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

24 June 2018

Waging War With No Plan

[For a brief note on how corporate rule is encroaching on American cities, click here. For our desperate need for voters to focus on good character, click here. For an analysis of facts and Kim’s myth about North Korea, click here. For a second post on training new voters, click here. For links to popular recent posts, click here.]

Do you like the taste of defeat? Did you enjoy our ignominious exit from Vietnam, ending with this iconic image? Are those of you from our American South nostalgic for General Sherman’s march through Georgia?

If so, you are in for a treat. Coming soon to a venue near you will be the most monumental defeat in American history. In economic impact and long-term effect, it will easily eclipse Vietnam and Sherman’s march through Georgia. It will change the status of our nation and the future history of the world. It will end with China on top and us a has-been nation.

Unless we change course or strategy radically, that’s how the trade war that our president just started will end.

How do I know? Our Commander-in-Chief, age 72, has no strategy and no battle plan. Our General Wilbur Ross, aka Commerce Secretary, is eighty years old. In a recent conference, he didn’t have the faintest idea what was going on in the field of battle. He had no data, no answers, only the type of vague excuses that you would expect of a bad prepubescent student asked a question for adults.

Think about that: a “war” with no plan, no strategy, not even battle tactics. Think more: a “war” run by senile men whose chief claim to fame is their own personal riches and luxurious lifestyle, and whose top games are “show” and blame. Think a third time: a “war” in the computer age with no plan and no data.

The Chinese have a plan. In fact, they have three. They have even given them names and made them public. Their “Belt and Road” initiative is a long-term plan to focus trade and development on their neighbors in Asia, who collectively have five times our population and need everything. China is already beginning implementation.

As this plan takes shape, China won’t need us as an export market. But we will need China as a market because the Chinese are about one-quarter of the entire human race. That’s a big market, and as China pulls ahead it will become a global trend setter. So much for Trump’s usual breezy, thoughtless pronunciamento, this time that trade wars are “easy to win.”

China’s second plan is called “Made in China 2025.” By that year China plans to be a leader in research and manufacturing at the cutting edge of technology. That plan “aims to shift China’s economy into higher value-added manufacturing sectors, such as robotics, aerospace and energy-saving vehicles[.]” It also targets electric cars, quantum computing and artificial intelligence. In other words, China’s plan is to dominate the high-tech fields that will create the jobs of the future.

If China succeeds, it likely will do so with the aid of American ideas and technology. Some of them will have been stolen by cyber theft or routine espionage. Some will have been coerced from Americans as a condition of market access. (For recent evidence of China’s intellectual-property theft and copying and their relationship to its “Made in China 2025” policy, see this article, which discusses police raids, criminal charges and civil suits stemming from an alleged theft of microchip memory technology in Taiwan.)

Apparently the Trump Administration has not curtailed previous efforts to document and prosecute this sort of theft. But if Trump and his team have a plan to reduce, let alone stop, the theft—or coerced “voluntary” transfers of American technology—they have not made it public.

The problem is of such scope and scale as perhaps to require active cooperation at the highest levels of China’s government. That would require some sort of deal with China, not a trade war. And either a deal or a trade war requires a plan. There is none.

China’s third plan is really a battle tactic. It’s focusing its retaliatory tariffs on agricultural products and whiskey (a product of Mitch McConnell’s state). The purpose is to do maximum damage to the American pols (and their constituencies!) who got us into this unnecessary, random war.

By raising their prices in China, this third plan will reduce demand in China for American soybeans and other American farm products. Chinese buyers are already looking for alternative suppliers in the Southern Hemisphere. As global demand for American farm products drops, prices for them will, too, directly reducing the income of American farmers in Trump-friendly Midwestern states. How’s that for micro-targeted retaliation?

In contrast, we in America have no plan at all. All we have is a few lonely figures: China’s $509 billion imports to America in 2017, and a desire to whittle that number down, beginning with tariffs already imposed on $50 billion of Chinese goods and more ($200 billion) to come if China doesn’t immediately surrender. How likely is that surrender?

These are not plans. They are goals. They are like saying, in a real war, “the enemy has twenty million people. If we kill off three million of them, the enemy will surrender.”

That was exactly how we thought and what we did in Vietnam. Johnson and Nixon kept thinking, in effect, “We’ll bomb them into submission.” Eventually (and to our eternal shame), we killed an estimated 3.5 million people in Southeast Asia. But we lost the war and left with our tail between our legs.

To win, you need a plan and a strategy, and they’ve got to make sense. At least they’ve got to make more sense than one child bragging to another, “My tariffs or nuclear button is bigger than yours!”

As Colin Powell proved in running our shortest and most successful modern war (Gulf I), you’ve also got to have an “exit strategy:” a plan for how you get out of the war and what to do afterward. If Trump and his team have an exit strategy, I haven’t heard of it. Hoping and predicting that a formidable and resourceful foe will surrender is not a strategy. It’s wishful thinking.

The purpose of tariffs, supposedly, is to bring good manufacturing jobs back into the United States. How are they supposed to do that?

Tariffs raise the prices of foreign products to American businesses and consumers. But raising domestic prices of anything doesn’t create jobs. According to the universal law of supply and demand, raising prices lowers sales.

The only way tariffs can create jobs here is with the help of American investors. If investors see an opportunity created by the tariffs and the resulting higher domestic prices for certain imports, and if the investors respond to that opportunity by investing in new American factories or reopening old ones, then (and only then) might there be new, good jobs for Americans. Those jobs will remain only as long as the tariffs stay in place and our citizens can make things cheaper than the tariff-augmented prices of comparable foreign wares.

And one other thing. However high, our tariffs affect only our own market. For the other 95% of humanity, they have no effect. The playing field there is level, except for whatever retaliatory and other tariffs foreign countries choose to impose. So if successive rounds of retaliatory tariffs reach their logical conclusion, the result will not be an America globally dominant again, but an America economically isolated. How’d that strategy work out for Russia?

Even if isolating our country economically is a proper goal, what’s next? What’s the first step in a battle plan to win a tariff war whose primary goal is to bring back American jobs? It’s making sure that American investors are ready, willing and able to invest in factories to make the stuff on which we impose tariffs. Doesn’t that require some preparation, a plan, and maybe some data collection?

Has anyone in Trump’s government actually done any of that? To my knowledge, there have been no surveys of investors, no conferences of industrialists or financiers. Not even pep talks. There have been no attempts to generate interest among our plutocrats, whose pockets are bursting with cash from the Trump Tax Scam. Nothing.

Apparently, the Trump administration has based its huge tariffs on steel and aluminum entirely on a “Hail, Mary” approach: “If you tax it, they will come.”

Not only that. The Trump administration apparently hasn’t even tested which sectors of the US economy might be amenable to greater domestic investment in products now imported. As far as you can tell from press reports, Trump put high tariffs on steel and aluminum because they are “strategic.”

Yes, steel goes into a lot of things, from buildings to cars to railroads to washing machines. Yes, aluminum is a key metal for aircraft and more-efficient cars and trucks. But no one is going to create new jobs making steel or aluminum in America without voluntary private investment. And Trump and his team haven’t even begun to assess any willingness to make that investment here at home, let alone in which sectors and specific industries. How’s that for a plan?

There is a way to bring jobs back home, and it might have avoided this unnecessary, random trade war. It’s rebuilding our disgracefully outmoded and dilapidated national infrastructure. Our own American Society of Civil Engineers says we need to invest $2.0 trillion (with a “t”) in infrastructure.

The $1.5 trillion we just wasted on Trump’s Tax Scam would have made a good start on that project. And it would have created good jobs here at home. You can’t “outsource” building a bridge, highway, airport or cell phone or Internet backbone here at home.

If we had spent that money on our own infrastructure, instead of on tax giveaways that the rich and corporations didn’t expect, didn’t need, and don’t deserve, there would be plenty of money to invest in building here at home. Then our tariffs might have “bite:” they might have motivated private investment in our own infrastructure. But now, in the absence of so much as a survey of investment interest among our plutocrats, the tariffs are like throwing drunken roundhouse punches, at random, at a trained boxer.

How well-trained and disciplined is China? How formidable a trade foe? Well, China has four times our population. Several hundred million of its people, maybe twice our entire population, just emerged from extreme poverty in the last generation, primarily due to China’s trade policy. As a result, they are willing to work harder and under worse conditions than most American workers. To add to that, China’s people are far more unified under China’s authoritarian government than we are under our disputatious, bigotry ridden, oligarchy-tending “democracy.” Finally, there’s that huge “Belt and Road” market for Chinese manufactures, with five times our population.

So who’s going to “win” this trade war? Probably no one decisively. No one ever “wins” a war. The “winner” only loses less.

We Americans have a disastrously unrealistic view of war because we were the only participant in World War II to end up with our territory, economy and industries largely intact. But this trade war will not (directly) kill people or reduce buildings to rubble. It will just slowly and steadily shift productive power and economic might from America to China (and maybe also to Europe). It will shift wealth from the Americas to elsewhere. The “New World” will become a shadow of the oldest world, in Asia.

China is a formidable foe, with a huge population raised on hardship. It’s a mega-Sparta. We are a luxury-ridden, gossip-obsessed, politically splintered society, with one-fourth of China’s population. We have no plan, and China has three.

So who’s going to “win” this unnecessary and plan-less economic war that Trump has started? Go figure. Just remember you read it first on this blog.

Endnote: A Possible Plan for Solar-Panel Tariffs. In a recent essay, I expressed cautious optimism for the effect of Trump’s first real (as distinguished from threatened) tariffs, on solar panels. In four ways, those tariffs differ from more general tariffs on cars and basic commodities like steel or aluminum.

First and most important, solar panels have only one use: in solar arrays. Second, in that application the tariffs raise the cost or price of the finished product (working solar arrays) by only a fraction. The net effect of stepped-down tariffs beginning at 30% on the panels alone is a 7.5% initial increase in the price of finished solar arrays. The initial effect on the price of solar-array energy is less than 10%—an amount that does not reduce solar energy’s bigger price advantage over conventional electricity. So the tariffs, which step down automatically after the first year, will have little effect on the cost incentives for installing and using solar arrays, the final product.

The third point of difference relates to the technology. Solar photovoltaic energy is a nascent technology still climbing a steep learning curve. The Chinese have a big cost advantage in conventional silicon solar panels, perhaps due to government subsidies and benefits that violate the WTO’s trade rules. But there are nascent technologies on the horizon—including one that promises light and flexible, fabric-like photovoltaic receptors—that could give American industry a decisive advantage in cost or performance.

Finally, the American solar industry is not a mature industry like steel, aluminum, cars or soybeans. It’s a sector full of visionary risk-takers like Elon Musk. So the chance that investors will seize any tariff-based opportunity to invest in new factories is much higher. Even so, I recommended that the tariffs be phased out if no new investment in panel manufacturing materializes, because tariffs trade off disincentives for investing in businesses that install and maintain solar arrays for incentives for solar-panel manufacturing.

I have no idea whether the Trump Administration studied the industry and discovered these points before applying the solar-panel tariffs, which start at 30% and step down to 15% by 2021. If it had, its doing so would constitute the sort of plan for attracting (or verifying the likelihood of) private investment discussed above. I have seen no evidence that such favorable conditions for additional investment exist, or have been studied, let alone encouraged, in industries like cars, steel, or aluminum. (Trump’s tariff on aluminum will further raise the prices of installed solar arrays using foreign solar panels, as many supports for solar panels are made of aircraft-grade aluminum.)

In short, conditions in the solar-energy industry are ripe for additional private investment in solar panel manufacturing, ripe enough to justify a tariff on solar panels alone that begins high and steps down annually. I’ve seen no evidence that conditions are similarly ripe in the industries in which Trump has imposed high and permanent tariffs, or that there is any plan to attract investment. Those tariffs seem nothing more than a crude attempt to scare our trading partners, with no plan for what to do if they don’t frighten.

From the “I told you so!” Department: Local Corporate Rule

Three years ago, I began exploring the topic of corporate rule on this blog. (See also, this essay on corporate rule and individual rights.) It’s one of the megatrends of our age. Eventually it will change the world as much as the transition from monarchy to democracy that began four centuries ago, or the transition from Church to State that began early in the Renaissance. (The term “corporate rule” refers not to how corporations govern themselves, but to how they are coming, collectively, to rule the world.)

My essays focused on the macro level, i.e., on nation-states and their national politics. In a must-read piece in the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo looked at the micro level of this megatrend: our cities. He described how high-tech companies have bowled over city governments in Seattle, San Francisco and New York, how they introduced their products and services without, and sometimes despite, significant city or public input. As I noted in my macro essays, the corporations’ chief advantages were money (the power to do good), adaptability and speed.

In a rhetorical flourish, Manjoo questioned whether this megatrend is turning our cities into “dystopian technocapitalist hellscapes.” But I think it’s far too early to tell whether this transition will be for good or ill. What’s clear today is that it is real and gaining momentum, at least throughout the capitalist West.

The megatrend has four main drivers. First, corporations promote decentralization. They solve the problem of organizing incredibly complex human societies of tens or hundreds of millions of individuals, when our common species evolved in clans of thirty of fewer. Second, corporations are far more flexible and adaptable than governments.

Third, as governments become increasingly starved for money, their residual powers are mostly coercive: enforcing criminal law, providing a safety net (and taxing citizens to do so), making war (or “defense,” which only war potential justifies), and accumulating the power to wage war. Today corporations have most of the money—i.e., the power to do good.

This trend is most advanced in the United States, where the Republican Party has quite successfully starved government at all levels in order to shrink it. The Trump Tax Scam, which creates a $1.5 trillion deficit to fund tax giveaways to the rich and corporations, is just a small part of this ongoing phenomenon.

The megatrend’s fourth and final driver is communication. The Internet has allowed clever corporations to bypass and surpass the means of communication by which politicians and public officials traditionally have communicated with the public. Manjoo’s piece has examples at the city level, but there are many at the state and federal level as well. Trump’s presidency itself is the product of small corporations like his own and Cambridge Analytica, aided by Russia’s intelligence services (whether “colluding” or not), and (unwittingly) by clueless social-media platforms like Facebook. Together these corporate actors have run rings of communication around not just traditional media and pundits, but also the State’s massive intelligence and law-enforcement organs.

Corporate rule is not all bad. It’s mostly non-ideological, except for some small businesses that make religious principles part of their business plan. It’s amenable to public pressure, perhaps more so than today’s pols, who tend toward simplistic ideologies and demagoguery. And business is mostly devoid of bigotry: big corporations value customers’ money and patronage no matter their race, religion, nationality, gender, ethnicity and sexual identity or orientation.

But whether for good or for ill, corporate rule is here to stay. When (as Manjoo recounts) a pizza-delivery company begins filling potholes in city streets, you know something basic has changed in how we humans organize ourselves.

The greatest danger, in my view, is size. Left to their own devices, corporations could undergo the same transition that city-states did during the last millennium, as they coalesced into nation-states and eventually into mega-states like China, India, Russia, and the United States.

Our human evolutionary predilection is for alpha-male rule. So the larger the organization run by a single (usually male) CEO, the greater the risk of tyranny and atrocities. Only competition and limits on size can reduce the risk of corporations further eroding our civil rights. (In America, none the rights in our Bill of Rights, or elsewhere in our Constitution, protects us against corporations or private businesses. They only protect us against “state action.”)

So as the megatrend of corporate rule progresses, what we Americans call “antitrust law” (and the rest of the world calls “competition law”) will become increasingly important. Insuring competition and avoiding the social and political dominance of large, rich organizations will be the primary means of keeping human rights a practical reality. (For some of the human depredations of which large organizations are capable, click here and here.)

Approval of the Time-Warner-AT&T merger here in the United States, and likely the coming merger of Disney or Comcast with part of Fox, is not an auspicious sign. Without stiff competition and limits on size, corporations run by a single alpha male (the CEO) could become just as tyrannical and heedless of ordinary people’s needs in our new century as great nation-states sometimes were in the last. As the megatrend of corporate rule progresses, the greatest risk to human happiness will be corporate arbitrariness unrestrained by competition or regulation.

Links to Popular Recent Posts

Links to Popular Recent Posts


20 June 2018

Vote Character

[For an analysis of facts and Kim’s myth about North Korea, click here. For a second post on training new voters, click here. For a brief, preliminary reaction to Trump’s and Kim’s meeting in Singapore, click here. For links to popular recent posts, click here.]

A recent essay on this blog advised new voters to focus on pols’ character. If old ones had done so in 2016, it reasoned, we might not now have to put up with the least experienced president in our nation’s history—one who not coincidentally also has the worst character.

But the question of character goes far beyond elections. At stake today is our national character: our moral acuity, how we see ourselves, and how the rest of the world sees us.

From time immemorial, nations have bragged of their power to crush others. Historians now believe that the pyramids of Giza and the Colossus of Rhodes were just propaganda in stone, built at times when only tiny fractions of the population could read. Their intent was to instill in others a sense of awe and fear of the power of empires.

The poet Shelley captured this kind of “international relations” in his poem “Ozymandias.” He described a colossal desert statue, long vanished except for its legs and fallen head. The inscription on it remained: “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

As Barack Obama noted in his 2007 speech on terrorism, that’s not how we Americans have traditionally viewed ourselves. We want to inspire hope in outsiders, not fear or despair. We lean toward the positive, or at least we used to.

The French gave us our Statue of Liberty in recognition of this national character. Our Lady raises her lamp to guide weary refuge seekers to safety, not frighten them away. Emma Lazarus added the words: “Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door.”

No more. Now we rip children from their parents’ arms, in order to instill fear in refuge-seekers and keep them away. This policy is so stark a departure from our longstanding national character as to compel Laura Bush to speak out.

Laura Bush might as well have been a statue herself during her husband’s (Dubya’s) presidency. But this sharp departure freed her from her silence. She condemned the interment camps where tiny victims of our child-ripping are warehoused. She called them “eerily reminiscent of the internment camps for U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.”

Yet the putrefaction of our national character only begins with resort to fear and deliberate, massive mistreatment of asylum seekers. It does not end there.

Charles de Gaulle was one of the most arrogant and stubborn leaders of any modern democracy. Yet during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when JFK offered to show him spy-plane photos of Soviet intermediate-range missiles installed in Cuba, he refused to take a look. The word of the president of the United States, he said, was good enough for him.

Today we have a president who, according to the Washington Post, has made 3,251 false or misleading claims in less than seventeen months. Our credibility as a nation, carefully cultivated for more than two centuries, has all but vanished. We, our allies and adversaries can no longer see clearly through a blizzard of lies, “show”, “spin,” fake news, and false claims of fake news. Worse yet, we’ve stooped to the level of the Russian disinformation that helped elect our president, pulling yet one more pin from the scaffolding of our “exceptionalism.”

It’s easy to blame it all on Donald J. Trump, because he lies so often and his character is so vile. But he’s hardly the progenitor of the change. Nor is he likely the end of it.

It began at least as early as the reign of Ronald Reagan. In order to win elections, Reagan made selfishness a national norm. He even had a slogan for it: “It’s your money.” (Emphasis added.) That slogan and its emphasis on lowering taxes began our slide into selfishness and greed as national norms.

As good athletes know, where the head moves the body follows. Once, during the Great Depression, our hurting farmers left sandwiches for desperate passing hobos on their window sills. Once, our Marshall Plan paid to rebuild the economies of our bitterest wartime enemies, Germany and Japan. Our generosity helped make them the world’s third and fourth national economies today. Yet today we blast foreign aid, the United Nations (our own creation!), and the trading regime we ourselves established in favor of “America First!” Selfishness has metamorphosed from a validated norm to the basis of national policy.

Selfishness is, of course, contrary to the teachings of every modern religion. Yet religion itself has been corrupted. How can selfishness reign supreme, in our age of Christian evangelism, when muscular individualized Christianity is busy supplanting staid and institutionalized Catholicism in our own country and throughout Latin America? Organized religion seems on the ropes, as Pope Francis, the humblest Pope of my lifetime, keeps busy jettisoning longstanding regimes and bishops, just to stem the tide of pedophilia within his Church.

Religion, it seems, cannot help us; it’s too weak and confused in our secular age. So here in America the egotistic beat goes on.

We reject the global scientific and political consensus on global warming because we lag other nations in renewable energy. So, apparently, we are striving to have the last man standing with a gas pump in his hand. We—the nation that rose to greatness on respect for science and technology—want to ignore how rapidly oil and gas are running out (in about two generations).

I could go on. I could mention our general tariffs, with no coherent plan or justification behind them—only a primitive urge to bargain by fear. I could mention our failure even to address our appallingly dilapidated infrastructure. We could create millions of good, non-outsourceable jobs rebuilding it, and doing so would raise no tension with our allies and exacerbate none with our adversaries. But we’d rather posture and fight than pick the low-hanging fruit.

A century ago, we had a word for bomb throwers bent on blowing up the existing order with no coherent plan to replace it. We called them “anarchists.” In fact, we executed two of them—Sacco and Vanzetti—albeit for a crime they didn’t commit.

Today, we have one in our White House. As Fred Hiatt has explained, our current president has put Steve Bannon’s anarchistic rhetoric and plans into practice, while stealing credit for his senseless ideas and dissing him as a temporary “staffer.”

When individuals change character so dramatically, there may be no remedy. The cause may be senile dementia, clinical depression, a stroke, an hidden disease, a disability, or simply hidden traits brought out by time or stress.

When an entire society changes character so radically, we are all responsible. We all—or most of us—know right from wrong. We know that kindness is better than cruelty. Inspiring hope is better than inciting and exploiting fear. Reason is better than rage. Nurturing is better than dominance. Charity and succor are better than selfishness. Humility is better than arrogance. Wisdom is better than ignorance. Truth is better than lies. Honesty is better than “spin.”

How these traits roll out in practice is not always simple, but their understanding is innate in us. They are intrinsic human norms, with origins in our biological evolution. They are the reasons our species has come to dominate all others on this planet. They are far simpler and more instinctive than economic or military policy, or than solving the conundrum of unrestrained immigration.

So in midterm elections this November, we all have a simple task. We must stop and reverse the putrefaction of our national character. If we can do that, our national restoration and renewal will follow. If we cannot, our decline will continue and steepen.

It’s not the economy, stupid! Our economy is fine now. But decline will follow continuing putrefaction in character as night the day. Bent men don’t do good business, except in fraud and crime.

If we can’t recover our national character, the same fate will befall us as befell ancient Rome, history’s only once-democratic empire with similar geographic scope. We have the same choices as when Rome’s primitive democracy teetered on the brink of empire. But the stakes for our species and planet are much, much higher.

The choice should be easy, this time. Vote for Democrats over Republicans, who—until the child-ripping made all women stand up—refused even to acknowledge, let alone resist, the putrefaction of our national character. Look for good character in women before men, because women still have primary responsibility for nurturing the next generation and teaching it right from wrong. Look for good character in minorities before white Christians, who have inbred in power for so long they can’t see themselves with a mirror. (Remember Roy Moore!)

But most of all, vote character. For us Americans and our entire species, everything depends on us reconnecting with the virtues that once made us Americans truly “exceptional.” This November’s election may determine whether reconnecting is possible.


Today’s poster children for selfishness as a national norm are the billionaire Koch Brothers. Now in their late seventies, these two old men hold one of the largest private fortunes in America.

Their wealth derives from private businesses related to fossil fuels—oil, gas, fossil-derived paints and chemicals, and car parts and accessories. But the Koch Brothers are not content just to be successful businessmen. They have founded and help fund two of the most powerful lobbying and voter-influencing organs in human history. One is a propaganda mill called “Americans for Prosperity” (AFP). The other is a conservative so-called “think tank,” the “Cato Institute,” which the Kochs helped found in the 1970s.

Although claiming to be “conservative” and “libertarian,” these political organs seem bent on making the world safe for the Kochs’ private businesses. As the New York Times revealed in a recent exposé (“Kochs Finance High-Tech War Against Transit”), AFP has spent millions, under the radar of most local news, opposing popular initiatives for public transit in smaller cities like Nashville and Little Rock and conservative-leaning states like Utah. It also has opposed electric cars and solar and other renewable energy—in short, any technology that might challenge the supremacy of fossil fuels until they run out.

AFP’s lobbying and propaganda have been highly successful. Often to the surprise of popular local officials, they have killed public transit in about half the cities where they opposed them.

AFP’s big pitch is reducing taxes and the size of government. But AFP doesn’t oppose the massive federal, state and local subsidies that roads, bridges and highways receive for mostly fossil-fueled cars. Can we all say “hypocrites”?

Perhaps the Koch brothers really believe that fossil-fueled vehicles give consumers more “freedom” to go where they want, when they want. But surely that calculus changes when you aren’t a billionaire and can’t hire a private plane or helicopter to soar over traffic jams. Surely it’s not quite the same when you live in a major city, and not Wichita, Kansas, where the Kochs have their ancestral home.

Take the San Francisco Bay Area, for example. Since the mid-seventies, it has had a subway system called “BART,” for “Bay Area Rapid Transit,” which runs a line under the San Francisco Bay. According to the Times, a Cato Institute “expert” has blogged that “teenagers swarm onto BART trains to rob passengers[.]”

Maybe that has happened once or twice. If so, I never heard of it. But I and my fiancée, who are both over 70, take BART often to get from Berkeley to the City and back. The underwater train gets you there reliably in 30 minutes. The highways and bridge, which are overcrowded at all but the wee hours, take anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes, depending on how gridlocked they are. And that’s with a new Bay Bridge more than half of which was recently rebuilt from scratch, at staggering cost to taxpayers.

On the train you don’t have to fight other drivers just as frustrated, late, impatient and angry as you are. You can sit quietly, talk or listen to music on your iPod. So which way gives you more “freedom”?

Maybe the Kochs believe that everywhere is like Wichita, where you can’t be free without a car. Far more likely, they believe in extending—by political means, not fair competition in business—the life of the obsolescent technologies that made them billionaires. Maybe they’re as ignorant of the benefits of public transit in cities as they appear to be about solar and other renewable energy. Far more likely, they are aging, powerful, narrow-minded and selfish men who are willing to push the whole world into extinction, by any means necessary, so long as it stays on their own peculiar path to riches.

Whatever the Kochs do, and however mindlessly voters follow their propaganda, the end will come for oil and natural gas in about two generations. By then, the Kochs will be dead, unless (perhaps) they freeze their living but aged bodies in the hope of some future medical miracle.

But kids today who are in high school or college, or just starting their careers, will have to bear the brunt of a transition for which our nation and the world are grossly ill-prepared. So it will be up to them to give the Kochs’ well-financed propaganda the lie and face reality, without selfishness or shortsightedness, for the good of our species. Their own and our nation’s future depends on them.

Links to Popular Recent Posts


16 June 2018

North Korea Facts and Myth

[For my second post on training new voters, click here. For a brief, preliminary reaction to Trump’s and Kim’s meeting in Singapore, click here. For links to popular recent posts, click here.]

1. North Korea can destroy or maim Seoul, on command, without nuclear weapons; and there’s not much anyone could do to stop it

2. North Korea’s nuclear program only increases North Korea’s pre-existing menace toward the South

3. The real significance of the North’s nuclear program is to expand the North’s menace geographically, from South Korea to the entire Earth, including especially Japan, all of Southeast Asia and even the United States.

4. Kim can never actually use his nuclear arsenal because doing so would end his own life, his twisted regime’s existence, and his country’s survival

5. At the moment, Kim’s global nuclear menace is only nascent and theoretical

6. Kim’s aims are unknown but cannot include war

7. Diplomacy’s the thing with which to capture the conscience of the Kim


It’s hard to see straight through the fog that chills our lives: Trump’s and Kim’s lies, bluster and “show,” Fox’ propaganda, other pols’ lies and “spin,” and long-held assumptions about North Korea that may or may not still apply. Together, the foggers create something like the proverbial “fog of war,” before the fact.

So let’s start by marshaling the bare facts about North Korea—things we really know. Then we can address the speculations and fears and maybe come to some rational conclusions. We take the facts in rough order of their importance for diplomacy.

1. North Korea can destroy or maim Seoul, on command, without nuclear weapons; and there’s not much anyone can do to stop it.

North Korea has some 10,000 conventional rockets and artillery pieces hidden within range of Seoul, South Korea’s capital. These weapons are under camouflage and in caves and tunnels, just across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The nearest parts of Seoul are just 35 miles from the DMZ, which separates North from South Korea.

This menace has nothing to do with North Korea’s nuclear programs. North Korea has had this capability since at least eleven years ago, when I wrote an essay about it. Apparently, the North’s conventional weapons are well-enough dispersed, hidden and/or buried that even a surprise nuclear assault on them could not reliably neutralize them, at least not without threatening Seoul itself with radiation and radioactive fallout.

This is the primary reason why our expert military leaders uniformly believe that “there is no military solution” to the dispute between the North and South or the North and the US. The North holds a gun to Seoul’s head. In any war, the first hour would see thousands of conventional weapons rain down on Seoul, causing tens or hundreds of thousands of casualties, all without a single nuclear blast.

Seoul is modern marvel of a city and a gem of Asia. It was even eleven years ago. It is also and one of the world’s best advertisements for liberal democracy. In less than seventy years, Seoul in a democratic South Korea has risen from the rubble of the Korean War, which made it look much like Aleppo today. It’s now an extraordinarily impressive example of the constructive and creative power of our species at peace. So no one in the West wants to see the gun to its head fire.

2. North Korea’s nuclear program only increases North Korea’s pre-existing menace toward the South.

South Korea is one of those countries in which the capital city has extraordinary predominance. It’s not just a commercial center, a governmental center, and a political center, but all three combined. For South Koreans, it’s like a single city combining New York and Washington, D.C., Moscow and St. Petersburg, or Rome and Milan.

So insofar as concerns the South, the North’s nuclear weapons add little to its existential threat. Destruction is destruction, whether by conventional or nuclear means. The North’s nuclear weapons, if used against Seoul, would merely make the destruction quicker and (due to fallout and radiation) longer-lasting.

3. The real significance of the North’s nuclear program is to expand North’s menace geographically, from South Korea to the entire Earth, including especially Japan, all of Southeast Asia and even the United States.

Before the recent success of Kim’s nuclear program, nothing that Kim controlled raised a direct threat outside the Korean Peninsula. All of Kim’s armies and weapons were focused there, most within striking distance of the DMZ. Now Kim’s nuclear weapons, combined with his intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), make North Korea a potential threat to its neighbors, the United States and (in theory) the entire world.

This is why it’s absurd to think that President Trump “sold the store” to Kim merely by agreeing to meet with him. Before the North’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, the diplomatic nicety of reserving presidential meetings for concluding significant agreements might have applied. But no longer.

Once Kim had a stash of nuclear weapons, demonstrated by actual tests, and missiles that can reach most of the civilized world, his twisted regime became, ipso facto, a player in global politics. Now we must all take North Korea seriously—more seriously than we take Israel, India, Pakistan and (if it ever goes nuclear) Iran. For unlike, Korea, all of these countries have shown no interest in global threats or becoming a global menace; they fear their neighbors alone.

It’s troubling and sad that Kim has chosen the path of arms and threats to achieve global status and improve his country, rather than cooperation, alliances and trade. But facts are facts.

We Americans used to deal with facts as such. Yet recently our ability to accept facts and reason from them has taken multiple hard hits. It has suffered from a generation of Fox propaganda and Republican “small government” dogma, from the apotheosis of “spin,” PR and sensationalism in our media, and from a focus on what amounts to gossip (Trump’s lies and most of his Tweets) rather than facts and hard analysis. The daily “news” creates such a dense fog of irrelevancies that’s hard for the best of us to think through. But think we must, lest our inability to reason turn our present gentle national decline into a rout.

4. Kim can never actually use his nuclear arsenal because doing so would end his own life, his twisted regime’s existence, and his country’s survival.

North Korea is a small country in both population and area. It’s 2016 population was less than 25.5 million. That’s less than the population of Greater Tokyo. In area, North Korea is less than 10% larger than Honduras. It if came to that, two or three 50-megaton bombs could completely wipe North Korea off the face of the Earth, killing Kim and the vast majority of his population.

The United States could deliver those bombs by several means, including stealth bombers, ICBMs, and submarine-launched cruise missiles. North Korea has no viable defenses against any of these means of delivery. Nor does it have viable defenses against any of the the other means of attack, involving less “collateral damage,” that our armament makes possible.

Kim is a smart man, far more intelligent and well-educated than our current president. He was educated in Switzerland and reportedly speaks English and French. He has had his entire lifetime to gather strategic intelligence about his small nation’s geopolitical status and position. No doubt he is privy to both Chinese and Russian assessments of the United States’ weapons and capabilities.

So it is inconceivable (though remotely possible) that Kim thinks he or his regime can survive a nuclear exchange with the United States. A single expert within his regime—and he undoubtedly has many—would disabuse him of that fantasy in a microsecond.

5. At the moment, Kim’s global nuclear menace is only nascent and theoretical.

By observed testing, Kim has demonstrated two essential military technologies that work: his nukes and his ICBMs. But engineering reality requires two additional complex technologies before his nuclear capability can threaten Kim’s neighbors or the world. First, he must be able to miniaturize his nuclear warheads to fit them on the tips of missiles. Second, he must be able to harden those warheads to survive the furnace-like heat that an ICBM generates when it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere.

There is no evidence that Kim has developed either of these technologies. In theory, he might test them secretly. But only small nukes can be tested in caves or caverns without showing up on seismographic records or releasing radiation into the atmosphere, where it can be detected downwind. (Here the small size of Kim’s nation is a decided disadvantage; there’s not much space to hide exploding nukes underground.)

The only way to be sure that miniaturized warheads work and can survive re-entry is to test them on real ICBMs and cause real nuclear explosions far from the launch pad. Kim has never done that.

Kim is probably reluctant to do that for two reasons. First, any such test would enrage the world, including all nuclear powers, which have avoided atmospheric nuclear tests since the 1960s. (Such tests pollute the atmosphere with radioactive fallout, some of which preferentially ends up in milk and human thyroid glands.) Second, North Korea’s geographic position creates the risk of such a test falling on the territory of an ally like China, or on the territory of adversaries (virtually all the rest of Asia). That kind of accidental catastrophe might produce crushing sanctions from China (which accounts for more than 90% of North Korea’s trade), or an accidental war.

There are other engineering challenges, too. North Korea’s ballistic-missile tests have all used high arcs to not-so-remote ocean targets, probably in an effort to reduce, as much as possible, the risk of hitting anyone else’s territory by accident or mistake. From the height and length of those high arcs, scientists can calculate the theoretical range of Kim’s missiles. Hence the fear of hitting US cities.

But those calculations are only theoretical. There is no evidence that Kim’s missiles have the precise aiming and/or guidance mechanisms needed to send an ICBM accurately to a city a continent away. The only hard evidence to show such capability would be a missile test naming a far-flung ocean-based target in advance and hitting it accurately. North Korea has never made such a test, nor, apparently, has any planned.

6. Kim’s aims are unknown but cannot include war.

Kim’s precise aims are hard to fathom. He’s the leader of the worlds’ most isolated, totalitarian nation, analogous to a medieval monarch in the twenty-first century. China is Kim’s only real friend, and Xi Jinping, apparently, isn’t talking. So apart from re-reading Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” or scraping up crumbs from the table of China’s intelligence, there isn’t much we Americans can do to gauge Kim’s precise aims. Talking with him personally, as President Trump is doing, may give us some clues.

But Kim cannot want war for two reasons. First, a nuclear war would destroy him and his regime and/or Seoul. But unifying Korea under his own rule has to be Kim’s wet dream. You don’t destroy what you covet and want to acquire, namely Seoul and the South.

Second, like many tyrannies, Kim’s absolute rule depends on his people believing that they are under constant and serious threat of attack. In an instant, a first-strike by Kim himself would give the lie to that myth and might result in Kim’s assassination. To maintain control over his people, Kim must maintain the myth that the South and the US are about to attack any minute, while the attack never comes.

7. Diplomacy’s the thing with which to capture the conscience of the Kim.

If somehow the West could suddenly make the entire North Korean people believe that they are under no threat, Kim’s regime might collapse overnight. But that’s impossible, because Kim’s people have been isolated from global information and fully propagandized from birth. Kim appears to understand that this cannot go on forever, let alone as the North comes into greater contact with the Internet and global commerce, which it must do to evolve as a nation.

So Kim must walk a fine tightrope. He must maintain the myth of imminent attack at the same time as he talks with the West (and with China!) about reducing tensions and opening his country up. But he must not reduce tensions so suddenly as to give the lie to the myth that has kept his family in absolute power for three generations.

One key to his intentions will be further testing, if any, of his nukes and missiles. It’s remotely possible that the talks are, for Kim, only a delaying tactic while his scientists and engineers solve the remaining problems to give his nukes a real global reach. Far more likely, however, is that Kim already has what he wants from his nuclear program: for the first time the US and the world are taking him seriously, despite his abysmal human-rights record and his regime’s long list of criminal conduct (including, probably, giving nuclear technology to Pakistan). The US, at least, is no longer relegating its talks with him to underlings; our president himself is involved.

Like it or not, Kim Jong-Un is now at the center of the global stage and occupying much of the world’s attention. Like it or not, the US is offering serious concessions for the first time in the two-plus decades of talks. Like it or not, the US government is yielding to the reality that arrogance and the demand “you concede first,” imposed on a much weaker, smaller party, has achieved zero results in twenty-four years and counting.

So there’s a lot of room to talk and make a deal. It’s not a question of nuclear war strategy. Any nuclear war between the United States and North Korea would result in the extinction of the Kim family and North Korea, whatever horrors might happen in a few American cities. What we are witnessing is more like rehabilitating a criminal about to have served his sentence, who does not quite know how to re-enter civil society. It’s a delicate balance requiring empathy and sensibility, but it’s well within the capability of smart men of good will.


The key thing to understand about the talks with North Korea is that they will inevitably be delicate and frustrating and take a long time. Part of the problem is the inherent ambivalence of Kim’s position. If the US and the South make too many concessions too early, the myth of imminent attack that has kept the Kim family in power will be debunked. If the US makes concessions too few or too late, Kim may get nervous and revert to threats and provocations, inflaming the US public and much of the world. So diplomacy will require a delicate balance and will take time.

The second concluding point relates to Kim. His personal isolation and absolute power made it unlikely for him ever to accept the results of dealing with US underlings. Now that President Trump is involved personally, he’s paying attention. He no doubt believes (not without reason!) that the success so far of his nuclear program is responsible for the serious attention he’s now getting. But he has agreed to suspend it, temporarily.

That suspension is of course open to instant reversal at his order. But his suspending it suggests that he, too, is open to dealing and is not running helter-skelter toward a suicidal nuclear conflict.

The third point relates to our Congress. Kim is no doubt aware that Trump is an extraordinarily controversial president. In canceling the Iran deal for the US, Trump has shown Kim irrevocably that one president’s word is not the United States’ bond. Kim probably knows enough about US history and government to demand that any final agreement be in the form of a treaty, which must be ratified by the Senate. So ratified, it becomes a formal and irrevocable commitment of the US government, which can be terminated or modified legally only according to its terms.

If the talks do produce a treaty, that will be good for everyone. It will give Kim confidence to trust the US’ word and to open more to global society. It will give North Korea’s people confidence that they are no longer under threat of imminent attack. Here at home, it will give Democrats and Republicans an opportunity to work together for something real, and to make sure that Trump hasn’t given away the store. And it will encourage our representatives and our people to restore the balance of foreign-affairs power between the Executive and legislative branches that our Founders intended.

Finally, since the talks will take a long time, they should proceed in stages, perhaps even separate treaties. Bill Clinton has suggested that the first step might involve a pledge of North Korea, for suitable reciprocal concessions, not to transfer its nuclear or missile technology to anyone else. Such a commitment of course would require verification, perhaps even monitoring of communications to certain suspect nations (such as Iran) and the searching of ships. More intrusive verification, involving searches of North Korea’s own internal military facilities, could come later, after compliance with earlier, less intrusive measures had developed a certain level of trust.

Insofar as North Korea’s status as a nuclear power is concerned, there is no alternative but making a sensible deal. Nuclear war is not an option. The reversible commitments made so far by both sides—the US suspension of “war games” with the South and the North’s suspension of testing nukes and missiles, are good first steps.

The goal of the talks will be to reduce the North’s and Kim’s paranoia and induce North Korea’s gradual transition from nuclear Sparta to something resembling a modern Athens. The transition will no doubt occupy several US presidential administrations, as have the failed talks so far. If Donald J. Trump can make a good start in the process, that will be one of the few genuine and lasting achievements of his time in the White House. In contrast, everything else he has done, including his immigration policy, his chipping away at Obamacare and his tax cuts, can be reversed or nullified by a Democratic president and Congress.

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