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Posts published in “McKee”

Wrecking balls in motion

mckee

About a week ago, and in the dead of night according to the New York Times, Trump started his trade war. With all the other hoopla going on, not much has been done to call attention to this event.

International trade makes up around 25% of our GDP, which is a number that is not to be sneezed at. However, international trade is not the most interesting subject to examine and even simple explanations can take the reader off into the weeds by the end of the lead. There is just no way to inject any real excitement into basic accounting, trade ratios and market shares.

That said, the event noted may have more lasting and direct consequences upon more of our everyday lives than all of the other matters that the old fool is playing around with will have, even combined. It was exactly midnight that a third round of tariffs imposed by Trump on billions of dollars’ worth of foreign trade from China was to take effect. China immediately announced that it was matching the U.S. action with additional tariffs on of its own. Similar dialogues are rippling throughout Europe, Canada and Mexico as these countries prepare retaliations in response to U.S. tariffs imposed upon their exports. Trump has announced the intention of following suit if retaliatory tariffs are imposed against the United States. The result appears to be the beginning of an inevitably escalating series of retaliatory tariffs that could escalate until trade maximums are engulfed.

So, history seems on the brink of heading down a path last followed almost 90 years ago, when the isolationists convinced then President Hoover to go along with a stiff tariff program intended to protect American jobs. The Smoot-Hawley tariffs were enacted in 1930. Economists and historians estimate that these tariffs were the direct cause of U.S. exports falling by over 40% by 1932, crippling international trade. All economists generally agree that the trade war caused by the Smoot Hawley tariffs exacerbated the Great Depression.

Trump has not announced what specifically he intends to accomplish by the imposition of his tariffs. He has no clear policy to promote. He says only that the U.S. is being treated unfairly, and that we have to reign in the current levels of trade deficits. He doesn’t say why the trade is unfair. Surely, there are specific imbalances that need attention, and there are some trade practices that are unfair. Specific tariffs can be a tool in certain cases. But the task here is to find a tool to apply as a Band-Aid to a specific problem, not to attack every situation with sledge hammer or wrecking ball. Too often tariffs become sledge hammers, leaving too much unintended wreckage. Even when carefully applied, the impact of tariffs will eventually hit the consumer.

Trump’s fascination with trade deficits, and his insistence that they need to be brought into balance, is just plain wrong. Trade deficits are not inherently evil. In a healthy economy with markets that are otherwise booming, trade deficits are a perfectly normal if not even a desirable result. In the U.S. for example, with an economy that is burgeoning ahead, the huge beneficiaries of our trade deficits with most of our trading partners are domestic consumers. Eliminating deficits by definition requires either an increase in production or a decrease in consumption. Where artificial measures are applied, in the usual case it is the consumer who will suffer in the end.

Consider what happened in 2009, when the unions and tire manufacturers complained to the Obama administration that China was flooding the market with radial tires. Domestic jobs were being lost because domestic producers could not compete. So, the Obama administration imposed a punitive 35% tariff on specific types of radial tires exported from China. Because of the specifics involved, economists were able to study the market exactly, and measure the results with a degree of precision.

It might have looked like the special tariffs helped in the short run. Domestic tire producers were able to hold their prices and maintain production, and an estimated 1,200 jobs in the tire industry were preserved. But according to a study released by the Peterson Institute of International Economics, when the consumers’ side of the deals were examined, the additional cost of what had been cheaper Chinese exports cost domestic consumers an estimated $1.1 billion in higher prices. Further, when the tariffs hit, the decline in sales of the imported tires cost an estimated 3,731 domestic jobs lost on the retail side. One academic study on this specific tariff concluded that three retail jobs were lost on the consumer side for every manufacturing job saved on the production side.

In the longer run, the special tariffs did not return all radial tire production to the U.S. Instead, production migrated from China to other cheaper countries. Domestic tire production was initially boosted by the tariffs but soon sagged again as competition from foreign sources spread. One manufacturer, for example, held his employment level from 2009 through 2012, with the addition of the tariffs, but by 2017 – five years later – the employment level at this firm was down by over 25%. A study released in July of 2017 concluded that the special tariffs made no difference to production problems in the tire industry long term yet cost the U.S. consumers billions of dollars in higher prices.

The problems are even more complicated when the commerce being hit are products made up of component parts or subassemblies. According to a 2017 analysis presented by CNN, for example, every car manufactured in the United States could actually be considered an import when considering the origination of all the parts and subassemblies that go into the manufacture. To show the incongruities, by this measure the most “American made” vehicle currently on the market is a Honda pickup – a commercial vehicle partially manufactured in Japan with more than 75% of components manufactured in either the U.S. or Canada.

If tariffs are imposed on parts that are exported to the U.S., this can put the domestic parts manufacturer at a significant disadvantage. The domestic producer’s costs are driven up by the tariffs, often resulting in it conceding market shares to foreign competition which acquires the same parts and subassemblies but without tariffs. If the domestic producer can absorb the additional costs of the tariffs without raising prices, it still must reduce margins which might otherwise be available for increases to wages or reinvestment in plant resources.

All major U.S. automakers also have assembly plants in Mexico. Components are manufactured in the U.S. and elsewhere, shipped to Mexico for assembly, with the completed vehicle then returned the U.S. for sale. In a full-scale trade war, we may find tariffs imposed by the U.S. on parts and subassemblies; tariffs imposed by Mexico on the components sent to plants in Mexico for final assembly and tariffs on the finished vehicle as it is returned from Mexico for sale. Multi-levels of tariffs would hit U.S. consumers purchasing U.S. made cars from U.S. manufacturers on vehicle models intended for sale in the U.S.

One investment analysist said long range planning under Trump was difficult because no one could figure out what his policy was, is, or might become, commenting that “Watching all these trade actions is like watching a pinball machine.” Further, what Trump is doing is probably illegal. Imposition of tariffs are supposed to require Congressional action; the President is only authorized to act without Congressional authorization when declared necessary for national security. Most analysists agree that there is no true national security involvement in any of the tariffs Trump has imposed so far, or in any tariffs that he has announced he intends to impose.

What is clear is that the ultimate target of almost all of these tariffs is, or will be, the American consumer. Despite what it looks like, tariffs are not a tax or penalty imposed upon the foreign exporter. While sometimes the cost of a tariff can be absorbed by exporter; much more common in the short run, and always in the long run, is that the additional cost of the tariff will be passed along into the price to be paid by the ultimate consumer. A tariff in reality is nothing but a sales tax imposed upon the poor end consumer.

Anybody want to guess who that is going to be?
 

Now, they must organize

mckee

Trump and the Republicans keep dredging Hillary’s name up, again and again. And every time they do, some bunch of Democrats rush to her defense, playing straight into the Republican strategy of keeping Hillary’s name up in the main lights. The whole intent of this is plainly obvious: to make Hillary the face of the Democratic party, and then plant the suggestion or even hint among the most stalwart independents that where there is smoke there might be fire. And the Democrats are letting them get away with it.

At the same time, Obama’s name is starting to vanish. In the main, this is also because of Republican antics. Trump acts like Obama never even existed. He never mentions Obama by name as he steadily removes every vestige of his administration. When faced with some feature of the Obama years that cannot be ignored, Trump blithely rewrites it, revising history and inserting alternative facts more to his liking. Then he casts himself into the lead role and claims full credit for anything positive. To see this strategy in operation, all one has to do is watch Fox News. And the Democrats are letting him get away with it.

The Democrats are in disarray. If they do not recognize it, and do something about it right now, they risk losing the midterms this fall and even the Presidential in 2020. Right now the party must stop allowing the Republicans to define what the Democratic party stands for. They need to start by getting Hillary off stage once and for all. She is the totally wrong icon to leave out as the standard bearer of the party. She is the anathema of a candidate who paid no attention to the clamor for hard issues erupting all around, and whose only campaign strategy was to avoid taking a hard position on anything even remotely controversial, keeping tight instead to the platform of “It’s My Turn,” and “I’m Not Trump.”

The party, ideally, needs somebody of their choosing up on stage and under the lights who can stand as a true face of the Democratic Party. The obvious pick here would be Obama, but others might serve just as well. A charismatic chairman of the DNC, for example, or perhaps Joe Biden, unless he is determined to run himself in 2020. The objective has to be to stop allowing the Republicans to define what the Democratic party looks like, and to get a positive example out there who can do some good.

More, or at least equally important, the party must advance a core set of positive programs to frame the difference between the parties and provide a reason for support that is keyed to something other than the negative. In plain words, the “Anybody but Trump” issue is not going to be enough to win any election, and if that turns out to be the central issue this fall, it is an omen of disaster for the Democrats.

The recent primary upset of New York Congressman Joseph Crowley, the ten-term representative from the Queens who was number four in the Democratic caucus and looked on by many as Pelosi’s successor, should be a clamoring alarm to every Democrat running for anything anywhere. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old waitress and community organizer from nowhere who pulled it off, spent one-tenth the money and was totally ignored by the DNC, the DCCC and the entire Democratic establishment of New York. But she concentrated on hard Democratic issues without flinching or softening or sugar coating anything – her platform was a list of Democratic Socialism straight out of Bernie’s playbook. Crowley tried to telephone in a plain vanilla centrist campaign that would not ruffle any feathers. Ocasio-Cortez set up a grassroots organization right out of Obama’s playbook that ran into every corner of her district, and then personally hustled around shaking every hand, kissing all the babies, and talking the arm off everyone who would listen. Crowley stayed in Washington, relying on what money would buy and sending stand-ins to show up when a personal appearance was demanded. The result should have been predicted: Ocasio-Cortez clobbered the insouciant congressman by a landslide 15 points - 57% to 42%.

The lessons should be obvious. There has to be something more to the Democratic promise than “Anybody but Trump.” There have to be positive programs being advanced that will define the party and attract the essential votes from the undecided independents. The Democrats have to quit running away from legitimate Democratic principles just because Republicans threaten to call them “socialistic.” Bernie Sanders should have taught all that they did not have to cover up mainstream Democratic philosophy in order to motivate the vital core of independent or undecided voters.

Ocasio-Cortez’s list isn’t that bad: Medicare for all; free community college; increase the minimum wage; and a guaranteed jobs program for all who want work, to name a few from her basic set. In other words, a refocus and underscore of core Democratic issues promoting the social and economic empowerment for the average person. The key here is for the Democrats to step up and claim ownership of Democratic issues in Democratic terms, and not allow the Republicans to define them in Republican terms.

If the Democrats do not get busy and start to reverse these Republican stratagems right now, the midterms may turn into a disaster and the result in 2020 may very well be 2016 all over again.
 

Eye on the ball

mckrr

There is no end to the awfulness emanating from the Whitehouse. Even when Trump is right, he manages to make it wrong just by the clumsy, crass manner decisions are being implemented. Consider:

Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Iranian nuclear deal for no good reason, announcing that he intended to reimpose economic sanctions. The international political problems of this move are monumental. But the economics of Trump’s actions are going to present some fascinating opportunities that no one is paying attention to, yet.

By definition, economic sanctions are two-way streets, meaning there are significant economic costs to both the imposing nation and the nation being punished that are functionally equal. It is one thing to impose economic sanctions on a targeted nation as part of a multinational plan where all the allies agree to join in; the cost of the policing action is shared among all the participating nations. But what of unilateral sanctions that are attempted by the United States alone, when the allies do not join in? Trump has announced that he will impose unilateral sanctions upon any company from any friendly country caught dealing with the Iranians.

Exactly how does Trump expect this move to go over with our allies? Or at home? All of our allies in Europe seem determined to keep the Iran deal alive. They have announced a nine-point economic plan to rescue the pact. Although no details are available yet, stripped of the diplomatic trappings the clear intent here has to be for Europe to provide Iran with a means of working around any U.S. sanctions. As this plot begins to thicken, the possibilities multiply. For anyone with inside knowledge and a willingness to bend the rules or take advantage of circumstances, there is money to be made on both ends of any sanction situation.

Take a look at what is happening in the other half of the world. The U.S. Department of Commerce announced a series of economic sanctions against a giant computer electronics manufacturer in China commonly known as ZTE. This outfit has been selling computer equipment to all the countries on the forbidden lists – Iran, North Korea, Syria, Sudan, etc. – for years, and had already paid huge penalties imposed by the world court Then it was revealed that ZTE puts out cell phones with secret devices to capture data that is transmitted to intelligence gathering facilities in China – raising the specter of national security. As a current sanction imposed just by the U.S., ZTE was forbidden to do business with any U.S. resource for a period of seven years.

ZTE immediately began cutting back its operations, which involved cancelling billions of dollars of orders from parts manufacturers in the United States, causing panic and predicted huge losses here. According to the N.Y. Times, it is estimated that 4/5ths of ZTE’s high-tech parts come from U.S. sources. Imposition of the sanctions would result in staggering losses to some U.S. suppliers

So, Trump reversed course and announced that he will step in to help out with ZTE – presumably to lighten the sanctions and thereby save the Chinese company’s bacon. The move was announced as a measure to bring relief to the U.S. suppliers notwithstanding the national security concerns.

Then it was revealed that Trump’s U-turn on ZTE came right on the heels of the announcement of a $500 million investment by China into one of Trump’s golf course and hotel operations in Indonesia. Obviously, the Whitehouse promptly gushed, just a serendipitous coincidence.

Yeah, right. Isn’t it more likely that this fiasco means that unilateral imposition of sanctions on friendly companies in other instances will come with caveats and exceptions and back-doors so that, in the long run, all these deals can turn into one-offs that depend upon pragmatic measurement of the economic turmoil brought upon the related countries, including the U.S?

Since it looks like there might be huge bucks to be made here, why not? U.S. unilateral sanctions can easily be turned into a political morass, with corruption, influence pedaling, pay for play and every other ill that might befall. All anyone has to look at to understand the fortunes that might be at play here are the millions of dollars that Michael Cohen amassed from a handful of gullible companies for absolutely nothing. What are the odds that a substantial part of this money did not find its way into one of Trump’s pockets? Is there anyone about who actually believes that Trump and his minions will resist the opportunities that are going to spring up in the Iran business, once the spinning begins in earnest?

Let us just try to keep our eye on the ball here.
 

How do you spell ‘denuclearization’, again?

mckee

The headline says Trump to meet with Kim Jong-un. “Well now,” you say, “He’s going to do what you wanted all along! Aren’t you happy?” In a word, no, not at all. But I can see there may be some explaining to do.

A persistent theme of these random essays has been that we were going in the wrong direction with Kim Jong-un and the problems in North Korea. That we needed to reverse course on many of our hard-edged policies if we were to pursue a diplomatic solution. So, you think, Trump agrees with this, huh? Not exactly.

Up to know, our great fear has been that Trump’s bumbling about with his tweets and sophomoric threats was going to accidentally propel us into the middle of a thermonuclear war. All of us, except maybe some pack of iconoclastic war hawks, overwhelmingly and universally want Trump to pack his tweets away and STFU. We see a diplomatic solution as the only acceptable resolution.

But there is a protocol to these things that has to be observed. Our policy goes back more than 70 years when we agreed to the division of the Korean peninsula into two countries but then never formally recognized the second government. Our stated policy has been for reunification of the peninsula and elimination of the second government, which has been a consistent thorn in the side of all three Kim’s. For over 60 years, there has been no peace on the peninsula, only a military truce. We have steadfastly resisted any efforts to elevate the generals’ deal into a formal peace treaty that could be ratified between nations, and we have kept a U.S. military force on the 38th parallel – another thorn in Kim’s side. For over 20 years, ever since North Korea pulled out of the international non-proliferation pact, the United States has refused to participate in any bilateral talks on nuclear arms. This has been perceived to be a personal affront to the leadership of the Kim Dynasty. We would only condone multi-lateral talks involving all the stakeholders, and then only upon the precondition that North Korea give up its nuclear arms before commencement of any talks. Wrapping the subject of diplomacy in this much red tape has had the expected result – nothing productive has happened in over 70 years.

The intricate web of international relations with our allies means the ship of state cannot be turned on a dime. It takes a ton of international preparation, not just with North Korea but with all our allies, if we are going to zoom off in a new direction. We are ill prepared to handle this task on any hurry-up basis. We don’t have an ambassador in South Korea, nor an envoy or emissary in North Korea. There is no formal chain of communication between the U.S. and North Korea. The State department senior expert on North Korean affairs just resigned. His department has been decimated, and there is no adequate staff at State or in the Whitehouse to prepare the President for any top-level meeting of leaders. There is no agenda, nor any protocol for the creation of one. The subject is said to be “denuclearization,” but nobody knows exactly what this is, or if there is an agreement between the parties on what the term means. Even for a low-level conference between nations, these haphazard conditions would be a recipe for disappointment; at the highest level, it could be disastrous.

Also, as a matter of fundamental negotiating strategy, one seldom starts out by standing on the objective where one wants to end up. The start should be with some defined and expected matters where there is already a leaning toward general agreement, so the process can work around and up to the problem areas.

Finally, in international deal-making, any meeting of leaders does not occur first, it happens last – after others have worked over the problems and smoothed the way. To start with the leaders, with no preparation and with no effort to get all the preliminary agreements in order, there is a significant risk that if the whole thing doesn’t collapse in heap, it will end up being a hugely lopsided disaster for somebody.

It is into this midst of this hoopla that Trump suddenly stepped in and announced a U-turn on decades of iron-fisted U.S. policy. Without preamble, he has agreed to a direct, one-on-one sit down with Kim Jong-un. Over the uproar from both right and left, he has doubled down, cut the legs out from under everybody who has tried to soften or walk back any of his resolve, and announced that it is going to happen in May.

In international diplomatic time scale, that is the day after tomorrow. The old fool and rocket man. All by themselves. Across a kitchen table somewhere. No script and no menu. And we haven’t even lettered the place cards or thawed out the turkey.

What could possibly go wrong?
 

The power of knowledge

mckee

Mass gun violence is the tip of an iceberg-sized problem surrounding the issue of unrestricted and unregulated private ownership of any type of gun by any person of any age. Many believe this issue to be a Constitutional and God-given right inherent to life in our time, while many opposed consider even the subject of gun ownership to be the embodiment of all that is criminal and evil.

What are offered as solutions fly from both sides, with passionate arguments and earnest entreaties overflowing. But neither side listens to the other, and the result has become toxic. Rationale debate is not feasible. An untenable stalemate looms.

Fundamental to understanding the dilemma may be the realization that neither side truly know what it is talking about. Both sides offer empirical example and intuitive reasoning, and both sides spin raw statistics to support any proposition advanced, but neither speak from a base of actual knowledge – which is impossible, because there is no adequate base of knowledge to work from.

The inadequacy the body of knowledge concerning guns and gun violence is striking – it is essentially non-existent. Since it seems obvious that we may never find an answer to that which we do not understand, this lack of knowledge has to be a critical failing

It is true that there are extensive reports and narratives of every catastrophe that has befallen us over the years. There are press narratives and current reports of the mass shooting, and some results are occasionally tabulated by the press, but that is about all. Complete, reliable and up-to-date statistics are not available. There is no central repository for data. There are no studies examining various aspects of gun usage and comparing alternatives. There is no agency or bureau responsible to coordinate studies or correlate research. There are no reliable publications or journals for the dissemination of scientific or academic research.

As a result, there has been no comprehensive examination of any kind into gun ownership, the circumstances leading to gun violence, the types of guns used and available, the attractions that each holds for given individuals, the potential for abuse, etc. There are plenty of “what’s” and “where’s,” but there are no “why’s” or “how’s.” There has been no attempt to study or compare the events of mass shootings, or of gun violence generally, into the circumstances surrounding them, the guns available, and the individuals involved, in the same manner that events of terrorism are dissected and scrutinized, to see if any data can be extracted.

While huge criticism is being heaped upon law enforcement for failing to spot red flags in advance of the recent shootings in Florida, these are easy calls to make after the fact. The plain fact is that there is no reliable research which has developed answers or protocols of just what are red flags, what these supposed red flags might have meant, or exactly what intervention might have been taken. It is one thing to have a signal that “some” trouble might be brewing and quite another to have a catalog of specific signals to look for to determine what specific event to prevent.

It can be done. We have demonstrated the ability to step in and head off specific terrorist attacks, for example, from just such carefully researched and studied catalogs of potential characteristics, indicia of trouble, of potential individuals involved, and indications of probable action that might be taken to intervene. There are full floors full of resources at the CIA, the FBI, the Department of State and the Pentagon pouring over terrorist activities. There are even academic degrees offered in terrorism and counter-terrorism studies. The value of all this has proved its worth repeatedly.

But if guns in the U.S. are involved, it is a different matter. There are no federal programs for the study of gun violence, and no federal grants or federal resources have been devoted to the effort. Congress, at the behest of the National Rifle Association, has blocked any meaningful research into the subject for decades. The Dickey Amendment, for example, enacted in 1996, essentially prohibited government funds being used for any research into gun violence and every Congress since has refused to revisit this ban.

This should not be tolerated. Congress could immediately repeal the Dickey Amendment and all its entrails. It could immediately empower, and fund as appropriate, thorough research touching on the ownership, use and misuse of guns involved in violence. Get a responsible government agency involved to head it up and coordinate efforts. Offer some academic grants for further studies. The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control might be the place to start, or a separate agency if one needs to be created. The problem certainly merits the effort. Eliminate all the restriction on the gathering or dissemination of data, statistics, or studies that presently exist. Any opposition by the National Rifle Association to any inquiry into this subject should be ignored.

There is no partisan divide here. This is not an “either-or” issue, it has nothing to do with the “us or them” mentality that has suddenly become prevalent in discussions between opposing views, and it certainly is not a “slippery slope” of any kind. Despite any protestations of the NRA, increasing our knowledge and understanding in this area cannot be a dangerous or controversial task. It is what we do when faced with what appear to be insurmountable challenges.

Knowledge is the key.
 

The futility overwhelms . . .

mckee

Our country is now into its second year of what is becoming the most devastating era of its history.

As we take stock of the accomplishments of the 45th occupant of the Oval Office, we can see the wreckage beginning to grow amid the once towering pillars of our proud nation. The promise to “Make America Great Again” rings hollow as our Congress grinds to a virtual halt, a variety of the Executive departments spin aimlessly under inadequate, incompetent or insouciant leadership, and our international standing falters as we stumble from one bungled crisis to the next.

We watch aghast as one debacle after another continues to pile up at the door of our newest president.

Foundations of our democracy that have survived all challenges for over 200 years are beginning to crumble under a relentless stream of narcissistic attacks coming, of all places, from the man we just elected to be president. This fool has surrounded himself with an inadequate staff of incompetent sycophants and has placed stunningly unqualified individuals at the head of almost every department. He insists that they carry out a crushing decimation of each agency’s ability to function, and they are complying by systematically disassembling every facet of government. In addition to whacking out personnel and programs, they have taken a meat ax to the whole of government regulation, with administrative repeals and rescissions that are dismantling essential authority of critical agencies in almost every area.

We turned to the Congressional oversight committees expecting some sort of reprieve and found they are entwined in partisan positioning with no reason to expect objective intervention. The national press has begun to treat all these circumstances as normal happenings. After initially raising a hue and cry but receiving no adequate response, the press now seems to accept the misinformation and evasion streaming from the White House complacently, almost as though it were business as usual, but then carefully cataloging the twists and turns the administration takes as it descends lower and lower, noting only on occasion the historical observation that we have never before sunk to such depths, and opining pontifically that things are surely going to get worse.

On the international scene, any semblance of a coherent, integrated foreign policy has long evaporated. Our State Department is in shambles. The responsibility for a comprehensive military mission for the two hot zones to which we are committed has been abdicated to the generals, despite the crucial necessity for civilian oversight.

Without listening to anyone knowledgeable, without paying any attention to the historical precedents, and totally ignoring our allies who are most directly affected, the arrogant fool – by his own personal, irresponsible actions – has brought us to the brink of a nuclear holocaust on the Korean Peninsula.

We wait for the special counsel to announce his findings. But this process may come too late. With the cooperation of one cable news channel and joined by countless talk radio outlets, the old fool and the major party supporting him are relentlessly trashing the work of the special counsel and his staff, and denigrating the Department of Justice, the F.B.I. and the entire Judicial branch of government. As unbelievable as it sounds, the tactic is working. Current polls reveal that a substantial number of us no longer have faith in our legal system.

The considered legal opinion seems to be that a sitting president cannot be indicted for a crime and blunt fact is that this Congress will not impeach. Even if the Democrats gain control of Congress in the mid-terms, and the House should then vote out a resolution to impeach, unless there is a dramatic shift in attitudes there will not be 67 votes in the Senate to convict. This means that no matter what comes out of the special counsel’s office, or out of any impeachment attempt in Congress, it is going to be 2020 before we get a true chance at a respite.

The futility of it overwhelms. I have decided to take to my bed and pull the covers over my head.
 

Of alternative facts

mckee

Just one year ago, in the midst of the diversions of family and holiday, we were anticipating with rapt fascination the day coming in mid-January where control of the world’s richest and most powerful ship of state was going to be handed off to a total unknown.

Those of a mind were determined to give Trump a chance, to see if he would grow into the job and actually see it through with some degree of competence and élan. We weren’t happy, to be sure, but this had all happened before and the country had survived.

We thought of Harry Truman, the small town haberdasher elevated to national prominence by machine politics, who was suddenly thrust into an office for which he was totally unprepared. We thought of Gerald Ford, the back-bencher plucked from obscurity to rescue us from the scandal of Spiro T. Agnew, who unexpectedly found himself in a job he had never wished for in his fondest of dreams. We even remember Ronald Reagan, the B grade movie actor of little demonstrated substance, but with a charm and charisma that had propelled him through the governorship of California and onto the national stage.

All of these men seized the reins of power in the midst of significant economic or domestic or international upheaval and proceeded to guide our country successfully through difficult and challenging times, elevating themselves to places of remarkable heights, far above the marks that history might otherwise have consigned to them. Was there any chance we might eventually say the same of Trump?

This week, in the midst of the same diversions of family and holiday, and after a full year of unbelievable hullaballoo, we can answer that question with conviction. The answer, in a word, is no.

Trump is incapable of following the pattern of any other President in history. While there are some who continue to cling blindly to their optimism, most of us are now convinced that the country is in the hands of an incompetent fool. He is, in the reasoned words of his own Secretary of State, a fucking moron, perhaps even mentally impaired, and very probably a criminal. Not only is there no chance of every seeing the common sense of Harry Truman, or the consensus building aplomb of Gerald Ford, or the charm and charisma of Ronald Reagan, the reality is that it is going to get much, much worse.

Of all of his failings and incompetence, Trump’s willingness to ignore the truth is the worst. His willingness to adopt anything from fabricated versions to bald face lies, and his intransigent refusal to correct even the slightest misstatements mark the complete absence of a moral compass. This failing was suspected of Trump from stories of his prior dealings and business relationships, but the clear demonstration of his complete disregard for the truth has provided incontrovertible evidence of this mortal failing – he is fundamentally a dishonest person, and this has become the standard of what the national press and the rest of the world have come to expect from the Trump White House.

As the year unfolded, Trump’s stupefying aversion to admitting any fact that was even the slightest bit adverse to him or his position, boggled. His penchant for reshaping even the most trivial of events to recast the circumstance into his favor, no matter how obvious the wrong or how easy it might be to ascertain the truth, and to insist that his version be the only acceptable report uttered from any official White House source – also boggled. If there was even the slightest negative cast to whatever event was being examined, a new version reshaped in Trump’s favor became the “alternative fact” – a phrase coined by KellyAnn Conway – to be repeated as often as required with an earnest and sincere look and without apology, and without any attempt to reconcile or harmonize anything to the actual events that really transpired.

To reinforce the distinctions, Trump began accentuating the differences by referring to the national or mainstream press version of events as “fake news” whenever there was an “alternative fact” distinction that Trump preferred. And yet, all of this is pure fiction, made up for the moment, coming from the Whitehouse is of no consequence for nothing of it seems to stick. As incredible as it may seem, these machinations on the part of Trump and his minions seem to be working. Remember Hesse’s predictions to the Third Reich on the value of propaganda?

Gallup Polls has surveyed American trust and confidence in the mass media to report the news fairly and accurately for the last 20 years. When Gallup first asked this question in 1998, over half of both Republicans (52%) and Democrats (53%) had confidence in news organizations generally. Until 2008, the overall percentage of those who generally trusted the media either a great deal or by a fair amount – both Republican and Democrat – was consistently above 50%. During the Obama years, the overall percentage slipped somewhat, to percentages in the mid 40’s, with the Republican responses trending somewhat below the Democrats.

But then, during the campaign of 2016 and first year of the Trump administration in 2017, the bottom fell out. The polls suddenly diverged significantly between Republican and Democratic responses, with Democrats generally staying much higher and indicating continued trust and confidence in the mass media while Republican responses plummeted to levels indicating significant corrosion. In the most recent examination, released in September of 2017 and reporting on polls conducted in March and July of 2017, Gallup reported that, of the Americans who believed the news media generally got the facts right, the Republican responders stood at 14%, the lowest percentage ever, with the Democrats at 62%, an increase well over prior periods.

Trump’s intent here seems obvious: to insulate and inoculate the hard right base from the growing mountain of facts pertaining to Trump’s fundamental incompetence - the boneheaded mistakes, the hair raising risks, and the firehose stream of faulty promises, misrepresentations, exaggerations and just plain pants-on-fire lies pouring out of every opening at the White House.

With his Cabinet sufficiently behind him and Congress in Republican hands, the machinery set forth in the 25th Amendment for declaring him incompetent poses no practical danger. He only has Mueller to worry about, and the danger of impeachment or indictment presented if Mueller finds criminal involvement. But if he can tamp the media response down, and slander Mueller sufficiently to cast doubt in the minds of the public upon anything he might report, he might weather the storm no matter what. If he can hold the public response to Mueller’s action to be nothing more than political outcries, it doesn’t matter what Mueller says; if its impeachment, the House probably won’t act. If it does, the Senate won’t convict. And if he makes it through without being convicted, the hard right might just renominate him anyway, even if Mueller does call him a crook.

If this is not enough to leave you talking to yourself, consider this. If Trump can keep his base insulated or inoculated from the mainstream caterwauling, and if Trump’s constant stream of lies, alternative facts and cries of fake news can wear down the barricades and crack the Independent voter’s level of trust and confidence in the media, or just leave him fed up and determined to go hide until it’s over, quelling the potential strength of any backlash uprising or protest demonstrations even further – Trump might just take the risk and fire Mueller outright, shortstopping the whole works.

And a Ho, Ho, Ho, to you, too.

(photo/Gage Skidmore)
 

How about listening (for a change)?

mckee

North Korea’s budding developments in nuclear weaponry coupled with its belligerent intransigence to world pressures for non-proliferation presents a significant risk to the entire world. These are not happy times, and most desperately hope that something can be done.

But mislabeling this tiny nation as a terrorist state is the wrong way to go.

Our President has already exacerbated the unfolding situation by an inexplicable stream of insults and derisive comments aimed at Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s dictator. He has confused the developing situation even worse by causing inconsistent and confusing diplomatic declarations to emanate from the Whitehouse, the Department of State, and the Department of the Defense. It does not appear that there is any coordination by President Trump or any of his Whitehouse spokespersons with either Secretary Mattis or Secretary Tillerson, as Trump repeatedly contradicts statements emanating from both.

He has deliberately cut the legs out from under Secretary Tillerson every time Tillerson appeared to be attempting to open channels for diplomatic discussions with North Korea, despite this being where the solution has to be found and despite this being what China’s Xi Jinping is advocating.

The upshot here is that circumstances in North Korea continue to appear unstable, and our action of unilaterally listing it as a terrorist state will not be helpful.

Shortly before setting out on his trip recent trip through Asia, Trump finally declared that he intended to allow China’s Xi Jinping to take the lead in working out a solution to the North Korea situation. This is a step that most experts in Asia affairs believe essential if any long term solution is to be found. Most noted with interest that once Trump made this declaration, the provocative actions and messages emanating from North Korea appeared to slow to a crawl. There were no tests or threats of tests of either missiles or weapons for some time, and no provocative tweets from the leader, Kim Jong-un. It is as if Kim was watching to see what China would propose and how Trump would respond, and was giving it all a chance by his inaction.

Trump, however, could not keep his mouth shut and has not kept out of Xi Jinping’s way. Our President continues to deride Kim Jong-un personally in in tweets and in speeches throughout his Asian tour. He continues to pressure Xi Jinping to impose harsher economic sanctions upon its neighbor. Finally, Trump recently announced that the United States would return North Korea to its list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism,” thereby paving the way for harsher economic sanctions to be imposed unilaterally by the United States.

By this action, the United States links North Korea with Syria, Iran and the Sudan, all notorious hot beds of radical Islam, fostering terrorist activities by al Qaeda and ISIS and their offshoots. There is no evidence that North Korea has any interest in radical Islam, or any connection to the activities of al Qaeda or ISIS.

To many knowledgeable students of Asian affairs, listing North Korea as a terrorist nation is a huge mistake. Although North Korea is a brutal dictatorship with few if any saving characteristics, it does not fit the description of a sovereign state sponsor of terrorism, and mislabeling the country will make diplomatic resolution of the problems that are actually presented that much harder. Trump has repeatedly expressed the importance of other nations demonstrating “respect” for the United States, but he has no understanding of the importance of the United States reciprocating with a demonstration of respect for others.

In particular, Trump clearly has no comprehension of the importance of “face” to the Asian culture. North Korea was insulted when George Bush lumped it together with the problem countries of the middle-east, referring to them all in an address to Congress as the “Axis of Evil.” The insult sabotaged efforts then to re-open negotiations towards nuclear non-proliferation. Trump’s actions today re-ignites the same insult, and may have the same result.

North Korea got itself put on the terrorist list once, for the 1987 incident of blowing a civilian South Korean airliner out of the sky, killing all aboard. It had also been selling weapons to known terrorist groups and harboring known terrorists who had fled to North Korea and sought sanctuary. North Korea renounced all terrorist activities shortly after being placed on the list, and kept itself out of this caldron of trouble until finally, in 2008, then-President George W. Bush de-listed it. This was as part of some attempts by the U.S. to move North Korea back into the non-proliferation pact nations, and was in exchange for North Korea’s agreement to dismantle a nuclear facility at Yongbyon. Although further attempts to get North Korea under the non-proliferation pact were unsuccessful, Bush did not renege on his agreement to de-list North Korea from the terrorists list.

Throughout all of Obama’s term, the United States repeatedly considered requests to put North Korea back on the list, but declined. The episodes raised as grounds for re-listing the country as a terrorist nation were considered military actions, not terrorist, or not sufficiently connected to terrorists activities. The decision of who to add to the list is exclusively that of the United States; this is not an international list in which any other country participates. The terms are not defined. The United States can do what it wants.

Kim Jong-un has consistently repeated the same explanation offered by his father and grandfather for building and maintaining a nuclear weapon capability: that he is not a terrorist but only intends to defend his country and the Kim legacy from being overrun by the West. It is plain wrong-headed diplomacy to lump North Korea in with al Qaeda, ISIS and the Arab nations supporting radical Islam, or with ISIS directly in the sponsorship of terrorist activities. The world’s particular immediate problem with North Korea is centered exclusively on its potential for developing a working nuclear weapon delivery system and the potential for a thermonuclear disaster. This is universally considered to be a military threat by a nation at war, not a potential terrorist activity.

The basic logistical requirements and the technical demands of sophisticated nuclear weaponry take any real threat of thermonuclear weaponry out of the realm of the terrorist entities. It is conceivable that terrorist groups might make use of nuclear devices that are less sophisticated – the so-called dirty bombs that might fit in a suitcase – but this technology is already widespread and not particularly exclusive to North Korea. There is no actual evidence that has been made available to the public that North Korea has any significant interest in these low-level terrorist activities. The world generally does not consider North Korea to be a threat through support of radical Islam, nor from any sudden and unexpected participation in terrorist activities there. From all appearances, its entire effort has been towards the development of thermonuclear devices and intercontinental delivery systems capable of reaching the entire world – which by definition and practical application is considered to be a national military endeavor.

It is time to overhaul our thinking in this area from the ground up. Get a big table set up and invite Kim Jong-un to come sit at it. Give Kim the stature and recognition he requests as a world leader on the nuclear stage. Consider, with the interests of China and Russia in mind, conditions under which North Korea may continue to control its arsenal of weapons for purposes of national defense. Examine the potential for economic development of North Korea, rather than economic oppression, as a more productive force for encouraging change. Leave the issue of reunification alone, to be dealt with over time by the people of the peninsula working independently and without external pressures.

Finally, after over 63 years, replace the general’s truce and get a peace treaty up to end the damn war. Then we can bring the tiny and unnecessary token combat force we have stationed over there home.

Maybe it’s time to take our foot off Kim’s neck and our thumb out of his eye and actually listen to him for a change.
 

Tillerson and the way out

mckee

Tillerson is an enigma. Most of the comment, from both sides of the aisle and all of the media, is that he is proving to be the least skilled and most ineffective Secretary of State in history. He has an inadequate staff and little support from those within his own department. He has developed no reliable connections in Congress. He has completely isolated himself, by his own choice, from the press. And he has more recently managed to wall himself into a corner with the White House.

In any ordinary times, his resignation would be inevitable. If General Kelly were not insisting that Trump make no more major staff changes until next year, he would probably be gone by now.

But these are not ordinary times. The world is on the brink of nuclear disaster unlike any presented since the height of the cold war, brought to a head by an ongoing volley of insults between Trump and the dictator of North Korea. Tillerson, alone in the Trump administration, advocates a diplomatic solution. He has expressly declared that a military solution would not be tolerable. His efforts are not, however, in line with the tenor of comment coming from the Whitehouse and elsewhere.

Trump, and the cabal of sycophants he has surrounded himself with, are far more inept and ill qualified to meet the international challenges than is Tillerson, as inept as he may be. Of all of the other voices within the administration weighing in on this matter, the most reliable sounds come from three hard edge military generals, who can only see military solutions to any problem, and a former hill-billy governor, who is trying hard but is already in way over her head.

The military solution does have a seductive appeal. So long as China stays out of it, the U.S. would probably prevail in any conventional military action on the Korean Peninsula, albeit at a horrible cost. Unless China comes to its aid, which it has said it will not do, North Korea does not have the economic capacity or the industrial substructure to sustain extended, full scale warfare. In the long run, this would mean success under the military approach, but a cost of potentially millions of lives in South Korea and perhaps Japan and Guam. Most objective commentators see this cost as too great to warrant the risk. Also, despite its promise, there is no guarantee that China would stay out, which would dramatically change all odds.

A diplomatic solution is not an off-the-wall pie-in-the-sky. North Korea was a full party to the international nuclear non-proliferation treaty from 1984 to 2003. Kim Jong-il, then dictator of North Korea, walked away from the treaty obligations following the hostile remarks of President George W. Bush, who lumped North Korea in with Iran and Iraq in what he termed the “axis of evil.” When Bush launched the U.S. attack against Sadam Hussain and invaded Iraq, Kim Jong-Il disappeared into hiding for over two months, convinced that the U.S. intended to pursue him and invade North Korea next.

Kim Jong-un, the son of Kim Jong-il and currently the dictator in sole control of the North Korean regime, has repeatedly stated that his buildup of nuclear and missile arms is for defense only, intended to prevent outside influences from attempting to overthrow his government. He is convinced that the United States intends to oust him from office, collapse the North Korean government, and bring about a reunification of the Korean Peninsula. This fear is neither surprising nor unreasonable, for this is exactly what every President from Dwight Eisenhower forward has declared to be the United States’ policy objectives for North Korea.

In response to world efforts to convince North Korea to return to the non-proliferation movement, the North Korean leaders have repeatedly stated five requests to be considered at any such discussion: (1) that the West stop promoting regime change or regime collapse; (2) that the West stop advocating reunification of the peninsula; (3) that the U.S. withdraw all forces from South Korea; (4) that the economic sanctions against North Korea be extinguished; and (5) the U.S. and its allies complete and ratify a formal peace treaty to formally end the Korean Conflict of the 1950s.

Up to now, the United States has refused even to discuss any of these requests. Instead, the U.S. has established what it terms is a non-negotiable, non-debatable condition that before any discussion of any issue with North Korea can occur, North Korea must first and immediately surrender all of its nuclear weapons. The United States insists that North Korea capitulate to this demand in its entirety before any discussion on any other topic will even be considered.

Every expert who has studied the issues and is familiar with Far Eastern cultures has expressed the view that this demand makes any accord impossible; no Far Eastern leader would willingly accept the loss of face and mark of disrespect that the capitulation demanded by the United States would entail.

Currently, Tillerson is the only voice actually advocating diplomacy. As long as he can hang on and weather the firestorm swirling around him, there exists the Pollyanna hope that he may prove to be the shining knight, due to arrive in the nick of time with a true solution. While Trump and Kim Jong-un are continuing to exchange insults and accelerate threats of disastrous consequences, Tillerson, according to David Ignatius of the Washington Post, is quietly working in backchannels, silently and away from the spotlight, to craft a broad diplomatic strategy to resolve the crisis. His plan is aimed at persuading China to take charge and lead a multi-national conference on the issue.

Most experts believe that for any diplomatic solution to succeed, participation by China is essential. China has a strong economic interest in sustaining a peaceful, diplomatic solution, as it has a common border with North Korea of almost 900 miles, shares a cultural history with the Korean people going back thousands of years, and has no desire to be dragged into a land war on the Asian Continent. The deep and long standing relationships between the two countries put the Chinese well positioned to understand, draw out, develop and implement the cultural underpinnings necessary to the success of any diplomatic resolution with the North Koreans – something the United States has repeatedly proven itself incapable of accomplishing, even with competent leaders running the show.

The huge problem Tillerson faces is convincing foreign officials that he speaks with any authority in light of the barrage of contradictory statements and twitter messages emanating from the Whitehouse, and Trumps’ demonstrated penchant for cutting the legs from under his cabinet officers. While Trump initially appeared to support allowing China to lead in the search for a diplomatic solution with North Korea, he almost immediately clouded the issue by first criticizing Xi Zenping in the manner of his approach and then threatening to impose sanctions upon China, because Trump did not believe Xi was acting swiftly enough. Trump appears to be incapable of keeping his nose out of it, but insists on continuing to direct and criticize, even when the outcome is in the control of others.

Tillerson, in his discussions being held behind the scenes with both Chinese and Russian resources, has indicated an interest in at least opening discussions with North Korea along any lines, just to get talks started. He is looking for China or Russia to broker and manage the beginning of any discussions, with the United States staying out of the way. He seems to indicate an understanding that any solution with North Korea will have to afford an acceptable degree of respect for the regime and its leader, and will have to be structured to allow Kim Jong-un the opportunity to save face.

An appropriate response to these proposals seems obvious to many onlookers: why not? Get the players around a table somewhere and get the talks open. See where it goes. Listen to the other side. Find out what they want. There is no necessity for an extensive pre-condition to just opening talks. No deal will happen without everyone’s agreement, but that agreement does not have to be pre-ordained to make the conference productive.

So far, Trump’s provocative tweets, and the formal statements emanating from the generals and others to explain Trump’s tweets, have all looked towards the military solution. Nevertheless, despite the firestorm of bad press, Tillerson is still at it, and has recently declared that he has no intention of quitting. Trump has declared that he has complete faith in Tillerson, and no intention of firing him. If this latter part is true, and Tillerson can keep from getting his rear end fired, he just might be able to find the way out.

He will, of course, have to stop calling Trump a fucking moron.

And nobody seems to care

mckeelogo1

What was once considered the immensely capable and respected United States Department of State, the entity responsible for carrying out the complicated details of our political, economic, cultural, humanitarian and military foreign policy throughout the entire world, and the entity most responsible for maintaining what was once the United States’ dominant position as the leader of the free world, is crumbling into oblivion. It is being systematically dismantled through the deliberate destruction, the negligent inattention, and the amateurish bumbling of President Trump and the bungling of his cabal of amateurs, including his Secretary of State Tillerson. Most of us are not paying attention, and nobody seems to care.

We have been refining and honing this massive administrative behemoth of a department to implement and carry out our foreign policy for over 75 years – through 37 Congressional elections, 19 Presidential elections, and 9 complete reversals in administration from one party to another. The tradition has long been that the core machinery of the State Department is apolitical – unchanged and unchanging throughout the entire period, despite the political swings of the nation and the various changes in administration.

At the beginning of 2017, the department was a huge, labyrinthine web of interconnected diplomatic resources headquartered in Washington, with tentacles to every corner of the world. It employed over 70,000 individuals. It was a Department that, on a moment’s notice, could marshal the knowledge of thousands of employees worldwide and channel the specifics on any subject directly to the office of the Secretary, making him the best informed principal in the world at any given time and on any given subject. No country could come even close to matching the depth of resources and thoroughness of the U.S. Department of State.

All of this is changing, and much of the change is irreversible. On the day President Trump took office, he demanded that every political appointee of a predecessor administration within Department of State resign or be fired. These were not requests for “as soon as your replacement is appointed” actions, but rather “clear out your desk right now” demands. All of the political appointees were gone by the following weekend. Of the political appointees at the very top level of State, only a handful of positions have been filled. The critical position of deputy secretary, and most of the key undersecretary posts, remain vacant.

As soon as Tillerson assumed his office at the head of the department, he began to weed out and discharge career service employees – the core of the department that usually does not change with changes in administrations. He announced an intent to implement a 37% reduction in force. Tillerson encouraged the early retirement of many senior foreign service officers and career specialists in his plans of reorganization, while others were just laid off upon the grounds that their positions were being eliminated in the downsize. Lateral transfers are prohibited. Tillerson cancelled the incoming class of foreign service officers – a step akin to the military deciding to forgo commissioning the graduating classes from the service academies. Current managers are being told that three positions must be eliminated to support replacing one open vacancy. One result of this meat-ax approach is that the seventh floor of the Department State – the true nerve center of foreign policy for the entire world – is virtually empty.

The crushing impact of all of these moves upon the career officials throughout the department is telling. Morale is very low. Resignations and early retirement from frustrated career employees are pouring forth, with few applications from qualified individuals to replace them. The remaining career employees, excluded from consideration of policy issues, with normal channels of reporting and networking disrupted or eliminated completely, and without access to information or guidance from leadership, are appearing to wander aimlessly.

All of the ambassadors who had been politically appointed by any previous administration were recalled and dismissed. Only a handful have been replaced, and none of these are in any critical hot spots. Most of the European countries and most of the Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Afghanistan, have no ambassadors. In the critically important Pacific Rim, we have no ambassadors in Australia, China, Japan or South Korea. We only recently designated an ambassador to Russia.

The expectation that Tillerson would surround himself with knowledgeable experts in the specific areas where he lacked experience, did not happen. Instead, Tillerson has gone to outside consultants with no foreign service experience for the reorganization, ignoring the expertise available from within the department and paying no apparent attention to the relative value or importance to any of the particular positions and operations being eliminated. Tillerson eschewed building a personal staff with experience that he could rely upon; his staff, which in past administrations has approached 25 specialists in various areas, now consist of a chief of staff with no experience in state affairs and a former long range policy wonk. Two people. Period.

Both operate without immediate technical staff support and, according to some sources, are completely overwhelmed. They are not utilizing the resources of the department. They are suspicious of anything coming up the pipeline from career officials and yet do not have the knowledge personally. The result is that the entire operations of foreign policy being conducted by the Secretary or the President on almost a purely ad hoc basis. This has already involved critical interchanges where significant blunders have been made, involving China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, other states of the Middle East, the NATO allies, and Great Britain, Australia, Mexico, and even Canada. Canada!

While everybody is watching the machinations within the White House itself, no one is paying attention to the surging tides of foreign policy and the inadequacies of the United States’ responses that are forthcoming from State. While all of our attention is on the amateurs continuing to spin the White House into shambles, or upon the President continuing to fumble his way from one media disaster into another, nobody is paying any attention to what is happening a few blocks away at Foggy Bottom.

The marginalization of the core of our foreign service and the major disintegration of the diplomatic corps needed to carry it out is occurring right under our nose. The only one clearly cheering is Bannon from his new perch on the outside, crowing at last that the demise of the deep state is at hand. Experienced watchers now predict that it will take years to repair the damage already done the machinery of State, with worse yet to come.

And nobody seems to care.