So, Why Did They Want It?

In his Washington Post column Robert Samuelson presents his thoughts on why trade war and debt make a deadly cocktail:

Here’s where the trade war and debt may intersect disastrously. Since 2003, global debt has soared. As a share of the world economy (gross domestic product), the increase went from 248% of GDP to 318%. In the first quarter of 2018 alone, global debt rose by a huge $8 trillion. The figures include all major countries and most types of debt: consumer, business and government.

But to service these debts requires rising incomes, while an expanding trade war threatens to squeeze incomes. The resort to more tariffs and trade restrictions will make it harder for borrowers to pay their debts. At best, this could slow the global economy. At worst, it could trigger another financial crisis.

The question that Mr. Samuelson does not consider is, given its risks, why has China engaged in trade war and incurred such high levels of debt for so long? I think the simplest explanations are that it manifestly worked and they still don’t believe that the U. S. will be willing to put up with the discomfort that Trump’s tariffs will bring. They may well be right.

However, I take haste to point out that, contrary to what Mr. Samuelson seems to believe, the war in the Pacific did not begin with Doolittle’s raid and the American Civil War did not begin with Bull Run. Those were counter-attacks. With its predatory mercantilist policies China has been engaging in trade war with the U. S. for the last 25 years. And it started incurring its present high levels of debt more than a decade ago. His concern is a bit late.


What Do They Mean?

At Atlantic Elaine Godfrey pens what is actually a pretty thoughtful article on what Democrats mean when they say “Abolish ICE”. I think she’s being somewhat overly generous. When both the chairman of the DNC and the deputy chairman are calling for open borders, it isn’t much of a stretch to think that they mean that people should not be deported or subject to civil or criminal penalties for entering the country at other than an official entry point and without scrutiny.


Is the European Union a Foe?

In reference to this remark:

I think the European Union is a foe, what they do to us in trade. Now you wouldn’t think of the European Union but they’re a foe. Russia is foe in certain respects. China is a foe economically, certainly they are a foe. But that doesn’t mean they are bad. It doesn’t mean anything. It means that they are competitive.

by the president, I think it’s a poor choice of words. I would agree that the EU is a competitor. Who wouldn’t? Isn’t it obvious? In particular the euro was started explicitly as an alternative to the dollar.

I think there’s an argument that Germany is what might be called “hostile, non-belligerent” with respect to the United States.

I think that China sees trade, diplomacy, and global influence as a zero sum game. For China to rise, the U. S. must decline. We’ve worked very hard at ensuring that Russia and the United States maintain some level of hostility and the Russians have been cooperative. IMO they see the United States and President Trump pretty realistically. Check the third graph in the preceding link. A majority of Russians want closer political, military, and economic ties with the U. S. Seeing a corresponding chart for the U. S. would be interesting. This article from Pew Research suggests the Russians might think of us more favorably than the Germans do.


Let’s Make a Deal: Syria Edition

At The RAND Blog Samuel Charap and Jeffrey Martini make an observation highly relevant to the meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin:

Over the past four years, the United States has enjoyed a luxury in Syria that will soon disappear: The top U.S. priority (defeating the Islamic State in the eastern part of the country) was compatible with the Syrian regime’s top priority (defeating insurgents in the western part of the country). In practical terms, this meant that Damascus acquiesced to U.S. operations and de facto control in the east while Washington — gradually under President Barack Obama and then quickly under Trump — gave up on the opposition in the west. However, this unwritten arrangement is now coming undone as both sides shift their objectives.

Many analysts assumed that the Assad regime only cared about “useful Syria,” a term that refers to the populated western spine that runs from Daraa in the south through Damascus, Homs, Hama, and north to Aleppo. Seven years into the conflict, it turns out that Assad and his allies actually care a lot about water, agriculture, electricity, oil, and control over borders — all of which are found in the country’s east. The assault on the southwest over the past few weeks is a preview of what can be expected east of the Euphrates River, where the United States supports the Syrian Democratic Forces as the authority on the ground.

The situation right now is that the influence of both Russia and the United States in Syria are at their acme. And both of us want to get out. It’s clearly time to negotiate a settlement that gives all of the major parties what they want. Assad gets to keep his country. Russia retains an ally and access to a Mediterranean port. The U. S. doesn’t need to worry about a rising DAESH in Syria. Iran retains a partner that’s beholden to it. What’s missing? Regime change.


The Chumpification of America

Following the indictments of a dozen Russian military operatives for hacking into the Democratic National Committee’s computers, at The Hill Jonathan Turley succinctly summarizes the state of the Mueller investigation to date:

After 14 months of investigation (and for the second time in a formal indictment), the Justice Department has stated that it is not alleging any knowing collusion between Trump campaign officials or associates and the Russians. Back in February, Mueller handed down his major indictment of 13 Russians for actively interfering with the 2016 election by spreading false information. Both Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein expressly noted that the evidence involved “unwitting” communications with Russians adopting false identities. This indictment shows that same pattern of clearly concealed identities in seeking to hack and distribute email information from the Democratic campaign and its associates.

I remain content to let the Mueller team do its job. Is this latest set of indictments the beginning of the end, the end of the beginning, or just another revelation with many more to come? We don’t know.

But I think it’s time now for me to make a prediction. Everyone is going to disappointed with the results of this investigation. Democrats will be disappointed that Donald Trump won’t be perp-walked to the gallows for collusion. He probably won’t be impeached and in all likelihood will be re-elected. Republicans will be disappointed that he won’t be fully and completely exonerated by the investigation. He and his campaign will look like chumps, eager for any incriminating information they could use on Hillary Clinton and her campaign as well as, needless to say, a quick buck.

And IMO that’s the main message of the events of the last 14 months. We all look like chumps. The DNC looks like a bunch of chumps for recklessness in the handling of their secrets, for foisting the least popular Democratic presidential nominee in American history on their heedless party, for turning the Democratic Party into the junior partner of the Clinton campaign, and for their breathless claims of “collusion”. The Republicans look like a bunch of chumps as they come to take on more and more of Trump’s characteristics including speaking too much, too soon, and well, stretching the truth. The Department of Justice and, particularly, the FBI look like a bunch of chumps for running off at the mouth and for obviously failing to recognize that their prejudices had led them astray. Americans look like chumps for buying the boilerplate accusations and defenses of their political leadership. Even the Russians look like chumps for behaving like comic book villains.


Three Legs on the Tripod

I’m glad that Marc Fisher brought this subject up in his Washington Post column:

What is new and different about Trump’s decision to use NATO and Germany as punching bags on his European trip is the president’s failure to understand that NATO and the European Union were designed both to build a counterweight to the Soviet Union and to save Germany from itself. The Americans and the other Europeans wanted to enmesh Germany so thoroughly in Western alliances that it never again became a dominant, destabilizing force. As NATO’s first secretary general, Lord Ismay, put it in the 1950s, the alliance’s purpose was “to keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”

When I was The Washington Post’s bureau chief in Germany in the 1990s, I often met with the late Walther Kiep, a businessman and politician who had lived through both the Nazi era and Germany’s 1968 student revolts. Kiep would argue that the United States had left Germans in an impossible bind — we didn’t want them to show any hint of militarism or nationalism for fear of resurgent extremism, yet we wanted them to pay their share and take on some of the risk of defending the West.

The Germans, in turn, had a similarly unfair attitude toward the United States, he said. They took their post-World War II pacifism so seriously that they were largely unwilling to defend themselves: “The Americans have come to be considered by many Germans as a sort of night watchman whom we expect, for a nominal fee, to protect us. But we caution him not to make much noise and not to use weapons.”

During President Trump’s visit to Europe this week considerable attention has been paid in the media to the second leg of Lord Ismay’s tripod, a little to the first (substituting Russians for the Soviet Union), and none at all to the third.

As the late Mayor Daley used to say, let’s look at the record.

  • Germany presently dominates the economy of the European continent.
  • Germany calls the shots at the European Central Bank.
  • Germany has imposed onerous requirements on debtor nations, e.g. Greece.
  • Materials sold by German companies were instrumental to the success of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.
  • Germany reunified in 1990.
  • Germany encouraged Croatian independence from Yugoslavia and was the first country to recognize Croatia, sending substantial aid to the new country in its civil war against Yugoslavia.
  • Materials sold by German companies were instrumental in Iran’s nuclear and missile development programs.
  • Germany was a major source of foreign exchange for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
  • Germany’s multiple overtures to Russia go back to the 1960s.

Not one of these actions promotes a U. S. interest. Germany is not our friend and it isn’t being kept down. If it’s reasonable to question the U. S.’s commitment to NATO, isn’t it reasonable to question Germany’s?


More Dragnet

I’ve been listening to the old Dragnet radio program for some time now. You can take in quite a few programs driving back and forth between Chicago and Racine, something I’ve been doing a couple of times a week for the last six weeks or so. There are about 300 programs known to be extant and I’ve listened to about 250 of them. There’s no question in my mind that it’s the second best radio drama ever (the best, of course, was Gunsmoke).

After it debuted in 1949 Dragnet wasn’t just a radio program; it was a phenomenon. It won scores, maybe hundreds of awards: from the Academy of Radio Broadcasting, the Mystery Writers Association of America, various publications, and dozens of police forces, cities, and organizations gave it awards. That’s understandable. Its portrayal of working police officers was extremely realistic; the show went a long way to rehabilitating the image of the Los Angeles police force, notorious for corruption.

The show covered a wide range of topics including decidedly adult fare including drugs, prostitution, traffic accidents, and bunco as well as homicide and theft.

In short order it became not just a radio program but a comic book, a television program, and books.

It made Jack Webb who created, starred in, wrote, and produced the show not just a star but a major Hollywood figure. He produced more than a half dozen different television series some successful (Adam-12, Emergency) some not (O’Hara, U. S. Treasury, Temple Houston).


The Kagan Lament

Trump is an idiot but he’s right about NATO. I think that’s what’s behind Robert Kagan’s lament in the Washington Post:

It’s little secret that President Barack Obama had no great interest in Europe. Obama, like Trump, spoke of allied “free riders,” and his “pivot” to Asia was widely regarded by Europeans as a pivot away from them. Obama rattled Eastern Europe in his early years by canceling planned missile-defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic as an inducement to Vladimir Putin to embrace a “reset” of relations. In his later years he rattled Western Europe when he did not enforce his famous “red lines” in Syria. Both actions raised doubts about American reliability, and the Obama administration’s refusal to take action in Syria to stem the flow of refugees contributed heavily to the present strain.

Obama was only doing what he thought the American people wanted. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the 2008 financial crisis, left Americans disenchanted with global involvement and receptive to arguments that the alliances and institutions they supported for all those years no longer served their interests. The Obama administration tried to pare back the American role without abandoning the liberal world order, hoping it was more self-sustaining than it turned out to be. But the path was open to a politician willing to exploit Americans’ disenchantment, which is precisely what Trump did in 2016.

NATO has never been a self-operating machine that simply chugs ahead so long as it is left alone. Like the liberal world order of which it is the core, it requires constant tending, above all by the United States. And because it is a voluntary alliance of democratic peoples, it survives on a foundation of public support. That foundation has been cracking in recent years. This week was an opportunity to shore it up. Instead, Trump took a sledgehammer to it.

As I’ve said before NATO is a military alliance. Without force readiness the other members of the alliance are clients not allies. We have had ample demonstrations, first in Libya and then in Syria, that the force readiness of even the best-prepared of our NATO allies, France and the United Kingdom, is inadequate. And Germany’s force readiness would be laughable if it weren’t so despicable.

The French are doing the best to bring their forces up to snuff of any in the alliance but they have the shortest distance to travel. Don’t perseverate on the 2%. That goal isn’t a tithe or dues; it’s an estimate of what it takes to maintain force readiness. It’s like deferred maintenance. If you delay long enough what was a small problem becomes a big one. That little crack that might have taken $1,000 to take care of now will require $10,000 you don’t have to fix. That’s the situation that Germany, Italy, and maybe even the UK are in.

Maybe the alliance is worth maintaining. Maybe it isn’t. A military alliance is a way of mitigating risks. Risks come in multiple varieties. There are the risks that come from outside forces and events, e.g. Russia could attack Estonia. There are also the risks that come from your own bad behavior. Those are called “moral hazard” and we’re guilty of it, too. IMO participating in the overthrow of the Libyan government was an example of bad U. S. behavior that resulted from moral hazard. But Germany and Italy skimping on their military spending are examples, too.

Expanding NATO increased the risks to which we were exposed and didn’t increase the strength of the alliance one whit. Allies that aren’t prepared to fight increase our risks, too. We need to do a risk analysis. The risk of Russian attack isn’t what it was 40 years ago and we’re exposed to more risk from both our own and our allies’ misbehavior. Are the risks still worth the benefits?

In closing I’ll only point out one thing. Mr. Kagan is a liberal interventionist, some would say neoconservative, of the stripe that never met a war they didn’t like. If he doesn’t like what’s happening, I can’t help but feel that we’re doing something right.


Medicaid: Failure, Success, or We Don’t Know?

As I read this article at RealClearHealth by Ross Marchand, what came to mind was the problems that rise from not having clear, established performance metrics. That’s a problem with many government programs. How can you tell it’s succeeding if you don’t know what its objective is or how to measure whether it’s accomplishing its objectives? For some success or failure is measured in dollars—it either fails or succeeds based on how much you spend. That reminds me of Santayana’s definition of fanaticism as redoubling your efforts when you have lost sight of your goal.


China Won’t Solve Our Problems For Us

Consider the graph above. The way the European Union tells the story, the countries of Europe were able to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide by putting prudent policies in place including conservation, a carbon market, and so on.

The graph tells a somewhat different story. Every decrease in emissions, either in Europe or the United States, has been more than matched by an increase in emissions in China. In other words the Europeans and Americans have exported their heavy industry to China and along with it their carbon emissions. This hasn’t solved anything but it has put it safely out of sight and, unfortunately, out of our control.

A couple of days ago I posted a story about how the plastic in the world’s oceans was getting there by floating down China’s and India’s rivers. What the story didn’t tell us was how the plastic was getting to China and India in the first place. I’m sure some of it had domestic origins but for decades American and European cities have been sending their trash to China and, more recently, India, Nigeria, and elsewhere under the mistaken assumption that the Chinese, Indians, etc. would sort the recyclables and dispose prudently of the rest. What has actually happened is that they’ve used what was easily recyclable and thrown the rest into their rivers where it makes its way to the oceans.

For the last several decades our lifestyle has been a very convenient one of disposable diapers and neat packaging. That’s going to come to an end because the alternative is intolerable.

All of this isn’t due to some malice on the part of the Chinese. They’re just following their incentives. It isn’t their job to solve our problems for us and we shouldn’t expect them to.