Saturday, November 10, 2018

Who We Are: Reflections on the 2018 Election

Since we're in the post-election season of "what did it all mean?", I might as well throw my thoughts into the arena. Finding meaning in events is one of the most important things we do, because the meanings we construct become the world we inhabit.

I would start with an observation. We think of elections as tools, as moments when we can change who we are as a society. While this is true to some degree, I think it is more the case that elections are mirrors that who reveal who we were already but perhaps failed to recognize.

Lot of folks want to characterize elections as a referendum on either people or policies. Both can be true to a point - there are some single-issue voters (though not many), and there are some voters who become particularly attached to (or repulsed by) a particular political figure. Political parties know this, and spend a lot of time trying to make these the salient points, because these are things they can try to control.

Elections, it should be noted, are also about a ton of local things. Trying to look across a landscape of 435 House races, ~33 Senate races, and a number of state governorships to find some common theme is a bit of a fool's errand. Tip O'Neill was largely right - a lot of politics is indeed local.

Nevertheless, this set of midterms more than most had a national flavor to it. Much of that was driven by a White House far more active not only in campaigning, but in trying to drive the agenda and the conversation. Much of that agenda, especially in the final weeks of the campaign, turned on issues of immigration, which are really issues about Identity - who is Us and who is Them.

This surprises no one, because the Us/Them theme has been central to the current President since the moment he started campaigning (and, likely, for many years before that). Donald Trump has never been accused of being a "big tent" sort of person, and I don't know that he's ever given a speech, the primary theme of which was what unites Americans. That's a significant departure - every past President, Republican and Democrat, has given some version of that speech, usually many times. Think of Ronald Reagan's "City on a Hill" or Bill Clinton's "Bridge to the 21st Century" or Barack Obama's "there is no 'Red America' and 'Blue America'", or George W's impromptu bullhorn speech after 9/11.

So with the Who We Are question on the ballot this year, what do the election results tell us?

The results should surprise no one: they revealed a divided country. Many millions of Americans still believe in America as the land of equal opportunity, the "nation of immigrants" that embraces people from all around the world in tolerance and community, the America of "bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses". Particularly in the cities but increasingly in the suburbs as well, this America has reacted very negatively to the President's approach and to a message of division and exclusion.

Yet many other millions of Americans believe in a different America - one that in which people like them are (or should be) the dominant group, where their particular race or culture sets the standard, where people who do not fit that mold are to be feared, or subjugated, or driven away. Their America, they believe, is under threat from Them. They believe that the central challenge of this time is to drive back that threat, already far advanced, so that things will be Great Again. There is some of this view everywhere, of course, but it is more concentrated in rural areas and smaller communities, often themselves very homogeneous.

The latter group has known about the former for a long time. Folks in rural areas have always been subjected to the cultural pressures of the city, especially over the last century as mass communication (radio, television) has driven much of our national communication and entertainment. This group didn't particularly like the changes it saw, coming from the more urbanized, wealthy, and liberal America, but they were always aware of them.

The former group, however, has been quite surprised in recent years by the size, even the existence, of the latter. Many well-educated urban and suburbanites have been convinced, between their own daily existence and their presence in mass media, that their cosmopolitan view of the world was the dominant one, and that other views were dwindling if not mostly dead. The tendency of urban centers to view less-populated areas as "flyover country" didn't help much.

When elections were contested on policies and well-known personalities, this divide didn't matter a lot. Politicians could selectively play on it, but tended to stick to other alignments more in keeping with their vision of political parties as aggregations of policy preferences (tax cuts vs. gov't spending, more or less regulation, guns vs. butter, that sort of thing).

To the extent that the parties are realigning around identity politics, we're starting to see where people stand on the Who We Are question much more clearly - because now it matters. Whatever else may be, Donald Trump has managed to bring this question front and center of the American political debate.

The divide of identity was already and always there. It will not go away if Trump loses the election two years from now, or even if he is impeached and thrown out of office by Feb. 15. None of this is about who the President is. It's about who we are.

In response to a number of recent events - the synagogue shooting in my old neighborhood being only the latest - many people have proclaimed, "we're better than this". They have wanted to believe that we as a nation are not violently racist, that we really do believe in the "nation of immigrants", in tolerance and acceptance and equality of opportunity. They want to believe this because they themselves believe it and had thought that this was a settled question.

Unfortunately, the statement "we're better than this" is only true for a limited definition of "we". Some of us are clearly not "better", if by "better" we mean tolerant of difference and embracing of diversity. For a host of reasons, "we" - all Americans together - don't fit that description. We are not, as a people, all at that table.

This really shouldn't surprise us, except for the power of wishful thinking. All of us want to believe that everyone else thinks the way we do, because that's a far more comfortable world to live in. Folks in the "America First" camp never had that luxury - they knew, through their televisions and movies and whatnot, that theirs was not the only view in the world. They persisted anyway, invisible to everyone else until recently.

So where do we go from here? That depends, as always, on the end goal. If we want to work towards a nation with a shared understanding of Who We Are, then we need to start listening to each other - on both sides. That will be hard, and it will take a long time, and we will have to ignore screeching politicians who want to use our different views for their own factious purposes. And it will take commitment on both sides - a genuine desire to forge a common view of America that doesn't just involve imposing our views on the other side.

An alternative is to negotiate a workable detente. In some sense, this is already happening - people are increasingly moving to areas where their view of Who We Are is better represented, separating themselves from people who think differently. To the extent that different areas have different views, and they can agree to leave each other alone, that can work.

But we all live under one government and one set of laws. Our federalist structure means that we can finesse that to a point, as long as we're willing to let other areas be different. But on some larger questions, we can't just agree to disagree and call it a day. Equality under the law means that we share the same law.

The third possibility is that the conflict itself comes to define us. Short of a genocidal civil war, identity conflicts like this aren't solvable by force (and usually, not even then). There is no "winning" in this "fight". Indeed, "fight" is really the wrong analogy entirely. No one ever succeeded in getting someone else to agree with them via a Twitter war.

So it may be that Who We Are for the foreseeable future is this: two nations, sharing space and laws, that cannot agree. I wrote back on the eve of the 2016 election that America is Dying. Looking back on that post through the lens of this election, I am afraid I was right, and that we have gone farther down that road in the years since. Our third possibility is to recognize that America, as one nation at peace with itself, is gravely ill, and to wait and hope for healing.

When we are in conflict, elections are the last thing we need. Elections do not heal, they exacerbate conflict. They can, sometimes, clarify the situation in much the same way that a biopsy can tell you if you have cancer or not. But at best they are diagnostic. They don't make things better, and they may well make things worse.

So this, then, is the real choice of our time. Not Democrats or Republicans. Not Trump or anti-Trump. Not Red or Blue. We must decide what we want to be: One Nation, or Two. The question is not whether we want to Make America Great Again. The question is, Who is America?

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Foreign Policy and Hate Crimes: The Interactions Between International & Domestic Politics

In the discussions swirling around last Saturday's tragic killings in Pittsburgh, one dimension has struck me as particularly interesting. While many (including myself) have argued that the current President has contributed to an atmosphere of anger and hatred in our broader society (and thus bears some responsibility for Saturday's horror), others have countered that the President cannot possibly be to blame because he is (in the words of a number of supporters) the "most pro-Jewish President" in recent history.

This latter defense turns on the Trump Administration's foreign policy vis-a-vis Israel. This Administration has taken a number of steps long desired by a certain segment of the Israeli political spectrum, in particular moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognizing the latter as the capital city of the state of Israel. The President cannot possibly be anti-Semitic, it is argued, because he has done things that are deemed to be pro-Israel.

There are at least two problems to this line of reasoning. First, it conflates the political preferences of the current Likud-led government in Israel with the interests and preferences of all Jews worldwide. Moving the Embassy, taking a harder line with Palestinians, and so forth are not universally held positions even within Israel, much less throughout the Jewish Diaspora. Some Israelis applaud these moves, others condemn them. From an American point of view we ought not to presume that we understand (or can speak for) an entire people on the basis of a particular list of policy preferences, especially when those preferences are so obviously and publicly contested.

This argument also conflates the interests of the Israeli state (defined in a specific way) with the interests of the Jewish Diaspora, which ignores another very complex relationship - a topic for another day.

The second and more interesting problem lies in the blending of foreign policy with domestic policy. The crux of the argument is that "anti-Semitic" is a one-dimensional matter: one either is or isn't, and that this is true across all possible policy and political domains. Because President Trump has done good things for Israel in the foreign policy arena, he therefore cannot be an anti-Semite, nor could he be accused of doing things that are bad for the Jewish community. This sort of simplistic, one-dimensional assumption is very American. It's also, of course, wrong.

Foreign and domestic policy issues occupy different, though connected and overlapping, realms. This administration in particular seems to struggle with the connections between different issues areas, often playing one game in one arena only to discover that those same moves are having different effects on a different game board. No one, not even supporters of the administration, have accused it of an excess of professionalism, and a mastery of two-level games dynamics is something only gained through long professional experience. So it's not surprising that there's not much understanding here.

In this case, it is possible both to be a supporter of a particular Israeli policies preferences while also engaging in behavior that fosters and foments anti-Semitism domestically. A part of the one-dimensional defense involves intention: if I don't mean to be anti-Semitic, I can't be. But this desire to pin everything on intentions both ignores the fact that actions have unintended consequences, and leaves out a third category between pro- and anti-: a lack of concern for those consequences.

There is little argument that Donald Trump, as a private citizen, a candidate, and President, has fed and fomented all manner of conspiracy theories. Many of these things, like the "birther" craze, fed specifically into conspiracies much-loved by White Nationalist movements, as did his apparent support for those movements in the wake of the Charlottesville conflict last year. He continues to re-tweet and otherwise communicate out all manner of conspiracies and unsubstantiated claims, built around terms like "deep state" and "fake news".

The thing about White Nationalism is that it has always been anti-Semitic at its heart. Nearly all of the many and varied conspiracies floated by people in that circle sooner or later loop back to one grounding belief: that Jews control the world, to the intended detriment of (Christian) White Civilization. Not all White Nationalists believe this - but a great many of them do. The extensive and now widespread vilification of George Soros is just the latest iteration of this belief, which stretches back at least to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion hoax over 100 years ago.

This is how we get from continued attacks on Central American migrants (which the President continued in tweets over the last couple of days, continuing unfounded assertions about who those people are) to hatred of Jews. These things seem unconnected, and undoubtedly in Mr. Trump's mind they are. But to White Nationalists, they are all part of the same fabric, which is why Mr. Bowers leapt so easily from fearing a caravan of Spanish-speaking immigrants to believing that Jews are committing genocide against "his people".

We are in a political age in which once-fringe political views have become increasingly mainstream. Many politicians, far more tactical than strategic, have adopted all manner of uncompromising views because they think it necessary to win elections, or to protect themselves from being outflanked by someone more vociferous and outrageous. Old theories about running "out" to the wings for primaries and then back to the center for general elections have gone by the wayside. It's all fringe now.

The thing is, most Americans don't really live out on those fringes. But because those who are most likely to vote do, we're left with little choice when we go to the ballot box. Or we don't vote, ceding yet more territory to those few in number but loud of voice.

Having fueled this mess, our national political conversation won't save us from it. Our real hope is in local, personal, real community. We need to rediscover Tip O'Neill's famous dictum that "all politics is local". We can learn to live and work together, not just despite our differences but made stronger by them. We just need to stop listening to the far-away voices of anger and rage, and start listening to each other in real conversation.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Anger, Violence, and Society: A Personal Reflection

My son and I sat on the first floor of the Tepper Building, a brand-new, state-of-the-art academic facility on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University. We had come for an admissions presentation, part of the formal pageantry of a college visit. We had just taken a quick walk through the campus, and were looking at a map and chatting about things I remembered from my youth. I grew up in and around this place, and it was interesting to see how the university has grown and changed. We were looking forward to the campus tour following the presentation.

The first floor of Tepper looks out on Forbes Avenue with big floor-to-ceiling windows. We watched as an ambulance went by, lights flashing, siren blaring, speeding up Forbes to the west. It's a city, and in that part of town there are hospitals everywhere. We thought nothing of it, and kept chatting.

Five minutes later, a police car and another ambulance went by in the same direction, moving fast. Two minutes past that, another police car and a third ambulance went screaming by. A TV van followed not far behind. It was clear that something big was happening east of campus.

Thirty minutes into the admissions presentation I got a text from my father: Police working on active shooting at Shady & Wilkins (Tree of Life). We hear 7 casualties. Be careful.

I know that intersection, that synagogue, instantly. I grew up in that neighborhood. Some of the kids on my school bus were probably members of that congregation. I could see it in my mind.

We read about mass shootings all too often in the news. But they are usually somewhere else, in some other place. For most of us, they are theoretical events, things to argue about with talking points and, in our present era, partisan rancor.

This was home - my home. The Tree of Life is perhaps a 20 minute walk from the CMU campus we were visiting. It's 15 minutes from my father's home, and 5 minutes from the campus where my stepmother teaches. It's a place I'd been past thousands of times in my youth, walking to friends' houses and the shops in Squirrel Hill. To Mineo's, and Games Unlimited, and Famous Frank's.

After the admissions presentation, a CMU staffer came out apologetically and explained that the campus was closing all events for the afternoon. There would be no campus tour. I checked in with my parents and we headed back out of town, shocked and disappointed and not sure what would come next.

It's hard to comprehend the level of hatred, anger, and rage that would cause someone to stockpile guns and ammunition, walk into a house of worship, and kill people in cold blood. To be so far outside society that you will fire on police, on the elderly, on anyone in your path. That's a heavy lift when it's a largely theoretical exercise, an event among strangers in a strange place.

For me this is harder, because it's so close. We were right there. We watched the shock waves ripple across the city in real time.

One thing we do know: this kind of wanton violence is born in anger, in rage, and in hatred. We know that these things are grown over time, cultivated in dark places on the internet and in small groups. We know that they are nourished by the broader zeitgeist. Hatred draws sustenance when hate becomes mainstream. Anger grows when anger is all around.

There is no direct line here, no way to draw a clear connection between a particular speech and a particular act, any more than we can connect one cloud or one weather front with a particular tree in the forest. But the atmosphere, the environment, matters. Plants grow when conditions in the environment are supportive. Anger and hatred flourish when the same is true.

So it matters that we have a President for whom anger and hatred are daily tools. It matters that people openly sell, and wear, t-shirts that revel in violence at political rallies. It matters that abuse (both verbal and physical) aimed political enemies and out-groups has become so commonplace that no one bothers to comment on it anymore. We have created a hothouse of anger in our society. We should not be surprised at the fruit it yields.

To my conservative friends: yes, there are people on the left contributing to this problem. Hillary Clinton's "basket of deplorables" comment was a horrible thing to say. Eric Holder's "when they go low, kick 'em" was worse, even if he later explained it away as a metaphor. There are those on the left who have been calling to "fight fire with fire", arguing that anger must be met with anger. I'm getting tired of being told that I should be outraged all the time.

But none of that excuses the President, or the Republican Party, which has been gleefully throwing fuel on this fire or looking the other way when their allies do. "Fine people on both sides"? Scare stories about "rapists and murders" "pouring" over our southern border? Full-throated defenses of "free speech" without the slightest care or concern about what freedom is for? Politics has gone from being an effort to win elections to an effort to annihilate the other side, to create a "pure" society where only the "right-thinking" have a place. Sound familiar?

In the face of Saturday's culmination of a horrible two years of growing anger and hatred, I wonder whether there is any bedrock left on which we agree. Once, we agreed that violence was out of bounds in politics and society. At moments we have crossed that boundary, but we have at least agreed in hindsight that those were our worst moments.

Can we agree on even that much anymore? Can we agree that our public conversation has become so toxic that it is breeding and unleashing killers? I wonder whether we can, because to agree on the problem is to agree that we are part of the problem. When our national leaders boast of never apologizing or admitting to any fault or mistake, how can we take even the first step on the road back to peace?

I do not know what will happen in the future, or how much worse things will get before they get better. But I am reminded of the wisdom of CS Lewis: the devil wants us to worry about what will happen to us, but God wants us to be concerned with what we do.

Paul wrote about the "fruit of the Spirit", the outward signs of God's desire translated into human terms. In the letter to the Galatians he wrote, "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control".

You don't have to be a Christian, or a person of any faith, to agree that a society based on love is better than one built on hate. That peace is preferable to violence. That generosity is better than selfishness. That in the moments when we are at our best, we are kind and generous and patient.

I used to think that these things were the bedrock on which we build our society. Politics is usually about what we disagree on, but these are things on which we all agree. We all, I thought, wanted roughly the same kind of society, we just disagreed about how to get there.

Now I wonder if I was wrong. There are clearly people who want a very different society, one that is selfish and violent and angry and divided. Many of these people now occupy positions of prominence in our government. And many millions vote for them, apparently wanting the same.

What, then, to do? Be patient and kind and generous and faithful and gentle. Celebrate love and joy and peace. Be citizens of the society we want.

If enough of us agree, we might be able to move our society in this direction. It won't be easy, and it won't happen quickly. But in the face of Saturday's horror, it is the only response I can find that makes sense.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Power, Misbehavior, and Sorrow

Like anyone not deliberately cutting themselves off from the news, I've been inundated with the daily drumbeat of stories regarding Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court confirmation process, and the increasing number of women accusing him of various assaults and misbehaviors in the past. I finally had to shut it all off, because in the end it all just makes me sad.

The chances are extremely high that Kavanaugh will be confirmed to the Supreme Court. As a justice on the bench, he will likely add another (hopefully thoughtful) conservative voice. I don't go in much for Court politics, and tend to eschew predictions of the end of the world because the 5-4 split on the court shifts.

So up until a few weeks ago, I wasn't overly concerned about Kavanaugh's nomination. In the traditional sense - in the realm of concern for how the Court will rule on various matters - I'm still not. What will be, will be. I realize this isn't everyone's view, but it's mine.

What makes me sad about the whole thing is the damage that this process is doing once again to the right of women not be assaulted/harassed/abused by men. Just like Anita Hill a generation ago, women across the country are being re-taught the lesson: if you tell your story about a man in power, you will lose.

We thought we were making progress. Bill Cosby fell. Harvey Weinstein was brought down. Louis CK, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, Les Moonves - a host of figures from TV and Hollywood were (at least temporarily) laid low by what seemed like a burgeoning movement. #Metoo seemed to finally have broken down the walls, gotten people to listen to women and brought men to account for their often atrocious behavior.

A few voices pointed out that all of these figures were in show business. What we're learning now, I believe, is just how powerless those men are. Or how much power women have obtained in that particular sphere. Which would be a good thing, but it's clearly limited to that arena.

Other areas are different entirely. Men in sports seem to continue to enjoy protection against similar accusations. In sports, the crime of choice is often domestic violence rather than sexual harassment - arguably worse than the depredations of Harvey Weinstein, or at least equal to them. But coaches and players alike seem to continue their careers unaffected by the discovery that they beat their wives or girlfriends. Kneel during the national anthem, and your career is over. Hit your girlfriend repeatedly on camera and you get to keep playing. Joe Paterno was brought down because he failed to report child abuse. But Urban Meyer just enjoyed a brief vacation from his job for failing to report spousal abuse.

Then there's politics. When Rep. Jim Jordan was tied to a sexual abuse case at Ohio State on the wrestling team, his party and his fans flocked to his defense. Catholic priests accused of the same are defrocked and shamed, but not politicians. We believe the accusations when the target is a priest. When it's an elected official in our own political tribe, we don't.

Then there's the President, who has so far been unscathed by a host of credible allegations of his own misconduct, bolstered by his own on-mic admissions, to say nothing of his tone-deaf, retrograde tweets that make it clear that he doesn't understand women's point of view and has no interest in trying. If ever there were a poster child for the protection that politics affords men who abuse women, Trump is it.

So even as the #Metoo movement forges ahead, winning well-deserved victories, I can't help but wonder if they're only working on the fringes of the problem. Those with relatively little power - entertainers, Catholic priests, local high school teachers - can be brought to account. But the truly powerful remain unaffected, perhaps immune.

And that makes me sad. I am sad that after so much time - the entirety of my lifetime, now approaching 50 years - women (and some men) have been struggling to right this wrong, to afford to women the basic dignity of their persons, to win the right simply to be people. And in far too many ways, we seem little nearer than we were back in the 1970s and 80s.

When Kavanaugh is confirmed - and I expect that he will be - it will be yet another reminder that power and abuse go hand in hand, that our systems of justice are still radically imperfect, and that women are still denied the dignity afforded to men.
I recognize that by "men" here we need to acknowledge that this is largely about "white men". Men of color, especially black men, face their own problems in our society, from Colin Kapernik to Tamir Rice and too many others. But that's a topic for another day.
And so I am sad to see daily the evidence that for far too many men, partisanship and "victory" for their party is more important than women's right to be heard, to be respected, to be granted dignity, and for men to be held to account for their behavior. We want very much to claim that "we're better than this". But I have yet to see evidence that we are. And until powerful men change - or are forced to change - it is who we will continue to be.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Did Hegemonic Stability Theory Predict Trump?

When I was in graduate school, we spent a lot of time studying theories of international politics - how the world works at the macro level. The dominant theory of the day was Ken Waltz' structural realism, which purported to explain how a bipolar system (two superpowers, the US and the USSR) could be so hostile and yet produce a world without major war. The historian John Lewis Gaddis picked up this theory and used it in his seminal work The Long Peace.

But while structural realism and its major competition, Keohane's neoliberalism, were all the rage, I was always drawn more to an offshoot of the realist world - hegemonic stability theory. Robert Gilpin's War and Change in World Politics, penned in the early 1980s, seemed to me to offer a better explanation of the Cold War. The superpowers were clearly not equal; by the 1980s it was clear that the US was far superior to the USSR in every category save one: the destructive power of its nuclear arsenal. On this, and this alone, were the two sides equal. But in terms of alliances, economic strength, prosperity, and the influence of "soft power" (Keohane's contribution to the discussion), the US was clearly way ahead.

Gilpin's theory postulated that world stability comes when a hegemon - one clearly dominant power - establishes order and a set of rules for the international system. Those rules are plain to see, and are embodied in the many structures built up after WWII - the UN and its Security Council, the IMF, the World Bank, and the GATT (which eventually became the World Trade Organization). Later we added to these the World Court and the International Criminal Court. All of these structures were, for the most part, written up by Americans - in part to make a better world, but in larger part to make a better world for the United States. Because that's what hegemons do - they write the rules of the world to advance their own interests.

The United States, moreover, seemed to have pulled off a singularly historical feat: it wrote a set of rules for the world that benefited not only itself, but also others. Anyone who agreed to play by those rules could participate and prosper*. Those that refused those rules - as the communists of the USSR did, preferring their own - were left out.
* An argument can be made that the prosperity afforded to others was limited and, to some significant degree, racially biased. It is true that chunks of the world were still exploited and left out of opportunity - though the causes were complex. Suffice it to say that the rules written by the United States were more open and inclusive than those of previous empires, even if they were not perfectly so. Africa has not faired well, but South Korea, Brazil, Turkey, and a number of others have.
Gilpin pointed out that the stability thus produced by a hegemon and a stable set of rules would last only so long as the hegemon could maintain its position against potential challengers - other powers that aspired to be hegemon themselves in order to impose their own rules. The Soviet Union was one such challenger, and not a terribly good one. It eventually drove itself into the ground in the effort. The end of the Cold War ushered in an era in which the US has, until recently, been largely unchallenged as the dominant world power.

Challengers do have a structural advantage: they don't have to pay the costs of maintaining the international system, whereas the hegemon does. Eventually, Gilpin argued, that structural advantage would cause a challenger to catch up, leading to a systemic war that would produce a new order - either the hegemon would reestablish itself, or the challenger would upend the existing order and take over. Either way, a new period of stability would then ensue.

Gilpin also pointed out that internal politics play a role, particularly within the hegemon. Because the hegemon has to bear the cost of maintaining the system, it's entirely likely that over time it will grow weary of spending the resources necessary to keep its position. The longer stability lasts, the more people will take it for granted as "the natural order of things", and forget that stability takes effort to maintain. The US did a good job to some degree of sharing those costs (the creation of NATO, for example), but there have been "burden-sharing" debates for decades about whether the US is "paying too much" to "be the world's policeman".

Into this world steps Donald Trump, who understands none of this. As many (supporters and detractors alike) have pointed out, he views the world in very transactional terms: every interaction is a separate, independent event producing a winner and a loser. These interactions appear in his worldview to have no connection to each other. He is the embodiment of Robert Axelrod's early experiment in multi-player prisoner's dilemma (though he obviously never read that article).

Viewed in this way, a trade treaty with South Korea (for example) has particular terms which favor one side or the other (the possibility that both gain is not entertained either - Trump's worldview is clearly always and everywhere zero-sum). The possibility that we might be willing to give something (or gain less) in this one interaction in order to gain something else in another arena (say, security cooperation and basing rights) does not occur to him. "Issue linkage", long a staple of American foreign policy, has been banished. In Trump's view, we must "win" on every single issue, or else pick up our marbles and go home.

The possibility that we might be willing to give up something as the cost of maintaining the international order is completely foreign to this President. Trump assumes that the United States is the dominant power, and the world is structured the way it is, because - divine right? Providence? I don't think he has any idea, because he's never asked the question why the world is the way it is. He is oblivious to the costs that the US has borne over the last 60+ years to establish and maintain the world that he has grown up in.

And so Trump is seeking to stop paying those costs, not because he wants to change the world but because he doesn't understand the consequences. He is like the homeowner who wants to rearrange the walls in his home without first asking which walls are bearing the load of the upper floors. In his view, it is better for us to keep and hoard our money than to spend it maintaining a system that clearly benefits others (as well as us). In his own words, doing so makes us "losers" and "suckers".

This is exactly the kind of behavior that Gilpin predicted 30+ years ago - that the hegemon will eventually grow tired of paying the costs of system maintenance, thereby hastening its own demise as the dominant player. In seeking to "Make America Great Again", Trump is actually moving in the opposite direction, driving the United States towards second-tier status on the world stage.

He does so, unfortunately, at a time when there is a real and viable challenger in the world: China. The Chinese government has made no secret at all of its desire for hegemonic dominance, and its plans for getting their are fairly plain to see. It will take some time, but that is the direction they are pushing in. As they move up, the United States is rushing downwards to meet them.

This, I suspect, is the source of much of the "resistance" within the Administration to Trump himself. Nearly everyone else in the government - certainly Jim Mattis, John Kelly, Mike Pompeo, Dan Coats, and their many underlings - understand American power and how our place in the world is maintained. This is not the "deep state", nor is it necessarily the "steady state" - it is simply the state, the natural outgrowth of two generations of foreign policy development in the United States that has always been more bipartisan than it appears.

What the result of this will be is yet unclear. The Trump Administration is young, and already faces resistance to Trump's apparent desire to chuck the role of hegemon and withdraw from the system we built. The midterm elections will matter, as will the next Presidential election. If Trump is just a blip, a future American President could restore the United States to its usual course - one that might forestall, or better manage, the growing conflict with China. On the other hand, if Trump gets his way then we may see a substantial rewriting of the rules of the international order - and not in America's favor.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

A Minor Controversy, a Major Problem

I read recently about a minor news story in my local paper. It's the kind of story that likely won't make the national news, and if it did it would be for 15 minutes or less:
Beef O'Brady's Beavercreek: No NFL Games Again This Year
The story is about a local pub owner who, for the second year in a row, is cancelling his business's subscription to the NFL direct service so as not to show NFL games in his establishment. Given that he runs a pub, this is fairly significant since some portion of his clientele presumably go to watch sports.

The article points out that the owner is a Marine Corps veteran, and that he has taken this position because his disagrees with some NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. Presumably, he regards that action (and the NFL's tolerance of it) as disrespectful to values that he holds in high regard. Not all military veterans feel this way, but some do.

So far, this is all fine. He's a private citizen running his own business. He's entitled to run that business as he sees fit, and to express his opinions as he likes. Others are welcome to either support him (as many have online) or disagree with him. Nothing unusual or particularly problematic here.

What caught my eye about the story was a quote from the owner explaining his decision:
“The outpouring of support the Beef ‘O’Brady’s family has received over the past year for taking a stand proves one thing. The majority of the American people is on the side of freedom. We’ve received tens of thousands of visits, emails, and letters from patriots in all fifty states. Donations accompanied hundreds of those letters.” [emphasis added]
The underlined sentence is problematic for three reasons. First, however many letters he has received proves nothing about what the majority of Americans think. We all have a tendency, of course, to assume that most people agree with us. But we're often wrong.

Second, there is an irony here in casting this side of the issue as standing for "freedom". That freedom apparently doesn't extend, in this business owner's mind, to NFL players expressing their own opinions in their place of business. This, too, is common: we tend to use the word "freedom" as a talisman, but what we really believe in is freedom for "us", not for "them".

But the primary problem I see is a microcosm of our failure as a society. By casting the issue the way he has, this gentleman has made it clear that he has not the slightest interest in what other people think. As far as he's concerned, he and those who agree with him are on the right side of everything - freedom, Mom, apple pie, and America. By implication, those who disagree stand against all of those things.

Most folks I know would greet this observation with a shrug. So what? People do this all the time. We constantly denigrate those with whom we disagree and dismiss them as cranks, or unhinged, or up to no good.

Or as Enemies of the State. Or Traitors. Or Animals.

This is why this small thing looms so large. Because this is the moment we are in. We are tearing at the fabric of our society, led by "leaders" who desire power over all things and will do anything to obtain and maintain it - up to and including destroying America as a society.

We know where this leads. It's not a new pattern. But it is new to the United States, at least within living memory. We thought we were different, exceptional. Turns out, not so much.

What we have lost is the capacity to listen. I was reminded of this recently when the following passage from the Letter of James came around in the lectionary:
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for your anger does not produce God's righteousness. (James 1:19-20)
There's a lot of "righteous" anger these days, and precious little listening. For those who claim to be faithful, Bible-reading Christians, apparently this passage has been forgotten. But for all of us, regardless of our faith or religion, we have lost the ability (or the willingness) to try to understand one another.

The pub owner above is not unusual. As he has discovered, there are many who agree with him - people who would rather feel comforted in their tribal righteousness than try to listen to others who might disagree. To understand why some players might choose to kneel during the national anthem rather than stand. And maybe, to work towards solutions instead of divisions.

So two cheers for the anonymous author of yesterday's New York Times op-ed in calling for us all to be Americans first. But that piece, and most others I have seen recently weakly extolling that same virtue, have forgotten the hard work of how we get there. We have to shut up and listen. That's hard work. And it's something we have largely forgotten how to do.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

What We Don't Know Can Hurt Us: Higher Education Edition

The old saying has it that "what you don't know can't hurt you". I believe that we are living through an era in which what we don't know about each other is hurting all of us, because that lack of knowledge fuels unnecessary conflict.

This is absolutely true in my industry of higher education. Universities all have varying levels of conflict, of many types. One of the most common is conflict between faculty and administration. Much of this conflict is unnecessary and stems from a lack of knowledge.

I have been reminded of this in many ways in recent weeks, but most proximately by a social media post from a friend which read in part:
My school has an "enrollment management" office with a multi million dollar budget that seems to go up every year. I have no idea what the hell they do, and why that money is spent, especially when my scholarship and other support dollars are at an all time low and will not go up anytime soon. Meanwhile, enrollment at the university as a whole has gone down, and continues to plummet, even while [our department's] enrollment grows each year. ... Bureaucrats will multiply and take all the money, meanwhile, people in [our field] will continue to connect and develop life long meaningful relationships.
To be clear: I have great respect for the faculty member who wrote this post, which also included excellent examples of the work going on in that person's department. I also have great respect for the department as a whole, and the ways in which it has succeeded despite having few resources at its disposal. I think these are excellent people doing great stuff.

My concern, as is often the case, is the characterization of the faceless "they" and the conflict which this needlessly perpetuates. The post above has a few problems caused by a lack of knowledge:

1) The budget of the enrollment management office in question has been going down, not up. The phrase "seems to go up every year" hides the fact that the author doesn't really know, but suspects. Often times, what we suspect to be true isn't. In this case, the office in question has been pushed to do more and more with less and less, just as (perhaps even more than) the academic departments have. And unlike some faculty, nobody in the enrollment office has tenure - many can be (and have been) fired.

2) The phrase "I have no idea what the hell they do, and why that money is spent" is honest, but conveys a suspicion that those efforts are wasted. Not knowing should be an occasion for either humility or research, or both. Negative speculation is harmful.
     In this case, the work of enrollment management is extremely difficult. If it were easy to control enrollments, more universities would do it - most except for the very elite struggle with this constantly. Moreover, the university in question has historically under-invested in marketing itself (an assertion which faculty might dispute but which in fact holds up under scrutiny if you take the time to look comparatively and to understand how marketing works).

3) The claim that "[b]ureaucrats will multiply and take all the money" is both broad and inaccurate. The contrast with the second half of that sentence reveals a broader narrative: faculty are the ones doing the important work of the university, whereas "bureaucrats" are wasted money whose work does not contribute to the education of students or the health of the university as a whole. Professional staff see these comments and know this attitude is out there.

Again, to be clear: faculty DO very important work. I agree that the work that faculty do directly with students is THE work of the university. It is in those relationships that education happens.

But it is also true that without the work of the "bureaucrats", the work of the faculty would be impossible. There is a vast amount of effort that goes into recruiting, admitting, housing, advising, scheduling, and providing for the needs of that student before she ever reaches the classroom. Most of this work is invisible to both students and faculty, as it should be. Ideally, all of this is as seamless and efficient as possible.

But seamless and efficient does not mean free. And while I believe that everyone within a university, at all levels, should be accountable for the quality of their work, the conflicts that arise between faculty and administration often aren't about accountability. They're about tribalism, about them being "them" and us being "us". They are always wrong, and we are always right. And because we are always right, I don't need to know anything about them, because they are wrong anyway, so why learn?

This is the very essence and root of our conflict. Yes, there are disagreements over interests and policy directions and so forth. But if we really understood each other, if we understood how things work on "the other side", and if we ceased doubting (or assuming) each other's motives, the concrete disagreements would be vastly easier to resolve.

Now that I have the position I do, I have few avenues to make these kinds of arguments. Faculty at many institutions are allergic to being "told what to do" by administrators, even if all we're saying is that we would like to develop a common understanding of how the world works. The narratives that drive these conflicts on our campuses are rooted in a fundamental mistrust about motives, but they are fueled and maintained by our steadfast refusal to learn more about each other. That's a problem we can fix - if we want to.

This is, of course, true in our broader society as well. I have previously argued that we don't really have an "America" anymore, but a feuding set of tribes that know less and less about each other. The antidote is always knowledge - not knowledge of facts so much as knowing and understanding people. We claim in our universities to be laboratories for solving society's problems. Perhaps we should start with this one.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Alliance Politics: Emotion over Reason

There are policy decisions which most people agree on. There are policies that reasonable people disagree about. There are policies that are so extreme that few people embrace them.

Then there's Donald Trump's foreign policy.

Over the last few days, Trump sowed chaos at the NATO summit in an unprecedented fashion. At the height of his extremity, he called on NATO members to boost their spending on their militaries to 4% of their GDP.

Nobody in their right mind would call for such a thing. Even the US doesn't spend that much, and the US outspends the next dozen or so countries on the planet combined.

Trump later appeared to drop that particular target, calling instead for the 2% target to be met immediately - after earlier signing a joint statement that called for meeting that target by 2024. Later, he mentioned 4% yet again, then dropped it again.

None of this makes any sense, if you assume that the President is a minimally rational human being for whom words and numbers have meaning.

But Trump is none of these things. He is not rational, in the sense that he does not select strategies that are aimed at achieving goals. He has said himself that he doesn't prepare, he "goes with his gut" - the very antithesis of rationality. He is driven by feeling, by instinct. This is many things, but it is not rational in the standard definition of that term.

News networks have been tying themselves in knots trying to make sense of these varying and contradictory statements. Some have taken the time to look up facts that clearly demonstrate that a 4% target is an absurdist fantasy.

All of this is a waste of time. When Trump says 4%, he doesn't mean what you or I would mean. He doesn't mean anything. He doesn't understand the numbers, doesn't know what the right number would be, and doesn't care.

When Trump says that everyone else should spend 4%, what he means is, everyone else should do what he says. He means simply to project power, to demonstrate that he is right and everyone else is wrong. That, in his own words, only he can save us.

So let us not waste our time arguing with facts that are obviously and absurdly wrong, or policies that are obviously beyond the bounds of reason. None of this is about policy. It's about a man on the world's biggest stage trying desperately to convince everyone (or maybe just himself) that he has all the answers, and that everyone else is wrong.

God help the rest of us.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Why the Administration's "Advice" on Affirmative Action Doesn't Matter

There is lots of concern on the left about this recent headline story:
Trump administration reverses Obama-era guidance on use of race in college admissions
As someone who works in higher education administration, this is the least concerning thing the Administration has done in months. There are several reasons why this isn't worth our time and attention:

1) It's pointless as a symbolic gesture. I've heard it argued that one reason why folks on the left are upset about this is the symbolic message is sends, that the Administration is hostile to the rights and welfare of minorities. I would have thought that referring to neo-nazis and white supremicists as "fine people" was more that sufficient to make that point. As a symbolic message, this doesn't say anything Donald Trump hasn't been saying for decades.

2) It's non-binding advice. The "guidance" in question doesn't change the law, or the boundaries of the law. There may be a message in here about what this Justice Department is or isn't willing to argue in court cases that may come up, but again we already knew that (see #1 above). Otherwise, this just amounts to a set of suggestions that universities are free to do with as they please.

3) This only applies to institutions that are selective enough for these kinds of things to matter. If you only read the New York Times, you would get the impression that higher education in the United States consists of Harvard, Stanford, the University of Chicago, and a few other schools here and there. But the reality is that genuinely selective schools are only a very, very small slice of the higher education landscape. Most schools, public and private alike, are desperate enough for students that they will happily accept as many qualified students as they can find, even as they also want to admit diverse groups of students. The number of schools that might conceivably turn away a white applicant in favor of a black or Latino one is extremely small.

4) Because of #3, we need to understand that this isn't about creating a more racially just society in any broad kind of way. This is a rich people's argument, because only the very well-off can afford to send their kids to the kinds of schools for whom these sorts of decisions are relevant. Yes, every year Harvard or Yale or Williams or Stanford will let in a handful of minority students on full ride scholarships. That number is a fraction of a drop in the bucket. For the vast majority (95%+) of minority families who pin their hopes on higher education to lift them out of poverty, their kids aren't going to go to those schools. They're going to go to regional public institutions for whom this argument is irrelevant.

If you care about a more racially and economically just society, and if you believe that higher education is a means to that end, don't spend your time agonizing about this "guidance". Focus that energy on getting your state legislatures to re-fund their public higher education systems, gutted and increasingly expensive after decades of budget cuts. Don't get distracted by red herrings. Focus on what matters.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

We're Thinking About the Court All Wrong

So Justice Kennedy announces his retirement and the internet blows up. Liberals are screaming in fear because they believe the court will be stacked against them for the next 20 years, and conservatives (or whatever they are nowadays) are shouting in triumph that they will finally have a bulletproof majority on the Court.

All of this is wrong. All of it.

I get that the court is, by necessity, something of an all-or-nothing institution. When it makes rulings, its rulings stand - at least until a later court overturns them. Another casualty of the politicization of the law may be the stare decisis standard, which appeared to take a bit of a hit today in the Janus case. I fear that future courts, both right and left, will see their job as undoing the work of the "other side" in the previous generation.

The reality is that we live in a diverse, often divided nation. And we live under a political system that is supposed to value that diversity, and to produce outcomes that, however imperfectly, reflect everybody's voices. If only 20% of people want something, they shouldn't be able to impose their will on the other 80%. That's what we call democracy, and it's what we all claim to value.

Yet the celebration on the right, and the yearning on the left, for a court supermajority are both repudiations of these foundational ideals. It's not just that the court is (by some necessity) a non-democratic institution. How we think about the court betrays how little we really value our democracy.

Take the issue of Roe v. Wade, one of the most oft-cited cases for the importance of getting "your" side to dominate the court. I get that there are people who believe that abortion should be eradicated entirely. I also get that there are people who would like it to be restricted much more than it is. Just as there are people who think it should remain available, and people who would like to widen that availability. I spent a semester in grad school poring over General Social Survey data on Americans' attitudes towards abortion. They are diverse, and remarkably stable, and on balance tend to fall into the "keep it legal but hopefully rare" area, with a large standard deviation around that mean.

So if you celebrate winning a supermajority on the court so that Roe can be overturned and abortion made illegal everywhere, you're in essence saying that winning a complete and total victory on this issue is more important to you than democracy. That even if your view is only held by 20% of the American population, you think you should win anyway and impose that view on the 80% who think differently.

The alternative approach, which is actually far more consistent with our claimed democratic values, would be to try to persuade enough of that 80% to see things your way, so that your view prevails across the population. This is basically why gay marriage is legal now - not because a court said it should be, but because over the course of a couple of generations most Americans have come to agree that people should be able to marry whom they want. Want to change that? Convince them back the other way (good luck).

That approach hasn't worked well on abortion, as the GSS data shows. Hence the arguing over the court - and the hidden abandonment of democratic ideals.

You can substitute any number of other issues for abortion here - gun rights, labor unions, travel bans, take your pick. For those who take the "long view" on the court, who are looking out over the next 20-30 years, it's not any one issue. It's the desire to see "their side" win all of the battles over that period.

If we really believed in democracy - if we really believed that we make our best decisions collectively when everybody's voice is in the mix - we wouldn't want a supermajority on the court. Or a permanent majority in Congress, as Karl Rove used to dream of. If we really believed in democracy, we would want Justice Kennedy replaced with another moderate, swing-voting judge. If Elena Kagan stepped down, we would want her replaced with another liberal justice. If Clarence Thomas retires, we would want him replaced with another conservative.

If we really believed in democracy that's what we all would want, regardless of our own personal views. But we don't really believe in democracy. We only support it when it means we get to win.

All of this is compounded by the fact that we are living through the most anti-democratic Presidency in modern US history. Trump has not the slightest regard for the views of others, and - by his own repeated admission - he wants to win all the time. He doesn't care about what other people think. If he could impose his will on the world, he would, even if nearly everyone disagrees with him.

The mood of the country as a whole is increasingly anti-democratic. Sure, lots of folks are saying, go out and vote. Voting is not a reliable indicator of democracy - just ask Zimbabwe, or pre-1990 South Africa, or Saddam Hussein's Iraq. On all sides, the act of voting - indeed, all political acts - have taken on existential proportions. Everything has become Chuck Norris' "1000 years of darkness" warning, on all sides.

Don't believe me? Watch Tucker Carlson, speaking to a national audience of millions, equate the desire to welcome immigrants with suicide. Translate that into Kinyarwanda and Carlson would fit in nicely with RTLMC radio just ahead of the Rwandan genocide.

This is not Schoolhouse Rock America anymore. We are not e pluribus unum - rather, our motto ought to be e unum pluribus. Out of one have come many. Where there was one nation, united by a common set of political values, now there are many, divided by fear and anger and hatred.

For those who look at Kennedy's retirement and say, this is why I voted for Trump - who believe that for all of his faults and problems, it was worth it to "secure the court" for the next generation - you're entitled to your reasons. If you feel happy today, you're entitled to that too. What you're not entitled to do is claim that you value democracy. Because in the end, if we don't value each other more than we value winning out over each other, then what are we?

Free Speech and Our Upside-Down Ideologies

For those inclined to believe there is only one right way of thinking about "free speech", especially on college campuses, this summary news article is worth reading:
A More Nuanced View of Law on Campus Speech
As I mentioned in a brief post yesterday, I am old enough to recall a time in the past when "conservative" meant something very different - even radically opposed - to its meaning today. Growing up in the 1970s, I watched the conservative movement try to make sense of the upheaval of the 1960s.

Free speech - the kind of free-for-all "marketplace of ideas" position described as one pole in the article above - was largely a cause of the Left, which saw society as stifling dissent and diversity and wanted new voices (African Americans, Latinos, women, LGBTQ, and others) to have a place.

The conservative response was the other pole: the "order and morality" theory, in which the good of society and societal order and the prevailing norms and mores of the day were held to be important. Indeed, that's what "conservative" meant - a desire to preserve the values of the past and present, to "not throw the baby out with the bathwater". Rousseau's Social Contract - a forerunner to what used to be called "conservative" - sought to provide the stability necessary for human thriving.

Like many great debates, both sides had a point. Existing social norms and structures of the 1950s and 1960s were indeed stifling and repressive, especially to women (who were confined to very restrictive roles in society) and ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities. However, all well-functioning societies do need a level of order and common understandings of morality.

The battle of the 1960s was about how to change the repressive nature of those common understandings without tearing the country apart entirely. We succeeded, but only just.

Fast-forward to today, and the positions have entirely reversed. Self-proclaimed "conservatives" are now the ones who have thrown the order and morality position out the window. They are the ones who are arguing that any speech, no matter how offensive or harmful, must be protected, even celebrated. They organize provocative events around speakers who are noted not for their wisdom or their contribution to important debates, but for their ability to inflame and insult. Indeed, sometimes that appears to be the entire point of the exercise.

It is sadly ironic that the descendants of those who once argued that order and morality matter are now defending the position that neither order nor morality count for anything, and that freedom should be infinite and absolute. This puts the Left in the position of discovering the value of common decency and the virtue of order and stability - a somewhat strange place for a movement built on (sometimes revolutionary) change.

There were excesses during the 1960s, when we threw out rules about how we should treat each other in the service of fostering change. We are now throwing those rules out again (as I remarked on yesterday) - but in the service of what? I don't see that today's firebrand conservatives have a vision of a more just society and a better future. MLK had a dream of racial and economic justice, and the feminist movement yearned for a world in which women were economic and social equals to men. What vision do these folks have? What kind of a world are they trying to create?

I think this may be the key difference this time around. The movements of the 1960s, for racial justice, better economic opportunity, gender quality, and the rest, were rooted in a vision of a more just society. For the most part, we have accepted most of these ideas, and the strong majority believe that we are better for being more accepting of diversity and less socially and politically restrictive.

Perhaps what we are seeing is the rearguard action of those who do not share these ideas - those who believe that there ought to be a racial hierarchy, that the United States should be dominated by a particular racial/gendered/sexualized structure. That they cannot articulate the alternative in a way that appeals to anybody else suggests that, ultimately, they will lose. But that doesn't mean they won't cause as much pain as possible in the process.

Ultimately, this is where the radical libertarian view that "all speech is acceptable, no matter how painful" is problematic for me. Even if you're trying to create change, change that may be resisted by people who really don't want it, you use words that are designed to include and to heal, not to hurt. Go back and listen to MLK speeches. He challenges the prevailing orders of his day, but he never called anybody names. Never insulted them personally. Never used words to anger or harm. That some people got angry at what he said was a sad byproduct, not the main point.

When I seek solid ground on which to stand, I always come back to the Gospel. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. On these two hang all the Law and the Prophets." I see no love in today's "conservative" free-speech movement - I see only anger and hatred. This is not of God.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Remember Conservatism?

In response to this news piece:
'Go Home to Mommy'
I remember a time when conservatives cared about decorum and civility. I remember when the conservative movement - the movement of William F. Buckley Jr., Peggy Noonan, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Robert Bork, and others - held itself and others to high standards of discourse. I remember when they understood the importance of the Presidency as a role model for young Americans. I remember when they articulated a positive vision of America as the Shining City on the Hill.

I think that if that movement still existed today, I might well be a conservative. I see real value in those things. I think that how we treat each other matters, and that a politics based on scorn and contempt ultimately degrades us all.

This is not a conservative President. This is not a conservative movement. I don't yet know what it is, although "mean-spirited" comes to mind. Who among us would want our children acting this way?

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Pie Crust Promises: Nuclear Edition

So the Trump Administration has signed a joint agreement with North Korea pledging to work towards denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. That sounds great - fewer nuclear weapons is a good thing. But even leaving aside the other problematic aspects of this "agreement" (like the US unilaterally giving up military exercises), Kim Jong Un's promise to talk about giving up his nukes reminds me of Mary Poppins' 'pie crust promise': easily made, easily broken.

Yes, I once published a journal article with that title along with my good friend Steve Saideman. I think there should be a prize for publishing an article with a Mary Poppins reference.

For those inclined to take North Korea's pledge seriously, I would direct you to Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (the NPT treaty, created in 1968 and still in force today):

Article VI
Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control. [emphasis added]

The United States is a Party to this treaty, as are Britain, France, China, and Russia (the other recognized "nuclear states"). None has ever seriously contemplated a treaty on nuclear disarmament, outside of a brief rhetorical flirtation by the Reagan administration during a summit with Michael Gorbachev in the 1980s. There haven't even been serious international negotiations on drawing down nuclear stockpiles since the early 1990s.

All of this is simply to say that arms control promises - even in treaty form, much less in a joint communique following a meeting - are easy to make and equally easy to break. Which suggests that the news cycle of the past 24 hours really didn't tell us very much at all.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

School Shootings & the "Violent Video Games" Canard

In the wake of recent school shootings, one of many diversionary culture-war issues has resurfaced. Public officials (like the Lt. Governor of Texas) and interest groups (NRA) have resurrected the claim that "violent video games" are to blame for children shooting up our schools. See, for example, this article:
School Threats Prompt New Look at Violent Video Games
The basic claim is that, by immersing themselves in realistic first person shooter environments like Call of Duty, impressionable young minds are turned towards wanting to do the same thing in real life.

If you're interested in this as an empirical hypothesis, there's plenty of evidence - all of which points in the direction of zero relationship. Millions of people (adults and children) play these games, and the percentage of those who actually shoot people is vanishingly small. No correlation has been found between playing these games and violent real-world behavior. Process studies of human psychology can't find anything that would link the two. On the basis of facts, evidence, and conclusions about how the world really works, it's clear that anybody pushing this claim is not interested in reality or truth.

All of this is old hat. What's interesting to me is that by focusing on video games, politicians and gun lobbyists are unintentionally opening a much larger can of worms. There actually is a point buried in this claim - it's just not the point they think they're making.

Video games, whether realistic like Call of Duty or fantastical like Legend of Zelda, tell stories. They differ from movies, television shows, books, and plays only insofar as they allow the audience to participate (to some degree) in how the story goes. They are essentially the same thing.

As video gamers know, there is always a pathway to follow. The game designers lay out the narrative they want, and you follow along. If I play Batman: Arkham City, for example, I can succeed in defeating the bad guys or I can fail to do so. What I can't do is "solve" the puzzle of the game using non-violent means. I can't negotiate with my foes, or engage them in meaningful dialogue to find out what they want and whether there's a joint solution. In Call of Duty, I can't call in the State Department to use diplomacy as a means to end the conflict. Violence is the solution.

To be fair, there is a separate genre of video games that doesn't follow this structure. These games are more focused on solving puzzles, or exploring environments, or growth and change. There's some fantastic work in that field. There are also gradations: Mario Brothers has "boss levels" and a narrative around defeating a villain, but it's not the same as Call of Duty.

In this regard, these video games are sharing a narrative incredibly common to our culture. Most of our movies - including many of the most popular - are based on this same narrative. TV shows are much the same: they set up heroes and villains, and the story is resolved when the former defeat the latter. This is true both of stories based on violence (Liam Neeson's "Taken", for example) and those based on shaming and embarrassment (think "Revenge of the Nerds").

Like most folks, I enjoy some of these stories myself. I'm a big fan of the Marvel Universe (movies and TV shows), which essentially tells this same story over and over and over again. I understand the appeal, and I don't think it's ubiquity makes individuals into real-life killers.

What it does do, however, is define the cultural air we breathe. All hero-vs-villain stories are zero-sum games. The villain is evil, the hero is righteous, the end always the same. When we apply these narratives to our own lives we are always the hero, never the villain.

I see this play out in the professional workplace all the time. You would think that beat-the-bad-guys narratives wouldn't have anything to do with an institution that supposedly has a common mission, staffed by people who are among the most educated in the world. Yet this is precisely the story that people live out all the time. As one college president recently pointed out, there's a whole literature of faculty-vs-administration narratives (see here for one recent hyperbolic example). I know a number of people in various positions who spend much of their time and energy not seeking common and cooperative solutions to our institution's problems but finding fault and looking for ways to defeat their enemies. Call it Call of Duty: University Edition.

President Trump, of course, represents this narrative personified. For him, everything is a battle to be fought and won. From his public statements and behavior, it appears that he cannot conceive of a world that might operate differently.

To borrow Alex Wendt's famous article title, our environment is what we make of it. When we tell ourselves stories about overcoming villains by force (whether that force is physical, verbal, or organizational), we convince ourselves that that's how the whole world works. We see villains everywhere, dragons to be slain.

Except that, in our own minds, we are all heroes. Our narratives don't line up. We create the things we claim to hate (conflict, anger, fear, violence) when we try to impose our narratives on others, and when they do the same to us. Unlike our movies and TV shows, there is no conclusive ending, no "peace in our time".

So while it's not true that video games turn 17 year olds into school shooters, it is true that we live in a culture saturated by violence of all kinds. We have forgotten that there are other stories, other ways of being. And so, like a nation of Don Quixotes, we tilt at windmills, imaging ourselves vanquishing ogres and wondering why others seem to intent on running themselves into buildings.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Immigration & the Rationalization of Deterrent Effects

Much is currently being made of the Trump Administration's new policy separating children from parents at the US border. This is an appallingly indefensible policy on moral and ethical grounds, and it's not even very sound legally. Under US law, asylum-seekers have every right to approach the US border and ask for asylum. Some of this is about taking children away from parents who didn't try to sneak across the Rio Grande, but those who tried to stay within the framework of US law. Even for those who did enter the US illegally, this is unspeakably bad.

Side note: there is no way to square this policy with any version of a Christian worldview. Those who support this policy and who claim nevertheless to be Christians are in thrall to false gods. Franklin Graham must read a very different set of Gospels than I do. But that's a topic for a different day.

One of the interesting aspects to the debate over this new policy is its supporters' claim that separating children from their parents will have a deterrent effect. Attorney General Jeff Sessions claimed as much when he said, "if you don't like that, don't smuggle children across our border."

Supporters of the policy tout this claim, believing (or claiming to believe) that by being harsher than previous administrations we will dissuade people from trying to cross the border. This displays an appalling ignorance of how deterrence actually works.

Deterrence works if and only if the consequences threatened are both credible and are worse than the available alternative. A minor punishment - a slap on the wrist - isn't enough to deter, because it is assumed that the punishment is less bad than the perceived benefits of doing whatever you don't want the other person to do. Increase the punishment, the thinking goes, and people will rethink their calculus and be deterred.

There are several problems with this logic. First, let's assume that people fleeing to the US are actually rational actors (probably not true, but let's assume). Central American migrants fleeing from violence-ridden societies controlled by gangs weigh their options: do I stay at home and watch my children die, or do I go to the US and save their lives, even if they're taken away from me? Most parents choose the latter every time. Separation and a chance at asylum is better than certain death.

The second problem is information flow. You can change the policy, but that message won't spread consistently across the entire population of Central and South America. Some will find out about it, others will hear different stories - stories of people who made it, who either snuck by the border guards or who successfully got asylum. Given the population, there's no way to credibly get the message out to everyone who might consider trying to migrate. Without a clear signal, deterrence will fail.

The third issue is that this is a (cruel) solution in search of a problem. We don't, in the aggregate, have an illegal immigration problem. Net flow across the southern US border has been outward for years - that is, more people flow across the border going south than come north into the US. And that's before Trump got elected and the racists all came out of the closet. The President's rants about hordes of M13 gang members crossing into the US are paranoid delusions, untethered from facts. The fact that the number of those seeking to get in is down suggests that it is only the most desperate making the attempt today - many "economic migrants" have already decided not to come. Meaning that the remainder are particularly difficult to deter, because the consequences of their not coming are much worse.

If you're really interested in what happens when you put up a serious border wall, we have an excellent example to study. For nearly 30 years the Berlin Wall divided East from West Berlin, rendering the latter an island in the middle of communist East Germany. The Berlin Wall was tall, built of concrete and steel and barbed wire and guard towers and spotlights. It was watched constantly, night and day. Get caught trying to cross it, and you were shot on sight. The East German regime was far more severe than anything that Donald Trump has dreamed up.

Moreover East Germany, while no worker's paradise, wasn't as difficult a place to live as parts of Central America today. There was precious little societal violence. If you kept your head down and didn't criticize the regime, your children would not be killed or kidnapped by gangs. The chances of you being caught in a drive-by shooting were essentially zero. You were spied on by the regime all the time, and dissenters were made to disappear. But everyone had jobs, of a sort, and homes, and while society was repressive it was not deadly. It sucked, but not in a fear-for-your-life-every-day sort of way.

And yet, even under these circumstances thousands of people tried to cross the Berlin Wall between 1961 and 1988. At least 138 were killed in the attempt. Many others were arrested and hauled off, undoubtedly to detention far more cruel than anything in the US.

If ever there were a test of a fortified border's ability to deter, it was in Berlin. And it failed. No matter how harsh the East German regime was, people tried to cross it anyway.

In the face of that evidence, does anybody really believe that separating children from parents is going to deter the desperate from seeking asylum in the US? This is a fantasy, cooked up to justify a cruel policy grounded simply in fear and hatred. It is of a piece with much of what this administration does - ignorant, rooted in fear, pandering to our worst instincts. I hope this quickly becomes a bad footnote in US history and not a permanent fixture.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Moving the Embassy Didn't Matter: the Palestinians Were Already Stuck

Now that the Trump Administration has recognized Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel and moved the US embassy there, many are asking what this will mean for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and prospects for future peace. A lot of public discussion, however, tends to be driven not by an analysis of what is and what may happen, but by what people want. This is one of those conflicts where dispassionate analysis is hard to come by - so naturally, I thought I'd give it a shot.

Objective analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is difficult because both sides have very strong narratives rooted in justice and righteousness. That these narratives are largely incompatible is lost on no one, which goes a long way to explaining why there's been no resolution. Even outsiders tend to look at the conflict through the eyes of what they want to have happen, and make predictions that are really attempts to calculate how to get from wherever we are at the moment to that end.

This is particularly true for those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. The case for injustice in Palestine is easy to make. Even former President Jimmy Carter, a man of wisdom who knows how to weigh his words carefully, has likened the separation of Palestinians from mainstream Israeli society and the control over their movements and territory, as akin to South African apartheid. The Palestinian population is stuck in a third- (or even fourth-) world existence, both politically and economically, from which there appears to be no escape. There's an easy justice narrative there.

Israel too has a narrative about justice and victimhood. Beyond the Holocaust, which was perhaps the worst targeted crime against a population in human history, and beyond the centuries of violent anti-semitism that preceded it, modern Israel is an island of less than 9 million inhabitants surrounded by a sea of hundreds of millions of Arabs, many of whom have expressed the desire to wipe Israel from the map. However powerful Israel has become - and it is indeed very powerful - it is difficult to fault modern Israelis for believing that the world is a threatening place, with hatred directed against them from all sides.

But if we want to understand the possible and impossible next steps in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, none of this helps. For a conflict analyst, it is enough to know that the two sides have mutually incompatible, even mutually contradictory, narratives about themselves and the other. This much has been true since 1947, and it hasn't changed.

So what now? Is the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capitol city the end of the peace process? Or will this usher in a new era of opportunity? There answer can't (or shouldn't) depend on whether we like or don't like Donald Trump, or whether we prefer the Israeli or the Palestinian narrative, but on an analysis of the situation.

In any such analysis, it is important to note that neither "side" is a monolith. There are Israelis who are happy about the US embassy move, and those who are upset by it. There are even Israelis who would be perfectly happy to see all the Palestinians expelled from the whole territory, although they tend to be quiet about it. There are Palestinians who desire to "drive the Jews into the sea", and those who would be happy to live beside them in peace. So what we see at any one point in time reflects a rough majority opinion of each side. Feelings and goals can change, and if they do the analysis changes with it. But for now, things are what they are.

As of today, Israel has most of what it wants. It has complete control over its recognized sovereign territory, and (as of today) a slightly greater recognition of its claim to Jerusalem, which it already controls anyway. Since its withdrawal from direct occupation of the West Bank and Gaza back in the 1990s, it no longer has the immediate burden of trying to provide services or a functioning economy for most of the Palestinian population, nor the difficulty of policing it from within. Israel still faces security challenges from terrorism, from the Syrian civil war next door, and from Iran, but these are for the most part as managed as they can be, and the bigger issues (Syria and Iran) are independent of the Palestinian issue.

The status quo, in essence, is one that most Israelis are perfectly happy with. The moving of the US Embassy doesn't really change that, except perhaps in a minor symbolic way. Despite the emotional narratives and (for some) references to the Will of God, the primary interest for the median of Israeli society is peace and security.

There is a subset of Israelis who would like to change the status quo still further, by gradually assuming control over the West Bank (or Judea and Samaria, in their parlance). The settler movement is actively engaged in this effort at what Palestinians might call slow-motion ethnic cleansing, encouraged (or at least enabled) by the current Israeli government. Again, the moving of the US embassy doesn't change this calculus much either, except perhaps as a further signal that the US will not actively oppose settler expansion. Then again, no American administration since George H.W. Bush has done much to dissuade this movement, so there again the Trump Administration hasn't changed very much.

On the Palestinian side, of course, no one is happy with the status quo. The economy is a shambles, there is little hope either individually or collectively that their prospects will improve, they are subject to a host of difficulties in being told where they can live, where they can travel to, and what jobs they can or can't have, and their political leaders are largely ineffectual, alternately violent and corrupt. Things have been bad for a very long time, and every year they get a little bit worse.

Here, the moving the US embassy is a small material change in that it signals that the two-state solution - with Jerusalem divided into two capitols side by side - is dead. More importantly, today's events send a signal that the power of the United States is firmly on the side of Israel, the locally dominant power in the conflict. But this is at best a marginal shift, because these things have largely been true for a while. It is arguable that, except for the symbolic location of the embassy, not much would have been different under a Hillary Clinton administration.

It can be argued that outcomes are a function of the intersection between interests and power. Israel holds nearly all the power in the current situation, while the Palestinians have essentially none. Palestinians have not yet discovered any means of leveraging their assets in a way that would exert significant power on the situation. In the 1980s they launched the Intifadah, and although they paid a heavy price for it they did force Israel to reconsider the situation. Since that time, and with a few echoes in the 1990s, Palestinians have been largely powerless.

Palestinians' hopes have always leaned on one of three possible sources of power. Either their Arab brethren in neighboring states would help them, or the United States would help them, or they would somehow find the means to alter the situation themselves. The first hope vanished in 1979 when Anwar Sadat abandoned any significant pretext of sponsoring the Palestinian cause. The second swelled briefly in the Bush 41 and Clinton Administrations, but hasn't been much since; Trump's announcement is the last of a line of nails in that coffin. The third has been slowly leaching away with time, and as Israel has gotten better and better at sealing the borders and preventing any significant weaponry from getting into the Palestinian territories.

The most likely scenario, therefore, is that the conflict is stuck. The party which has the greatest interest in changing the situation has no power to do so, and no prospect of acquiring any. The party that has power to change things has no interest in doing so. Barring a truly massive uprising that disrupts Israel's security calculations - and today's events demonstrate that they're willing to be pretty ruthless about meeting the threat of force with much greater force - this isn't going to change.

So it is not true that Trump's decision to move the embassy has killed the peace process. The peace process was already dead. And, although I don't like it and wish the world were otherwise, I don't see that changing anytime soon.