Lessons for the (Really) Big One

By Mike Koetting March 27, 2020

Coronavirus is a monster hit to every aspect of our lives. It is hard to imagine writing about anything else right now and every publication is full of articles on the topic. But most of them are providing advice (not always consistent), looking at its short term impacts, or, here and there, guessing about long term impacts. I have nothing to add to those. At least at this time.

What I do want to write about is lessons that might be learned for dealing with another issue of even potentially larger impact–climate change. As disruptive as coronavirus undoubtedly is, my guess is that the changes that could be wrought by unchecked climate change will be even bigger, and last longer. Maybe we should consider the virus as a practice run and take advantage of what seems like a teachable moment to get the people of this country thinking about what we can learn from the pandemic and what it might suggest we focus on going forward.

Exponential Growth

The Washington Post had the following headline a couple days ago:

It took three months to reach 100,000 coronavirus cases worldwide. The second 100,000 only took 12 days.

Hello exponential growth.

We all learned this concept somewhere in school but most of us don’t have much reason to think about it on a daily basis. But Covid-19 has painfully reminded us. Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ve heard all about “Flattening the curve”—which is to say slowing the rate of exponential growth. (By the way, “flattening the curve” doesn’t necessarily change the fact that the virus will grow exponentially for a period; it will just grow at a slower rate.)

Many of the factors driving climate change are also subject to exponential growth. Consider the following the following two graphs, one of carbon dioxide growth and one of global temperatures.

Both show exponential growth and both are ominous. Although these data are hardly new, the American response to them can best be described as “Oh yeah, maybe we ought to do something. But nothing too drastic.”

Why this response to trends that imperil world civilization as we know it? Because it is the nature of exponential increases that the impact is not so obvious in the early stages and it is the nature of human beings to ignore that which doesn’t impose an immediate threat.

Whether people will learn the danger of short-sighted thinking from the current pandemic remains to be seen. I still hear people saying….”Well, it’s only a few deaths—nothing compared to the annual death rate from the regular flu.” Could be they are right, which would be a good thing. But that is not what we would predict with an exponential growth curve for the virus. I don’t want the epidemiologists to be right. However, if they are, maybe people will really understand how exponential growth works in the real world. You only know how much trouble you’re in when you’ve passed the point you can do much about it.

Two weeks ago, Megan McCardle shared her coronavirus concerns using a metaphor about a lily pod that doubles in size every day and if you knew it was going to cover the entire pond in 48 days, even on day 40 the pods would only cover a very small portion of the pond’s surface..

The first time I heard this metaphor was in a 1971 book—The Limits to Growth—which was warning that we were still on the flat end of environmental issues but, unless we started taking steps, we were courting disaster. I had not heard it since. American citizens are, for the most, still partying on the beach of environmental degradation. Most give verbal assent to the notion that there is a crisis looming, but have shown little willingness to take serious action and less willingness to demand legislators treat the issue like the crisis-in-waiting that it is.

Making Expertise Great Again

One of the major problems with getting traction on climate change issues is the willingness of people to disregard expert opinion, especially when it might require change. Some of this is a result of deliberate efforts by corporations to sow doubt. Other parts of it result from media which, on the one hand, treats all issues as controversies and, on the other hand, treats all counter opinions as of equal value or fails to put any one “finding” in a larger context. And some part of the mistrust is the sense that expertise has been coopted to do the bidding of the elite class. While it is probably true that much expert opinion can be seen as having greater short-term effects on the less affluent, the bigger issue is that this perception perfectly well suited the purposes of Republican politicians. One whole pillar of Donald Trump’s campaign was to attack expertise of any sort, scientific and otherwise. (At the beginning of the current crisis, Donald Trump announced his ‘natural ability’ for healthcare while second-guessing health professionals. His tussle with experts obviously continues.)

However, as Sonja Trauss says:

Americans are being reacquainted with scientific concepts…Unlike with tobacco use or climate change, science doubters will be able to see the impacts of the coronavirus immediately.

We have seen much of that already. Increasingly the average person is more interested in Dr. Fauci than President Trump. People recognize that even as Trump tells them what they want to hear, their odds of getting reality are greater with Fauci.

All of this relates to another question—whether the country will demand that government take a longer view, including planning for unpalatable outcomes. Most Americans are now aware of the randomly fluctuating attention of the National Security Council to global health. Emphasis, typically expressed by having a specific office, ebbed and flowed depending on the whims of the administration then in power. Most Americans are also aware that even in the immediate instance the U.S. was caught relatively flat-footed and lost several weeks to disorganization as this crisis started to gather speed.

This ties to something else. We need to start seeing the world globally rather than focusing too much on our little piece. Scott Kelly, in his observations on what space flight teaches about surviving the pandemic, reminds us of what we all know but sometimes have a hard time internalizing:

Seen from space, the Earth has no borders. The spread of the coronavirus is showing us that what we share is much more powerful than what keeps us apart, for better or for worse. People are inescapably interconnected, and the more we can come together to solve our problems, the better off we will all be.

This is even more true of climate change.

Again, I don’t know if these potential lessons will carry into a concern about preparation for climate change.  On the one hand, the rate of change is slower and much less “in your face.” What’s the loss of polar ice cap or increasing draught in Africa to the average American? And if flooding in New Orleans, Houston and Miami doesn’t get people’s attention, it’s not likely the flooding in Indonesia will. Still, the consequences of climate change are so potentially far-reaching, it is possible that, because of what happened when we dithered for a few weeks on coronavirus, more people will realize the potential harm of the 50 years of environmental dithering since Limits to Growth was published.

Hard to know how this will turn out but the lessons are clearly there for all to see. If we want to.

Political Myths and Mything the Point

By Mike Koetting March 11, 2020

David Brooks’ recent column, “Why Sanders Will Probably Win the Nomination,” at this point seems to have been seriously premature. But what he got right and wrong is worth revisiting.

The gist of his column was that Sanders would probably win the nomination because he had a story—Brooks call it a “myth”—that is simple, easy to get your head around, and coherent in its own way. The other candidates didn’t. (Actually, Brooks thought Warren did too, but he believes it was just a different version of Bernie’s.) Brooks see the Sanders’ myth as having the same “us versus them” structure as the myths told by Donald Trump, just with different villains. Brooks argues that not only are both myths wrong, but their “us-versus-them” narratives are obstacles to the “great yearning for solidarity, and eagerness to come together and make practical change” that are the real underlying wish of ordinary people.

There is truth, myth and obtuseness here.

I share the belief that Sanders (and Warren) were the only Democratic candidates with coherent narratives. The overriding motif of the other candidates was that they weren’t Trump and they weren’t Sanders. True, not being Donald Trump, as Joe Biden might say, is a big f___ deal. Not being Donald Trump calls up a virtual cornucopia of desired values—tolerance of diversity, respect for the rule of law and the machinery of government, belief in science and expertise, and a commitment to a greater degree of equity. These are not to be sneezed at.

Still, it lacks explanatory power. It doesn’t explain how we got where we are or what steps would actually get us somewhere else. Nor does it explain what battles Democrats will take to a Republican Party that has dug so much into bunker mentality that campaign talk of compromise seems almost fatuous.

Of course it is not as black-and-white as Sanders lays it out. But there is a coherent, and important, story here. Starting with Ronald Reagan, portions of the Republican party—backed with stunning amounts of corporate capital—have undertaken a systematic effort to roll-back the New Deal. They have neutered labor unions, let inequality grow almost unchecked, reduced regulation willy-nilly wherever it got in the way of profits, rigged the electoral system where they could, and gutted the federal treasury to give tax breaks to the rich. This is history. It is not, as Brooks rather snidely labels it, a myth. It resonates with many people because it is largely true and because there have been real consequences in people’s lives.

The rest of the Democratic field, especially Biden, have tiptoed around this story. Don’t get me wrong. Joe Biden is essentially a good guy and I think as president he might well accomplish more than Sanders on issues I care about. But I am talking about the big picture, not incremental change. The unwillingness to be honest about the extent and causes of the current American malaise is a limitation on what can be accomplished because it doesn’t go for the jugular of what’s most wrong. Columnist Steve Chapman is probably right when he says “Joe Biden is good enough.” But that’s not a long-run prescription for undoing the damage of the last 40 years. That will require consistent and persistent effort–the political equivalent of house-to-house (House-to-Senate?) fighting. The unraveling of the New Deal was a deliberate, well-financed effort extending over many years. On what basis could we expect reversing that effort to be accomplished with less tenacity and clarity of purpose?

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden

Which brings me back to Brooks.

He is right that the American people are yearning for “solidarity” and “practical change.” But he is posing his own dangerous myth if he is suggesting that these somehow negate the story Bernie Sanders is telling.

Brooks misses that from the start when he trivializes the essential truth of the Sanders story:

Everywhere I go I see systems that are struggling — school systems, housing systems, family structures, neighborhoods trying to bridge diversity. These problems aren’t caused by some group of intentionally evil people. They exist because living through a time of economic, technological, demographic and cultural transition is hard.

Yes, living through these transitions is hard. But it’s a lot easier if you’re in the 10% of the population that has seen significant increases in their economics over the last 40 years than the 50% whose conditions have been largely stagnant. Part of the reason for that stagnation is that one portion of the population has wielded the machinery of government more for their benefit than for the common good. We do get a bit side-tracked when we focus too much on how evil some people are and how much we need a complete revolution. There are many forces in play so assigning causation is tricky. But neither should we forget for a second that in our communities the consequences of these transitions have been wildly asymmetrical.

It is also necessary to keep in mind there is no road to frictionless solidarity. Struggle is built into the nature of democracy. To pretend otherwise is delusional. In the Sixties, most Americans thought civil rights activists were too aggressive, wanted change too fast. But we cannot get to social solidarity by asking large parts of the populations to be patient and keep taking it for the team. We will always need people willing to poke the status quo to achieve a more perfect union. Conversely, consider how Barrack Obama fared when he sought solidarity without a robust battle plan for wresting it from those who had other interests. Sustainable solidarity can be achieved only if a country can confront the inherent tensions in democracy and continue to create working solutions. Simply papering over them won’t work.

Moreover, it is enormously harder—perhaps impossible—to get to “practical change” when the mechanisms of government that could and should be a critical part of these changes are in fact working against them. Right now, Trump and the Republicans are specifically working to make school systems, housing systems and family structures more difficult to maintain. The local housing or school system—the difficulty of maintaining your family—may be where the rub is most immediately felt. But the underlying macro-structures that facilitate or obstruct change cannot be dismissed as “myths.”

In the same sense, Brooks’ fascination with local solutions is incomplete. It is good to remind us that without applied, practical work at the local level by engaged citizens, social solidarity is not going to happen. But local initiatives are not an alternative to a national government that uses its powerful tools to improve the commonweal. Denigrating the importance of the national government because it is currently dysfunctional is irresponsible to actually achieving “practical solutions”.

Brooks does get two important things right. First, the change must be embraced by people in their daily lives who can see how they tie directly to problems that most concern them. Second, the problems facing our country cannot be solved by simple” us-against-them” dynamics. Correctly identifying enemies and problems is an important first step. But it is only a first step. We must be devoting equal attention to the dynamic that gets us beyond these clashes and actually creates national solidarity, practical adaptation to the technological, demographic and cultural transitions that are buffeting the country. You need a real plan for that. And you need a plan that deeply recognizes that government policy by itself is not a panacea. The plan must explicitly engender the local and individual efforts that Brooks describes. Structural change is essential, but will not be sufficient to achieve the social solidarity that the country does long for. We are all tired of the hate and bickering.

The Sanders narrative, while containing vast amounts of truth, will not get us there. Hard to imagine that Joe Biden can get us there either. Hopefully he can stop the bleeding while we look for a leader who does have a coherent story rooted in the real life-and-death struggle going on in America but also soulfully embraces Obama’s message of “one America.”

The Border

By Mike Koetting February 27, 2020

This month my book club read The Border, by Don Winslow. It’s a novel, basically a thriller, focusing on the drug trade between Mexico and the United States. Though fiction, it is enough rooted in the underlying facts of the drug trade that you cannot help but emerge with a new appreciation for the extent of the problem.

The are a couple of obvious themes. The War on Drugs has been a disaster on both sides of the border and it will never be solved as long as the possible profits are so staggeringly large. Moreover, there is some level of complicity in parts of the financial elite, either because they have drug money in their holdings, because they are creating conditions that make people susceptible to drugs, or both. One of the double-edged throw-away lines in the book is a character who asks “You know what’s the difference between a cartel leader and a hedge fund operator? Wharton Business School.” (The shot at President Trump is deliberate. He and Jared Kushner appear as very-thinly disguised villains in the book.)

Image result for drug trade cartoons

This is by no means great literature and I am not suggesting you run out and get a copy. But I have found myself thinking more about the issues raised in this book than issues raised in better books. Two in particular I just haven’t been able to get out of my mind.

There Are Evil Men

The leaders of the cartels, as pictured in this book and reflected in any number of real stories about drug wars in Mexico, are stunningly evil men, and a few women. Almost all of my thinking is structured around vaguely formed notions that humans are basically good. Not perfect, but basically good. We make mistakes, but we mostly mean well.

These people do not mean well. They have absolutely no regard for human life in the sense that you or I do. Even if one were to allow that the characters in the book are drawn a little broadly for literary purposes—and I am not sure I would necessarily concede that—the degree of horrible is literally off the chart of my imagination. I really don’t have a good way to incorporate this into my thinking about policy.

I don’t want to sound too much like a guy realizing his mother probably wasn’t a virgin, but this degree of evil really upset me. Sure, I knew it was out there. But somehow people like Hitler, Stalin and others exist in a separate realm, kind of quarantined from day-to-day life. They were specifically deranged people, singled out in history because of their derangement.

It is much more upsetting to be forced to think about scores of people who are part of contemporary life and have no regard for human life or the amount of suffering they cause. By some measure of awfulness—number of bodies if nothing else–cartel bosses are the worst. But how great is the moral distance between them and the gang street lieutenant who kills a small time operator for infringing on his turf? And do the people who pushed out criminally large amounts of nominally legal opioids into poor counties belong on this scale? While the lines may fuzzy, it is clear the entire illegal drug industry rests on a non-trivial number of people who simply don’t care about the human disasters they leave in their wake. There are better and worse policy approaches to this issue, but the extent to which this degree of evil is imperious to policy is jolting.

What Are We Prepared to Do?

Once you start thinking about the existence of evil actors, you immediately start thinking about what is the proper response.

Can men who are so patently evil be contained with ordinary means? Nietzsche says “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” This is a plausible warning, but it hardly suggests what to do with the reality of monsters.

Do you fight fire with fire? And what choices do you make along the way? In The Border, the DEA chief who is running a sting operation decides to let a large amount of heroin onto the streets as part of a plan to find higher-ups—even though he knows those drugs will cause a certain number of overdose deaths. Good choice or bad choice? He also does not hesitate to assassinate one of the cartel leaders, a man who cannot be described as anything but a scourge on the face of the earth. In the book we are set up to accept this. Should we?

This is just another version of the moral question that arises again and again—is it acceptable to kill one person to save many others?

I have no intention of rehashing possible answers to that question here. I’ll leave it to philosophy classes. I am only reporting that this book really brought me face-to-face with that question in an uncomfortable, real world setting, much less abstract than the philosophy classes.

It also spiraled into a whole world of related moral questions. Set aside the question of whether I would be willing to kill Hitler myself. Would I be willing to order it? If not, how could I support ordering hundreds of thousands of soldiers into battle, many of whom would lose their lives because of Hitler. Certainly letting Hitler run loose cannot be seen as a sensibly human response.

Even though I knew this was leading me down the rabbit-hole, I couldn’t stop thinking about another question. At what point does it become palpable that a human is so far outside the bounds of moral behavior that eliminating him is not automatically reprehensible? On the one hand, a person who writes a book or gives a speech is not necessarily a menace to society, even if the sentiments are utterly repugnant. Nor is the guy who sells loose joints on the corner. On the other hand, the earlier a monster is eliminated, the less damage done. Let it go too long and who knows what danger gets unleashed.

While, of course one can’t ever know what the alternative history would have been, it is hard to imagine the late 1930s and early 1940s playing out the same way without Hitler. To be sure, Hitler was responding to a particular set of historic circumstances—some of them a predicable result of bad policy. But it seems he created a certain personal leadership which bent history down an awful path. When did the evidence suggest the extremity of his path and that the strength of his personal magnetism in combination with broader factors was enough to actually make it happen? How do you know when the Rubicon is crossed? And who could sensibly be counted on to make that decision and act on it? And what if no one acts?

The Thin Protection

I don’t know how to answer these questions. They just lay in my conscience like a really greasy moral cheeseburger eaten too late at night.

But it does remind me of the absolutely essential role of the rule of law. Hobbes famously postulated that without a functioning political community, the life of man is “nasty, brutish and short.” Hobbes vested this political community in a sovereign, but in democracy we have replaced that with a rule of law promulgated by the people. Once we begin to cheat on this rule of law, we open the door wide to monsters.

Slighting the rule of law may start out less damaging than Hitler or Stalin. Or the cartels. But that’s where it leads. The best defense against evil is a rule of law accepted and enforced by the entire society. People who believe they are above the law, threaten us all. And perhaps there is some benefit to be reminded of how tangible that threat can be.

The Impeachment Trial-Snippets

By Mike Koetting February 6, 2020

I didn’t have very high hopes for the Impeachment proceedings and they did not fail to disappoint. I won’t try to make sense of either what happened or my own reflections on it, which are varied and mixed. But here are some thoughts, maybe loosely connected, maybe largely random.

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If a bunch of guys find themselves on a basketball court—even if they don’t know each other–they will play a game without referees or written rules. They just know what’s fair. When there is a foul, they almost always manage to figure out a plausible resolution and get on with the game. Seems to me Congress didn’t perform that well.

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About 15 years ago, Michael Mullane, a lawyer and professor, noted that while there were many things that existed regardless of whether or not we believed in them, there were things, like Tinkerbell, that existed only as long as we believed in them. He says:

When you get right down to it, the rule of law only exists because enough of us believe that it exists and believe that it must exist. It exists only so long as we insist that it exists and that everyone, even the non-believers, behave as if it does exist. The minute enough of us stop believing, stop insisting that the law is above us all, that we are all subject to the law—in that moment the rule of law will be gone, as silently and completely as a soap bubble drifting on a summer’s breeze.

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Alan Dershowitz said one of the most absurd things ever uttered in the history of Congressional debates, and that my friends is a horse race. At the same time, he was also uttering one of the more revealing insights about what is going on. He said:

If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.

This a very succinct summary of the Republican view of the world. They believe that their election (all their elections) are in the public interest and, accordingly, whatever they do is okay. Voter suppression, gerrymandering, whatever. To decide that your view of the public interest is the most important imperative is precisely the opposite of the rule of law.

I suppose there is an alternative interpretation of Republican attitudes: they know that their actions are anti-democratic but just don’t care as long as they keep power. That explanation doesn’t make me feel any better.

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The Borowitz Report: The Republican Party officially filed for moral bankruptcy on Tuesday morning, a move that many in the nation considered long overdue.

This is actually from 2018, but they march on like moral zombies.

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Republicans argue that the impeachment proceeding is simply an exercise to undo the election of 2016. True, there are Democrats who have been urging for Trump’s impeachment since the election They didn’t do the country any favors with this rhetoric. But these were never more than a fringe group.

A thought experiment: Imagine that if after being elected, Trump had even tried to behave like a “normal” president. (I know; like most thought experiments, it requires a suspension of reality.) Do you really think we would have had an impeachment trial?

The impeachment proceedings are not about the outcome of the 2016 elections. They are about the reckless and largely outrageous things he has done since he was president—and keeps on doing.

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Many people have asserted, “Well…the Democrats didn’t make their case. No one changed their mind.” This is faulty logic. Maybe no one changed their minds because everyone had already decided what they were going to believe—reality be damned.

Or maybe we have destroyed the machinery by which people can change their minds. A recent poll from Pew Foundation shows that Republicans rely enormously on Fox News. We all know this. But it was still jarring to me to see the extent of the Fox non-coverage of the impeachment debate. Detailed analysis by the Washington Post shows that Fox provided dramatically less coverage of the debate itself—particularly the Democratic side—than other outlets, including one day virtually limiting their exposure to the Democratic presentation to a critique of the argument from Republican commenters. It’s not just that their commentary was biased. They simply kept the unfiltered Democratic arguments from their viewers.

When combined with the ability to flood social media, which, by design, filters out any opposing views, it makes it virtually impossible for many voters to even get alternative views—let alone think about them.

This is clearly a change from 1974. Republicans started out opposing the impeachment of Nixon but as more and more information came out, they raised enough questions that Republican senators felt compelled to give Nixon a shove. But with Republicans so thoroughly insulated from bubble bruising news, it didn’t happen this time. Makes one miss the days of a centralized media.

As a side note, I would add that while there is occasional Democratic self-criticism about living in the Blue Bubble, at least when it comes to media, the same Pew poll shows a much wider range of news sources—and a clear preference for news sources that on their face are less biased. There is something bizarre about being more in the bubble because your news sources give you a broader range of facts.

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The creation of an alternative reality among Republicans, led to a huge tide of funds raised. For them it was portrayed exclusively as a victory of their guy over the forces of retrograde liberal society. Trump is remarkable in his ability to portray getting impeached as a victory.

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It makes total sense to me that Republicans didn’t want to call any witnesses. Some people speculated they might want to call witnesses to head off other revelations that would probably happen. That’s exactly why they didn’t want to call witnesses. Whatever else they are, most Republican senators are not rock-stupid. They knew that their only argument was that what he did wasn’t quite impeachable. Calling witnesses only ran the risk of springing a hole in that argument. Now, as new revelations fall out of the closet, they can always say “Oh, if only we had known….”

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For me one of the most outrageous pieces of this entire episode is Rand Paul’s disclosure of the whistleblower’s name in public. Everyone who wants to know can find out who the whistleblower is. But it is against the law to disclose it and even Justice Roberts forbade Senator Paul from doing so. But he did it anyway. Pretty much like a six-year old looking you right in the eyes and daring you to punish him for his behavior. This is disgusting. And he will get away with it. This sure makes a person wonder what happens next.

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I have no idea what will be the longer-run impact of this failed attempt to remove the President. In the short term, he will claim he’s been vindicated. But the real issue is what the voters will say come November. I don’t see any obvious evidence that Democrats will be hurt by the impeachment trial. More than enough of people who say they are independents (whoever the hell they are in this day and age) were not opposed to the impeachment process. Republicans were never likely to change their minds. The issue will continue to be turnout. I don’t think this will affect that.

If there is an impact, it will most likely be felt by those Republican Senators who are up for election in undecided states. One certainly hopes it becomes part of a successful bill of charges against them. This entire episode is another lesson in how important it is to flip the Senate. This is a big lift but is possible.

The long shot nature of actually removing Trump was obvious from the beginning. And there is the question of what precedent gets set by starting an impeachment process. I believe that impeaching presidents is a big deal. That is why I was disappointed by people who started calling for impeachment within days of the inauguration. If it came to pass that any time the party controlling the House is different from that of the president, we have an impeachment process, our government will become even more ineffective. That would be a bad thing.

Notwithstanding, in this case it needed to be done. Trump’s behavior is such a brazen nose-thumbing at the rule of law it had to be called out. Worse yet, his absurd claim that the phone call was “perfect” suggested he either doesn’t understand the law or was defying the rest of us to enforce it. I don’t see how the Democrats could let that pass unchallenged. History will probably show this was the right step, but history is stuff that happens in the future. In the present, Donald Trump is still president and it sure it going to be miserable hearing him claim he was exonerated.

The Problem with Globalism

By Mike Koetting January 30, 2020

The main problem with globalization is that you can’t quit. No getting out of the club. Just isn’t possible. There are plenty of other problems with globalization. They are very difficult and some are at the very edge of human’s ability to solve. But the most important underlying feature is that it is here and, unless you believe you can jet off to another planet without taking earth’s problems with you, the only way to avoid it is to let things get so bad that we all have to start over. That does not sound like a fun ride.

Here’s why you can’t quit globalism. And there are more where these came from.

Economic

It isn’t just that the world’s supply chains are now entangled. That has always been true to some extent. What is changed is the density and speed of the connections. It is a rare economic process today that doesn’t have to explicitly consider international aspects in all phases of its business. Even much of the produce I buy is from other countries. These interactions build on themselves, organizing an ever-denser network of economic and commercial connections made possible by hitherto unimaginable communication capabilities. Right now, wherever you are, look around and think about how the items around you are influenced by the global economy. From Apple to Zappos, and everything in between, our entire day-to-day life would be up for grabs if there were a real attempt to roll-back globalization. That might be a theoretical option, but if you think America has trouble accepting LED light-bulbs, try to imagine a seriously less globalized world. Could we get by without some of it? Sure. But anything more than changes at the edge? It could happen only as an absolute last resort.

I am not suggesting that this is an entirely good thing. It certainly has many advantages for people on all sides of the interchanges. But is also full of drawbacks for other people. The particular way our global systems have evolved has increased inequality and created serious social disruptions. It has upended local cultures and pushed people into already crowded cities—then left the cities mired in problems when globalization moved the jobs to the next cheaper site. There is a lot of ugliness there. Still, most people believe they are better off having the opportunities, uneven and sometimes ephemeral, that globalization has created. No one wants to give up their smart-phones.

International Affairs

As long as people have grouped themselves into entities larger than families, there have been struggles. The story of recorded history is meted out primarily in terms of wars and conquests. But in the last 75 years, the nature of how these disputes can be pursued has changed in life altering ways.

The first is lethality. The advent of atomic war changed the stakes. The extent of potential collateral damage from a dispute between nations that got out of control has grown exponentially, possibly even extending to the entire world. The proliferation of atomic weapons elevates the possibilities of involving by-standers, as have advances in chemical and biological warfare.

The second is the collapse of distance. As recently as WWII it took a couple days to get bombers across the Atlantic. Now. we realistically worry that North Korea or China could put an IBM in Los Angeles in hours. In the other direction, drones being guided from Nevada can take out targets thousands of miles away. America is no longer protected by its oceans nor Russia by its steppes. As 9/11 showed us, even conventional weapons can become international as the movement of the people around the world accelerates.

Third, warfare—the direct consequences of which used to be limited primarily to combatants—has become not just about destroying armies, but about destroying societies. A determined cyber-attack could bring almost any developed country to its knees. (And such an attack could be unleased from pretty much anywhere; doesn’t even require a massive state infrastructure.)

So far, conflicts have been largely contained—and it may be possible to continue doing so for some time. But increasingly, no one is safe unless all are safe.

Mobility

We generally think of improved mobility as a good thing. Until it starts to bring people to our country we don’t want. Or more outsiders than can be readily absorbed. But it’s very difficult to have it both ways. Once economies become densely connected by a powerful communication structure, people can readily see differences in opportunity between where they are and some other places. And they will choose the place with more opportunities. As we see all over the world, it is possible to resist waves of migrants. But it’s a stressful, uphill battle. It isn’t going away as long as people can imagine a better life by migrating. (Or, for that matter, as long as people in one country believe they can get a marginal advantage by letting in some people from other countries.)

By the way, there’s another aspect of global mobility that makes the world smaller. It is really easy to transport disease. Ebola has, so far, been largely contained in Africa, but SARS spread a little more widely and the coronavirus now is major news. (Another sign of how we’re tied together: even if the coronavirus never has major health impacts in the US, the economic ripples from China might be material.)

Environment

Don’t need many words on this. Anyone who doesn’t believe that there is a global hazard from environmental change is guilty of willful ignorance. Even if you don’t believe it’s caused by human activity, it is hard to see how you could dispute that there are major, interlinked, environmental changes happening around the world. Left unchecked, they will end the world as we know it. Major cities will be flooded, run out of water, or be burned up. Oceans will acidify, coral reefs will die, and species will go extinct. I don’t pretend to know how that is going to play out. It doesn’t seem obvious to me that mankind will die off, but it does seem to me that in the absence of unprecedented and coordinated efforts, there will be a huge amount of unpleasantness around the world. Combined with the other trends I have identified, I think all of us but the most outspoken environmentalists have been kidding ourselves about what we have in store.

Mitigating this absolutely requires global cooperation. The spectacle of this or that nation trying to argue out of their role by citing others doing less could well turn out to be a slow-motion version of mutually assured destruction.

The New Yorker, January 27, 2020

Moral Contamination

This is one of the softer threats, but I don’t think less real. History is full of atrocities. But for most part people didn’t know about them because they were separated by miles and continents and oceans. But now we are rarely able to avoid knowing about them. The question then is what are we going to do about it?

This is a more complicated question than I can address fully in this blog. But it belongs in the list of reasons why it is impossible to escape globalization. We will constantly have to make decisions as to what moral atrocities we are willing to ignore. Addressing them all is exhausting beyond anyone’s capabilities. Moslems in Kashmir, Uighurs in China, dissidents in North Korea, children in Syria and Jamal Khashoggi. But ignoring them all will surely lead to a moral callousness that is dangerous not only to other citizens of the world, but to the citizens of the state doing the ignoring. Some degree of moral relativism is necessary, but the more the world becomes interconnected, the more it is necessary to consider where and how to draw the boundaries.

Take-Away

The moral of this post is simple. The only way to deal with globalism is to embrace it. Pretending it is possible to opt out is an exercise in self-delusion, one with possibly fatal consequences. Arise you citizens of the world…and save your ass!

Dark Waters

By Mike Koetting               January 16, 2020

Just before Christmas, we saw Dark Waters, Todd Haynes’ movie about a lawyer whose career (and much of his firm’s) had centered on work for the chemical industry. The movie opens with him in a corporate board room joking with chemical company defendants about how to deal with the EPA over some SuperFund sites.

Only because of a haphazard connection—his grandmother was good friends with the neighbor of the farmer who shows up in the law firm’s reception area—does he even pay any attention to the fuzzy videos of dying cows the farmer brought. His immediate assumption was that the farmer didn’t really understand what was going on, an attitude that comes through loud and clear to the farmer. Before it’s over, the lawyer winds up taking on DuPont Chemical Company as it becomes unmistakably clear that DuPont had not only been maliciously careless in disposing of very toxic waste, but that it had deliberately and systematically been involved in a 15 year cover-up of the toxic impacts of one particular chemical, PFOA.  

The movie, based on a very real case as reported by the New York Times, is a typical David v Goliath story, the lone hero against the corporate villain—although in this case, David is supported, even if occasionally reluctantly, by a well-resourced law firm. It’s a good movie and a stinging critique of what can happen when corporations run amok.

One of the major lessons is about regulatory capture—what happens when regulatory agencies get too friendly with the agencies they are supposed to regulate. In the movie, the EPA—which at that time was a relatively new agency—had left it to the chemical industry to identify which of their existing chemicals was so dangerous that the EPA needed to regulate it. Guess what? The lists were not long and left out a lot of things that might be dangerous, particularly in concentrations. Among those left out was PFOA, the chemical DuPont had been dumping in West Virginia. When the EPA eventually got on the case, DuPont convinced the State Health Department to adopt a ginned-up new standard for what comprised harm—at a ridiculously high level, thereby further delaying any attempt at settlement.

The issue of regulatory capture by corporations is not a new story. Mike Lofgren, a former congressional staffer, has written persuasively on this topic, as have many others. It is an ongoing concern built into the sociology of regulation. You can’t regulate effectively without getting some degree of cooperation from the people you are supposed to regulate. It is a tough line—one that gets crossed too-often—but is to some degree inevitable in the complex society we have created.

But this was an instance of “regulatory capture” that, as filmed, opened a compelling window into the animus large swaths of American hold against the “elite”. It made their seething anger more accessible than most articles I’ve read.

To start with, the most immediate victims, in this case a farmer immediately downstream of the dump, could get no help from government, even as his cows were dying off in droves. Indeed, for the most part, governments—federal, state, and local–seemed much more aligned with DuPont. Nor would any of the local lawyers show any interest in taking on DuPont, which effectively owned the town. Worse yet, the most immediate victims knew that most of their neighbors were more worried about losing the DuPont plant than addressing the environmental issues. One might be tempted to call that some sort of “false consciousness” on their neighbors’ part. But it is not mindless paranoia to imagine that DuPont, or any other large American manufacturer, is only one bottom line adjustment from moving the plant to Mexico, the Philippines, or wherever else government is willing to take an even more lenient view. And the community knows that this state of affairs has arisen because of the machinations of an elite that benefits at their expense. It is hardly irrational for people to focus their immediate ire less on the specific firm, that is if nothing else giving them a weekly paycheck, and more on the overall system that allows people who live in cosmopolitan cities to reap the profits. In the meantime, the community is asked to choose between risking their own livelihood or supporting their neighbor—whom they understand is getting screwed. The anger might not be totally well focused, but it is real and understandable.

The film also vividly illustrates how the clash of cultures exacerbates the issues. The distinctly “down their nose” treatment the farmers received in the reception area of the big-deal firm, either meant or unintentional, was surely seen as a reminder that working people don’t belong in this building with all the high-priced lawyers. And so on. The scene of the lawyer in his wingtip corporate shoes trying to pick his way across the famer’s yard is contrasted again and again with scenes where lawyers, the companies they represent, and government meet in big hotels and rub shoulders over fancy meals. Their convivial bonhomie is, literally, worlds away from the victims’ lives. From the outside, it must surely look a conspiracy of the big guys against the little guys. And it’s for sure the big guys aren’t hurting.

Even the lawyer who eventually winds up leading the charge against DuPont lives in a nice house and sends his kids to private schools. The various victims come to regard his determination with some approval, but also remain acutely aware that he is not one of them and never will be. They assume that once this particular suit is settled, the lawyer and his ilk will go back to defending chemical companies. (In fact, in the New York Times article, one of the lawyer’s colleagues laments the amount of business the firm lost from attacking the chemical companies that had been their bread and butter.) Again, this was not lost on the victims. They understood all too acutely that even though “the law” was on their side this time, “the law” was a machine that less often protected them and more often allowed others to live more comfortable lives than the ones they were struggling through. Even the farmer who had been destroyed—and ultimately killed—by the chemicals and started the legal case said to his lawyer, “Don’t expect a merit badge because just for once you did the right thing.”

There was also the issue of time frame. The ultimate victory in the class action suite required years and years of litigation. While that was dragging on, people got sick, lost their jobs because of illness, and even died. But the lawyers—while they kept at it—didn’t lose their homes or experience the deaths and birth-defects. They continued to live their comfortable lives.

In short, the movie was an up close look at the conundrum faced by those of us in “the elite”—which is most of the readers of this blog, even if we’re not “the 1%”.  (Note in the above graph, there is virtually no wealth—savings for old age, or cushion in case of emergency—in the less wealthy two-thirds of the population. Income differentials are a little less dramatic, but still stark enough to suggest major differences in how some one can live his or her life.) We’re educated, we’re relatively comfortable, and we don’t live day-to-day. There is clear data that this makes us less stressed and happier.

We understand that this field is not fair, we abhor the excesses of corporate greed, we take up the challenge when we see blatant wrongs and we have plenty of reasons to think of ourselves as good people. But we are still at the winning end of the field and our lives are closer to the elite than to the victims in Dark Waters. Until the system is inherently more fair, the issues thrashing around in the Dark Waters threaten to engulf us all.

The Deep State

By Mike Koetting December 17, 2019

The Deep State has been getting pretty good press for the last several weeks. A passel of career foreign service officers has taken the opportunity to speak up on what they see as violations of the norms of governmental conduct. We also learned that at least two officials in OMB quit in protest over the Ukraine shenanigans. In general, the ongoing guerilla warfare in some agencies since Trump arrived reflect an ongoing commitment to the stated goals of their agencies, as opposed to Trump’s desire to roll back the clock.

Now may be a good time to take a deeper look at the Deep State.

The right wing idea of “The Deep State” posits some overt, coordinated effort by career employees to thwart Donald Trump and anyone else who would make radical change towards its version of reality, or, in the more paranoid version, to bring an end to American democracy. I agree there is a Deep State of career employees that has a momentum of its own. But there is no clandestine conspiracy here. What happens is that career employees who, exercising their own judgement and carrying out their job as defined over time by the history of legislation and the agency in which they serve, become a counterweight to the swings of presidential powers. This is not an active conspiracy, it is simply the friction that accrues from a massive bureaucracy which has, in part, recruited talented people who are motivated by ideas of social welfare and the goals of their agency and who are committed to the rule of law.

Of course, in a sense, that is anti-democratic. In theory we elect a president with the expectation that he (or, someday, she) will enact a series of changes corresponding, however roughly, to the platform on which he or she was elected. But no one elected the career employees. So on what basis are they thwarting the will of the democratically elected president? The answer is simply that the rule of law doesn’t change on a dime. It is a complex series of processes, checks and balances that have accumulated over time. The rule of law provides consistency of purpose along a deeper sense of “the will of the people” than the quadrennial whims of the voters. This is not to say it is blanket resistant to change. Virtually all chief executives create changes; elections make a difference. We can see the damage Donald Trump has wreaked. But the changes are never as much as ideologues of any persuasion would like to see, and certainly not on their schedule.

In recent years, the Deep State has been a particular bete noire of the right wing. When I was growing up—although we didn’t use the term Deep State—we were equally suspicious of the CIA, the FBI, the Foreign Services and many other of the agencies of government, and not above the occasional conspiracy theory. The reality is that the accretion of bureaucratic rules embodies the deeper, longer run consensus about the direction of society. Think of it as the rolling average of the previous 25 years, an average that includes stuff from the original constitution through the most recent executive order. Viewed from this perspective, the Deep State is neither benign nor malicious, nor in any specific sense anti-democratic. It is rather the collective memory of our democracy as it moves through time.

Correspondingly, chafing at the Deep State is often really a complaint about the “average” sentiment of the country. Specifically, I would argue, that the Deep State–in addition to a real respect for process, in all its strengths and weaknesses—incorporates a distinct bias toward a pro-business and a pro-modernization view of the world. These biases arise precisely because, on average, both characterize impulses that are deeply American. For better and for worse.

Despite a consistent skepticism of the interests of business, Americans begrudgingly accept that what is good for business is good for America. It is by no means blind love. But, as much as some Americans complain about business, particularly big business, they seem to be more concerned about excessive interference in business and are happy to vote for people because they, wrongheadedly, pledge to run government like a business. I am not specifically talking about the fact that in many cases agencies get “captured” by the businesses they are supposed to regulate. This absolutely happens and is a serious and ongoing problem. But I am more focused on the overall sentiment that what drives the American economy is business and that, in a close call, the edge goes to those who are “job creators”. To be sure, that attitude often morphs into “agency capture”, but I see the latter as a distinct perversion of the general notion.

Image result for cartoons k street

Monte Wolverton, Washington Monthly

Deep State commitment to modernization is even more diffuse. It is a general attitude—shared by a slight majority of Americans, but a substantial majority of well-educated Americans–that the world gets better as it evolves into a more tolerant, more international, and more change-oriented place to live. This includes accepting changes in the roles of women, advocating racial equality, and other so-called “liberal’ values. And an intermittent commitment to democracy in other countries when it doesn’t run counter to other interests. I whole-heartedly endorse some of these specific attitudes. But the package also includes some that I am concerned about. Rampant modernization brings benefits but also leaves problems in its wake.

Regardless, it is easy to see why this agenda creates problems. Particularly among certain factions in the country. Even if on average true, each one of these attitudes creates significant backlashes and remains contested by factions on every side. And people who oppose those impulses are likely to see a conspiracy working to impose them on the rest of us, especially when the entire bureaucracy doesn’t “jump to” if someone like Donald Trump disrupts the consensus. The idea of conspiracy is a bad reading of the fact that, however compromised and conflicted, democracy does reflect the more lasting will of the majority. Which, of course, is little consolation to those not in the majority either at a given moment, or over a longer period.

Of course, this is a particular version of the conundrum of democracy:  the Deep State expresses a set of values that are simultaneously a plausible reflection of aggregate American values and, at the same time, full of things that large portions of America are opposed to or, perversely, think are not being pursued with sufficient vigor. As such, no single action is supported by everyone, sometimes not even a majority. Nevertheless, it is necessary to make decisions and take actions. The Deep State is what allows government to do that—however imperfectly. Moreover, the underlying rule of law—the checks, balances and processes—as annoying as they can be in any particular situation, are what tethers the Deep State to democracy. As long as it follows more or less the same rules, no matter who is president or who is running Congress, it is likely that the Deep State is reflecting us, the people. Not each one of us, not all the time, but more or less all of us somewhat.

Procedurally, when I was working, the Deep State drove me nuts. And I have deeper, substantive disagreements with some of its agendas and presumptions. These objections are not because a clandestine group has run amok. On the contrary. They are a reflection of the fact that from my perspective there are some fundamentally flawed premises baked into the general American value system.  If I want to change those things, I need to convince more Americans to my points of view. In the meantime, the Deep State is the guarantee that we keep our democracy on a relatively steady course—even in the face of presidents as far apart as Barack Obama and Donald Trump. If we, the people, change the general attitudes of American society, the Deep State will follow. Slowly. But, in truth, we should probably be okay with that.