Category Archives: Science

The status quo is back — expect them to cry about the budget deficit

By Kent R. Kroeger (January 21, 2021)

Political scientist Harold Lasswell (1902–1978) said politics is about ‘who gets what, when and how.’

He wrote it in 1936, but his words are more relevant than ever.

In the U.S., his definition is actualized in Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;

To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian Tribes;

To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;

To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures.

In short, the U.S. Congress has the authority to create money — which they’ve done in ex cathedra abundance in the post-World War II era.

According to the U.S. Federal Reserve, the U.S. total public debt is 127 percent of gross domestic product (or roughly $27 trillion) — a level unseen in U.S. history (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Total U.S. public debt as a percent of gross domestic product (GDP)

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Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve

And who owns most of the U.S. debt? Not China. Not Germany. Not Japan. Not the U.K. It is Americans who own roughly 70 percent of the U.S. federal debt.

Its like owing money to your family — and if you’ve ever had that weight hanging over your head, you might prefer owing the money to the Chinese.

When it comes to dishing out goodies, the U.S. Congress makes Santa Claus look like a hack.

But, unlike Saint Nick, Congress doesn’t print and give money to just anyone who’s been good— Congress plays favorites. About 70 percent goes to mandatory spending, composed of interest payments on the debt (10%), Social Security (23%), Medicare/Medicaid (23%), and other social programs (14%). As for the other 30 percent of government spending, called discretionary spending, 51 percent goes to the Department of Defense.

That leaves about three trillion dollars annually to allocate for the remaining discretionary expenditures. To that end, the Congress could just hand each of us (including children) $9,000, but that is crazy talk. Instead, we have federal spending targeted towards education, training, transportation, veteran benefits, health, income security, and the basic maintenance of government.

There was a time when three trillion dollars was a lot of money — and maybe it still is — but it is amazing how quickly that amount of money can be spent with the drop of a House gavel and a presidential signature.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Actpassed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 27, 2020, costed out at $2.2 trillion, with about $560 billion going to individual Americans and the remainder to businesses and state or local governments.

That is a lot of money…all of it debt-financed. And the largest share of it went directly to the bank accounts of corporate America.

And what do traditional economists tell us about the potential impact of this new (and old) federal debt? Their collective warning goes something like this:

U.S. deficits are partially financed through the sale of government securities (such as T-bonds) to individuals, businesses and other governments. The practical impact is that this money is drawn from financial reserves that could have been used for business investment, thereby reducing the potential capital stock in the economy.

Furthermore, due to their reputation as safe investments, the sale of government securities can impact interest rates when they force other types of financial assets to pay interest rates high enough to attract investors away from government securities.

Finally, the Federal Reserve can inject money into the economy either by directly printing money or through central bank purchases of government bonds, such as the quantitative easing (QE) policies implemented in response to the 2008 worldwide financial crisis. The economic danger in these cases, according to economists, is inflation (i.e., too much money chasing too few goods).

How does reality match with economic theory?

I am not an economist and don’t pretend to have mastered all of the quantitative literature surrounding the relationship between federal debt, inflation and interest rates, but here is what the raw data tells me: If there is a relationship, it is far from obvious (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: The Relationship between Federal Debt, Inflation and Interest Rates

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Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve

Despite a growing federal debt, which has gone from just 35 percent of GDP in the mid-1970s to over 100 percent of GDP following the 2008 worldwide financial crisis (blue line), interest rates and annual inflation rates have fallen over that same period. Unless there is a 30-year lag, there is no clear long-term relationship between federal deficits and interest rates or inflation. If anything, the post-World War II relationship has been negative.

Given mainstream economic theory, how is that possible?

The possible explanations are varied and complex, but among the reasons for continued low inflation and interest rates, despite large and ongoing federal deficits, is an abundant labor supply, premature monetary tightening by the Federal Reserve (keeping the U.S. below full employment), globalization, and technological (productivity) advances.

Nonetheless, the longer interest rates and inflation stay subdued amidst a fast growing federal debt, it becomes increasingly likely heterodox macroeconomic theories — such as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) — will grow in popularity among economists. At some point, consensus economic theory must catch up to the facts on the ground.

What is MMT?

Investopedia’s Deborah D’Souza offers a concise explanation:

Modern Monetary Theory says monetarily sovereign countries like the U.S., U.K., Japan, and Canada, which spend, tax, and borrow in a fiat currency they fully control, are not operationally constrained by revenues when it comes to federal government spending.

Put simply, such governments do not rely on taxes or borrowing for spending since they can print as much as they need and are the monopoly issuers of the currency. Since their budgets aren’t like a regular household’s, their policies should not be shaped by fears of rising national debt.

MMT challenges conventional beliefs about the way the government interacts with the economy, the nature of money, the use of taxes, and the significance of budget deficits. These beliefs, MMT advocates say, are a hangover from the gold standard era and are no longer accurate, useful, or necessary.

More importantly, these old Keynesian arguments — empirically tenuous, in my opinion — needlessly restrict the range of policy ideas considered to address national problems such as universal access to health care, growing student debt and climate change. [Thank God we didn’t get overly worried about the federal debt when we were fighting the Axis in World War II!]

Progressive New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has consistently shown an understanding of MMT’s key tenets. When asked by CNN’s Chris Cuomo how she would pay for the social programs she wants to pass, her answer was simple (and I paraphrase): The federal government can pay for Medicare-for-All, student debt forgiveness, and the Green New Deal the same way it pays for a nearly trillion dollar annual defense budgetjust print the money.

In fact, that is essentially what this country has done since President Lyndon Johnson decided to prosecute a war in Southeast Asia at the same time he launched the largest set of new social programs since the New Deal.

Such assertions, however, generate scorn from status quo-anchored political and media elites, who are now telling the incoming Biden administration that the money isn’t there to offer Americans the $2,000 coronavirus relief checks promised by Joe Biden as recently as January 14th. [I’ll bet the farm I don’t own that these $2,000 relief checks will never happen.]

Cue the journalistic beacon of the economic status quo — The Wall Street Journal — which plastered this headline above the front page fold in its January 19th edition: Janet Yellen’s Debt Burden: $21.6 Trillion and Growing

WSJ writers Kate Davidson and Jon Hilsenrath correctly point out that the incoming U.S. Treasury secretary, Yellen, was the Chairwoman of the Clinton administration’s White House Council of Economic Advisers and among its most prominent budget deficit hawks, and offer this warning: “The Biden administration will now contend with progressives who want even more spending, and conservatives who say the government is tempting fate by adding to its swollen balance sheet.”

This misrepresentation of the federal debt’s true nature is precisely what MMT advocates are trying to fight, who note that when Congress spends money, the U.S. Treasury creates a debit from its operating account (through the Federal Reserve) and deposits this Congress-sanctioned new money into private bank accounts and the commercial banking sector. In other words, the federal debt boosts private savings — which, according to MMT advocates, is a good thing when the “debt” addresses any slack (i.e., unused economic resources) in the economy.

Regardless of MMT’s validity, this heterodox theory reminds us of how poorly mainstream economic thinking describes the relationship between federal spending and the economy. From what I’ve seen after 40 years of watching politicians warn about the impending ‘economic meltdown’ caused by our growing national debt, consensus economic theory seems more a tool for politicians to scold each other (and their constituents) about the importance of the government paying its bills than it is a genuine way to understand how the U.S. economy works.

Yet, I think everyone can agree on this: Money doesn’t grow on trees, it grows on Capitol Hill. And as the U.S. total public debt has grown, so have the U.S. economy and wealth inequality — which are intricately interconnected through, as Lasswell described 85 years ago, a Congress (and president) who decide ‘who gets what, when and how.’

  • K.R.K.

Send comments and your economic theories to: nuqum@protonmail.com

Dr. Michael Osterholm challenges the Great Barrington Declaration and the low herd immunity myth

[Headline Graphic: A Russian women wearing a mask during the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic (Photo by https://www.vperemen.com; used under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license)]

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; October 24, 2020)

Today’s news that the U.S. reported a record number of new COVID-19 cases yesterday (83,000+) did not surprise anyone who has been listening to Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota, since this coronavirus pandemic began.

When many politicians and news media celebrities in March and April were talking about the pandemic as a single surge as part of a one large wave, Dr. Osterholm and  his CIDRAP colleagues were warning that there would be multiple waves with the biggest likely occurring in the Fall.

Score one for Dr. Osterholm and CIDRAP.

When President Trump and more than a few media-selected experts were anticipating the fast development of a SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) vaccine, perhaps by summer’s end, Dr. Osterholm was on Joe Rogan’s podcast saying it would take many months, well into next year, before a vaccine could even conceivably be available for wide distribution.

Right again.

When Dr. Osterholm went on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last Sunday and said that the next few months with be the darkest of the pandemic and the country, I took it seriously, even as I am a skeptic about the utility of widespread or selective economic lockdowns and remain optimistic that falling case fatality rates are a sign that treatments are becoming more and more effective against this viral scourge.

Dr. Osterholm would probably classify my views as naive and potentially deadly.

So when Dr. Osterholm on his podcast last Thursday called out the public health and epidemiological professionals who signed the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD)—which, among other things, says that “current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health” and that “simple hygiene measures, such as hand washing and staying home when sick should be practiced by everyone to reduce the herd immunity threshold”—I listened.

Herd immunity is when so many people in a community become immune to an infectious disease that it stops the disease from spreading.

Where Dr. Osterholm takes greatest issue with the GBD is its suggestion that we can “reduce” the herd immunity threshold, which CIDRAP any many epidemiological experts estimate to be around 50 to 70 percent of the population.

Though no specific herd immunity threshold is cited in the GBD itself, some of its signers and a minority of epidemiological experts have suggested coronavirus herd immunity thresholds are much lower than 50 to 70 percent of the population, perhaps as lows as 20 to 30 percent.

What says Dr. Osterholm to those lower herd immunity estimates?

“That figure is the most amazing combination of pixie dust and pseudo-science I’ve ever seen,” says Dr. Osterholm. “Now matter how much information we supply, these myths still continue. If you look at the congregate living areas (e.g., prisons), you can see that once the virus gets into this tight space with enhanced capacity for transmission, it blows right through, well into the 60, 70 percent range.”

Unlike much of the questionable information being spread about the coronavirus, the GBD represents a genuine debate in the epidemiological community and is supported by a small, but highly credentialed group of public health experts—which is why Dr. Osterholm is so adamant in challenging some of the GBD’s ideas.

“I’ve seen studies come out that say, ‘Well, we had a house on fire and suddenly it got limited in terms of transmission and, so, herd immunity must be at 25 percent,” says Dr. Osterholm. “I’ve heard that for New York and Brazil’s Amazon region.”

Did they achieve herd immunity?

No, says Dr. Osterholm: “Enough suppressing activities were put into place and, in fact, transmission slowed down to the point that it was minimized. That didn’t mean you hit herd immunity. A place like New York City is just as ripe as ever for another outbreak.”

One of the central precepts of the GBD is that those people most vulnerable to the coronavirus can be isolated—“bubbled off” as some put it—from the general, healthier population.

Dr. Osterholm has an answer to that: “You can’t assume you can bubble off of people who are high risk. There are lot of people in our society who are of high risk. How do you bubble people who have increased BMIs (Body Mass Indexes) who are 35 years of age. How do you bubble if you live in a house where you are the essential worker and you come home to a multi-generational family of grandpa and grandma and your kids.”

And what is Dr. Osterholm’s view on the next best steps to combat the coronavirus?

“We want to keep everyone from getting infected until we have a vaccine available,” he says, noting that a safe and effective effective is still six to eight months away in his estimation.

But this herd immunity dispute isn’t just an exercise of the scientific method, it is a moral one in Dr. Osterholm’s opinion: “I think it is immoral, frankly, to think we should just let a lot of people get infected.”

Dr. Osterholm goes even further in his critique of the GDB and its signers: “The Barrington Declaration will go down as one of the worst moments that anyone who ever signed it will have in their public health career.”

Strong words by a man that has gotten far more right than wrong when it comes to making predictions about the coronavirus.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments to: nuqum@protonemail.com

 

News networks are better at crushing (or lifting) outsider campaigns than they are at helping major candidates

By Kent R. Kroeger (NuQum.com, August 16, 2019)

I don’t blame Bernie Sanders for his crabbiness towards The Washington Post. He cares about his national media coverage as he knows it may be the difference between winning and losing the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination.

Sanders ignited a firestorm this month when he implied The Washington Post’s less-than-favorable coverage of his 2020 presidential campaign was influenced by the paper’s owner, Jeff Bezos, the founder, president and CEO of Amazon.com, Inc.

Immediate shock, outrage and dismissive eye-rolling animated the press corps.

“(Sanders) said what he said to get a cheap applause line at a town hall packed with supporters. The problem for Sanders, Trump and politics more generally is that many of the people who hear things like this from them don’t know better,” wrote CNN editor-at-large Chris Cillizza. “They actually believe there is some sort of conspiracy between corporate America and the news media. And when politicians — whether they are Sanders, Trump or anyone else in either party — stoke that sentiment, that’s dangerous. And bad for democracy. Full stop.”

“We’ve been tracking press coverage all primary long and Sanders has consistently been at or near the top of the field in terms of the volume of news coverage he’s received,” posted Nate Silver, the editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight, on Twitter.

These are the predictable responses one can expect from the national media when someone accuses them of systematic editorial bias.

Sanders, however, was wrong to suggest Jeff Bezos, or anyone connected to corporate Amazon.com, would intervene to impact WaPo editorial decisions. It just doesn’t happen that way.

The common interests of journalists and political elites drive the news media’s coverage of political candidates. They are alone a sufficient condition to power any conspiratorial-looking editorial process dedicated to helping one set of political candidates over others.

It doesn’t require late-night calls using anonymized cell phones or encrypted emails across secured networks. Journalists and politicians simply need a shared motivator to engineer an organic, successful, and legal conspiracy.

Perhaps ‘conspiracy’ is the wrong word for it. It is more like a confederacy built around an informal covenant. Members may not have secret handshakes, but they learn of their shared interests by going to the same schools, living in the same neighborhoods, attending the same parties.

The national news media and the Washington, D.C. political elite belong to the same club — a clique where you need to be invited, of course. Sorry, President Trump, your membership application has been misplaced. And, apparently, the membership renewal forms have been rejected for Hawaii House member Tulsi Gabbard and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. They were once members in good standing. But not now.

The Systematic Bias of the National News Media is Undeniable

Recently, Michael Tauberg, an engineer by day and data journalist at night, published data on the tone of online news coverage for each of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates from January to April 2019.

Figure 1 (below) shows the average news story sentiment for the major Democratic candidates. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, former Texas US House member Beto O’Rourke and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar received the most positive news coverage over that period. More interesting are the candidates at the bottom: Gillibrand and Gabbard.

Figure 1: Average Sentiment of Coverage from Liberal News Sources

Source: Michael Tauberg

What exactly did Gillibrand and Gabbard do to earn so much negative coverage? Gabbard’s unforgivable offense to the political/media establishment is well documented. Rolling Stone magazine’s Matt Taibbi lays out a few reasons for why the establishment shuns Gabbard. She hates regime change wars and holds the Democratic Party — and the Obama administration, in particular — partially responsible for these never-ending conflicts. Gabbard hits the Democratic Party where it feels most vulnerable to the Republicans: national security issues. The fact Gabbard single-handedly stunted Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign momentum in late-February 2016 by resigning from a Democratic National Committee leadership position and endorsed Bernie Sanders did not help her status within the party establishment either.

But what about Gillibrand?

Her heresy is pure political insider stuff. She embarrassed former President Bill Clinton (and his wife) when she suggested Bill should have resigned for having an affair with a young intern.

Responding to Gillibrand’s admonishment, the former president told CBS News: “You have to — really ignore what the context was. But, you know, she’s living in a different context. And she did it for different reasons.”

That was Bill saying Gillibrand said what she said for purely political reasons. In other words, she’s no longer a FOB (Friend of Bill’s). If the Clintons are consistent on anything, it is punishing those who are disloyal; and Gillibrand, who they hand-picked for the New York Senate seat Hillary vacated when she became Secretary of State, has never been welcomed back into the Clinton or party establishment fold.

This becomes even more apparent in Tauberg’s analysis of news headline sentiment (see Figure 2). No other 2020 Democratic candidate possesses an average headline sentiment score as strongly negative as the scores for Gabbard and Gillibrand. Their outsider status is quantifiable and it won’t be easy for either to rise within this crowded field of candidates if their media coverage does not turn more positive.

Figure 2: Average Sentiment of Headlines from Liberal News Sources

Source: Michael Tauberg

But do Gabbard and Gillibrand deserve this level of negativity from the national news media? More importantly, who makes that decision? What objective editorial standard is in play that says these two candidates are going to hammered (or ignored) by our news outlet, while this candidate is going to get a far more positive treatment.

All candidates have strengths and weaknesses. Short of a candidacy by someone like David Duke or Richard Spencer, it is seems reasonable that an objective news organization would balance the tone of its coverage for all candidates, even if more popular candidates may get proportionately more coverage than less popular candidates.

But the Tauberg data shows how unbalanced the coverage has been through April with the 2020 Democratic race. The candidate differences in Figures 1 and 2 are not the product of chance — they are the product of an overtly sectarian and discriminatory editorial process.

CNN’s Chris Cillizza and members of the national news media ask us to believe those decisions are based purely on objective considerations by the journalists and editors themselves. The mere suggestion by Sanders that a corporate owner of a newspaper or broadcast news network could impact editorial content is universally mocked by those in the industry.

Responding to another opinion journalist’s criticism of corporate news decisions, MSNBC contributor Jason Johnson asks, “Do you actually think that network and site owners waste their time micromanaging a writer’s opinions? Or is that just some stuff you throw out because it hypes up your fans? I’ve never had anybody, on any outlet I’ve ever worked for even bother.”

There is an answer to Johnson’s first question and it is called ‘self-editing.’ Every writer of import does it — consciously and subconsciously. Writers know what their editors, readers and owners like to read, or at least the successful ones know.

Has Johnson not noticed writers and political analysts sometimes are around one day and gone the next on MSNBC? Has he asked himself why he doesn’t see Krystal Ball around the office as much anymore? [Krystal is now an anchor on The Hill’s TV news podcast Rising with the Hill’s Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti — an excellent morning program, by the way.]

The owners of major news outlets don’t micromanage because they hire people to do that. And the most important editorial control is not done at the micro-level anyway, it is done at a macro-level through the hiring and firing decisions by middle and upper management. In just the past twenty years, MSNBC has gone through at least two substantial ideological shifts. It was a mostly non-partisan, straight news organization in the late 1990s, but shifted to the progressive (anti-Fox News) left in the early-2000s with show hosts such as Phil Donahue, Dylan Ratigan, and Ed Schultz, only to turn into an establishment left news organization in the early 2010s with hosts such as Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews.

Driven more, perhaps, by ratings than any ideological predilection on the part of its ownership, MSNBC is not atypical of other national news outlets. It is a corporate news organization guided by corporate necessities (i.e., advertising revenue and profit). That causal model systematically and inescapably alters the news content, largely in favor of advertiser and corporate interests. Lockheed Martin budgets a lot of advertising dollars each year and they are not going to use their money for underwriting spots on Democracy Now or Redacted Tonight. It just doesn’t work that way.

Changes in cable news coverage can change candidate support — but is it predictable?

Every political campaign I’ve worked on had a candidate and staff that complained incessantly about their campaign’s news coverage. One nasty news story could get a reporter barred from future interviews. But what candidates and campaign managers feared most — more than being on the receiving end of a negative story — was getting ignored by the media. Nothing kills a campaign faster than not being covered. Advertising and door-knocking can help build name recognition and promote a candidate’s core messages, but the credibility and visibility conveyed to a campaign through a national news media filter is irreplaceable — even in the age of social media.

How do we know news media coverage matters? We will need data.

The Data

The following is a very preliminary look at this question regarding news media influence on political candidate support. Using APIs to query a GDELT Project database on daily cable TV news coverage from January 4 to August 6, 2019, and downloading Democratic nomination polling data from RealClearPolitics’ data repository, I conducted a time-series analysis (vector autoregression) to determine whether or not changes in the volume of a candidate’s cable news coverage causes changes in a candidate’s popular support.

Spoiler alert: Changes in the volume of cable news coverage causes changes in candidate popularity, but the effect size is small.

First, let us look a how candidate support has varied since January (Figure 3). Of the five major candidates, they all received a significant popularity bump from the point of their candidacy announcement. In general, the surge in popularity lasted about a month and ranged in magnitude from 15 points for Sanders to 9 points for Buttigieg.

Warren is an outlier in that her popularity rise has been gradual and did not include a steep increase after her February 9th announcement; and, unlike the other four candidates, Warren has not suffered a significant decline from an announcement-related high — in fact, she has gained around 10 points. In contrast, Biden has seen his support decline from around 42 percent down to 30 percent. Sanders, similarly, has lost around 12 points from his March high, Harris 5 points and Buttigieg only about 2 points.

Warren may be the tortoise in a race full of hares.

Figure 3: Democratic Candidate Support since January 4, 2019

Data Source: RealClearPolitics; Polling data displayed and analyzed as 7-day moving averages

One other notable feature is the 8-point surge Harris experienced after the first debate where she challenged Biden on his position regarding forced busing. However, her lift from that debate has all but evaporated since the second debate when Harris was confronted by Gabbard over Harris’ law enforcement record while the California Attorney General.

Turning to cable news coverage, there is more day-to-day variation in the volume of coverage for candidates, particularly around specific events such as Biden’s late-April candidacy announcement and around the two debates (see Figure 4). Another interesting feature is how Warren and Sanders mentions, starting in late-May, is now moving in near perfect lock step fashion. The reason for this strong correlation are the two dominant narratives being employed by both MSNBC and CNN during this period: The first focused on whether Warren’s rise is stunting any further rise in Sanders’ support. The second focused on Warren and Sanders defending their progressive policy ideas, particularly on their ability to fund them.

Figure 4: Democratic Candidate Cable News Mentions (as % of all mentions) since January 4, 2019

Data Source: The GDELT Project; Polling data displayed and analyzed as 7-day moving averages

As yet, I’ve offered no evidence that candidate support and cable news coverage are causally linked. And that causal linkage, if it exists, may be non-recursive and going in both directions — a candidate’s rise in popularity may inspire more news coverage, and a rise in news coverage may increase a candidate’s popularity.

Before formally crunching the numbers, a visual inspection of how cable news coverage moves relative to candidate popularity might be helpful. I’ll focus on Mayor Buttigieg for two reasons: there are clear periods where his popularity and news coverage move together, while other periods where they seem to move in opposite directions (I’ve included charts for all five candidates in the Appendix below, Tables A.1 to A.5).

Figure 5 shows Buttigieg’s dramatic surge in support occurred at the same time as his cable news mentions increased. To only the most hardcore politicalphiles was the name Buttigieg familiar before the 2020 campaign. By the time of his April 14th announcement, he was near his campaign highs in both popularity and cable news coverage. But it is not obvious from Figure 5 if popularity causes news coverage or the other way around (or in both directions).

Figure 5: Buttigieg Support and Cable TV News Mentions

Data Sources: RealClearPolitics and the GDELT Project; data smoothed using a 7-day moving average

Since his mid-April highs, he has experienced significant declines in both variables, except for a period just after the first debate when his cable news mentions surged a second time. Another important period is between June 20th to 30th when Buttigieg’s cable mentions rose steeply even as his popularity was in steep decline. The negative turn was most likely a product of his city, South Bend, dealing with a June 14th police shooting where a Black man had been killed by a white police officer. Buttigieg’s appearance before a public hearing on the incident did not go well, according to many observers.

What this episode demonstrates is that any model of support and news coverage may require an interaction term or independent variable measuring the tone of coverage. Unfortunately, I am still working on generating a sentiment analysis of cable news stories for inclusion in a future analysis.

With that methodological caveat, any causal relationship I might find between popularity and news coverage here is likely going to be an underestimate of the true relationship. Research is, after all, an iterative process.

Feel free to skip to ‘The Results’ section if you don’t want the details on the statistical methodology.

The Statistical Method

Noble Prize winner in economics, Clive Granger, defines a relationship between two variables as causal (X1 Granger-causes X2) if prior changes in X1 predict future changes in X2, independent of past values in X2 and while controlling for other potential causal factors.

A common statistical method for testing for Granger-causality is vector autoregression (VAR). The beauty (and limitation) of this technique is that it makes few assumptions about the causal relationships between variables. Hence, these models often devolve into ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ specifications that eat up degrees of freedom (which are typically precious, particularly for the analysis here which has only 215 cases to work with).

Due to these issues, it is often recommended that VAR models be employed during the initial model and theory-building stages and that more explicit, theoretically-informed statistical models be used in the final analytic stages (e.g., dynamic Bayesian networks).

For my purposes, VAR is more than adequate to uncover the basic causal relationship between news coverage and candidate popularity.

Model Specification

The VAR models estimated here for popularity (Y) and volume of news coverage (X) specify a p-order = 7, which means the ten models (two models for each candidate) looks back 7 days to assess the relationship between Y and X. All variables were measured at the daily level and smoothed using a 7-day moving average. The variables were also differenced in order to meet VAR’s stationarity requirement. This means we are, in fact, testing whether changes in X cause changes in Y and vice versa.

The raw data, SAS code, APIs, model parameter estimates, and VAR diagnostic charts are available for download at: https://github.com/Nuqum/NuQumStuff

The Results

The bottom line up front: For three of the five candidates (see Figure 6), increases in their volume of cable news coverage caused small but significant increases in candidate popularity. Also, for three of the five candidates, increases in candidate popularity caused small but significant increases in the volume of their cable news coverage.

Figure 6: Summary Table of VAR Model Estimations

Using Buttigieg again as our highlighted case, the VAR model predicting popularity has a model fit of R-squared = 0.71, compared to an R-squared = 0.39 for the news coverage model. This general pattern is consistent for all five candidates. However, not shown in Figure 7, the inclusion of news coverage volume added very little new information in explaining candidate popularity, as the R-square for all models only fell by 2 to 4 percentage points when news coverage was excluded from the model. This gives me great pause in suggesting news coverage is a dominant predictor of candidate support. Visually, we can see the some causal relationship is there, but, statistically, it still looks like just one actor in a much larger drama.

Figure 7: Summary of VAR Model Fits

One of the most informative outputs generated from a VAR model is what is called an Impulse Response Function (IRF) graph. An IRF describes the changes in the dependent variable along a specified time horizon after a one-unit shock in the independent variable. Both variables — candidate popularity and cable news mentions — are measured as percentages and theoretically range from 0 to 100 (variable summary statistics can be found in this project’s Github depository as part of the VAR output).

Buttigieg will once more be our exemplar.

Figure 8 indicates that a one percentage-point increase (shock) in cable news mentions of Buttigieg leads to a 0.40 percent increase in his popularity four days after later. No other lag parameters are significant in the Buttigieg model (that is, the confidence intervals include zero). That change in popularity might not seem like a game-changer, but cumulatively that translates into a nearly 1.5 percentage-point increase in popularity over 8 days. For a candidate whose support drifts between 4 and 9 percentage points, that is significant shift.

Figure 8: Impulse Response Function: 1-unit Shock in Cable News Coverage and Changes to Candidate Popularity over 8-day period (Buttigieg)

Data Sources: RealClearPolitics and the GDELT Project

Yet, without a measure of the tone of a candidate’s news coverage, the true dynamic between news coverage and candidate popularity is probably under-stated in the analysis here. As Buttigieg’s case makes clear, there are times when even a popular candidate with the news media will need to weather negative news coverage that will hurt his or her standing in the polls. That dynamic must be directly modelled.

My next step will be in further developing and capturing a tone/sentiment measure for news coverage. Presumably, this will significantly improve the model of candidate popularity.

Final Thoughts

Perhaps the most interesting candidates in this analysis are Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris. There was little evidence of any causal relationship between their volume of cable news coverage and their popularity. It doesn’t surprise me that Sanders doesn’t even get a meager lift anymore from positive news coverage. It does surprise me that Kamala doesn’t. Just a visual inspection of the relationship between her popularity and her cable news mentions reveals what appears to be a strong (positive) relationship between the two (Figure 9).

Figure 9: Candidate Support and Cable TV Coverage (Harris)

Data Sources: RealClearPolitics and the GDELT Project; data smoothed using a 7-day moving average

Harris has three major spikes in cable TV news mentions. The first occurred soon after her candidacy announcement on January 21st — which was mapped closely by a surge in support. One interesting feature of this first surge is that the support level peaked about one week after the peak in cable news mentions. Buttigieg’s chart showed a similar dynamic (see Figure 5 above). Harris’ second cable news mention surge occurred after her first debate performance and was, again, mapped closely by a popularity surge. What is different from the first surge is that the peaks of both mentions and popularity occurred contemporaneously — most likely because the debate was widely watched on television and its impact on popularity more immediate.

Harris’ third cable news mention surge occurred after the second debate but did not witness the simultaneous positive movement in popularity, the reason fairly obvious — the second debate was not a good performance by Harris.

Looking at the charts for all of the major candidates (Figures A.1 to A.5 in the Appendix) makes one thing clear — the dynamics between cable news coverage and candidate popularity varies by candidate and can change over time within each candidacy. Campaign events (e.g., debates), gaffes (Biden is one of the candidates after all), and random shocks (e.g., the economy, mass shootings, the border crisis, the Middle East conflicts, etc.) add a level of randomness and unpredictability that no statistical model, no matter how well specified, can fully anticipate.

This preliminary look at the common daily variations in cable news coverage and candidate popularity — a two-variable model — does not come close to capturing the full complexity of a real world presidential campaign. There are many other factors in a campaign that affect candidate popularity: endorsements, advertising, social media, online news, Google searches, campaign rallies, retail politicking, etc.

We want to believe the news media, as one of the primary gatekeepers through which campaigns try to get information to the general public, is as powerful as the news media itself assumes. No doubt, the struggle of Tulsi Gabbard and Kirsten Gillibrand to get their messages to the voting public is hindered by systematic negative news coverage (or, worse, no news coverage at all). The Tauberg news sentiment data supports the contention that the national news media systematically favors some candidates over others and can crush (or lift) small, outsider campaigns if they so choose.

The news media will argue that is part of their job. If they don’t do it, who will? Voters can’t digest 21 different candidates. The field needs to be whittled down to a more manageable number and the news media is more than happy to provide that service.

“Somewhere, somehow, professional journalists have to decide who gets covered — and any formula they could choose is going to appear biased to someone,” says Columbia University journalism professor Jonathan Stray. “In the end, the candidates who attack the media are right about one thing: The press is a political player in its own right. There’s just no way to avoid that when attention is valuable.”

But the question remains, is the corporate news media an unbiased, neutral party in this process or does it play favorites? Bernie chooses the latter conclusion. I lean that way as well, but I am still surprised at how sketchy the data remains showing a strong causal arrow from the national news networks to candidate popularity.

  • K.R.K.

Comments and requests can be sent to: kroeger98@yahoo.com

All raw data, SQL commands, and SAS codes for this essay can be downloaded at: https://github.com/Nuqum/NuQumStuff

APPENDIX: Additional Graphs

Figure A.1: Candidate Support and Cable TV Coverage (Biden)

Data Sources: RealClearPolitics and the GDELT Project; data smoothed using a 7-day moving average

Figure A.2: Candidate Support and Cable TV Coverage (Warren)

Data Sources: RealClearPolitics and the GDELT Project; data smoothed using a 7-day moving average

Figure A.3: Candidate Support and Cable TV Coverage (Sanders)

Data Sources: RealClearPolitics and the GDELT Project; data smoothed using a 7-day moving average

Figure A.4: Candidate Support and Cable TV Coverage (Harris)

Data Sources: RealClearPolitics and the GDELT Project; data smoothed using a 7-day moving average

Figure A.5: Candidate Support and Cable TV Coverage (Buttigieg)

Data Sources: RealClearPolitics and the GDELT Project; data smoothed using a 7-day moving average

Figure B.1: Impulse Response Function: 1-unit Shock in Cable News Coverage and Changes to Candidate Popularity over 8-day period (Biden)

Data Sources: RealClearPolitics and the GDELT Project

Figure B.2: Impulse Response Function: 1-unit Shock in Cable News Coverage and Changes to Candidate Popularity over 8-day period (Warren)

Data Sources: RealClearPolitics and the GDELT Project

Figure B.3: Impulse Response Function: 1-unit Shock in Cable News Coverage and Changes to Candidate Popularity over 8-day period (Sanders)

Data Sources: RealClearPolitics and the GDELT Project

Figure B.4: Impulse Response Function: 1-unit Shock in Cable News Coverage and Changes to Candidate Popularity over 8-day period (Harris)

Data Sources: RealClearPolitics and the GDELT Project

Figure B.5: Impulse Response Function: 1-unit Shock in Cable News Coverage and Changes to Candidate Popularity over 8-day period (Buttigieg)

Data Sources: RealClearPolitics and the GDELT Project

Atlantic basin tropical cyclones are increasing in frequency and intensity

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; December 12, 2018)

Nothing brings more hate mail to my inbox than articles I write about climate change.

It’s the new Obamacare. Not open for debate. It’s the third rail of Democratic Party politics. Any criticism, no matter how minor, of the tactics or policy proposals generated by the activist community is unacceptable. And you will be called an uneducated, bucktoothed climate change denier — which was one of the more civil comments I received concerning my article on France’sYellow Vest protests.

What is it about climate change?

I write about Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez being the Democrats’ most charismatic and intuitive politician and compare her to John F. Kennedy…not a peep.

I declare the elections of Rashida Tlaib and Illhan Omar to the U.S House the most important election outcomes in 2018…not one hostile comment.

I call out the faux-outrage over Megyn Kelly’s ‘black face’ comment and rue her firing by NBC…and, again, nada.

But I suggest carbon taxes that disproportionately hurt low-income households are politically nonviable, and that climate change activists that drive BMWs and regularly vacation in the Maldives are hypocrites and probably frauds…and boom, here comes Mother Mary Joseph Rogers, and I get annihilated.

‘Your ignorance of the science shines through in every dim-witted, ill-informed sentence you burden on your readers,” wrote one of my more loyal readers.

“Blood is already on the hands of people like you who stand in the way of climate change justice,” wrote another reader. [Is there a word more chronically overused and misused than ‘justice?’ Climate change justice? What does that even mean? The word ‘justice’ has become a verbal tic for the progressive left. Similar to how teenagers say ‘like’ all the time. We need a new word. I nominate ‘fairness.’]

“You’re a f**king denier.” was the punctuated end to another email response I received.

Nice.

Unfortunately, for those critics at least, it is not possible to find one sentence I’ve ever written on climate change where I’ve denied its reality, its human origins, or the urgency of its mitigation.

Not once.

If anything, my analyses of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and International Energy Agency (IEA) public use data match closely to the forecasts made by mainstream climate scientists.

Case in point, my simple-model forecast for global temperatures (land and ocean) through 2100 is not optimistic. Using an non-dynamic (atheoretic) model where I assume the process generating past temperature anomalies will continue into the future, I forecast the world will pass the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) ceiling target of 1.5° C warming around 2050 and reach 3.0° C around 2100.

Figure 1. Land and ocean temperature index

 

It is impossible to look at the historical data in Figure 1 and not see a positive trend in global temperatures. Some global warming skeptics focus on the brief period between 1930 and 1945 where global temperatures increased more rapidly (almost 1.0° C in just 15 years) than they are now. Clearly, that represents recent evidence that natural factors (non-human related) do affect global temperatures in a systematic way. But the same evidence also demonstrates the temporary nature of the 1930–45 warming period and how it returned to ‘normal’ from 1950 to the mid 1970s.

And then global temperatures started to increase and have continued to do so up to the present. The infamous ‘pause’ between 1998 and 2012 was just that…a temporary pause.

Feel free to question the simplicity of my forecast model, but I do gain some satisfaction in knowing that my prediction of 3.0° C warming by 2100 tracks closely with much more sophisticated models, including ones published in recent IPCC reports (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Global Temperature Predictions

I thought this article was about tropical cyclones and hurricanes?

Critics of the recent IPCC report issued this fall noted that its authors admitted a degree of uncertainty in the conclusion that tropical cyclones (tropical storms, typhoons and hurricanes) have increased in frequency or intensity (energy) due to global warming.

Tweeting out at the release of the IPCC report, University of Colorado climatologist Roger Pielke, Jr. observed:

 

Pielke and his colleagues also recently released updated research on trends in hurricane damage in which they concluded: “Consistent with observed trends in the frequency and intensity of hurricane landfalls along the continental United States since 1900, the updated normalized loss estimates also show no trend.”

One of the problems with IPCC reports (and the recent U.S. government report on climate change) is that the reports’ executive summaries written for policymakers tend to sound more dire than the actual science detailed in these same reports.

That is the unfortunate outcome when science meets politicians.

Regardless, I am a bit puzzled why there is so much hesitation within the scientific community to declare that we are seeing a definite increase in the frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones (at least in the Atlantic basin). I realize, unlike me, climatologists such as Pielke have actual credentials. So when Pielke and his colleagues say there are no trends in hurricane damage, I take it seriously.

But I don’t see how anyone can deny that there are more frequent and powerful hurricanes in the Atlantic basin over the past thirty years.

Figure 3 shows National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) historical data on tropical cyclones in the Atlantic basin. It should also be noted that these trends are not significantly affected by the date I chose to start the series. I use 1964 as the starting date because that marks the beginning of NASA’s Nimbus weather satellite program in which the U.S. maintained continuous satellite coverage of weather patterns in the north Atlantic. I could have chosen 1960, or 1950, or 1857. It didn’t matter. The positive trends were consistent across starting points.

 

This significance in the increase in the frequencies of tropical storms, hurricanes, and major hurricanes is not marginal. The upward trends are strong, particularly for the number of tropical storms. By 2100, the Atlantic basin will experience around 26 tropical storms annually, compared to 15 today. The number of hurricanes will increase from about 8 per year now to 12 by the end of the century. Likewise, major storms will increase from about 3 to almost 6 annually by 2100.

Three more major storms in the Atlantic each year will be one of the tangible consequences of global warming.

So what should we do?

If we give Nancy Pelosi and Frank Pallone control of $4 trillion more dollars in the next 20 years, I guarantee most of it will get funneled to big, Democrat-aligned money donors. I guarantee it. And only then will the Republicans find Jesus on climate change so they too can get their friends in on the financial windfall.

What will be the most cost-effective way to address climate change? A prosperous, free market economy empowering people with good, private sector jobs to make the decisions necessary to meet the challenges of climate change. It will be household-level decisions that determine the extent to which climate change negatively impacts the U.S. and the world.

For example,

  • People need to start moving away from vulnerable coastlines, lowland inlets, riverbanks and areas vulnerable to wild fires. As we saw sadly in California, there is no fire-retardant building material that can always stop a massive wild fire from destroying a home. And low-income households in such areas may need financial help in that regard (so adding more taxes to their life does not sound like an idea that moves that all forward).
  • Insurance companies need to increasingly factor in the risks associated with climate change. That will be a powerful motivator for decisive action at a microeconomic-level.
  • Governments need to adjust zoning laws and building codes. Some graduate student should do a case study on how Oregon effectively limits housing and commercial development along its coastline.
  • Government debt— at all levels — needs to be reduced to help spur private investments in the new technologies that will transform the world’s energy economy (electric cars, battery storage, carbon capture and sequestration, smart grid energy systems, etc.).
  • To avoid the crucial mistakes Germany has made in moving too fast on renewable energy, the U.S. needs to increase (not decrease) the role of natural gas will play in the next 20 to 30 years as a transitional energy source as we wait for battery storage technologies improve.
  • If current levels are maintained in the U.S., nuclear power will provide critical power capacity to keep us on track to have near-100 percent non-fossil fuel electricity generation by 2050. Even so, we may end up envying those countries that have maintained an expertise in nuclear power plant construction as their transition to zero-emissions may occur faster and with lower average costs to consumers. Don’t be surprised if Pakistani, Indian or Chinese companies end up re-building the U.S. nuclear power industry in the latter half of this century. I’m sure they will be more than happy to build such plants in the U.S., for the right price.

What not to do?

  • Stop trying to further empower politicians and bureaucrats by giving them more of our money. They already have enough money at their disposal to address climate change. They just need better priorities (and they can start by ending a few of our current war entanglements). Besides, what major national problem has the U.S. government ever solved in the past thirty years? We are better off leaving Uncle Sam with a minor support role and let the private sector drive the transition to 100-percent renewable energy.
  • Don’t build out renewable energy capacities too soon, as a lot of that technology will be out-of-date just as it comes online. Furthermore, if too much of the build-out is done before critical battery storage technologies have advanced far enough to address renewable energy’s intermittency problem, it will increase energy costs, disproportionately hurting low- and middle-income households.
  • Stop using climate change as a partisan wedge issue. It is hurting the ability of the U.S. to address climate change in a long-term, effective manner. The consequences of this approach are clear: U.S. climate change policy yo-yo’s from one administration to the next. The Democrats take charge and implement their climate initiatives, only to have the Republicans reverse them once they take control. And, no, the Democrats are not on the cusp of a permanent electoral majority that will prevent the Republicans from regaining control of the government. A new generation of climate change activists therefore are needed that, on the one hand, are not dedicated to punishing corporate America (particularly the big oil and gas companies) and, on the other hand, are not bought and paid for by that same corporate America. They will need to be what was once called a non-partisan, independent policy advocate. They used to roam freely and in relatively large numbers around Washington, D.C. Now, they are all but extinct. For climate change to be confronted rationally, that has to change.

So, there you go. I solved the climate change problem just in time to catch the end of another Glenn Beck history lecture on Woodrow Wilson. It is amazing how much Glenn can come up with about our 28th president.

-K.R.K.

I am the original ‘snowflake’

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; December 11, 2018)

Stories like this are the red meat Fox News has built an empire around. An elementary school principal in a Manchester, Nebraska public school issued a memo to staff prohibiting all Christmas-related practices and symbols.

The memo (found here) started most inauspiciously:

It seems that I have stumbled upon a ‘big rock’ that I hadn’t anticipated. I know that you all are very kind and conscientious people. I know all of the things you’d like to do, have done, want to do are coming from such a good place. I come from a place that Christmas and the like are not allowed in schools…

Banned items listed in the memo included Santas, Christmas trees, “Elf on the Shelf,” singing Christmas Carols, playing Christmas music, Candy Canes and reindeer, homemade ornament gifts, Christmas movies and red and green items.

The banned item that drew particular attention was the candy cane, which, according to the memo, was shaped as a ‘J’ for Jesus and striped red and white to represent ‘the blood of Christ’ and the resurrection, respectively.

Never mind that there is no evidence that the candy cane originated as a Christian religious symbol, the principal’s prohibition left no opportunity for anything remotely scriptural to trickle into her school.

The conservative commentariat went nuts.

 

Appearing on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight, conservative writer Mark Steyn observed about the Nebraska principal’s decision, “When the founders came up with the idea of the separation of church and state they didn’t want President Washington being the head of the church of America as the Queen is the head of the Church of England. That’s it. And like a lot of sane concepts, its metastasized into something utterly insane. And when you are actually banning two of the colors on the color spectrum, red and green, so there’s only orange, yellow and blue left, you are bonkers. You are nuts.”

Normally, I would be echoing these howls of outrage at yet another example of political correctness run amok.

Not this time, however.

Well, more accurately, my emotions are mixed on this story.

It is sad anyone has to say, “She was wrong to ban the colors red and green.” Obviously, the principal went too far. I hope there is no one defending thataction.

But…the issue cuts too close to the bone for me to dismiss this principal’s intentions out of hand. In fact, if you read the principal’s memo, she was clearly struggling with the decision and understood the impending crap storm she was going to unleash. But she did it anyway. And why? Because she understands one of the basic principles behind a public school education is that no child should be made to feel unnecessarily uncomfortable. Yes, children will be uncomfortable about taking exams or giving speeches as part of their school curriculum. But they should never be afraid of school because of their race, sex, or religious background.

And that’s not just some lefty, do-gooder speaking. Former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, of all people, once said as much while interviewing comedian Chris Rock, who had generated some controversy over a comedy bit where he said school bullies are an essential part of growing up. In Rock’s view, bullies teach us how to cope with life’s guaranteed challenges.

I couldn’t disagree with him more.

I’ve carried one of those traumatizing school experiences for more than 40 years now. The year was 1975 and I was in the sixth grade in Cedar Falls, Iowa. It was the last school day before the start of Christmas break and my teacher, Mrs. Parisho, who up to that day had been one of my favorite teachers ever, decided to kill some time before the end-of-school bell rang.

The whole event probably didn’t take more than 10 minutes.

A devout Catholic, Mrs. Parisho often talked about her Catholic school upbringing in Pittsburgh. She was good a storyteller who often used her childhood memories to kill time. As students, we had no complaints about that. We particularly loved hearing how strict school was in ‘her day.’ I don’t know why we loved those types of stories, but we did.

Unfortunately, on this particular day, her childhood Christmas story segued into a question she posed to each of us in her class: “What church do you go to?”

In the class of 20 or so kids, I am certain there was only one non-Christian (a friend of mine that was Jewish). And then there was me.

Raised a Unitarian — a religious community that professes its acceptance of all faiths — I was terrified about how I would answer the question as my turn was about to come up. Do I say ‘Unitarian’ and just hope nobody asks about what that means. Do I say ‘Methodist’ or ‘Lutheran’ and take the chance a classmate might say, “Hey, I go to the Lutheran church! I’ve never seen you at the Lutheran church!”

I went with ‘I go to the Unitarian church’ and prayed the bell would ring so I could get the heck out there.

The bell didn’t ring (bad news), but the class was silent (good news). I don’t think anybody had clue what a Unitarian was. Fine with me.

And then Mrs Parisho had to interject (why, I will never know): “Class, have you ever heard of the Unitarians? Kent, why don’t you tell us something about Unitarians? Do they believe in Christ?

I have no doubt she was being genuinely inquisitive about my family’s faith, not judgmental or dismissive. But her intentions didn’t matter. Not at that moment. I fumbled for an answer. I don’t even remember what I said. What I do remember are the muffled giggles and one lifelong nemesis then blurting out, “They’re atheists!” The barely audible laughing became deafening.

I was not and am not an atheist. But there was no point in entering into a theological discussion with a kid best known for bringing to school pages he had ripped from his brother’s Playboy magazines. My humiliation was complete and irreversible, anyway. I only could have made things worse.

When the bell rang, I ran to my locker and then home, feeling ill to my stomach the whole time. I didn’t immediately tell my parents about what happened. I may have told them years later, but I don’t remember doing so. What would be the point?

Long story short. I have no problem with keeping religious customs and decorations out of public schools. Its not a war on Christmas. Its just common sense.

If this makes me a snowflake, then fine, I’m a snowflake.

As for the Nebraska principal, she was placed on administrative leave soon after the story broke in the media.

I feel bad for her. She was trying to do that right thing for her students.

-K.R.K.

This is a teachable moment for climate change activists, but are they listening?

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; December 5, 2018)

Some American climate change activists and progressive journalists are already trying to portray the French anti-carbon tax protests, also known as the Yellow Vest protests, as something unrelated to the actual carbon tax itself.

Don’t blame French President Emmanuel Macron’s climate change policies for the protests — that is merely a convenient excuse — blame Macron’s own political ineptitude, they say.

“What began as an automobile-focused, cost-of-living protest undertaken by a coalition of the white, rural working-class and petite bourgeoisie has evolved into a Hydra-headed autumn of discontent, with many objectives, no leaders, and a base that encompasses a cross-section of French life from engineers to paramedics to Parisian high school students. International coverage has focused on the movement’s opposition to a proposed fuel tax increase that was part of Macron’s plan to combat climate change,” writes Slate’s Henry Grabar. “But that was only the spark. Spurred by everybody’s favorite anti-governmental social network, Facebook, the gilet jaunes crisis is best understood as a revolt against all things Macron.”

That’s like saying about an arson-lit forest fire, “Don’t blame the arsonist, blame those flammable trees.”

Of course, the Yellow Vest protests are pulling in anti-Macron sentiment across the entire French political spectrum. Recent polling data collected by Opinion Way clearly show how support for the Yellow Vests comes from both of Macron’s flanks.

Only 24 percent of 2017 presidential election supporters of the far-left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon and 26 percent of the far-right’s Marie Le Pen think the protests should end. Likewise, a minority of socialist Benoît Hamon (33%) and mainstream conservative François Fillon supporters (42%) want to see the protests end.

Figure 1. French public opinion regarding the Yellow Vest protests

Source: www.opinion-way.com

 

But what was Macron’s central campaign theme? It was the fulfillment of the requirements set forth by the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Even Hamon, the socialist/environmentalist candidate in the 2017 election, warned French voters that Macron and his Paris literati friends were going to finance France’s climate change policies on the backs of the working-class, while also giving a huge tax break to France’s wealthiest families. Which is exactly what Macron did!

At least in France, politicians do what they promise to do.

So, yes, the Yellow Vest protests are about Macron’s political weakness, but they are also about his unfair tax policies. One causal factor cannot be divorced from the other. The carbon tax increase (which was on top of an existing carbon tax) lit the fire and it is Macron’s record of elite-friendly policies that keep the flames hot.

And what has our warming planet gained from France’s progressive carbon tax policies? Carbon dioxide emissions grew in France by 1.8 percent in 2016 and by 2.0 percent in 2017.

And don’t forget Macron just announced the closing of 17 more nuclear plants by 2025 which are almost CO2 emission-free. Why? Because nuclear plants are economically less viable given the technical expertise in building new ones or upgrading them has shifted away from France, U.S. and Europe to countries like China, India, South Korea, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Turkey, Bangladesh, Argentina, Brazil, and Japan, according to the World Nuclear Association.

And what about in the U.S. where climate change activists insist not nearly enough is being done to combat climate change? Carbon dioxide emissions fell in the U.S. by 1.6 percent in 2016 and by 0.5 percent in 2017. In recent years, the U.S. has been outperforming the world, including Europe, on reducing carbon dioxide emissions (see Figure 2 below).

Figure 2. World CO2 total emissions

 

Why is the U.S. performing better than France and most of the world on reducing carbon dioxide emissions? The increased extraction of domestic natural gas, the secular decline of coal and the early stage rise of renewables is putting the U.S. on a solid path to be near-100 percent renewable energy by 2055, according to my forecasts generated using data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) (see Figure 3 below).

Figure 3. Renewable energy forecast for U.S. (2018–2100)

 

The New York Times has also used its objective reporting to subtly question the authenticity of the French carbon tax grievances.

“While polls show that the Yellow Vests have the backing of three-quarters of the population, questions have swirled about how much pain the protesters are really experiencing — or how much of the outpouring can be chalked up to a centuries-old culture of demonstrating against change,” writes Times staff writer Liz Alderman. “France protects citizens with one of the most generous social safety nets in the world, with over one-third of its economic output spent on welfare protection, more than any other country in Europe. To get that help, French workers pay some of the highest taxes in Europe.”

In other words, according to Alderman, the French are just cranky people who at the drop of a hat will pour their garbage into the streets so they can impede traffic.

First, I need to stop being annoyed when well-paid journalists at prestigious news organizations use lazy rhetorical devices such as “…questions have swirled…” in order to insert their personal biases and opinions into what should be objective journalism. Sadly, that pig left the pen many years ago and there is no point in trying to get him back.

Second, if the climate change activist community — which apparently includes the Times staff — is trying to convince itself that France’s yellow vest protest is the manifestation of a deep-seeded cultural norm against change instead of a genuine economic protest against higher taxes, they will get a real education should a similar carbon tax be introduced in the U.S. after the 2020 elections.

Lessons climate change activists need to learn

First Lesson

If the Yellow Vest protests offer any insight, it is that the financial burden of addressing climate change cannot disproportionately fall on lower- and middle-income households.

Even if one believes the Yellow Vests are merely right-wing populists using the carbon tax increases to exploit the unpopularity of the Macron government (though, as shown above, a majority of leftists in France also oppose Macron’s regressive carbon tax policies), they potentially represent 30 to 40 percent of the French population — more than enough to drive re-election obsessed politicians into a fetal position under their desks.

The 49 newly-elected U.S. House Democrats that won in tightly contested battleground districts may be more resistant to carbon tax increases than climate change activists may want to accept.

If the U.S. House tries to pass even a meager 35 cent per gallon tax on gasoline — an increase close to the Obama administration’s 2015 estimate of what is necessary to offset the damage to the environment caused by each incremental ton of CO 2 emission — resistance will be fierce, even among some Democrats.

But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be considered. And recall that Trump suggested a 25 cent per gallon tax increase to pay for transportation infrastructure improvements. So, it is possible that an additional gasoline tax (or some form of carbon tax) could pass the Congress in the next session and receive the president’s signature, particularly if sold on the premise of fixing our roads and bridges.

But climate change is probably a more costly beast and an additional 25 cents a gallon is grossly insufficient, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report issued this fall, which suggests a gasoline tax increase measured in hundreds of dollars may be necessary.

Nothing on that scale will ever happen (World War II would break out if it did). However, for many good reasons — such as climate change, pollution, and ending the disproportionate influence of brutal Middle East dictatorships — the world needs to end its dominate use of fossil fuels to power economic growth.

In that effort, economists tell us the best way to stop an unwanted type of economic activity — such as burning fossil fuel — is to tax it directly. William D. Nordhaus, this year’s co-winner of the Nobel Prize in economic science, describes carbon taxes as “the most efficient remedy for the problems caused by greenhouse-gas emissions.”

The overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree that addressing climate change will require a fundamental transformation of the world’s energy economy. Fossil fuels must be phased out as quickly as possible and zero-carbon-emissions achieved by 2050, according to the 2015 Paris Agreement’s communique; and to do so, carbon taxes (or variants such as cap-and-trade) are going to become a common policy tool for governments to achieve the Paris goals.

There many carbon tax variants. Some target businesses. Others target households. Some disproportionately hurt lower income households. Others shift the burden to wealthier households.

Recent research by Columbia University says, if and when some form of carbon tax is passed in the U.S., choose it wisely.

In a 2018 study by Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, researchers Joseph Rosenberg, Eric Toder, and Chenxi Lu determined that, in most scenarios, a carbon tax in the U.S. would disproportionately burden lower- and working-class Americans.

“A federal carbon tax in the United States would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and generate significant new revenue for the federal government,” conclude the study’s authors.

Depending on how its revenues are used, such a tax would potentially burden lower-income households more than higher-income households. For example, when the revenue is used to reduce the deficit or reduce the corporate income tax (as Republicans would likely insist), a carbon tax is regressive. However, using the revenue to provide lump-sum rebates would more than offset the carbon tax burden for low- and middle-income taxpayers while leaving high-income families with a net tax increase. The carbon tax revenues could also be used to reduce employee payroll taxes, resulting in “a net benefit for upper middle-income taxpayers, while increasing tax burdens modestly for low-income and the highest-income households.”

Adele Morris of The Brookings Institution and Aparna Mathur of the American Enterprise Institute developed a carbon tax model that attempted to balance the need for behavior modification (reduce fossil fuel use), deficit reduction (pay down the national debt to free up financial resources for when the costs of climate change become more explicit) and fairness (minimize the tax’s impact on lower-income households).

In their proposal, the carbon tax would start at $16 per ton of CO2 and increase with inflation plus four percent each year. According to their estimates, such a tax would reduce emissions in the U.S. by 9.3 billion tons and raise $2.7 trillion in new revenues over the next 20 years. To meet the three goals of behavior modification, deficit reduction, and tax fairness, their proposal calls for distributing the revenues across three channels: (1)

They’d split the money three ways: (1) Use $800 billion to reduce the national debt (a drop in the bucket, but a step in the right direction), (2) cut corporate taxes (the Morris and Mathur proposal predates the Trump tax cuts), and (3) and offer tax rebates to low-income households to partially offset the tax’s impact on their family budgets.

That may be the minimum cost for weening ourselves from fossil fuels. But smart policy and good intentions are not enough to completely mitigate the financial stress such tax increases may have on some households. A no democratically-elected government can ignore the electoral implications of significantly higher carbon taxes. Trying to call it something other than a tax (which was tried in selling Obamacare to the American people) is dishonest and will only feed an already historic level of distrust directed towards our elected leaders.

If Macron falls, you can be certain democratic governments across the globe will think twice about creating new carbon taxes or raising existing ones. At the very least, they will need to balance taxation equities with the potential effectiveness of such carbon taxes.

Second Lesson

Technological advances are not achieved through good intentions or by simply throwing money at the problem. Breakthroughs require an unknown amount of time — sometimes they happen faster than expected and sometimes they don’t. I am still waiting for nuclear fusion to finally come around.

That is why pushing too fast on the expansion of renewable energy before certain technical advancements are made will add needless costs to energy consumers.

Ask any German.

Germany’s Energiewende, or “energy transition,” has led to record breaking high electricity prices in Germany that are among the highest in the world, in part because the Germans were too aggressive in building out renewable energy capacity. Since renewable energy sources like wind and solar are intermittent (there are a lot of cloudy, windless days in Germany), the potential for grid failures is not negligible.

“Energiewende has required that Germany build more coal fired electricity plants; 10 gigawatts worth in the last several years,” writes Utah State University professor Randy Simmons and Josh Smith, a research manager at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University. “In sum, despite Germany’s expensive and exuberant renewable energy support, they aren’t even achieving their supposed goal of lowering carbon emissions. This is true even though renewables make up about 40 percent of Germany’s total electricity supply.”

Apparently, even Germans are not immune to idiot-groupthink (where the dumbest ideas rise fastest). In their tunnel-vision approach to policymaking, exhorted by environmental lobbyists that show no sensitivity to how rising energy prices hurt society’s most vulnerable, the Germans have hurt their lowest-income households while also under-performing the U.S. in reducing CO2 emissions in the past few years.

“The regressive effects of energy policy and the ways that well-intentioned environmental policies have actually contributed to energy poverty, meaning it made it harder for the poor to heat and power their homes, is an underappreciated area of debates around the transition from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources,” writes Simmons and Smith. “Policymakers around the world ignore it at the peril of “greening” the economy on the backs of the poor.”

This is not right wing propaganda and that is why good intentions are not a substitute for smart policymaking.

Therefore, significant technological advancements — particularly in battery storage capabilities and carbon capture — must be made soon in order for the conversion to renewable energy not cripple the world economy.

Today, industrial-level batteries can store energy for 2 to 8 hours, but we will need that storage life-expectancy to exceed 2 to 8 months if renewables are to overcome their intermittency problem. Countries and cities moving too fast now in becoming ‘100-percent renewable’ are forced to duplicate electricity generating capacity using reliable sources (natural gas, nuclear) to compensate for daily and seasonal variation in renewable energy generation. That is making electricity twice as expensive in countries like Germany which has moved very fast in converting to renewable energy, and California is facing the same problem.

Another technology critical for there to be any chance to meet the IPCC and Paris Agreement global warming and emission goals is carbon capture and sequestration (also known as CCS). As the planet is likely to push past 2050 and still be using fossil fuels for at least transportation purposes, it will be important for technologies to exist that can draw CO2 out of the atmosphere and to capture it at the energy generation level (e.g., tailpipes and smoke stakes).

In an August 2018 Congressional Research Service report, Peter Folger, an expert in energy and natural resources policy, details recent advancements in CCS and the amount of federal research monies going into the research. But despite some positive developments, he concludes: “There is broad agreement that costs for CCS would need to decrease before the technologies could be deployed commercially across the nation.”

Therefore, for these technological breakthroughs in battery storage and CCS to occur, more research will be needed and that will cost money. Most of that money should come from the private sector, but some will nonetheless come from the public sector and will probably be raised through additional taxation — possible increased carbon taxes.

Third Lesson

If the U.S. never increases carbon taxes in any substantial way, you can thank Barack Obama.

That is not a criticism. Quite the opposite, the Obama administration showed countries how they can fundamentally alter their energy profile trajectories without directly raising taxes.

To address climate change, the Obama administration circumvented legislative pathways and implemented a substantive array of energy policies using existing law. The result?

Largely through regulatory changes (which typically raise costs to businesses that are then passed on to consumers), the Obama administration effectively killed the coal industry by imposing on it a comparative economic disadvantage to renewables and natural gas.

More importantly, there is nothing the Trump administration can do to bring coal back. Despite last week’s decision by the Trump EPA to relax emission standards for new coal plants, the trends are irreversible.

The policy change would have been significant if U.S. energy companies were still building coal plants or significantly extending the life of existing ones. But there are no new U.S. coal plants in the construction pipeline. A small research coal plant in Alaska is still scheduled for construction, but inconsequential in the broader scheme of things.

And what about the rise of clean coal? Like the monster Grendel in Beowulf, its more myth than reality.

What the Obama did to cut the coal industry off at the knees is important to repeat: They killed the coal industry without directly raising taxes on consumers.

Therefore, the third lesson for climate change activists is to challenge the presumption that higher taxes are necessary to effectuate meaningful climate change policies. But if taxes are raised, don’t let the government gets its grubby hands on the proceeds.

That is not the same as saying households can avoid making financial or lifestyle sacrifices to address climate change. It is saying that sending $50 to $150 trillion — the IPCC’s cost range estimate required to limit global warming to 1.5°C over pre-industrial levels — through government bureaucracies does not sound like a good answer to any problem. Global warming will be limited far faster by private sector investments and ingenuity than expecting Nancy Pelosi to know how to spend it.

Nobody has forgotten how solar cell manufacturer Solyndra received a $535 million U.S. Energy Department loan guarantee as part of the Obama administration’s 2009 economic stimulus program. A loan that left the U.S. taxpayer with a $528 million loss entry on the balance sheet.

Most notable about the Morris and Mathur proposal summarized previously is that it does not put the additional revenues from the carbon tax in the hands of the government. Their proposal does the smartest thing you can do with such revenues: pay down the national debt. When the bulk of the costs associated with climate change materialize, the U.S. will be in a better position to address those costs if our total public debt as a percent of GDP is not still over 100 percent.

Figure 4. Total U.S. public debt as percent of GDP

 

Alas, history makes me pessimistic that the real problem of climate change will inspire Washington, D.C. politicians to suddenly find Jesus when it comes fiscal responsibility.

Instead, expect the U.S. government to solve the climate change problem the same way it is solving the problems of the Afghan people. Throw U.S. treasure at it while padding the bank accounts of those most tightly knit with the political leadership in Washington, D.C. That is how the system works and there is no reason to think now, suddenly, establishment Democrats and Republicans have figured out how to do things the right way.

Fourth Lesson

The fourth lesson builds upon the third: Free market capitalism, warts and all, is the most powerful force we have to combat climate change. The private sector, from the corporate boardroom down to the household level, is where the real progress on climate change will be made…and is being made.

Free market capitalism adapts and profits from change not because it consciously organizes itself to do so, but because it can’t help itself. Every crisis. Every challenge. Every unexpected change to the system activates an entrepreneurial class always in search of the next profit opportunity.

That is what drives the world economy and what foretells that humans will overcome and prosper from whatever obstacles are generated by the current anthropogenic warming of the planet. Free market capitalism, particularly when unburdened from the market distortions generated by a too-powerful oligarchical class, works in the aggregate.

What is free market capitalism’s wheelhouse, after all? Destroying perfectly good crap and replacing it with even more crap. And what is the essential risk from climate change? Its potential to destroy life and property.

We have recent experience to demonstrate this.

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma hit the Texas and Florida coasts, respectively, in Fall 2017. The flooding from Harvey was historic as it stalled over Houston and the damage by Irma was reminiscent of Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 hurricane (one of only three to ever hit the U.S.) that hit south of Miami in 1992.

This is a preview of climate change’s grave threat to our way of life, declaredThe New York Times.

Well, that may be. But if the economic growth is one of our prosperity measures, the argument that the U.S. is not prepared to withstand the hazards of climate change is too simplistic.

As Figure 5 shows, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma did not irreparably harm the Texas or Florida economies. Real GDP growth was at the national average of 3.0 percent in both states during the quarter in which the hurricanes hit. In the subsequent quarter, real GDP growth in Texas fell below the national average (1.2 percent versus 2.4 percent, respectively), but in Florida the economy was stronger in the third quarter of 2017 (3.8 percent growth). By the second quarter in 2018, both states were growing faster than the national average, and in the case of Texas, their economy is booming. Of course, energy prices, defense spending and other factors are playing major roles in the economic health of these two states. Still, the experience from Harvey and Irma reinforces the fact that the U.S. economy is too large, dynamic and diverse to presume it is ill-prepared to handle climate change’s enormous challenges.

Figure 5. Percent change in real GDP for Florida, Texas and U.S. (2017 Q2–2018 Q2)

 

What about Puerto Rico? Unfortunately, the aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Maria does not leave us optimistic. However, to assign blame for Puerto Rico’s economic struggles to climate change is short-sighted.

Figure 6 shows Puerto Rico’s real GDP growth relative to the U.S. and the world. Since 2005, prior to Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s real GDP growth had been negative, averaging around -1.0 percent annually. In 2017, her growth rate fell over 1 percent to -2.4 percent, in large measure due to the consequences of Maria. But the short-term economic growth trend in Puerto Rico (from 2012 to 2016) was already bleak before Maria ever hit. High public debt and a stagnant job environment was already leading many Puerto Ricans to leave the island for the mainland. That was not Maria’s fault and, in fact, the near term growth forecast is looking more positive, though well below positive growth.

Figure 6. Real GDP growth, actual and forecast (1980–2025)

 

If there is a lesson from the 2017 hurricane season it is that impoverished communities are most at risk from storms, and as climate change increases the intensity of such storms, it is these communities that will suffer the most.

In truth, the biggest threat from climate change may be its exacerbation of wealth inequality more than its threat to human lives or economic prosperity.

And, yet, we have Democrats like former Hillary Clinton adviser Neera Tanden scolding those who bemoan the regressive nature of carbon taxes and their negative effects on low- and middle-income households.

 

If that is not textbook establishment Democrat thinking, I don’t know what is. An absolute inability to empathize with others from a different social class or educational background. But if they ever need to exploit the struggles of the poor and working-class for political gain, they push to the front of the line with bells on.

It’s public service as nothing more than posturing and virtue signaling. If you need to demean rank-and-file members of your own party that have a different opinion, feel free. It’s not like they are big money donors or anything. And don’t forget to check your poll numbers before you make a nebulous policy statement that commits yourself to nothing.

This is why newly-elected House members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) are so revolutionary and poised to make genuine change happen in Washington. Despite disagreeing with them both on many issues, I don’t question their motives or sincerity.

That’s a big deal and why they will become powerful counterweights to their party’s corrupt leadership.

But, in the meantime, who can be blamed for not trusting our elected leaders to take $2 to $4 trillion from taxpayers in the next 20 years so they can play ‘climate doctor’ with the money. We know in our hearts the U.S. Congress won’t solve the problem.

There was a time when the U.S. Congress was good at solving large social problems or tackling big challenges. Social Security successfully addressed extreme poverty among our disabled and elderly. The Apollo moon program, funded on the public dime, achieved President John F. Kennedy’s stretch goal of getting to the moon by the end of the decade.

And don’t forget we defeated the Nazis and the Japanese in just three years.

Today, the Congress is little more than a clown school for wealthy lawyers. They don’t solve problems, they perpetuate them and enrich their friends while doing so. Climate change activists, therefore, would be smart to disembark the clown car as soon as possible.

Fifth (and final) Lesson

The fifth lesson is the simplest (and hardest) of all to master: Live your values.

If someone really believes the quality of life for humans on earth is threatened by climate change, wouldn’t they change their personal energy consumption habits, even if their sole effort would not register on a global scale? Wouldn’t that person still want to be a role model for others in the hope that individual-level efforts may aggregate up to important improvements on a higher scale?

Yet, so many of our politicians and opinion leaders advocating for immediate action on climate change show no evidence that they are themselves willing to sacrifice personal luxury or lifestyle to ‘save the planet.’

From Joe Blow’s perspective, climate change activists are just another group of social elites trying to secure their share of the American largess. For every Prius in the parking lot at the Unitarian Church of Hopewell Valley (NJ), there are two BMWs or Volvos with ‘Save the Planet, Vote Democrat’ bumper stickers. That is virtue signaling in its most cynical form.

Overwhelming public demand for higher gas taxes is not going to be the result of a coordinated, nationwide grassroots effort. Not unless at least one fundamental change occurs within the advocacy community.

To have broad credibility, environmentalists must pass what I call the Ed Begley Jr. Test.

The 69-year-old actor is known to many for his role as Dr. Victor Ehrlich on the television series St. Elsewhere (1982–1988). However, since then, he may have become better known for his environmental activism.

Actor Ed Begley Jr. (L), with his daughter Hayden Carson Begley at the 2014 Oscars, shows the subway card he used to get to the award ceremony (Michael Buckner/Getty Images North America)

 

He bought his first electric vehicle, a Taylor-Dunn golf cart, in the early 1970s, a time when ‘global cooling’ was seriously discussed within climate science circles.

Begley’s home covers a modest 1,585 square feet and relies on solar power, wind power (via a PacWind vertical-axis wind turbine), and an electricity-generating bicycle (used to toast bread). His annual electricity bill runs around $300. A long time critic of suburban lawns, Begley eschews grass and instead covers his yard with drought-tolerant plants.

In other words, he lives his values.

So, when he talks about climate change, I take him seriously. He’s earned that respect. And while I have no doubt there are clandestine photos of Begley Jr. jumping out of a gasoline-powered limousine, he’s more than established his authenticity on environmental issues.

It would be nice if other Hollywood activists and national politicians showed the same congruence between their words and lifestyle.

When a 2016 analysis of U.S. Senate office spending accounts revealed that Senators Charles Schumer and Kristen Gillibrand spent a combined $442,000 in public money flying private airplanes between October 2014 and September 2015, the story barely made a ripple in the mainstream media.

Every time Leonardo DiCaprio flies his buddies to the Maldives or yachts around the Mediterranean with super models, he’s really telling us: “Piss on you. Do as I say, not as I do.” I don’t believe for one second DiCaprio or George Clooney or Nancy Pelosi or Rachel Maddow believe human civilization as we know it is threatened by climate change. If they truly believed, they would lead by example.

But they don’t.

Leonardo DiCaprio with his buddies in the Maldives (L) and on his yacht ‘Big Bang’ (R)

 

By not living the values they preach, it is reasonable to assume their advocacy for ‘a fundamental transformation of the energy economy’ is really just a shakedown of the American people to finance the neoliberal hegemon. Climate change scaremongering appears to many Americans as merely a partisan money grab.

The recently released documentary film, “The Panama Papers,” about how the world’s economic elites are hoarding their wealth in off-shore accounts to avoid domestic taxes, only reinforces a belief by many that politicians advocating higher taxes to pay for climate change policies don’t intend to subject their own fortunes to the financing of the world’s energy transformation. That is common hypocrisy.

The Yellow Vest protesters in France may be predominately white and less educated and their grievances may go far deeper than just dissatisfaction over a regressive carbon tax. But to therefore ignore the relevancy to the U.S. of their anti-carbon tax message is a potentially grave mistake for those that want to see the U.S. do more than it already is on combating climate change.

  • K.R.K.

Ocasio-Cortez: The next JFK?

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; November 30, 2018)

She hadn’t been in Washington, D.C. a week before Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) decided to join climate change activists in a sit-in at House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s congressional office.

Her act was bold, some would even say imprudent, but it was also unprecedented. Never has an incoming U.S. House member participated in a protest in the office of a fellow congressperson, much less the presumptive House Speaker.

“She was elected as part of the movement, she intends to govern as part of the movement,” Ocasio-Cortez spokesman Corbin Trent told The Hill. “She thinks there is no other priority that we should be focused on and supports the sunrise movements call for Democrats to create a plan to transition the economy to a zero carbon economy so we have that ready to go when we take back the Presidency in 2020.”

On the same day she lent her support to the activists in Pelosi’s office, Ocasio-Cortez unveiled a proposal for the House to appoint a Select Committee for a Green New Deal, thereby bypassing the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is likely to be chaired by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) in the next session.

Within hours of the proposal’s release, Pelosi released a statement urging police to release the demonstrators that had camped in her office, and Pallone arranged a private communication with Ocasio-Cortez, presumably to poo-poo her idea of creating the select committee.

Yet, don’t assume this is another victory for the imperious political establishment. On the heals of an agreement between Pelosi and Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) leaders, Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, to ensure 40 percent of the Democrats on five of the most powerful House committees would be CPC members, rumors are also spreading that Ocasio-Cortez will be assigned to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, one of the most powerful House committees.

If this should materialize, it will be further evidence that Ocasio-Cortez has no intention of blending into the House chamber’s walnut paneled walls and will instead be one of the CPC’s most influential members — a caucus whose size may account for nearly two-thirds of House Democrats in the next session.

And unless one believes Pelosi is a Medicare-for-All-type progressive (I don’t), the CPC’s rise will mark the beginning of her end as the most powerful House Democrat.

However, that is not the story being offered by the political media.

As the House Democrats begin to pick their leadership for the upcoming session, a predictable flurry of news stories and opinion pieces have emerged promoting the myth of Pelosi’s impregnable hold on power.

“During Nancy Pelosi’s four years as speaker, there was no confusion as to who was in control,” says New York Times writer Robert Draper. “Pelosi used the tools at her disposal — committee assignments, campaign donations — to establish a balance among her party’s coalitions while also reminding everyone that her job was not simply to officiate and appease.”

“(Pelosi) understands the position of all her members, talks to them, determines what their interests and feelings are, and figures out what will induce them to come over to her side,” writes The American Prospect’s Paul Waldman. “It’s a task that requires systematic preparation and careful implementation.”

All true statements. But these Pelosi tributes are mostly retrospective and derivative, offering little insight on the true dynamic now going on behind Democratic office doors.

As there will be no significant congressional legislation passed in the next two years, there is little incentive for a legitimate contender to Pelosi to emerge now.

After the 2020 elections, it will be a very different story.

Ocasio-Cortez’ rise is Kennedyesque and the GOP knows it

Some political observers have compared Ocasio-Cortez to Donald Trump, both making promises to their core constituencies they can’t keep, and if such promises were implemented, might even do more harm than good.

Others, citing quotes like the one below about the ‘three chambers of government,’ compare her to Sarah Palin.

“If we work our butts off to make sure that we take back all three chambers of Congress, uh, rather, all three chambers of government — the presidency, the Senate and the House — in 2020,” Ocasio-Cortez recently said in an Instagram Live podcast. “We can’t start working in 2020.”

The conservative media’s overwrought reaction to Ocasio-Cortez’ calling the presidency, U.S. House and U.S. Senate the “three chambers of government” says more about their respect for her potential than it does about her political knowledge.

Ocasio-Cortez’ point was obvious — to win control of the presidency and both congressional chambers in 2020, congressional Democrats must pursue their legislative agenda now — even if her choice of words did not serve her argument well.

We should all have our every public word monitored by the news media and see how many factual errors we make on a regular basis.

Nonetheless, Ocasio-Cortez’ near constant presence on TV and social media has revealed some genuine knowledge gaps and a Trumpian-like propensity to brush over crucial details.

“Ocasio-Cortez’s 14-point victory over 10-term incumbent Democrat Joe Crowley was certainly impressive,” says conservative Boston Herald columnist Michael Graham. But since then, he’s not as impressed. “Her stumbling media appearances have sparked references to the ‘P’ word: Palin.”

Comparisons to former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin may be warranted, but not for the reasons many assume. When McCain selected Palin to be his running mate on August 29, 2008, she was not a joke to the Democrats. In fact, the attractive populist from Alaska scared them to death.

“People forget, she had the Democratic party shaking in our boots in 2008,” recalls former Democratic operative and CNN host Van Jones. “She came out and she gave that speech at the convention. That was hands down one of the best convention speeches, not by a woman, by anybody in 2008. People were running for the hills.”

Her one debate appearance against Joe Biden was also considered a success. However, two months later, following a worldwide financial meltdown and a series of media-amplified Palin gaffes, McCain would lose the election to Barack Obama by seven points.

Had Palin demonstrated any ability to improve her skill sets and minimize her deficiencies, she may have won the presidency in 2016 instead of Donald Trump. For a brief moment, she seemed like she had that potential — then the media attacks started.

A similarly negative reaction to Ocasio-Cortez by Republicans and many establishment Democrats suggests they are similarly concerned about her fast-rising political prospects.

Ocasio-Cortez is not another Sarah Palin. Indeed, the more apropos comparison is to a young John F. Kennedy.

The common threads between Kennedy and Ocasio-Cortez

John F. Kennedy, when he was first elected to the U.S. House in 1946, was a new money aristocrat, Navy war hero and son of a former U.S. ambassador.

He also could be intellectually lazy in one moment and display his considerable intuitive brilliance in the next. By upbringing, he had a junkie’s compulsiveness to serve his earthly appetites; from that same upbringing he had the personal confidence to stand up to a U.S. military establishment pushing (perhaps even conspiring) to invade Cuba in October 1962.

Yet, these are not the characteristics that bond Kennedy and Ocasio-Cortez.

Kennedy wasn’t shy about defying political norms. He understood that, in national politics, timing is far more important than calendar age and refused to wait for ‘his turn’ when it came to running for president.

Elected as the youngest elected president in history, Kennedy fit the early 1960s in a way LBJ or Hubert Humphrey did not. Had he gone by the textbook, he would have waited behind them before running for president.

Similarly, Ocasio-Cortez is also blowing up political norms.

Both will have first entered the U.S. House at 29-years-old. Like Kennedy, Ocasio-Cortez is charismatic and comfortable within the newest communication platforms. Kennedy mastered the television medium before most other national politicians of his time. For Ocasio-Cortez, her mastery of multiple social media platforms helped her overcome the significant financial and endorsement advantage of her primary opponent, Rep. Joe Crowley.

It also helps that Ocasio-Cortez’ looks work well in the talking-head close-ups typically used for podcasts, just as Kennedy was immanently watchable during his TV appearances.

The informality of social media also serves Ocasio-Cortez’ communication style well and lessens the impact of her verbal gaffes and tics (though she still needs to cut down on her use of the word ‘like’). A semantic mistake like the ‘three chambers of government’-gaffe, that might repel older audiences, is more likely to be forgiven by millennials more accustomed to the lower production values and content quality of YouTube and other podcast platforms.

Nothing shows the growing irrelevance of the political establishment (both on the left and right) more clearly than their collective meltdown every time Trump or Ocasio-Cortez make even a minor semantic or factual error.

The marketability of gotcha journalism finally may be over.

But to really appreciate the comparability of Ocasio-Cortez’ rise to Kennedy’s, a closer look at Kennedy’s early political career is helpful.

A short history of John F. Kennedy’s early years (1917-1946)

Our thoughts on JFK often go to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination, Camelot or any of the many personal tragedies endured by his family, but I’ve always been fascinated by the young Kennedy, particularly his proto-political years. And it is in that part of his life that I see noteworthy similarities to Ocasio-Cortez.

For this reason, I recently re-read Illene Cooper’s book, Jack: The Early Years of John F. Kennedy, which offers a deeper understanding than other biographies of the forces that drove Kennedy to become our 35th president. Focusing on his years leading up to his election to the U.S. House in 1946, Cooper details how his self-image was built on a childhood defined by “ill health, an intense sibling relationship, mixed family messages, (and) prejudice against Irish Catholics in America.”

An inconsistent student throughout his life, Kennedy compensated by relying on his distinctive good-looks, innate intelligence and abundant charisma to navigate through and around life’s typical challenges.

Cooper’s biography reveals the young Kennedy as more ‘street smart’ than a polished intellectual.

Lacking the credentials of an academic historian, a 23-year-old Kennedy nonetheless wrote a readable, if slightly pedestrian, account of why England failed to properly prepare for the aggression of Hitler’s Germany. Published in 1940 under the title, Why England Slept, the book sold around 80,000 copies and offered Kennedy a glimpse of what personal fame feels like.

He liked the feeling, according to Cooper — particularly the pleasure of not being under his father’s and older brother’s (Joe Jr.) shadow.

Navy lieutenant John F. Kennedy (1944)

World War II intervened, however, and a physically fragile Kennedy entered the United States Naval Reserve where he would eventually earn a Navy and Marine Corps Medal and a Purple Heart Medal for his heroic actions as the commanding officer of a Motor Torpedo Boat (PT-109) following its collision (with a Japanese destroyer) and sinking in the Pacific War area on August 1–2, 1943.

The Patrol Torpedo Boat (PT-109) commanded by Lieutenant John F. Kennedy

This well-earned second encounter with notoriety ignited a work ethic in Kennedy comparable to his already ample ambition. So, what would he do next? Upon leaving the Navy, Kennedy began making speeches around Massachusetts in 1945 with the clear expectation of running for political office.

Whether by luck or familial string pulling, U.S. Rep. James Michael Curleyannounced that he would leave his seat in the strongly Democratic 11th congressional district of Massachusetts to become mayor of Boston in 1946. With his campaign financed by his family, Kennedy won the Democratic primary by beating his 10 opponents with only 12 percent of the vote and went on easily to win the general election.

Despite his many advantages, Kennedy also possessed many liabilities as a political candidate. According to historian Seth Ridinger, his wealth and elite education did not help him in working-class sections of Massachusetts’s 11th congressional district. Accordingly, Kennedy’s campaign developed a stump speech addressing the bread-and-butter issues attractive to working-class voters, the main points of which centered on “affordable housing for returning veterans and well-paying jobs to anyone willing to work.”

Even with significant health issues, mostly related to his back problems, Kennedy was a tireless campaigner — a political natural with a protean knack for maneuvering tricky interpersonal relationships. And he was not just a great public speaker, but a formidable extemporaneous speaker as well.

 

 

While most national politicians are generally impressive people, some are far better than others. Transcendent politicians — particularly those that become president — embrace the trials and tribulations inherent in the profession, and for them the combat is the primary attraction, perhaps more than even ‘doing good’ or helping one’s constituents.

If there is one defining characteristic shared by Kennedy and Ocasio-Cortez, it is this love for political battle. Ocasio-Cortez does not let a public insult go unanswered — and the Kennedy’s were no different.

Convinced JFK’s 1960 Democratic primary opponent, Hubert Humphrey, had not done enough to prevent anti-Catholic sentiments from entering the West Virginia primary race, JFK’s campaign nurtured one of the dirtiest political attacks of all time by insinuating Humphrey was a draft dodger. Utterly untrue, as Humphrey tried to join the armed forces three times but was rejected each time for health reasons, the Kennedy campaign was able to put enough layers between themselves and the ‘dirty trick’ to minimize any potential backlash.

There is no evidence Ocasio-Cortez has ever done anything like that, and nothing in her public persona suggesting she ever would. Regardless, she does fight back when attacked and shows no fear in bloodying a few noses, if necessary (see two of her best Twitter replies below).

A momentary digression: My wife insists Nancy Pelosi is more Kennedyesque than Ocasio-Cortez.

My wife reacted negatively to Ocasio-Cortez’ participation in the Pelosi office sit-in. It just rubbed her wrong. “Disrespectful.” “Grand-standing.” “Bad politics.”

She also rightly points out that Nancy Pelosi is an imposing “fighter” in her own right, famously saying once that “any House Democrat voting with the party leadership 99 percent of the time is going to regret that 1 percent where they didn’t.”

Why do I not include Pelosi in the same class as Kennedy or Ocasio-Cortez? Certainly Pelosi was capable of being president, even if she chose a different political path. So, am I just being sexist?

It is true that Pelosi is a fearsome political brawler — one of the best. But many years ago Pelosi made the decision to become the Democratic Party’s preeminent bag man, which makes her duty-bound to the wealthy and corporate donors that have made her the most powerful woman in American politics.

This is not a criticism. That is how the system works. It is a statement of simple fact that even her most ardent supporters acknowledge. And that is why, from universal health care to bank regulation, she never was and never will be a reliable champion for progressive causes in the U.S House. The Democratic Party is too dependent on pharmaceutical and banking money, as just two examples, to ever drastically undercut those corporate interests.

No, Obamacare was not progressive health care reform. It was a special interest patchwork that included some progressive agenda items — mandatory insurance coverage for abortion and the limited expansion of Medicare/Medicaid — but it also protected pharmaceutical companies that insisted their highly-profitable industry not be subjected to more price competition (comparable to every other industrialized country). One of the causes of America’s expensive health care system is the relative high cost of prescription drugs; yet, Obamacare basically turned its back on the issue.

Obamacare is the handiwork of people like Nancy Pelosi, an establishment Democrat, or as I prefer to call them — incrementalists — which to a progressive’s ear should sound like a dirty word.

This is why Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives, such as Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Ro Khanna (D-CA), Raúl Manuel Grijalva (D-AZ) and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), are potentially change agents in a way that is not possible by any establishment Democrat.

Change agents possess five qualities, according to leadership expert and author George Couros: (1) a clear vision, (2) persistence, (3) ready to ask tough questions, (4) leads by example, and (5) builds trust by saying what they will do and doing it.

We’ve already seen all five of those qualities demonstrated by Ocasio-Cortez since she’s become a national political figure. In contrast, the Tom Perez-Nancy Pelosi-Chuck Schumer Democratic brain trust falls flat on all five qualities, particularly when it comes to a clear vision and building trust. I don’t know what the establishment Democrats stand for and absolutely do not trust that they will do what they promise to do.

Regardless of whether you support progressive Democrats’ agenda (I, for one, have grave reservations), it is hard not to respect and admire their authenticity and sincerity. I believe the election of Donald Trump is, in part, a product of Americans’ desire for this type of leadership.

That is also why I believe a future president will come from this group of Justice DemocratsAnd the one most likely to be that person, in my opinion, is Ocasio-Cortez.

JFK’s U.S. House career hints at what may be her path to the presidency.

An even shorter history of John F. Kennedy’s U.S. House years (1947–1952)

JFK was a political outsider from the start of his political career. “He was never fully embraced by the liberal (FDR) wing of the Democratic Party,” wrote journalist John Avlon on the 50-year anniversary of his death.

In his first congressional campaign, Kennedy was one of 11 Democratic candidates and ran his campaign outside the traditional party apparatus — in part, because he had to do it that way.

As the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain from 1938 to 1940, Kennedy’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, developed a close relationship with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who would declare after 1938 peace treaty with Adolph Hitler’s Germany that it would usher in the ‘peace of our time.’ Also known for his insistence to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that the defeat of Hitler’s Germany would be too difficult, Joe Kennedy’s political career was over with the start of World War II.

Similar to the way slurs like ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’ are used today to diminish political opponents, in 1946, the term ‘appeaser’ was the tag used to identify politicians considered too weak to be trusted — and that was a label that would follow JFK into his presidency.

Perhaps it was advantageous to Kennedy’s long-term political goals that he learned how to work outside the party system. Given the strategy was successful in his House campaigns, he continued this outsider strategy in his 1952 U.S. Senate and 1960 presidential campaigns.

Reviewing the book, “The Road to Camelot,” by Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie, Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe, highlighted their observation that “the Kennedy presidential campaign kicked off unofficially years in advance, with a focus on defying traditional party politics, building a strong grass-roots organization and bringing new voters into the process.”

Unlike Ocasio-Cortez, Kennedy’s family money offered him the luxury of shunning the campaign resources that comes with the traditional party structure. Even so, once elected, both entered Capitol Hill lacking a strong relationship with party leaders.

We will find out soon how that will impact Ocasio-Cortez’ committee assignment(s), but we know how it impacted Kennedy’s House career.

“We were just worms in the House,” Kennedy would later say about his time in the House. “Nobody paid attention to us nationally.”

Contributing to the young congressman from Massachusetts’ frustration was a Democratic House leadership, led by Sam Rayburn, that had a hard time separating the young Kennedy from his father’s ignominy.

The 80th Congress

Ninety-three new members entered the House on January 3, 1947. Among them, along with Kennedy, was Jacob Javits (R-NY), who served in Congress from 1947 to 1981, John Davis Lodge (R-CT), the grandson of former Senate Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge, and Richard Nixon (R-CA), a future president and Kennedy adversary.

Freshman congressmen John Kennedy and Richard Nixon (right rear) journeyed to McKeesport, PA, in April 1947, to debate the merits of the new Taft-Hartley labor law.

Javits and Lodge were rising stars in the Republican Party, evidenced by their both being assigned to the prestigious House Committee on Foreign Affairs. In contrast, Nixon and Kennedy found themselves on the House Committee on Education and Labor. While not a low prestige committee, it was not what Kennedy wanted. Nixon, at least, would also get assigned to the Committee on Un-American Activities, fulfilling one of his major policy interests. Kennedy’s second committee assignment, on the other hand, was to the Committee on the District of Columbia, often a dumping ground for lowly regarded House members.

For a Democrat with presidential aspirations, a tight relationship with labor unions is essential and there is no better place to start those relationships than on the House Committee on Education and Labor.

But that was not Kennedy’s core interest.

“Our foreign policy today may well determine the kind of life we will live here for generations” Kennedy told an audience at the Crosscup-Pishon American Legion Post (Boston, MA) on November 11, 1945. “For the peace and prosperity of this country are truly indivisible from the peace and prosperity of the world in this atomic age.”

From the start of his House campaign, Kennedy showed a preference for foreign policy and veteran’s issues. His first book was on the British response to Germany’s military buildup leading up to World War II. It was no secret Kennedy wanted an appointment to either Armed Services or Foreign Affairs, and finding himself on Education and Labor simply activated his susceptibility to boredom.

Kennedy would get re-elected to the House in 1948 and 1950, but his committee assignments remained the same. By the end of his six years in the House, Kennedy would have few accomplishments as he turned his attention to a U.S. Senate race in 1952.

Richard Nixon, having made a name for himself on the Committee on Un-American Activities, would become vice president. If it wasn’t evident before then, Kennedy’s impatience became palpable. Eight years later, Kennedy and Nixon would square off in one of the closest (and most controversial) presidential elections in American history.

What does Kennedy tell us about Ocasio-Cortez?

If Donald Trump has taught us anything, there are no absolute rules in politics. There is no single path to the presidency and there probably never has been. But there are four personality attributes common to almost all presidents — ambition, assertiveness, independence and charisma.

Kennedy had them. Ocasio-Cortez has them.

And most important among them may be independence. Which is why what some would consider the biggest difference between Kennedy and Ocasio-Cortez — personal wealth — actually binds them together.

Through his family’s significant financial resources, Kennedy was never as beholden to party, big donor, corporate and labor money as were most other Democratic politicians. Kennedy’s family wealth offered him a level of ideological and policy independence that freed him to make more compelling appeals to working class Americans, not unlike candidate Donald Trump. This independence makes for a much stronger candidate — one that can openly tick off corporate interests without fear of financial retribution.

Kennedy had that relative autonomy and so does Ocasio-Cortez, who did not accept corporate PAC donations during her House race.

The Young Turks Network founder and CEO, Cenk Uygur, who also co-founded the Justice Democrats political action committee that endorsed Ocasio-Cortez during her House race, sees the eschewing of corporate PAC money as one of her key strategic advantages vis-a-vis the Republicans:

“She’s untethered from the donors so she is much braver than the average Democrat in Congress. She calls for a Green New Deal and says the people on the Select Committee should not take any fossil fuel money. Now, the Democrats plan to put Frank Pallone (D-NJ) as the head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee (who) takes a $180,000 from energy companies — that’s institutional corruption! Establishment Democrats go, “No, don’t criticize the Republicans because we also take money from fossil fuel companies,” but since she doesn’t take any large donor money like that, she can criticize the Republicans all she likes.”

When Ocasio-Cortez says Frank Pallone cannot be trusted to lead congressional action on climate change because he is too dependent on big gas and oil campaign money, she means exactly that. And she gladly repeats it on Instagram, Twitter, and whatever other media platform available to her.

Ocasio-Cortez sometimes gets her facts wrong and propels social and economic theories that are plainly false. For example, holding two jobs does not contribute to today’s lower unemployment rate. And how our nation could ever pay for universal health care, free public university tuition, and a federal job guarantee, while still having enough money to address climate change, is a question nobody on the progressive left can adequately answer.

“You just pay for it,” as suggested by Ocasio-Cortez, is not an answer — even though that is exactly what we already do in this country to pay for defense, Medicare, Social Security, etc.

Ocasio-Cortez’ Future

Ocasio-Cortez is only 29-years-old and shows every sign that she is coachable. Over-time, if she is disciplined (in contrast to Palin), she will be a formidable force on the national political stage. She already is, frankly.

Just as Kennedy’s career marched from a U.S. House seat, to the U.S. Senate, and ultimately to the White House, Ocasio-Cortez demonstrates every attribute necessary to follow that same path. She is smart, charismatic and optimistic. She also works hard (you can see her campaign shoes here). And, most importantly, she looks like the future, not unlike how Kennedy’s cool charm reflected America’s growing economic prosperity and world dominance in the early 1960s.

Ocasio-Cortez is not there yet and lionizing her now is probably not prudent. Besides, she has twenty years to prepare for a presidential run.

And while Pelosi’s lieutenants will do everything in their power to either turn Ocasio-Cortez to the dark side or simply destroy her national-level political viability, in the brief time we’ve known her, she appears resilient to such pressure and has already demonstrated a willingness to go around her party’s leadership to get her progressive message directly to the people. Unless Pelosi can close down her Instagram account, there is not much that will stop Ocasio-Cortez, except maybe burying her on the House Committee on the District of Columbia.

Will Ocasio-Cortez succeed in the long-term? Who knows. Few observers in 1946 saw JFK as a future president. In fact, he was viewed by many as a lightweight.

But Kennedy was no lightweight, and neither is Ocasio-Cortez.

In the near-term, expect establishment Democrats to passive-aggressively undermine the Ocasio-Cortez brand, as she and the progressive movement represent the greatest threat to their hold on power. Don’t be surprised, however, if Pelosi uses a prime committee assignment to attempt to blunt Ocasio-Cortez’ passion for ‘fundamental political change.’

The Republicans recognize the longer-term threat, which is why they are tearing Ocasio-Cortez down now (just as the Democrats did to Palin) — so they don’t have to face her at full strength in the future.

Will the Republican character assassination strategy work on Ocasio-Cortez?

After all, they successfully demonized Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi. Why would Ocasio-Cortez be any different?

But I think she is different. For one, she has already shown the ability to respond quickly to attacks, while still keeping her progressive policy message front and center. Secondly, she is deft at taking her message directly to voters through social media. Lastly, she is independent of the corporate interest pressures endemic to establishment politicians like Clinton and Pelosi. Those are Trumpian qualities in a Trumpian age and that seems like a solid indicator of her political viability going forward.

-K.R.K.

Muslim women are about to rock the Democratic Party establishment

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; November 14, 2018)

Late Palestinian writer Edward Said once said Muslim women would lead the Islam into the 21st-century.

Said’s prediction may not have yet materialized in the Islamic world, but his words echoed in my head with the election of two Muslim-American women to the U.S. House last Tuesday. Among the many ‘firsts’ coming from the midterm elections, their election victories may have the most substantive impact.

Palestinian-American Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan), a social worker and the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, and Somali-American and former refugee Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) are both Democrats and poised to upend the status quo in the Democratic Party.

From both sides of the political establishment, the long knives were drawn against Tlaib and Omar before they were even elected.

Rashida Tlaib

Rep.-elect Tlaib’s initial apostasy occurred when she seemingly changed her opinion on U.S. policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, suggesting that the two-state solution is a failed project (it is) and that the one-state solution, where Israel officially annexes the West Bank and Jews and Palestinians live together as full citizens, is now the only just and viable option (also true).

Responding to a reporter’s question after she won the Democratic nomination for the U.S. House seat, Tlaib said: “One state. It has to be one state. Separate but equal does not work. I’m only 42 years old but my teachers were of that generation that marched with Martin Luther King. This whole idea of a two-state solution, it doesn’t work.”

However, some Israelis and pro-Israel Democrats claim Tlaib has either changed her opinion or deliberately misled them.

According to the Israeli paper Haaretz, a senior adviser to Tlaib, Steve Tobocman, told the paper prior to the primary that she supported a two-state solution, as well as current U.S. aid levels to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Whether Tlaib’s opinion shift was calculated or simply a misunderstanding, the Democratic Party’s pro-Israel lobbyists did not take long to respond.

“J Street will not endorse candidates who don’t endorse the two-state solution,” announced the Democrat-aligned lobbying group. “After closely consulting with Rashida Tlaib’s campaign to clarify her most current views on various aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we have come to the unfortunate conclusion that a significant divergence in perspectives requires JStreet PAC to withdraw our endorsement of her candidacy.”

The New York Times wondered out loud if Tlaib, along with Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York) might represent a trend among newly elected Democrats to more aggressively question the party establishment’s uncritical support of Israel and their stale ideas on how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Under pressure from party leaders, Ocasio-Cortez has backpeddled somewhat from earlier criticisms she made regarding Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, but Tlaib and Omar have not. Nonetheless, the Times article ultimately concluded Congress’ iron-clad support for Israel is not threatened by these Democratic Party newcomers. In an age of extreme partisanship in U.S. politics, it is remarkable at the unanimity of opinion between the Democratic and Republican parties regarding Israel.

“We’re talking about a handful of people,” Ronald Halber, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council for the Washington, D.C. area, was quoted as saying in the Times article. “They’re certainly not going to move Congress’s wall-to-wall support for Israel.”

Still, Tlaib’s mere suggestion that a one-state solution remains the only viable option left has aggravated the Democratic and Republican political establishments. And, despite 80 years of failure in implementing a workable two-state solution, the fact that mainstream foreign policy experts consider a one-state solution a ‘radical’ idea exemplifies their general lack of creativity and relevance.

The one-state solution train has already left the station, as evidenced by the passing of Israel’s new law officially recognizing Israel as the Jewish homeland and effectively creating a legal wall of separation between Israeli Jews and non-Jews that will keep Palestinians in a second-class status should Israel annex the occupied lands.

Tlaib’s support of the one-state solution was simply acknowledging what is already becoming a reality on the ground. Her concern has therefore turned to ensuring that Palestinians attain full citizenship rights when this solution is implemented.

Yet, if Tlaib’s criticism of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians were her only heresy, she could easily be dismissed as someone biased by her ethnic and cultural heritage. Instead, she is far more balanced and realistic in her thinking on Israel, to the point where she has many critics on the progressive left as well.

For starters, she bristled at criticisms from Palestinian activists over her original J Street endorsement (which was subsequently withdrawn over her one-state stance). “Palestinians are attacking me now, but I am not going to dehumanize Israelis,” she said. “I won’t do that.”

Tlaib further aggravated some on the progressive left with her nuanced opinion regarding the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. While she supports the right of Americans to voice their opposition to Israeli policies towards Palestinians through the BDS movement (something the U.S. House will likely be voting on in this next term), she has purposely distanced herself from some of its tactics. Her non-conformity with progressive left orthodoxy has not gone unnoticed and might aid any attempt by the Democratic Party establishment to isolate her should they decide it is necessary.

In that regard, Tlaib casts a similar image to Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who is not shy about criticizing her own party’s leadership or ideologues on the progressive left.

Gabbard, a consistent supporter of Israel, has nonetheless criticized specific Israeli actions and policies over her congressional career, such as Israel’s expansion of West Bank settlements and strong support for a U.S.-led regime change war in Assad’s Syria.

Tlaib shows every indication that she will confront her own party when she needs to do so — which is not good news for Nancy Pelosi’s upcoming struggle over the next two years in keeping the party unified.

Ilhan Omar

Rep.-elect Omar, who will be replacing Keith Ellison in the House, is a more typical progressive in comparison to Tlaib. Her soft, striking beauty belies a prickly, sharp-edged personality that is direct and often combative.

An immigrant herself, she made U.S. immigration policy under Donald Trump a centerpiece of her campaign, including a call to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE):

“Our immigration system is fundamentally unjust. Instead of extending humanity and compassion to migrants and refugees, we treat them as criminals,” she posted in a statement on her campaign website. “ICE is an unreformable organization that has become increasingly militarized, brutal, and unaccountable. However, we must not simply revert back to the immigration system that preceded ICE. We must welcome immigrants into our country and provide them simple and accessible means to becoming documented.”

Sharp, blunt and uncompromising.

Unsurprisingly, Omar’s sharpest critics are on the political right, who as of late like to chide the Democrats for name-calling and character assassinations (think: Brett Kavanaugh). Unfortunately, the political right has never shied away from using these tactics themselves, as witnessed in their scathing, personal, ad hominem attacks on Omar.

Their ugliest slur against Omar has been to call her an ‘anti-Semite,’ citing her past statements such as the following tweet in 2012:

The language(s) we speak affect how we view the world and how others view us. For example, when they translate linguistic norms and idioms into rough English equivalents, bilingual Arabic speakers are often misinterpreted by English-only speakers.

In other words, according to Raymond Cohen, professor of international relations at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, “communal life is possible only because members of a community possess a set of shared meanings, enabling them to make coherent sense of the world.”

“While it is legitimate for English speakers to use their native-language paradigm as a baseline against which to measure non-English versions, speakers of other languages are equally entitled to consider their own paradigms as normative,” concludes Cohen.

I read Omar’s above tweet about Israel as relatively benign and consistent with mainstream criticisms of Israeli policies towards Palestinians.

Not everybody, however, interprets Omar’s comments that way.

The entertaining and often thought-provoking Steve Deace, a conservative radio host based out of my home state of Iowa, enjoys serving as an expositor of Omar’s public statements. While he has echoed calls for more civility from both sides of the political spectrum, he does not extend that olive branch to Omar [Nor would she accept it, I suspect].

“This woman is an open anti-Semite,” he declared last week on his TV-radio show simulcast, suggesting her pro-Palestinian activism is nothing but a cover for a deep-seeded enmity towards the Jewish religion. When offering evidence of Omar’s anti-Semitism, he usually cites her November 2012 tweet (above).

So much for Deace’s eschewing the use of name-calling. Labels like ‘anti-Semite’ and ‘racist’ are easy to toss around and convenient cudgels in cases where someone wants to end all constructive dialogue with a political opponent. Democrats are no better, of course, doing the same thing when they call Trump supporters ‘racist.’

Beyond the petty name-calling, more harmful is Deace’s reinforcement of the dialogue-impeding insinuation that criticism of the State of Israel’s policies with respect to the Palestinians is, de facto, an expression of anti-Semitism.

Of course, that is not true.

Even Omar’s November 2012 tweet condemns the ‘evil doings’ of Israel, not the Israeli state itself. In fact, Omar’s views on Israel exist firmly within the boundaries of the mainstream progressive left — which is fair game for criticism, not on the grounds that it is latent anti-Semitism, but on the merits of its policy rationale.

Yes, anti-Semitism is all too real, as recent events in the U.S. can attest. But it bears repeating: criticism of Israel is not sufficient evidence to call someone anti-Semitic. [British academic Ahmad Samih Khalidi, writing for The Guardian, offers a much better discussion on this topic here.]

Echoing many in the American political establishment, Deace’s contention that the progressive left provides cover for latent anti-Semitism among some of its members is misleading and unenlightening.

For example, the Reverend Louis Farrakhan, who is not a member of the progressive left, is openly anti-Semitic. That is an easy call.

In contrast, Omar is a devout Muslim critical of the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians. There is a vast chasm between the views of Rev. Farrakhan and Omar and that divide deserves recognition. If anything, it is the small pocket of virulent anti-Semitism residing in the darkest corners of American conservatism that seems far more alarming than anything found on the progressive left.

Omar (middle front) and Tlaib (right front)

Ironically, it is commentators from the Israeli political media that are more clear-eyed about the political rise of Omar and Tlaib. Times of Israel columnist Ramon Epstein keenly summarizes the conflict between the pro-Israel Democratic establishment and Reps. Tlaib and Omar:

“The rapid advance of democratic socialism and far left confrontational politics is displacing a calcified and failed establishment class. A significant proportion of this youthful grassroots movement opposes Israel on many policy issues, and stands logically on the side of the Palestinian activist community that as many of you are well aware has taken college campuses by storm throughout the USA,” writes Epstein. “Depending on the geriatric pro-Israel left to eventually ‘right the ship’ in the Democratic Party means depending on the empty threats of Alan Dershowitz, incompetent leadership from Chuck Schumer, and the Orwellian censorship of the Anti-Defamation League. In short — a losing playbook.”

Epstein is not a fan of the progressive left’s growing comfort level with rebukes of Israel, but he sees it for what it is (an anti-establishment movement) and what it is not (overt anti-Semitism).

Taking Epstein’s thesis to its logical conclusion, the Democratic Party’s aging and entrenched congressional leadership will struggle to hold the party together with the rise of progressives like Tlaib, Omar and others in the party’s left flank, such as Ocasio-Cortez and Gabbard.

If Edward Said were still alive, he would not be surprised to find Omar and Tlaib becoming two of the most vocal and impactful members in the U.S. House going forward.

  • K.R.K.

There were no aliens this time, but someday they will arrive…really, they will.

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; November 9, 2018)

Despite headlines suggesting two scientists concluded an alien ‘probe’ — nicknamed Oumuamua, meaning “a messenger that reaches out from the distant past” in Hawaiian — may have recently entered (and left) our solar system, the researchers actually came to the exact opposite conclusion.

A big thumbs down for today’s science journalism.

Oumuamua, a cigar-shaped object observable from Earth for only a few days, was seen to enter and leave our solar system in a manner quite different from previous solar system intruders. Whereas previous objects, such as comets, followed a Keplerian orbit indicative of objects under our Sun’s gravitational influence, Oumuamua was under some other intragalactic object’s gravitational influence. Or, perhaps, Oumuamua was moving under its own power, as would an alien spacecraft or probe. The two scientists at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics lightheartedly posed the question (and quickly dismissed it) in their paper published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Nonetheless, their research paper does lay out the argument for why we cannot instinctively dismiss the possibility that aliens will someday visit our planet.

One inference I made from the Astrophysical Journal Letters paper was that, if our planet is visited by an alien civilization, it will most likely be through one of their interstellar probes and not directly by the aliens themselves.

Keeping a living, biological entity alive for what would be an interminably long trip — most likely taking hundreds of years — is just not practical and probably not necessary, unless this alien culture is in the process of colonizing another planet. Let us hope that is not their ultimate motivation when their first probe arrives here.

The layman argument for why aliens will arrive (probably in the next few hundred years)

To start the conjecture process, accept these three broad assumptions:

(1) Advanced-intelligence alien civilizations exist within 250 light-years of our planet and the number of such civilizations is not less than 100. Given that there are 260,000 stars within 250 light-years of our own, that would translate to at least one advanced civilization for every 2,600 stars.

(2) Among these advanced-intelligence civilizations, humans are average in intelligence and technological advancement.

(3) And finally, like Earthlings, aliens have a powerful drive to explore beyond their own planet.

The net result of these assumptions is the expectation that they will contact us, should one of these alien civilizations know we exist and live relatively close by (say, within a few hundred light-years).

But how will they contact us?

Our own experience helps answer this question. Human civilization organized beyond mere tribal and local congregations is only five- to ten-thousand years old, not even the wink-of-an-eye in astronomical terms. And, yet, in that short time, we’ve moved from simple wheeled-carts to interplanetary probes. We’ve even sent probes that have left our solar system.

However, leaving the solar system is nothing compared to visiting an exoplanet (i.e., a planet outside our solar system). But we’ve taken the first big step in this process. Humans can now observe other exoplanets, some as close as a few light-years away (Ross 128b is only 11 light-years away and possibly life-supporting). We know the composition of their atmospheres and what the temperatures are like between day and night and at different moments in the exoplanet’s orbit.

Humans are rapidly compiling a list of “nearby” exoplanets most likely to support advanced, intelligent life. The list is not long, but it is not zero either.

If humans are doing this, intelligent aliens are doing it too. Yes, I only have a sample size of one, but as noted, I assume humans are average among the advanced-intelligence lifeforms in our galactic quadrant.

Therefore, I expect half of the advanced-intelligence civilizations are far beyond observing and categorizing exoplanets and are much closer than ourselves in identifying specific exoplanets where advanced life exists.

Once identified, there are two options: Send messages to this exoplanet or travel there directly, most likely via an interstellar probe.

The advantage of sending messages is that those will travel at light-speed. If the target is 10 light-years away, it will only take 20 years to complete the first conversational exchange, assuming the target receives and understands the message.

Frankly, it is much more logical to travel there straightaway and avoid the improbabilities of starting a constructive long-distance relationship.

To do that, however, requires fast spacecrafts. Super fast. As in, a significant-percentage-of-light-speed type of fast.

Currently, the fastest outward-bound human-built spacecraft, Voyager 1, has traveled 1/600 of a light-year in 30 years and is currently moving at 1/18,000 the speed of light. At that speed, it would take Voyager 1 over 80,000 years to reach the nearest star, Alpha Centauri C, a red dwarf about four light-years from Earth.

We must go much faster to reach a nearby exoplanet in any reasonable amount of time.

The good news is, we already know theoretically how human-built probes might achieve fast space transport in the near distant future: lightsails using nanotechnology harnessing the power of lasers.

Lightsails are large sheets of reflective material that are propelled forward by photons (rather than wind as in the case of ocean ship sails). Laser arrays based on earth will supply the propulsive power.

Using technologies that still need to be developed but are theoretically possible, scientists believe these lightsail-equipped probes could achieve 20 percent of light-speed — that is over 200 kilometers per hour. At this speed, human probes would reach Alpha Centauri C in 20 years and the exoplanet Ross 128b in under 60 years.

If that is what humans are relatively close to doing, imagine what a significantly more advanced civilization has already achieved. One of the conjectures offered about Oumuamua was that it was powered by a lightsail system (retracted by the time it arrived in our solar system).

Even at 20 percent of light-speed, 60 years to reach a nearby exoplanet represents slightly more than a scientist’s career span (~40 years). It is possible to imagine an advanced civilization would readily make such an attempt once the technological challenges and cost factors were adequately addressed.

It is possible such preparations to visit Earth are about to get underway and, if so, we can be near certain of these following facts:

(1) Their arrival will not be a case of random chance. Aliens are right now observing the third planet from our Sun, a big blue ball situated conveniently within the Goldilocks orbital zone — the ideal location for abundant, advanced lifeforms. We are being watched by ‘people’ only hundreds of light-years away from us.

(2) By observation and measurement, they know we have lots of liquid water and an atmosphere composed mostly of nitrogen and oxygen. They will know that this environment is a likely breeding ground for life, even if their own biological existence is based on some other, yet unknown, alternative basis for life.

(3) There is no reason to assume we are the only planet in this small section of our Milky Way galaxy with these life-friendly characteristics, but our Earth may have a distinguishing characteristic unlike any other life-conducive planet: We have been broadcasting our existence for nearly 100 years now, and doing it with significant and consistent power for about 50 years. Now, chances are excellent our future alien visitors have not yet observed our unique electromagnetic signature, so we can’t assume that this Earth feature has aided their decision on where to visit. Still, it is possible our unique signature could help the aliens decide on visiting us first.

(4) Even if they don’t ‘hear’ us, our big yellow Sun will set us apart from other exoplanet candidates for alien visitation.

(5) Our new alien friends will probably be from a red dwarf star system (the most common in the galaxy) where initial conditions are not as conducive to advanced, intelligent life as offered by our warm Sun. Earth’s home star has kept our nights cool but life-supporting and our days quite pleasant. We haven’t had to struggle in the way our alien visitors most likely will have experienced.

(6) That means advanced lifeforms may have taken longer to initially develop on their home planet, but once they did, their significant environmental challenges probably pushed their intellectual and technological achievement along a steeper, higher development curve.

In other words, when our new alien friends do arrive, they are probably going to consider us fat, lazy and stupid. Hopefully, they will find our big, drippy eyes cute enough to save us from immediate extermination, but make no assumptions in that regard.

In fact, once the alien probe arrives, humans will have many decisions to make.

The first decision is to decide who among us will make the first contact with the probe. In most movie versions of first contact, its the scientists who make the discovery but the military that coordinates humanity’s response. If it were me, I’d leave the initial contact entirely in the hands of scientists, and make sure the diplomats, politicians and military leaders are kept as far away from our visitors as possible.

Why scientists? Because of all the aforementioned groups, scientists will best understand and appreciate the enormous effort it took for this alien civilization to traverse the vast emptiness of space to arrive here on earth.

Of course, we will all want to know if their arrival is hostile or purely exploratory in its intent. And, frankly, it could be a mixture of motivations, some friendly and some not so much.

But even before we can discern intent, we must determine what exactly is visiting us. Is it actual aliens? A probe? A planet-killing weapon? Are they looking for a new homeland? That determination will not be easy.

Assuming the probe offers little information and is not capable of communicating with us (which is likely), we must still try to understand its origin and technological features. Again, only scientists are going to have the relevant knowledge to make such a determination.

And once all that is done. We sit and wait. If the probe has actually landed on the Earth’s surface, we may at some point try to carefully dissect it. Or, if the probe plants itself in orbit around the Earth, we would send our own satellites or manned spacecraft to observe the probe more closely.

In the end, our first contact with an alien civilization might be somewhat of a letdown, particularly if it is a mechanized probe with no engineered capability to communicate with us.

Still, an alien civilization probing our solar system would psychologically be one of the most monumental events in human history. Oumuamua’s brief appearance in our solar system was not that event, but it was a vivid reminder to me that it could happen…nay, it will happen.

  • K.R.K.

Good riddance to the 2018 midterms

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; November 9, 2018)

The NuQum.com statistical model, which employed variables measured six-months prior to the actual 2018 midterm election, predicted the Democrats would gain 39 seats in the U.S. House. As of mid-morning on November 8th, the Democrats are most likely to have gained 37 seats according to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com.

Source: FiveThirtyEight.com

I normally don’t toot my own horn, but ‘toot toot.’

In truth, forecasting the number of U.S. House seats gained or lost by a particular party during a midterm election is relatively easy, at least compared to other more difficult political forecasts such as ‘Who will be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2020?’ (Kamala Harris) or ‘Will Donald Trump run for re-election in 2020?’ (No) or ‘Will Nikki Haley run for president in 2020?’ (Yes).

One of the basic issues in judging statistical forecasts is how to weight the time in which the forecast is made. Which is more valuable to an organization? A precise prediction made within days of the outcome? Or a less precise but directionally accurate prediction made months prior to the outcome?

By training and temperament, I prefer the latter. My experience has also been that most organizations prefer the latter as well…with the exception of the American news media. The news media’s business model is built on the day-to-day drama of modern American electioneering. After all, the cable news channels have 24-hours of inventory to fill every day.

But the question should nonetheless be asked, ‘Are the millions of dollars spent by news organizations leading up to a midterm election on polling and data analysis worth the effort?’ ‘What did the time, effort and expenditure of resources gain them?’

In terms of understanding the factors influencing the 2018 midterm outcome, the news media’s effort in the past three months has been worth almost nothing. Yes, news and political junkies were entertained by the daily horse race statistics; but for the average American, there was very little substance to be found within the last three months of election news coverage.

We knew six months ago the Republicans would not only lose control of the U.S. House, but would lose somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 seats.

That is what happened, minus two or three seats. This election was set in stone months ago and there was little, short of an unpredictable shock to the political ecosystem like a stock market collapse or a surprise military attack against us, that was going to change the final result.

This past midterm election was one of the ugliest and most unenlightening in my lifetime. Unlike the 1994 and 2010 midterm elections, which were genuine wave elections that went beyond merely a referendum on the incumbent president and revealed a genuine political shift within the country, the 2018 election was largely unspectacular and offered few insights on the where this country is politically or ideologically headed.

The 2018 midterm election was, first and foremost, the American people’s judgment on the first two years of Donald Trump’s time in office; and for some, no doubt, it was their judgement on how Donald Trump rose to the presidency. His presidency will never be legitimate in their eyes.

For the most part, this was not an ‘issue-based’ election, with two possible exceptions: health care (Obamacare) and immigration. While it is inaccurate to suggest the 2018 midterms “cemented Obamacare’s legacy,” as some pundits have suggested, the election did show there is still life in the Obamacare and the Democrats have the better argument on health care.

Health Care

Health care was the top issue among 2018 voters and, today, the Democrats are best aligned with public sentiment on the issue.

“Voters in Idaho, Nebraska and Utah approved ballot initiatives to include in their Medicaid programs adults with incomes of up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line,” notes Washington Post political reporter Amy Goldstein. “The results accomplish a broadening of the safety-net insurance that the states’ legislatures had balked at for years.”

In addition, she points out, “Maine voters elected Democrat Janet Mills as governor, clearing the path for a Medicaid expansion that voters approved by referendum a year ago.”

The health care issue helped Tony Evers beat incumbent Republican Scott Walker in Wisconsin and was the top issue among Kansas voters who led Laura Kelly to victory against Republican Kris Kobach. Both Evers and Kelly support Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion in their respective states.

We are talking Kansas here. Kansas voted to expand Medicaid! That is a big deal. Kansas, like many other parts of the country, found health care and immigration to be top two issues among voters. Clearly, health care was a winner for Democrats in the midterms.

It may be time for Republicans like New York Representative Peter King to stop blindly saying ‘the American health care system is the best in the world’ when clearly it is not. In the aggregate, when compared to other advanced economies, we eat up twice as much of our national economy on health care and still end up with inferior health outcomes.

If the worst criticism Rep. King (New York) can come up with against the Canadian single-payer system is that they have to wait eight weeks for an MRI (I had to wait six weeks for mine), I’m willing to take may chances with government-run health care. And, increasingly, so are most Americans.

Health care is one issue where the general population often knows more about the complexities of the system than the politicians. Many people interact with the health care system on a weekly or even daily basis. They know the problems with our health care system on a personal level: health insurance premiums taking more and more out of paychecks, drugs that are too expensive, and household budget-busting out-of-pocket costs are among the many issues Americans face every day.

Immigration

Immigration, on the other hand, is more complicated and neither the Democrats or Republicans seem to fully appreciate the ambivalence many Americans feel about the issue.

In terms of overall public opinion, Americans understand the value of immigration, but prefer legal immigration and do not support increasing current immigration levels, according to recent Gallup Poll data. The Democratic Party emphasizes the ‘social value of immigration’ while the Republican Party understands the ‘legal immigration’ part. Neither party, however, seems prepared to put these complimentary attitudes together into a coherent policy platform.

Trump’s stoking fears about the ‘caravan’ and illegal immigration in general may have saved some Republican politicians in Florida, Texas and Arizona who seemed destined to lose in 2018, but will that strategy work across a larger swath of the country in 2020?

Voters care about their reality, not ideology

One of the biggest mistakes politicians and political consultants make is the assumption that Americans have an ideological preference (even if their own opinions do not hold together in any coherent ideological pattern).

At every opportunity, filmmaker Michael Moore loves to say ‘America is a liberal country.’ He is among many liberals and Democrats that insist this is true.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

Analysts should never take the results from a national opinion survey, add up those issues where Americans take the ‘liberal’ position versus where they take the ‘conservative’ position, and then declare: ‘The American people are left-of-center.’ Or whatever the conclusion might be in the context of that survey.

That is not how the human mind works.

Opinion surveys are mirrors on the most recent political campaign (which are usually fought along partisan and ideological lines, though not always). Surveys reflect the ideological nature of the political system (elections, politicians, political institutions, policy debates etc.), not necessarily the ideological nature of the American people.

On a political spectrum, Americans are largely non-ideological — as opposed to a country like France where political ideology has a more palpable meaning and manifests more noticeably within their political ecosystem. Americans, in contrast, have a founding culture of muscular individualism that reflexively rejects collective or group-based ideologies, to the point where anytime one ideology appears too powerful within the political structure, Americans instinctively knock it down. It is in our political DNA to do so.

That is what Americans do best and will do again against the Democrats in 2020 if they over-reach given their regained power. The same, of course, is true when the Republicans over-reach.

Americans do not generally seek politicians that agree with their left- or right-leaning ideology, they seek politicians that align with their personal perception of reality. ‘Does a political party or candidate speak to my reality?’ is the question on voters’ minds. It is the politicians and intellectual class that map voters’ reality-based way to thinking to the ideological spectrum. But they do so at the risk of misinterpreting the public mind — which politicians and the news media are already doing with respect to the 2018 midterms.

  • K.R.K.

Is the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting evidence of a conspiracy or a dumb son?

By Kent R. Kroeger (August 21, 2018)

There is a lot of news media attention on the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya (among others).

Why?

“It proves Trump-Russian collusion,” says Rachel Maddow, Don Lemon, Ari Melber, Joe Scarborough, Chris Hayes, Joy Reid, Anderson Cooper, and the guy running the Falafel King food truck on the corner of 7th Avenue and 31st Street.

Everyone not currently employed by the Fox News Channel or the White House has concluded: The mere intent on Don Jr.’s part to receive ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton from Russians constitutes evidence of a conspiracy.

The defense of the meeting’s legality, in contrast, rests on the belief that conducting opposition research, even with foreign nationals, is not just legal, it is part of every presidential campaign. You could even argue that it is a campaign’s patriotic duty to discover any misdeeds perpetrated by their opponent, even if that means working with foreign nationals or going overseas.

Unsurprisingly, the partisan website PolitiFact rejects that defense, citing Democratic political consultant Mike Mikus from Pennsylvania, who says, “I have been working on campaigns since 1994 and have managed races since 1998. I have never heard of any operative meeting with a representative of a foreign government — friend or foe — to discuss opposition research.”

A guy from Pennsylvania who has worked on statewide elections is not who you talk to in trying to find out if presidential campaigns have ever conducted opposition research on foreign soil or using foreign nationals.

The obvious example is the Steele dossier. Its original genesis was as a Washington Free Beacon investigatory effort on Donald Trump. Ostensibly, it was journalism, funded by a major GOP donor opposed to Trump’s candidacy. Later, that effort would become what we now know as the Steele dossier and its funding was taken up (indirectly) by the Hillary Clinton campaign.

The Steele dossier is nothing less than opposition research, conducted by a former British spy and funded by political operatives connected to a presidential campaign. Furthermore, it contains information sought and derived from ‘representatives of a foreign government,’ and a hostile one at that.

Now, I will grant, a well-run campaign does not send the son and son-in-law of the candidate to gather such information from such sources. Even if it was legal, it was just dumb.

Had Don Jr. taken possession of stolen emails or some other illegally obtained information, then he would be in trouble. But that would have nothing to do with a conspiracy to defraud the U.S.

The Steele dossier is what aggressive, well-run presidential campaigns do. The Trump campaign just did it poorly.

Direct Evidence of a Trump-Russia Conspiracy Remains Elusive

What does the public evidence so far say about an alleged Trump-Russia conspiracy?

Here is what we know as fact: Trump campaign operatives gamboled around with a Russian lawyer purporting to have ‘dirt’ on Clinton, an Australian diplomat, a Maltese academic, a hacker going by the name Gucifer, and, through Paul Manafort, a variety of other Russian and Ukrainian consorts, some connected closely to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Trump campaign also actively (but amateurishly) pursued a new detente with the Russians during and after the 2016 campaign — which is not inherently illegal — and is probably a good policy.

Conspiracies are not hard to engineer, but proving one exists is

If the Trump campaign engaged in a conspiracy with the Russians to defraud the U.S., this question must be answered: “Did the Trump campaign premeditatively conspire with the Russians to defraud the American people by interfering in an U.S. presidential election.

As yet, the evidence of such a crime is conspicuously elusive.

However, a conspiracy does not require that the Trump campaign actively helped the Russians hack the DNC and Podesta emails or helped in creating and promulgating some Facebook and Twitter memes.

The Robert Mueller probe could indict principles from the Trump campaign on conspiracy charges if they either: (1) aided and abetted any criminal behavior by the Russians, (2) willfully participated in the planning of a crime prior to its commission (“accessory before the fact”), or (3) helped to conceal a crime already committed or give assistance to perpetrators of the crime to help them avoid detection, arrest or prosecution (“accessory after the fact”).

According to California defense attorney Paul Wallin, “In these situations, you are culpable under the accomplice liability theory because you knew of the illegal plan and willfully did something to cause it to be carried out or concealed.”

As yet, no evidence reported by the news media or rising from the Mueller probe’s initial indictments suggest the Trump campaign conspired with the Russians on that conditions outlined by Wallin.

Some legal experts believe Donald Trump himself committed a crime when he encouraged the Russians to hack Clinton’s emails during some of his public rallies in the early Summer of 2016 (which the Russians subsequently tried to do, according to U.S. intelligence sources). That opinion seems like broad conjecture; and, besides, how dumb would a conspirator have to be to announce their conspiratorial intent on live, national television?

Who could be that dumb?! Who?! Who?!

But here is what else we know…

The documented associations of the Trump campaign to the Russians almost all postdate the moment the candidate became the presumptive Republican nominee in March 2016. That is probably not mere coincidence.

Furthermore, the FBI opened a counterintelligence case (“Crossfire Hurricane”) against the Trump campaign only after “Western intelligence assets and Clinton-affiliated political operatives repeatedly approached the Trump campaign and tried but failed to damage it through associations with Russia,” reports Real Clear Investigations.

In my opinion, we all need a healthy dose of skepticism towards everyone involved in this collusion hash.

“I have certain rules I live by. My first rule: I don’t believe anything the government tells me,” once said comedian George Carlin. I would just amend that by adding: the news media, cable TV personalities, politicians, comedians, and myself.

With that caveat, here is my developing theory on the Trump-Russia collusion narrative:

The Trump-Russia collusion story is most likely borne from four sources:

(1) Trump’s associations with wealthy Russians (call them oligarchs or mobsters, if you must) involved in the real estate industry in New York City and elsewhere (And there is circumstantial evidence the Trump Organization carries substantial financial debts with Russians and other foreign lenders),

(2) campaign manager Paul Manafort’s falling into the arms of pro-Russia Ukrainians while trying to dig himself out of debt,

(3) the Trump campaign’s clumsy and reckless efforts at conducting opposition research and policymaking, and

(4) a political establishment, burned by the fact they were outmatched by Russian intelligence and unwilling to accept a Trump presidency they never believed possible, that manufactured elements of the collusion drama to drain the new administration’s political capital and neuter its impact while in office.

This fourth source of the collusion narrative speaks to an issue rarely addressed in the news coverage: How could the Obama administration have screwed up so royally in trying to stop Russia’s election interference?

Why aren’t there career bureaucrats high up in the intelligence community losing their jobs over this debacle?

We know U.S. intelligence was aware of Russia’s intentions to interfere in the election months before the email hacks of the DNC and John Podesta or the propagation of Russian-sourced Facebook memes on social media. And we also know the general public was beginning to become widely aware of the Russian meddling as early as July 2016 (see my Google Trends analysis here).

So what was the FBI and intelligence community doing to harden the defenses of the social media companies and the political parties in preparation for this foreign intrusion?

Apparently, not much, according to The Washington Post’s Philip Bump, who suggests the Obama administration feared they would themselves be accused of trying to manipulate the election outcome if they did too much publicly to stop the Russians.

Perhaps if the U.S. Department of Justice and intelligence agencies weren’t so politicized (and Obama is not the first president to make them so), they could be trusted to warn the American people about impending foreign attacks without it being dismissed as a partisan political act?

The news media’s obsession with the Trump Tower meeting is misplaced. If laws were broken, it is not clear how. If collecting legally obtained intelligence on an opponent from a foreign source is illegal, and someone in the Trump campaign is indicted for it, there will be a legal challenge and don’t be surprised if it goes to the Supreme Court.

It will be the First Amendment versus federal election laws — and, if the past is prologue, the Constitution tends to win those battles.

Until Mueller finally hands out the crown jewel of indictments — a conspiracy charge — as many in the media expect him to do, I suggest borrowing some more wisdom from George Carlin, “Question everything.”

Its a good life strategy, in general.

K.R.K.

About the Author:  Mr. Kroeger is a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and son (You can contact him at: info@olsonkroeger.com)

 

Trump’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ immigration policy creates more problems than it solves

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com, June 23, 2018)

On all levels, the Trump administration’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy on illegal immigration is an unmitigated disaster.

Politically, the policy has put the Trump administration on the defensive on immigration at a time when the public’s support for increasing levels of immigration is at its highest level in 20 years. Taken together, those two trends will spell disaster in November for the Republicans.

SOURCE: Gallup Organization

 

Many conservatives still believe the GOP can win in November if they convince the voting public of the Democrats’ supposed desire for ‘open borders.’ But considering most everything Trump has done with respect to illegal immigration was also done on some level during Barack Obama’s administration, the mainstream Democratic Party has its own anti-immigrant flag it can wave at selectively targeted voters.

Perhaps if the Trump administration’s efforts to slow illegal immigration had been well-planned and humane that political strategy would have merit; but, in the wake of the ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy and its family separations, scaring the public about the Democrats’ views on immigration has become much harder.

Even worse for the Republicans, the ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy has robbed the Trump administration of its months-long momentum in public support. Coming out of the Singapore summit, Donald Trump’s presidency was experiencing its highest levels of public support since early in his term. And now? According to the political futures market, PredictIt, the Democrats’ chance of regaining control of the U.S. House has risen from 58 percent in early June to 62 percent in late June. A four percentage-point increase may seem minor, but considering the Democrats experienced a 15 percentage-point decline in its chances between April and early June, a four percentage-point increase must feel like senior Trump adviser Stephen Miller and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions just handed the Democrats a life-jacket.

Source: PredictIt.com

Some time soon, Trump needs to temporarily direct his ire away from the media and the Democrats and realize two of his closest advisers, Miller and Sessions, have single-handily jeopardized the Republican’s political fortunes going forward.

Over 2,300 children were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border between May 5 and June 9 according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. This human rights atrocity, the product of the administration’s septic form of nationalism and a systemic inattention to policy details, has no clear resolution in sight.

According to Lisa Frydman, an immigration law attorney at KIND, an organization that protects unaccompanied children who enter the U.S. immigration system, there will be cases where children will remain back in the U.S. for months after their parents are deported. Even for a competent administration with a well-defined policy, family reconciliation could take months.

On a social level, the ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy probably creates more problems than it solves. While Sessions said the policy is intended to deter future illegal immigration, including human trafficking, as of now, no evidence exists suggesting it has done so. And while Trump has defended his administration’s aggressive anti-illegal immigration policy as an aggressive approach to preventing the movement of MS-13 gang members into the U.S., there is a real possibility that the trauma thousands of children are experiencing due to the policy’s family separations may increase the risk factors in children associated with their joining gangs.

On a moral level, this draconian and cruel immigration enforcement policy has been condemned by religious leaders across the country, including by Southern Baptist evangelicals at their recent annual convention. Internationally, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights official called on Trump administration to halt its “unconscionable” policy, saying it punishes “children for their parent’s action.” How ironic it is that, as US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announce the U.S. is leaving the UN’s Human Rights Council, the U.S. is committing a human rights violation on a scale it hasn’t seen since our country’s internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

The premeditated and reckless infliction of traumas on children is morally indefensible. Sessions can quote all of the bible verses he wants on the importance of obeying the law, there is no biblical justification for separating families fleeing violence in their home countries. None. And, even if there were, it wouldn’t make its current implementation acceptable.

Actor George Takei, best known as Star Trek’s Sulu, whose family was relocated to an internment camp, thinks the ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy is even worse. “At least during the internment of Japanese-Americans, I and other children were not stripped from our parents. We were not pulled screaming from our mothers’ arms. We were not left to change the diapers of younger children by ourselves,” Takei wrote in an essay for Foreign Policy. “At least during the internment, we remained a family, and I credit that alone for keeping the scars of our unjust imprisonment from deepening on my soul.”

The ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy (even without family separations) is a bad idea, and even if it should lead to fewer border crossings in the future, has only polarized the country more on the immigration issue and made it harder — not easier — to pass substantive immigration policy before the 2020 presidential election.

Mr. President, you can start to minimize the political damage now. Please fire Stephen Miller and Jeff Sessions.

-K.R.K.

GOP: I have some good news and some bad news…

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com, June 6, 2018)

First, the good news for the Republicans…

If Donald Trump has taught us anything, it is that the past is not always prologue.

The assumption is that the President’s party will lose a significant number of seats in the 2018 midterm elections.

History supports this assumption.

Over the past 21 midterm elections, the President’s party has lost an average 30 seats in the House, and an average 4 seats in the Senate.

Don’t assume that will happen in 2018.

The most recent polling data, as summarized by RealClearPolitics.com, suggests the Democrats are losing the momentum they possessed only a few months ago.

Source: RealClearPolitics.com

The RealClearPolitics.com generic ballot for the 2018 midterms gives the Democrats roughly a 3-point advantage. And, based on past experience, generic ballot numbers are predictive of House election outcomes, as seen in this graphic produced by Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight.com:

Source: FiveThirtyEight.com

Donald Trump’s job approval numbers are also on the rise, and have been since December 2017. If the current trends continue, Trump could be looking at approval numbers around 48 percent around election time.

Nonetheless, even with gerrymandering and geographic clustering working to the Democrats’ disadvantage, the prediction market, PredictIt, is still giving the Democrats a roughly 60 percent chance of re-taking control of the U.S. House. But that is significantly lower than a month ago when PredictIt was giving the Democrats a 70 percent chance.

Source: PredictIt.com

The trends are in the GOP’s favor right now and have been since the beginning of the year.

Another bad sign for the Democrats is the number of “toss-up” races (based on polling) in the upcoming U.S. House elections.

If we assume the “leaning” Democratic and Republican House districts end up going to the party currently favored, that gives the Democrats 195 seats and the Republicans 206 seats. That leaves 34 House contests considered “toss-ups,” according to RealClearPolitics.com. It takes 218 seats to form a House majority. In other words, the GOP just needs to win 12 of the 34 “toss-up” districts. And if these 34 districts are truly as even as the polling suggests, then we would expect the GOP to win 17 of these races— enough to keep their House majority.

A year ago, it would have been hard to find a Republican that thought their party would be in this position six months out from the midterm elections.

But the GOP is in that position. And why?

Here are the major factors most likely behind the Republicans’ more optimistic outlook for the midterms:

  1. More and more of the American public is giving Trump credit for the strong economy. “Nearly 2 in 3 Americans think the nation’s economy is in good shape, and most of them believe President’s Trump’s policies are at least somewhat responsible for that,” according a recent CBS News poll.
  2. American’s are behind President Trump heading into the Trump-Kim Jong Un summit later this month in Singapore. Three-quarters of Americans support the idea of a Trump-Kim summit, according to a CNN poll, and 53 percent approve of how Trump has been handling the North Korean situation.
  3. There may be a growing Trump-Russia collusion fatigue among Americans. Even Democrats recognize the possibility: “I think the American public will be tired of it (the Trump-Russia probe) if this is not wound down in this calendar year,” Senator Mark Warner (D-Virginia) said in May at Recode’s Code Conference, a California gathering of senior tech executives.

If it were any other president, these positive factors would have the party in power talking about increasing their legislative majority in Congress.

Donald Trump is not any other president.

He employs a high-risk strategy of sowing division within the electorate (immigration, Spygate, NFL player protests, etc.) on the assumption this will motivate his base and enough independents to keep his governing coalition intact.

We will see if that strategy works.

But, now, here is the bad news for the Republicans…

These current polling numbers, whether it is the generic congressional ballot or for the individual House races, do not yet reflect the potentially higher quality of Democratic House challengers.

Candidate quality remains one of the most important predictors of electoral success (see research on this topic here and here).

“When national conditions are favorable for one party, quality candidates from that party will run, while those from the other party will wait for a more opportune time,” writes Xavier University political scientist Jonathan Simpson.

As we head deeper into the summer, the quality of the Democrats’ House challengers will become more apparent in the polling numbers.

We already know more women are running for a House seat than ever before. Women are competing in 278 out of 435 districts this year, more than double the total in 2000. And even though running more women for office does not guarantee electoral success, the current fundraising numbers for the Democrats, particularly for the House and Senatorial committees, are encouraging to Democrats:

Source: OpenSecrets.org

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has raised $151 million for the 2018 election cycle compared to $122 million for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).

While there is reason to be skeptical about the impact of money on congressional election outcomes (Please check out G. Elliott Morris’ work on this topic here), I think most politicians would rather have more money than less money when compared to their opponent.

Furthermore, the decision to run for Congress was most likely made in late 2017, when Trump’s approval and the generic congressional ballot numbers were still in the Democrats’ favor. This generally means higher quality Democratic candidates were more likely to decide to run for Congress than in previous election cycles.

The improved approval numbers for Trump and the GOP since 2017 may not be helping the GOP’s prospects as much as they would have had they occurred earlier in 2017.

Yes, the Republicans are looking better heading into the midterms. But is it too late for them to save their House majority?

We are also seeing generally high turnout rates among Democrats for special elections and primaries, which bodes well for their prospects in November. Midterm election results are largely a function of partisan turnout differentials and 2018 is looking more and more like 2006 (when the Democrats gained 31 House seats).

Unpredictable events could still change the dynamics of the 2018 midterms…

Still, a lot will happen between now and November. If we assume prediction markets, such as PredictIt.com, are like other financial markets, only new information (i.e., ‘shocks’ to the system) will alter the probabilities of the Democrats winning control of the House.

Its not hard to think of potential ‘shocks’ to the electoral prospects of either party in November. Here is just a few possibilities:

  1. While the probability of a recession between now and November is very low, it is not zero. According to economist Ted Kavadas, as of June 4th, the “Yield Curve Model” shows a 11.1 percent probability of a recession in the U.S. in the next 12 months. An unexpected recession would be deadly to the GOP’s prospects in November. We might be looking at a GOP loss of 60 or more seats in such a scenario.
  2. And even if the country doesn’t dip into a recession, a trade war between the U.S. and its major trading partners (Canada, China, Mexico, Europe etc.) is a real possibility. Would a trade war help or hurt the GOP’s prospects? In Iowa, at least, where Trump won the presidential vote by nine percent over Hillary Clinton, pork tariffs by Mexico and China could cost Iowa pork producers over $560 million a year. If that is allowed to continue, Trump and the GOP will suffer significant electoral losses in Iowa in November 2018.
  3. The Robert Mueller III-led investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians will produce more indictments over the next six months. If those indictments directly concern an actual conspiracy (i.e., collusion) between the Trump campaign and the Russians, this will not help the GOP’s chances in November; particularly, if future indictments are issued against anyone in Trump’s inner circle: Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner, Roger Stone, or Trump himself.
  4. In the GOP’s favor, if Trump and Kim reach of tangible decision in Singapore regarding North Korea’s nuclear program, it is difficult to imagine this won’t help the GOP in the midterm elections. A failure to reach an agreement, on the other hand, may not work for or against the GOP. It is hard to know how a diplomatic failure would be perceived by the American voter, but I suspect it will depend on how the ‘failure’ is spun within the major media outlets.
  5. Also, in the GOP’s favor, is a strong economy that is looking more robust by the day. It is hard to imagine an American voting population that does not consider the strength of the U.S. economy when making their vote decisions for U.S. congressional candidates. The Democrats continue to talk down the U.S. economy, but the reality remains…the U.S. economy hasn’t been stronger since 2000.

The GOP should be encouraged by recent trends. Trump is not the drag on the Republicans as he once was only a few months ago. Assuming no major mistakes on his part over the next six months (and that is a tough assumption to make), the Republican Party is poised to minimize the damage from the 2018 midterms. Will they keep control of the U.S. House? Probably not, but it will be closer than many Democrats think. And though the U.S. Senate hasn’t been discussed in this essay, the prospects of the Democrats gaining control of the Senate are diminishing by the day.

Source: PredictIt.com

Short of Mueller revealing tangible evidence that Donald Trump himself colluded with the Russians in the 2016 election, the U.S. Senate is a lost cause for the Democrats.

All eyes therefore should be on the U.S. House where the Democrats, while not in as comfortable position as they were in late 2017, are still likely to take control of the House after the midterm elections.

  • K.R.K

The greatest U.S. post-WWII foreign policy achievements

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com, May 31, 2018)

The U.S. may be on the brink of one of the greatest foreign policy achievements in its post-WWII history. As of today, I’d say the chances President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agree to any substantive plan to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula are slim, though not zero.

But hope is eternal and even Trump’s sometimes erratic behavior is now being viewed by some of his most ardent critics as an asset in dealing with North Korea.

“A volatile negotiating style is sometimes a sign of an inexperienced or uncertain bargainer,” opines Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. “But it’s Trump’s approach, and however bizarre the route, he’s nearing a diplomatic breakthrough.”

Its obviously too soon to put North Korea’s denuclearization on the list of major U.S. foreign policy achievements. But, if it should happen, what else would already be on the list since World War II?

I’ve compiled an informal list of the U.S.’s ten biggest foreign policy achievements since WWII. Why ten? I couldn’t come up with an 11th. So forget an honorable mention list.

The criteria for making the list was fairly straightforward. The accomplishment had to represent not just a significant improvement over the past, but a durable achievement. For this reason, Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear agreement did not qualify for this list.

The achievement had to make the U.S. and its allies safer and/or stronger vis-a-vis its adversaries. The strengthening could be economic, militarily or both.

In addition, the U.S. foreign policy achievement’s impact had to be international and not primarily domestic, which eliminated Bill Clinton’s greatest foreign policy achievement: the investment of the ‘peace dividend’ from the collapse of the Soviet Union into America’s technology and innovation economy.

With these informal qualifications, here is my top 10 for the U.S.’s greatest foreign policy achievements since World War II.

Coming in at number 10…

10. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) Treaty of 1948

GATT was a series of multilateral trade agreements designed to reduce trade quotas and tariffs among the treaty’s signatory nations. The first GATT agreement, that included 23 countries, took effect in 1948 and formed the economic foundation for the liberal globalist ideology that dominates today’s world economy.

The agreement itself was not as powerful as many wanted. Yet, President Harry Truman understood the GATT agreement, as weak as it was, would preserve international trade co-operation and become an critical party of U.S. foreign economic and security policy going forward.

Moreover, the 1948 agreement was seen merely an interim measure as there was an expectation the newly-formed United Nations would create an agency to supersede GATT. That never happened. Instead, GATT became the primary tool by which world trade was liberalized and expanded immediately after World War II. It was not until the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995 that was GATT finally replaced.

Up to 1995, GATT’s critical role in the world economy was significant as up to 90 percent of world trade was governed by GATT prior to the WTO.

9. North Atlantic Treaty Organization (1949)

No post World War II agreement had broader implications than the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. Following the end of the war, the fear of Communist expansion dominated discussions in the West European capitals and, in response to Soviet expansion, the U.S. and 11 Western European nations formed NATO.

The rival Warsaw Pact, created in 1955 by the Soviet Union and its Communist partners in Eastern Europe, formed the basis for what would be the Cold War, which would last until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

8. Creation of the United Nations (1945)

In June 1945, a year after D-Day which lead to the eventual defeat of Germany and the European Axis powers, the United Nations Charter was adopted. Its goals were as profound as the diverse collection of countries sanctioning its existence at the San Francisco Conference in April 1945.

Fifty nations, representing the 80 percent of the world’s population that had just defeated Germany to end the European portion of World War II, met in San Francisco to form an international union predicated on the principle that world wars were an unacceptable means through which to solve international problems.

San Francisco Conference (1945)

Even as it was agreed, with considerable dissent, that the “Big Five” (United States, Britain, France, China and Russia) could exercise “veto” powers on any action by the United Nations’ powerful Security Council, the General Assemblyof nations signed onto the United Nations charter knowing its imperfections were far outweighed by its potential.

“The Charter of the United Nations which you have just signed,” said President Truman in addressing the final San Francisco Conference session, “is a solid structure upon which we can build a better world. History will honor you for it. Between the victory in Europe and the final victory, in this most destructive of all wars, you have won a victory against war itself. With this Charter the world can begin to look forward to the time when all worthy human beings may be permitted to live decently as free people.”

On October 24, 1945, the UN officially came into existence. To date, despite its many critics, the UN stands as of the post World War II’s greatest international achievements.

7. SALT I and SALT II Treaties (1972, 1979)

It may seem odd to put SALT and START treaty regimes between the U.S. and Soviet Union ahead of the creation of the UN and NATO, but it is done with some thought. As important as the UN and NATO were in creating institutional frameworks for collectively organizing the common interests of nations, they were band-aids — deeply flawed at their conception and in their application to solve international problems.

Upon the learning in the late 1960s that the Soviet Union had developed a Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) defense system to defend Moscow in case of an all-out nuclear war with the U.S., President Lyndon Johnson met with Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin to start strategic arms limitations talks (SALT).

The elimination of nuclear weapons was (and is) a dream. The SALT discussions therefore focused on the more practical goal of limiting the development of advanced offensive and defensive strategic systems.

Soviet Leader Brezhnev and U.S. President Nixon in 1973

Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, took over the SALT talks and on May 26, 1972, in Moscow, he and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev signed an ABM Treaty and an interim SALT agreement.

Starting with Johnson’s initiative and Nixon’s follow through, the U.S. and Soviet Union for the first time decided to limit their nuclear arsenals.

The next round of SALT discussions began immediately after the signing of SALT I with its focus on Multiple Independently Targeted Re-Entry Vehicles (MIRVs) and on June 17, 1979, U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Brezhnev signed the SALT II Treaty in Vienna.

The key element of SALT II was the limitation of both nations’ nuclear forces to 2,250 delivery vehicles and restricting MIRVs, though the treaty itself was never ratified by the U.S. Senate due, in part, to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Nonetheless, both countries adhered to SALT II’s requirements, even as the next U.S. president, Ronald Reagan, pursued the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).

6. START I Treaty (1991)

Despite opposition to President Carter’s SALT II agreement with the Soviets, President Ronald Reagan adhered to its restrictions, even as he authorized pursuit of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), otherwise known as “Star Wars.”

At the same time, Reagan began negotiations for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), a bilateral treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that would reduce (not just limit) the number of strategic offensive arms. The first START agreement was signed in July 1991 (taking effect in 1994). START I was the largest arms control treaty in world history and its implementation resulted in the removal of almost 80 percent of all strategic nuclear weapons in the world at the time.

START II was signed by U.S. President George H. W. Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin on January 3, 1993, and banned the use of MIRVs on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). START II, however, never came into effect, even though it was ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1996 and in Russia in 2000. In June 2002, Russia withdrew from the treaty in response to U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty.

START I, however, remains a milestone in the effort to reduce the number of nuclear weapons on the planet.

5. The First Gulf War (1991)

This was the most difficult decision in the list of Top 10 foreign policy achievements. The First Gulf War is the only U.S. military action to make the list and, while successful in its primary goal of removing Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army from Kuwait, the blowback from this war was significant and could be argued that it continues to this day.

When Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990, President George H. W. Bush faced the this country’s first post-Cold War international crisis. In response, Bush orchestrated a large international coalition to oppose Iraq’s aggression and, following an intensive air campaign in January 1991, launched a land war offensive that drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.

President Bush and his foreign policy team built a broad coalition ranging from the NATO allies to a number of Middle Eastern countries. Even Russia, an ally to the Hussein regime, while offering no direct military or material support, diplomatically called for Iraq to leave Kuwait.

The run-up to the war’s start was a model for how diplomatic efforts can work in tandem with military planning; and the effort, as executed by the Bush administration, put the coalition troops in the best possible position to successfully carry out their mission. However, the First Gulf War’s unintended consequences cannot be ignored as they led directly to the rise of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda and the subsequent attacks against the the U.S. (U.S.S. Cole, 9/11 attacks, etc.)

The U.S. has proven to be good at starting and executing wars — its the ending of wars where the U.S. has problems.

4. Camp David Accords (1979)

As we read the latest events out of the Middle East, it is easy to forget sometimes that a lasting and durable peace between the State of Israel and Egypt has existed, unbroken, since the 1979 Camp David Accords.

Israel and Egypt had fought two (short) wars against each other in the previous 15 years and the prospects for peace seemed unlikely in the midst of a growing Palestinian armed resistance against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But, largely through President Jimmy Carter’s personal initiative in bringing two diametrically opposite leaders to the table, a peace agreement was hammered out. Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt for security guarantees (that have not since been broken). It was an achievement that still stands as a model for the future.

Carter, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, gave us a template and path on how to bring peace to the Middle East (at least on a bilateral basis). The Camp David Accords were without question President Carter’s crowning foreign policy achievement and though peace has not been the rule in the Middle East since the Accords, Israel can rightfully point to a peace treaty with Jordan and a significant thawing of relations with Saudi Arabia as indirect products of the Camp David Accords. Of course, having a common enemy (Iran) is playing a big factor in the new Israel-Saudi detente.

Regardless, the important legacy of the Camp David Accords is unquestionable and is still being written.

3. Cuban Missile Crisis (1962)

On the heals of the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba and a disastrous meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, Austria, President John F. Kennedy had not earned high marks on foreign policy in his young presidency.

That changed over the course of 13 days in October 1962, and for good reason. His leadership, along with that of his Attorney General, Bobby Kennedy, Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, averted the very real potential of a nuclear conflict between the U.S. and Soviet Union. At the very least, a ‘hot war’ was possible, which would have been the first between two nuclear powers.

Source: U.S. Archives

Screwing up again was not an option for the Kennedy administration in October 1962.

As revealed by U.S. reconnaissance photos, the installation of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles were discovered on Cuba, just 90 miles from the U.S. shoreline. A warhead launch from Cuba could have deposited a nuclear bomb on Washington, D.C. within 5 minutes.

Needless to say, the stakes were high.

In his October 22, 1962, national television address, Kennedy informed Americans about the presence of the missiles, announced a naval blockade surrounding Cuba, and let the world know the U.S. would use military force if the missiles were not removed.

What the American people didn’t know, getting to the naval blockade decision was not an easy one for Kennedy and there was tremendous pressure from the Pentagon and other ‘hawks’ in his administration to invade Cuba from the start.

With the dynamics behind how the crisis was resolved still being debated to this day by historians and academics, Khrushchev offered to remove the Cuban missiles in exchange for the U.S. agreeing never to invade Cuba and to also remove U.S. missiles from Turkey.

Crisis averted.

The Cuban Missile Crisis remains one of the most discussed and analyzed foreign policy crises ever; and, what the U.S. and Soviet Union (now Russia) learned from the October 1962 events has, arguably, kept us from getting that close to a nuclear war ever again.

2. Nixon visits China (1973)

You know something is historically iconic when it can used as a referential device for other, unrelated events. ‘Only Nixon could go to China,’ is one of the common refrains, often used to explain why some major policy breakthroughs can only happen if previously strong opponents of the policy take up its cause. “Only Ronald Reagan could have pushed a national health care system through Congress,” was a frequent lament of a former colleague of mine. And, so on and so forth.

It is true, President Richard Nixon was a staunch anti-communist. It is also likely if a Democratic president had opened relations with Communist China, Nixon would have been its fiercest critic.

But politics has a funny way of turning preachers into sinners and soldiers into poets.

Nixon arrived in China on February 21, 1972, the Watergate break in four months later was still just a glint in his eye. At that time Nixon stepped off Air Force One into the cold air of Beijing, his administration was struggling with a war in Vietnam that looked increasingly like the South Vietnamese regime would not survive. Nixon knew the Vietnam War was no longer about containing communism’s expansion, but containing the damage to U.S. prestige around the world.

Yet, in February 1972, Nixon was never more confident in his ability to change the course of history. He was going to bring about an honorable peace in Vietnam, and further limit the Soviet’s ambitions by opening U.S. relations with the communist Chinese, Realpolitik‘s version of a Phil Niekro knuckleball.

It was diplomatic brilliance, and it worked, more in the long-term than in the short-term, however.

One of President Harry Truman’s most vocal critics at the time for losing China to the communists in 1949, Nixon thought he was ideal to fix Harry’s mistake. But, more strategically, Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, saw an opportunity to drive a small, but significant, wedge between the China and the Soviets, who were having minor border war skirmishes in the late 1960s. Nixon and Kissinger even thought a U.S.-China relations thaw would make the Soviets more amenable to U.S. interests.

China’s interests in the ‘thaw’ were even more complex, as the country was still in the middle of its brutal Cultural Revolution in which millions of Chinese intellectuals, leaders, and common citizens were persecuted for ‘bourgeois’ beliefs and activities. The Chinese economy was a mess and there was no better or quicker fix for a mess like that than American investment and trade.

In reality, Nixon’s trip to China was more symbolic than productive. But it did open the door to a symbiotic economic relationship that would eventually dominate the world economy forty years later.

The U.S.-China relationship is not as close as U.S.-European relations, and as we’ve seen with China’s growing military assertiveness in the South China Sea, disagreements are no longer restricted to economic issues. China is going to be a world superpower soon (if it isn’t already). Nixon’s trip to China in 1972, while not necessarily changing the inevitability or timing of China’s rise, it marks a significant point in history where the U.S., the leading economic and military power at the time, was preparing to welcome the Chinese back into a leadership role on the world stage.

Nixon will not be remembered as a great U.S. president, but by extending a hand of friendship to China, he showed a level of foresight quite rare among presidents.

1. Reagan and G. H. W. Bush manage the demise of the Soviet Union (1980s)

No single post-WWII conflict dominated American foreign policy as did theCold War with the Soviet Union. Our containment policy towards Soviet communism led directly to our involvement in Vietnam and underscored our country’s efforts to secure Middle East energy supplies for the West and our allies. In fact, many of the significant international crises involving the U.S. after World War II involved, directly or indirectly, the Cold War conflict: the Cuban Missile Crisis (1961), the Berlin Airlift (1948–49), and the Suez Crisis (1956–57). The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Suez Crisis, in particular, brought the two superpowers closer to a nuclear war than perhaps at any other time in the post-WWII world.

The arms race between the Soviet Union and the U.S. was the most costly military expansion in world history. The cost of the U.S. nuclear arsenal alone between 1940 and 1996 was estimated by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI)to be around $5.8 trillion (in inflated-adjusted 1996 dollars), which was 31 percent of all defense expenditures during that period ($18.7).

The Cold War was expensive. So costly, in fact, some believed the break-up of the Soviet Union was inevitable. But many experts also dispute attributing the Soviet Union’s demise to the Ronald Reagan-era military buildup. As the graph below shows regarding U.S. and Soviet Union defense spending between 1964 and 1998, Soviet defense spending had been increasing on a consistent basis long before the first Reagan defense budgets.

Source: Arming America: Attention and Inertia in US National Security Spending by James L. True (1998)

In disputing the contention that Reagan’s defense build-up accelerated the Soviet Union’s decline, Richard Ned Lebow and Janice Gross Stein wrote in The Atlantic in 1994:

“The Soviet Union’s defense spending did not rise or fall in response to American military expenditures. Revised estimates by the Central Intelligence Agency indicate that Soviet expenditures on defense remained more or less constant throughout the 1980s. Neither the military buildup under Jimmy Carter and Reagan nor SDI had any real impact on gross spending levels in the USSR. At most SDI shifted the marginal allocation of defense rubles as some funds were allotted for developing countermeasures to ballistic defense.

If American defense spending had bankrupted the Soviet economy, forcing an end to the Cold War, Soviet defense spending should have declined as East-West relations improved. CIA estimates show that it remained relatively constant as a proportion of the Soviet gross national product during the 1980s, including Gorbachev’s first four years in office. Soviet defense spending was not reduced until 1989 and did not decline nearly as rapidly as the overall economy.”

Instead, Lebow and Stein, like many experts in this area, considered the proximal cause of the Soviet Union’s demise to lie in the ill-conceived perestroika reforms initiated by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, coupled with the structural problems inherent in the Soviet economic system. If anything, the Reagan defense budgets delayed the Soviet Union’s demise.

Nonetheless, Reagan and his successor, George H. W. Bush, did something perhaps more important than bringing down the Soviet Union. They managed the Soviet decline, regardless of its many causes, and ensured that the new world order emerging from the end of the Cold War would be stable and prosperous.

So much could have gone wrong. From the time when the Berlin Wall came down on December 9, 1989 to December 26, 1991, the complex task of disentangling a Gordian knot of Soviet relationships around the world fell into the George H. W. Bush’s lap.

At the time of the Soviet collapse, the country had about 39,000 nuclear weapons and about 1.5 million kilograms of plutonium and highly enriched uranium, according to Stanford engineering professor Siegfried Hecker, who helped the former Soviet Union secure its nuclear arsenal at a time when many feared ‘loose nukes’ would get into the hands of the wrong people.

In his book, Doomed to Cooperate: How American and Russian scientists joined forces to avert some of the greatest post-Cold War nuclear dangers, Hecker argues that it was the intense cooperation between U.S. and Russian scientists, at the behest of their governments, that prevented what could have been a post-Cold War nuclear catastrophe.

And the cooperation between U.S. and former Soviet Union scientists and senior military personnel was, itself, built upon a positive relationship Ronald Reagan (and then George H. W. Bush) had built with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and other senior Soviet leaders.

It is not an exaggeration to suggest Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush made the world safer, faster than at any other time in U.S. history.

  • K.R.K.