Friday, March 16, 2018

The Titillating Attraction of Evil

Hitler's Circle of Evil (2017)
10 one hour episodes

Netflix is currently streaming a ten episode series depicting the history of National Socialism in Germany from the shock of Germany's defeat in World War I, through the formation of the Nazis and their failed beer hall putsch (November 8, 1923), their subsequent electoral rise during the Great Depression, their establishment of a police-state around Hitler's cult of personality, the re-militarization of the Rhineland (March 7, 1936),  the Austrian Anschluss (March 12, 1938), the invasion of the Sudetenland (October 1938), the annexation of Czechoslovakia (March 15, 1939), and on through the years of World War Two.  As the title suggests, the story is told through the lens of Hitler's inner circle of rivals.

The core conceit of this documentary is that from beginning to end, the driving force of Hitler's team of rivals was self-promotion and competition for Hitler's favor. That is surely a gross caricature, but it lends a coherence to the drama.  The series mixes archival footage with cheesy set pieces.  The actors for the set pieces reflect a low budget affair. They are unconvincing and miscast. But it does not matter: the set pieces are abstract illustrations for the background narration. The music and tone of narration are overwrought in service of the central theme: the Machiavellian scheming for power among Hitler's inner circle.

The story is narrated by several scholars of mixed background. There is Frank McDonough a historian on the Third Reich at Liverpool's John-Moores University, Emma Craigie, a novelist who researched the last days of Helga Goebbles who was killed by her parents in Hitler's bunker at the end of the war, a German military historian, Soenke Neitzel, who has written extensively about the mindset of German soldiers during World War 2, Thomas Weber a history professor at the University of Aberdeen who has written several popular books on World War 2, a journalist and writer with a flair for the dramatic, Guy Walters, a retired old coot with a flair for the melo-dramatic, Michael Lynch, a biographer of Goebbles, Cardiff University professor Toby Thacker, and the still dashing Richard Overy, University of Exeter. There are contributions from others; amazingly, the film credits do not include the talking head experts, although they are identified as the story rolls along.

"This is the inside story of Hitler's henchmen, the jealousies, power struggles, and falling sycophants that will create a monster and fuel the most brutal horrors of the Third Reich," intones the narrator. It's a detailed and instructive exercise. We hear the echoes of this era in the Trump administration--the favoring of extreme personalities over experience and competence, the impetuousness, the use of propaganda and lies to further political ends; but it's also clear why, Timothy Snyder notwithstanding, America today is nothing like Nazi Germany in the 30's.  The GOP does not have a military wing. No agency and no person has the power to build up a paramilitary army of thugs like Ernst Roehm's Brownshirts (the SA) which numbered 3 million by 1934, more than four percent of the population, or a criminal police and intelligence force like Himmler's SS, which numbered another 240,000 by the mid-30's.  It's reassuring.

It's also a little like watching Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous. There is something creepy and voyeuristic about the tone and presentation. "They would not have thought that they were doing anything immoral," said one commenter. And it's true. The Nazis thought they were paragons of the new man and a new society; they thought they were striking a patriotic (and virtuous) blow for the Aryan race. There is a quiver of excitement in Michael Lynch's voice. We are attracted to Hitler and his henchmen, the same way we are attracted to Al Capone. We may be watching the architects of "the most brutal horrors of the Third Reich," but there is something titillating about the presentation.  It's just like the press and 63 million voters found Donald Trump titillating in 2016. It's just like the German people found this cast of characters titillating in real life from 1933-45.  Therein lies the lesson.

The series was produced by Headgear Films in England and released world-wide in several languages.  Here is executive producer Phil Hunt talking about movie producing in general.  They produce about 30 films a year.  

You can view the trailer HERE.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Gun Right Advocates Undermine our Freedoms

After every mass shooting we have endured, the conservative pro-gun crowd strenuously argues against any kind of gun regulation. Gun ownership is a God given right, they say, recognized by the 2nd Amendment. In the land of the free and the home of the brave it's a glorious thing to own guns. It's an emblem of our freedom.

Here is the price tag of inadequate gun regulation for  2016, a not atypical year:
  • 14, 925 gun homicides 
  • 22,938 gun suicides 
  • 795 accidental deaths or undetermined intent
  • 84,997 gun related injuries ('15 data)
The price is too high. 

The Ongoing Price of Mass Shootings

Last Wednesday's shooting at a high school in Parkland Florida is just the latest in a long line of mass shootings of vulnerable unarmed people, that occur like clockwork in the US.  Nikolas Cruz, a 19 year old homegrown American white boy, amassed an arsenal of weapons, including a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle which he used to kill 17. Before that there was the Las Vegas concert shooting (59 dead with semi-automatic rifles),  the Orlando night club shooting (50 dead with semi-automatic gun), the Virginia Tech shooting (33 dead with handguns), Sandy Hook elementary (28 dead with semi-automatic rifle and bolt action rifle), the Sutherland Springs church shooting (27 dead with a semi-automatic); the San Bernardino shooting (16 dead with semi-automatic rifles); the Columbine High School shooting (15 dead from multiple weapons); the Fort Hood shooting (13 dead from hand-guns); the Aurora movie theater shooting (12 dead from multiple weapons); and many, many more. 

The beat goes on, and the conservative National Review editorial board this week responds in predictable fashion:  1) gun regulation would not be effective; 2) law enforcement should have and could have prevented this Parkland shooting because there were warning signs about the shooter; 3) the solution is to more vigorously enforce existing laws like violent crime generally and straw-man buyer cases; and 4) to take protective measures like posting armed guards in all schools.  

A shooter flaunts his arsenal
Nikolas Cruz photo/Instagram

Common Sense Gun Legislation Makes a Difference

I'm visiting my mother in Canada, where the incidence of mass shootings is seven times less than in the United States (0.8/100k  vs. 6.3/100,000 for males; 0.2 vs. 1.0 for women). Canada illustrates that sensible gun regulation works.

The lower incidence of mass shootings in Canada is not due to the fact that Canadians are blessed with better mental health. It's true, Canada has universal health care, and we in the U.S. have 28 million without insurance. The number of uninsured is on its way back up towards 44 million with the continued Republican underminding of Obamacare. But I'm skeptical that better mental health is the explanation. I am a dual Canadian and U.S. citizen and from my observations, Americans are not inherently more violent than Canadians.  

It's the availability of guns without meaningful oversight that's the problem in the United States.  The U.S. has three times more guns at large in the civilian population  (~90/100 people) than Canada (30/100 people). But this is not enough to make guns generally unobtainable in Canada.  A more salient difference is Canada has common sense gun regulation. Canada requires a license to own a gun and Canadians must produce a license to purchase a gun and to purchase ammunition.  If the police stop you with a gun and you don't have a license in Canada, the gun is seized. A license requires passage of the Canadian gun safety course. The safety course is more rigorous for restricted guns like the AR-15 models that are used in many mass-shootings in the U.S.  Possession of handguns is prohibited unless you need it for your job. Gun licenses need to be renewed every five years and the cost is not trivial:  ~$200.00 for a regular license for unrestricted guns and ~$345.00 for a license that will allow you to purchase restricted guns.

In Australia they have also achieved meaningful reductions in homicides and mass shootings through agressive gun regulations. Australia also reduced the overall availability of guns.

By contrast, gun ownership in the U.S. is a free for all. Generally we require no license or permit to purchase a gun or ammunition. See CNN re Florida. There are no mandatory gun safety courses, and fewer restricted categories of guns. Simple criminal background checks may be required to purchase a gun from dealers, but not to purchase a gun from private individuals.  No license must be paid for or presented to law enforcement officials upon demand.  Generally there are no limits to the number of guns an individual may own. Guns do not need to be registered. Handgun possession is not limited. Semi-automatic guns are not restricted.  

As Congress fiddles, mass-shootings continue to occur like clockwork. The argument that "there is nothing we can do legislatively" is nuts.  Look at Canada; look at Australia. Of course we can implement sensible gun regulations that will help. Requiring a license to purchase a gun, to possess a gun, and to purchase ammunition is an easy first step.  Requiring a gun safety course--which could have a mental health evaluation component--is an obvious second step. Requiring registration of guns seems like a good third step.  Limiting the number of guns that one individual can own (without some valid reasons) is a ready fourth step.

To permit an 18 year old like Nikolas Cruz  to amass an arsenal, including semi-automatic weapons, without any oversight whatsoever is the height of irresponsibility. Yet that is what National Review and the NRA keep advocating. 

The Right Wing Gun Policy Undermines Freedom

National Review is not saying we should do nothing. But what they are advocating in their editorial would go a long way to undermining our personal freedoms. 

Let us count the ways. 

National Review and Trump say all we need is to be more proactive in responding to warning signs.  They fault the FBI for not having acted more aggressively and proactively.  "Shooters never come out of nowhere," they argue.  If only the police were more proactive--e.g. by acting on information that was available about the Tsarnaeff brothers who committed the Boston marathon bombing, by acting on information of erratic behavior that was available about Nidal Hasan, the army psychiatrist who committed the Fort Hood mass shooting, or by reacting promptly to warnings about Nikolas Cruz wanting to be a "professional school shooter"--we would largely solve the problem, they suggest. "Everybody knew, nobody did anything," says the editorial.  

But for every Nikolas Cruz who says something alarming on social media, there are hundreds of others who say alarming things and don't end up as mass shooters. The FBI receives countless threat reports and the challenge of identifying which of these will result in a mass shooting, and which ones are just noise, is a daunting and often impossible task. To suggest law enforcement should be more proactive undermines freedom because in order to timely track down all threat reports received requires a massive increase in police resources, it means a large increase in police monitoring, and it means we (citizens) must authorize (or direct) the police to be hugely over-inclusive in their policing.  To act on every threat received in order to eliminate all who would actually act on threats implies a police state.  

Agressively enforcing existing criminal laws, including straw man buyer cases, is an illusory solution. It is tautological, of course, that if Nikolas Cruz had been arrested and thrown in jail before he acted, the shooting would not have occurred.  But to arrest every Tom, Dick, and Nikolas who makes threats on social media implies a lot of arrests. It implies prior restraint with a heavy police hand. It invites citizens to spy on each other and for the police to act on such tips.  It’s what the military does in Egypt. It's what police states do, it's not what we do in free and open societies that value free speech, including dangerous speech. Taking prior restraint seriously means eroding civil liberties. It means to curtail and chill free speech. We all would have to be afraid of arrest for saying stupid things on social media.

Encouraging such heavy-handed policing attracts the worst sorts to join our police forces. We see it now with our Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) troops. ICE attract bullies; it attracts people who revel in arresting parents who are driving children to school in front of their children; it attracts people who are politicized and who do not believe in due process in service of their politics. 

It’s a short step from prior restraint and encouragement of heavy policing to private militias. The white nationlist impulse that brought us Trump also encourages people to take matters into their own hands.  The Trump impulse promotes people who are willing to terrorize and drive off illegal immigrants and fellow citizens alike. Show us where the “bad” people are, we’ll get them.  That is not gun ownership in the service of freedom or self-defense, that is gun-ownership in the service of right wing vigilantism, terror, and fascism. 

The arguments advanced by the National Review editorial is a politer version of that despicable National Rifle Association recruitment ad by Dana Loesch that seems to openly call for civil war.  

If we want to preserve our civil liberties we need to introduce sensible gun regulations that will make a difference.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Thursday, February 8, 2018

President Trump Tweets the National Prayer Breakfast

President Trump's @RealDonaldTrump twitter handle has 47.6 million followers. In turn he follows family members, Matt Drudge, Anne Coulter, Laura Ingraham, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Fox Nation, Fox and Friends, Geraldo Rivera and other fixtures of the right wing media.

Our president lives in a social media and cable-news bubble.

Trump is infamous for undisciplined, emotional, middle-of-the-night tweet storms. Today he started tweeting at a civilized hour. The first tweet came at 6:00 a.m. with an announcement that he would soon be heading out to the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual gathering of social, business, and political elites in Washington DC--held the first Thursday of February each year. The event has been attended by all presidents annually since 1951.

"Our founders invoked our Creator four times in the Declaration of Independence," he intoned in a monotone and phony manner during his speech at the prayer-breakfast.

Trump may be equal to Elmer Gantry in hypocrisy, but he's no Burt Lancaster in his passion or delivery.  The man appears to be on quaaludes.

Trump has lied, exaggerated, and made dubious claims more than 2,000 times in the first 355 days since his inauguration, so it behooves us to be careful. But it's true, the Founders did invoke the Creator four times in the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence, however, did not make it into the holy canon of our founding documents. The U.S. Constitution, the true founding document, makes no reference to God or the Creator.  

The Declaration of Independence is a document justifying revolution. It is a statement from  a state of nature that pre-dates the constitution and the formation of the state. "All men are created equal," it asserts. The Founders did not realize it then, but that--of course--included slaves from "shithole" African countries. Trump still doesn't realize it.

The Declaration continues:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
None of this says America First, or #MAGA, or indeed that God prefers Norwegians over Haitians.

"As long as we open our eyes to God’s grace - and open our hearts to God’s love - then America will forever be the land of the free, the home of the brave, and a light unto all nations," tweeted Trump at 9:00 a.m.  Maybe. But what is God's grace and what is opening our hearts to God's love if not to look out for the least among us.

We look at the access Hollywood tape, we look at Trump picking on immigrants of color, and we look at Trump putting his thumb on the scale for the rich and powerful (including himself and his family), and withdrawing government support from the poor and needy, and we say "We understand why you lack all conviction and look like you're on quaaludes when you speak of God."

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Unprepared, Disinterested, Dangerous . . . and spending our money

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House
Michael Wolff (2018)
Little, Brown, 307 pp.

During the chaos of the transition from the Obama administration to the helter skelter Trump team, Michael Wolff proposed to write a book to chronicle the first 100 days of the Trump Presidency. On the strength of a flattering working title--"The Great Transition: the First 100 Days of the Trump Presidency"--Wolff was granted access to roam the White House to listen, observe, and interview whoever would talk to him. The resulting book covers the first year of the Trump administration up through the Roy Moore election, from a cat-bird's seat on a couch in the White House lobby.

The implied flattery in Wolff's working title, of course, depends on what the word "great" means. The book indeed describes a great transition: from normal, and in-control, to wholly unprepared, not normal, and out-of-control. This book does not flatter: it confirms in chronological detail what we all know, that things have turned out as bad as our worst expectations when Trump was elected president.

Wolff is a good writer. "A figure of strained affability. . . " he calls the American Conservative Union chair Matt Schlapp.  That description gets Schlapp, who has been appearing on the PBS Newshour of late, just right.

The book describes just how profoundly no one in the Trump circle actually expected to win the election. Why was he running?  We don't learn the answer to this question. We do get a glimpse of what it means to be utterly unprepared.

The book draws a portrait of Trump and his closest advisors, including daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, as utterly unprepared for the task of the presidency. "Everyone in his or her own way struggled to express the baldly obvious fact that the president did not know enough, did not know what he didn’t know, and did not particularly care, and, to boot, was confident, if not serene in his unquestioned attitudes," concludes Wolff. Trump does not read materials provided to him, he does not listen, and he has no interest in learning, appears to be the consensus in the White House.

"I've made stuff up forever, and (the press) has always printed it," Trump boasts in this book. The Washington Post has been keeping track and last week they tallied 2,000 lies from the President since his inauguration. "For Trump," says Wolff, "the enemy of everything was complexity and red tape, and the solution to everything was cutting corners."

There is not much surprising or new in this book. It confirms what we know. But by recounting the record of the first year of the Trump administration, suggests Michael Tommasky in the New York Review of Books, Wolff has provided a service by holding up the man and his administration for common assessment. It is a subjective account. Wolff shows us his portrait of this White House, but as we gaze upon it we recognize the likeness. It's not gossip because the point is to make us confront what we have done as a country by submitting to the leadership of such a flawed person.

Three more years of this seems like a very long time. We have a lot to fix, and we will receive no help from this administration.

The Nikki Haley Flap

Late in the book Wolff recounts how Haley considers herself the heir apparent to Trump.  Wolff portrays Haley as "ambitious as Lucifer." And she may be slated for Secretary of State, he suggests. "Haley had courted and befriended Ivanka, and Ivanka brought her into the family circle, where she had become a particular focus of Trump's attention, and he of hers. Haley, as had become increasingly evident in the wider foreign policy and national security team, was the family's pick for secretary of state after Rex Tillerson's inevitable resignation. . . . The president had been spending a notable amount of private time with Haley on Air Force One and was seen to be grooming her for a national political future. Haley who was much more of a traditional Republican, one with a pronounced moderate streak--one increasingly known as a a Jarvanka Republican--was, evident to many, being mentored in Trumpian ways. The danger here, offered one senior Trumper, "is that she is so much smarter than him." That's all neutral enough.

But then Wolff went on Bill Maher  and accused Trump of having an affair with Nikki Haley. "I just didn't have the blue dress. . . ," he says at minute two of the tape.  Sleazy! If Wolff didn't have the goods to put the accusation in the book, he shouldn't be slinging innuendo about it on Bill Maher in order to spike sales.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Read also:  

1. Brad deLong "Talking about President Donald Trump" 
2. Josh Marshall: Talking Points Memo, January 21, 2018, "Trump, Wolff, and the Secret of the Russia Story." 

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Trump Administration is Breaching Political Norms and Conventions: It's a big deal warns Neil Siegel

Neil S. Siegel, Duke bio
Neil Siegel, professor of law and political science at Duke University, has published an article [Political Norms, Constitutional Conventions and Political Norms, University of Indiana Law Journal, Vol. 93 (2017)]. He examines the norm-breaking of president Trump, and he argues that adherence to political norms, and constitutional norms—recognized conventions of behavior that are not articulated in the constitutional text—are essential to make the American political system work.

Political norms include the notion that there exist certain standards of behavior and morality that politicians should adhere to. For example, absent extraordinary circumstances, politicians should not lie or deceive about matters of public interest. Conventions are often followed simply because they have been adhered to in the past, and others adhere to them now. But when conventions break down, bad things happen.

An example of a political norm is the convention—prior to the adoption of the 22nd Amendment in 1951—that presidents serve just two terms. President Washington set the example, and the norm was followed until Franklin D. Roosevelt deviated from it under adverse circumstances--at which point we promptly enshrined this norm in the constitution. The two-term limit serves to limit presidential power and to keep dictatorship at bay. Another example is the tradition that has grown up around the Electoral College: citizens vote for “electors” who subsequently elect the President—casting their votes in conformance with the majority of voters. Although it is not spelled out in the constitution, it would be inconceivable today that states would appoint a slate of “electors” without input from voters, or that such “electors” would be allowed to ignore the will of the voters. Another political norm is that a party in power should not expand, or contract, the number of judges on the Supreme Court for partisan advantage, or strip the court of jurisdiction for partisan advantage. Senator Mitch McConnell’s decision not to bring President Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland up for a vote was widely viewed as violating a political norm.

Siegel catalogues a number of political conventions that President Trump has violated. “Candidate Trump,” Siegel points out, “indulged in racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, and mockery of the disabled in ways that are extraordinary in contemporary American politics.” He displayed uncommon hostility to the free press, prohibiting journalists and media outlets from attending his campaign events if he considered them antagonistic. As president he has exacerbated this violation by attempting to delegitimize the mainstream press in broad terms, accusing journalists of being dishonest people spreading “fake news.” Trump has baselessly threatened to blame the free press for any future terrorist attack on account of “underreporting” terrorist threats. He has called the news media “the enemy of the people.” Trump and several Trump associates encouraged Russian efforts to interfere with our election in 2016. Trump has suggested that a judge presiding over a case to which he was a party should recuse himself because of his Mexican ancestry, and he has sought to undermine the integrity of the courts by referring to opinions challenging his immigrant ban as “ridiculous” and rendered by a “so-called judge.”  He has launched similar tirades against the Justice Department, FBI, and CIA.

Through promotion of his personal business interests, Trump has crossed the line between government impartiality and government corruption.  “For him,” says Siegel, “private gain has been converted into public office, and so far he has shown no opposition to, and perhaps enthusiasm for, using public office to reinforce private gain for himself, his family, and others who are extraordinarily wealthy.” Unlike all recent presidents and candidates for office, Trump failed to release his tax returns.

Trump has fired FBI Diretor, James Comey, at least in part due to his investigation into the Russian meddling and its connection to the Trump campaign. He has attempted to politicize the law enforcement branches by threatening to “lock-up” Hillary Clinton after he was in office. Recently he criticized his attorney general for not investigating Clinton. His Vice-President’s politicized review of the troops in Jordan last week follows this pattern.

Trump has failed to follow established practice with respect to the vetting of his executive orders, most prominently with respect to his “Muslim bans.”  He regularly takes public positions on complicated and contentious matters without first consulting with experts.

Trump’s violations of political norms is corrosive, notes Siegel, and it is important that he be called out every time he does it. It takes a village, he suggests:

“Many individuals and institutions have a role to play. They include, first and foremost, members of Mr. Trump’s own political party, but they also include members of the opposition party, the mainstream news media (which must seek to overcome its own partial polarization), the courts in appropriate ways in cases properly before them, the institutions that constitute civil society, legal academics, ordinary citizens, and friends of the United States abroad in the various institutional roles they occupy.”

Some Swiss are trying to do their part. The American electorate must do its part later this year, and two years hence.

Zurich, January 23, 2018/Getty images

Read Siegel's abstract at Balkanization. Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Changing Immigration Policy to a Dystopian Vision is not Like Moving Chess Pieces

Dystopia: "an imaginary place where people lead 
dehumanized and often fearful lives"

Today (1/25/17), President Trump proposed legislation "that would provide a path to citizenship for as many as 1.8 million young undocumented immigrants in exchange for an end to decades of family-based migration policies, a costly border wall and a vast crackdown on other immigrants living in the country illegally." (New York Times) "The White House is holding these youth (Dreamers) hostage in exchange for (an) extreme immigration agenda,” suggests Kevin Appleby at the Center for Migration Studies.

The number of undocumented residents in the U.S. remains in excess of 11 million. What are they talking about with their "vast crackdown?"

The Trump administration wants to modify U.S. immigration policy to disfavor family unification and to prioritize immigrants with skills. They want to build a border wall to exclude migration from Latin American countries--and, presumably, to favor immigrants from Northern European countries. "It seems like a rational policy choice, even if it does not reflect the values the United States has been built on," suggests a friend. But is it even a rational policy choice?

The U.S. needs workers who are willing to work hard and contribute. Immigrants have generally succeeded in this country because they are motivated, and they are willing to work hard at skilled or unskilled jobs. Many undocumented immigrants from Latin America work in our agricultural fields,  on construction jobs, and in our restaurants. They are dependable and hard workers. The economy needs such "unskilled" labor just as much--and many more of them--than we need engineers. Building a border wall to keep out workers whom we need to fill jobs in our agriculture, construction, and hospitality industries is hardly rational.

Sergey Brin emigrated with his parents from Russia at age six. His parents had skills (his father is a math professor at the University of Maryland, and his mother is a researcher at NASA), but who could have predicted that their son would grow up to become the co-founder of Google? Tasking bureaucrats to handicap which immigrants will wind up contributing greatly to our society from an application form seems like a fool's errand. It's not particularly rational.

To invent terms like "chain migration," and to deploy this together with racist rhetoric, as reasons to oppose family unification policies in immigration, and to exclude needed workers from Latin American countries, is un-American. To focus this rhetoric on more than 11 million people, who may be undocumented, but who are firmly enmeshed in the fabric of our society and who have been contributing to our society for decades, and who are looking to America as a land of opportunity--like immigrants to these shores have always done--is hateful. It's also not rational.

Stephen Miller and John F. Kelly and their hard line supporters in Congress (think, e.g., John Cornyn and Tom Cotton in Senate; Bob Goodlatte in the House) are social engineers of a dystopian variety. I predict they will have a hard time in their effort to totally upend our immigration system.

Over at Crooked Timber, Chris Bertram reproduces a hopeful quote from Adam Smith (1723-1790), the famed British economist. Smith makes the point that when legislators make attempts at social engineering--and Bertram raises the current immigration policy debates as an example--legislators are not moving chess pieces: they are attempting to affect, and move, human beings. Unlike chess pieces, human beings have their own motive force, and that makes a difference. Changing an immigration system, this White House will find, is not like moving chess pieces.

Here's Adam Smith:
[The man of system] seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chessboard. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chessboard have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chessboard of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.
Trump articulates a preference for immigrants from Northern European (i.e. white) countries, he expresses disdain for "shithhole" countries like Haiti, or any number of African countries; he champions building a wall to shut off migration from Mexico--because they are "rapists," and "they don't send their best"--and he wants our system of immigration to opt for immigrants with proven skills, with money, and preferably white skin.

These White House dystopians will find this is hard to do in a country that has a long tradition of immigration, and where immigrants--even if not always welcomed at first--have always felt that if they work hard, they can make it here. Changing a four centuries old immigration tradition is hard to do.

Chris Bertram, a professor of political and social philosophy at the University of Bristol, has a book coming out in May that will shed light on this question: Do States Have the Right to Exclude Immigrants?  Keep a lookout for it.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Chinese Leadership Model: not something to be taken lightly

Xi Jinping and his Politbeureau Standing Committee/AP
October 17, 2017
Roderick MacFarquhar, a China expert who has taught at Harvard and written about China for decades, has a useful cheat sheet regarding the Chinese leadership in the New York Review of Books (1/18/18) "The Red Emperor" (paywall). It goes like this:

Xi Jinping: nominally two five year terms
(chooses PSC members)


7 Member Politbureau Standing Committee (PSC)
(reconstituted at each five year Congress)

25 Member Politbureau: the PSC members chosen from its ranks

376 New and Alternate Members of the Central Committee (CC): Politbureau members are chosen from this group.

2,287 Delegates to the party congress: CC members are chosen from this group

74,880 nomenklatura officals, local officials at county level and above, who report and are responsible to the CC.

90,000,0000 Members of Chinese Communist Party

The People’s Liberation Army: “belongs to CCP”

1.3 billion Chinese people

Notably, only seven percent of the Chinese people are nominally represented in this system in a democratic sense.  The fact that the army belongs to the Chinese Communist Party, and is not seen as representing the people, is striking. 

There is no obvious successor to Xi, who recently started his second five year term, says MacFarquhar, which raises some questions about Xi's long term intentions.  

China is a top-down dictatorship, and Xi Jinping is the strongest leader since Mao Zehdong died in 1976, notes MacFarquhar. 

In volunteer organizations, like a fraternal group of construction lawyers that I belonged to for many years, this kind of organization that spots willing and ambitious talent and pushes it up (and out), works well.  In a country the size of China, where the government owns and operates most of industry, see, e.g. my article at the Triclinium, Who is Shanghai Construction Group?, the risk of corruption, nepotism, and entrenchment of parochial interests is significant. 

The fate of human rights, and individual justice in this system is not so good.

China has a visions that its system will allow them to dominate for the long haul. Democracy has a challenge on its hand. For better, or worse, the Chinese are capable of long term planning. Are we still able to do this? This is no time for us to be electing corrupt, inexperienced, and authoritarian populists to the White House; this is no time for us to elect morons to Congress who ignore science and evidence, and who are more interested in party than country, and who can't plan beyond a two year election cycle. There is a competition on, and we had better shape up! 

We need more than demagoguery and "win elections at any cost." We need to find and elect people with smarts, wisdom, the good of the country at heart, and an ability for long term visions for the good of the country. Shoulder to the wheel, people!

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