Philosophy

Bringing Our "A" Game

    The issue of the day  - as clearly framed at the March 18-19 meeting of top U.S. and Chinese and officials in Anchorage - is whether China's ascendency over the past four decades is matched by an inevitable decline of the United States.  The New York Times professed  in 2012, that the centralized authority of the Chinese planning system was superior to messy Western democratic capitalism, and a quick Google of "Chinese System Superiority" provides a flood of similar sentiment today.  The tone of Chinese Foreign Affairs Commissioner in his 20 minute attack  was reminiscent of Nikita Khruschev's "we will bury you; your children will live under communism" rant in 1956.  Whereas Russia had a relatively small population and an economy based heavily on oil, gas, and wheat. China has more than four times our population and a diverse, robust manufacturing economy. The implications for American primacy are worth contemplating.

    Those of us born in the United States around the end of World War II have enjoyed an unusual period in world history, with one country representing about 5% of the world's population, setting up the management structure and writing the rules - particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 80's. We have occasionally found limits - the Vietnam War; the 2008 economic crisis - and we have relied on allies - particularly western Europe, Japan, the British Commonwealth, South Korea - but it has been our game. We have run the international banking system and enjoyed the global currency; English is the de facto international language (for civil aviation for example); when things go wrong we have deployed our overwhelming military strength.  American companies have dominated the age of the internet. Our farmers feed much of the world. At the moment this legacy remains ours, but the Chinese have overtaken us in patents issued and will soon in Gross Domestic Product (although we remain far ahead per capita.) With this competitor we will need to bring our "A Game" 

  The editors of the Wall Street Journal are fearful that, despite a hostile assessment of China  and some rhetoric matching the perspective of the Trump administration, Team Biden (with many of the same players) will revert the Obama administration's feeble response to challenges from Russia (Crimea; eastern Ukraine), China (cyber attacks; intellectual property theft), and Iran (Suleimani's local wars; the nuclear deal on which the WSJ believes that John Kerry was "fleeced".)  Beyond some specific decisions and rhetoric, there are a few things to watch to see if what results will be China achieving near parity with a still  vibrant America or whether our paths are going in the opposite directions.  

    1. Whether our politicians and our thought leaders can objectively analyze strengths, weaknesses, and recent events. The Trump administration cleaned up the mess that it inherited in the Middle East, and shifted the national attention to China with a major emphasis on trade - a  subject of central importance to the Chinese and leverage for us. The fact that trade was a Trump focus cannot be allowed to put it off limits for the Biden administration. The fact that Trump was more active than recent presidents in supporting Taiwan should not result in a retreat by Team Biden.

    2. Whether we can end our flurry of woke self-flagellation that has been driven by several high profile killings of Black males by police and the NYT-driven narrative that our society has always been racist and sexist.  Chinese propaganda draws heavily on Black Lives Matter talking points and stresses  the moral bankruptcy of the imperialist West. US advocates need to move beyond "consciousness raising" to proposing solutions. The American model is the embodiment of Enlightenment thinking; generations of legal immigrants have come here successfully seeking liberty and opportunity; we are a "Work in Progress", but far superior to the dehumanizing, centralized control model of the Han Chinese. If we are to remain the world leader, we need to have confidence in our principles. 

     3.  Whether we can get control of our mushrooming debt.  The self-absorbed Baby Boomers (ages 57 to 75) and Millenials (ages 41 to 56) have discovered that they can have guns, butter, and low taxes by passing on the bill to Generations X, Y, and Z. The Coronavirus relief bills have provided a break with the traditional American values of fiscal discipline and personal responsibility. We have crossed over from debating how low personal taxes should go to debating how high government payments should be for people who are not working - and whether there should be any work requirements at all. Now comes the Infrastructure Bill spending with some investments which will have a long term benefits, but with many which are liberal wish lists of government expansions such as child care and free community college. If we are willing to trade off a bit of growth for higher taxes on corporations, that could be a rational decision, but more unfunded spending on social programs will sink us when that day eventually comes. 

    And then there is the problem of Joe Biden whose mental health has held up better than expected in his first few months in office.  There is a reason that Xi Jinping is asking to meet with him despite Biden calling him a thug, and there is a reason that Vladimir Putin has proposed a debate with Biden despite Biden calling him a murderer.  And then there's Hunter ....  Leadership matters also. 

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   This week's subject seemed to call for an old favorite from Bob Dylan. 

 

Bill Bowen - 4/1/2021 

   


An Alaskan Opening Gambit

    Next Thursday and Friday Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan will meet in Anchorage with their Communist Chinese counterparts, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Politburo member Jang Jiechi, to lay out an agenda for engagement between the ascendent Chinese and the Biden administration. The meeting was initially requested by the Chinese in December, and follows several preparatory discussions: a two hour February 10, phone call between  Premier Xi Jinping and President Biden; meetings of Blinken and Secretary of Defense Austin with counterparts in South Korea and Japan; and  a March 12 meeting between Biden and the leaders of Australia, Japan, and India.  The Biden administration is emphasizing that the first meeting will be on American soil, that it will be preceeded by dialogue with allies, and that the posture will be resolute. Good positioning. 

    The two day agenda is extensive: Hong Kong; the Uighurs; Taiwan; the South China Sea; calibration on Trump-administration trade agreements; climate change;  China's trade embargo of Australia; cybersecurity; intellectual property theft; perhaps American debt.  There will be no significant agreements. Specific commitments on our ongoing $300 billion trade deficit (down 25% from pre-Trump),  China's goal of reaching peak CO2 emissions by 2030 (we are decreasing), or cessation of excalating massive hacking are unlikely. Much will be declared "off limits" internal Chinese matters. Our real leverage rests with trade - but that is so Trump. 

    The China internal media - and much in the West - will position this as a meeting between an America which has lost its footing, and the rising superpower who will soon boast the world's largest economy, enjoys the stragtegic advantage of a strong central government, is consolidating the periphery of former Chinese empires, and is gaining influence internationally through its Belt and Road Initiative, leadership in traditional international organizations, and investment agreements such as that recently signed with the European Union.  There is good reason for concern, but this is not a zero sum game, and our recent decades of unchallenged supriority have made the rise of a rival seem more threatening than it need be. 

    A premise: Despite the constant drumbeat of anti-Trump pessimism over the past four years, the United States remains the overwhelming world leader in terms of the global financial system (the global reserve currency; the primary destination for investment capital), military power (roughly half of the world's military budget; 11 Aircraft carrier groups), and technical innovation (the Chinese targets of Artificial Intelligence, quantum computing, semiconductors, space, and biotech are all American strengths).  The institutions which we put in place after World War II continue to serve the interests of  the great majority of countries. Most of the world looks to us to maintain freedom of nautical travel, and to deter or mediate conflict on Europe's or Asia's periphery. China's neighbors are looking for a counter-weight, and offer a resuscitated version of the Trans Pacific Partnership. China is becoming a worthwhile rival, but our fate (and the world's) is in our hands. 

    That said, Three large currents have been running against us, and are getting significantly worse in the early days of the Biden administration:

        1. Our belief in ourselves as a united, morally worthy nation. Led by the New York Times, and punctuated by several police killings of Black men, the narrative that we are irredemably flawed has been pounded by Democratic politicians and the media.  Schools teach a history which has been re-written to the extent of condemning George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Dissenting voices are cancelled. Childrens books are banned. Social media - the preponderant majority of whose political contributions go to Democrats - control much of the national conversation, and ban Republicans. Liberals are encouraged to shun family and friends who voted for a presidential candidate who received 75 million votes. If a foreign propagandist wanted to undermine the United States, this is what it would look like.  Common sense, respect for alternative opinions, and balanced news coverage need to return if we are to remain the leader of the free world. 

        2. Our debt. We have become numb to the implications of having federal government expenditures more than double federal government income, and represent about a third of the economic activity in the country - from every factory producing railroad cars, to every farmer growing wheat, to every doctor treating cancer, to every government worker processing your tax return.  On the heels of a fourth Coronavirus Recovery Bill (7% of which went to vaccines, testing, and tracing), Team Biden will be back for another totally partisan trillion dollar "Infrastructure" bill.  This will not end well. 

        3. More subtly, but most importantly, reliance on government rather than personal responsibility. When Press Secretary Psaki called the $1,9 trillion Coronavirus bill "the most progressive piece of legislation in history", she meant it. When presidential candidate Andrew Yang first introduced the concept of a universal basic income of $1000 per month in 2019, it seemed revolutionary (and to most people crazy)  - detaching labor from reward, and elevating the state to the role of benificent patriarch of the people. We now have it, if just for a year or two at this point: $1400 checks for almost everybody (on top of past $1200 and $600 checks); child credits of up to $3600 per kid.  The idea that individuals reap the benefits of their work is so bourgeoisie;  Equality demands that the government print money for everybody. 

    This observer has confidence in the wisdom of the American people.  We are the most successful large, racially, ethnically and religiously diverse nation in human history. We have been successful because we have been governed by the ideas of the Enlightenment and the Constitution.  The First Amendment's guarantees of freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly will survive the Cancel Culture because the people will demand it.  Unlike today's Democratic leaders, Martin Luther King Jr. looked forward to the day when "people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."  We will return to a place where it is not racist to have  "race blind" policies. If we don't return to traditional American common sense, in time the immutable laws of economics will prevail over those who would claim that we can indefinitely consume more than we produce.  If  not, we had best hope that future meetings with our Chinese overlords go well.  It is up to us. 

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bill bowen - 3/11/2021


In Search of Truth

      George Orwell would have felt confirmed by the Twenties.  Despite all of the power of Siri and Alexi, Google, Firefox, Edge, and Bing, Fact Check and Politifact, Wikipedia, and You Tube, the engaged American citizen lives in a society where history is rewritten and the bulk of the media repeats inaccurate and misleading stories.  As more information is available from more sources, and as more of those sources carry an ideological or political bias, the less confidence the public has in the media and the government.  A sizeable portion of Donald Trump's attractiveness was his brash willingness to call out "fake news";  reporters regularly recited stories which were demonstrably false, like his failure to condemn right wing rioters in Charlottesville , or claims that he was soft on Putin when he was far tougher than President Obama.  He and many reporters had a mutually beneficial relationship, gaining followers as a result of conduct unheard of in a more genteel time.  Truth has suffered. 

    In a broader context, the woke left, inspired by the New York Times, has taken to rewriting history, erasing heroes from Columbus to Lincoln, and ignoring the struggles and victories in bringing the American reality closer to the philosophy of the Declaration of Independence, with the emancipation of slaves, the enfranchisement of women, and a thousand lesser victories. In Orwellian fashion, we are all now racist unless we favor policies based on race.  Striving for greater wokeness, women athletes must compete against biological men. Truth has suffered. 

    But the world moves forward with or without Truth, the coronavirus providing a good example, with Dr. Fauci frequently redefining science to fit what he wanted the public to do, and the Biden administration struggling to show that they are doing a better job than their predecessors.   First, masks were not necessary (at a time when there were not enough to go around, and healthcare workers needed priority); then their use became a political choice, with President Trump on the wrong side; then two masks became better than one.  As part of Operation Warp Speed, remdesivir was shown to speed recovery and reduce mortality, then dropped from discussi0n.  With no scientific data, the Center for Disease Control and Dr. Fauci determined that times between vaccine injections could be greatly expanded.  Teachers unions have frequently been able to block on-site instruction and demand vaccine prioritization, despite no evidence of significant risk. In the most political outburst, Vice President Harris claimed that the Trump administration had no plan for vaccinations, and that the Biden administration was starting from scratch - despite the fact that innoculations were occuring at about Biden's target of 1,000,000 per day, and a third vaccine was in the final stages of approval.  Truth has suffered.  

    The primary assault on Truth, the November 2020 elections and their aftermath, have shaken the foundations of our democracy. A year before the election, 72 % of Republicans, 39 % of Democrats and 55 % of independents thought that the election would be fair. Shortly after the election 30 % of Republicans and 90 % of Democrats thought it was fair.  Subsequently, fanned by Trump's challenge to the election and the the Electoral College, Republican skepticism boiled over.  There is much to understand if we are to heal - what were the impacts of of the coronavirus, mail-in voting, and extended days of in-person voting on the election; where were the points of potential irregularities; what led up to the assault on the capital; what administrative or security procedures should be changed to secure elections and the capital? How to proceed?

        - Nancy Pelosi - continuing her four year crusade against Trump - has notified her Democratic colleagues that there will be a 9/11 Commission - type review of  the January 6 riot at the capital, finding no need to include Republicans in the discussion. For perspective, the 911 Commission included: Al Queda and the organization of the 9/11 attack; US intelligence collection, analysis, and management; international counter terrorism policy; the inner workings of terrorism financing; the security of American borders; law enforcement inside the United States; commercial aviation and transportation safety; and personal interviews with Presidents Clinton and Bush. It was led by Thomas Keane and Lee H. Hamilton who were retired statesmen; it lasted two years; it resulted in thousands of recommendations, from integrating communications for first responders to restructuring the intelligernce community; it was non-partisan; it was serious. 

      - With varying motives, Kevin McCarthy, Mitch McConnell, Liz Cheney, and other Republicans looking to explain their behavior after the election have suggested an interest. The scope would need to include the election, events after the election, and events of January 6. It would have to be led by senior statesment from both parties. Politicians, such as Pelosi's usual prosecutors, would be excluded. 

    -  Perhaps Jack Nicholson's Colonel Nathan Jessup in "A Few Brave Men" was right when he screamed in court at Tom Cruise's Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, "You can't handle the truth!"  But if he was, and we choose to carry on without understanding how close we came to disaster, we are screwed as a democracy.  

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   A special note on Rush Limbaugh is in order.  Over a 30 year career with some 20 million listeners, he preceeded Fox News, and internet sites such as the Drudge Report, Red State, Breitbart, and Townhall  in giving voice to the thoughts of a broad swath of conservatives.  He is given credit for Republican victories in the House in the 90s, and for legitimizing Donald Trump as a presidential candidate in 2016.  He identified and activated Trump's base before there was a Trump. His absence will leave a big hole in the developing battle between the Establishment and Trump's most avid supporters. 

bill bowen - 2/18/21