Why is socialism still so popular? A superb conference at Cato recently addressed the issue with new insights and reasoning. Socialism should be discredited in this age of incredible abundance and progress: hunger has declined from 30 percent of the world’s population to some 10 percent, yet with billions more mouths to feed. Socialism’s continuing appeal is so irrational that there must be some innate support for it in the needs of the human psyche. The subject was explored by several evolutionary psychologists at Cato’s event, which was moderated by Marian L. Tupy, editor of HumanProgress.org and a senior policy analyst at Cato’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.
I always used to think that socialism’s appeal mainly came from envy, which was innate to human character. There’s a classic book titled Envy, by Helmut Schoeck, that explains the extraordinary progress of Western civilization as coming from our religions, Christianity and Judaism before it. It notes that two of the Ten Commandments strongly condemned envy—that subordinating it was vital for a society to progress. But envy is still innate. Remember the old story of a poor Russian peasant, whose neighbor finally owns a cow. The peasant becomes consumed with envy and cries out to God for relief. When God answers him to make a wish come true, he prays, “God, make my neighbor’s cow sicken and die.”
New knowledge of human nature delves much deeper, however. For 200,000 years humans lived in tribes as hunters and gatherers. Agriculture has only existed for some 10,000 years, and the human mind has not changed appreciably during the last 50,000 years. Evolutionary psychology (EP) helps us understand “why relatively free and fabulously wealthy societies like ours are so rare and, possible, so fragile.” (The quote and the numbers above come from a Cato paper distributed at the conference, “Capitalism and Human Nature” by Will Wilkinson.)
Professor Jonathan Haidt spoke of his article “The Moral Foundations of Occupy Wall Street” for the libertarian magazine Reason. He showed photographs of the leftist demonstrations, explaining that while participants promoted a contrary frame of mind, they still understood the tradeoffs between communal values and economic growth. They had slogans like “equality now, liberty later.” Their objective—having the 99 percent throw off the yoke of the 1 percent—fit with EP theories. (Haidt’s analysis and interesting visuals are in the Cato video of his speech linked above.)
Another speaker, Prof. Leda Cosmides, explained how primitive hunting was intrinsically difficult and dangerous. Hunters caught prey less than 40 percent of the time. This led to an ideal “communist” society of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Luck was often the reason one party returned with food and not the other. Any tribesman who was injured or became ill could only survive, along with his family, if the rest of the tribe shared the food they caught. Sharing was everything and property rights scarcely existed.
John Tooby, an early pioneer in EP, explained why socialism and even Marxism are still so popular in the academic world and among many young people. He said nobody rational could defend the economic performance of resource-rich but socialist Cuba and Venezuela compared to Hong Kong—where, without natural resources, gross domestic product per capita increased by 89 times from 1961 to 1997. He explained that the spontaneous order of capitalism did not reward superior professors and bureaucrats with the income and recognition that they thought they were worth, that markets make intellectuals irrelevant. He explained how the loneliness of modern societies also made socialism appealing in terms of old tribal memories of a “good world,” where one was surrounded by relatives and people who “cared.” Many young people reach for a more sharing society which they imagine in socialism.
As Leda Cosmides and John Tooby put it: “The key to understanding how the modern mind works is to realize that its circuits were not designed to solve the day-to-day problems of a modern American—they were designed to solve the day-to-day problems of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.”
More about the human mind is well explained in the Cato paper linked to above by Wilkinson. It explains in detail the concepts of Cosmides and Tooby. Studying EP does not tell us what kind of society works best, but it does tell us what kind of society does not work well—think socialism and communism. EP helps us to work with human nature. It helps us “to understand that successful market liberal societies require the cultivation of certain psychological tendencies that are weak in Stone Age minds. Free capitalist societies work with human nature. But that human nature is not easy material to work with.”
Human minds are quick to define who is inside or outside their own group—think of our tribal ancestry. The disposition to think in terms of “us” versus “them” is instinctual, the reason populist and racist rhetoric always finds a ready acceptance, especially when growth slows or there are economic crises. Wilkinson explains in “Capitalism and Human Nature,” in terms of EP, some of the animosity against free trade. He writes, “Positively, free trade is laudable for the way it encourages us to see members of unfamiliar groups as partners, not enemies.”
Humans form hierarchies of dominance. “Life at the bottom of the dominance heap is a raw deal … lower status males naturally form coalitions to check the power of more dominant males … to [try to] achieve relatively egalitarian distribution of resources”—think Occupy Wall Street. The human capacity for “envy is related to our difficulty in understanding the idea of gains from trade and increases in productivity unequal sharing in order to accumulate investment capital.” Socialism is about dividing existing wealth, not creating new wealth.
Equally, the zero-sum world of primitive societies (embedded in human minds) makes it very hard to focus on the “increases in total wealth through invention, investments and extended economic exchange.” Wealth through most of human history was acquired by cheating, stealing, invading one’s neighbors, or just sheer luck. This explains much of human history and the recent history of the Third World in particular. Industrialization came from Northern Europe and is even reflected in the languages. The word for getting money in English is “earn,” in German it is verdienen. Both imply work. But in the Romance languages, it is ganar in Spanish, gagne in French, and similar to Spanish in Italian. The word is the same as “to win.” That implies that work and luck are equal, or even that hard work won’t help without good luck. Historically, in most of the world capitalism meant trading, not creation of new wealth.
When I first went to work in South America in the ’60s I observed how people thought that wealth came from owning land, from owning minerals under the land, and from foreign (American) corporations. There was little credibility for the concept that wealth could be created by their own people. The success of Hong Kong, and the ideas of Ronald Reagan, Hernando de Soto, and Jude Wanniski, were principal promoters of a change in psyche, and today many Latin nations foster economic growth with lower taxes, rule of law, property rights, and free trade—e.g. supply side economics.
The Cato paper linked above explains much more in detail and is well worth reading. There are also, of course, other reasons many nations don’t prosper. Faulty electoral systems, for example, which I have written about, or foreign invasions.
Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.
Belarus is an interesting, attractive country, certainly off the beaten track. A beautiful, rebuilt capital city of Minsk (mostly destroyed along with 30 percent of the country’s population during World War II), with wide boulevards and parks and superbly clean, belies its old reputation as the last dictatorship in Europe. Its economy is heavily statist, but 30 percent is private enterprise, and its information-technology sector is world class (see below). Its rating in the World Bank’s Doing Business, which compares all the world’s nations, is surprisingly high and improving.
The nation borders Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. It has its own language, similar to but distinct from Russian, and its own long history. It was once an integral part of the Lithuanian empire, which stretched down to the Black Sea. It then was subordinated to the growing power of Czarist Russia and later became an integral part of the Soviet Union. Belarus also became an industrial/technological center where many of the Soviet Union’s heavy and sophisticated industries were located. It has a very skilled and educated workforce.
I was invited there to speak at a conference on “Understanding Belarus Security.” It was co-organized by Washington’s Jamestown Foundation, Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Institute, and the Liberal Institute of Belarus under the auspices of the Minsk Dialogue. It continues the tradition of Belarus serving as a neutral regional hub for inter-European diplomacy following the Russian-Ukrainian ceasefire agreement. Our delegation also met with top foreign-ministry officials on improving understanding and relations with America.
Belarus has become more independent of Russia since the Ukrainian conflict, rejected Moscow’s plans to establish a new airbase on its territory, and refused to join Russia’s trade war with Ukraine. Repression is mild, and the government retains a degree of popularity for providing stability and substantial economic growth. Witness the chaos in neighboring Ukraine, and how “privatization” of Russian state industries just ended in impoverishment and handing them over to billionaires. People are not so anxious for possibly chaotic, unjust “democracy,” as long as their government delivers safety, order, and economic growth. Grigory Joffe, Jamestown’s Belarus expert, writes in “The Declining Fortunes of the Belarusian Opposition,”
Specifically, the government led by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, since 1994, was instrumental in propping up Belarusians’ civic identity, ensuring the country’s stability and security (Belta.by), building up its infrastructure, pursuing economic development, boosting the quality of governance, and even improving living standards—by several measures exceeding those in Belarus’s culturally close Eastern Slavic neighbors.
Many formerly communist East European nations are today, surprisingly, more dynamic economically than many debt-ridden West European nations weighed down by years of socialist baggage. After the conference I also spoke to students at the Liberal Institute in a hall called the “John Galt Club,” named after the famous character in Atlas Shrugged. The institute’s director is a very dynamic Belarusian student, Yauheni Preiherman, now studying for his Ph.D. in England. It was also he who helped organize the main conference. He introduced me to many of the students and I was very impressed by them.
Belarus’ Surprising Economic Ratings
More than 50 percent of goods produced in the country are delivered for export. The list of export products is sophisticated and varied. Among the major export commodities of Belarus are refined oil products, semi-conductors, potash and nitrogen fertilizers, metal products, busses, heavy trucks, tractors, chemical fibers, yarns, tires, dairy and meat products, and sugar. The private sector is led by exports from its brilliant information-technology services (IT) based at the Minsk High Tech Park free zone. The export of IT services grew from $50 million in 2005 to $800 million in 2015.
Belarus imports are mainly composed of energy resources (oil and natural gas), raw materials and components, metal products, raw materials for chemical industry, machine parts, and manufacturing equipment. Belarus has trade relations with more than 180 countries. The nation offers low costs and is attractive for tourism. It has eleven impressive war museums, one in downtown Minsk, another in the countryside at the old Stalin Line.
Doing Business measures the ease or problems of starting and running a business in nearly all nations. It was discussed at the conference and has become a very effective means to press Third World and former communist governments to facilitate and encourage economic growth.
Belarus rates surprisingly high on several measures. The nation ranks 12th in the world for “starting a business,” compared to Austria at 106th, France at 32nd, and Spain at 82nd. For “registering a property,” Belarus is number 7, Germany 62, and Ireland, known for its pro-business environment, 39. Rated for “ease of doing business,” Belarus is 44, compared to Ireland at 17, France at 27, and Spain at 33. For “enforcing contracts,” Belarus is number 29, Belgium is 53, Chile is 56, Poland is 55, England is at 33. See the Doing Business link above for exact details. Still, the regime is pressed to privatize its heavy industries, still mostly government owned. There is little street crime, which also makes the nation attractive for foreign investors. Economic freedom pales when street crime, kidnapping, and armed robbery are rampant, as in some Latin American countries.
Shakedowns and bribes to the police and government inspectors are a very common aspect of post-communist regimes. From what I learned, Belarus limits such small time, yet cumulatively devastating corruption, unlike Russia for example.
In conclusion, Belarus is progressing in ways favorable to economic progress and is much freer than its reputation as a surviving “Marxist” state. The British Guardian, in a positive article, asks “Is it accurate to call Belarus a dictatorship?” Although political opponents are sometimes jailed (a dozen in 2013), they are then shortly released. The dynamic, free market, and the rising living standards of neighboring Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland, are vibrant examples for them. Often American policymakers don’t appreciate that “in much of the non-Western world, people desire order more than democracy,” writes Jamestown’s Grigory Joffe (see “Understanding Belarus”). He writes of “a legitimate fear of evil, destructive … behavior by their fellow countrymen that only a strong government can restrain. … Democracy cannot be exported, much less imposed, by an outside force. Simply put, one cannot build democracy other than on the homegrown foundation of civility and trust.” Having lived in lawless countries I concur totally with Joffe’s comments. Opposition movements in such nations demanding “democracy” are often supported by Washington, but many or most are not Jeffersonians in waiting.
Effective groups such as Students For Liberty and the Atlas Network, which I have long supported, help local think tanks and such groups to spread Western concepts of individual freedom, limited government, property rights, low taxes, and economic progress. Only a nation’s own people can really bring it progress. Washington is too ham-fisted and all too eager to threaten or even start wars as a “solution” to promote freedom. Then we wonder at the chaos our military interventions create.
Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.
Doctors for Disaster Preparedness is a small group of top scientists and doctors who publish a newsletter and hold an annual meeting at different defense and nuclear sites. At meetings speakers cover issues relating to civil defense, diseases, new chemical/technological discoveries, and global climate issues. Speakers offer varied viewpoints and the group is often bitterly criticized for its unorthodox challenges to the medical establishment. Their last program, described in more detail below, shows the variety of speakers and topics covered.
I have been attending meetings since the 1980s when I first wrote about nuclear war survival. Personally, I have always been interested in civil defense since studying in Germany in 1952, taking shortcuts to my classes through still bombed out city blocks. I was always amazed that “only” a million German civilians died from the bombing that flattened every single city. I even saw East Berlin, which was just rubble as far as the eye could see. Human beings are amazingly resilient. But the Germans also had built good bomb shelters.
After 9/11, Dr. Jane Orient, who runs the Doctors for Disaster Preparedness, explained how American city fire departments were being supplied with useless radiation detectors measuring Millirem instead of Rems. They were based on the EPA’s incoherent threat levels, which have been obsolete since the 1950s. The EPA has since modified its threat levels by a factor of hundreds. Dr. Orient then donated higher-scale measuring detectors to her local Phoenix fire department.
I attended the last meeting in Omaha, site of the Strategic Air Command, the military unit in charge of two-thirds of the Nuclear Triad. It had the usual complement of fascinating speakers and topics. Lectures at the meeting included “Freedom of Information Act in Climate Science,” “An Update on Emerging Diseases,” “Police, Fire and Civilian Emergency Medical Preparedness,” “Combatting Heart Disease—Statins and Supplements,” “A Geologic History of Climate—Why Correlated with CO2—or Not,” and “Offshore Drilling and Fracking.”
Among the many interesting speakers, Dr. Mohan Doss spoke on “Rationality in Radiation Protection Standards.” He exhibited the many studies showing that low doses of radiation actually increased immune system resistance to cancer and human longevity in Taiwan, Hiroshima, and among persons living at high altitudes. The phenomenon is called hormesis. Cancer cells constantly occur in the body but are usually destroyed by healthy immune systems.
Dr. Steven Hatfill, professor at George Washington University, gave an “Update on Emerging Diseases.” He explained that most new diseases and viruses come from cross-species infections. He gave the example of Asian cities where millions of people are densely clustered together with domestic and food animals, birds, and fish. That’s why most new infections are called Asian flus. He said that many avian (bird) viruses often transmit easily to humans but do not then transmit from human to human. He warned that humans are vulnerable to pandemic flus such as the one in 1918, which killed tens of millions. Hatfill described new computer programs that are able to single out and distinguish viruses like never before. There is, he said, progress in fighting the Ebola virus. He explained that mosquitos are a main transmitter of diseases and described how they are territorial.
Dr. Donald Miller spoke about medicines for heart disease. He warned of the negative effects of statin drugs and how their makers’ advertising was often misleading. For example, an ad stating “Lipitor reduces the risk of heart attack by 36 percent.” In reality the “proven” risk reduction was from 3 percent of older, at-risk Americans to 2 percent, but with various side effects. Another example was how the EPA misleads and exaggerates risk with use of the false “linear no-threshold thesis.” This theory argues, for example, that if taking 100 aspirin would kill a man, out of 100 men each taking one aspirin, one would die. Equally it postulates that all sunlight is a carcinogen at any exposure rate for some people.
Dr. Fred Singer argued that human activity had little effect on climate change, that the “burden of proof is on the alarmists.” He argued that all the past computer models of global warming have proven incorrect, that warming did occur from 1910 until 1940, but very little since then. The DDP website carries information about global warming. Several speakers decried the fact that California is closing down nuclear energy plants because they can’t compete with the taxpayer subsidized solar and wind power. The EPA still uses its old 15 millirem limits for nuclear power plant maintenance and construction (and Superfund cleanup), which vastly increases their costs, even though it has modified the limits for civil defense from nuclear attack.
Other notable speakers included DDP vice president Arthur Robinson, Yuri Maltsev, Willie Soon, Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute, who was also given an award, and many other scientists. Stephen Jones demonstrated his small, stick-on-radiation detectors and distributed them at the meeting. Videos of the lectures are being posted on YouTube, which also features speakers from past meetings.
Recently I heard a retired four-star general state that nuclear war was becoming more likely now than during the Cold War. Personally in Washington, I read and hear much casual talk about starting wars with foreigners who “threaten” America or our allies’ interests, or for the need to “prove” American credibility as if we were still in the cold war. Most Americans are oblivious to these risks from Washington’s many “laptop bombardiers” repeatedly urging military confrontation with various foreign nations. We should all be prepared with basic civil defense survival knowledge at a minimum for an accidental launching of nuclear missiles, hundreds of which are still on virtual hair trigger alert.
Congress spends nearly a trillion dollars a year for the Pentagon’s mainly offensive weaponry, yet almost nothing for civil defense for American civilians. DDP is one of the very few organizations focused on explaining the threats and how best to defend ourselves without government resources. It offers a vast trove of information for the day when we will begin to take defense seriously or, worse, after launches happen.
Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.
For all one’s doubts about Trump, his main appeal is that of restraining Washington’s war machine. As my friend Ron Maxwell, producer of two great war movies, writes, “Trump may be the only off ramp from non-stop wars of choice we’re likely to see in our lifetimes.”
The establishment Republican leadership that Trump is challenging is virtually addicted to perpetual war, while Democrats are so afraid of being called wimpy that they too end up supporting more wars. Just consider how many nations Obama now bombs. Yet Hillary Clinton would be even worse; it was she who pushed Obama into attacking Libya and was an architect of his Syria policy. Now she supports R2P—Responsibility to Protect—a doctrine that leads to new wars whenever any foreign government oppresses its own people. She also supports unilateral American attacks even though the UN document specifically states that only the United Nations Security Council may order such interventions.
Although Trump’s foreign-policy talk is all over the map, he dared to attack the Republican establishment’s consensus support for the Iraq War and, alone among major Republicans, talked of restraint in launching new wars. The vicious attacks upon him by Washington’s dominant hawkish neoconservatives corroborate the belief that Trump opposes new imperial wars. Trust their judgment about whom they oppose. Trump also was attacked by the discredited Republican 121 “foreign policy elites,” those who created, propagandized, and helped sustain our disastrous wars. This reaction to Trump shows how much Washington elites fear him.
Trump’s sheer joy for life, his instinct for “making deals” with enemies, and his desire for rapprochement with Russia would all check the establishment’s dangerous belligerence. He’d least of all want to risk nuclear war. Support for him among younger evangelicals has also fractured our own “Armageddon Lobby,” those who constantly want more Mideast wars because they believe they help bring about the “end times.”
Yet there’s also a great threat from Trump. As my friend Allan Brownfeld warns, “Civilization really hangs by a thread, just remember the spread of fascism and communism during the last century.” Think also of the up springing ethnic and religious chaos in other parts of the world. In America, Trump is letting loose the whirlwind, creating the conditions for racial, religious, and ethnic violence. One can well imagine a President Trump calling for mobs in the streets by shouting, “Won’t someone rid me of these disloyal enemies?” One thing would be worse than more unending, bankrupting wars—if Americans start fearing and killing each other. Like it or not, America is now a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multicultural nation. We need those who unify us, not tear us apart.
Trump’s threats towards Americans of non-European racial or cultural heritage may cost him the election, unless he is able to convince immigrants, women, and millennials—among all of whom his negative rating is overwhelming—that his policies, compared to Hillary’s, are worth the cost of his personality. If Trump would follow through with cutting waste and Washington’s ever increasing, strangling regulations, then economic growth might alleviate much of the potential civil strife. Otherwise, bin Laden’s soul would shriek with joy as American cities descended into chaos as we started turning on each other in fear of immigrants, minorities, and those others who are “different.”
Trump also threatens international trade and prosperity. The manufacturing jobs he promises have been declining everywhere, even in China. The massive tariffs Trump proposes on Chinese and Mexican goods wouldn’t bring many jobs back to America; rather they would torpedo our prosperity and the world’s. The New York Times explained in “The Mirage of a Return to Manufacturing Greatness” that factory jobs have been declining just like agricultural jobs once did, mainly because of new technology.
It’s important to remember that presidents are constrained by the separation of powers—except when it comes to starting wars. Congress and the courts would be a brake on his more extreme programs, including trade and immigration. Farm states have a high proportion of senators, who represent agricultural industries that depend upon export markets and immigrant labor. Trump couldn’t just declare massive tariffs or block immigration without votes in Congress. During the campaign, we have primarily heard the pent-up voices of protectionism and nativism. But Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and all the financial and intellectual-property interests that profit heavily from exports would be a strong lobby against Trump’s starting a trade war.
Even if a Trump win cost Republicans their Senate majority, that’s not entirely bad. Remember that the worst policies—think the Iraq War and Obamacare—often come about when one party controls both the presidency and Congress. The alternative—a second Clinton administration beholden to government unions, extreme environmentalists, and minorities—would make our stifling regulatory state even worse.
For all his drawbacks and the constitutional constraints that would limit his power, a President Trump could create some very positive policies:
1) Cut defense spending for new wars. Ron Paul once suggested that only half the Pentagon budget is for defense, while the other half is for attacking foreign nations. There are hundreds of billions of potential savings in our trillion-dollar defense/intelligence complex. Trump now says he would increase military spending, so indeed no one may be willing or able to cut back our military machine. Still, he’d be more likely to do so than the Democrats. He originally said we could be defended at less cost.
2) Cut back on NATO spending. If Europeans want us to install anti-missile systems in Poland, let them pay for it. Remember the preposterous claims that the missiles were to save Europe from being attacked by Iran. Now Washington is stationing (and paying billions for) facilities in Romania capable of launching cruise missiles, in violation of the 1987 Intermediate Missile Treaty. The NATO bureaucracy often seems to have its own foreign policy, primarily that of enhancing its mission by stroking fears of Russia. Trump suggests he would stop creating friction with Russia.
3) Get Japan and Korea to pay for their own defense. Our defense treaties need modifying; they were designed for the Cold War era. They would drag us into a war between China and Japan, even over some unpopulated rocks in the Pacific.
4) Work on an Israel-Palestine settlement. Most Jews oppose the illegal settlements that Washington helps to fund by allowing tax deductions for American donors. Netanyahu’s brutal occupation policies and his alliance with the most anti-democratic ultra Orthodox fundamentalists (many want Israel to revert to biblical law and to have a king) has split the American Jewish community. Most now want progress toward compromise and a two-state solution with the Palestinians. New possibilities for peace are opening up.
5) Support the Iran nuclear agreement. Republican congressmen are currently trying to block the deal with banking laws. Trump could get them to focus on rebuilding America instead of starting a new war with Iran by taking sides in Sunni-Shia vendettas.
6) Stop kowtowing to Saudi Arabia’s dictators. All the brutal theology of fundamentalist Jihadism is enabled by the Saudis, funded and spread around the world by their devil’s bargain with Wahhabism. Saudi Arabians helped fund ISIS, which springs from the same ideology. Why do we care if they or Iran are superior in the Muslim world? Indeed Iran, despite all the propaganda that it is a terrorist state, has done comparatively little to threaten the West. The Saudi dictators inspire little loyalty from their own people. They don’t even trust their own army. For their war on Yemen, they hire South American mercenaries. Their bombing is done with American air refueling, American navigation aids, and American cluster bombs.
Perhaps only Trump has the strength of will to cut the Gordian Knot in Washington. He may yet crash as a result of his chaotic management style, his penchant for promoting rivalries among his staff, and his vindictiveness. But today there is no doubt that he threatens the Beltway establishment—and that challenge is what most Americans want. Should he shock everyone by winning in November, we must trust our system of checks and balances to constrain his worst impulses.
Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.
Free trade is constantly being blamed for America’s trade deficits and static living standards. It’s not true!
First, it’s questionable that living standards have not increased. Consider the iPhone, Uber, and Amazon’s time saving convenience and prices—all these effects upon living standards can’t really be measured and economists’ analyses don’t include events which they can’t measure. Their profession is built upon measuring what they are able to measure. Secondly, average Americans see imports from China and Mexico first hand at Walmart when shopping for simple household goods. They don’t see the multi-billion dollars of exports of jet aircraft, armaments, movies (just one can earn the U.S. some half a billion dollars), computer chips, oil drilling equipment, some $130 billion of agricultural exports, and vast other quantities of hi-tech goods and knowledge products. Foreign tourist spending in America is also less noticeable to many.
Moreover trade deficit statistics are very misleading, as Time reports, as China’s apparent billions of export surplus includes iPhones. But actually only $10 on each phone is “earned” by China for its assembling; inputs of costly vital parts come mainly from Japan, Korea, Germany, and the U.S. But their costs as Chinese imports are not shown in the trade deficit figures with America. Most of the cost and profits stay in America from the intellectual property rights and patents. Manual assembly lines in China lower the cost enough as to make them affordable for millions; if they were assembled in America, as Donald Trump proposes, their cost would be prohibitive. An excellent article in Slate explains Apple and the whole framework of modern world trade. Appreciation of China’s currency would have almost no effect on the end price of an iPhone as this study shows in a detailed breakdown of the manufacturing process and the non-Chinese inputs.
Beyond all the above, Big Media rarely explains the stifling, monumental costs of many Washington impositions and regulations. These add tremendously to the costs, particularly for American manufacturers. Services are less burdened, which is one reason for their exponential growth and export surpluses.
Here are six reasons for stagnant growth:
1) America’s monopolistic and dysfunctional health care costs eat up double the percent of gross national income that they do in Europe, some 17 percent. Several years ago, I wrote how Canadian auto workers’ health insurance costs were just 10 percent of what American car companies pay. Every American worker is costing his or her employer some $10,000 for health insurance plus now they must pay all sorts of co-pays and deductibles. Ford pays some $15,000 per year per worker. Imagine these costs for our manufacturers compared to foreign competitors. Indeed it shows the tremendous productivity of American workers that we create as many jobs as we do.
2) Free trade is often blamed for the decline of blue collar jobs in America. Actually robotics and information technology are the major causes. But it is the Environmental Protection Administration that is the next major cause of lost and non-created jobs. The number of ways is incalculable (see my article “The EPA Job Killers”). The EPA likes jobs such as working at computers or flipping hamburgers. But not ones involving bending metal or digging in the earth. Just one new regulation, cutting ozone levels from .0075 to .006 particles per million, will cost industry from $20 to $100 billion per year. Think how horizontal fracking for oil and gas is virtually prohibited on all federal lands, some half of the country west of the Mississippi. Yet this is one of the greatest inventions of the 21st century, making America energy independent and providing low cost energy into the foreseeable future. In a similar vein, the EPA enforces Clean Air Act limits over the desolate Arctic Ocean at the same level as in densely populated cities. The ruling caused Shell Oil to lose a year in its Arctic drilling program.
The cost in businesses which never start up is unknown but high. I have written how new mining ventures are virtually prohibited on Western lands. Yet mining could provide lots of very well paying blue collar jobs and cut our trade deficit in mineral imports. (The Competitive Enterprise Institute has explained this well in “Ten Thousand Commandments –An Annual Snapshot of the Federal Regulatory State.”)
3) Spurious lawsuits are another great burden for American exporters. We are so accustomed to them now that few commentators write about their costs and taking of executive focus and time. Some of them may indeed make life safer for some Americans, but we should not blame “unfair” foreign competition when we add up the costs of lawsuits or defensive measures, such as in medicine, for example.
4) Our education system does not prepare young people for high-tech or even high-grade manufacturing. Good basic skills with math and reading comprehension are necessary today even for factory workers, as machines take over the dull, repetitive jobs. Just try reading today the labels on home chemicals or furniture. Manufacturers are crying for prepared workers. Some two million jobs are unfilled today because of lack of basic education, what used to be provided by 8th grade in the old days. Also industry does not train workers like it once did, in fear that the costs won’t help the short term bottom line of profits upon which stock prices and so many bonuses for executives are usually based. Industry trade publications recognize this problem. Think of reports of how German corporations are less fearful of hostile takeovers, and so invest very heavily in worker training. Washington could help this situation by adjusting tax laws so that training costs did not impinge upon corporate earnings.
5) The politics of global warming (now called climate change) is causing major non-recoverable expenses. Obama’s veto of the Keystone XL pipeline not only cost very well paid construction jobs, it also means using resources less economically, e.g. shipping oil by costly rail instead. Extreme environmentalists, spurred on by their victory in shutting down coal mines, are doing all they can to shut down horizontal fracking of oil and gas wells with new regulations. This, when the breakthrough has brought America energy independence and the long term prosperity which comes from cheap energy. Together with the iPhone, these two technologies have put the American economy back on top of the world.
6) New threats from Obama’s Washington are looming all the time. For example, a new enormous burden is being generated by the pay-equity police. Companies will have to report incredibly minute details to “prove” different pay for different jobs. This does not mean that they are discriminating against women. Just imagine the complications from new lawsuits! The Wall Street Journal reports how companies “will be required to report on employees by 14 different gender/race/ethnicity groups, within 12 pay bands and 10 occupational categories. The companies will also have to report the number of hours worked per employee—even for salaried staff, whose hours now are not normally tracked. Firms with multiple locations will have to complete such forms for each branch with more than 50 employees…” Just imagine how many other destructive arrows are in the government’s quivers and aimed at increasing manufacturers’ costs.
Job creation in America, particularly blue collar jobs, could be vastly increased by rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure. Here again it is government regulations (often municipal union rules as well) which make for incredible costs and years of delays. An interesting study shows how Europeans build their infrastructure for many times less cost that America’s. An extreme example is the comparison of the cost of a tunnel in Berlin, $250 million per kilometer, compared to $1.3 billion in New York City, or five times as much.
Increased world trade has also helped bring relief from starvation and disease to billions of human beings. In 1990 a third of the human race lived in extreme poverty; today it is 10 percent according to a World Bank study. We should, in a religious sense, be very proud of what American policies and free market ideology helped accomplish for mankind. In a strategic sense we should help and be more secure by having prosperous, stable neighbors. Isn’t that worth some tradeoffs? Think, if we shared borders with some of those miserable nations of Asia and Africa, how insecure we would be.
Even partially correcting some of the above issues would vastly increase the competitiveness of “Made in America” goods and stop many jobs from going overseas. The challenge comes not from China but from ourselves. Cutting off foreign imports won’t bring a net increase of American jobs. Foreign nations would retaliate against our exports, but also would have less money to import American goods and services. World trade and prosperity, including ours, would decline precipitously as it did in the 1930s from a similar protectionist program, Smoot Hawley.
Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.
“We might survive a communist occupation, but not another American liberation,” I heard a Frenchman say in 1948 when I first visited Paris. I thought he must just be a leftist; I was a child and so innocent. My mother was working in occupied Germany as a correspondent for Reader’s Digest and had taken me to Paris for a few days of sightseeing.
Years later I learned what he meant—any resistance, even a single man shooting from a village, would have the American Army pull back and call in the artillery and Air Force to flatten the area until it was rubble. There could be a case that saving one American soldier’s life is worth destroying some foreign town. But are we justified in doing it to serve the interest of one Arab tribe against another? Do the “liberated” foreigners then thank us?
Reading a New York Times report that the so-called Iraqi Army, backed by American bombers, would soon liberate the city of Mosul, I searched for the results of other “liberated” cities. Reuters describes the “staggering” destruction of Ramadi. The city, which had a half a million population, now “liberated from ISIS” with American bombers’ “help,” is in total ruins and deserted—no water nor electricity grid, unexploded bombs and ruins everywhere. “The fighting saw Islamic State bomb attacks and devastating U.S.-led coalition air strikes,” according to Reuters. Similar almost-total destruction was wreaked upon the Syrian town of Kobane in 2014 by the American air forces helping to liberate it.
During the Iraq war we had the earlier example of Fallujah, destroyed by U.S. Marines in a “liberation,” partially designed to “punish” its inhabitants for hanging four U.S. contractors, and a picture of the gruesome act was widely circulated at the time.
An Iraqi force gearing up to attack Mosul, one of Iraq’s largest cities, is composed in part of Shiite tribesmen. It’s not difficult to imagine that many Shiites would like to totally destroy the mainly Sunni city, not to mention looting it in the process. But is it really in America’s interests to partake and make possible such a change in control, or will it instead generate new thousands of bitter victims hoping one day to wreak similar vengeance on America? Yet this is the Obama policy, following in the footsteps of its helping Saudi Arabia to decimate the civilian infrastructure of Yemen (with aerial refueling and providing targeting information for Saudi bombers, not to mention selling them the actual bombs).
I put the word “army” in quotes because American journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan repeatedly use the word to describe what are actually tribes and clans—but hardly representing nations as European and American armies do.
It’s one thing for foreigners destroy each other’s cities, but for us to do it? It’s very different when America takes one side and helps the other to “bomb them back into the stone age,” an expression sometimes heard from our generals. Our cities have never been so destroyed, so we have little comprehension about what we do to the cities of other nations. Bombers today, with their extraordinary accuracy, quickly run out of military targets. Then they often go after civilian infrastructure.
Other times, as in the first Iraq war in 1991, we purposely bombed the irrigation, sanitation, and electric plants. A million Iraqis, mainly children, subsequently died from starvation and disease. TV news rarely reports such information, which might cause Americans to question some of the wanton destruction. However, in this case we have the admission of Madeleine Albright on “60 Minutes”. The destruction we have helped do to Yemen would be a war crime under rules America used at the Nuremberg Trials.
Most of Mosul’s population is probably not pro-ISIS; the group captured the city and was not invited in. Yet now we hear Republican presidential candidates urging carpet bombing and obliteration of Iraqi and Syrian cities in order to “win” a war against ISIS. But will such actions gain us peace or allies among other Arabs? Or will it just continue our unending wars in the Muslim world? And generate more bitter hatred of America?
Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.
Incredible waste is, of course, natural to Washington, particularly in the trillion dollar national security budget—which includes nuclear bombs, intelligence, and veterans’ costs. Three years ago, when I suggested “16 Ways to Cut Defense Spending,” one of the cost savings I wrote about was duplicative hospital costs, this from a system of separate Army, Navy, and Air Force medical services. They should be combined into a single system, but imagine the screaming about lost jobs.
The system was designed after World War I, when wounded could not be easily transported from one part of America to another and long before helicopters and super highways. It is part of the Tricare network, which takes nearly $50 billion yearly out of the Pentagon budget. It includes 55 hospitals and 373 clinics and gives free treatment to military retirees and their families for the rest of their lives. Then there is also the Veterans Administration hospital network with 152 medical centers and almost 800 outpatient clinics.
Although it has proven politically impossible to cut out almost any Pentagon waste, the often terrible care meted out to soldiers and their families might trigger some reforms and cost savings. The military wants to downsize many of the facilities that treat very few patients. The New York Times reported on some of their problems. Half the beds in military hospitals sit idle. Two thirds served less than 30 patients a day, about a third of a typical civilian hospital. The Pentagon would like to close many and change others into outpatient clinics and birthing centers. Half of the hospitals have higher than expected rates of surgical complications. Other problems reported by the Times included 95 percent higher trauma to infants during birth compared to civilian hospitals. A supplementary Times study reports rates and compares the often high surgical complications at 54 military hospitals.
Other problems are caused by the rigid military rotation system, with hospitals getting a new commander every two years, hurting continuity and institutional memory. Instead of trained administrators, over half of hospitals are run by doctors, nurses and dentists. Other reported problems included “persistent lab errors,” and “the impossibility of judging individual hospital’s re-admission and death rates.”
But, as usual, any proposed cutbacks run into a buzz saw in Congress—which often looks at Pentagon spending as a jobs and welfare program for each congressional district. Out of dozens of hospitals, even closing or downsizing less than half of the 15 that the Pentagon would like to close (out of 54 in the U.S. and overseas) has been prohibited by Congress. Even though, as the Times has detailed, horrendous medical malpractices come especially from the smaller hospitals.
The Wall Street Journal reported that “high-volume surgeons are more proficient, high volume hospitals are safer,” with low numbers of operations per surgeon causing more risk: “74% of Air Force general surgeons cited low case numbers as a threat to their skills retention,” the paper reported. The excessive number of military hospitals mean worse care. The entire system reported only 338 cases of open heart surgery, only enough for a single modern civilian hospital.
This waste and mismanagement is just one small example of what goes on in the U.S. military, intelligence, and nuclear forces. Yet the Republican presidential candidates and congressional leaders nearly all are instead promising new, vast defense spending without a mention of reforming waste. Only Donald Trump has said that we could defend ourselves at much lower cost, but he passes over the subject quickly. As I wrote some time ago, sequestration is the only way to force Congress to start addressing waste in the budget. Then it needs tough outsider oversight to force the savings into non-essential areas. Otherwise, like any corrupt big-city government that first cuts police and firemen when its spending is threatened, the Pentagon will first cut vital needs. The future solvency and security of America depend upon getting the real waste under control.
Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.
“Bin Laden would be very pleased with the current progress of his ideas and agenda,” said Bruce Hoffman, speaking at the Jamestown Foundation’s Ninth Annual Terrorism Conference in Washington last month. “The situation in the Middle East is worse than ever,” he added, “with ISIS new ability to actually hold territory. Be prepared for a long war.” Hoffman, director of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service’s Center for Security Studies, led off several speakers with varied expertise on the different nations involved.
His talk was followed by Bruce Riedel, author of several books on strategy, and a 30-year veteran of the CIA and National Security Council. The past Arab political system of kings, dictators, and police states was discredited and breaking down, he explained, with no viable new system in sight. Riedel said U.S. Arab allies were highly conflicted about al-Qaeda and ISIS, referring to Saudi and Gulf State funding for the Taliban and ISIS and Turkey’s open border for terrorist recruits. The absolutely worst strategy for America would be to turn the war into one between the West and Islam, he said, noting that terrorists now have a dozen bases of operations compared to the one with which Bin Laden started. Monitoring returning terrorists to Europe was intensely costly, Riedel noted, as it requires some 12 to 24 policemen to mount 24-hour surveillance for each man or woman.
More American “boots on the ground” was opposed by the next speaker, David Kilcullen, CEO of Caerus Associates. His experience includes years with Australian counter insurgency forces in the Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Kilcullen argued that the war could not be won with American ground forces, but only with nationalist, anti-ISIS Muslims with U.S. support. He said the conscious and successful policy of ISIS-instigated American bombing was the way to bring in new Islamist recruits and that “significant” numbers of volunteers were arriving from Central Asia, not just from Europe.
The next panel included Pavel Baev, an analyst for Jamestown’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, former Russian intelligence staffer, now a fellow with Brookings Institution and author of many writings on conflict and terrorism. Baev said that Putin’s policies were motivated by his own fear of being overthrown. He argued that good relations with Turkey were far more important for Russia than its support for the Syrian government.
Vladimir van Wilgenburg, another Jamestown scholar and specialist on Kurdistan, explained that many of the Kurdish fighters in Syria came from Turkey, and that their “war objective” was to pursue Kurdish interests, not necessarily American ones. He said that there was much conflict and “huge differences” between and among the different Kurdish groups, with the PKK wanting independence from Turkey and the Peshmerga looking to gain new territory out of Iraq and Syria for a Kurdish nation. Yet their soldiers are not being paid as Iraq’s government withheld monies from the sale of Kurdish oil.
Ahmed A.S. Hashim, a professor from Singapore, explained the theoretical foundations of ISIS and reasons for its strategy of savagery in an article he submitted. He explained how Sunnis still blame the Shia for once aiding the Mongols to sack Baghdad during the 13th century.
Michael W.S. Ryan, a Jamestown Senior Fellow and formerly CIA and State Department, explained that neither al-Qaeda nor ISIS were focused on “end times” theology as they are sometimes accused. He said that ISIS was following classic insurgency strategy: first creating chaos by weakening and discrediting police and military forces, so that the populace would support any new leaders who could provide security and safety, after which it tried to become a regular state holding territory.
Jacob Zenn, an expert on Boku Haram, the ISIS affiliate in Africa, showed how ISIS is expanding into other African nations. He said that their next objective would be fomenting violence in Southeast Asia.
General Michael Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency, was the keynote speaker, and provided many interesting observations. He said the breaking up of Middle East nations was “tectonic,” that ISIS was challenging the whole concept of nation states. He compared the Muslim world’s current chaos to the 30 Years War in Europe. (A recent report in the Washington Post shows a broad picture of what is actually happening on the battlefields.)
Hayden observed that “American foreign policy was largely indifferent to its effects on the ground” in the Muslim world. He compared air power without ground power to casual sex—acting without commitment—saying that it was “merely mowing the grass.” ISIS, originally not thought of as a threat to America, Hayden explained, is now a threat to Europe and even could cause American military conflict with Russia. He said that America should instead take the fight to the enemy (presumably meaning invade Syria) rather than giving up our civil freedoms by becoming a garrison security state. America is “less safe” than five years ago, he concluded.
Hayden also addressed targeting by drones. He said the CIA was aware of the risk of blowback and that every killing of innocent civilians was based on three levels of threat. Killing less important enemies would be aborted if there was risk of killing innocents as well, however for high value leadership targets the (collateral damage) killing of nearby innocents was considered a consequence of war.
Yet none of the speakers proposed a truly alternative policy, such as that developed by TAC’s William Lind, who has urged that Washington adopt a defensive instead of offensive posture, stopping its aggressive interventions. Rather we should let the Arab conflicts play themselves out. Lind argues that we should maintain a presence, but instead employ a policy of “offshore balancing,” very well explained by Christopher Layne and TAC’s new national editor, Benjamin Schwartz, somewhat the way the British did when their empire was in its prime.
Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.
“We’re winning.” “We can win.” “We will win.” “We must win.” This was the constant talk of American generals in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and now Syria. The failure of U.S. strategy is obvious to the whole world. America violates nearly all the precepts of history’s lessons, wreaking chaos and misery upon more nations, but not “winning.”
An excellent little book is a must-read for our generals and members of Congress. It is titled A History of Strategy: From Sun Tzu to William S. Lind. Sun Tzu was the Chinese author of the world’s most definitive study of military strategy. Lind is TAC’s own famous military historian and analyst. The author is Israeli historian Martin Van Creveld, one of today’s most prestigious and prolific military analysts.
Chapters include “Chinese Military Thought” and “From Antiquity to the Middle Ages.” Interestingly, Chinese warfare was based upon a theory called dao, meaning “a return to normal.” Thus it was oriented toward limited war. War was evil and “a temporary departure from ‘cosmic harmony.’” Chinese texts “are permeated by a humanitarian approach and have as their aim the restoration of dao.” “Money is the sinews of war” and “the larger the distance from home, the more ruinous the cost.” (Consider America’s costs of almost $1 million per year for each soldier stationed in Afghanistan.)
Van Creveld focuses on Sun Tzu’s most famous dictum that starting a war should be the last resort, and that the greatest generals win without actual warfare. Think instead of Washington where launching a war is the first option—in Iraq, Libya, and now Yemen.
The book starts with wars after AD 1500, focusing on Machiavelli, the first modern student and writer on strategy, and the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which marked the construction of the modern European state. Then proceeding through contemporary times Van Creveld quotes and explains the many generals and thinkers who developed modern strategies. Among the theorists are of course many Germans. On the other hand, surprisingly, “the British had never been among the great producers of military theory” though “always tending to be pragmatic.”
Then there was the training to develop “cohesion” whereby “comrade sustained comrade and mutual shame prevented each one from running away. That was the way “to ensure that men did not break in front of … contemporary weapons.”
Modern air war, writes Creveld, was expected to be “a more humane modus operandi than an endless struggle of attrition” which “might be over almost before it had begun.” Instead civilians “proved much more resilient than expected.” I myself studied in Germany after World War II. I was amazed that “only” a million civilians died where every city had been flattened (and half of those just from the two firestorms triggered in Hamburg and Dresden). In 1952, I walked through the bombed-out city blocks to my classes. I also took a U.S. Army bus tour through East Berlin and saw it still flattened as far as the eye could see.
Unfortunately the book does not offer much about the Byzantine Empire, which lasted a thousand years. Its strategy obviously was most successful. This incredibly long life came from a strategy of fighting for limited objectives, never making permanent enemies, and avoiding total war. Think of America’s contrary strategy of usually demanding unconditional surrender. The better approach is explained well in a book by Edward Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire.
Similarly the British Empire used war as a last resort, trying instead to let its enemies fight each other. In the Third World it ruled by playing tribes off one another. Most tribes hate their neighbors more than foreign invaders—look at old Scotland or modern Afghans and Arabs. It’s long term strategy was well described by an Australian, Owen Harries. He explained in TAC in an article titled the “Perils of Hegemony,”
During the time of their greatest power, the British followed a prudent policy of “Splendid Isolation,” keeping their distance from matters that did not affect them seriously…. They played the role of offshore balancer, aiming not at achieving hegemony but at preventing any other states from doing so.
If all the above seems contrary to America’s way of war, it is. Especially Washington’s post-communist penchant to use war as a first rather than a last resort.
Van Creveld ends his book with the writings of TAC’s own William Lind on guerrilla and non-state wars, what Lind calls “Fourth Generation warfare.” He describes how, by 1990, “the Clausewitzian framework was beginning to show serious cracks; it proved incapable of incorporating warfare by, or against, non-state actors.” The outcome, he writes, “with the sole exception of the 1982 Falkland War and the 1991 Gulf War, Western armies have been going from one defeat to another.”
Lind’s analyses describe First Generation warfare as ending with Napoleon and the rise of mass infantry and the demise of cavalry. Second Generation warfare opened in 1816 lasting until the last year of World War I. New technology allowed for massive firepower and obliteration of targets. It takes many years before generals recognize changes while they still continue with old tactics (for example, frontal assaults on artillery and machine guns). These were already shown to be obsolete during the time of the American Civil War, but continued well into World War I.
Third Generation warfare was pioneered by the Germans, using mobility, range, and flexibility with spectacular success at the beginning of World War II. General Patton was a master of such warfare. Second Generation warfare, writes Lind, still remained in some nations’ strategies, particularly the U.S. because of our overwhelming wealth, productivity and logistic abilities. Fourth Generation warfare of “terrorism, guerrillas and insurgency of every kind” was developed by those unable to match the West in terms of firepower and technology. It is a return to warfare before the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 when wars were waged by non-nations such as gangs, religions, tribes, businesses, city states, and young males for rape and pillage. He argues that America “winning” just creates failed states that then become more of a threat to us than the nation-states we destroyed.
Lind argues that America should change from offensive to defensive warfare and containment, as we did with communism. Offensive war is bankrupting us and only creating more enemies wanting vengeance and instigating terrorism. Instead we should try to contain, not inflame, Islamist fanaticism and let it burn itself out just as did the religious wars in Europe during the 17th century. Current American strategy, Lind argues, results in losing wars against enemies wearing bathrobes and flip flops. Lind argues that we should work with nations which are sources of order and stability. (Think China.)
From being a lonely voice of dissent from Washington’s losing strategy, Lind’s concepts are now becoming accepted (see Newsweek’s “Can America Win a War?”). If one thinks of America’s wars as a business, then they become more understandable as profit centers and career enhancement opportunities. I’ve delved into this subject with a study, “12 Reasons America Doesn’t Win its Wars.” Or, as one bitter joke put it, “Most nations waged wars to loot their enemies, America wages war to loot the American treasury.”
Van Creveld gives a last sober warning. Referring to cyber warfare, he writes, “each time advancing technology enabled mankind to move into a new environment—war quickly followed.”
Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.
More and more is written arguing that American middle class standards of living have now stagnated for a number of years. Last year there was Frenchman Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which using a massive amount of statistics, supposedly proved that free markets were no longer delivering economic growth for vast segments of the European and American populations. French capitalism is hardly anybody’s model of dynamism, opportunity or growth. So it’s only natural that Piketty and his followers find inequality and stagnation. The same can be said for Pope Francis, who with a “capitalist” model of his native Argentina naturally thinks that free markets are unjust, cruel and poverty creating.
To combat this resurgent socialism, conservatives need to understand the reasons real incomes haven’t increased and why and where growth is stymied. Otherwise they will be unable to answer the Left’s clamor for more regulations, government spending and controls in the name of “equality.” It is in fact the allocation of money away from economic growth and proliferating government rules that cause stagnation and prevent the creation of new wealth.
First consider the impact of stymying regulations. When Obama first took office, he wanted to invest in new infrastructure to get the economy moving. But studies of the delays and consequent costs of simply rebuilding a bridge indicate that often these projects suffer from 5 to 10 years of delay and 10,000 pages of government regulation. Blue collar jobs are particularly affected by these holdups in permitting new construction. Very high-paying new mining ventures are virtually shut down by delays, costs, lawsuits and the exposure of investors to retroactive EPA and judicial rulings. The Competitive Enterprise Institute estimates that regulatory compliance costs the American economy $1.8 trillion annually or $15,000 per family. The costs above don’t include all the uncreated jobs that excessive regulations prevent from ever starting up.
Then there are government-created or sanctioned monopolies, particularly in the provision of health care. Just one monopolistic group, health care providers, have taken away what otherwise would have been a substantial increase in income for working and middle classes. It now costs a family of four some $22,000 for health care (with ever increasing co-payments and deductibles); just imagine if we spent half as much (like most European nations) and could see an $11,000 dollar pay increase per family. That alone would substantially change the living standard stagnation statistics. Companies would surely rather pay that money to their workers than have it disappear into the maw of the health care system.
Lack of competition, unnecessary tests and operations, defensive medicine because of lawsuits, an opaque system of pricing (designed to obfuscate and prevent analyses of costs), and monopolistic drug companies all hold back the creation of more efficiency in health care. Recent news about incredible increases in formerly low priced but important medicines has finally instigated some real criticism of drug costs. (A simple solution would be to allow drug imports now prohibited under Obamacare.)
In responding to the resurgence of socialistic ideas, conservatives must also remember that cheap energy has been basis of human progress. When Shell Oil Company announced the ending of its multi-billion dollar Arctic drilling program after only one exploratory well, the Washington Post also reported that Shell was denied permission from the Fish and Wildlife Administration for a one-time variance to allow its second well to be drilled nine miles instead of 15 miles from its first well as originally planned, as the four-month weather window for drilling was closing. The regulators argued that noise from the drilling might “harass” marine mammals. This in 5 million square miles of Arctic Ocean. Now all oil drilling has ended as other companies won’t even bid on new leases.
Socialists are now reinforced by extreme environmentalists whose agenda, using global warming hypotheses, is that America must “decarbonize” its economy by ending “the fossil fuel industry”—oil, coal, and gas—in order to “save the world.” Whatever their stated goals, their plans would put an end to free market capitalism through new government regulations and taxes. Spending hundreds of billions on global warming (now called climate change) will cause a substantial decline in living standards. As burning coal is prohibited, rising electricity prices will result. In Germany, for example, electricity now costs three times as much as in America because of its government subsidies of windmills and solar cells—infrastructure that is built even where the weather is mostly cloudy.
Not all the damage comes from the Left. On the Right there are calls to increase military and security spending beyond its current trillion dollars a year. Most of this money is wasted, when it could be growing our standard of living.
Economists also discount or ignore what they are unable to measure, and productivity growth is particularly difficult to quantify. The advent of Uber taxis, smartphones, dependable cars that don’t break down, free international telephone calls—all are mostly beyond measurement yet surely reflect a rising standard of living.
When it comes to damaging regulations, there are solutions. To alleviate delays for construction permits, there are reform proposals in Congress to create “one stop regulatory shopping” whereby one lead agency would have responsibility for applications. Deadlines could be established, with agency approvals becoming automatic unless they concluded their objections within a particular time limit.
Americans should understand who and what influences are responsible for our declining growth—not blame our economic system. Rather they should know that it is Washington’s misallocation of resources that causes our problems, not freedom and free markets.
Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.
The Israel Lobby does not represent most Jews. Sound surprising? You’d never know it from most TV talk shows or Republicans denouncing the Iran agreement as a terminal threat to Israel, and least of all from “The Lobby” itself. Its intimidating power depends upon the myth that it represents all American Jews, when it does not even represent a majority. It should really be called the “Likud Lobby,” representing Netanyahu, neoconservatives, militant settlers on the West Bank, evangelicals (mainly old ones) impatient for Armageddon, and the military-industrial complex.
Most American Jews are divided or just don’t care, just like other Americans. The young, especially, do not support the policies of Israeli or American hawks seeking more wars in the Middle East. Many Jewish voices are in accord on the pact.
By a 20-point margin in various polls, American Jews support the Iran agreement. The largest circulation Jewish newspapers carry balanced analyses and discussions. The Jewish Week’s publisher, Gary Rosenblatt, reports interesting and typical polling on Jewish Americans in an article, “Iran Deal Driving Jews Further Apart“:
- 90 percent are proud to be Jewish
- 43 percent say that caring about Israel is essential to their Jewishness
- 65 percent feel “that U.S. support for Israel is either about right or, for 20 percent, too much.”
An earlier Pew poll showed:
- 31 percent did not feel attached to the state of Israel
- 39 percent felt only “somewhat” attached
- 83 percent believe that the settlements on Palestine lands are inimical to Israeli security.
The largest Jewish newspaper, Forward, has published articles like “Fact Checking the Flame Throwers on Both Sides of Iran Deal” and “Why Israel Lobby is Biggest Casualty of Feud over Netanyahu’s Speech.”
J Street, named for the missing street in Washington, was founded to promote the missing voice of non-AIPAC Jews. It is manning phone banks, placing op-eds, and running ads in support of the Iran agreement. The old-line American Council for Judaism has long promoted peace with profound, learned writings since the founding of Zionism. Tikkun is another large organization supporting the agreement.
The New Yorker reports on AIPAC’s declining influence. Last March I wrote “The Crumbling Israeli Lobby” with statistics about its declining support, particularly among younger Jews and Evangelical Christians “rebelling against the excessive biblical literalism of their parents.” The Washington Post published “Jewish Leaders Don’t Speak for American Jews on Iran,” which analyzed the “rift between American Jews and the groups generally known as ‘the Jewish leadership.’” The article follows the money, explaining how a minority of the old and rich calls the tune.
All this support for the Iran deal from Jews of all ages (see J Street’s statistics) has not outweighed the literally billions of dollars which some older Jews are willing to throw into the fight. Congress may yet override Obama and reject the agreement. The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus wrote “The GOP’s Alternate Universe On Iran,” explaining that the options remaining after rejection of the deal are leaving Iran to proceed with producing nuclear bombs or starting another war. Although many Republican leaders prefer war, the potential disaster to the world’s economy from the risk of destruction of Persian Gulf oil exports is still to be considered.
The main issues also involve a lot of false information and unproven accusations about Iran. The biggest is that they are religious crazies who would commit suicide if they had just one bomb to drop on Israel. Actually, Iran’s policies have been very cautious. Another is rebutted by Phil Giraldi’s “Did Iranian Weapons Kill Americans,” concerning their supposedly helping Iraq with shaped charges to repel American forces. Another story is that Iran is the largest sponsor of state terrorism because it supports the Hezbollah guerrillas. And so on. They are all familiar to those of us who wrote about and exposed lies about Iraq before Washington destroyed that country.
Republican claims that they are just demanding a better deal are not believable, as other nations won’t go along. The agreement is about disarming Iran’s nuclear potential (that was the basis for multi-national support) not forcing it to surrender itself. The Europeans, Russia, and China never agreed to demand such a surrender.
Most Americans, Israelis, and Iranians want peace, but powerful forces profit from wars. We have an earlier tragic example to learn from, the undermining of the Oslo peace accords, which actually contained compromises and started settling the Palestinian issue. Netanyahu and a handful of neoconservatives put out their own plan, “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.” This agenda included the destruction of Iraq, and one of the signatories, David Wurmser, explained how Iraq could be thrown into chaos.
Former National Security Council director Brent Scowcroft compares the Iran agreement to earlier diplomatic breakthroughs opening up China and agreeing to armaments control with Russia, “an epochal moment that should not be squandered.” Most American Jews agree.
Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.
It’s one thing for libertarians to argue against helping Ukraine with weaponry, but it is quite another to call Ukrainians neo-Nazis and anti-Semitic, giving credence to the barrage of propaganda on Russian TV, and to try to defame their struggle. There are some elements that could be so described, especially in the Azov Brigade, which fought key battles with the separatists and Russian invaders. But the national election last May showed them winning only 1 percent of the national vote and being decisively defeated.
Let’s see: America allied with Stalin to defeat Hitler. We then gave succor to former Nazi scientists to help build our rockets. Today we are aiding the terrorist Kurdish PKK against ISIS in Syria (WSJ 7/25/15); we are now on the same side as the Iranians to defeat ISIS in Iraq; and we sustained many assorted dictators during the Cold War. Think of the Saudis, too: we now help Saudi Arabia’s dictators (even refueling their bombers) to target and kill Yemenis who never did America any harm—indeed, they are al-Qaeda’s enemies.
Ukrainian history is bloody and complicated. After the Soviets killed some 7 million Ukrainians, is it a wonder that many survivors welcomed the Germans? And their leader, Stepan Bandera, went on fighting for years. Resisting Ukrainians and Poles were only finally suppressed by Stalin five years after the end of the Second World War, in 1950. Anne Applebaum’s book Gulag movingly describes how survivors in the labor camps revolted and killed their guards after Stalin’s death. They weren’t the intellectuals and peasants who filled the camps in the 1930s, who didn’t know how to fight and kill.
So now we have some conservatives and libertarians unfortunately parroting and spreading Putin’s Russian accusations that a few hundred men who appeal to the mottos of the old resistance discredit all the millions of Ukrainians. And that therefore Ukraine should be abandoned.
They’re wrong. But what should American policy be, and what are some possible avenues for compromise? Former Canadian intelligence officials have put forth a very good analysis that explains, “Washington and its NATO allies have only the fuzziest idea of what they want to achieve but are nonetheless taking military measures apparently oblivious to their potential impact on Russian security interests. As Sun Tzu observed, ‘Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat’. In Europe, the noise people hear is the rumble of Russian mechanized forces preparing to move on Mariupol, Kharkiv and maybe Kiev.”
First, we should recognize that before Yanukovych’s ouster and the present crisis Russian interests were overly pressed and prejudiced by European Union officials who “would have forced Ukraine to decide between Russia and the European Union, flatly rejecting Putin’s offer of a tripartite arrangement”—between Russia, Ukraine, and the EU—“that would allow Ukraine to sustain its ties with Russia.” There was even a proposal to change Ukraine’s railroad gauge from Russian to West European widths so trains could not easily travel into Russia, Ukraine’s main trading partner. The Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine alludes to “military-technological co-operation” and repeatedly addresses “mutual security” and defense. Small wonder that Russia felt threatened.
Most of these initiatives came from lower-level officials, perhaps even without the knowledge of Obama and Germany’s Chancellor Merkel. What’s more, Obama’s State Department European chief is a neoconservative, Victoria Nuland, inherited from Cheney’s gang of “rule-the-worlders.” It has been said of Western dealings with Ukraine that no grown-ups were in charge.
Putin’s actions in seizing Crimea and destabilizing Ukraine, however, needed a strong response. That doesn’t preclude negotiation: at a recent meeting of the Washington Oil & Gas Forum, a speaker explained that Putin only has liquid reserves—some $200 billion—to carry on another two years before sanctions and the decline in oil prices cause real havoc with the Russian economy. He said that Russian officials lately seemed more open to compromise. In another context, Obama recently praised Putin for helping in the Iran negotiations.
But the Russians also require convincing that they cannot continue slicing up Ukraine without severe consequences. America should help the Ukrainians: defensive weapons, especially against tanks and artillery, should be on the table. First, however, Washington should reach out to Putin with diplomacy, especially now, after its successful beginning with Iran.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has reported on a feasible structure of compromise. Russia would keep Crimea through “buying” a 99-year lease, paying with discounted gas deliveries to Ukraine. Ukraine would end its blockade, recognize the lease, and sell water and electricity to the peninsula. Free transit of citizens and goods of both nations would be guaranteed, and Russia would respect past property rights in place at the time of its invasion.
The breakaway East Ukraine would have some kind of federalist semi-autonomy within the nation. (Indeed, federalism could be a reform of tremendous significance for the prosperity of many nations afflicted by corruption and overly centralized governments, including Russia.) Ukraine would be part of both the European Union, through an association agreement, and belong to the Russian customs union. Europe and Russia would end their trade and investment restrictions and travel bans.
There is an encouraging example from the past, that of Austria after World War II. Russia and the West agreed that it would be neutral, with no foreign military bases or alliances: “neutrality on the Swiss model.” It worked very well. Austria prospered with peace and as a middle ground for commerce between East and West.
An agreement would be the crowning achievement of Obama—diplomacy and peace with Iran and Russia. Admittedly, diplomacy is tough for Republicans. Ever since the Civil War they have thought winning means demanding unconditional surrender. Most of their leaders think blockade and bombing should be the first measures in any dispute with other nations. (Former American Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman has written an excellent appeal for and explanation of diplomacy . It explains why diplomacy is vital, especially for preventing and ending wars. It should be read by all Republicans in Congress.)
Finally, Washington should address the lies coming out of Russian media, including into America through RT. Google searches give prominence and credibility to Russian state-controlled “media” and bloggers who often promote disinformation. CNN in Russia has shut down because of the censorship and danger to its journalists. Anne Applebaum has suggested various ways to empower silenced Russian journalists to help get their voices out to the Russian people.
I lectured in three Ukrainian cities years ago on “Free Market Lessons from Asia and Latin America,” sponsored by the American Foreign Policy Council with a grant from CIPE. The Atlas Network sponsored a special mission last fall to explain and promote free market, anti-corruption measures to the new government. Students for Liberty held a special conference in Kiev. All the participants spoke of the idealistic young people working for Ukraine to emulate Europe rather than Putin’s Russia. Since Russians took over Crimea they have shut down Western television reception and curtailed the free Internet. Believe me, most Ukrainians do not want to come under the rule of modern Russian police state.
Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.
Mass incarceration in America has lifted our prisoner count to 2.3 million, dwarfing that of all other nations; of federal prisoners, only 13 percent are serving time for violent crimes, while 72 percent are imprisoned for nonviolent offenses. Altogether, Americans are held in thousands of prisons and jails. Millions more are former prisoners or arrestees. Criminal-justice reform relates to much more than occasional killings by rogue policemen: the whole over-criminalization incentive structure driving long prison sentences and the re-sentencing of parolees in the judicial system needs publicizing and reform. The multibillion-dollar cost of policing and jailing nonviolent offenders also takes money that our cities (or taxpayers) could well use for civilized betterment.
Our judicial system has some serious flaws, particularly its quest for guilty verdicts and incarceration. I first learned about the drive for convictions through an experience with a former employee. He was arrested for getting in a fight with a drunken resident in a business I once owned. He had called the police himself after hitting the man with his nightstick during a fight. (We knew the man was drunk from blood tests at the hospital where the man was treated and released the same night.) The defense attorney, paid by the city, strongly urged my man to plead guilty, telling him that he would easily get off with probation and a few hours of community service. My employee said that then he would then have a criminal record. But the attorney warned that if he went to court he risked spending years in jail. Later I learned that the attorney was paid little more to fight the charges than to have her client offer a plea bargain. I said to her that I would double whatever legal fees she earned from the court if she would defend him in pleading innocent. She agreed.
After three court dates, the other man never appeared, so my employee’s lawyer asked the prosecutor to drop the case, but the prosecutor refused. I saw that the prosecutor wanted to collect convictions to help her own career. Finally, after the other man missed yet another court appearance, the prosecutor agreed to drop the case. That’s how I saw first-hand how the judicial system obtains so many guilty verdicts, which eventually result in so many imprisonments. The system is called “meeting and pleading,” as described by former Baltimore police officer Michael Wood. And now, with computerized records, once a man has a conviction he won’t be hired by all sorts of businesses. In fact, businesses risk being sued for “negligent hiring” if an employee turns out to be a former felon and commits another crime at work.
Reason has published about related problems with sex-offender registration. Through plea bargaining, thousands of men are on sex-offender lists that don’t distinguish violence by strangers against minors from such “crimes” as urinating in public or exposure. Reason notes that according to Human Rights Watch, some states’ sex-offender lists include teenagers who had consensual sex with other teens. In Pennsylvania, 14-year-olds were subject to lifetime listing as sex offenders. The idea behind lifetime penalties for being a sex offender was the impression that most such acts were violently committed by strangers upon small children and that such offenders represented a continuing menace. But in practice the punishment can mean a lifetime of stigma and economic ruin inflicted upon people who pose no such risk and have not committed any comparable act.
There are many other issues of over-criminalization. The Washington Post hired former Reason blogger Radley Balko, author of the Rise of the Warrior Cop, to cover a host of other criminal-justice reform issues.
Reform is beginning, but it is very slow. Both Republicans, who used to support mass incarceration, and Democrats, often beholden to police and prison-guard unions, have not been quick to respond. Pat Nolan, formerly of Justice Fellowship, told me how the Obama Justice Department dawdled for years to put forward regulations to enforce the Prison Rape Elimination Act, passed in 2003, because of prison-guard union opposition. Solitary confinement is another issue crying out for reform but also one that provides extra jobs for guards, as I was told by Jim Ridgeway, who runs SolitaryWatch.com. A very important new group is Right on Crime, a conservative coalition supported by the Heritage Foundation, tax activist Grover Norquist, Pat Nolan, and politicians such as Newt Gingrich. It’s now focusing on civil asset forfeiture, another egregious government abuse created in the name of fighting crime.
Slowly but certainly, Americans across the political spectrum are beginning to question and reform the criminal-justice system, even rethinking the panic-stricken measures of the past 30 years that led to so much imprisonment, so many ruined lives, and the runaway growth of police powers.
Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.
America doesn’t “win” its wars, because winning a war is secondary to other goals in our war making. Winning or losing has little immediate consequence for the United States, because the wars we start, Wars of Choice, are not of vital national interest; losing doesn’t mean getting invaded or our cities being destroyed. The following are some of the interests Washington has in not winning, reasons for our unending wars.
1) War sustains the (very) profitable log-rolling contracts for supplies in key congressional districts, grants for university faculties to study strategy, new funding for new weapons. During wartime who dares question almost any Pentagon cost “to defend America?”
2) Continued conflict postpones hard decisions about cutting defense spending such as closing surplus bases, cutting duplicate systems, and focusing on waste. See 16 Ways to Cut Defense. Shakespeare put it well, advising a king to have lots of foreign wars in order to have tranquility at home.
3) Starting wars is the historic way for kings (and presidents) to gain popularity and avoid doing tough domestic reforms for problems that cry out for solutions. War lets them be postponed. Think of George W. Bush winning election on promises to balance the budget, have health care reform, reform our bankrupt social security commitments, tackle the EPA, take on the teachers’ unions, rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, and such. Instead, with war, all those issues were swept aside. He won his re-election by having even bigger deficit warfare/welfare spending and increasing the national debt by trillions.
4) Private “contractors” profit from continuing crises. They don’t get paid in peacetime like ordinary soldiers, rather profiting from war, or at least from America having more enemies to guard against. In Iraq and Afghanistan we had hundreds of thousands of them, very well paid (often former military) and now largely in lesser-paid jobs.
5) Washington’s community prospers. Think tank intellectuals get lots of TV exposure and lectures, new funding produces new jobs and government grants and trips to the excitement of battlefields, or at least to comfy headquarters, to study the “enemy.” Congressmen get more TV time; critics can be condemned for hurting the war effort or even aiding the enemy. Everyone feels important. Heritage Foundation interns were recruited to help administer Iraq, and while not every war produces jobs even for interns, money flows everywhere.
6) Cable TV gets more viewers (e.g. more advertising revenue). Instead of interminable, boring coverage of the same old event, think of CNN’s repeated coverage of the disappeared Malaysian airliner for weeks, wars are exciting and gain 24-hour coverage and viewers.
7) Military careers. Our Army and Navy are designed for past wars where soldiers and sailors were mostly identically trained to be able to fill identical slots for fallen comrades or sunken ships. Officer careers were based upon well-rounded experience and commands. Third world wars are different. In nations without a rule of law everything is based upon personal relationships with tribal and military leaders. The British and Roman empires sent out staffers to spend a lifetime gaining confidences and studying different tribes, religions, and local issues. For America, every officer has dozens behind him wanting to get some “war” experience on their resumes. So officers rarely stay longer than a year on any battlefield posting, barely enough time to learn the area and gain the confidence of local leaders, much less learn their languages. Long, interminable wars allow for many more officers to get “their tickets punched,” as the saying goes.
8) We can’t absorb many casualties, so to minimize them we bomb and obliterate whole villages and towns (think Fallujah), creating a constant supply of new enemies. If winning was really important we would have to absorb many more casualties and station many more troops for many more years to occupy and pacify the conquered (liberated) nations. Instead we just fight on for years without end.
9) Few Americans want to spend lifetimes studying tribes, religions, and customs in obscure, boring, and uncomfortable regions of the world. The British Empire was heavily staffed by poor Scots and Irish who could find few jobs at home. America does not have that problem facing the skilled, educated elites capable of administering far-flung possessions.
10) Our Congress is more concerned with appearances than winning. Political grandstanding, appearing tough, and pandering to local constituencies are the main objectives for most of them. Think of Iran, where no peace agreement acceptable to Iran and our European allies is likely to gain Congressional approval. Another unending war is more likely and could easily expand to blowing up oil and gas resources all over the Persian Gulf.
11) Our internal security establishment, costing hundreds of billions, needs threats. Think of how often the FBI provides fake bombs and weapons to wannabe terrorist young macho males dreaming of acting out their fantasies. Unending wars fulfill this need. If America actually “won,” many of their (well paid) jobs would be superfluous.
12) We are very vulnerable to false flag operations and paid foreign propaganda. Various foreign nations or rebel interests want us to bomb and/or invade their local enemies. Our recent attack on Libya was based on false information, spread by our allies. Saudi Arabia wants us to destroy Iran, Turkey wanted us to attack Assad in Syria, Israeli (and neocon) hawks wanted us to “rip apart” Iraq. Kuwait’s sheiks paid millions for a PR campaign for America to attack Iraq the first time, and so on.
We could “win” if we followed Sun Tzu and learned from history and from the advice of our founding fathers. But, as stated above, we don’t really want to win; too many Americans benefit from unending wars.
We are not the first empire to confront this problem. However, in the past such unending wars were limited by their costs. But America can always, so far, borrow the money from foreigners. Think though how the Chinese, who have loaned us much of the money, benefit from America eventually weakening itself from continually bashing our heads against religious fanatics, causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents and making enemies of much of the Muslim world. As Rand Paul commented, it was American war hawks who created ISIS and much of the chaos in the Middle East. Yet we don’t really lose wars either. As retired Marine four-star General Mattis says, America doesn’t lose wars, it just loses interest and withdraws from fighting them.
Ideas to limit Washington’s profligacy of interventions are beginning to break through into the media, though. Fareed Zakaria supported Rand Paul, writing that he was “forcing Republicans and many Democrats to defend what has become a lazy, smug consensus in favor of an ever-expanding national security state.” The very respected Peggy Noonan now writes that “we spend too much on the military which not only adds to our debt, but guarantees that our weapons will be used.” She quotes policy expert Ian Bremmer—“Policy makers will find uses for them to justify their expense which will implicate us in crises that are none of our business.”
Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.
The newest lie about the Iraq war is that the truth about Iraq was not known before the American attack in 2003. One needs only to search for “lies about Iraq” to see all the many links explaining evidence from before the war started that showed the Bush/Cheney/neoconservative claims to be false.
That false narrative is important to know because many of the same people are now promoting war with Iran, as they were before with Syria. Republican candidates are also stumbling over the question of whether they would have invaded Iraq because it undermines their present, ongoing promotion of an interventionist foreign policy.
Take just one example of such a false claim, which even reached Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address to Congress: “Saddam has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production.” It was a lie from the beginning. Bush had been informed that the Department of Energy and State Department intelligence had analyzed the tubes and found them to be useless for a nuclear program, rather being for conventional rockets.
I was very active in reporting on the lies, writing at the time for Antiwar.com, which every day had articles, news reports, and analyses exposing the misinformation. An article I wrote in 2002, well before the war started, “Eight Washington Lies About Iraq,” was at the top of a Google search for lies for 7 years. Even today it explains, with links, many of the lies made.
Iraq’s weaknesses were in fact easy to comprehend after nearly nine years of U.S. economic blockade following the First Gulf War. Iraq had been decimated by American bombing of its electricity, sanitation, irrigation, and transportation systems. Almost every bridge was destroyed. A half-million Iraqi children had died of starvation and disease. It was also subject to United Nations (read American) inspectors going all over the country to verify that it was conforming to earlier UN demands for destruction of its nuclear and chemical warfare facilities.
All Americans should be reminded again and again that recent wars were based on lies. The First Gulf War was sold to Americans on the basis of the murder of “incubator babies” and an imaginary Iraqi threat to invade Saudi Arabia, including the assertion that satellite photographs showed the Iraqi Army massed on the Saudi border. The “classified” photos never existed. The Kosovo War was based on reports that 100,000 Kosovan Albanians had been murdered by Serbs, so America had to attack so as to stop the mass killing. It was also a lie.
Today, when all the Republican candidates are being pressured by right-wing media and neoconservative money men to sound (and be) hawkish, Americans should recall how most of Washington’s establishment lied to promote past wars. Wars mean billions of dollars for key congressional districts’ arms producers, millions of rapt viewers for 24-7 cable news, lots of TV time for think-tank chicken hawks,, new jobs for “contractors,” more growth for the “surveillance state.” There’s also the Israel Lobby and Christian Zionists. All In all that is a pretty formidable force for war.
All Americans should be aware and suspicious of again being panicked into supporting more wars.
Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.
Jewish resistance to Netanyahu’s invitation by Republicans to address Congress is showing cracks in the Israeli Lobby’s influence over Congress. The leading Jewish newspaper Forward reports, “the biggest casualties may be the normally omnipotent pro-Israel lobby and its allies in the Jewish community, who have seen their credibility and political power severely shaken.” CNN reports that 63 percent of American oppose the invitation.
The Israeli Lobby represents less than half of American Jews. The real lobby today is an amalgam of mainly older Jews, evangelical Armageddon believers, and the military-industrial complex, which prospers from unending wars and chaos in the Middle East. A recent Pew poll shows 31 percent of Jews do not feel attached to the state of Israel while another 39 percent feel only “somewhat” attached. A massive 83 percent think that construction of settlements on Palestinian lands on the West Bank do not help Israeli security. Sixty-two percent believe that the Israeli government is not negotiating in good faith with the Palestinians.
Media reporting about the growing American Jewish opposition to Israel’s Likud Party hawks is especially scarce. Republican media such as the Wall Street Journal op-ed pages and Fox News disregard such news. I have attended three meetings of the pro-peace and fast-growing Jewish organization J Street. The last meeting’s dinner banquet in 2013 was attended by 60 members of Congress and sponsored by 41 major Jewish organizations. (I wrote about their counter-influence in “J Street and the Israeli Lobby,” reporting on how so many Jews oppose the Israeli government’s hawkish Likud regime of Netanyahu.) Rarely in America does one see such exhibits as one finds at their meetings that show the suffering of the Palestinians under Israel’s brutal occupation and the many Jewish groups trying to alleviate their suffering. There are many other Jewish and Israeli organizations promoting compromise and peace with the Palestinians, as well.
The hawkish Israeli Lobby’s massive strength in Congress depends for its power upon a myth—that it represents nearly all American Jews. Instead, today it depends upon others, especially Bible Belt Republican evangelicals—think Mike Huckabee. About them I once wrote “The Strangest Alliance in History,” explaining how each side thought it was using and fooling the other. Above all it is their longing for Armageddon that motivates many so-called Christian Zionists. They fervently believe and want Israel to help bring about the end times. Indeed I called them the Armageddon Lobby. Journalist Max Blumenthal recently did video interviews of some of these evangelical supporters of hardline Israeli policies, including former Republican congressional leader Tom Delay, at the massive convention of Christians United for Israel. Delay said how he longed for the end times, which “our connection” to Israel would help bring about. Others voiced similar aspirations.
Yet there is now extraordinary ferment, especially among younger evangelicals, questioning and weakening Christian Right support. Fifty-eight years after Israel’s founding, the idea of imminent Armageddon, promised in the Scofield Bible, is wearing thin. The Middle East Quarterly reports, “How quickly things change. The days of taking evangelical support for Israel for granted are over … anti-Israel Christians are penetrating the evangelical world at its soft underbelly, the millennial generation. Young believers are rebelling against … the excessive biblical literalism of their parents … as they strive to imitate Jesus’s stand with the oppressed and downtrodden.” The article’s author, CUFI executive director David Brog, warns that polling shows only 30 percent of evangelicals sympathize with Israel, while 49 percent sympathize with Israelis and Palestinians equally. Brog warns, “The day that Israel is seen as the moral equivalent of Hamas is the day that the evangelical community will cease providing the Jewish state any meaningful support.” An article in Counterpunch, “Christian Evangelicals Increasingly Support Palestinian Human Rights,” has very detailed information on all sorts of changes and challenges to the formerly monolithic Israeli Lobby.
Allied with the Christian Zionists is much of the military-industrial complex. It is a key industry in many congressional districts benefiting from unending wars, that create more and more enemies for America. See “The Unholy Alliance Between the Military-Security-Industrial Complex and the Israel Lobby,” which explains how “irrational and conflicting U.S. policies in the Middle East are quite logical from the viewpoint of economic and geopolitical beneficiaries of war.” Noam Chomsky argues that the military-industrial complex’s “lobbying influence and campaign contributions far surpass that of the much-vaunted Zionist lobby and its allied donors to congressional races.”
Republican pandering to the hardline Israeli Lobby through Netanyahu and his push for America to start a third war against another Muslim nation, this time with Iran, may not be so politically beneficial as the GOP’s leaders imagine.
Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.
For all the commentary about Uber’s disruptive effect on the taxi business, it has has other remarkable consequences. It is opening up American cities by solving one of the biggest problems for residents: finding cheap, easy, and reliable transportation in out of the way places. Expensive, rare, and undependable taxis are being supplanted by easy, fast, reliable Uber cars coming into lightly trafficked suburbs and even into high crime ghettos. A caller knows immediately how far away his ride is located. No more calling back to taxi companies asking where the taxi is and when it will finally arrive.
In Washington, D.C., the consequences are tremendous. Already, apartment buildings that used to have waiting lists for parking spaces now have empty spaces. Many downtown buildings in Washington have some 20 percent less income from parking than before Uber and convenient short-term car rentals came about.
The system works with one’s smartphone, showing immediately how far away a car is and how many minutes it will take to arrive. Then one can track the approaching car on an electronic map on the phone’s screen. There is a permanent digital record of which driver is coming and which member has called from what location. Drivers don’t carry any cash and all the cost, tipping is included, is billed to the member’s monthly credit card statement. Driver and passenger calls to find each other are computer scrambled so that neither can later find and call the person involved except through the company. Primarily this protects passengers from any driver later possessing their private telephone numbers. Passengers are asked to rate their driver after each trip, and drivers likewise rate passengers. The process gradually eliminates obnoxious or incompetent drivers and passengers. Uber cars cost some 75 percent as much as taxis and don’t charge for extra passengers.
The negatives with Uber are concerns for safety (see below) and the proper screening of drivers. Most customers use UberX which consists of private car owners. They depend almost entirely on GPS navigation and often don’t know the best city routes. I would question sending young children alone with them. They should really be compared to chauffeurs to whom one must explain the best routes to take. The higher-class Uber Black car has more professional, knowledgeable drivers, but costs nearly twice as much.
The Many Consequences
First of all, the abundance of young millennials and empty nesters moving into the city do not even need to own a car. The savings in parking, insurance, and car payments is hundreds of dollars, say about $700 a month after tax earnings. A detailed study in Los Angeles came up with exact numbers for car ownership compared to Uber. For weekends convenient car rentals are also available by the hour or by the day from companies such as Zipcar and Car2Go. Uber’s main competitor is the much small company, Lyft, which offers similar service.
Secondly and most significantly, whole new areas which were once semi-slums or far away from offices and downtowns have been opened up to “urban homesteaders” and “gentrification.” Uber is accelerating the return of middle classes to city life. Low-cost housing is being gobbled up all over the city in out of the way places which Uber cars are able to service and locate, thanks to their satellite navigation systems.
Thirdly, popular inner-city restaurants and bars are now within easy access for suburbanites, which makes for more abundance, variation, and sales tax collection, benefitting full-time residents. Several persons can share a car (without taxi like surcharges) into the city with no worries or costs associated with finding parking spaces. They can then be assured of finding a car late at night to take them home. And they have no worries about one extra drink or fear of police dragnets looking for DUI’s, when a single such arrest can cost thousands of dollars in fines or lawyers or higher insurance rates or even damage their careers for the rest of their lives.
Fourthly, parents can arrange for late-night rides for their teenagers from parties without a fear of their drinking and driving. More parents are using the service to deliver and pick up young children from after-school activities. Likewise, aged parents can be driven to homes and doctors’ appointments. It’s all about low cost, reliability, and tracking the drivers. Parents can even see on their smartphone map screens where the car is located as it drives.
Fifthly, residents of poor sections of town (providing they have a credit card) can call for cars in parts of cities with scarce public transportation or almost non-existent taxi service. Sharing cuts the cost of commutes to work. Drivers need not carry any cash and so are much less subject to being robbed.
Uber drivers use their own cars, which are required to be late models, clean, and with air conditioning running in hot weather. They don’t talk on their phones when carrying passengers. They earn 80 percent of the fares. Drivers I’ve spoken to tell me they earn a hundred dollars and then quit for the day. Drivers can work part- or full-time, day or night as they wish. Rates are adjusted automatically (called surge pricing) when there is heavy demand or bad weather, indeed they can double or triple, but that means that rides are always available at a price. If the member does not want to pay the higher price he or she can simply wait out the situation and then call back. There is no extra charge for additional passengers, so passengers can easily share costs which brings down the price considerably for a group of commuters, for example.
Uber also offers a limousine service called Black Cars, at about double the price. They are larger, more luxurious models, often stocked with the daily newspaper and bottles of water, and usually can take more passengers. Uber must also reduce traffic congestion in big cities as fewer residents must drive around looking for parking spaces or use their cars for short distances.
Safety is the big issue for Uber and its detractors. Search for Uber and crime to find links. The company’s website explains its procedures in recruiting drivers, however its fast growth has raised questions about the security checks. Some cities plan to impose their own requirements, but the suspicion is that they might try to shut down the service instead. There have been many charges and some arrests after complaints. Some of the accusations are true, while others are exaggerated by its enemies or competitors trying to have the service shut down. Municipal background checks on drivers, various tightening up measures, and all sorts of ideas to guarantee safety are being debated and sometimes incorporated into the system. With millions of potential customers there will always be some crime issues. However, the tracking possibilities of modern technology will make crimes harder to commit and easier to trace when they do occur. There does seem sufficient security because more and more parents are using the service to deliver and pick up their children from after-school activities. The company carries liability insurance on all its drivers.
Uber may be just a forerunner of other sharing services that will break the power of big city protected monopolies. Taxis are the most affected, and already the price of taxi medallions in New York City have declined by some 20 percent from their preposterous values of nearly a million dollars each. The cozy collusion of City Hall politicians and taxi owners to maintain scarcity is under attack all over America. Smart phones and Uber-type services are bringing mobility and lower costs to millions of Americans who previously could not find or afford such transportation.
Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.
Over 100,000 entrepreneurs and small business owners are in prison in Russia for not paying bribes to assorted inspectors or because parties to business disputes bribe police to arrest them on trumped-up charges. Russia’s private sector has very little security in law for its property rights. Almost everybody dragged before any court is found guilty. The consequences are minimal re-investment, low productivity growth, and owners who seek security by taking out maximum cash and, if able, stashing it abroad.
Consequently, Russia depends upon imports for 90 percent of its consumer goods. Its agriculture is still a shambles, with no secure property rights, lousy roads to get products to markets, and younger farm workers fleeing the boredom and poverty of the countryside. Just fly over any Russian city, as I have done, and see how little of the land is cultivated compared to cities in the rest of Europe.
Yet many leading libertarians have been very soft on Putin’s elimination of political freedoms and ruination of his country, excusing Russia because of NATO expansion and Western support for the overthrow of Ukraine’s Moscow-backed Yanukovych government. Some conservatives have even argued that Putin is an ally in supporting traditional “family values” because of his public opposition to homosexuality and gay marriage.
Ron Paul defends Putin, writing that there was no proof that Russian missiles shot down Malaysia’s Flight 17 over Ukraine. His allies argue that criticism or exposure of Putin’s regime merely strengthens the War Party in Washington, helping it to gain more spending and bring about more wars against more nations. They argue that it was NATO expansion and NATO’s attack on Serbia launched by Bill Clinton that ultimately led to the reactions and new aggressiveness of Russia. This is an argument I once appreciated, but it’s not a reason to whitewash today’s Russian dictatorship and incredible corruption. We–and I consider myself a Libertarian—can still oppose our military-industrial congress complex without excusing or hiding mention of monstrosities abroad. In fact such excuses weaken our moral standing and our competence as “realists.”
Now, with the 50 percent decline in oil income and a concomitant approximate 50 percent decline in the value of the Russian ruble, it’s very important to understand Russia’s domestic scene and how the country’s rulers are incapable of nursing its private business sector and agriculture to substitute for lost oil revenue. Russia, with its economically ignorant police-state rulers, may simply evolve into a semi-failed state with loose nukes around for the stealing or buying. Some analysts even warn that “when the federal government will no longer be able to offer financial incentive to the regions, Russia’s feeble federalism will crumble.”
Putin’s power base is with pensioners—to whom he could make relatively generously payments because of the past oil boom—and his constituency of security services, government officials (with guns), and inspectors shaking down the private sector. I have lived under various forms of dictatorship and wrote an essay in 2009, “Understanding Dictatorships,” explaining how dictators stay in power and the importance of “legitimacy” even for them. I lived in Havana when Fidel Castro overthrew the corrupt Batista dictatorship. I saw then how Batista depended upon his police, who consequently became very corrupt, constantly shaking down middle-class Cubans for bribes. They made Batista hated, but he couldn’t control them because he depended upon them to stay in power. Russia under Putin is very similar. In 2012 he publicly recognized the problem and even appointed an official, Boris Titov, to oversee releasing some 10,000 entrepreneurs from prison, but then he backed off the program. Instead, in 2013 Putin gave even more power to corrupt local courts with a new law allowing them to issue judgments without even notifying defendants of a pending case against them—see “Germany Cools to Russian Investment.” In consequence Allianz, a giant German insurer, stopped writing automobile insurance in the country.
Short of revolution, it’s hard to see how Putin can be thrown out. He and his cohorts can never allow a free election to threaten him with loss of control. He and they would all be subject to prison, or at least exile, once their corruption was investigated. He dare not leave power voluntarily. To the contrary, if squeezed too hard, he might lash out by invading other lands—Azerbaijan, for example, with its oil, or Kazakhstan with its minerals and pipelines.
The oil-price decline and Putin’s self-destructive corruption have done far more damage to Russia’s economy than any economic sanctions from the West. So now it would be better to ease up and not push Putin into more desperation or give him excuses to blame the West. European and American banks should be allowed to refinance existing Russian corporate debt, say 80 percent, with a schedule of payments to gradually reduce it—and certainly not to increase it. Just the cutting off of fresh money is all that’s needed to keep positive pressure on Russia without creating a possible failed state. A world price of $50-60 per barrel is enough to keep most of America’s shale oil production profitable yet prevent Russia from having excess funds beyond the essentials to pay pensions and prevent a possibly catastrophic implosion.
Hopefully Russia will be forced to turn inward to foster its own vast potential economic development by allowing private property rights and a breath of freedom at home. Economic development of the private sector needs a substantive rule of law.
Yet the other possibility, of becoming a failed state, is not as farfetched as it sounds. All former dictatorships are vulnerable in these days to such a risk of breaking up into religious sects, racial and ethnic groups, gangs, ideological crazies, and other malcontents with guns fighting each other. Iraq, Libya, and Syria are perfect examples. The American Conservative’s strategic expert William Lind argues that America should support “centers of order” wherever in the world against a growing number of 21st-century fracturing, failed states that will spread chaos; witness Europe’s fear of Middle Eastern fanaticisms coming to their lands. For Russia, with its thousands of nuclear bombs, it’s very much in the West’s interest to help keep it going as a viable, prosperous, and cohesive state.
Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.
Ken Tomlinson, who died last week, was one of Ronald Reagan’s key lieutenants in bringing about the collapse of Soviet communism. It’s much forgotten nowadays how vital the battle to disseminate information behind the Iron Curtain was to the cause of defeating communism. The Voice of America, which Ken ran early in Reagan’s term, and Radio Free Europe were the window for millions of East Europeans into the outside world. No young person today can conceive of the dearth of information inside Russia when millions listened to short wave radio for knowledge about the world.
When I first visited Moscow with a delegation of journalists in 1987, I brought along a radio and scanned for programs. In all of Moscow there was no FM at all, and only four AM stations. TV news was scarce and always pure propaganda. VOA and the BBC broadcast news about America and the world; Radio Free Europe broadcast news about what was happening inside the Eastern Bloc nations.
Tomlinson had hired me to debate leftists on a VOA program at the end of 1984. Only subsequently came the vast expansion of information as photocopy machines and VCRs were smuggled into Russia and East Europe by the thousands. Nearly every Russian diplomat would then take back 2 VCRs, one for himself and one to sell on the black market. The VCRs, whose tapes could be dubbed with translations, created havoc for the communists as more and more of their citizens citizens learned about the outside world, and their deprivation in the Soviet prison lands.
We met, and Tomlinson hired me, after I was quoted in a 1984 poll of conservative leaders in Richard Viguerie’s Conservative Digest. Asked about the best things Reagan had done, I replied, “His speeches and vitalizing the Voice of America.” Ken’s main assistant in his work was Ed Warner, a former Time editor, hired to oversee all the special programs. He was my direct boss. Tomlinson and Warner hired me and others who really understood communists’ psychology; we knew how to get inside their minds. I had been a long-time journalist in Latin America, and grew up the son of Freda Utley, who wrote several of the first books explaining Russian and Chinese communism.
Before Tomlinson, VOA had been pretty namby-pamby, mainly known for its Willis Conover jazz programs. Turning the Voice into a real weapon of information was not easy at all for Tomlinson and Warner. It had always been a prime target of infiltration for the Soviets, second only to the CIA. Over and over again Warner would tell me of some broadcaster who was surely procommunist, putting out the straight Soviet line as if it were also Washington’s. When I’d say, “can’t you remove him?” Ed would reply, “I can’t, his boss is a good guy, thinks like we do, but says he’s ok and protects him.” Later they would finally get rid of the man only to find the boss again sponsoring the same kind of programming. The boss, too, had been a communist supporter. That was how the communists protected their agents; it was done the same way in the CIA. To this day we still don’t know just how infiltrated the VOA had been.
In any case, the VOA under Tomlinson began to broadcast hard-hitting, real information and criticism. Reagan spoke about how private property owners cared for their land to produce profitably and for the long term, unlike government. After that, I hammered away at explaining why Americans were rich and Russians were poor, for this reason. Tomlinson also unleashed the East European refugees to broadcast. A Polish friend of mine even started a talk show for listeners inside Poland to call into.
His New York Times obituary doesn’t mention how Tomlinson reformed the VOA and made it into a dynamic force for freedom. Nor, of course, does it explain that Ken Tomlinson was one of the architects of the collapse of communism. Rather, it almost completely dwells on infighting and criticism of him in later years about his disputes with PBS and public television.
Ken had reported for Reader’s Digest as a foreign correspondent before becoming editor. He was one of the rare conservatives who knew and understood the outside world, having reported from Vietnam, Somalia, and Europe. That experience was what made him so effective, and so successful.
Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.
Ukraine and Russia’s dysfunctional democracies both share a common feature—their electoral systems use proportional representation (PR). Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal also use it. Proportional representation is a system whereby elected congress persons (or parliamentarians) owe their primary loyalty to their party rather than to constituent voters in separate geographical districts. Each party puts up “lists” of its candidates, the names usually decided by old Party bosses. Voters are only given the option to vote for one list or another, rarely for individual members concerned with their local, specific interests. Parties that gain more than (usually) 5 percent of the total vote get a number of seats in the legislature proportional to their percentage of the popular vote. Multiple parties, constantly changing coalitions, and political instability usually then results in incompetent, often corrupt governments dependent upon minority coalitions to survive.
Who gets on the lists is the key issue. Usually they are old-time loyalists and favorites of the leadership; rarely will reformers or up-and-coming younger persons who might challenge archaic economic or political interests make an appearance. It’s almost impossible to unseat the old party leadership or to vote them out. Professional politicians love the system because, with their names at the top of their list, they rarely lose power even if their party only retains a few seats in parliament.
In Russia the proportional system enabled President Putin to put the name of his alleged girlfriend, Alina Kabaeva, a beautiful gymnast, on his party’s list for a seat in the Duma. Andrey Lugovoy, a former KGB agent wanted by England for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, was chosen by a small nationalist party’s leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the so-called Liberal Democratic Party, to run close to the top of its list. He thus became a member of the Duma with consequent immunity from arrest. Russian voters can only vote for the whole list, not individual members. Ukraine and Russia have among the world’s lowest ratings in the World Bank’s Doing Business Report. Ukrainians are apparently aware of PR’s problems, as they changed their system to be only half proportional and half direct representation for their last, 2012, election. A major new study, Proportional Western Europe: The Failure of Governance explains how the PR system makes it almost impossible for South European nations to reform their economies.
Interestingly both the failed Weimar Republic, which preceded the Nazi electoral victories, and the failed French Third Republic, which French voters reformed when they brought in de Gaulle and the Fourth Republic, used pure proportional representation systems.
The English-speaking world, including former British colonies and the successful Asian “tigers,” mostly uses direct voting, whereby individual representatives are chosen by and beholden to voters in their separate districts, called constituencies. Thus they are concerned with how laws and government actions directly affect their constituents. This system has the cumbersome names “winner takes all” or “first past the post.”
One almost never reads in American analyses of foreign nations any discussion of their electoral systems as factoring into their unresponsive and irresponsible governments. One reason is that electoral systems are dull and complicated subjects for mass media. Also, academics generally support PR because the system fosters parliamentary/congressional representation for every fractional political or ethnic group. The March 1st Economist ran an important essay “What’s gone wrong with democracy” that makes many important points, but does not even mention proportional representation as being a problem.
In Greece there was no competent tax collection nor even a proper register of property ownership. Every small profession and interest has its government-guaranteed monopoly; for example, one needed to pay a tax of some $50,000 to start even a tiny trucking company. In Italy any company with more than 15 workers is not allowed to lay anyone off, civil court cases average 20 years for a judicial decision, and employment taxes take some 55 percent of payroll. In Spain there were similar laws with a consequent 50 percent unemployment rate among younger citizens. All sorts of rules, some even from medieval times, hamstring and paralyze economic entrepreneurship. Laying off employees is prohibited unless a judge agrees that it is for “just cause,” which does not include going bankrupt. Few dare to start any business beyond one that only needs family members to function; hiring outsiders is too costly and risky because of labor laws, except for large corporations with the lawyers and money to navigate the administrative and judicial labyrinth.
Incredibly, Washington installed proportional representation in Iraq. It proved to be a disaster as we can already see with the nation falling into chaos again. My earlier article, “Iraq’s Dysfunctional Democracy,” explains the details. Iraq’s former president Ayad Allawi, now excluded from the government, explained the system well in a November New York Times op-ed, “How Iraq’s Elections Set Back Democracy.” Iraq also was afflicted with the very worst kind of PR, a single nationwide list of candidates for the whole country.
Democracy means far more than majority rule. It involves constraints and delays on majority rule, protection for minority rights, diffusion of power, free speech, free assembly, and accountability for elected officials. This means clear lines of authority. Politicians everywhere do all they can to avoid accountability for their actions. Interestingly, there is not even a word for “accountability” in the Latin languages French, Spanish, or Italian. It is always translated in dictionaries as “responsibility.”
Hernando de Soto, the famous Peruvian economist, explained that PR was the reason that Latin American democracies do not work well. He argued that Latin American poverty was not a result of Latins just preferring to sit around in the sun and play music. He explained in his famous book The Other Path how it was their laws, their proportional electoral systems that discouraged hard work, savings, and entrepreneurial effort. The rousing economic success in America of immigrants from many such dysfunctional countries shows that there must be reasons for economic ill-fortune other than just race or culture.
With PR, winning congressional candidates need have little concern for the very real day-to-day problems of their constituents, e.g., abusive, corrupt bureaucrats, labor and business monopolies, and crippling government taxes and regulations. They are simply not held individually accountable for their votes. This creates a hopelessness and cynicism about government that stifles reform and even hope for a better life. Polls in such nations show waning support for democracy itself.
Venezuela, before electing its demagogic, Marxist President Chavez, was typical of nations with such systems. For 20 years, their only option was to bring back pretty much the same list of representatives to Congress whom they had just voted out in the previous election. Young reformers who might have reformed the static, oligarchic, semi-socialist prior regimes were kept off the lists. The same happened in Greece. In Venezuela from the 1970s to the 1990s, two old men, Carlos Andres Perez and Rafael Caldera, each won the presidency twice as voters had no other choices: in rejecting one, they got the other. In their desperation to be rid of the corrupt, incompetent, statist, and paralyzed old parties, Venezuelans voted for Hugo Chavez. Vladimir Chelminski, former director of the Venezuela’s Chamber of Commerce, described the situation in the Wall Street Journal:
For decades, the quality of life had been deteriorating. The democratic process seemed to function well only for the benefit of politicians and their friends. The political parties that had alternated in power since 1958, Social Democrats and Social Christians, were very much the same. Both offered socialism with political freedom. Their policies paid lip service to the poor but always proved counterproductive. Private property and contracts meant little in their laws. Two-thirds of willing workers could not find employment in the formal economy …
There is a less dysfunctional PR system, such as exists in Turkey, whereby lists are selected in each state or province so that representatives do have knowledge about and an interest in supporting local concerns. Parties also must surpass a 10 percent threshold nationwide in order to be on the ballot. The higher threshold addresses part of the problem of splinter parties compared to nations where the limit is 5 percent, or even less. A higher threshold forces small parties to unite and work together, an important step towards building functional democracies. This is the reason one sees constant negotiating for coalition governments, as one party rarely gains 51 percent of the total electorate. A higher threshold also reduces the power of tiny special interest parties, religious or ethnic, which sometimes exert extraordinary power as the swing parties in coalition governments.
There are some small nations where PR “works,” particularly those with a homogeneous, educated population, where most citizens know and trust each other and have high levels of personal responsibility: Scandinavia and Holland, for example, or Israel in its early days. PR can also be modified to allow local regions to vote for lists of local candidates rather than a single nationwide list. Germany has a very complicated partial PR system too complicated to explain here. However, in large nations with diverse populations and interests, especially those with ethnic or religious divisions, PR does not work well. Polish writer Frank Glodek observed in the May 2000 Central Europe Review how America in 1789 was also a diverse nation with different national origins, religious beliefs, and regional interests. He explained in an excellent analysis:
Proportional representation is particularly dangerous in any nation that has suffered from ethnic, ideological or religious divisions, virtually compelling people to vote along these pre-established lines, regardless of whether they know it to be destructive and of their preference to do otherwise. Not even a five percent vote threshold for a party to hold seats in parliament is a barrier to these voting patterns and their negative impact.
Why? When you have proportional representation, you must assume the ‘others’ will vote ethnically (or tribally, Ed), putting you at risk. The only way to protect yourself is by doing the same…
A proportional representation system can never unite so many diverse nations and peoples effectively, as it is inherently and unavoidably biased toward extremism, instability, immoderation and ineffectiveness. … People forget that the United States was, from the outset, a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country.
After direct representation, the second most obvious need for successful democracy is a federal system with a wide dispersion of powers so local citizens can govern themselves in accordance with their history and beliefs, provided they don’t inflict harm upon their neighbors. A federal system also allows different regions to experiment. India, with its relatively successful system holding together millions of vastly different peoples and religions, followed the British electoral system.
Choosing between a parliamentary or presidential system is a secondary issue, although parliamentary is probably better for third-world nations. A parliamentary system curtails stalemates and so allows for a more rapid change of government when one group or coalition is unable to govern effectively and so loses its majority.
Effective representative government is difficult and slow to take hold, but Ukrainians, Russians, Greeks, Arabs, and Latin Americans all want freedom, safety, and prosperity, just like us. Before we can actively promote effective government, we ourselves need to understand why so many foreign democracies don’t work well.
Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.