Trump, America First, and Venezuela

Trump, America First, and Venezuela

America First, as Trump proclaimed it during his campaign for the presidency in 2016, sounded good to some Americans (MAGA). Trump promised to put America’s interests first. He railed against all our allies who, according to his reckoning, had let America pick up the tab for far too many military operations over too many years. His followers, the Trumpers, also were led to believe that Trump intended to take care of the forgotten Americans who had lost their jobs to outsourcing and industrial migration.

To give some credit to Trump, he has tried to do this. Someone said on the news just today that the problem Trump has is that he is trying to bring back the America of 20 or 30 years ago and that the world does not do business the same way now (not an exact quote). Trump does seem out of step with economic changes that are most likely irreversible. He tried to save the Carrier plant in Indiana. That fell through. He tried to help Harley Davidson but made things worse. He celebrated when FoxConn said it would bring 13,000 jobs to Wisconsin, but today’s news suggests that that will not happen. Of course he also stepped all over his attempts to keep jobs in America with his tariffs.

Trump said he would deport illegal immigrants who were taking American jobs and using American benefits. Trump backed himself into a corner when he promised a wall that many think is a waste of money and which will not address the real reasons for high numbers of folks living here without proper documents. Despite the fact that just building a wall is an oversimplification of a more complex problem, to his “cult” members it said not only America First, but Americans First.

America First is a slogan that was not greeted with cheers by many other Americans who did not end up being followers of Trump. It harkens back to things that Hitler promised the German people that lead to World War II and the murder of 6 million Jews. It echoed the words of Nazi sympathizers in American who liked to repeat the slogan ‘America über alles’, because it echoed Hitler’s slogan for Germany. There are far too many authoritarian and genocidal memories to make this stance palatable to Americans who remember the history of the slogan. Did the President know about the connections to Nazism? His family immigrated to America from Eastern Europe so he probably did. It doesn’t matter if he makes the connection or not, and we cannot read his mind, but it matters to many Americans who don’t like the slogan and don’t like the isolationist positioning that goes with it.

But, this America First policy may have a lot to do with speculations about our future activities in Venezuela and with the drumbeats of war that are sounding, at least in the media. It happens that John Bolton, for one reason or another, did not hide his notebook from the press. The list on his legal pad had the mysterious entry 5000+ troops to Columbia. Guess where Columbia is? It’s in South America, bordered by Panama, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru.

This is John Bolton we are talking about, a man with a reputation as a war monger. If his list has an item that says 5000+ troops to Columbia, media sees that as a possible step towards intervening in Venezuela. Venezuela is an oil rich nation, but Nicolás Maduro, dictator-in-charge is either not good with economics (at all), or is a big time thief because his people, living in what was once a thriving economy and what is now a failed state, are starving. Oil is a commodity that has fallen prey to a set of market circumstances that have hurt its value. There is a lot of competition in the oil market these days and price per barrel rates have vacillated accordingly. Natural gas is readily available because of fracking and is cleaner to burn than oil, so that is helping to drive down the price of oil. Perhaps Maduro is not completely to blame but has still proved to be incompetent.

When Trump was running for the presidency he often chided America for leaving Iraq without taking over the oil and annexing those sites for America. He attributed the fact that we left the oil wells for Iraq (or perhaps ISIS) to the wimpy behavior of President Obama, who took the last troops out of Iraq. It appears that Trump would fit in well back in the Age of Imperialism.

It is not as if modern America has never been guilty of taking advantage of another nation; we have meddled often and deeply in the name of both democracy and capitalism. Since World War II many nations give space to American military bases, berths to our ships, and hangers for our planes, and not always out of the kindness of their hearts. But it’s not easy to steal oil  or annex oil wells. There is the problem of manning these operations, even if ownership is not disputed, the problems of shipping the oil, and the problems of optics, since the media sees all.

So, although Trump’s eyes may light up at the thought of all that oil, that is unlikely to be the reason that we are backing Juan Guaidó as the man to take Maduro’s place. He is the man the people of Venezuela want, but so far Maduro controls the military.

Perhaps the reason for tiptoeing so close to the regime change line has to do with Trump’s passion to stem migration from Venezuela and neighboring countries. People have been flooding out of Venezuela. Many have gone to Chili and Columbia. Current wisdom advises Trump that if he wants to stem migration he needs to attack the problems people are facing in South America from bad leaders, to violent gangs, to changes in climate that have made food production unpredictable. Add these problems to those that are plaguing oil markets and you have a perfect storm. People cannot stay where life has no quality, where food is scarce, and where their children are either starving, or forced to join a gang or die.

Trump’s America First stand has him withdrawing from international entanglements around the globe. He took us out of the Paris Climate Accord, decided not to join the Trans Pacific Partnership. He wants to leave NATO and the UN. His isolationist tendencies argue against American involvement in the affairs of South American nations. However, if propping up South American economies and cleaning up violent gangs will end the caravans of people so traumatized that they can’t wait to leave home, if it will end the lines of “undesirables” seeking asylum in America, then sending troops to Columbia sounds like something Trump’s people might suggest (or that Trump might suggest). Trump does not want brown people, people who don’t speak English, or people who are poor. He says there is no room for these people in America. He wants a wall to keep them out. But he may be hedging his bets on the wall by supporting a little regime change and a little military action to reverse the decline of certain South American or Central American nations.

Perhaps that cryptic note on Bolton’s tablet meant that sending 5000+ troops to Venezuela is imminent, especially since the first thing on the list had to do with Afghanistan, but experts say that sending troops into a large failed state like Venezuela would be like getting America involved in another Vietnam. Experts also tell Trump that a wall is not what we need to solve the problems of migrants who enter America illegally. However, once Trump decides that he know best, all the expert advice in the world will not sway Trump. He is busy listening to his gut, which he tells us he trusts more than he trusts experts.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – New York Post

This is a view from the cheap seats.

 

 

Economic Globalism: The United States of China

I find it sort of ironic that, while Republicans make the kinds of globalism advocated on the left suspect and even part of a grand conspiracy, economic globalism has been trending for years. Trade has been a global concern in America since the triangle that involved sugar, rum, and slaves.

Wikipedia:

Sugar (often in its liquid form, molasses) from the Caribbean was traded to Europe or New England, where it was distilled into rum. The profits from the sale of sugar were used to purchase manufactured goods, which were then shipped to West Africa, where they were bartered for slaves.

Imports and exports have played a role in the economies of just about every nation. However globalism went viral in the 1980’s and beyond when factories started to leave America (and other industrial nations) to tap into an unused work force that was plentiful and which did not require high wages or benefits. The temptation to keep overhead costs and employee costs low while creating new buyers and opening new markets was apparently just too tempting.

There were other perks of relocating factories such as being able to keep profits away from America where taxes were high and place them in tax-sheltered situations. Although Trump wants American manufacturers to come home to the continental United States and bring their money with them, although he wants these wealthy Americans to practice a new-old policy of “America First”, economic globalism is highly unlikely to become isolationist any time soon. I have heard of no big rush to repatriate profits sitting abroad. Neither have I heard any patriotic fervor for bringing factories back home. While a few businesses may come home, a few more businesses are always leaving. Unless we invent a fuel to use in space and a ship designed to burn it and become a center of space exploration and colonization, unless an amazing new science of cheap, safe, and efficient space technology is found, I don’t know how we become a hub of industry again as we were in the past. That’s why we need all the talented physicists and engineers we can train and attract. Getting to space is once again a race.

It is tempting to look at the way we kept our economy booming in the past and then to simply try to replicate it. If the whole culture decays and times become more primitive a new industrial age might replicate the 1890’s – 1950’s but having to take so many steps backwards just to hope that we can recreate past innovations would mean that something catastrophic had occurred. In that case we are just as likely to languish in a primitive state as we are to reinvent the combustion engine, and the assembly line.

Annoying our trading partners, blowing up established trade relationships, does not seem like the most productive way to keep the world economy (and therefore the American economy) ticking along. If we are angry at China or Mexico or any other trading partner there must be ways to negotiate trade agreements that are not harmful to our own economy. China may be experiencing temporary challenges with its debt and its currency, but the Chinese economy looks like it still has much more room for growth than ours does. Just look up the population demographics.

I am no economist but a couple of very respected economists wrote articles this week about the complex considerations we need to keep in mind when speaking of economies and trade and globalism versus nationalism.

Sam Natapoff writing in Salon begins his recent article like this:

“The U.S.-China trade war is heating up in a battle that may last for years to come. Last week President Trump imposed new tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese exports to the United States. The Chinese government responded with tariffs on $60 billion of U.S. goods. The economic effects of this trade war between the world’s two largest economies (the U.S. at $19 trillion and China at $12 trillion) are slowly emerging. While many around the world are ignoring this, the recent damage is only the beginning.

This U.S.-China trade war was primarily caused by confusion. The Chinese government does not understand Donald Trump’s trade goals, because they are not primarily trade goals. Donald Trump has the bit between his teeth. He wants both a victory and public adulation, to feed his ego and to keep a promise to his 2016 voters that he would renegotiate unfair U.S. trade deals. He also fantasizes that he is teaching China who is boss. What’s really going on is that China has been gaining ground on the U.S. in key strategic areas, such as military power, economic influence, and scientific accomplishment, and the U.S. is now turning to aggressively confront a new rival.

At heart, everyone should be worried. The U.S., China, and all trading nations will feel real economic pain as a result of this trade war. …

This clash of economic titans threatens all multilateral trade norms and would replace them with rising tariff and non-tariff barriers around the world, placing pressure on multiple economies and eliminating any winners from this process. More concerning, this trade volatility is triggering a run by global investors into dollar assets, increasing pressures on countries with unstable currencies that were already worried about inflation and depreciation.

Even though the U.S. is being harmed, there is no chance Trump will back down. He feels that he alone can change the global trade order, make the U.S.-China trade relationship fair, and, most importantly, he wants a personal win. This position is reinforced by several of Trump’s officials and even some outside forces, for very different reasons.”

https://www.salon.com/2018/09/29/the-u-s-china-trade-war-this-is-only-the-beginning/

There was also an interesting article in the NYT about an invisible recession and its implications for the future.

Neil Irwin writes:

In 2015 and 2016, [in the United States]…

“There was a sharp slowdown in business investment, caused by an interrelated weakening in emerging markets, a drop in the price of oil and other commodities, and a run-up in the value of the dollar.

The pain was confined mostly to the energy and agricultural sectors and to the portions of the manufacturing economy that supply them with equipment. Overall economic growth slowed but remained in positive territory. The national unemployment rate kept falling. Anyone who didn’t work in energy, agriculture or manufacturing could be forgiven for not noticing it at all.

Most important, the mini-recession of 2015-16 offers a cautionary tale for any policymaker who might want to think of the United States as an economic island.

The episode is stark evidence of the risk the Trump administration faces in threatening economic damage to negotiate leverage with other nations on trade and security. What happens overseas can return to American shores faster and more powerfully than once seemed possible.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/29/upshot/mini-recession-2016-little-known-big-impact.html

The last article I will talk about said things that some might find controversial but that I thought were illuminating. The topic here is five myths about corporations. Its written by Steven Pearlstein who writes about economics at the Washington Post.

“Thirty years ago, in the face of a serious economic challenge from Japan and Europe, the UnitedStates embraced a form of free-market capitalism that was less regulated, less equal, more prone to booms and busts. Driving that shift was a set of useful myths about motivation, fairness and economic growth that helped restore American competitiveness. Over time, however, the most radical versions of these ideas have polarized our politics, threatened our prosperity and undermined the moral legitimacy of our system. (A recent survey found that only 42 percent of millennials support capitalism.)

Here are five of the most persistent myths about corporations.

[Remember these are myths so the author sets out to prove these statements are not true. Follow the link to see the author’s reasoning about why these statements, although widely believed are not necessarily accurate.]

  1. Greed, a natural human instinct makes markets work.
  2. Corporations must be run to maximize value for shareholders.
  3. Workers’ pay is an objective measure of economic contributions.
  4. Equality of opportunity is all people need to climb the economic ladder.
  5. Making the economy fairer will make it smaller and less prosperous.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/five-myths/five-myths-about-capitalism/2018/09/27/3f0b72f6-c06f-11e8-90c9-23f963eea204_story.html

 

 

What I am trying to say is that Conservatives seem to like globalism for economics, but not when it might cost them in some way. They are inclined to use fossil fuels for as long as they are available and have lived in an oil, gas, and coal based economy for so long that they cannot conceive of an economic scenario that offers similar profits without these fuels. So when scientists and citizens talk about environmentalism, and climate change and global warming, and CO2levels all they picture is their dollars flying out the windows. It is more profitable to imagine this as a liberal plot to “redistribute wealth” than it is to take a long view and figure out what will happen when the ice caps melt and flood coastlines forever, not just during storms.

Having invested millions of dollars in building business all around the globe it seems that Conservatives are pulling back from this kind of investing in areas that are still underdeveloped, have climates that make running a business expensive, do not have enough workers or enough consumers. Once again when liberals speak of lifting up nations that are still too poor, the wealthy among us hear more dollars flying out the windows. While the world might be more stable with stronger economies in many Arab nations, African nations, and South American nations, rich folks seem to want to hang on to their own wealth rather than spread it around right now. But China is not so worried about losing individual wealth and they are filling the development gap in these nations.

Great wealth has turned our corporate heads and wealthy business people into global citizens already. They live in America only part time. They keep their money anywhere but in America. They wish to pay as few taxes as possible to help a nation of people that they have made poor by hoarding profits. No amount of excess wealth is enough. Stockpiling money for a rainy day is the prime goal. It’s mine, it’s all mine is the message. No one who did not use the public schools to get a decent education is touching a cent of my profits. No one who won’t or can’t work gets a dollar from me. If you reward them for not working they will go on not working. No one who needs to work three jobs to support dependents they had out of wedlock will engage my sympathies. They declare themselves the greatest patriots as they take their factories off to another nation where paychecks are so low as to be almost criminal. Trump thinks he can buy these people back, but they are already citizens of nowhere in particular and claiming to be an American citizen does not carry the same cachet it once did.

I cannot imagine an America isolated from everyone, turned in upon itself, not gregariously, confidently, annoyingly, and heartily interacting with nations around the globe. If we withdraw and pout about how unfairly other nations have treated us I don’t think anyone will come to comfort poor old America and try to offer expensive gifts to lure us out of our funk. The world will just go along without us and we will not only have a small government; we will have a small America. And rather than be a global force competing and scrapping with our allies and enemies we may eventually be adopted by an all-powerful Chinese Empire and become part of the United States of China. Just for a minute, imagine what we might be able to accomplish if nations worked cooperatively. I guess that can never happen unless we have reasons to toss out some excesses of national identity and national pride.

Photo Credits: From Google Image Searches: Google sites, alfahir.hu

This is a view from the cheap seats.

 

 

 

Secrecy is Powerful

Secretive nations get a lot of power from conducting their
business in the dark. Their citizens are not allowed to publicly criticize
the laws or policies or the tactics of their government in order to insure
privacy. Guests are not allowed free access to all or any locations within
these countries but are conducted on official visits to only the sites their
hosts wish them to see.
Such countries can let rumors circulate about the weapons they
stockpile, what technologies they have mastered and about their military
capabilities in general. It is almost impossible to establish whether these
rumors are true or not, although we always must believe the worst of the rumors
could possibly be true.
It puts the rest of the world on an unsteady footing with regard
to nations that maintain high levels of secrecy. There are plenty of questions
and very few answers.
Does Iran have nuclear weapons? Do they have a program to
produce nuclear weapons?
How large is North Korea’s nuclear arsenal?
Is Russia planning to restore the boundaries of the former USSR,
or is Putin’s goal world domination?
What goes on in China that we are not supposed to know about or
see? Are they just hiding their “failures”, are they hiding things we would
consider human rights violations? Do they worry that the Chinese people will
learn too much about how other nations are governed, or are they hiding
military build-up? (China has not been thought to have imperialist leanings
until its recent activities in the South China Seas and current objectives in
space exploration and settlement.)Has China surpassed us in computer science
and internet innovation or are they still basically dependent on the advances
made by other less secretive nations?
Whatever is going on, these four nations alone, Iran, Russia,
North Korea and China keep us in a state of nervous speculation and
apprehension because we are left to imagine what they might be up to and our
imagination probably is far worse than the reality.
However, it is entirely possible, and we all believe this, that
these nations enjoy keeping us guessing about whether or not war is imminent.
It gives them a sense of power and, in fact, it gives them some actual power
among the world’s nations.
So why don’t we do the same thing – why don’t we do as some suggest
and become a more isolationist, secretive nation with its lips sealed (by
loyalty or coercion)? For one thing America could never keep a secret about
anything. Even if we wanted to throw a surprise birthday party for our
President (OK, highly unlikely right now because of the GOP) the information would squish
out of a million different sources. If you have enjoyed freedom for a couple of
centuries it is irrepressible. Perhaps if we had to keep a military secret we
might be able to, but I doubt it. There would be some free thinker (or traitor)
who would spill the beans because s/he felt the policy was wrong.
The key differences between these nations who are able to
inspire dread through secrecy and America (and other nations like America) is
that these are all nations where citizen lack freedom of speech and other basic
human rights. These are nations where government carefully controls everything.
Transparency is not a goal of any of these nations. They are secretive because
they cannot allow their citizens to experience the freedom people have on much
of our tiny planet these days. Each nation has its own reasons for “protecting”
its citizens from outside influences, but the overall effect is the same.
Only by clamping down on every kind of media and controlling
interactions with people from freer cultures can these nations maintain control
over their oppressed people. If a sort of ersatz power is conferred by this
very secrecy then so much the better. It can be exploited. When someone
confronts your carefully controlled tyranny and threatens to expose it or to
end it you need only raise a fist, stamp a foot, threaten a nuke, real or
imagined, and the world, which basically treasures peace, and which has no way
to evaluate your actual strength, backs off. As people who respect the human
rights of others we also grudgingly accept the rights of other nations to rule
themselves as they see fit.

Alas, we cannot get that power of secrecy that authoritarian
nations are awarded without losing the things we value most. Freedom is a
relative thing, so we know that we don’t possess perfect freedom, but what we
do have should more than make up for losing the terrifying power of the threat levels
that we imagine to be present whenever there is a nation that maintains a level
of obfuscation that we do not.
By Nancy Brisson

Who’s the Bad Guy, Obama or Assad?

I have no idea what President Obama and Congress
should do about Syria. I am no hawk, but I am not an absolute dove either. On
the global level America has found it useful to have a powerful military
presence and I don’t think any of us are quite sure that we would still be a
sovereign nation without our troops and war machines and weapons. And I suspect
it is not enough to own all this war paraphernalia; America must be willing to
use it on occasion.

In this case, the case of Syria, we want to make a
humanitarian stand, to admonish an evil act, without being sucked into a war.
We’re not sure we can do this. In the past five decades America has eschewed
isolationism to go out and meet the enemies of freedom wherever we felt the
people were trying to break free. We have put our soldiers where our values (and our corporate interests) are
any number of times with far less than happy results. But the isolationist
positions we held in the two so-called world wars did not stand us in good
stead either and had to be abandoned.

Americans are war weary. Many of us do want to stay
home, recover from our wounds and stay out of events that some say are no concern
of ours; and yet others find these to be events that we can only stay out of by
hardening our hearts out of all humanity.

The dilemma is that the growing pains so painful to
watch in the Middle East are occurring now, not at some obscure time in the
future. Can we afford to adopt that isolationist stance we love so well for the
next five or ten years? Can we expect events to unfold around us while we live
our own not so peaceful lives behind a screen, a screen that is really a vast
permeable membrane, a membrane which cannot really block events from seeping in
and out?

The Middle East is having its growth spurt now and I
don’t think it can be stopped or slowed. We can nurture the good growth and try
to nip the dysfunctional or bad growth in the bud, or we can stay in our own
sphere (maybe) and let growth proceed. It may take decades to work through the
ancient arguments in these lands, this cradle of religion. These hostilities
have been kept under lids enforced by traditional authoritarian or religious
leaders, but they have never been discussed, hashed out, examined and
neutralized by intellectual compromise and tolerance. I don’t think we will be
able to stay out of what promises to change this formerly sleeping, now
awakening “middle Earth” forever. (Perhaps the forces that are trying to tuck
the Middle East back into traditional pathways will succeed, but I doubt it.)

Although so many seem able to agree that Obama is
weak, not a good Commander-in-Chief (and paradoxically agree that Bush was
strong and yet still not a good Commander-in-Chief) everyone cannot seem to
agree that Bashar al-Assad is a horrifying leader, a leader without boundaries
in acting against his own people. I have heard so much more criticism of Obama
this past week than of Assad. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

We can try to stay out of military engagements for
the foreseeable future, we can wait and see if the use of inhumane weapons will
abate, but we cannot make the explosion of change in the Middle East happen
five or even ten years from now. It is happening now and that appears to be why
we must make our stand now. We are all afraid. The world feels slightly
unhinged right now, as if we are one step away from total global war and as if
every step must be carefully thought out to avoid such a disaster. That’s why
one person cannot make this decision alone. It is your job in Congress to help
America wend its way through a chaotic world and I am happy to see you taking
this situation seriously. I am, however, appalled to see you unable to present
a more united front to the world and the nation. When you should be discussing the realities of Assad’s behaviors, you insist on discussing Obama’s supposed shortcomings instead.
This blog post is also available at www.brissioni.com