It’s Perfect

When I saw the caption of Andrew Michta’s article at The American Interest, “Five Priorities for Europe’s Trans-Atlantic Strategy”, I almost laughed out loud. Why should European politicians change anything? What they’re doing is perfect.

Not only do they spend less on their own defense than would otherwise be necessary, their spending is insufficient to maintain their responsibilities in collective defense or to play the role that they should on the world stage. They can use the money they’ve saved to buy votes through social and infrastructure spending. And they can lambast the United States for spending too much and being so warlike.

How could it be any better? It’s perfect as it is.

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“Nullification” is the theory that the states have the right to ignore or “nullify” any federal law they deem unconstitutional. Nullification would seem to fly in the face of the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

It was used unsuccessfully by some Southern states to reject integration of their schools. In their decision in Cooper v. Aaron the Supreme Court explicitly rejected the theory of nullification saying in part that Brown v. Board “can neither be nullified openly and directly by state legislators or state executive or judicial officers nor nullified indirectly by them through evasive schemes for segregation” and asserting that state attempts to nullify federal law are ineffective. Nullification has never been upheld by the U. S. Supreme Court.

California legislators have recently passed a law, the “California Values Act”, effectively making the state of California a sanctuary for illegal immigrants. The Los Angeles Times reports:

California lawmakers on Saturday passed a “sanctuary state” bill to protect immigrants without legal residency in the U.S., part of a broader push by Democrats to counter expanded deportation orders under the Trump administration.

The legislation by Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), the most far-reaching of its kind in the country, would limit state and local law enforcement communication with federal immigration authorities, and prevent officers from questioning and holding people on immigration violations.

After passionate debate in both houses of the Legislature, staunch opposition from Republican sheriffs and threats from Trump administration officials against sanctuary cities, Senate Bill 54 was approved Saturday with a 27-11 vote along party lines. But the bill sent to Gov. Jerry Brown drastically scaled back the version first introduced, the result of tough negotiations between Brown and De León in the final weeks of the legislative session.

Is the California Values Act an attempt at nullification? If not why not? If so is nullification justified? When?
Who decides and how do you know?


The Limits of Strategic Patience

Sadly, in his post at the RAND Blog analyst Bruce Bennett doesn’t answer the question he asks about U. S. policy with respect to North Korea let alone the one he implies. The question he asks is what should the United States do besides exercising “strategic patience”?

The U.S. should consider pursuing a multidimensional approach — including economic sanctions, threats of military actions, and disseminating information in North Korea that would threaten its internal politics — to try to persuade Kim Jong Un that his nuclear weapons do more to jeopardize his regime than secure its survival.

Our pursuit of economic sanctions against North Korea has very nearly reached its limit. There is no stomach for imposing sanctions on China and that would be next step. The Chinese are pretty clearly beginning to sense that. How much stronger a threat can we make beyond the threats that President Trump issued at the UN? Bellow louder? Turn redder?

I’m sure that Mr. Bennett knows better than I of the limitations we have in pursuing information operations within North Korea. They would be ineffective anyway for reasons I’ve explored here in the past.

The real $50 trillion question is when has strategic patience, my preferred course of inaction, run its course. Mr. Bennett correctly characterizes the present:

The July 4th test, which appeared to demonstrate a missile range adequate to cover much of Alaska, may not have carried a warhead heavy enough to accommodate a North Korean nuclear weapon. The July 28th ICBM test, while appearing to have adequate range to reach much of the United States, had a warhead that was almost certainly too small to carry a North Korean nuclear weapon, and in any case reportedly burned up on reentry (though Postol and colleagues dispute what actually burned up, saying they believe that it was the nearly empty upper stage of the missile that actually burned up). The warhead may have burned up because North Korea reduced the weight of the warhead shields in order to obtain greater range.

or, in other words, the North Koreans do not presently pose a threat to the mainland United States.

What actions by the North Koreans would the Chinese deem required a response from the United States? Detonating a thermonuclear weapon over the Pacific? Attacking U. S. forces directly? Detonating a weapon within Japanese territorial waters? These are the tough questions which I wish Mr. Bennett had answered.

While I continue to encourage strategic patience, I don’t think we should bandy words about, either. There should be only one response to a actual North Korean attack, it would entail the sudden deaths of 25 million North Koreans, and it would be over in a matter of an hour or so.


Things Have Changed in Mexico

In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times Mexican politician Agustín Barrios Gómez tells Americans some things I wish were emphasized more frequently, contrasting the Mexico City earthquake of 32 years ago with the more recent quake:

On Sept. 19, 1985, an earthquake registering 8.1 on the Richter scale struck Mexico City. Partly because of inadequate building codes, the death toll reached upward of 20,000 people. Electricity, telephones, the airport, the subway — all were down for several days.

The government’s failure was especially glaring. Insular and out of touch after 56 years of single-party rule, then-President Miguel de la Madrid responded testily to offers of international help by declaring, “We are self-sufficient.” We were not, but we tried to be. In collective shock at the lack of response from their government, Mexicans self-organized. We coordinated massive relief efforts that saved many thousands of lives, and we rebuilt astonishingly fast.

In 2000, when de la Madrid’s Institutional Revolutionary Party finally handed power over to the opposition, newly elected President Vicente Fox would declare that modern democracy in Mexico was the product of civil society finding its strength after the 1985 earthquake.

Exactly 32 years later, on Sept. 19, 2017, a combination trepidatory (up-and-down) and oscillatory (side-to-side) 7.1 earthquake hit, 12 days after a nearby oscillatory 8.2 quake. The Richter scale measures energy released, not the violence of the quake, which has more to do with location, depth and geological characteristics of the affected area. So the 7.1 felt 10 times worse than the 8.2. You’ve seen the videos shot around the city by stunned citizens — and they are terrible.

But unlike in 1985, government, civil society and the building codes are much more resilient. Electricity, telephones, the airport, the subway — all are functioning. In what has to be one of the great coincidences of the decade, two hours before the earthquake struck, the city performed its annual seismic drill. (It takes place on the anniversary of the 1985 quake.) We have an earthquake early warning system mounted on each of the city’s 15,000 CCTV cameras. Up to 90 seconds’ warning can make the difference between deaths in the hundreds or the thousands.

Thirty-two years ago, the federal government turned away help that already had arrived at the Mexico City airport, including a Swiss canine unit trained to find bodies after an avalanche — a transferable skill. My father, the ambassador to Switzerland at the time, managed to get them into the city despite official disapproval. This time, the Mexican tax authorities are waving import duties on international goods sent to help emergency efforts. Cellphone service is available, and Wi-Fi hot spots are free. Uber is shuttling volunteers to rescue operations. Amazon Mexico teamed up with the Red Cross to create a massive relief “wish list” so good Samaritans can donate directly. Google Maps has helped us identify the location of collapsed buildings so we can channel aid there.

In his weekly column, Mexican journalist Leo Zuckermann declared himself twice as proud today as he was in 1985 to be a Chilango, as we Mexico City residents call ourselves. He’s proud to see how all of our efforts, and billions of dollars, have paid off in earthquake preparedness. But he’s also proud to see evidence of other seismic changes.

Since 1985, we have built what is arguably the most sophisticated electoral system in the world. We have gone from being a country dependent on petrodollars to one that is a major manufacturing powerhouse, with a diversified economy that is among the biggest in the world.

Thirty-two years ago Mexico was a poor country, incompetently run. Today it’s a middle income country and governed much more effectively. They’re more than able to take care of their problems but, as the op-ed notes, not too proud to take help from other countries when they need it. The Mexican people shouldn’t be patronized by us. They should be respected.


What Actually Happened

Quoting the Clintons’ long time pollster, Stanley Greenberg, James Freeman writes some things that a lot of people need to hear:

In the magazine American Prospect this week, Mr. Greenberg writes:

The Trump presidency concentrates the mind on the malpractice that helped put him in office. For me, the most glaring examples include the Clinton campaign’s over-dependence on technical analytics; its failure to run campaigns to win the battleground states; the decision to focus on the rainbow base and identity politics at the expense of the working class; and the failure to address the candidate’s growing ‘trust problem,’ to learn from events and reposition.

He goes on:

Another problem was that both Mrs. Clinton and her predecessor thought the Obama years were better than they were. Writes Mr. Greenberg, “Obama and Clinton lived in a cosmopolitan and professional America that wasn’t very angry about the state of the country, even if many of the groups in the Clinton coalition were struggling and angry.”

Following on John Judis’ recent conclusion that identity politics is a loser for Democrats, Mr. Greenberg’s analysis of what happened in 2016 gives this column hope that future Democratic candidates may spend less time trying to inflame racial divisions and more time trying to understand the concerns of average voters.

That’s a lot more like the world I’ve seen around me. It’s the world of prosperous party apparatchiks in both the Republican and Democratic parties who are working hard to inflame passions but not nearly hard enough to solve problems.

There’s one remaining problem with that analysis. It doesn’t give nearly enough credit to Trump who capitalized on the incompetence but at least it’s a start.


The Cook County “Sweetened Beverages” Tax

Since the “sweetened beverages” tax has gone into effect in Cook County we’ve been absolutely deluged with public service announcements, funded by Michael Bloomberg, trying to convince Chicagoans to appreciate what their betters are doing for them. The tax adds a penny an ounce to the cost of a bottle of pop or, in an exercise in overreach to any beverage whether naturally or artificially sweetened—soda, sports drinks, flavored water, energy drinks, pre-made sweetened coffee and tea with less than 50% milk content, etc. That translates to $.72 a six pack or an additional $2.88 in tax per case.

If my dear local grocery store, Happy Foods, had a fidelity club, I’d be a member. I am a daily shopper and have been for more than 25 years so I am, consequently, a face familiar to the staff at the store.

The other day I was chatting with the store manager and she told me that since the tax went into effect soft drink sales across Cook County have declined by 58% county-wide. Since sales tax applies to soft drink sales in Cook County, that means a loss in sales tax revenue. I don’t know what the net effect on tax revenue might be but I suspect that less net revenue is being collected as a consequence of the tax than was anticipated by the County Board.

Keep in mind that the grocery business is a low margin one. A loss of revenue in an item like soft drinks is no joke for many retailers.

Lest you confuse a reduction in sales with a reduction in the consumption of sweetened drinks, in the same conversation the store manager revealed that she was buying her pop when she visited her daughter who lives in DuPage County where the tax does not apply. I don’t think I know anyone who isn’t doing the same thing.

So not only is the tax regressive its effect on health may be negligible as well. Oh well, you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. It would be interesting to know if the members of the Cook County Board were still buying drinks subject to the tax and where they were buying them.


The Art of Finding the Second Best Strategy

I don’t read the Weekly Standard much but in this article in it Ike Brannon touches on something very important. Very, very few policies that get enacted into law are actually the best way to accomplish any objective. Take flood policy, for example:

For instance, they observed, the best policy regarding floods would be to simply disallow all construction in a floodplain, or at least forswear any public financial assistance to people who do build there and subsequently have property damaged by a flood.

which the observant reader would notice resembles what I’ve pointed out on the subject. However, it runs afoul of politics:

However, such a promise cannot be kept: the political pressures to help victims will be too great to resist. What’s more, people recognize that reality, so they fail to heed the government warnings and build in the floodplains anyway, which in turn forces the government’s hand by putting it in a situation where it finds itself obligated to provide assistance after a flood.

Oddly, there are no corresponding political pressures not to have victims. The real victors are land developers.

He’s not quite on such solid ground in discussing immigration policy:

The optimal immigration strategy would be to have no illegal immigrants. Jeff Sessions would achieve that by making massive new investments in border enforcement until it is nearly impossible to enter illegally. My way would be to let every immigrant who arrives in the U.S. receive permission to work.

Is that really the objective of immigration policy? And why doesn’t the actual policy respond to the political pressures that flood policy does? There is a consensus that total immigration (legal and illegal) should be at or below its present level. There is no consensus that it should be at or above its present level. And yet that’s where the policy sits.

I think the answer is that there’s good money to be made from bad policy.

It would be nice if we actually were arriving at second best policies or responding to consensus. What actually seems to be happening is that we’re arriving at the least unacceptable policy that generates the most power, influence, and money for those who support it. We’re optimizing the wrong things.


Why I’m Not Watching the New Ken Burns Documentary

I just don’t have it in me to watch Ken Burns’s documentary on the Vietnam War. I’m sure it’s a masterful job, interesting, and entertaining, joining narration, first hand recollections, photos, video, and music of the period, etc. but I remember the period too well and it was not a happy time for me.

I was called up but didn’t serve. They rejected me for bad eyes and bad knees.


We Are All Pauline Kael Now

James Rogers articulates the Democrats’ gamble pretty well at the Library of Liberty and Law:

Trump is poison for many in the Democratic base. Many have moved from the normal condescension with which Democrats treat Republicans, into pure hatred. They make GOP “Never Trumpers” look like subscribers to American Greatness.

Demoralizing the rabidly anti-Trump portion of the Democratic base means some won’t turn out to vote.


In turn, decreased turnout among the Democratic base would mean that the location of the median voter moves to the right. On the other hand, if Democrats become even more extreme, then it moves the party even further away from the median voter, making it easier for GOP candidates to position themselves to win the critical pivotal voter. In either case, this is good news for the Republicans.

To be sure, a more-pure leftwing Democratic Party might articulate a cleaner, less muddled ideological message, and so persuade the respective medians to move left with them.

Much depends on what you think the mythical median American voter believes. If you think that most Americans are farther to the the left than one might gather from the outcomes of, say, Congressional elections, then it’s no gamble at all. It’s a sure thing. If you think, as Mr. Rogers apparently does, in the “moderately center-right median American voter”, then it’s brain dead. The idea that most Americans don’t really care and what’s really important is energizing your base however small it may be is the key idea behind the gamble.

What occurred to me as I read the piece is that whoever you are and whatever you think, you probably can’t tell what most Americans think. We are all Pauline Kael now.

If you’ve heard of Pauline Kael at all, it’s probably in connection with her most famous quote which is that she didn’t understand how Richard Nixon won the 1968 election because she didn’t know anybody who voted for him which, as it turns out, she never said. What she actually said was:

I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.

which is hardly exculpatory.

Today most of us live in “rather special worlds”. It is more than likely that most of the people we know and with whom we associate whether digitally or in the flesh think pretty much as we do and it is becoming more so, both because the middle is eroding in favor of the extremes and due to assortative mating and patterns of residence.


The Old New Left vs. the New New Left

At the Claremont Review of Books Charles Kesler contrasts the New Left of the 1960s of Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, and SDS with today’s New Left of antifa and BLM. Here’s a snippet of the article and, I think, its kernel:

The old New Left hated being treated as children by professors and deans who claimed to stand in loco parentis. Nothing offended Tom Hayden more, as he remarked in his 1961 Letter, than American universities’ “endless repressions of free speech and thought, the stifling paternalism that infects the student’s whole perception of what is real and possible and enforces a parent-child relationship until the youth is suddenly transplanted into ‘the world.’” When the Free Speech Movement (FSM) formed at Berkeley in 1964, its analysis of frustrated, alienated students, as Allen J. Matusow writes in his very fine The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s (1984), “came straight out of the Port Huron Statement.” “In our free-speech fight,” said one of FSM’s leaders, Mario Savio, “we have come up against what may emerge as the greatest problem of our nation—depersonalized, unresponsive bureaucracy.”

Nowadays, student protestors demand in effect, and sometimes literally, that colleges protect them from adulthood, from humanistic debates and political disagreements. “It is not about creating an intellectual space!” a Yale student shouted in 2015 at Professor Nicholas Christakis, then master of Silliman College, one of Yale’s residential colleges. “It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here!” She added, not exactly maturely, “You should not sleep at night. You are disgusting!” At home, apparently, she is always a child.

Authentic or strong individualism seems far from what today’s protestors are seeking. They raise their voices almost always as members of groups, whose relevant identity is more collective than personal: students of color, the marginalized, victims of microaggressions, who seek protection by and from the white power structure, and compensation to boot.

On their own, apart from the group, they often seem emotionally fragile. As another Silliman resident, Jencey Paz, wrote in her Yale Herald article “Hurt at Home,” “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.” The journal removed her article from its website after it attracted a lot of unflattering attention—thus confirming Paz’s preferences.

No one would have called Hayden or Jerry Rubin or the other leaders of the old radicals “snowflakes.” They wanted to oppose the macroagressions of a society that, in their view, had lost its way amid racism and the existential threats of the Bomb and the Cold War. They wanted to change society, not retreat from it. What happened to the New Left’s passionate idealism?

It hasn’t disappeared entirely, but the theory embraced by today’s campus Left is far different from that of the ’60s New Left. The Port Huron Statement reflected deep intellectual engagement, if not exactly seriousness. Its contemporary influences included Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955) and C. Wright Mills’s The Power Elite (1956). Marcuse, a student of Martin Heidegger’s, had perhaps the primary philosophical influence on the movement, and along with other writers helped to connect it, however tendentiously, to Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, Hegel, and Rousseau.

The new New Left has no comparable philosophical grounding or intellectual foundation. A widely adopted primer of its thought (used in the Claremont Colleges, for instance), Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (2001) by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, now in its third edition, nods in the direction of Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, but these are dusty portraits on the wall rather than active intellectual interests. The book presumes the truth of an easy-going and politically convenient postmodernism without ever establishing it, or reflecting on the alternative. But that’s what’s so handy about postmodernism, isn’t it? It lets you get on with it—skip past the questions of truth and justice, and get right to the delicious matter of power.

I don’t see the real dichotomy as between the Left and the New Left, the Old New Left and the New New Left, or even the Left and the Right so much as between the self-described “creative class” and LBJ. The “creative class” have at least some claim to elite status; LBJ had none other than that of Napoleon—he had brought himself to power. Fifty years ago as now the LBJs had the power. Their “creative class” myrmidons are mere appendages. The LBJs have created little and will create little other than their own influence, power, and wealth.

Who are they? Household names: Rahm Emanuel, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, Rick Scott, the list goes on.