Socialism as seen by Millennials

“Seventy percent of millennials in a new poll say that they are somewhat or extremely likely to vote for a socialist candidate.” “70-percent-of-millennials-say-theyd-vote-for-a-socialist”  That, and the current lead of Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed Socialist, for the Presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, means that those of us who believe that capitalism is the foundation of our freedom and prosperity have a job to do to convince millennials that they are wrong about Socialism.  If Sanders wins the Democratic Party’s nomination, which I doubt, his long history of support for Soviet communism will be marched out by the Republicans. “Bernie Sanders support of communism is a moral failing”  As recently as a few days ago, Sanders was praising Fidel Castro. “Bernie-sanders-didnt-mention-the-dark-side-of-education-in-castros-cuba”  Sanders is not even a registered Democrat. But my concern is that so many millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Gen Z’s (born between 1995 and 2015) are attracted to Socialism. We need to convince them that it will not deliver the better society that they think it will.

We need to start with the recognition that these new generations, like all of their predecessors, want to do the “right thing.” “The-search-of-purpose”  They are searching for how best to address the deficiencies of life in America today. While dire poverty has been reduced from over 90% to less than 10% by capitalism, there is still that 10%.  Adult literacy has been at 99% for a few decades but the quality of public school education has been declining.  Only half of elementary school students in California are proficient in English (i.e., performed at grade level). “California-school-test-scores-2019”  And so on. The question is how to address these problems? What should we do to further improve our lives economically and culturally? Should we increase the role of government in directing resources and making our decisions or reduce it or adjust it? Do we need more Socialism or more Capitalism?

In 1919 the “Old Bolsheviks,” Nikolai Bukharin and Evgeny Preobrazhensky, wrote in the widely read The ABC of Communism, that the communist society is “an organized society,” based on a detailed, precisely calculated plan, which includes the “assignment” of labor to the various branches of production.  As for distribution, according to these eminent Bolshevik economists, all products will be delivered to communal warehouses, and the members of society will draw them out in accordance with their self-defined needs.  I urge my young friends to read the fuller account in Ralph Raico’s  “Marxist-dreams-and-soviet-realities”

The theoretical and historical/empirical cases against Socialism are overwhelming, at least to those of us who lived through the cold war and the decline and fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s and the Israeli kibbutzim more gradually in the 1960s through 1980s.  Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela provide contemporary examples.  Sanders and many millennials reject these examples (sort of) as reflecting the bad luck of state capture by bad guys (I am not aware of any bad girl examples). But the centralization of the power to direct businesses and people that is the essence of Socialism, is a natural and powerful magnet for bad guys.  No socialist regime has escaped the opportunities and temptations to favor its friends and relatives with government contracts or protections from the horrors of competition. “Crony capitalism”  Venezuela is a particularly shocking example of the rapid deterioration of one of South America’s wealthiest countries.

Sanders often points to the Scandinavian countries as examples of the softer democratic Socialism he now says he has in mind.  But he is fifty years out of date. The experiment with “democratic socialism” by, for example, Sweden in the 1960s and 70s was a failure and abandoned in recent decades. “Bernie Sanders’s Scandinavian fantasy”

Socialism has failed historically because it lacks incentives (financial rewards) for hard work and the development of better mouse traps, provides incentives for corruption, and is really hard to “get right.”  National Socialism (Nazism) and other versions of socialism involved top down control over many aspects of society.  But the central allocation of resources and decisions about what we may and may not do–central planning–suffers from serious informational challenges even when made by smart and totally honest people. Friedrich Hayek had much to say about the importance of prices in a market economy for providing critical, decentralized information on people’s preferences and thus on the optimal allocation of resources. “The Road to Serfdom”

But we are not likely win over the younger generations to capitalism just on the bases that it has given us standards of material well-being and individual freedom unimaginable several hundred years ago.  We also need, I think, to defend its moral superiority while offering promising remedies to its remaining deficiencies.

The morality of capitalism rests, in my view, in its capacity to give us, and to protect, our ownership of the fruits of our own labor. This means also the freedom to decide how to live.  It is a system in which we bear the primary responsibility for our own decisions and actions and their consequences.  It is a system that flourishes in a culture of trust and mutual caring and thus encourages such values. It is a system that rewards and thus encourages virtuous behavior. The top down, central planning, central control of socialism tends to have the opposite effect.  A common saying in the Soviet Union (USSR), while it still existed, was that “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.”

America was unique in its time (exceptional) in establishing a constitution and government in which the people gave up limited authority to their government to protect their property and liberty, rather than, as with the Magna Carta, the sovereign giving up some of its authority to the people.  See American Exceptionalism.  In the personal freedom this provided and the accompanying responsibilities it imposed, Americans flourished in every sense of the word more than most. Those who fall behind or floundered were not ignored.  It was a country of free and virtuous people and as Thomas Jefferson said at the end of his presidency in 1809: “the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government.”[1]  Seymour Martin Lipset in the middle of the 1990s used the concept of this exceptionalism to explain “why the United States is the only industrialized country which does not have a significant socialist movement or Labor party.…”  I would hate to see that change.

Countries differ in the balance of personal freedom and security (safety net, police, army) they seek. But in the most successful ones the provision by the government of security is limited and well targeted to minimize its infringements on personal freedom.  Here are my earlier thoughts on improving the government’s role in and contribution to an orderly free market, capitalist system: “My-political-platform-for-the-nation-2017”

Let me end with a quote from Winston Churchill to drive my point home: “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”  Indeed, Capitalism has its flaws, but Socialism has no success stories that we should strive to emulate. The way to move forward is to repair the flaws in a Capitalistic free market society.

[1] Quoted in Tucker and Hendrickson, Empire of Liberty p 7; see John P. Foley, ed. The Jeffersonian cyclopedia (1900).

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Is Huawei a Security Risk?

This question is quite beyond my technical competence to answer.  Even the experts disagree amongst themselves.  President Trump thinks it is too risky to use Huawei equipment and insists that Britain and our other allies not use Huawei equipment for building out their 5G telephone infrastructures. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson thinks its OK (plus it is available and cheaper than its potential future competitors) for many but not all uses.  President Trump, who likes to think he is protecting American jobs even though our economy is fully employed, was so angry at Johnson’s unwillingness to bow to his demands that he hung up on Johnson in their most recent phone conversation.  Johnson promptly cancelled his planned trip to the White House. Ukraine President, Volodymyr Zelensky, must be shaking his head in disbelief.

Trump has reason to be suspicious of foreign produced equipment following the recent disclosure that a CIA owned Swiss company, Crypto AG, sold encryption devises to 120 countries that enabled the U.S. and Germany to “easily break the codes that countries used to send encrypted messages.”  This went on for over 40 years allowing us to spy on our friends and foes alike. “National-security/cia-crypto-encryption-machines-espionage”

But these days security is much more sophisticated and wouldn’t allow such hardware to slip through undetected. On the other hand, the spying technology is more sophisticated too. Britain and other European countries are avoiding Huawei equipment for sensitive applications and using it for the rest. My point is not to join the debate over whether and where to use Huawei equipment but rather to argue that the more promising approach to convincing our friends of potential dangers (the more Adult approach, if I may) is to present our evidence and endeavor to convince them of our views. Trump’s approach, as in so many other areas, is to threaten and bully. “The-basis-of-American-world-leadership”

It is not easy to determine when trade restrictions reflect genuine security concerns and when they are just another manifestation of Trump’s protectionist, central planning direction of our resources.  He has imposed and threatened to impose tariffs with abandon, inflicting harm on our own economy as well as the tariffs’ targets. “Trumps-recent-trade-moves-show-adversarial-approach-has-only-just-begun”  “The United States has also threatened duties of up to 100% on French goods, from champagne to handbags, because of a digital services tax that Washington says harms U.S. tech companies.”  “Trump-threatens-big-tariffs-on-car-imports-from-EU”  This use of tariffs has nothing to do with trade and violates WTO rules, which Trump seems to pay little attention to in any event.

While this type of bully approach might work sometimes, it is unsustainable in the long run.  Needless to say, world confidence in the U.S. to do the right thing has plummeted. While for now other countries bow to and follow orders from the U.S., not out of respect but out of fear of retaliation, they follow a strategic waiting game. They know that Trump will not always be in power. And after he is gone, the U.S. will no longer have allies but adversaries ready to bare their claws for revenge.  https://www”9-charts-on-how-the-world-sees-Trump”

 

 

 

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The search of purpose: Nature and Nurture – Genes and culture

Every healthy boy and girl searches for the meaning and purpose of their lives. We ask why we are here and what we should do with our lives.  Where do we want to go and be in the future? How do we think we can best get there?  What should we strive for or should we strive at all?  The search for meaning can be agonizing but it is part of human nature to ask, “Who am I?”.

But we do not search in a vacuum.  That we search at all can be attributed to our genetic inheritance. Over the millennia our ancestors who pondered this question and chose and worked toward goals of mutual help and cooperation, prospered and multiplied relative to those who didn’t.  While personal and family survival and wellbeing come first, working together with others enhanced the wellbeing of both. In a fascinating presentation at the Cato Institution, Nicholas Christakis, Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science, Yale University, discussed his new book “Blueprint: evolutionary origins of a good society”  He argued that the evolutionary survival of the fittest also favored (selected) those disposed to love, friendship, cooperation, and teaching. Homo sapiens with those qualities formed more successful and durable groups.

This happy genetic predisposition, however, was just the start, the foundation from which the search for the meaning of our lives was launched. The rest of the answer is the product of the values taught to us by, or absorbed from, our parents, family, and community and its religious and other institutions, and filtered by our reason, which is another capacity favored by evolution. The cultural values from which we learn what our peers value and respect in us can contribute to successful and prosperous societies (and their economies) or not. Children growing up in poor neighborhoods dominated by gangs are more likely to see success in terms of the demands of their gang. The esteem of their gang peers will be earned by very different behavior than in neighborhoods in which honesty and respect for the law are valued.  Gang culture does not contribute to safer, more prosperous neighborhoods or societies.

Cultures that reward cooperation, honesty, and trust enjoy more successful economies as well. Financial wealth is only one source of esteem, however, and after being well feed and well clothed, the respect of our communities probably tops the list of aspirations for our lives. The cultural values in which we map out our goals profoundly influence the choices we make.  Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” guiding our actions for our self-enrichment serves us individually and the society we live in best when functioning in a culture of mutual respect, honesty, and cooperation.  In free market, capitalist economies, individual workers and entrepreneurs profit by satisfying the wants of others. Thus, competitive capitalism encourages a culture of serving others and such a culture encourages successful economies.  These are win – win societies.

“The overwhelming weight of evidence supports the conviction that when human beings, created in the image of God as free, rational, social, and moral animals, are allowed to creatively serve each other’s needs and responsibly plan their own lives, they flourish. And when a nation’s citizens flourish, the nation as a whole flourishes as well.”  “Dylan Pahman: Why-economic-nationalism-fails-conservatism”

So where should today’s Generation Z and Millennials look to find meaning and purpose for their lives? Most of us want to “do good” for our community, country and the world as well as for ourselves and our families. Will today’s youth see this marriage of public and personal good in the world of personal freedom and responsibility described by Adam Smith, or in the world of greater central government assistance (control) advocated by Bernie Sanders?

Sanders says he is a socialist, but I doubt that he means government ownership and direction of the means of production, which is the traditional meaning of socialism.  Rather he seems to mean government provision of important goods in our lives (heath care, education, jobs, etc.)  But the provider also determines what and how to provide.  Are the key decisions in our lives to be made by each of us within the legal and cooperative framework of norms and support provided by our culture and government of limited scope, or to be determined centrally for our benefit by a larger more dominant government and its employees? Government employees no doubt feel good when they help others, but capitalism provides a financial reward for doing so as well. Human greed is more likely to be tempered by the requirements of success in free markets than in government bureaucracies.

Though the average family, and especially the poor, have never before had such wealth broadly defined, today’s world suffers many shortcomings. The social safety net of a properly limited government is not always effective or well designed.  Each person in our newest generation in seeking the esteem of its family and community will ask how best to fix these shortcomings and to address and reduce the barriers to their’s and their neighbor’s fulfillment of their potential for a rich and fulfilling life. Will they turn to the “socialism” of Bernie Sanders or the individual/family-based free market model of Adam Smith?

So called “socialism” is enjoying a resurgence of popularity among American youth today. Even before Trump’s election a majority of 18-29 year old’s viewed socialism favorably. “Why-so-many-millennials-are-socialists”  Why is this, given the strong theoretical and empirical case against it?  For one they were not alive to see its greatest failures (though we now have Venezuela and North Korea).  They seem to think of countries like Sweden as socialist. While the free market capitalist country of Sweden has a larger government than the U.S., it ranks only a bit below the U.S. on the Frasier Institute Index of Economic Freedom (8.07 versus 7.83 in 2015).  For example, Sweden adopted a nationwide universal voucher program (school choice) in 1992, well ahead of the U.S.  https://www.fraserinstitute.org/studies/economic-freedom

Like every generation before it, today’s youth wants to “do good.” They want to contribute to making the world better than it already is. Those of us who highly value our personal freedom as the basis of how we live and who have studied the weaknesses of government provided and guided economic resources [e.g., https://wcoats.blog/2020/01/25/crony-capitalism/] must take up the challenge of explaining the superiority of a family based social structure and honest, law abiding, mutual respecting, cooperative culture. While free market capitalism has produced incredible riches for almost everyone, its primary virtue, and potential appeal to Generation Z, is its promotion of caring for and serving our fellow man.

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Crony Capitalism

The standard of living of the median income family in the United States has risen to heights that could not have been imagined just a hundred years ago ($73,891 in 2017). All other industrial countries have had similar experiences.  “As measured in 2011 U.S. dollars, the global income per person per day in the first year of the Common Era stood at $2. That’s also where it stood when William the Conqueror set sail in 1066 to claim the crown of England…. In 1800, the average income was $2.80. In the 18 centuries that separated the emperorship of Caesar Augustus and the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, per capita income rose by less than 40 percent….

“Then industrialization changed everything. Between 1800 and 1900, GDP per person per day doubled. In other words, income grew over twice as much in one century as it had over the preceding 18 combined. By 2016, the number…in the United States… stood at $145…. In other words, global and American standards of living rose twelve-fold and 24-fold respectively over the course of the last two centuries….  These and other fascinating data are presented by Marian Tupy in: https://humanprogress.org/article.php?p=1906

How was this miracle possible? It resulted from each worker on average becoming dramatically more productive and being able to trade his or her products for the other goods and services he or she wanted. But what was the source of such an amazing increase in productivity?  Workers developed and or were provided with tools and equipment (capital) that made it possible.  These machines, cooperative production structures and worker skills (so called “human capital”) were developed because “capitalists” creating and investing in them had protected property rights in them and shared in the profits from their use. In short, it was because people had an incentive to invent and learn that was lacking in feudal or earlier social structures.  Bill Gates, for example, became a billionaire from selling us the computer products and services that Microsoft invented and produced. We happily paid Microsoft these billions for its tools that greatly enhanced our own productivity in both production, household management, and play. In the win-win world of private property and trade, we gained from Microsoft as much or more than Bill Gates did.

Interestingly, there is more to this story. As industrialization took hold, and the incomes of the lower and middle classes rose, income inequality declined. The monopolies of feudal Lords were eroded.  More recently “global inequality is declining as developing countries catch up with the developed world. Between 1990 and 2017, argues Branko Milanovic from City University of New York, the global Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality among all of the world’s inhabitants, decreased from 0.7 to 0.63” i.e., became more equal (zero equals perfect equality). [Tupy]

In the U.S. after years of gradual decline, the Gini coefficient rose from 0.35 in 1979 to 0.49 in 2018, slightly less than China’s (0.47). What is going on? Though still more equal than the world on average, why is income distribution widening modestly over the last forty years in the U.S.?

A widely held explanation is that industries have become more concentrated and have exploited their quasi monopolistic market power to extract noncompetitive, i.e. monopoly, rents. Two hundred forty-four years ago, Adam Smith wrote that, “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” [Wealth of Nations Book I, Chapter X.] What prevents such conspiracies from succeeding is the competition from other firms seeking to exploit these attractive prices. When faced with competition, a person or firm can only profit by satisfying customers better than the competition.

But why have American firms, and those of many other industrial countries, become more concentrated and protected from competition?  Largely via state capture. As he reluctantly increased U.S. military spending as the “Cold War” heated up, President Dwight D. Eisenhower worried that it would be hard to avoid a mutually self-serving relationship between the government paying the bills and the defense industry supplying the goods. In his famous Farewell Address on January 16, 1961, Eisenhower warned that: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”

When government becomes involved or increases its involvement with private firms, the door (and the revolving door) is opened for firms to exploit the relationship to their advantage. It is not just the military-industrial complex (or the military-industrial-congressional complex as Eisenhower stated it in the first draft of his Farewell Address) that enjoys government favor and protection. President Trump’s tariffs on imported steel and aluminum are not for the benefit of American’s generally but are protectionist favors to America’s uncompetitive steel and aluminum firms. Protectionism is just another word for corruption.

Some products and industries need to be regulated to protect consumers and insure honesty and transparency. But larger firms increasingly accept, if not welcome, overly burdensome regulations because they are better able to devote resources to complying with them and thus absorbing their cost than are smaller firms. Such regulations protect them from competition from new, smaller firms. Professional licensing has increasingly been used to protect professionals from hairdressers to real estate agents to lawyers from competitors thus enjoying higher fees than would result in a more competitive market for their services.

The quasi monopoly rents firms are able to extract as the result of government protection against competition grow with the size of government involvement with the economy. The increase in income inequality (a reflection of shrinking competition) of recent decades (the increase in America’s Gini coefficient) have followed the large increases in the size of government, whether measured by expenditures, employment, or regulations.  https://wcoats.blog/2008/09/06/how-to-measure-the-size-of-government/

“• In 1900 the federal government consumed less than 5 percent of total output.

  • In 1950 the federal government consumed roughly 15 percent of total output.
  • In 1992 the federal government consumed almost 25 percent of total output.”

https://fee.org/articles/the-growth-of-government-in-america/

Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed Socialist, and Elizabeth Warren, a self-proclaimed defender of capitalism (I am not joking), argue that to fix industrial concentration, to prevent or unwind monopolies, the government needs to be bigger and more active in the economy. This is backward in terms of logic and experience. I don’t question that overwhelmingly most public servants work for the government out of the desire to serve the public. However, the interface between government and the private sector creates opportunities and incentives (resisted by most I am sure) for corruption. By corruption I mean the exploitation of government regulations and contracts to reduce market competition for (i.e. to protect) established firms.

Political lobbying by firms and trade organizations can provide useful industry input to congressional legislation or executive rule making but it is generally the prospective of established firms rather than of potential competitors or the general public. “Since the 1970s, there has been explosive growth in the lobbying industry, particularly in Washington DC.  By 2011, one estimate of overall lobbying spending nationally was $30+ billion dollars. An estimate of lobbying expenses in the federal arena was $3.5 billion in 2010, while it had been only $1.4 billion in 1998.” “Lobbying_in_the_United_States – A_growing_billion_dollar_business”

In 2010 the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, “that the free speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent expenditures for political communications by corporations, including nonprofit corporations, unions and other associations.” “Citizens_United_v._FEC – Super_PACs”  This opened the door to direct corporate and union “donations” to political candidates and parties, providing a powerful tool in achieving government cooperation with what these groups consider their special interest.

The competitiveness, and whatever the lack of it contributes to income inequality, of American businesses will not be served by expanding the government’s role in the economy, quite the opposite. Competition is rarely stifled by natural market phenomena. Rather it is much more often blocked or restrained by government regulations that favor the established, dominant firms, who are able to gain the government’s favor. The political forces of expanding government regulation and interference in the economy promote every increasing state capture by dominant firms.  Crony capitalism will be the death of the real thing if it is not continuously resisted. As we should all well know, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

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The Basis of American World Leadership

Since the end of World War II, the United States has played a disproportionately large role in guiding world affairs. It has unquestionably been the most powerful nation on earth. Its dominance reflects a number of factors including economic and military strength. But in addition to these, most countries have been happy, or at least willing, to accept American leadership because it was largely seen as guided by broad principles of fair play and the rule of law.  American leadership was the least of evils. The United States has benefited a great deal from this good will.

But as the old saying goes: power tends to corrupt, etc.  Being able often to bend other countries to our will (as long as others still saw us as driven by widely shared principles of fair play), the U.S. increasingly exploited this influence to encompass policies or actions others were not so happy to comply with.  To take a fairly recent example, the wisdom of President Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or the Iran Deal) to stop Iran’s development of its nuclear capabilities for at least ten years was not shared by the other parties to the agreement (the P5+1–the permanent members of the UN Security Council: the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, and China, plus Germany–and the European Union).  All signers of the agreement except the United States continued to abide by it. But the U.S. dollar is the primary currency used for international payments and the U.S. threatened to punish (cut off from the use of the dollar and trade with the U.S.) any country that did not observe its unilateral trade sanctions on Iran. The non-U.S. signers attempted to set up alternative ways for paying for trade with Iran that did not use the dollar but found the reach of American threats hard to avoid. On January 5, 2020 Iran announced that it would stop complying with the agreement and resume its nuclear development program. It is not clear why Trump considers this better for American security than the (at least) ten-year suspension in the Iran Deal he tore up.  See: Economic-Sanction

President Trump has also used up a lot of “good will capital” with his Trade wars. He began by withdrawing the U.S. from the 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP (Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the United States). The TPP further reduced tariff and non-tariff restrictions on trade, while expanding and modernizing coverage for the digital world. As, or perhaps more, importantly, the TPP provided a model and positive encouragement to China to adopt Western trading rules as a condition of joining the TPP in the future.  The remaining signatories went forward with a Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which went into effect a year ago with the U.S.

But Trump’s counterproductive trade strategies didn’t stop there by a long shot. In addition to economically harmful tariff protection of inefficient American industries (e.g. steel, washing machines, etc.), Trump has angered many of our friends in Europe, Japan and elsewhere by threatening tariffs in situations that do not seem to be justified by the World Trade Organization’s rules. In the process he is ignoring and weakening the WTO, which has played such an important role in the gradual trade liberalization that has dramatically lifted living standards around the world following WWII. He even tore up the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and replaced with a new agreement that is not unambiguously better.  See: The-shriveling-of-US-influence

But once bullies taste their power, their appetites tend to grow. While elected with promises to end our forever wars and reduce our military commitments around the world, Trump has done neither.  This is not the occasion for exploring why (I don’t doubt Trump’s sincere desire to achieve both of those goals, but his ignorance of history seems to have made him vulnerable to flipflopping in the face of pressure from the neocons, such as Secretary of State Pompeo, he has surrounded himself with). Rather it is to review his rapid descent into a major bully, to the detriment of American influence and security.

On January 3, President Trump ordered the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force in retaliation for an attack a week earlier on an Iraqi air base in Kirkuk that killed a U.S. civilian contractor and injured four U.S. soldiers and two Iraqis.

The drone that launched two missiles that killed Gen. Soleimani at the Baghdad International Airport also killed the Iraqi leader of the PMU, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a close Soleimani associate, and eight other Iraqis.  According to the Pentagon, “General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,”  According to Adil Abdul-Mahdi, Prime Minister of Iraq, Soleimani was on his way to see the PM in order to discuss moves being made to ease the confrontation between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.

The White House stressed that Soleimani’s planned attack was “imminent” thus justifying it without having to first inform Congress. Bruce Ackerman argues that Trump’s failure to obtain Congressional authorization for the attack justifies a third article of impeachment.  See: Trump-war-against-Iran-impeachable-offense  Iraqi PM Mahdi claimed that the attack on Iraqi soil was a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and a violation of the agreement between the U.S. and Iraq for stationing American forces in Iraq. Though Congress was not informed in advance, the Israeli government was told of the planned attack, according to some reports. In these circumstances, it is very difficult to know which reports are authentic and which are deliberate (or sometimes inadvertent) fake news.

In order to assess the likely impact of all this on our standing and support in the rest of the world, I like to evaluate American actions from how they might seem standing in someone else’s shoes. How would Americans react, for example, if our government had invited, say, French troops for training in the U.S., and the French Army blew up a Russian general on his way to meetings at the UN (or reverse the roles between the French and the Russians) without our permission?

But this note is not about whether this assassination was legal or good policy. For that see the following article from The Economist: Was-Americas-assassination-of-Qassem-Suleimani-justified?  It’s about the rise of American bullying in the world and its impact on our standing and ability to influence friends and enemies in ways that serve our national interest. What followed in the days after Soleimani’s assassination is mind boggling.

Keep in mind that following America’s invasion of Iraq that started on March 20, 2003, the U.S. and its coalition partners returned sovereignty to the Iraqi government at the end of June 2004. I was there as part of the Coalition Provisional Authority (I was the Senior Monetary Policy Advisor to the Central Bank of Iraq reporting to the U.S. Treasury). As we boarded helicopters to waiting planes at the Baghdad International Airport (of recent fame) many of us recalled images of the last American helicopter lifting off the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon when the U.S. ended its participation in the Vietnam War. Over the next seven years American and coalition troops remained in Iraq under terms agreed to in a Status of Forces agreement with the Iraqi government.  Following the ups and downs of troop surges and draw downs American forces were kicked out after Blackwater security contractors killed 17 Iraqis in Nisour Square in 2010.

With the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) American troops were invited back under new, less formal terms. “Instead, the current military presence is based on an arrangement dating from 2014 that’s less formal and ultimately based on the consent of the Iraqi government, which asked the parliament on Sunday to pass urgent measures to usher out foreign troops…. ‘If the prime minister rescinds the invitation, the U.S. military must leave, unless it wants to maintain what would be an illegal occupation in a hostile environment,’” said Ramzy Mardini, an Iraq scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace.  Getting-us-troops-out-of-iraq-might-not-be-that-hard-say-experts

And how did POTUS, the great negotiator, respond to the Iraqi Parliament’s vote: “President Donald Trump threatened to impose deep sanctions on Iraq if it moves to expel U.S. troops…. ‘We’ve spent a lot of money in Iraq,’ Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One as he returned to Washington after spending the holidays at his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago. ‘We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there. It cost billions of dollars to build. … We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it.’” Trump-threatens-iraq-sanctions-expel-us-troops

However, the Pentagon promptly announced that it was repositioning its troops in preparation for withdrawing them. Reuters released a copy of a letter on US Department of Defense letterhead addressed to the Iraqi Defense Ministry by US Marine Corps Brigadier General William H. Seely III, the commanding general of Task Force Iraq, which read in relevant part: “In deference to the sovereignty of the Republic of Iraq, and as requested by the Iraqi Parliament and the Prime Minister, CITF-OIR will be repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement…. We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure.”  reuters.com/article/

Within hours, the Pentagon stated that no decisions had been taken and that the letter had been sent by mistake. “U.S. Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Monday that a leaked letter from the U.S. military to Iraq that created impressions of an imminent U.S. withdrawal was a poorly worded draft document meant only to underscore an increased movement of forces.”  Iraq-security-pm  Or maybe they forgot to consult POTUS or maybe he changed his mind.  Are you confused yet? See: Amid-confusion-and-contradictions-Trump-white-house-stumbles-in-initial-public-response-to-Soleimanis-killing

In response to Iran’s threat to retaliate for killing General Soleimani “Trump tweeted on Saturday that the United States has targeted 52 sites for possible retaliation, including “some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture.” The outcry over this clear war crime was immediate. “Secretary of Defense Mark Esper… put himself at odds with President Trump on Monday night by definitively telling reporters that the U.S. military will not target cultural sites inside Iran on his watch, even if hostilities continue to escalate in the wake of the U.S. drone strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani at the Baghdad airport last week. ‘We will follow the laws of armed conflict….’” See: Esper’s-split-with-trump-over-targeting-iranian-cultural-sites-is-a-nod-to-the-laws-of-armed-conflict  Trump quickly backed down. Perhaps discussing these decisions with his staff before twitting them would be a good idea.

These are but a few examples of a bully on the loose. “Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif told NPR that he was scheduled to deliver an address when the U.N. Security Council meets Thursday [Jan 9] but that he was told the State Department had informed the U.N. that there was not enough time to process his request for a visa, which he said he first submitted 25 days ago.” Iran-foreign-minster-javad-zarif-denied-visa   Under the 1947 U.N. headquarters agreement, “the United States is generally required to allow access to the United Nations for foreign diplomats.”  Once again, we are violating our commitments. Iran is demanding that all future meetings of international bodies be held outside the US.  The IMF and World Bank are also headquartered in the U.S.

The American and coalition partners now in Iraq are there to support its fight against ISIS. This benefits us, our partners, and Iraq. The traditional tools of diplomacy (persuasion), rather than the threats of a bully, would ultimately be more effective.  The respectful consideration traditionally given to the views and positions of the United States in international bodies –such as global satellite spectrum allocation–global warming agreements–security agreements–or any other multilateral agreement in which we have an interest, is rapidly vanishing.  Assuming that the Trump administration can de-escalate the current tensions with Iran, something quite possible with sufficient diplomatic skill–see: The-soleimani-killing-could-draw-the-us-deeper-into-the-mideast-but-it-doesnt-have-to–our general loss of good will is the real cost of excessive bullying and it will hurt us considerably.

 

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Goodbye 2019 (and good riddance)

As 2019 and the decade of the 20 teens comes to a close, the impeachment of Donald Trump, only the third President impeached in the history of the United States, dominates the headlines.  My hope (I am a crazy optimist) and wish for my country’s sake is for Trump’s trial in the US Senate to adopt rules that most everyone will see as fair. That means giving Trump every opportunity to state and defend his case and the opposition every opportunity to state theirs. Some Republicans have denied the evidence presented in the House investigation that Trump offered favors (White House visit and military aid) to Ukraine President Zelensky if he would investigate the activities of Trump’s political opponent’s son in Ukraine. Other Republicans, such as Congressman Will Hurd, accepted the evidence but argued that the offence was not sufficiently serious to justify impeachment. Congressman Hurd’s judgement reflects the fact, I suppose, that political standards have sunk so low that we now accept that every President lies to us and abuses his authority (see the Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/investigations/afghanistan-papers/documents-database/).  I think it would be a mistake to accept and normalize such behavior.

Here are some of the key issues of this year (at least those I wrote about) and a few of my blogs/articles about them:

Health care insurance

Given medical costs must be paid by someone (the recipient of the care, the tax payers, insurance premiums, etc.). Insurance shares the cost (the lucky who are well help pay for the unlucky who are sick). But how services are paid for (what and how much is covered by insurance, etc.) will also influence the services provided and their cost.

https://wcoats.blog/2019/08/01/health-care-in-america-2/

Trade war and protectionism

President Trump has torn up the rule book for negotiating freer and freer trade. The result so far has left us worse off.  Fed economists Aaron Flaaen and Justin Pierce found “that tariff increases enacted in 2018 are associated with relative reductions in manufacturing employment and relative increases in producer prices.” https://www.federalreserve.gov/econres/feds/files/2019086pap.pdf

Trump pulled out of the progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), negotiated a “new” North American Free Trade Agreement (whatever he calls it) that is worse than the existing NAFTA except for the new parts taken from the TPP, worsened trade with China (so far–see Federal Reserve report above), alienated potential partners who would have happily joined us in negotiating with China, and angered the EU with whom he wants a new trade agreement. His potentially illegal uses of tariffs have introduced government protection of favored industries increasing crony capitalism. He continues to weaken the World Trade Organization (WTO), which has provided the bases of increasingly free rule-based trade since WWII. The growth in trade over the last 70 years has helped lift most peoples of the world out of dire poverty.  The number of people living in extreme poverty fell from 2.2 million in 1970 to 0.7 million in 2015.

https://wcoats.blog/2019/11/18/protecting-jobs/

https://wcoats.blog/2019/08/05/econ-101-currency-manipulation/

https://wcoats.blog/2019/06/07/the-sources-of-prosperity/

Foreign wars and policy

President Trump rightly condemned our forever wars and promised retrenchment. I agree with his assessment of our excessive military aggressions and deployments abroad, but for one reason or another he has failed to deliver. The New York Times reports that: “Under President Trump, there are now more troops in the Middle East than when he took office.” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/21/world/middleeast/us-troops-deployments.html

Trump seems to act on impulse without serious consultation with his National Security Council, State Department or Pentagon, decimating our diplomacy. His periodic insults to our foreign allies haven’t helped either.  Nor have his love affairs with Putin, Kim Jon-un, and Xi Jinping (do you see a pattern here?).  Diplomacy is the alternative to military adventures for serving our national interests abroad. Trump has failed to fill important State Department positions and seems to pay little attention to his NSC and State Department briefings. Having removed two ambassadors to Ukraine in one year (this year) because his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, thought they were insufficiently loyal to Trump, the U.S. currently has no ambassador in Ukraine.  Trump’s stewardship of our international relations has been a disaster.

Then there was Trump’s intervention in Military justice: From the Military Times: “President Donald Trump’s decision to grant clemency in the cases of three military members tangled in war crimes cases raises questions about whether troops are being given a green light to disobey the rules of law…

Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, convicted of second degree murder in the death of three Afghans, was given a full pardon from president for the crimes. Army Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, who faced murder charges next year for a similar crime, was also given a full pardon for those alleged offenses.  Special Warfare Operator Chief Edward Gallagher, who earlier this fall was acquitted of a string of alleged war crimes while being convicted of posing with a dead Taliban member, had his rank restored to Chief Petty Officer by the president.”  “We-shouldnt-forget-what-whistleblower-seals-told-us-about-eddie-gallagher”  What is Trump thinking? What does he have in mind?

https://wcoats.blog/2019/12/14/nation-building-in-afghanistan/

https://wcoats.blog/2019/05/03/oslo-the-play/

https://wcoats.blog/2019/03/11/is-rep-ilhan-omar-anti-semitic/

Monetary policy and the international monetary system

While monetary policy has been relatively good for a floating exchange rate system, asset price bubbles and international currency flow imbalances persist and, in my view, are unavoidable. We need to adopt a hard anchor for the value of the dollar.  The shockingly large fiscal deficits (over one trillion dollars per annum in 2019) with a fully employed economy, when we should be running a budget surplus to provide room for deficits during the next downturn, are building serious risks for the not so distant future. Trump’s attacks on the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy will make managing those risks more difficult.

https://wcoats.blog/2019/01/25/central-banking-aware/

https://wcoats.blog/2019/03/24/central-banking-award/

https://wcoats.blog/2018/05/01/free-banking-in-the-digital-age/

https://wcoats.blog/2019/07/24/whither-libra/

https://wcoats.blog/2019/04/16/returning-to-currencies-with-hard-anchors/

Information and the Internet

The Internet has had a profound impact on how we live and do business. It is hard to imagine a day without our mobile phones. But like all new tools and technology it opens the door to new ways of doing harm as well. This is currently most conspicuous with the spreading of fake news and learning anew what news sources to trust and not trust.

https://wcoats.blog/2019/12/01/new-tools-require-new-rules/

Domestic politics and Trump

In my discussions of the Trump administration I have tried to focus on policies, some of which I like and some I don’t, rather than on Donald Trump himself, about whom I like nothing. The following focuses on Trump.

https://wcoats.blog/2019/12/27/a-letter-to-the-republican-party/

https://wcoats.blog/2019/11/20/to-whom-or-what-am-i-loyal/

My friend Jonathan Rauch explains the limitations of my efforts to focus on policies in an article well worth reading. “Believing is belonging,” https://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/rethinking-polarization

Modern Society and its challenges

If we move away from personalities and dig deeper into our human motivations that inform policy design and choices, we can’t escape the role of incentives at the center of much of the analysis of my profession–economics. I have and will continue to explore my thoughts on human nature and the role of incentives, institutions, and customs in our search for how best to live free with others seeking their own goals in our society.

https://wcoats.blog/2019/08/10/where-does-the-desire-to-explore-come-from/

https://wcoats.blog/2016/11/22/globalization-and-nationalism-good-andor-bad/

https://wcoats.blog/2016/12/31/my-political-platform-for-the-nation-2017/

Happy New Year

 

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A Letter to the Republican Party

As a no doubt futile outlet for my frustration with the Republican Party, I have been enclosing the following letter in the return envelops they keep sending me with the request for financial support.

Dear Members of the Republican National Committee,

The Trump administration has had some positive achievements domestically (tax reform, regulatory reforms and court appointments). However, its continued increase in government spending (annual deficits of one trillion or more when the economy is at a cyclical peak) is wrong and unthinkable for Republicans. President Trump’s weakening of America’s support for and role in international organizations, abandonment of the Iran Deal and anti-nuclear proliferation treatises, and war on trade, are bad for America and the world we live in.  President Trump’s divisive language is unbecoming of the leader of a great nation, a nation of immigrants. The Republican Party has failed to stand up for these principles and to criticize the President for these offenses.

Even more concerning is your acquiescence to President Trump’s lying, immorality, and corruption. His clearly documented attempted bribery of the President of Ukraine for personal gain is damaging American security interests. His obstruction of Congress’s execution of its constitutional duties is very concerning. These and other acts cross the sadly low bar of acceptable behavior.

For the sake of our deeply divided country, the Senate owes us all an impeachment trial that any honest person will consider fair. President Trump must have every opportunity to explain and defend his behavior and those challenging it must have every opportunity to make their case. President Trump obstructed the House’s efforts to obtain firsthand evidence of the President’s attempt to use his executive authority for personal gain. It is essential that the Senate permit the testimony of those blocked in the House by the President (Bolton, Mulvaney, Mike Duffey).

With your silence you have abandoned me and my continued commitment to limited and sound government.  I cannot continue to support the party until you stand up and again defend our principles.

Sincerely,

Warren Coats

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