of women
3. The “problem” of minorities
4. The problem of policy
5. The problem of division
Conclusion

It’s been fun so far. The media have had an awesome run. They’ve made fortunes off of Trump (whose father changed his family name from the German “Drumpf”). “We the people” have enjoyed gossip, laughter, and dinner-table conversation fit for a sitcom. It’s all been a great reality show, with occasional real chills down the spines of those among us who can see the probable effect of a counterfactual “what if . . .”

But, sooner or later, we’re all going to have to get real. The giddiness of a very early spring, brought to us by global warming, will pass. The silly season of a very hot summer—perhaps the hottest in human history—will pass.

Despite accelerating warming and sea-level rise, cold weather will come again. That’s the time when playful squirrels get serious about hoarding their nuts. It’s the time when cold reality strikes deep. It’s the season of the Crash of 1929, the Crash of 2008, and the Russian Revolution.

That time will come before our elections this year. It will force us to take the measure of the man. When we do, as a people, we Yanks will abandon both the fantasy of The Donald as an economic savior and the paranoid fantasy of The Clown as president and keeper of the Nuclear Codes.

Then we’ll do the right thing, as Churchill predicted. We Yanks always do, after exhausting all the alternatives. Here’s why we will again this time:

1. Character matters. It’s a funny thing, really. You could have predicted the results of the last two presidential elections just by looking at character alone. John McCain was (and is) a loose cannon in foreign affairs. His knee-jerk reaction to any unanticipated foreign event is military overreaction, even war. No one would want his finger on The Button. Mitt Romney was (and is) a smart but hugely self-regarding super-salesman, willing and eager to tell anyone and everyone what he or she wants to hear. Each in his own way was a weathervane: unreliable, unpredictable and therefore dangerous.

In contrast, Barack Obama was (and is) steady, reliable, thoughtful, careful and prudent. Most of us saw through the distraction of his race to his reliable, cautious and comforting character. That’s why he’s the first president since Ike to have won the White House twice, fair and square, by clear popular majorities—and despite still-rampant racism.

Dubya’s two elections were a bit different, but along the same lines. He was (and is) honest, albeit incredibly stupid. Gore and Kerry were (and are) infinitely smarter. But both were (and are) stiffer, more formal and less approachable. Unlike Kerry, who was (and is) constitutionally incapable of praising or even defending himself, Gore had an oddly inflated self-image. (Remember who invented the Internet?) So “we, the people” went for the likeable guy who, at the time, seemed more modest and a good person to have a beer with. And in Gore’s case the Supreme Court gave Dubya a little boost.

The trouble is, Trump is not even close to being a likeable guy. He’s arrogant, egotistical, haughty, dismissive, capricious and impulsive. Often he’s downright nasty. If he weren’t so big physically, he might have been punched out enough in his long and tumultuous life to knock some of the rough edges off his character.

Trump’s empathy is a stunning negative. Sooner or later, we the people will pick up on this, and Trump and his political reality show will fall into the dustbin of history where they belong.

It could be a cliffhanger. It could take the whole spring and the summer. But it will happen. It may take all the brilliance of Madison Avenue and our current crop of distinguished “political operatives” to focus on Trump’s atrocious character, but it will out. No matter how angry you may be, Herr Drumpf is not a man you want to invite into your living room for a whole summer, let alone four years.

2. The “problem” of women. Despite his consistent failure to predict Trump’s success so far, David Brooks is still the dean of GOP-leaning pundits. He was, for example, the one who dimmed the ghastly prospect of Harriet Miers sitting on the Supreme Court. He did so by describing her writing, accurately, as a “relentless march of vapid abstractions.”

Here’s how Brooks described Trump’s attitude toward women, not two days ago:
“[Trump] does have, over the course of his life, a consistent misogynistic view of women as arm candy, as pieces of meat. It’s a consistent attitude toward women which is the stuff of a diseased adolescent. . . . [E]ven his misogyny is a childish misogyny.”
Strong words, no?

Women are no minority group. They are the majority group—a majority of the total population and a majority of voters.

It may take time for the accuracy of Brooks’ reference to “pieces of meat” to sink in. It may take magnification and repetition in innumerable attack ads.

But it will prevail. It will prevail not because it’s a clever or original turn of phrase, but because Brooks is a male and the leading GOP pundit, and his phrase is a penetratingly accurate description of Trump’s attitude toward women—an attitude that every woman has seen far too many times.

3. The “problem” of minorities. A few years ago, demographers predicted when our nation would become a “majority-minority” nation, i.e., mostly non-white. The canonical date was 2043.

Most demographers think it’s closer than that now. But even if you take that original, memorable date, it’s now only 27 years away—not even one and a half generations. Even today, and even with vastly lower-than-white registration rates, minority voters likely will account for more than 30% of the total this fall.

Trump has offended almost all of them. He’s offended African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Muslim-Americans and (by implication, if not directly) most other non-white Americans.

Sure, he’s sometimes pulled his punches, just a bit. For example, here’s the real quote from his rant against Mexican immigrants: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Fox’ morons can go on all day about how the last sentence proves that Trump is no bigot. But no one of Mexican descent—let alone any recent Mexican immigrant—will believe a word of it.

You can’t be a bigot in one phrase and a healer in the very next. Life just doesn’t work that way. Nor do the actual objects of bigotry feel or think that way. Even most of us whites recognize the lame self-justification “some of my best friends are [insert objects of bigory]” for what it is.

So, let’s see now. Trump has alienated 51% of the voting population, namely women. He has alienated the 30%-plus that are minorities. Subtract the 15% of minorities who are also women (to avoid double counting) and that’s a total of 66% of the electorate. That leaves 34% of old, angry white men who might follow Herr Drumpf into Hell.

How does that lead to an electoral majority? And we haven’t even subtracted out the vast majority of youth who would rather follow Bernie into democratic socialism, getting a free higher education and a chance at decent health insurance. Are any of them really going to vote for Trump?

4. The problem of policy. So far, you may have noticed, we haven’t even begun to discuss policy. It’s all been about bad character, fear, hate and bigotry, Trump’s stocks in trade. He lacks Dubya’s moronic disingenuousness. But if Trump ever said “I’m a uniter, not a divider,” all but his core group of aging white male bigots would burst into uncontrollable laughter.

Yet, sooner or later, the general-election campaign will have to move on from the gravy of gossip about bigotry to the meat and vegetables of policy. It will have to address the hollowing out of our industries and the gross inequality in our economy. And there Herr Drumpf will fail big time.

Why has Trump “outperformed” all reasonable expectations so far? There are two obvious reasons. First, he has climbed aboard the juggernaut of racial and ethnic resentment that Fox and the GOP have inflamed for a generation, and that our first “black” president has (through no fault of his own) brought to the boiling point.

Trump has dropped the code words and dog whistles and made it all explicit, down to failing to disown David Duke and the KKK. That awful stuff is never going to win a national majority, but it sure will incite enthusiasm in some regions and among both open and closet bigots.

The second reason for Trump’s success is even more important. Just like Bernie, he tells the truth about the fundamental practical reason for angst among white male breadwinners.

Our own political and business elite have thoughtlessly, carelessly and selfishly thrown their means of winning good bread away. They’ve replaced 60,000 US factories with foreign ones, mostly using American capital and American technology. And they’ve done it all, heedless of displaced workers, for their own personal enrichment and the enrichment of their social class. After all, it was all about “shareholder value.”

Not too put too fine a point on it, our American business and political elite have sold our Yankee industrial infrastructure abroad for thirty pieces of silver. And Trump, as a turncoat Democrat, can’t say exactly that because his newly-adopted political party has been a co-conspirator all along.

So if reasons of logic and self-interest prevent Trump from telling us who done it, at least he can suggest solutions, can’t he? Unfortunately, no. That’s where Trump fails utterly, just as he has in most of his businesses.

Trump’s “solution” is crude protectionism, specifically anti-Chinese tariffs. They would be an absolute disaster. Not only would they cause instant, uncontrollable inflation. They would cause shortages of the many goods now made in China, Mexico and Vietnam that we Yanks no longer make for ourselves, or don’t make enough of. Finally, tariffs would cause instant retaliation from our trading partners, especially China.

The result would be collapse of the global postwar economic order, a monumental trade war and perhaps a global depression. The trade war might even provoke a real war, as it did World War II.

Perhaps the trade war would be localized, as China sought to entrench its dominance of Southeast and East Asia. Think mighty China, with the world’s largest standing army and nuclear weapons and missiles, might make more of a go of it than Japan’s prewar “East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”? Do we really want to find out?

Of course the angry white male bigots who are Trump’s base don’t really want to find out, either. They would be the shock troops asked to defend our “way of life” in the South China Sea. But right now, all they want is a “solution” that sounds plausible, a way to express their anger and find some hope.

It would be easy enough to debunk Trump’s nonsense with single attack ad. Just play some voice recordings of Smoot and Hawley imposing tariffs on Japan, followed by images of Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the nuking of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, and then images of modern H-bombs exploding at Bikini. That would make the point.

No, when the time comes it won’t be hard to paint Herr Drumpf as the lifelong loser he is—at everything but self-promotion and casinos, where the sucker-customers always lose. The fact that the GOP elite have let this clown continue for so long is a testament to their self-regarding cluelessness, confusion, disarray, and division.

In theory, Republicans are supposed to have the most disciplined and organized party. Will Rogers once quipped, “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” But today the GOP has led an orgy of disorganized, undisciplined, wishful thinking, from global-warming denial to the notion that we as a nation can subsist on services alone, perhaps giving each other haircuts and suing each other. Herr Drumpf is just the logical conclusion of that trend—an undisciplined, impulsive man who pretends that economic and foreign policy are just talk shows, and (so far) gets away with doing so.

5. The problem of division. The most basic fact of this coming election is that the GOP is divided. It’s not just split down the middle. It’s splintered.

The main reason is a consistent pattern and practice of deception, delusion and distraction, followed for nearly two generations. We are seeing, before our very eyes, a practical demonstration of the famous adage attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

There are several categories of deception, too many to recount here. But by far the most important is the notion that placing our nation’s fate in the hands of a rich and self-interested elite promotes the general welfare.

Of course that’s nonsense on its face. It’s so even when the ambit of selfishness extends downward into the middle class. Selfishness is not a plan. It’s a vice.

Our Founders didn’t build this nation on selfishness but on community values, plus careful thinking about cause and effect in the use and balancing of political power. They sought not to aggrandize and laud selfishness, as the GOP since Reagan have done, but to suppress its evil consequences with checks and balances. In contrast, the GOP’s recent prescription of ever-lower taxes, ever-reduced regulation and ever-greater “freedom” (for the powerful, who exploit it most) produces ever-greater oppression of ordinary, working people and ever-rising inequality. Big surprise.

That’s where we are now. The ordinary people most adversely affected are just beginning to take it all on board. The Donald has captured some of them, in their still-groggy state, but they are not yet fully awakened. And the Dem propaganda machine hasn’t even begun to churn.

Lacking multi-sided internecine warfare—let alone junior-high-school chop contests of the kind recently passing for GOP “debates”—the Dems’ have largely kept their powder dry for the real contest to come. As the silly season turns into serious fall, they will have every resource and every incentive to show voters precisely who and what are responsible for our currently insecure economic prospects.

The second most important deception is the notion that we can return to a white-majority, white-supremacy state. That first became impossible a century and a half ago, when we freed our “black” slaves. The massive waves of immigration that followed in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries sealed our collective future. We Yanks will succeed as a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, or we will fail, perhaps spectacularly. If we fail, we might take the rest of our species with us, whether in nuclear fire or runaway global warming.

In retrospect, we can see that Nixon’s rotten “Southern Strategy” was a Hail Mary pass—a desperate expedient fated to fall far out of bounds. Betting on the most bigoted, backward, sectarian, authoritarian and provincial region of our nation, and on the least educated, developed, and industrialized, was an inevitable loser. Now the catatonic obstructionist from Kentucky is trying to hold back the tides of history and the ordinary business of our Supreme Court; two-thirds of our people despise him for doing so.

All this was destined to fail from the very beginning. Anyone with the slightest acquaintance with history or ability to foresee cause and effect would know that.

Conclusion. Self-interest is a powerful motivator. And timing matters. In the interim since Nixon’s pathetic V-sign, as he took his final helicopter ride into well-deserved political oblivion, two generations of selfish leaders have rode the train of lies into obscenely rich and powerful lives. They got theirs while the getting was good.

But now the track downward is coming to an end. The train of lies has to stop. Likely the GOP will die with it. Lacking workable policy, ideas, and fundamental decency—let alone admirable leaders—the divided and dispirited Republicans are grasping at straws and false saviors like Herr Drumpf.

It’s only a matter of time before they go the way of the Whigs. When that happens, the Dems will retake our country, likely all three branches. The South will cease trying to rise again and will join the rest of us, or it will be crushed by in-migration and long-thwarted but overwhelming political power. And we Yanks will retake the moral leadership of our species, not by misused and mismanaged military power, but through example and diplomacy.

If all this doesn’t happen this fall, it will happen in two or four more years. The only real question is how long thereafter it will take to reconstruct an opposition party with the openness, tolerance, frugality, decency, pragmatism and caution abroad that the Party of Lincoln once had. There is little evidence so far that the GOP leaders and elite, let alone its rich backers, have even begun to think about that process. Most just wish they had thought of taking their two-generation reality show as far as Trump has.

Tribalism Gone Wild

Donald Trump’s tribalism, discussed in the post above, is fierce enough to extend to gender. Apparently he thinks women are a different and inferior species.

But as bad as that is, the Saudis Princes have gone even further beyond the pale. According to the New York Times, their officially sanctioned brand of “Wahhabi” Islam makes new tribes out of subtle flavors of belief. If you don’t adhere precisely to the official brand of Wahhabi Islam, you are an “infidel.” And we all know what that means to Islamic extremists.

Not surprisingly, the Saudi Princes’ subjects have taken up the cudgel of tribalism with a vengeance. They started with Al Qaeda, which justified the killing of fellow Muslims similarly. If you don’t believe in Islam exactly as they do, you are an “infidel.” So you are excluded from religious sympathy and protection and become an object of jihad and wanton murder.

Welcome to the bizarre logic that has made the Middle East such a lovely place to live! After 9/11, to which some 80 Muslims were victims, Al Qaeda’s “great philosophers” even gave this doctrine a name: “takfir.”

It doesn’t take a trained logician to see its natural consequences. Any difference of opinion, no matter how small or insignificant, can be an excuse for enmity, jihad and murder. Not only that. It can be an excuse for totalitarian oppression, as in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria, or violent revolution, as in Syria, or perhaps soon in Saudi Arabia itself.

It’s bad enough that members of our species, whose DNA is 98% identical, have sorted themselves out tribally into races, ethnicities, and nationalities. That really couldn’t be helped. Differences in biological evolution, due mostly to geography, were unavoidable. Think it’s an accident that Scandinavians are pale and blond and lack melanin, while people who live in the tropics are brown or “black” and better protected against the Sun?

So we have races, mostly based on geography and derived from biological evolution. Next we developed ethnicities and nationalities, also based largely on geography, but in this case more on social than biological evolution.

These tribes are natural products of our biological and social evolution. They have been the basis of nearly all the tribal wars in human history.

But not quite. The so-called “Western” world has nearly forgotten the ugly religious wars between Catholics and Protestants that raged, on and off, for over three centuries. These wars easily crossed racial and ethnic lines. Among other things, they pitted Englishman against Englishman, Frenchman against Frenchman, and German against German.

This utterly unnecessary mayhem was a purely human invention, dictated neither by biological nor by social evolution. It was a new means of justifying mass murder, at a time when our species did not yet require population control. Now, today, we have the Islamic world reveling in it, in the Nuclear Age, at a time when two nearby nuclear powers—Israel and Pakistan—are teetering on the edge of theocracy.

No doctrine ever conceived by the human mind is as dangerous to our species’ ultimate survival and success as Al Qaeda’s doctrine of takfir and the similar Saudi-Wahhabi doctrine that spawned it. No other doctrine teaches that anyone who disagrees with you is an “infidel” and an enemy, subject to jihad and liquidation at will.

No other doctrine runs as contrary to the thrust and trend of human social evolution. None. Not Soviet Communism at its height: all it wanted to do was prove its superiority by converting others’ social-economic systems. Not even German Nazism was as bad: it did liquidate a lot of people toward the end, but it mostly wanted to make them slaves. It was more a return to the Pharaohs’ Egypt than a plunge into a nightmare world in which every man (and woman!) is potentially every other’s enemy.

Fanatics now have begun using this abomination to justify killing the Saudi Princes’ defenders, even the fanatics’ own relatives. Some may see poetic justice in the predatory chickens that the Saudis have raised coming home to roost. But there is no justice, poetic or otherwise, in a doctrine that turns man against man based only on an individual’s thinking. No other doctrine could be so destructive of individualism, original thinking, freedom of conscience, and modern civilization.

Tribalism is a fact of human life and evolution, both biological and social. Whether a ploy of Donald Trump’s, the Saudi Princes’ or “Bibi” Netanyahu’s, it is something our species must overcome in order to realize the full potential of our dual nature as collective and individual beings. If every difference in individual thinking, belief and conscience becomes an excuse for collective war, our species will surely extinguish itself.

The logic is inescapable. And any other intelligent species out there, which might be watching us, would only heave a sigh of relief.

To avoid that unhappy outcome, we must all do our parts. We Yanks must dispose of Donald Trump—not by declaring him an “infidel” and killing him, but by putting him out to pasture among his casinos, hotels and reality shows, where his tribalist tantrums can cause no great harm.

The Saudi Princes must also do their parts. They must recognize the logical consequences of their Faustian bargain with Wahhabism and repudiate it. If they don’t, they will surely fall its victims. If that happens, no one else—let alone in the West—will mourn them.

There is nothing inherently wrong with rich people controlling a lot of oil. At least there are a lot of them in the world, including the Koch Brothers here at home. What is wrong is rich Princes using their oil wealth to spread an ideology that is self-evidently dangerous to our species’ health.

In his recent must-read analysis of President Obama’s foreign policy, Jeffrey Goldberg described the President as “clearly irritated that foreign-policy orthodoxy compels him to treat Saudi Arabia as an ally.” When Australia’s prime minister asked him, “Aren’t the Saudis your friends?,” the President replied, “It’s complicated.”

It certainly is. Once we depended on the Saudis for a reliable supply of oil. Now we have fracking, and electric cars are coming of age. We no longer have a strong economic incentive to support and protect a regime responsible for spreading an ideology that could easily extinguish our species, let alone annihilate the entire Middle East. We no longer have to kow-tow to a regime whose “religion” encourages every imam to start his own personal holy war. That’s exactly what some self-appointed imams have done, including Americans killed by drones abroad.

The ideology of takfir and its Wahhabi parent are our entire species’ mortal enemies. We must extirpate them from human governance and thinking, root and branch, relentlessly and remorselessly.

Besides runaway global warming, there is no greater known threat to our species’ ultimate survival. These twisted ideologies are what gives nuclear proliferation its sting: if nations only used nuclear weapons to deter direct attacks on their own territory, and not to intimidate, kill or punish “infidels,” nukes would be stabilizing forces and “accurate weapons.” As it is, we must use other accurate weapons, such as drones, ninjas and special forces, to kill takfiris before they kill us.

We Yanks will do our part, starting with putting The Donald out to pasture. Will the Saudis and Middle Eastern fanatics do theirs? The world is waiting for an answer, as is the President of the United States.

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21 March 2016

Eight Reasons for Bernie to Go the Distance


1. Bernie has a unique message
2. Bernie focuses; Hillary does not
3. Bernie has the enthusiasm
4. Bernie has our youth
5. Bernie is our nation’s educator in chief
6. Like it or not, Bernie is the Dems’ actual current leader
7. Bernie’s persistence will make the Dems stronger
8. Bernie rides the anti-establishment tide

The President reportedly has advised major Democratic donors that it’s time for the Party to coalesce around Hillary as candidate. Yet there are at least eight reasons why Bernie’s staying in the race, whatever its outcome, would be good for the Party and the nation, and maybe even good for Hillary:

1. Bernie has a unique message. Bernie’s message has three parts. First, the 1%, including Wall Street, have stacked the economic deck against the rest of us. Second, Citizens United has given the 1% the power to deceive and delude us politically, and they are exploiting that power as much as they can. Third, the 1% are largely responsible for moving American factories and industries abroad, and they have profited exorbitantly from doing so.

No one else in American public life is making these points as persuasively as Bernie, let alone as often. They are valid points. They ought to be in the forefront of political discourse for as long as this agonizing campaign season lasts.

2. Bernie focuses; Hillary does not. Hillary may well be our next president. But she doesn’t know how to focus. Her message is diffuse and unmemorable: experience, competence, and empathy, plus innumerable unspecified “comprehensive plans.” Unlike Bernie, she doesn’t go for the jugular at all, except sometimes when attacking Bernie.

Although Donald Trump is capriciously inconsistent, he and Ted Cruz both know how to focus. Each has a clear message. Trump’s is “I’m the boss. Don’t mess with me. I’ll fix what’s ailing us.” Cruz’ is “I’ll make us great again by turning us into the type of theocracy we’re fighting in IS and Iran. If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em.” While these messages send chills up the spine of anyone having a passing acquaintance with history, they are clear and focused. The Democrats need someone on their side who can focus and punch back.

3. Bernie has the enthusiasm. The worst raps against Bernie are that he and his plans are unrealistic. But his diagnoses of what ails us are spot on. Anyway, a political party must have goals. Doing better and being more competent with “comprehensive plans” are not goals. For all I can tell after watching her carefully since 2007, Hillary has no clear goal except becoming our nation’s first female president.

As I’ve often written on this blog, I will support Hillary if she wins the nomination. Given the horrible alternatives, I will even support her with some money and enthusiasm—at least that of a condemned man who sees hope of reprieve. But at the moment, Bernie is setting all the Democratic Party’s goals, and Hillary is slowly accommodating to most of them. Bernie is a one-man Party platform committee and a one-man cheerleader for the moderate left. He deserves to continue in those roles.

4. Bernie has our youth. Paradoxically for a 74-year-old, Bernie has our youth in the palm of his hand. He wins the 18-to-29-year-old votes by margins as great as eight to one. That’s not surprising. His platform directly addresses the most pressing concerns of our youth: massive student debt and no or inadequate jobs after completing the higher education that caused the debt.

For a generation and a half—since Ronald Reagan—the right wing has been on the ascendancy in America. Now it has captured two of our three branches of government and so has emasculated the presidency. But it also has lost its way: it is split, leaderless and utterly without ideas. The public dimly perceives that its outmoded and terminally vague policy mantra (lower taxes, less regulation, less “political correctness” and more “freedom”) hasn’t worked and won’t cure our growing ills.

So the Democratic Party is poised to retake the ascendancy, and perhaps all three branches of government. But it can’t do that without our future: our youth. Bernie has them. So his continued candidacy means closer engagement with youth and a better future for the Party.

5. Bernie is our nation’s educator in chief. In the four generations since Social Security and Medicare began, our right wing has demonized social programs as “socialism.” It has deliberately confused democratic socialism with Communism, including the now-vanished Russian and Chinese varieties. It has conditioned American voters, like Pavlov’s dogs, to think of pedestrian social programs as “socialism,” and to growl whenever the word “socialism” is mentioned.

But Bernie knows a dirty little secret. Neither expanding Medicare and Social Security nor giving our youth free public higher education will destroy our free-enterprise system or capitalism in America. On the contrary, it will make them work better. It will give more ordinary people more money to spend on goods and services, and it will make sure our youth are properly educated to create the next generation of transformative private industries. Bernie’s oft-repeated message that college is the new high-school, and that free public education has been the primary source of our nation’s greatness, is spot on.

Only Bernie makes these points. Only he has consistently debunked the lie that limited social programs will destroy our economic system. Only he has had the courage to call himself a “Democratic Socialist.” Only he has had the presence of mind to point out that virtually all of our developed-country rivals have that very same strain of politics—some among their current leaders—and that all are capitalist, prosperous and happy. None has crushed or even harmed free enterprise.

This bit of public education is almost as important as debt-free college. Only Bernie is providing it. That service alone makes his campaign worth while.

6. Like it or not, Bernie is the Dems’ actual current leader. A “leader” is a person who leads, who takes us where we otherwise would not go. Bernie does that, or at least he tries to. He does it with national single-payer health care, and with tuition-free public college. He does it with overturning Citizens United, getting Wall Street out of the businesses of gambling and swindling and back to honest capital formation, and keeping what’s left of our industry here at home.

Hillary may yet be a first, but she is not a leader. Her inveterate traits are triangulating, temporizing, and seeking the middle ground. After eight years in the Senate, she has not a single law with her name on it. She followed, not led, in understanding what a catastrophe Dubya’s war in Iraq has been.

So Bernie is the Democrats’ leader, by default if nothing else. He has set the agenda, at least for discussion within the Party. He has set bold new goals. And even the New York Times—as pro-Hillary a rag as at is possible to be—has recognized his ability to move toward those goals incrementally when necessary. Unlike his caricature by Hillary, Bernie has been a clever, pragmatic and effective legislator, even while leading from the isolation of “independent” status and our nation’s only self-confessed “Democratic Socialist.”

7. Bernie’s persistence will make the Dems stronger. While nothing in politics is certain, the Dems are highly likely to win the presidency this year. The opposition is split, leaderless, rudderless and in disarray. It has no clear message. Mitt Romney is still the GOP’s de facto leader, if only by default. But he has just excoriated the party’s front-runner and promised to vote for an American Theocracy. How bizarre is that?

Under these circumstances, what the Dems need most is a clear message. Bernie provides that. Hillary’s reliance on “competence” and “comprehensive plans” is no substitute. John Kerry tried asserting competence against Dubya in 2004 and lost. Democrats need a clear vision—something to fight for and to distinguish themselves from the GOP. Bernie has that; if Hillary has it at all, it is a pale copy of Bernie’s program.

8. Bernie rides the anti-establishment tide. American voters are fed up with the “establishment,” which has brought them little but discord and bickering for seven years. Only complete and universal disgust with the establishment could have brought us leading GOP candidates as inexperienced and bizarre as Trump and Cruz. And only it could have given a Democratic Socialist a chance to put his case before the public, despite more than a half-century of Pavlovian conditioning.

With Trump or Cruz as the likely GOP nominee, Hillary would be the sole establishment candidate for president. As such, she would bear the entire onus of public disgust. Doesn’t it make simple campaign sense to link her with one of only two true rebels in the entire field, the other being Trump?

If anything can defeat Hillary in the general election, it’s her identification with the establishment and her past mistakes and scandals, including Emailgate. If she and her operatives are smart, they will figure out ways to get Bernie’s anti-establishment aura to rub off on her. Disposing of his campaign prematurely is not one of them.

If Bernie’s campaign continues, if Hillary wins the nomination, and if he endorses her (as he should, if the win is fair), Hillary will have a good chance to capture the enthusiasm and devotion of Bernie’s followers. And Bernie, having continued his program of public education for another few months, will have brought the nation and its youth closer to a rational view of the function of government in the twenty-first century.

For all these reasons, it’s not now time to ask Bernie to leave the field. For Bernie, not Hillary, is giving the Democratic Party the clear goals, the focus, and the enthusiasm to win the presidency, take back the Congress and the Supreme Court, and ultimately take our country back from the Dark Side. Hillary would be wise to find a subtle and discreet way to jump on his bandwagon.

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14 March 2016

Clear Thinking about “Free Trade”


For about three decades, conventional thinking about trade has relied on a spectacular non-sequitur. Not only is it false and illogical. It has produced an economic catastrophe for our nation. Now that our people and our pols have finally identified it, it’s undermining our politics as well. If its “discovery” makes Donald Trump president, it could produce a general, global catastrophe, perhaps even a military one.

The non-sequitur is simple to state but requires some explanation. In essence, it holds that selling a rich nation’s industrial infrastructure to poor nations is a necessary condition or consequence of “free trade.”

In order to see how absurd this notion is, we first have to recall what is “free trade.”

Since before World War II, the term “free trade” has been defined by its opposite: tariffs and other forms of trade protectionism whose purpose is to restrict trade and make markets a form of national property. An example was our own Smoot-Hawley tariffs, imposed before that war. Congress designed them to exclude Japanese manufactures from our American markets, and they were a key motivator for Japan’s aggression in World War II.

After that horrible war, leading powers recognized that market exclusion was not too different from territorial conquest. Territorial conquest says, “This land is mine!" Similarly, market exclusion says, “This market is mine!” Tariffs don’t have to be sky high in order to effect the exclusion. Imposed on imported products, a mere 10% cost increase, let alone a 25% one, is often enough to motivate domestic consumers to buy locally produced goods.

After World War II, leaders of major powers were fully conscious of the role of tariffs and other trade barriers in causing the war. Not wanting to repeat the awful experience, they convened international conferences and set about creating rules to lower and eventually eliminate the barriers. The process began formally with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1947. It continued through the World Trade Organization’s formation in 1996. It continues today under such compacts as the TPP, or Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The general idea of all these agreements is that “free” trade is good, and artificial restraints on trade are bad. Today we have generally accepted economic theory to underline these points. Tariffs allow inefficient, high-cost domestic businesses to exclude goods made by better, more efficient firms abroad. They also force domestic consumers and businesses to waste money buying inefficiently produced (and therefor higher-priced) goods. At the same time, they make efficient foreign producers and their nations angry, just as our Smoot-Hawley tariffs did Japan before World War II.

So trade is good. Protecting inefficient domestic industries against better, more efficient foreign competition is bad. These points have become conventional wisdom in trade and economic circles over the last half-century. But do they justify, let alone require, a developed nation’s elite capitalists selling that nation’s industrial infrastructure to poor nations to lower prices and, in so doing, get rich quick?

This is the non-sequitur that both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have identified. It’s now a big issue in our Yankee presidential election.

Yes, it’s a good thing for commodities and manufactures to be sold, without tariffs, at nondiscriminatory prices that vary only by productive efficiency and transportation cost. That gives everyone, worldwide, an incentive to become the most efficient and lowest-cost producer and the most efficient user, who can pay the highest price.

But is it a good thing for rich countries like the US (and England earlier) to sell and transfer their plants and productive facilities—their entire industrial bases—to poor countries like India, China, Mexico and Vietnam? Does “free trade” require transferring rich nations’ capital bases to poor ones?

Ideologues often say that the hollowing of America’s industry and its sale to China, Mexico and Vietnam was a result of “free trade.” But that’s not how these things actually happened. China, Mexico and Vietnam didn’t build competitive plants with their own capital and technology. Rather, American capital, through so-called “direct foreign investment,” financed the plants in China, Mexico and Vietnam that undercut domestic plants’ prices. And American technology made those plants efficient. The capitalists got rich, and American workers lost their jobs. After a while, America lost a large fraction of its industrial base. That’s where we are now.

Maybe free trade permitted this self-imposed disaster. But to say that free trade required or caused it is to indulge in the fuzziest thinking possible.

American capitalists moved manufacturing offshore not to lower tariffs or reduce trade barriers, but to get rich quick. That they indeed did. They made huge profits, without regard to the consequences for American society and families. They did so under the rubric of “free trade,” deluding themselves (and the rest of us) that this scheme was all of a piece with dismantling the tariff barriers that had held back global prewar economic development and helped cause humanity’s worst war.

After three decades of this non-sequitur, the results of this process are pretty clear. The top layer of capitalists—the “one percenters”—benefitted. In our top-heavy capitalist system, they’re the ones who got paid for the transfer, or at least the lion’s share of payment. They have become the new oligarchs in our Second Guilded Age. The previously poor countries that received the transferred industrial bases also benefitted, as I noted in an essay published eleven years ago.

But the process also produced millions of real losers, as is now painfully apparent to voters here in America. American workers lost big. Millions lost their jobs. Most lost wages, or at least the increases in wages that, for most of our American history, had been considered American workers’ birthrights. Many also lost self-respect, for example, when they had to stop making cars or industrial equipment and to start flipping burgers at MacDonald’s or serving as “greeters” at Wal Mart.

Now it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the decreases in the domestic prices of goods manufactured abroad don’t compensate for these losses. Cheap Chinese products at Wal Mart don’t make up for the loss of a good job or for the resulting loss of a marriage and a secure family. Nor do they compensate for the increasing inability to afford a college education, at least without massive debt, which itself dims the prospects of future generations. In the aggregate, the loss of millions of good jobs has begun to slow economic growth. It has led to the stagnation and deflationary environment that most developed nations are now experiencing. It also harms workers’ and middle managers’ direct contract with manufacturing technology and customers—and therefore manufacturing progress and innovation—which having onshore productive facilities would have fostered.

In fact, our entire country took big hits. Since this process started in the United States, we have lost 60,000 factories to so-called “competition” overseas, mostly started by our very own executives and our own outsourcing. We have sold a large part of our entire industrial base for the profit of a few and the incidental benefit of foreign nations, some of which (like China) are now our rivals.

As anyone who’s ever served as a scientist or engineer knows, technology and technological knowledge build upon themselves. They are parts of a seamless web. As you lose substantial parts of that web, your ability to innovate and invent declines. And so you begin to lose your future.

And still we haven’t even mentioned another, related phenomenon: the transfer of corporate headquarters and corporate industrial bases abroad in order to reduce taxes. Not only has that transfer deprived the United States government of massive revenue. It has, to date, resulted in the “parking” of real money abroad, which does nothing but uselessly inflate corporate balance sheets and stock valuations. At the moment, estimates of the aggregate sum of money reach 2.5 trillion dollars. Just bringing that money home could, for example, make a huge dent in our vast and growing national infrastructure deficit.

All of this has little or nothing to do with “free trade” as such. Selling a whole nation’s industrial base to poor countries is hardly a necessary precondition or consequence of reducing tariffs and other trade barriers. Neither is withholding profits from taxation and repatriation. These things are separate and distinct phenomena, having more to do with the short-term greed of shareholders and their managers and the false god of “shareholder value” than any real support for “free trade.”

So how do we fix these blunders? Can we get our industrial base back? Can we recover the 60,000 factories that have “moved” offshore? Can we recover all the government revenue lost through tax “gaming”? Can we put the $2.5 trillion to work in our own country, if only for direct corporate investment at home?

The short answer to the first question is “probably not.” The 60,000 factories are gone for good. We certainly can’t bring them home with simple, crude market protectionism, such as re-imposing tariffs or other trade barriers. Nor should we. If we tried, we would upset the global economic applecart. We might even cause another catastrophic war.

As for the second and third questions, the answers depend on lawyers and pols and their determination to rebuild our nation. Corporate tax-reduction gymnastics and external bank accounts are legitimate targets of pols, but they won’t be easy to hit as long as Citizens United allows the rich to confuse the public and buy elections.

Yet not all is lost. The United States is still the world’s most innovative and creative nation. We may not be able to reverse the loss of factories for hand tools, furniture, kitchen implements, home appliances, and audiovisual gear, which have already fled to China. But we can prevent our factories for the next generation of great industries from moving to China, Mexico and Vietnam, or even to Bangladesh.

We can do that with legislation that imposes significant tax and economic penalties on capital that moves factories abroad. At very least, we can change our tax laws so that capital no longer has an incentive to move factories offshore and to park the profits from foreign operations abroad. We could and should make foreign operations of American companies pay their fair share of American taxes, and we could require or incentivize them to repatriate their foreign profits for use here at home. Nothing about doing that would require renewed tariffs or “protectionism.”

The most important thing of all is to do this for future industries. We don’t know now exactly what all of them will be, but we have some pretty good ideas. Among them will inevitably be: (1) electric cars, (2) high-capacity storage batteries (for smoothing the “intermittency” of wind and solar energy), (3) smart-grid technology for regionally smoothing and distributing locally-produced, sustainable electricity, (4) private space travel, and (5) emerging medical technologies, including synthetic organs for transplanting and personalized medicine.

In the medium term, a whole series of world-changing industries will likely evolve from the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology. As I’ve remarked previously, that technology is the most likely of all presently developmental technologies to become economically transformative in the same way that electric power, the automobile, aircraft and modern electronics and computers once were.

The Internet is a different story. Its software and services are intrinsically intangible. By their vary nature, they can fly around the world in milliseconds. In fact, notable Internet winners like Google and Facebook are already global companies. Trying to devise legislation to keep them here at home, or to put the genie back in the bottle, would be a fool’s errand.

Not only does their very nature circumvent any geographic restrictions on Internet companies. In general, Internet “industries” are not really “transformative” at all. Airbnb, for example, just replaces hotels, short-term rentals and time-shares. Uber replaces taxi drivers and limousine services. They’re just more efficient ways of doing and organizing the same old businesses. They may make a lot of quick fortunes; and they may have political effects even less foreseen that IS’ recruiting of suicide bombers among ostensibly satisfied, assimilated Yanks. But they won’t transform any economy the way cars, planes, electricity, radio and TV or computers once did.

However high their stocks’ price-to-earnings ratios may be, Internet firms are primarily means of disintermediation and communication. They are hardly productive “industries” with factories or other wealth-creating output of their own. And however much they otherwise change, they will never sell our nation’s industrial infrastructure abroad as our 1% has done over the past three decades.

So let’s not worry about software and Internet companies. What we must do is create rules that keep the next generation of research-and-development laboratories and real productive factories onshore. These rules can reinforce and supplement the natural incentives of being closer to customers and local resources, closer to the world’s best higher educational system, and closer to the rest of the seamless web of advanced technology that feeds on itself in producing real innovation.

If we wait too long to re-spin that web in the United States, it may move abroad forever. Then our secular decline may become irreversible.

Doing all this will not require tariffs, so-called “protectionism” or violating the last century’s salubrious rules of free trade. What it will require is some careful thought about how to preserve and expand what still makes our nation the world’s most innovative and creative society, and how to project that “what” reliably into the Third Millennium.

What we need is a common-sense effort to maintain and expand our society’s and culture’s comparative advantages by reducing the short-term, short-sighted self-enrichment of our owner class, our 1%. Surely successors to the thinkers who created world’s freest, richest and most advanced society can handle the lesser task of protecting its medium-term survival and prosperity against the self-interest of those who just want to get rich quick.

Footnote (added): A friend suggested that I name specifically the well-known reasons why foreign plants set up by American capitalists could undercut their American counterparts and put us Yanks out of work. They are, in rough order of importance: (1) much lower workers’ wages in poor countries, (2) more relaxed environmental and other regulatory requirements there, and (3) less stringent protection of labor.

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09 March 2016

Foreign Wars and Domestic Politics


[The following post is relevant to the Syrian peace talks due to begin next week. For comment on the Dems’ March 6 debate, click here.]

Introduction: major powers’ invulnerability
Vietnam: the paradigm
Iraq and Afghanistan
Russia and China
Conclusion: changing the paradigm

    All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.” — Abraham Lincoln, January 27, 1838

Introduction: major powers’ invulnerability

Abraham Lincoln was perhaps our greatest president. He spoke the headpiece quote a generation before his presidency and our nation’s most horrible war. That war was not World War II, but our war amongst ourselves and against slavery. Our Civil War cost us an estimated 700,000 dead—a number comparable to all the dead in all our wars with foreigners in our short history, from our War of Independence on.

Of course Lincoln was right then, nearly two centuries ago. He would be even more right now. We Yanks have the world’s most powerful, advanced and accurate nuclear deterrent. With our current President’s recent decision to modernize our nuclear arsenal and make its weapons even more accurate, plus yield-adjustable, the risk of any foreign power invading and occupying the United States is zero.

In fact we Yanks have not suffered a foreign invasion for over two centuries—since the War of 1812. The most horrible invasion and occupation in our national history—with the most atrocities on our own territory—was by ourselves against ourselves. It included Sherman’s march through Georgia, the Union’s occupation of the Confederacy, and the Confederacy’s concentration camp for Union prisoners at Andersonville, Georgia. In comparison, Pancho Villa’s fleeting raid into the American Southwest early in the last century was a mere pinprick.

So were Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Neither involved any immediate risk of invasion or occupation by a foreign power. Each was shocking and galvanizing precisely because of the temerity of foreigners daring to attack the world’s greatest power, even if only in “hit and run” raids.

The simple fact is that, for nearly two centuries, we Yanks have been invulnerable to the risk that most nations have rightly feared since the dawn of human civilization: invasion, occupation and genocide or enslavement by foreigners.

We are not alone. Today, in the twenty-first century, every major power is virtually immune against invasion and occupation. Can you imagine any foreign power trying to invade and occupy China, or to cut it up for colonial and commercial advantage as European powers did in the nineteenth century and Japan did in the twentieth? China now has the world’s largest standing army and a nuclear deterrent that probably matches all of Europe’s put together. No one is even going to feint against Russia, for fear of its recently modernized military and its world-destroying nuclear arsenal.

There are four reasons why no major power need fear invasion and occupation in the twenty-first century. The first and most important is the nuclear deterrent. It makes major wars among major powers fighting on their own territories unthinkable and indeed obsolete. The second is better social organization. As nation-states have become more cohesive in language, culture and government, the chances of dividing and conquering them as colonial powers once did China, or as the Brits once did a nascent and still-splintered India, have reached the vanishing point. China’s nearly completed effort to make Mandarin the “lingua franca” of its vast territory is just one salient example of this process.

The third reason why major powers are immune to invasion and occupation is better and more rational government in other major powers. Rational leaders tend to think that war is a losing enterprise for all concerned; they would rather deal and trade. It doesn’t much matter whether or not their governments are fully democratic. Xi and Putin are indeed authoritarian, but they are far, far better than the last century’s Hitler, Stalin, Mao or Tojo, let alone this new century’s Assad, Saddam, Kim or Mugabe.

The fourth and final reason why invasions and occupations of major powers are things of the past has to do with natural resources. Many big wars have been fought in whole or in part for them. But today we humans have a widely-respected marketplace rule for natural resources: anyone (or any power) with money can buy them. There is no need to go to war, for example, for oil and gas, when they’re available at non-discriminatory prices from numerous sources around the globe.

So how do we humans still make war? The answer is simple: minor powers still make war. Having virtually given up war on their own or each other’s territory as an instrument of policy, major powers support, inflame and sometimes even incite war on minor powers’ territory. And the quest for control of resources sometimes figures in those wars, as it does in almost every conflict in the Middle East.

Major powers feed minor powers’ wars with advanced weapons, money and often (as in the Cold War) ideology. Why do they do that? To seek an answer, we must resort to the single most insightful comment ever made about war, namely, Von Clausewitz’: “war is politics by other means.”

Major powers feed foreign wars among minor powers because doing so satisfies their domestic political needs, or at least those needs as perceived by their leaders. The perceived “benefits” of foreign wars appear internally, while all the usual horrible consequences of war affect only the minor foreign powers, their people, and their neighbors. It is a classic case of importing perceived benefits and exporting real damage and pain.

Even when wars among minor powers export numberless refugees, major powers can continue to fuel the death machine. An example is today’s war in Syria. Its hapless refugees are overwhelming not only its neighbors, but innocent Europe as well.

Needless to say, the EU is not primarily responsible for the mayhem. The US and Russia are. Dubya’s unnecessary invasion and occupation of Iraq started the whole chain of catastrophes, and Putin’s intransigent military support for Assad now keeps it going.

This essay has a simple thesis: major-power domestic politics is a key motivator for minor-power wars, especially the most vicious and longest-lasting ones. Only when we understand that basic point can we humans begin to wind down the remains of our human war machine as we have already wound down major wars among major powers. Let’s look at some examples.

Vietnam: the paradigm

Before we point fingers at others, we Yanks should look closely at ourselves. Since the most horrible war in history, we Yanks have had two successes and three failures (omitting minor wars like those in Grenada and Bosnia). Our stalemate on the Korean Peninsula gave birth to the economic miracle of South Korea. Daddy Bush’s (and Colin Powell’s) success in Gulf I stabilized the Arabic world (for a brief instant) and saved Kuwaiti oil for international capitalism. But we Yanks lost utterly and abjectly in Vietnam. Our invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have produced few meaningful and positive results in over a decade of grinding, debilitating foreign conflict.

So it behooves us to examine how domestic politics influenced, if not controlled, our involvement in these three less-than-self-evidently meritorious military adventures. We begin with Vietnam. As it turns out, it’s a paradigm for the others.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson was a fundamentally good man. Born and raised in a poor community in South Texas, he had worked and struggled his way up to wealth and power, becoming president on JFK’s assassination. Deprecated and underestimated by JFK’s born-to-wealth Eastern elite, Johnson had a deep personal acquaintance with the trials of the poor and minorities. Unlike the Kennedy clan, he had grown up among them. He had a genuine, burning desire to help.

The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us Yanks about the evils of Jim Crow. Lawyer and later Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall worked the courts. But only Lyndon Johnson could get racist white Southern Democrats to vote to abolish Jim Crow.

Johnson was a legendary legislative arm-twister. He got racist pols to vote to abolish Jim Crow less than two years after Alabama Governor George Wallace had declared, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Johnson’s work with Congress was a tour de force comparable to President Lincoln’s pushing through the Civil War Amendments just before his own assassination. So was Johnson’s work on the anti-poverty programs that became known as the “Great Society.”

Had the French quietly departed Vietnam after their catastrophic defeat at Dien Bien Phu, Lyndon Johnson would have been one of our nation’s greatest presidents. But instead, the French sought our help, and JFK (then alive and Johnson’s boss) tentatively agreed. Johnson’s thoughtless acquiescence in and subsequent escalation of the War in Vietnam resulted in our greatest military loss so far. He made our history’s single greatest foreign-policy blunder.

Why did he do it? Johnson’s greatest achievements—and the ones dearest to his heart—were his Civil Rights Acts, which ended Jim Crow, and his anti-poverty programs. His words and memoirs all suggest that he wanted nothing to do with Vietnam and its own civil war. Yet he escalated that foreign war to over 50,000 American combat deaths. He crushed large parts of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia with saturation bombing, the defoliant Agent Orange (which still causes cancer deaths today) and land mines. Why?

I have written a whole essay on the Greek tragedy that Johnson’s presidency became. Suffice it to make three points here. First, the escalation derived from a gross misunderstanding of Vietnam and its history and culture. That Southeast Asian nation had been fighting for independence from its giant neighbor China for most of a millennium. It had been struggling for independence from Western colonialism since before World War II. Based on musings by pols, not experts, we Yanks misread the great Vietnamese patriot Ho Chi Minh as a lackey of international Communism and a “domino” eager to fall into the hands of Communist China or Soviet Russia. Nothing could have been further from the truth, as our few academic experts on Southeast Asia even then assured us.

The second point was in fact a cause of the first. We Yanks (or our leaders) didn’t care enough about Vietnam to learn its history or culture or find out what was really going on there. All we cared about was how it might affect us. In the context of the Cold War, we reacted with fear, even paranoia. Defense Secretary Robert S. MacNamara’s “domino theory” was the paranoid fantasy of a former car maker who had no business even opining on Southeast Asian history or affairs. It was about as thoughtful and reliable as Rumsfeld’s and Cheney’s later paranoid view that Saddam had nuclear weapons or their makings.

The final point was the real reason why Johnson—a Democrat not otherwise prone to war—made such a catastrophic blunder in Vietnam. It was domestic politics. Ever since Eisenhower (who had warned us Yanks of the evils of a “military-industrial complex” on his way out), the Republican Party had made domestic political hay by fostering fear of foreigners. With Richard Nixon in the lead, it had exaggerated admittedly serious foreign threats and sought to lay them at the feet of Democrats. The GOP even accused Democrats of “losing” China to Communism, as if we Yanks, preoccupied with turning swords into plowshares after World War II, could fix the fate of enormous China halfway around the globe.

Nixon had won his first congressional seat and virtually all of his subsequent offices by accusing his political opponents of being “soft on Communism.” Johnson knew that our nation was still divided, despite his landslide win over GOP extremist Goldwater. He feared that, if he “lost” Vietnam, the GOP would win the next election and end his antipoverty programs. So his reluctant and catastrophic support for escalating our involvement in Vietnam was in part a hostage to his domestic agenda. His own Texas machismo—a desire not to lose even a wrong-headed war—and the insane logic of war itself did the rest.

As it happened, the catastrophic human and political cost of his escalation ended Johnson’s presidency anyway. That is what made his personal history as our leader such a Greek tragedy.

We are still feeling the domestic consequences of his presidency today. Nixon’s vile “Southern strategy” still drives the racism and regional resentment that motivates the Tea Party and the GOP’s scorched-earth opposition to President Obama and everything he proposes. It may take yet another generation to set things right here at home.

Iraq and Afghanistan

Johnson and Vietnam set a dismal paradigm for needless involvement in foreign wars. First, a crisis occurs in some minor foreign power. Leaders don’t try very hard to understand what it means, let alone its history and context.

Second, they view the foreign crisis through the lens of domestic politics. That is, they consider what use their domestic political rivals might make of it, and what domestic political advantage they will have if it comes out the “right way.” They give little, if any, weight to what might look “right” or “wrong” to the minor foreign power itself, its people, its neighbors, or the world.

Finally, the leaders make a decision based on domestic political considerations, paying little attention to consequences abroad. The result, not surprisingly, is a foreign political disaster.

So it was with our Yankee invasion and occupation of Iraq in early 2003. As so many have observed, the hard part wasn’t the invasion: all but Saddam’s most elite and loyal troops hated him and wanted to surrender to anyone else. The hard part was what came later: the consequences and the aftermath of our invasion, which are still reverberating.

Just so in Afghanistan. Dubya invaded and occupied that nation to bring justice to bin Laden and his comrades hiding there. He failed. Later, President Obama did the job with a platoon of Navy Seals and two helicopters.

Today, well over a decade later, we have the following consequences to deal with: (1) civil wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan that are still raging, with our substantial participation, despite valiant efforts on our current President’s part to wind them down; (2) the two longest wars in our nation’s history; (3) an Iraq in which low-level distrust among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds has broken into open warfare; (4) an Afghanistan much of which the Taliban still rule, as they had done when we entered; (5) a broken, bleeding and devastated Syria; (6) an entire region inflamed by internecine fighting and the relentless march of millions of refugees; (7) a European refugee crisis not seen since Stalin’s deportation of millions or the end of World War II; (8) the foundation and rise of IS; and (9) a renewed superpower struggle with Russia, which soon might break into open warfare or bring Turkey into armed conflict with Russia or the West.

Quite a list of accomplishments for Dubya! However dimly, even the GOP electorate knows that this chain of disasters is nothing to praise or excuse. It took some time for all the consequences to emerge, but our invading Iraq has produced a whole series of catastrophes. That fact alone, and not his alleged “low energy,” is why no exclamation point could save Jeb from oblivion once he had blessed his brother’s unnecessary war.

But it gets worse. There’s also Hillary Clinton. No one can tell today whether she could have stopped the disastrous rush to war in Iraq after 9/11. But she didn’t even try. She was, after all, the de facto leader of the Democratic Party—the party that had actually won the popular vote in 2000. (Al Gore was laying low and licking his wounds from our Supreme Court’s theft of his presidency.)

Yet Hillary voted for war and against the delaying Levin Amendment. She did so without even reading the National Intelligence Estimate, which only Senators could read, and which contained vehement dissents from within our own intelligence services as to the causes and advisability of war.

Her reasons for not even reading this crucial report were and are self-evident. All had to do with domestic politics and nothing to do with Iraq, Iran, the Middle East or Al Qaeda.

Quite simply, Hillary wanted—and still wants!—to be our first female president. She knew that the GOP was skilled at demagoguing foreign threats, from the Soviet Union through Iran to the then-new menace of Al Qaeda. She knew that the GOP would tar her, a woman, as “weak” if she refused to support even the most extreme and unnecessary measures pushed by one of the most incompetent presidents in our history and his Torquemada Cheney. So she didn’t dissent. She didn’t offer alternatives. She didn’t even question. Her reason was domestic politics, and nothing more.

If and when she becomes president, Hillary may no longer feel such pressure to be stupidly “strong.” She will still have to run for re-election, but she will have four years to develop a foreign/military policy uniquely her own.

Unfortunately, no one today has the faintest idea what that policy will be. Hillary herself gives no steady indication. Virtually all of Hillary’s now-past foreign-policy decisions—except for her decision as Secretary of State to save the Benghazi rebels from massacre and get rid of Qaddafi—have been motivated by domestic politics alone.

Hillary is not unique in this regard. To the extent that they exist at all (except as corollaries of vapid conservative dogma), the GOP’s economic policies have been self-evident catastrophic failures. Our following them, even reluctantly, has sold our basic industries to China, Mexico and Vietnam, and has left us with a “service economy,” selling each other haircuts, massages, health care, software and Web services, financial speculation and swindles, and “public relations,” i.e., professional lies.

Having no coherent economic policy that anyone who understands cause and effect can credit, the GOP has tried to win domestic elections by fomenting fear and hate. Donald Trump is just the most extreme example of this phenomenon. In the past five years alone, he and the GOP have focused hate on African-Americans (including the President!), Mexicans, the poor, Muslims, Islamic extremists, terrorists, Russia and China.

Does this means that, in the unlikely event that a Republican becomes president next year, we will have yet another unnecessary war?

Probably not. Republicans’ bark is considerably worse than their bite. They use warmongering to win domestic elections, without having thought much about foreign policy or strategy at all. When and if they win, they improvise, without much warning of what they would do in a crisis. The problem is not so much real warmongering as “winging it”—saying whatever they think they need to say to win elections and worrying about real policy and consequences later.

This “strategy,” if you can call it that, arises from the fact that the GOP cares only about one thing: making its rich backers richer. It wants what they want: lower taxes, less regulation, and more power for the rich. Like Mao in his day, our GOP has an ideological playbook full of simplistic dogma and vapid nationalism. It also has a plan to win elections by fomenting fear and hate, including hatred and jealousy of rising foreign powers.

But our GOP has had little practice in governing at the presidential level since Daddy Bush left office in 2001. The reign of Dubya the Incompetent and his Torquemada Cheney was hardly a model of wise leadership, whether at home or abroad. And if dark powers should put Donald Trump in the White House, no one would know what he would do, probably not even he. In his quest to get elected, he has promised so many inconsistent and contradictory things, including some obvious fantasies, that his action in a crisis would be anybody’s guess.

Only Bernie has a clear and clearly expressed plan for foreign and military policy. Just like our very first president, George Washington, he wants to avoid foreign entanglements and foreign wars. He wants to maintain and respect international coalitions, act in concert with other nations, and avoid military action—especially unilateral action—to the extent possible. He wants to stop trying to impose American culture and values on foreigners by force.

Isn’t that what any rational leader of a major power ought to want? It’s undoubtedly what our current President does want, and indeed is doing. But he can’t actually say so because our right wing would tar him as weak and feckless even more than it’s already doing.

Hillary won’t announce or summarize a coherent philosophy for much the same reason. As a female she has good reason to fear even more demagoguery about “strength” in foreign affairs. And the GOP candidates, in their pathetic attempts to project “strength” by “promising” carpet bombing and other absurd and counterproductive military action, are mostly lying. Their party and their rank and file love to bash the President as weak, but there is a strong pacifist streak among their rank and file, especially the Tea Party. Poll after poll shows how tired all us Yanks are of endless, needless wars.

In one of the many ironies of this crazy campaign season, Bernie Sanders, the so-called “radical socialist,” actually has the most conservative and sensible foreign policy, emulating George Washington’s. Most of the other candidates in fact would probably follow a similar policy in office, but they just won’t say so. They’re afraid of noxious domestic demagoguery holding them responsible for whatever terrible things might happen abroad before or during their tenure in office. They’re afraid of such absurd attacks as Nixon’s on his opponents in the fifties and sixties, accusing them of “losing China” to Communism. Apparently American voters are not smart enough to figure out that it was the Chinese people, not us omniscient and omnipotent Yanks, who “lost” China to so-called “Communism,” which anyway now resembles authoritarian state capitalism far more than the now-vanished Soviet brand.

So if anyone other than Bernie wins, it will be impossible even for us Yanks to predict her or his foreign and military policy, let alone in a crisis, until it unfolds. The simple fact is that no Yankee now running for our presidency (including Bernie) really cares much about foreign policy, except as it might affect domestic policy, our economy, our national renewal, or the ability to win elections. We Yanks are a self-regarding people with serious problems of our own.

While paradoxical and troubling, this phenomenon is not all bad. After three major, unnecessary wars in four decades (in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan), the American people and their leaders are beginning to question whether the benefits of foreign military adventures are worth the costs and sacrifices, or exceed the benefits of alternatives. This means that foreigners—even rivals like Russia and China—can influence American foreign policy if they avoid confrontation and antagonism and emphasize reason, subtlety, finesse and diplomacy. (Even Donald Trump, for all his braggadocio and bluster, constantly professes a desire to make deals.)

The trick is to do it all in secret, as the President is doing now. Diplomats must discuss rational policies and plans only in whispers, so as not to disturb the Yankee delusion—firmly fixed in the mind of many voters—that “USA! USA! USA!,” with its awesome power, can and must control whatever happens anywhere in the world. That delusion of a young and callow nation is slowly waning, but it still has legs and some time to run.

Russia and China

So far, I have emphasized our own Yankee foreign-policy blunders. But we are not alone. Russia has been, and China appears to be, doing much the same thing. Indeed, Putin and Xi individually might credibly claim to have learned bad lessons from us.

Putin and Russia, of course, are the worst offenders. For example, Russia’s FSB security service reportedly engineered so-called “terrorist attacks” in Moscow, leading to a second war in Chechnya, to insure the election of Putin, then utterly unknown, as Russia’s supreme leader.

Syria is more complicated, but not much. The Russians have a genuine and justified interest in fighting Sunni terrorism. After all, the terrorist massacres at Beslan and the Nord-Ost Threater in Moscow were real. But the utter annihilation of Syria, with Russia’s help, has put terrorism on steroids and borne the monster of IS, surely no benefits to Russia or Russians.

Russians also have genuine disagreements with us Yanks on fundamental political philosophy. Except for brief moments, they have never known real democracy in their thousand-year history. Virtually all their people gained freedom from serfdom at about the same time as the one-eighth of us who were slaves gained freedom here. Their 1917 October Revolution was perhaps the world’s bloodiest, with only the French Revolution to rival it. So it’s not surprising that Russians fear the noise and tumult of political discord, including real democracy, and tend to follow strongmen such as Stalin and Putin.

But in spite of these genuine concerns and cultural history, Russia’s policy in Syria is not working. It has destroyed the nation. It has fomented vast regional conflict that threatens not just Russians’ interest in the region, but potential military conflict with the Turks and us. It has increased the number of Sunni terrorists, their reach, and the effectiveness of their propaganda by orders of magnitude. It has spawned IS. And, last but not least, by inundating the EU with refugees, it has permanently injured Russia’s relationship with the EU and its historic rapprochement with Germany.

So it’s hard to see any good, substantive reasons for Putin to double down on his failed policy in Syria. The only motivators that make sense are the reluctance we all feel to admit our own mistakes and the domestic political hay that Putin makes by seeming “strong” at home against “provocations” from the West. In other words, the only credible reason for doubling down in Syria is that doing so helps Putin in domestic politics.

Putin hasn’t suffered any recent brain damage that we know of. He’s still a smart man. So he likely knows that Assad lacks the skill, political support and money to rebuild Syria. That would be true even if Assad controlled all of Syria, which he probably never will—at least not at a cost acceptable to Russia and Iran and the international community. So Putin may be prepared to replace Assad and work with the international community once, in his view, Russian air power and what’s left of Assad’s army has “stabilized” the devastated nation. Assad could be the “bad guy”—the hated face of war and destruction—to be replaced by a kinder, gentler Russian puppet during the reconstruction phase.

The alternatives seem unviable. Waiting for Assad to retake the whole of Syria with Russian air power would make the same mistake that Dubya and Rumsfeld made in Iraq. Who would pay the price for the difficult conquest? Who would maintain the stability and keep the peace afterward? IS? the Kurds? Turkey? A Russia now reeling from low oil prices?

Despite my speculation in an earlier essay, Putin has shown no eagerness to commit Russian ground troops to the same sort of quagmire from which we Yanks are extricating ourselves in Iraq. A second alternative—playing Syria for its domestic effect in Russian politics, as Syria continues to disintegrate—also seems unwise. Even with Putin’s complete control of Russian TV, the stink of such a gross failure will eventually find its way to the Russian people’s noses.

So we can all hope that, however awkward, halting and suspect it may be, the present shaky cease fire might be the start of something real. At least it would seem rationally to advance Russia’s real interests more than any probable alternative.

As for China, its foreign push may just be beginning. For most of its long history, China has focused primarily on its own borders and its immediate neighbors—what Russians call their “near abroad.” Since its foundation in 1949, the People’s Republic of China has fought (directly or by proxy) in only two significant wars. It or its soldiers fought in Vietnam to insure a friendly government in a traditionally hostile neighbor, and in Korea to create a buffer state, which has since morphed into Asia’s biggest troublemaker.

Only today is China pushing much beyond its borders, with its threats in and militarization of the South China Sea. And even there it’s not going far afield, at least according to its own self-focused history.

But is it just a coincidence that this semi-military push is occurring at a critical and dangerous time in China’s recent economic history? Today China is attempting a difficult transition from an exporting powerhouse (now feeling dangerous pushback from its customers) to a modern consumer society.

China certainly has the people for it, as well as the traditional business- and family-oriented culture. In mere decades, it could be the world’s leading consumer society and indisputably our species’ most prosperous nation.

But at the moment the transition is not going well. Xi’s fight against corruption is bogging down and, at the same time, dampening the Chinese penchant for luxury that helps drive high-end consumer businesses. The push to convert sleepy and corrupt state-owned enterprises to efficient private businesses is faltering. And the over-regulated stock and currency markets are gumming up the works, making Chinese lose money and foreigners lose respect for China, its government, and its businesses.

Might not a little saber rattling serve the obvious purposes of distracting Chinese from their hardship and softening foreigners’ criticism of China’s economy? Yet wouldn’t it be easier, less costly and far less dangerous for still-rich China to buy the resources it seeks in the South China Sea than to take them by force or threats, thereby stirring up a hornet’s nest of opposition, military alliances and militarization in its “near abroad”?

Conclusion: changing the paradigm

In our new century, in which major powers are invulnerable and none seeks global conquest, the only proper purpose of war is defense. And because every major power is practically invulnerable, there’s no crying need for any to make war at all.

So why do wars still arise, let alone with the advanced, high-tech weapons that only major powers can make? There can be only two plausible answers. First, major-power leaders see foreign wars as a way of distracting their own people from domestic problems, and they see the imported costs as small. This sort of ploy is nothing new; it was old when Caesar practiced it. Second, because major-power leaders don’t know or study circumstances abroad anywhere near as thoroughly as they would similar events in their own country, they often misread the costs, the risks of getting bogged down, and the consequences of their involvement or escalation in foreign conflicts. (Modern China seems to be the smartest major power here, having become involved in only two major conflicts since its founding, both quite close to its own borders.)

So it was with President Johnson and Vietnam. If only he could have seen the disastrous chain of causation that his escalation would set in motion, he would have wound down what was at first “JFK’s” war as soon as he had fully grasped the reins of power.

Projecting major power abroad for reasons like these sets a dangerous paradigm for our new and still-dangerous century. It’s no excuse that the resulting wars and upheavals are in or among minor powers. For they can have consequences that no one can foresee. Today’s catastrophe in Syria has caused the European refugee crisis, led to the rise of IS, and now threatens war between Russia and Turkey or Russia and the West.

It’s also no excuse to say that these wars and their consequences are not (yet!) nuclear. Just look at Syria today. It could hardly be more devastated had it been nuked. The only difference is that, without fallout and radiation, more of Syria’s people can take their families and flee, and it will be easier to rebuild once the war ends. But what has happened to Syria and its people in the last five years will live in infamy as long as our species survives.

So the major powers must adjust their thinking and advance their education—their social evolution, if you will. It’s not enough that nuclear deterrents have kept them from fighting each other on their own territory since 1945. They now must cooperate to wind down proxy wars that, from major powers’ perspective, are halfhearted and even unimportant, but from a minor-power and regional perspective can be catastrophic.

The necessary expedients are perhaps counterintuitive. They cut against the grain of our species’ biological evolution, which “teaches” that the answer to any social problem is domination by the “good guys.” Accordingly, they may contravene longstanding practice. But conceptually they are quite simple. There are only four main points.

First, the major powers should keep not just nukes, but all modern high-tech weapons, out of minor-powers’ hands. If people are going to fight for atavistic, religious or other senseless reasons, or due to incomprehensible but longstanding regional rivalries, let them do so with stones and knives, rather than cluster bombs, massive aerial destructive campaigns (as in Syria today), or nerve gas.

At least the international community seems to agree the nerve gas is a step too far. Maybe now it can begin to wind down the rest of the near-universal practice of using minor powers as grisly testing grounds for other modern means of overkill.

Second, major powers should refrain from trying to impose their own cultures on minor powers. We Yanks did that in trying to meld Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds into a working modern democracy in Iraq. So far our effort has been a self-evident failure. That’s not surprising; more than two centuries after the “Great Compromise” in our Constitution, we still can’t get Texas and Mississippi to play well with California and New York.

A correlative error is thinking that solutions that apply in one’s own culture are valid in others. Russia has made that mistake in trying to impose a brutal strongman on a Syria that seemed ready for something new.

Strongmen may work inside Russia. At least they may be better than the alternatives. But now most of Syria’s population has voted against that Russian “solution” with their feet. Lyndon Johnson famously made a like error in believing that Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese would respond to bullying the same way that racist white Southerners had. His was an erroneous extrapolation from domestic to foreign circumstances, with catastrophic results.

Third, major powers should spend at least one-tenth as much money on diplomacy in minor powers as they do on arms and military training. They should study foreign nations assiduously before they even think of intervening. Then they should work hard to involve local powers and ethnic groups (and, where necessary, separate them) in resolving their own problems non-violently.

Diplomacy is hard, frustrating and exhausting work. Ask John Kerry. But it appears to have had some preliminary results in Iran. At least it avoided yet another major-power war by proxy, with attendant human suffering and unintended consequences. Even if ultimately necessary, such a war this year or next would have been grossly premature, at least with the nuclear deal now in place and almost fully implemented.

Diplomacy is our species’ future, if we have one. Every major power should ramp it up in proportion to its promise and benefits.

Finally, major powers should learn before they leap. They should study minor powers and their conflicts much as they might study their own domestic issues of similar importance. They should do so before making any irrevocable decisions, let alone a decision to start or escalate a foreign war.

World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the War in Vietnam were the last century’s dismal monuments to the failure of human social evolution. The Cold War was also; it almost extinguished our species. Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria are this century’s.

At least these major-power blunders are, on average, getting smaller as time goes on. But the Middle East’s dismal tale is still untold. The current mess in Syria and its neighbors could yet cause something like World War I in the Middle East, or even the nuclear Armageddon between Russia and the West that we thought we had avoided in 1962.

We humans must do better than that. The place to begin is for major powers to refrain from thinking of places like Vietnam, Iraq or Syria as extensions of their own domestic policy, or foreign outposts of their own domestic cultures. If major powers’ leaders can’t study minor powers and deal with them on their own merits, cultures and histories, better for them to avoid any direct involvement at all.

The old Hippocratic Oath—“Do no harm”—should be the prime directive for major powers in the twenty-first century and beyond. Nothing less is the moral and practical duty of powers that, after centuries of their own terrible conflicts, are now themselves invulnerable.

Footnote. The decision to take military action in Libya was ultimately the President’s. But rumor has it that Hillary pushed the President hard and convinced him. In my view, her decision was a conservative one and quintessentially female, i.e., life-preserving. She pushed to preserve the lives and opposition of the Benghazi rebels, whom Qaddafi’s forces had surrounded and were about to wipe out. Her successful influence saved lives, preserved political balance, and prevented a partial genocide, at the cost of continued conflict, which still rages. I believe that future history will vindicate her: genocide and ethnic cleansing are not things that any major power should support, whether by action or inaction.

So notwithstanding the House witch-hunt against her, Hillary did the right thing in Libya, and under tremendous time pressure. Unfortunately, that’s the only act of hers from which we can judge her probable approach to foreign policy, untainted by domestic politics.

Endnote on invulnerability. I don’t mean to minimize the political impact of either Pearl Harbor or 9/11. Each had an enormous impact. Pear Harbor got us decisively into World War II after years of political dithering, during which some of us even flirted with supporting the Nazis. The attacks of 9/11 motivated Dubya to invade and occupy two foreign countries, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of the two, Pearl Harbor was by far the more fearsome event. At the time, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were the world’s two pre-eminent military powers. In comparison, we Yanks were isolationist and disarmed. Yet our two neighboring oceans and the pace of life then gave us plenty of time to arm ourselves and respond. And virtually the entire world (except for Italy and Serbia) was on our side.

Without belittling the legitimate fear and terrible sacrifices of our Greatest Generation, today we can say that the result in World War II was foreordained. The only thing that could have changed the result was the Nazis developing nuclear weapons first. That didn’t happen, and our mainland was never subject to serious attack, let alone realistic threat of invasion and occupation.

In comparison, 9/11 was a deep pinprick. It killed many people and hurt our pride and our sense of invulnerability. But there was never any threat, let alone any real possibility, of a terrorist or Islamist group invading or occupying our nation.

So Lincoln’s assertion of national invulnerability, quoted in the headpiece, has been the absolute truth for us Yanks for nearly two centuries. Russia and China attained their own invulnerability only more recently, after World War II and their respective acquisitions of nuclear weapons. But now they, too, are equally secure under their nuclear umbrellas and behind their huge, modernized armies. The best thing that could happen to all three great powers’ modernized armies is that they be used for constructive purposes, not unnecessary conflict.

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07 March 2016

The Dems’ March 6 Debate


[For a recent post on how the GOP establishment created the Trump monster, click here.]

Like the most recent GOP debate—in which the candidates acted like randy teenagers—the Dems’ debate wasn’t much worth watching. It had plenty of substance and plenty of discussion. But it just didn’t teach me much new.

Some of the questions were new and well put—especially ones by African-Americans about institutional racism. But even they didn’t tell me much that I didn’t already know. Both Bernie and Hillary have imagination and empathy, and both are just as horrified by the recently-revealed depths of our nation’s institutional racism as I am.

Nevertheless, the Dems’ last debate did do something useful. If only by repetition and confirmation, it crystallized differences in the candidates’ approaches to issues, modes of thought, and character.

For the nth time, Hillary proved herself a list-maker. She doesn’t focus; she makes lists.

Notwithstanding her graduation from Yale Law School—our nation’s most exclusive—she apparently never learned what most law schools teach. They teach students to “go for the jugular,” i.e., to hit the main, “killer” point first and often in argument.

Hillary doesn’t do that. She’ll give you a list of five or more things to do, but she doesn’t prioritize them. She’ll say she has a “comprehensive plan” without ever revealing its gist.

So you come away from listening to her with two unresolved hypotheses. Does she value flexibility above all? Does she absolutely refuse to commit herself to anything? Or does she simply lack the intelligence to distinguish the vital from the mundane?

Not surprisingly, Hillary accuses Bernie of being a one-trick pony. He always, she says, comes back to our extreme economic inequality.

But it’s not really that simple, is it? If it were simply a matter of some people being obscenely rich, while many others are poor, maybe we wouldn’t be in such bad shape. England was like that in Dickens’ time, and England got through it.

But, as Bernie says, that’s not the whole problem. The problem is that the obscenely rich are in full control, and their control is hardening into a kind of iron oligarchy. That oligarchy is displacing our democracy.

The TPP’s negotiators, for example, were representatives of multinational corporations only, and they negotiated in secret. No one from labor or consumers sat in. How else could the agreement have contained the noxious “pay for rules” provision?

Not only that. Our new Yankee oligarchs have none of the sense of “noblesse oblige” of England’s upper class in Dickens’ day.

Instead, they have a sense of entitlement and self-righteousness that can make them (mostly unintentionally) cruel and brutal. Didn’t their moving US production abroad, although killing workers’ wages, give workers cheap Chinese products to buy at Walmart? Didn’t they “increase shareholder value”? Didn’t Ayn Rand and Ronald Reagan teach us that selfishness is the human drive that makes us all better off?

No, the “upper class” in Dickens’ time was not at all like ours. They built orphanages and poor houses for the “lower classes.” Our elite just want the homeless out of town, or warehoused in jails. And our elite have a theory—an ideology—that doesn’t just make their greed permissible; it glorifies it.

Dickens’ elite had something quite different. They had Christianity. Recently Pope Francis had to remind us what it was.

So when Bernie harps on economic inequality, it’s not just one thing. It’s many. But they all stem from that single unfortunate fact.

The rich can control politics (we think so now; we hope we are wrong) because they have all the money and our Supreme Court lets them use it to delude and control us. They don’t care about the poor, workers’ comfort or health care, foreign wars (that don’t affect their businesses), racism so bad that it kills people, or water contaminated with lead. All they care about is their profits, their business empires, and “shareholder value.”

So Bernie’s not really such a one-trick pony after all. He understands that most, if not all, of the evils of our society come from our gross economic inequality, its practical consequences, and the ideology that feeds it. It’s the prime cause; all else is effect.

Unfortunately, Bernie missed a big chance to explain all this. Toward the end of the debate, an earnestly spiritual lady asked both candidates about God, and Bernie about his Jewish heritage.

To his credit, Bernie was forthright about his Judaism. But he said something that I, as a Jew myself, always find puzzling. He told the story of family members who perished in the Holocaust. Then he expressed his Jewish pride. Why should persecution make you proud? Survival maybe. But persecution?

Every Jew has a much better reason for being proud. It’s a basic philosophy that goes by the Hebrew name of tikkun olam, which means “repair the world.” Every Jew has the goal and obligation of making the world a better place—whether as doctor, lawyer, pol, truck driver or haberdasher.

Unlike the ancient Mayans, we Jews do not believe that the world goes in cycles and self-destructs every few millennia. We believe in progress and the obligation of every human being to promote it. Maybe that’s why so many Jews are progressives. (According to polls, about 70% of us vote Democratic.)

When the engine of your car has fallen out of its moorings, and the still-whirling fan blade is digging a deep hole in the ground toward China, there may be other things wrong, too. But making a list of those other things won’t help you get the car back on the road. You have to fix the main problem. A good mechanic should do that.

Motivated by selfishness, profit and “shareholder value,” our modern elite have become that wayward engine. They have shipped our industries, our production, and our jobs overseas. Our innovation, education, creativity, contact with customers and reality-focused common sense will follow. Even in the medium term, none of this will be good for our economy, our military power, or our self-respect as a people.

If our next president is to “repair the world,” starting with America, she or he must understand this. The job is to stop the engine digging deeper and get it back where it belongs. Worrying about the brakes, the transmission, or the dented fenders won’t help much.

That’s why Bernie, who understands priority and cause and effect, should be our next president. And that’s why Hillary’s list making and “comprehensive plans” simply won’t cut it.

But don’t worry. If Hillary wins the nomination, she will have my support. At least she recognizes what the problems are, if not their causes or how to fix them.

In contrast, the Republican candidates believe that, if we just keep following their ideological Little Red Book, if we keep making the rich richer and keep letting that engine dig itself in deeper, all will be well. If you believe that, you probably think that securitizing liar’s loans and invading Iraq were good ideas, too.

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