Democracy is Alive and Well in the United States

There is a great deal of anxiety in the U.S. these days.  The delta variant pandemic surge, worsening global warming, and the exploding national debt, for example.  All of these are serious problems which need lots of attention.

These real issues have engendered a great deal of pessimism about the capability of our political system to respond adequately to our biggest problems.  Liberal democracy and capitalism are under attack.  On the left, markets generate inequality and democracy works only when it achieves the right outcomes.  On the right, markets destroy traditional moral conventions and individual freedom encourages behavioral deviancies.  In short, the western model of individual liberty and religious neutrality is under political pressure.

But consider:

  • Worldwide, freedom and democracy still strongly predominate.  According to Freedom House, even though there has been some slippage in recent years, the number of free countries greatly exceeds the number of partly free countries which, in turn, exceeds the number of not free countries.
  • U.S. democracy had a huge stress test in Fall 2020 and passed with flying colors. The Trump organization filed more than 63 lawsuits claiming voter fraud in the 2020 Presidential Election and not a single lawsuit prevailed.
  • Are we prepared for future emergencies like the pandemic?  Even though Covid-19 originated in China, China contained the coronavirus very effectively with a centralized and severe lockdown policy.  Our free and decentralized democratic system is unable, by design, to respond in the same way.  But U.S. drug companies produced several effective vaccines in record time and the pandemic is now essentially under control, in spite of the delta variant.  We should have confidence in our incredibly innovative economy to be able to deal with future crises in a similarly effective manner.
  • Political polarization does not represent a breakdown of democracy. It is caused primarily by progressive-left identity politics and the strong reaction to it by the right. Identity politics will gradually fade away as the U.S. population becomes more and more racially amalgamated.

Conclusion.  Yes, the United States has very serious problems to address.  Yes, there are many people who are pessimistic that our democratic form of government, based on our 243-year-old constitution, no longer meets our current needs.  But we are so strong, both economically and militarily, with such vigorous democratic traditions, that we should be optimistic that our long and successful traditions will pull us through not only our current troubles but any new ones which come our way.

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Is There Structural Racism Still Remaining in the U.S.?

“another form of bias: the soft bigotry of low expectations” President George Bush,2000

According to Critical Race Theory, the United States is dominated by white supremacy and systemic racism and CRT is now taught in many public school systems.

On the other hand, the Wall Street Journal columnist, William McGurn, asks “Is it okay that black eighth-graders aren’t proficient in math and reading?”  He examines 27 urban school districts listed in the Trial Urban District Assessment of the National Assessment of Educational Progress for 2019 (before Covid).

The top average reading score, in these 27 urban districts, for black 8th graders, was 20% proficient for Boston MA.  The top average math score was 24% proficient for Charlotte NC.  Many cities had much lower scores.  For example, in Detroit MI, black achievement was an abysmal 4% proficient for math and 5% proficient for reading.  Some of these 27 districts have the highest annual spending per pupil in the country, for example, $28,004 for NYC, $25,653 for Boston, $22,406 for the District of Columbia, and $17,112 for Atlanta.

Let’s agree that Critical Race Theory and Black Lives Matter have increased public awareness of challenges faced by African-Americans in today’s society. There are indeed remnants of the systemic racism which existed before the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s.  But their primary challenge today is economic in the sense that average income is significantly less for blacks than for whites.

The best way to meet these challenges is to:

Conclusion.  Basic academic proficiency for African-American children is abysmal in many of our large urban school systems.  This is the worst form of structural racism still existing in the U.S.  It is holding back further black economic and social progress.  This huge problem can be addressed, however, if only national leaders would give it priority attention.

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What Is Our Country’s Biggest Problem at the Present Time?

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by a constant flow of bad news: the spike in new Covid-19 infections, the botched Afghan withdrawal, tropical storm Ida racing up the East coast, drought and wildfires in the west, etc.  It seems like there is a steady stream of serious problems to deal with.  Here is my Midwestern perspective (I live in Omaha NE).

I maintain that this list overlooks the biggest problem of all.  Consider:

  • The pandemic is basically under control in the U.S.  Nearly 75% of adults have now been vaccinated against Covid.  The spike in new infections, caused by the Delta variant, is mostly affecting the unvaccinated.  In other words, get vaccinated, exercise reasonable precautions, and you have little to worry about.
  • The Afghan withdrawal was handled very poorly and this gives a boost to our many adversaries around the world.  But this is a temporary setback from which we will recover.  Our biggest foreign policy challenge is China which wants to take over Taiwan but is unlikely to risk an outright attack.
  • Global Warming.  Global temperatures have increased by one-degree centigrade since pre-industrial times and sea levels are rising at the rate of one foot per century.  This is serious but not catastrophic.   Carbon emissions are still rising worldwide even though they are now decreasing in the U.S. and many other western countries.  China is by far the world’s worst carbon emitter.  Worldwide carbon emissions will not begin to decline until China gets on board.
  • Political polarization in the U.S.  Polarization is caused primarily by the identity politics practiced by the progressive left and the reaction to it by conservatives.  Polarization will gradually fade away as America continues to become more and more racially assimilated.

These above-listed problems are real but can be managed and adapted to.  But there is a huge problem on the horizon which is steadily getting much worse and will eventually blow up into a new fiscal crisis if it is not taken seriously.  It is the

  • National debt which has grown $5 trillion in the last 18 months, because of the pandemic, and now totals over $28 trillion. When interest rates go up eventually, as they inevitably will, interest payments on the debt will skyrocket and cause a massive new crisis, much worse than the Financial Crisis of 20008.  In this respect, it is heartening to hear that Senator Joe Mansion (D, WV) has announced his opposition to the Democrats’ currently proposed $3.5 trillion spending blowout, see here and here.

Conclusion.  The U.S. has plenty of new (and recurring) problems to deal with all the time such as the pandemic, global warming, foreign policy challenges, and polarization.  But these are routine serious problems compared to the worst problem of all: the national debt.  There is now a good chance that Congress will slow way down in passing giant new spending bills.  Let’s hope that this move towards fiscal restraint holds firm!

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The Significance of Afghanistan to the U.S. II. What Should We Do Now?

“You were given the choice between war and dishonor.  You chose dishonor and you will have war”
Winston Churchill to Neville Chamberlin, 1938

As the chaotic withdrawal from Kabul continues and the Taliban now control Afghanistan, how should the U.S. respond to its disastrous withdrawal?

Mr. Paul Wolfowitz, a veteran foreign policy and military analyst, offers the following suggestions for how the U.S. can recover from this disaster.  Start out by acknowledging the mistakes that were made:

  • First, acknowledge that the war on terrorism isn’t over and will last for a long time. Decisive victory isn’t necessarily better than “forever war” if a long commitment can keep America safe at a much lower cost in American lives.
  • Second, the rush to get out and the failure to respond to Taliban aggression hastened the collapse of the Afghan army.
  • Third, choosing to avoid “forever war” by abandoning our Afghan allies was both costly and dishonorable. We have now lost the Afghan army which was keeping the Taliban at bay with much reduced costs in American lives and money.
  • Fourth, it was wrong to disparage the bravery of the Afghans, 66,000 of whom have died defending their country. S. fatalities had been averaging about 20 per year since the U.S. switched to a largely advisory role in 2015.  But now the Taliban victory could reverberate far beyond Afghanistan and inspire terrorists around the world.

Then it is necessary to chart a path forward for recovery from this fiasco:

  • First, attend to the safety of Americans, citizens of allied nations, and Afghans now endangered because they assisted in the fight against the Taliban. Do not let the Taliban dictate the terms under which we conduct such a morally and strategically vital mission.
  • Second, there now needs to be more visible action and coordination with Japan and other allies to strengthen deterrence in order to forestall an attack on Taiwan by China.
  • Third, more needs to be done to assure the weaker Persian Gulf countries that the U.S. will protect them against Iran.

Conclusion.  How can a President who is known for his opposition to the 1991 Gulf War, his eagerness to leave both Iraq in 2011 and Afghanistan in 2021, and his opposition to the 2011 raid which killed Osama bin Laden, admit major errors of judgment with regard to the current situation in Afghanistan and propose a sensible road forward?  It won’t be easy, of course, but the success of Biden’s Presidency; and therefore the near-term future of U.S. world-standing and security, depend on his willingness to bite the bullet and be willing to stand up much more firmly against our major adversaries.

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The Significance of Afghanistan to the United States

 

“If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world”
President Richard Nixon, 1970

The United States has just been routed by the Taliban in Afghanistan and President Joe Biden is clearly on the defensive.  He has vowed to evacuate all Americans and helpers but they are scattered all over the country.  Will he follow through on this promise?

Equally important in the long run, what is the significance of the loss of Afghanistan to the U.S.?  Consider:

  • Both Vietnam and Afghanistan were non-strategic wars. The Vietnam War was not strategically necessary for the U.S. and eventually lost public support. The U.S. went into Afghanistan to destroy Al-Qaida after 9/11 and this goal was quickly accomplished.  A decision had then to be made either to withdraw or to take control of the whole country.  The obvious answer was to leave but the one chosen was to stay.
  • Having won we chose to lose. Twenty years later the U.S. had achieved a stable military situation with no combat deaths in the past 18 months.  So, as a practical matter, we could have maintained the status quo indefinitely with a residual force of about 2,500 troops.  Instead, we underwent a chaotic withdrawal and now face the real possibility of having to return in the future to defeat terrorism again.

  • The chaotic Afghan withdrawal has shocked and angered U.S. allies. Afghanistan was an operation of NATO and America’s allies sent tens of thousands of troops over 20 years, more than 1,100 of whom were killed.  NATO allies were justified in expecting that if that the U.S. were to withdraw, it would do so in consultation with its partners.  Other allies are noticing.  Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has just warned that “Taiwan’s only option is to grow stronger and become more united, strengthening our determination to protect ourselves.”
  • Biden’s Chamberlain moment. The fall of Kabul has been heard around the world, to the dismay of our allies and the delight of our enemies.  A well-executed withdrawal that visibly served a coherent national strategy might have accomplished what Biden wanted.  Nothing is vainer than the hope that somehow the debacle which actually took place will help the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific.  The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan hands Pakistan a strategic victory which will make life much more difficult for our most important Asian ally, namely India.

Conclusion.  A quick retreat from Afghanistan twenty years ago, after destroying Al –Qaida, or even a well-executed withdrawal more recently, would have addressed the strong desire for no more “forever wars.”   As actually happened, Biden’s disastrous handling of this crucial problem serves only to humiliate the United States.  The Biden Presidency will never recover and it will take many years for the U.S. to regain its lost prestige.

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The Biden Presidency is already Turning into a Disaster

The United States is in very good shape overall with the world’s strongest economy and largest military.  We have the oldest democracy in the world, still thriving 230+ years after its founding.  We enjoy a robust private enterprise environment with myriad opportunities for individuals to succeed by virtue of their own initiative and willingness to work.

This has mostly been achieved independently of the quality of our political leadership.  We have had a smattering of outstanding presidents during our long history but also a large number of poor ones. (Not to mention any names!)  Our success as a nation is based primarily on the soundness of our underlying institutions, regardless of the quality of any particular president.

Regrettably, nevertheless, our current President, Joe Biden, is making lots of mistakes.  America will most likely continue to thrive regardless, but still, bad policy decisions at the top do slow down our historically steady progress.  Consider the following series of bad decisions by President Biden:

  • Overstimulation of the economy thereby risking an inflationary spiral. Already this year, Congress has passed a $1.9 trillion America Rescue Plan.  The Senate just passed a $1.1 trillion Infrastructure Bill and Congress is poised to pass a $3.5 trillion expansion to the social safety net.  Of course, these measures will greatly increase the national debt, already swollen to $28 trillion.  But even more immediately dangerous is the likelihood of an inflationary spiral careening out of control.  Annual rates of increase for the last four months (April through July) are 4.2%, 5%, 5.4% and 5.4%.

  • Speedy withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Taliban is rapidly capturing provincial capitals in Afghanistan and is threatening the national capital Kabul.  American credibility is already sustaining a blow.  Just keeping a small residual force of U.S. troops would have been enough to keep the Taliban at bay indefinitely.

  • Open southern border. Almost 200,000 arrests of illegal immigrants were made at the southern border in July alone. Most of these migrants are being released “temporarily” into the U.S.  This surge in border crossings has been caused by the Biden Administration’s unwillingness to crack down on illegal entry into the U.S.

  • Extension of the eviction ban. The Biden administration wants to further extend the rental eviction ban even though the economy is booming and employers are desperate to find workers.  Many small landlords are suffering financial harm in the meantime.  It is past time to end this emergency measure.

Conclusion.  President Biden is exhibiting bad judgement on an increasing number of issues.  The biggest long-term threat is, of course, setting off an inflationary spiral which could careen out of control.  If this were to happen, it could easily lead to a new financial crisis, caused by rising interest rates which would lead to huge increases in the interest payments on our swollen and out-of-control national debt.  His other mistakes, as described above, are also serious but will do less long-term damage.

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Beyond Critical Race Theory and Black Lives Matter: how to improve life for African-Americans

My last post criticized Critical Race Theory as being dangerous for America because, if taken too seriously, it would lead to racial regression rather than racial progress.  The same thing is true for the Black Lives Matter movement.  So how does America move forward on race relations?

Let’s start with where we are now and try to visualize how progress can be made going forward:

  • CRT and BLM, for all the negative repercussions they can generate, have made one important contribution to racial progress: they have raised public awareness of the challenges faced by African-Americans in today’s society.  They face the remnants of systemic racism in the past which existed up until the 1960s and 70s.  They also face economic challenges resulting from inferior educational outcomes.
  • How does America address these challenges? First, we agree that there is a real problem which society should address.  Then, hopefully, we acknowledge that we have to move past CRT and BLM in order to achieve actual progress.  In fact, we need to continue to emphasize the tried and true American values of equal opportunity and individual initiative.   There are many things we can do along these lines.
  • First of all, recognize that African-Americans are already making great social and economic progress. For example, 57% of black men have made it into the middle class or higher as adults today, up from 38% in 1960.  The share of black men who are poor has fallen from 41% in 1960 to 18% today.

  • Secondly, expand public policies designed to boost the economic prospects of all low-income Americans such as:
  • Early childhood education. There is a significant academic achievement gap between middle-class kids and kids from low-income families.  An effective way to improve educational outcomes for low-income kids is through early childhood education. This means intensive intervention with low-income kids at least by age three, if not younger, to make sure they are ready to succeed academically when they get to kindergarten and first grade.
  • Enhanced economic opportunity. The Brookings Institute and the American Enterprise Institute have put together an excellent proposal for improving economic opportunity for all members of the working class.  What is needed is a social contract emphasizing the centrality of work but also making it more fulfilling for blue-collar workers.  This would include such features as enhanced career education in high school, an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit to boost wages, and increased work requirements for public assistance programs (to provide extra motivation to find and hold a job).

Conclusion.  Critical Race Theory and Black Lives Matter have raised public awareness of the plight of African-Americans in today’s society.  But for real progress to occur, what is now needed are improved educational outcomes and improved economic opportunities for all low-income Americans, especially including African-Americans.  There are many identifiable programs designed to accomplish these goals (see above).

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Critical Race Theory is Dangerously Un-American

Since the killing of George Floyd last year in the custody of the Minneapolis Police Department, critical race theory and its key concepts of white supremacy, white fragility and systemic racism have been much discussed in America, see here and here.  CRT maintains that America is an inherently racist nation and that the constitutional principles of freedom and equality are mere camouflages for white supremacy.

So what is critical race theory and what does it say?  The Brookings Institute scholar, William Galston, has recently given an excellent overview.  He points out that:

  • Critical race theory denies the possibility of objectivity. “Scholarship is inevitably political.”
  • The theory moves race to the center of our focus. It aims to “recover and revitalize the radical tradition of race-consciousness.”
  • The theory strongly criticizes the civil rights movement. It is argued that the civil rights movement scored some symbolic gains for black Americans but left their material conditions mostly unchanged.   According to CRT, civil-rights law can mitigate the consequences of illegal and unjust acts, but it can do nothing to redress the continuing impact of past oppression.
  • Critical race theory rejects the principle of equality of opportunity. Equality of opportunity is a myth, not a reality, in today’s America, and those who pursue it are misguided.  The real goal is equality of results, measured by black share of income, wealth and social standing.  The metric of merit is unacceptable because merit serves as a repository of hidden race-specific preferences for those in power.
  • Race-conscious policies such as affirmative action are diversionary. The aim of affirmative action is to “create enough exceptions to white privilege to make the mythology of equal opportunity seem at least plausible.”  Such policies are an inadequate response to the persistence of white supremacy.
  • The anti-racist Ibram Kendi says that “the only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”

Conclusion.  Critical race theory is a dangerous ideology that would take the nation into racial retrograde.  It is one thing to present an honest view of American history in public schools but quite another to focus on the “1619 Project.”  Hiring practices and workplaces should be fair and welcoming to all, but mandatory diversity training, premised on the ubiquity of unconscious racism, is coercive and insulting.  Americans should have no hesitation in opposing CRT and its offshoots.

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The Key to Solving Global Warming: China’s Involvement

 

As new summer temperature records are being set and drought and forest fires plague the western states, see here and here, climate alarmists are making lots of noise, see here and here.  I have recently argued that both the deniers and alarmists are wrong.

It has recently been reported that the European Union and China are planning sweeping limits on emissions. The EU plan is to increase renewable sources in Europe’s energy mix to 40% in 2030 from 20% today.

China’s plans, however, are designed only to help it attain its previously announced goal (in the 2015 Paris accords) of reaching peak emissions by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2060.  The problem is that:

  • Worldwide carbon emissions are still growing even though they are shrinking in both the U.S. and Europe (see charts).

  • China is still increasing its coal use each year more than the rest of the world combined (see chart).

  • Given that the developing world intends to massively increase the use of energy to raise its living standards, it will be virtually impossible to de-fossilize the world economy. Much more feasible it is to de-carbonize by emphasizing carbon capture and storage technology as well as more nuclear energy.

Conclusion.  The U.S. can and should provide both technical and moral leadership in reducing global carbon emissions.  But we have to be practical about it.  It is essential to bring the developing world along with us, especially China, as we continue to reduce our own carbon emissions.  This is the only way to actually reduce carbon emissions worldwide and therefore make real progress on this serious problem.

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Polarization, Identity Politics, and the Future of America II. A More Optimistic View

Last week I discussed a new book, Facing Reality, by the controversial sociologist, Charles Murray.  He says that political polarization is caused by identity politics.  In particular:

  • Racism persists in America but it is in spite of the American system and its institutions, not because of them.
  • Identity politics is an existential threat to the American experiment. Treating our fellow human beings as individuals rather than as members of groups is unnatural.  Our brains evolved over thousands of years to think of people as members of groups and to be suspicious of people who are unlike us.  This shaped human government, mostly hierarchial, for 10,000 years.
  • America proved that a durable alternative to the natural form of government is possible. The introduction of identity politics into that carefully constructed constitutional system means a reversion to the primitive jungle of “us against them.”
  • The rhetoric about white supremacy and systemic racism coming from black opinion leaders, and their white supporters, is provoking a strong backlash from middle-class and working-class whites. This is the cause of our current polarization.

But this is not the whole story!  Another sociologist, Richard Alba, is more optimistic about race relations.  His argument is that:

  • Many non-whites are assimilating into the American mainstream, just as white ethnic groups did before them.
  • The mainstream can expand to accept a visible degree of racial diversity, as long as there are shared understandings between individuals with different ethno-racial backgrounds.
  • More than 10% of U.S.-born babies have one parent who is non-white or Hispanic and one who is white and not Hispanic. This is a sign of growing integration into the mainstream by members of minority groups.
  • By the 2050s, Mr. Alba estimates that one-third of babies with white ancestry will also have Hispanic or nonwhite ancestry. The idea of who belongs to a racial majority or minority will become scrambled.

Conclusion.  Mr. Murray and Mr. Alba are both correct.  Right now we have a severe identity politics problem which is a threat to our constitutional system.  But, going forward, more and more racial assimilation will take place.  This offers the hope that identity politics will become less predominant as racial identity becomes less pronounced.  The future wellbeing of America depends on this amalgamation of races!

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