Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Where I Agree with Republican Conservatives and Vladimir Putin

In thier biograpy of Vladimir Putin, Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy note that one of Putin's earliest objectives as Russia's president was to reduce Russia's national debt.  He viewed the debt in nationalistic terms and believed that Russia's indebtedness to western banks limited the nation's latitude in dealing with the west and forced it to capitulate to to the dissolution of the Soviet state in the early post-Comunist years.  Hill and Gaddy report that Russia's debt to has been reduced considerably under Putin.  I don't approve of the Putin's "New" Russia, with its oligarchs, corruption and political repression, but I reconize the value of limiting your exposure to outside forces that do not necessarily share your interests.  That makes sense to me.  A large and growing debt puts a nation, even the United States, at the mercies of the debt-holders. 

Also making sense to me are fiscal conservatives in America who question the wisdom of funding routine operations and programs with an ever-accumulating national debt.  I know governments, especially governments of rich, powerful nations like the United States, don't operate at the same level as my household or even a business but I don't see where an increasing level of debt is sustainable.  The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) doesn't think so either.  So when I hear Republicans talking about reducing the deficit, I can agree with the idea ensuring that the federal govenment is sustainable.

Where I disagree with the Republican fiscal conservatives is on the scope of government and how best to finance that government.  I support social welfare programs that protect the most vulnerable Americans and believe that the nation is wealthy enough to support those programs.  That's the socialist in me.  The socialist in me is more than willing to take from the rich and give to the poor and society at large. I'm not an economist but I do understand how markets work and how financial incentives drive innovation so I'm not talking about expropriation.

What I am talking about is asking those Americans who have profited handsomely during the past three decades of Reaganomics and neo-Regonomics to share a portion of their wealth with the rest of us.  Wealthy individuals and profitable corporations benefit greatly from organized government, often more than the mass of taxpayers.  It is reasonable for the nation ask a greater sacrifice from the wealthy and profitable corporations to support the nation as a whole.  I like to think Americans are smart enough to figure out how to make this work.  We are supposedly a practical nation.  At least, we used to be.

Non-economist that I am, I do not believe that America must pay off its entire national debt or even eliminate all deficit spending.  Debt can be used wisely for to build and aquire long-term assets like infrastructure that serves future generations as well as the present.  Deficit spending can be an effective tool for managing the economy.  I am by no means a deficit/debt hawk but it does seem like a good idea to keep the national debt at a manageaable level.  At this time in America

So while I agree with the Republican--and GAO--concerns about fiscal sustainability, I don't agree with their "trickle-down" tax cuts and consequent demands for program cuts.  Far better to tax the rich.  They can afford it and still continue to live well beyond the means available to the average American. 

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Friday, April 14, 2017

Deja Vu All Over Again

These days I can't help feeling like I am living in a 21st century re-enactment of the 20th.  The post-WW2 security structure that gave peace to a bloody continent during the Cold War is fracturing.  Nation states are erecting border walls and checkpoints to keep out "the Other" and asserting their uniquness and superiority over "lesser" beings from other countries.  Nations with large, well-armed militaries are growling and threatening each other.  It's kind of like Groundhog Day but the replay is August 1914.

But the situation is not simply a rerun of an earlier war.  This is the 21st century and, true to form, events are running toward the apocalyptic.  Nuclear weapopns aren't new but in Donald Trump's hands they haven't seemed so threatening since Ronald Reagan.  On the off chance that we don't obliterate ourselves in a nuclear holocaust, simply living on this planet will become a far more challenging proposition because of climate change.  Millions will become environmental refugees in a world that is already hostile to refugeesCompetition for critical resources will create more war and conflict.

And in the middle of all of this is the United States of America.  Hero-nation of the mid-20th century.  My home.  My country.  But looking objectively at the US in the current century, I don't see anything heroic.  The US has been at war or intervening in other nations throughout my seven decades on this planet, continuing a history that dates to the nation's founding.  We are the leading, arms merchant to the world.  Now we have Donald Trump brandishing America's massive nuclear arsenal to demonstrate his manhood.

Not content to just continue America's history of militarism, Trump and his minions are actively monkeywrenching the world's efforts to understand and deal with climate changeDenying the science, withdrawing America from active participation international agreements and eliminating  climate change research and mitigation programs while simultaneously promoting fossil fuels looks isn't outright aggression but coming from a major player, it can reasonably be seen as a threat.

Seen from that perspective, the United States looks uncomfortably like a danger to other nations, either from our militarism or climate change denial.  August 1914 set off a chain of events that lasted thirty years and brought incredible violence to the world.  If this is a replay, I don't feel especially confident about my country's role in the drama.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A Battle Won. More to Come.

Donald Trump claims that the Democrats "own" healthcare now that the Republican has failed.  But like many of Donald's opinions, this is one is also wrong.  True that the Democrats are the architects of the system now in place but much of that system lies within his authority as president.  Obama handed him the keys on January 20.  His failure to craft a replacement means that he's in charge of administering the Affordable Care Act along with his minion, Health & Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

Donald Trump and the Republicans also claim that the Affordable Care Act will collapse of its own weight, that it's going into a death spiral, which like much information from Trump and the Republicans is not true. But Trump and his minions are positioned to monkeywrench the machinery.   We saw this when he canceled outreach efforts during the most recent enrollment period and his directive that IRS no longer enforce the individual mandate.  Plenty of opportunities exist for Trump to push the system into collapse.

If we let him.

The failure of Republican Repeal and Replace is a greater victory than I would have ever expected.  It came about because Paul Ryan offered a completely unacceptable alternative and people mobilized against it.  Now that we know the Affordable Care Act will continue in force for at least the forseeable future, we need to pay close attention to the administrative process to keep Trump's ideological minions from creating the death spiral they fervently wish upon the American people.

That goes for everything else, too.  Trump has seeded the federal government with ideologues who want to lead their agencies into the dustbin of history.  Scott Pruitt at EPA and Betsy DeVos at Education come to mind most readily but they are hardly alone.  They all will have plenty of opportunities for destructive mischief.  Legislative battles are dramatic but the administrative process carries great weight as well and is easily overlooked.  We can't afford not to pay attention.

Caveats aside, the defeat of  Repeal and Replace is worth celebrating.  For the moment, at least, one dreadful change is dead and the ideologues' plans are disrupted.  The trillion-dollar tax cut for the rich at the expense of health insurance for millions won't happen. 

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Thursday, March 09, 2017

The Russians Are Coming

Given what we know about Russian activities in the 2016 election and the opacity of the so-called Trump Administration, I have no reservations about a thorough investigation of those activities and Russian connections with the Trump campaign.  Nor would I limit that investigation to just the election.  How much of America's polarization and mistrust is influenced by false information spread by Russian state media and trolls?  Beyond the meddling, Russian nationalism and aggression are also cause for real concern.  And, of course, Putin is a thug.  Whip all of that into America's consciousness and Americans have every reason to be wary of Russia and to seek answers.

What we have no reason to do is to hate Russia or its people.  I've never been to Russia and I have been exposed to negative stereotypes of the country and the people my entire life but I have studied Russian history, including first-hand accounts of life in Russia.  What I have learned is that Russians are as patriotic as any American and take great pride in their history and culture.  Like us, they want peace and security.  Unlike us, Russians have endured privations and hardships that Americans can hardly imagine.  Russians are human beings endowed with the same inalienable rights that we claim as Americans.  Russia has its share of miscreants, bullies and opportunists--just like America--but everything I've learned about the country and its people tells me that Russians deserve my respect. 

To read the news these days, it would seem that the Russians are the archenemy, engaged everywhere, a threat to everything.  Concern over possible election meddling gives creedence to American militarists who see Russia as nothing but a naked aggressor.  But Russian history offers plenty of clues for understanding and defusing its aggression.  Simply put, Russia is insecure.  Always has been.  Tsar, Commissar or Oligarch, it makes no difference.  Russia feels exposed without control of its "near abroad".  The devastating German invasion in WW2 cemented that need into modern Russian consciousness.  Stalin built the "Iron Curtain" ut that fell apart with the collapse of Communism.  Now Vladimir Putin is trying to assemble his own version of the near abroad.  It's what Russian leaders do.

American and NATO policy since the fall of Communism have given the Russians reason to feel exposed.  Not only did the countries of its near abroad abandon Communism, but many Soviet republics that had previously been part of Imperial Russia became independent and hostile to all things Russian.  If that were not enough to unsettle Russia, many of its former allies joined NATO and turned their weapons east.  At the same time, the free marketeers and capitalists were looting the country in a fire sale of state assets to privileged insiders while destroying the economic security all but a privileged few.

Russians look back on the past 25 years and see disappointed hopes and lost greatness.  This is clearly evident in Svetlana Alexileivich's excellent collection of oral histories, Second Hand Time, that covers the years 1991 to 2012.  That sense of loss gives rise to a politician like Putin who can reassert Russian authority and restore a degraded society.  Putin has been clever enough to manipulate Russia's weak democratic institutions to create a new autocracy.  Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy's Mr. Putin:  Operative in the Kremlin provides a good analysis of his thinking and his methods.  

History offers a cautionary tale for our times.  WW1 ended with a vindictive treaty that set the stage for Hitler and WW2 two decades later.  WW2 ended with a settlement that accommodated Russian (if not Eastern European nations') interests and lasted for half a century.  The Cold War ended with Americans and the West dancing on the Soviet Union's grave and the impoverishment of many Russians.  Why is anyone surprised that Russians found that unacceptable?  Russians have long memories.  The West will be a long time earning the trust and respect of Russians.  Trust and respect are work both ways, after all.

Donald Trump is absolutely correct in seeking improved relations with Russia.  That's a no-brainer.  What is difficult is understanding the Russians and bridging our differences with them.  I realize that is always challenging and have no easy answers.  The one answer I can offer is to demilitarize and avoid war.  It's not easy and certainly runs counter to trends in Europe these days that more resemble 1914 than what we hoped for the 21st century.

Another answer is to investigate Russian attempts to covertly influence American elections and policy.  Like Russia's assertion over its near abroad, its covert activities are nothing new.  They've been doing it in one form or another for close to 100 years.  These days the methods are more sophisticated and its reach vastly multiplied by the internet, but the basic function is unchanged:  to thwart adversaries and create an environment favorable to Russia's interests.  That is unlikely to change.  What an investigation will do is tell us its extent, methods and how best to protect our democracy.

Freedom isn't free but the answer is not always a bullet.

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Friday, February 10, 2017

Don and Vlad Share Some Traits

I'm reading Mr. Putin:  Operative in the Kremlin by Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy these days. Some of their descriptions of Putin's personality traits and operating methods are not far off the mark for Donald Trump.
In speeches and writings...Putin has set out to determine  which groups' history will be part of the inclusive Russian myth and which groups risk finding themselves outside the collective history if they do not conform or [if they] withdraw their support for his ideas or policies.  The ultimate implicit threat is the risk of groups (like opposition protesters during the 2012 presidential election campaign) finding themselves designated as "them"--chuzhiye (aliens)--rather than "us", nashi (ours).  Putin's various performance pieces as a biker, an outdoorsman, a firemen, and his meetings with workers on factory floors or in factory monotowns simultaneously embrace diffferent Russian groups and social classes as nashi and appeal directly to them for political support.
Not an exact match but both are performers and willing to exclude entire groups of citizens from the the body politic in order to achieve their goals.  I can see why our alleged president likes Putin so much.  Everything I've read so far makes me think that given Donald Trump's susceptibility to flattery,  Putin will play him like a master. 

Maybe someone at the State Department could help out here?  Oh, wait...they're all gone.

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Thursday, January 26, 2017

Donald the Diversion

For his first major television interview after taking office, Donald Trump spends his entire time asserting his greatness, questioning the electoral system that brought him to office and repeating claims that have been repeatedly demonstrated to be false.  I didn't think that my opinion of Donald Trump could fall any lower but this interview does that.

Thoughout the campaign Trump described America in apocalyptic terms both domestically and internationally. Now that he is installed as President of the United States (vomit a little) I expect him to  speak as a leader about how he will address those problems.  Some of those problems are actually real and have grave consequences for the nation and the world.  Instead, he wastes our time with his grousing about the vote, crowd size and the media.

But Donald Trump is useful for the Republican ideologues.  While Donald rants and raves, his mostly white male cabinet of billionaire businessmen, Wall Street insiders, and public officials who are fundamentally opposed to the missions of the agencies they will head can go about killing off what remains of the New Deal.

The Wizard of Ooze will give cover to the Republican wrecking crew if we are not vigilant. 

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Friday, January 13, 2017

A Couple of Questions for James Mattis

During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis made two statements that would benefit from further examination and elaboration.
In documents submitted to lawmakers prior to the hearing, Mattis identified Iran as “the primary source of turmoil” in the Middle East. “Its policies are contrary to our interests.”
Turmoil is a rather broad term.  For national security reasons, I would like more definition.  What actions constitute "turmoil"?  What form do these actions take.  What American interests are at risk from these actions?  What risks to our allies' interests and how are those interests aligned with ours?  are the specific risks to the United States?  To our allies?  What are our options for mitigating those risks?

Simply casting Iran (a nation which has its own claim to exceptionalism) as the "primary source of turmoil" no more useful to creating effective American diplomatic and military policy than are Iran's own denunciations of the US as "the Great Satan" for developing its own policy.  Futher elaboration is essential for Americans to understand what our leaders are doing with tax (or borrowed) dollars and, most importantly, the casualties that often result from our actions.  So, give us more and let us discuss it as informed citizens.
Repeatedly, the nominee made reference to the need to improve military readiness, blaming years of budget cuts for an erosion to technology and manpower.
Mattis identifies a single cause for erosion:  budget cuts.  Along with those budget cuts the multiple wars the US is fighting are also a big source of that erosion.  Personnel, ordnance and equipment get chewed up in war.  If we weren't fighting all of those wars(*) and garrisoning the world the military would not be eroding.  So again I ask why?  To what purpose? How do these wars, special operations and empire of bases contribute to American and world security?

We've been doing this sort of thing since World War II and while it may have been sustainable in the past these days must be evalulated in terms of America's  21st century economic prospects and national priorities.  Even if Congress was inclined to tap this country's vast and concentrated wealth, Americans may well find that other needs, like infrastructure or a cost-effective health care system may well be a higher priority.  In order for us to make that decision, we need complete information if we are to make good use of the funds we do allocate to the military.

That brings me back to my questions about Iran, General Mattis.  I can ask you the same questions about each war and about American interests in each region and each country.  I'm sure that your new position can offer a lot of answers to these questions.  But remember that you will need real justification and explanations not just platitudes and catchphrases.

(*)  NPR identifies Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Lybia.  The US is also active in African wars and in Yemen.

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