Another shooting…

So sick of this country’s idiocy and utter lack of any change on guns. Yet another shooting, not to mention the lesser-told shootings this week in Mississippi and California, or any others yet untold. Does not deserve to be a right or in the constitution anymore, has no bearing today. A Wal-Mart today, a school other days, a movie theater or a concert or a restaurant or a workplace or a house or worship. Is this really America? Is this really how our people want to live? How sickening.

American Pride – Proud of What?

Just a thought. I’m a proud American. I am very thankful that I was born in this country as opposed to some of the other nations on earth – although being born here is simply by chance and I may have thought differently if I wasn’t white, male, and from the middle class. But at its essence, what should make a country great and it’s citizens proud? It can be assumed that this list would consist of people, culture, kindness, opportunity, safety, health and wellness, the physical landscape, good history, and more. It seems today that much of what is claimed to make America a great nation and it’s citizens proud deals with our military history, particularly the victory of the revolution and WWII. As rising West Virginia politician Richard Ojeda says, what’s so great about America, just that “we can whip your ass?” That’s not much pride to stand on.

So should I be so proud today, proud of where our country is at? Let me depressingly list some reasons why I struggle to be proud on Independence Day:

  • The situation at the border is despicable. Family separations, horrible conditions with failing health conditions, multiple deaths, overcrowding, and more (despite the fact that many of the migrants fit the legitimate definitions of refugees and asylum-seekers).
  • A culture of male dominance and female belittlement.
  • A disgusting idolization of guns that has led to a problem that no other western nation has and even the most violent of countries doesn’t struggle with. No conservatives, the constitution did not grant the right to have military-style assault weapons, but context matters none.
  • The only western country in the world to remove itself from the Paris Climate Agreement and a large segment of the population that ignores fact and is brainwashed by oil companies and those wishing to keep dying industries (coal) alive. And a country that has some of the most diverse landscape in the world with some of the most beautiful natural wonders, yet continues to slash Department of the Interior funding, advocates drilling in wildlife refuges, and chooses oil pipelines over Native American lands.
  • Refuses to recognize the race issue in this country and the horrible history of slavery and Jim Crow laws, which are still impacting Americans of color. Yes, the Civil War was fought over slavery; some argue states rights, but it was about a states right to do what – allow the ownership of other human beings.
  • A political system that is broken. In 2010, now Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell proclaimed that the single most important agenda item for Republicans was not some piece of legislation, not something regarding the financial crisis or the Afghan War, but ensuring Obama was a one-term President. Wow, very senatorial of him but mirroring our current political affairs.
  • An election process that uses an outdated electoral college system that applied to 1787 politics but has no bearing in 2019. In two out of the five presidential elections since 2000 the winner did not have a majority of the votes. Not very representative of the public.
  • A health care system that people think should be run via capitalism as opposed to being a right of citizenship. An emergency room visit for a life-threatening case leads to tens of thousands of dollars in bills put on the patient. Really? Should we be treated by for-profit doctors and hospitals, who at the end of the day prefer money over effective treatment? We have the best doctors working in the worst system.
  • A minimization of education and it’s importance to national success and security. When did public education become an enemy or a joke? When did universities start putting more money into college sports as opposed to intellectual advancement? A culture of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” and non-education is helping to lead to worsening comparative test scores and educational performance by America on the global stage.
  • Ignorant and uneducated citizens have led to a large segment of the population believing (and deeply believing) false information. Fake news is real, but so many don’t know what is fake and what is not. It’s truly an epidemic.
  • So much more. Capitalism has made so many thrive in our country, but runaway capitalism without proper regulation has dramatically increased the gap between the richest and the poorest Americans.
  • Thinking we can spend more government money without increasing tax revenues coming into the government is just not mathematically possible, yet good luck on getting that to pass Congress.
  • A sizable portion of Christians (of which I am one) who ignore the Bill of Rights (of which I am not one) and think that government should regulate people’s lives in the way that they think that God would want.
  • Not to mention the disgrace nationally and internationally of our current president and the defamation of the office he is holding. Don’t forget, however, that 62 million people voted for him, so it’s not just him to be disgraced by, but ourselves as well.

It is unfortunate that on this Independence Day, while proud of many of our accomplishments as a nation, I am deeply disappointed in much regarding the current state of affairs. It is hard to be proud of something that is failing so many so badly. Hopefully up-and-coming generations will help right the ship that is sailing far off the course it was intended.

Terminal Journal: Talk of an Immigration Crisis has Actually Created an Immigration Crisis

President Trump’s talk during his presidential candidacy of an immigration crisis at our southern border was overblown to say the least. The level of illegal border crossings, at that time, were not at crisis levels. The Trump campaign was highlighting an issue of ignorant importance to parts of our country, namely the manufacturing industrial parts of the Midwest, which indeed have seen lots of jobs in the sector go to places like Mexico due to trade agreements like NAFTA. Capitalizing on anger in the region due to job exporting, Trump labeled Mexican immigrants as “rapists” who are taking American jobs, rallying a base that helped elect him to the White House. Never mind that the issue to them isn’t that illegal immigrants are coming to the U.S. and taking American jobs, but rather that American manufacturing jobs are being sent to places like Mexico, a country that has a comparative advantage in labor costs.

Now, in mid-2019, there seems to actually be an immigration crisis at our southern border. The figures are staggering: 144,000 arrests at the southern border in the month of May, and over 680,000 in the last eight months. That’s on pace for over a million in a 12-month period. What do you do with that many migrants, many of them families with young children, when they have arrived at your border? Not to mention the human-rights-violating policies of family separation, child detentions, and ceasing of child services such as English classes and recreation. The last time border arrest levels were this high was around 2000, when the immigrants were primarily Mexicans seeking opportunity. Now those arriving at the border are primarily families fleeing the drug violence of the “northern triangle” of Central America (El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala), the legitimate definition of refugees and internationally displaced persons. And the numbers don’t seem like they’re going down, as the refugees have been hearing the Trump rhetoric and want to cross the border before it actually closes up. Add to this the additional impact that the administration has cut off millions of dollars of aid to the “northern triangle” countries to help them quell the violence.

Recent mention of tariffs (taxes of imports into a country) against Mexico for not stopping the flow of immigrants across its country is not beneficial. As mentioned above, the American and Mexican economies are highly interconnected: next to China, Mexico is our biggest trading partner. The amount of goods that cross the border in both directions is a massive boost to our American economy. Tariffs will not only impact prices and our overall economic outlook, but will likely lead to retaliatory tariffs by Mexico on agricultural products, something that will cause further financial costs and destabilize markets.

But, having said all that so far, clearly something actually needs to be done. The human toll should be enough to call for action, and the economic warning signs are flashing. It is important to work with Mexico, not threaten them with import taxes, on slowing the flow of refugees, for we need them as much as they need us. It is important to increase aid and cooperation to countries experiencing violence, not cut it off, for the lack of assistance has only increased the human flow instead of helping slow it down. It is important to invest more money into DHS to facilitate the changing conditions on the ground at the border (more people, families and children) as opposed to claiming there’s no more money (a falsehood – a balanced special funding bill could have confessional backing) and thus you must treat human beings this way. It is important to come up with a clear plan for those immigrants already here in America instead of mass deportations that send away hard-working members of society and even war veterans and not the criminals you thought made up that bloc. Maybe some sort of physical barrier is an aspect of this plan too, but it needs to include all of the aforementioned components as well or it will easily be circumvented; and it seems all too familiar with the east-west barrier in Berlin that didn’t work out too well for East Germany. Or maybe, instead of such focus on a wall, there can be actual reform of the immigration laws to make it easier to legally enter the county, as opposed to banning groups of people from war-stricken regions.

Unfortunately, tens of thousands of lives are being ruined by America. Children separated from parents – nothing good comes from a child experiencing parental separation on this scale. Once a beacon of hope to the world, we are now engaging in the same despicable acts as the despots and cruel regimes of the world. The issue is now hotly defined by American political fault lines, with the idea being ludicrous that Democrats would support a wall or Republicans would support citizenship for those already here. Even if the congress decides to act, it is not clear that the legislature has the numbers to override any veto by the president. The violence in Central America isn’t stopping, and, for now, neither are those fleeing it. It’s hard to see a positive way out.

Are We Approaching Another Historical “Crisis Point?”

I am reading the current issue of the scholarly journal Diplomatic History (June 2019), which leads with the Stuart L. Bernath Lecture, delivered last year by Jay Sexton, professor of US and global history at the University of Missouri.  One of the points being made by Professor Sexton is that American crises tend to quickly follow periods of economic and/or national boom.  To name some examples, the height of British power in North America following the Seven Years’ War in which it defeated France was followed in less than two decades by the American Revolution.  The rapid and overpowering expansionist victory by the US in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 was followed in thirteen years by Lincoln’s assumption of the presidency, the secession of southern states, and the start of the American Civil War.  The victory in World War I and the triumph of capitalism in the 1920’s preceded the economic disaster of the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  And, as professor Sexton argues, these historical cases did not just magically appear in the annals of time, but they were a product of economics, of government policies, of immigration and technological injections, and of societal changes brought on by – or exacerbated because of – the heights of power observed during the booms.

Which leads to the question: what of the relative lack of bust following the great gains in the mid-twentieth century with the World War II victory and the creation of the post-war world order?  And, if the longevity of the post-WWII boom can be considered an anomaly, should we be expecting an imminent crisis that has yet to follow the post-end of Cold War US eclipse?  While attempting to give the appearance of calm assuredness, it is not a foregone truth that this period in which we currently live won’t result in some sort of national inflection point that could determine the fates of American citizens and power alike.  I leave the reader to make their own conclusions, but it is worth quoting Sexton at length:

“A strong geopolitical case can be made [that the US is entering a post-boom crisis phase].  It would go something like this.  The disruptively liberating globalization of capitalism began well before America’s Cold War triumph – just as British North America boomed before the Seven Years’ War.  Then came the stunning collapse of communism in 1989, which set off a transformative shift in the tectonic plates of the geopolitical system.  

The frenzied boom of neoliberal globalization that followed skewed the distribution of wealth in favor of the holders of capital, as Thomas Picketty has so persuasively demonstrated.  Immigration to the United States also surged, with the percentage of the population that is foreign born now within striking distance of its all-time high (13.5% in 2016, 14.8% in 1890).  New technologies of communication accelerated these trends, in the process placing unanticipated strains on old ways of life.  Meanwhile, as America’s wealthiest voters received generous Cold War dividends in the form of tax cuts, its public services, national finances, and military power began to buckle under budgetary pressures.

The domestic results of this volatile, post-Cold War boom are readily apparent for all to see today: resurgent nativism, protectionism, and even isolationism; widening social inequality and intensified culture wars; looming fiscal crisis; and unexpected, contingent turns in finance and politics – not least the 2007-8 financial crisis and the 2016 election.  The nationalist political system created in that peculiar age of the mid-twentieth century has struggled to adapt to the post-Cold War context in which the United States has returned to its traditional position of importing, rather than projecting, power.  The nation has lost the insulations that cushioned it from the shocks of global integration during the heyday of the ‘American century.’  Meanwhile, new security vulnerabilities have emerged in the forms of terrorism, cyberwarfare, renewed international rivalry, and climate change.  It is no surprise that nostalgia dominates contemporary public life.

What lies around the corner is anyone’s guess.  I ended my recent book  by emphasizing the stamina and resilience of the political and economic establishments that had taken root during the ‘American Century.’  They so far have weathered the storm, which might be breaking on the horizon: Trump’s insurgency has lost steam, and even Brexit is now in doubt.  Even so, the challenges of our era require more than a simple rearranging of the deck chairs of the ship of state.  The sputtering engines below deck that power our political economy and ballast our social structure need a thorough overhaul.  Maybe a crisis is necessary.  After all, U.S. history shows us that crises have their upsides.”

JFK and the Moon Landing and Personal Stories of 9/11

I’ve listened to a few good and recently-released books on Audible over the last few weeks. Highly recommend both titles, and they’re particularly good listens in audio form.

Douglas Brinkley’s American Moonshot is a biographical portrait of Kennedy through the moon landing public debate, not an entire history of the program. Great insight into the triumph and tragedy of JFK and his true vision of the importance of the undertaking, when few others could understand.

Mitchell Zuckoff’s work Fall and Rise tells the events of the day of 9/11 through a multitude or personal stories and remembrances. A very tough read or listen, but tremendously powerful. It’s also worth pausing to think that we are getting to the point where 9/11 is becoming history, not just memory.

The Trip to See President George H. W. Bush Lying in State

For years, since we have lived on the east coast, I have mentioned to my wife the desire to attend a lying in state by a deceased President of the United States.  This is not because I am morbid or have any fascination with death (okay, maybe it is a little odd).  Rather, I have witnessed the passing of two presidents in my lifetime (that I remember: Ronald Reagan, 2004; Gerald Ford 2006) and I am enthralled by the outpouring it produces.  The outpouring of appreciation of service regardless of policy.  The outpouring of national unity regardless of current debate. So, when my wife told me late on a Friday night that George H. W. Bush had passed, I immediately began conceiving the trip.

We left on a Tuesday, late morning.  We loaded up the kids, took the dog to the boarding place, and got on the road.  Traffic was as to be expected.  Took about 45 minutes to cross the George Washington Bridge in New York.  The New Jersey Parkway makes for smooth driving at a good pace.  We arrived at our hotel in Silver Spring, MD around 6:00 that evening, culminating a roughly seven-hour drive.

After freshening up, we loaded the metro for the trip to the capital.  It was a chilly night in early December.  And the federal government had announced that it was shutting down on Wednesday in honor of the late president, so the crowd was burgeoning knowing that many did not have work the next day.  So we stood in line and waited on the east side of the capital.  And we waited.  And we shivered.  And we waited some more.  All told, we waited about 2.5 hours outside in the cold.  All the while making a little conversation with the folks around us, everyone there to pay their respects and experience the same sense of national pride we hoped for.  The kids, for their part, were wonders in their patience and dealing with the frigid air.  (Yes, there were tears, but no major meltdowns, so that’s a win!)

IMG-3122         IMG-3121

We entered the capital at roughly 11:00 that night, and after going through security, we walked the maze of roped-off corridors, up the escalator, and into the rotunda.  My wife had been in the capital before, but this was my first time.  It was quite an inspirational experience.  The rotunda was smaller than I expected, dimly lit, but full of spectators. We saw the flag-draped casket as we entered, and felt the sense of loss for our country as memories came to mind of what I have read and watched of this man.  A large crowd had stalled movement as a changing of the guard began.  The quiet, smooth movements of the trained members of all services were impressive and befitting the occasion.  What an honor to see!

IMG-3123

Once complete, it was time for us to leave.  The line outside now wrapped around to 2nd Street, further to the east  We had 20 minutes to catch the last metro back to Silver Spring.  Booking it back to Union Station, we made it just in time.  Of course, the kids, who seemed pretty exhausted upon leaving the capital, were now wide awake as they rode the subway for the second time in their life.  A sleep that night was shortened by the leaf blowers in the morning outside the hotel.  And there was no enjoying the early hours, it was time to eat and get on the road.  We made it back in six hours this time, and back to reality the next day.

Would we do it again?  Not in a one-day trip, but surely we would try and make and extended trip work in the future.  But we hope our kids will have a sense of the responsibility that our country places on the executive office, the importance of honoring those who serve us and represent our country, and the respect that we give to our elected officials that lead us honorably and graciously.

Lastly, where does George H. W. Bush fit into the history of U.S. Presidents?  Well, in many ways, it is too early to fully and comprehensively judge.  Most historians try to give at least 30 years after a president leaves office to offer a good review of performance (30 years being a typical lifespan for many classified documents to go for declassification review), thus avoiding the “sin of presentism” that I hear some speak of.  But, I think it is clear that George H. W. Bush will be remembered as one of the most qualified men to ever assume the office, and one of the most effective foreign policy presidents our country has ever had, and at least for the 20th century.  The numerous positions he held in government prior to assuming the presidency notwithstanding (WWII navy pilot, Congressman, UN Ambassador, Envoy to China, CIA Director, Vice President), he confronted the enormous challenges with reason, broad thoughtfulness, and, when necessary, strength (think Panama invasion, Tiananmen Square, the downfall of the Soviet Union, reunification of Germany, and the Gulf War).  And, he certainly held the office and acted with integrity and class, as he did in the years following his time as president.  I think history will conduct a significant positive revision on the legacy of George H. W. Bush, but time will tell.  I look forward to that time.  For more, see:  When the World Seemed New by Jeffrey Engel and Destiny and Power by Jon Meacham.

Terminal Journal: Protests in Persia

You may have noticed recently that Iran has been in the news on a few fronts, in particular regarding two issues: protests gripping the country and the fate and future of the nuclear deal.  Let’s discuss a few quick points regarding the protests below.  (I’m in an airport currently, so I’ll call this new post category “Terminal Journal”.)

I was in Morocco in June 2009 when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a second election for the Iranian presidency, in an election marred by fraud and corruption.  Protestors took to the streets in opposition to the election results in what was known as the “Green Revolution”, but they were met with violence from the regime that ultimately killed dozens of protestors, arrested thousands, and silenced the opposition.  It was remarkable seeing the coverage on Arab news stations in support of the Iranian protestors (despite the complicated relationship between Arab countries and Iran).

Now we have seen protests rise up again, which seemingly came out of nowhere (unless your Ray Takeyh, who seems to have predicted it:  https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-to-defeat-the-islamic-republic-1507758880).  But what are they about?  If you’re Donald Trump, you think it is about a “terrible deal made with them by the Obama Administration.”  But there’s more to it than that.

What are the protests about?  At the heart of the matter, they are over economics.  Basic goods for daily life, the same things you and I would disparage over in similar circumstances.  According to Vox, prices of basic goods in Iran have risen over 40% over the last year.  A decline in the supply of chickens has caused egg prices to almost double.  Economic growth has been slow.  In this realm, maybe Trump has a slight point, in that the nuclear deal, from Iran’s point of view, was supposed to bring a wave of investment to the country, which would in-turn spur economic growth and development.  But, Iran has had economic difficulties for some time, and even with the influx of foreign investors, it cannot be expected to turn around a struggling economy in two years.  Corruption is common in the country, as well as an antiquated bureaucracy that slows growth.  Unemployment rests at over 12% and rising.  But, you’re not hearing “death to America” and “calls for support for terrorism” as some would make you think.  These are economic protests, pure and simple.

Are they likely to succeed?  If the definition of success is overthrowing the regime or resulting in a dramatic economic shift, then observers will be disappointed.  The capital city of Tehran has had lower participation in the protests compared to other cities throughout the Islamic Republic.  Change is generally slow anyway, and the regime’s grip on power is deep and strong.  On top of that, the existence of the regime is not at the heart of the protests anyways.  But, the regime is likely to take note.  Similar to the Saudi government’s focus on redefining the Saudi social contract and adapting to the changing international environment in the 21st century (a topic for a future post), Iran’s leaders are also likely taking note on account for what could be implemented in preventing future protests and improving economic conditions.

The Iranian government needs to find methods to greatly improve economic performance for its citizens across many indicators.  They have a strong labor force, an educated public, and the resources to do so.  They have ties with important trading partners and have worked to try to improve their international reputation.  The people have elected leaders who have attempted economic programs (Rouhani included).  But, ideas and rhetoric need to be turned to action and results for the Iranian people before the dilemma worsens.

For more, see:

https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/01/iran-economic-protests-urban-rural-divide/550211/

https://www.vox.com/world/2018/1/3/16841310/iran-protests-2018

https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/iran-in-turmoil-to-trumps-delight