A pivotal pathogen?

COVID-19 is now the topic du jour across the planet.  Perhaps nothing exemplifies the interconnectivity of our world than a novel virus that appears in China, then spreads to every continent but Antarctica.  As such, it’s causing humanity to rethink a number of trends.  We may look back on this time as a pivotal one.

The reaction to the excesses of globalism had already begun with the election of Donald Trump, who appealed in 2016 to those most left behind by the paradigm.  For the first time since Ross Perot warned in 1992 of the “giant sucking sound” of industry that would be pulled out of America through the North American Free Trade Agreement and similar arrangements, a president openly questioned whether the status quo was truly beneficial to America.  Long-ignored trade deficits with potential rivals such as China came under scrutiny, as did the practice of obtaining essential goods through such sources.

Today’s coronavirus scare will accelerate that trend, regardless how mild or deadly the virus is in the end, because for the first time, the vulnerabilities inherent in globalism are easy to understand:

While many are rightfully concerned about stopping the virus, few are focused on the fact that the more it spreads, the more the U.S. ability to treat any Americans who are stricken is vulnerable to the tender mercies of the Chinese Communist Party because of a strategic shift in health care that occurred without debate or decision in Washington.

Everything from antibiotics to chemotherapy drugs, from antidepressants to Alzheimer’s medications to treatments for HIV/AIDS, are frequently produced by Chinese manufacturers. What’s more, the most effective breathing masks and the bulk of other personal protective equipment — key to containing the spread of coronavirus and protecting health care workers — and even the basic syringe are largely made in China. The basic building blocks of U.S. health care are now under Xi’s control.

The list doesn’t stop at medical commodities, either.  The Trump administration has recognized how dependent the U.S. had become on China as a source of rare earth minerals, a strategic category of raw materials upon which many modern devices depend.  The U.S. has deposits of such minerals, but largely lacks the capacity to mine and process them — after all, everything is done more cheaply in China, right?

We are beginning to realize the multifaceted hidden costs of offshoring — costs that were never publicly factored into the promotion of globalism.  Over time, the public has come to appreciate how many manufacturing jobs were lost — jobs that provided useful work and a “living wage.”  Most criticism of the emerging global economy has been predicated on that aspect.  But what was good for the corporate bottom line devastated families both in the U.S. (unemployment and despair as skills became irrelevant) and in China (sweatshop hours, bad working conditions and little pay).  In fact, one of the revelations of the current crisis is just how bad China’s industrial and urban pollution has become.  In short, it’s cheaper to make things in China because labor can be underpaid or even conscripted, there are no Occupational Safety and Health Administration-type standards to worry about, and none of the manufacturers there have to worry about mitigating pollution (at least, until it embarrasses the government).  Those tacky inflatable holiday lawn figures (sorry, personal pet peeve) and other assorted non-essential trinkets cost far more than what WalMart charged the consumer who purchased them.

Globalism isn’t the only paradigm that will be questioned in the weeks ahead. Ever since the dawn of the Industrial Age, work increasingly has been performed outside the home, concentrated first in factories and then offices.  This drove a reorganization of society.  Families spent more time apart, as fathers, then mothers, increasingly found their sustenance by working for others.  This led to children learning more from schools and other institutions than from growing and learning within a family economy.  People left the countryside for the cities to find work.  The rise of suburbia cemented the necessity of automobiles and led to the invention of the traffic jam as infrastructure failed to keep pace.  Only since the creation of the internet has there been a serious attempt to change this equation by finding ways to work from home.

While it isn’t practical for every type of work, telecommuting may be about to get a huge turbocharge:

In the past week, companies across the U.S. have started canceling major conferences, halting most business travel and urging employees to work from home in response to the growing viral outbreak in the country. Few will require telecom operations as vast and complicated as ICANN’s, but as companies such as Twitter and Microsoft start shifting to virtual work en masse, the vision of a decentralized work world long promised by telecommuting evangelists is starting to materialize.

Even if businesses intend for their policies to be a temporary response to COVID-19, once it’s discovered that desk-based workers can be productive — possibly more so — without being corralled into cubicles, the public may seriously question a return to the old ways, with its long commutes, office squabbles and occasional control freaks.

Higher education has been gravitating toward more online learning for some time now.  As a result, many universities and colleges are somewhat prepared to continue their activity remotely by scaling up what they’re already doing in some areas.  The same cannot be said of most public elementary and secondary schools.

What if this pandemic led to decentralization, more time with family instead of traffic, increasing interest in homeschooling options, a desire for national self-sufficiency and security, and a return of well-paying industrial jobs to the U.S.?  There is a possibility the blight of COVID-19 may contain the seeds of long-term benefits.  The city of Enterprise, Alabama, has a monument to the boll weevil, an insect that devastated the cotton economy of the southern U.S. in the early 1900s.  Despite the infestation, farmers were reluctant to abandon cotton, due to its profit and ability to grow on land few other cash crops could tolerate.

Enter the lowly peanut.  An Enterprise (and enterprising) man convinced some farmers to switch to peanuts, and those who did found their fortunes rising.  By 1919, as the boll weevil continued its destruction, the county around Enterprise, Alabama, was the largest producer of peanuts in the country, and shortly began to produce peanut oil.  Local farmers continued to diversify their crops, adding sugar cane, potatoes and others, and the area found renewed prosperity.  All because of necessity brought on by a bug.

What lasting changes will today’s “bug” bring?

Some reflections

Most of the government is shut down today, in an homage to the late President George H.W. Bush.  Americans have been encouraged to reflect on his life.  So I will.  But first, a keen observation by another that mirrors my own thoughts:

It is in no way to insult George H. W. Bush — or any other president, for that matter — to ask whether the retooling of their calendars is an appropriate way for the people of a republic to respond to the death of an elected representative. Tomorrow, the press reports, is to be a “day of mourning” — a day on which the stock market will be closed, on which the federal government will shut down, on which the House of Representatives will begin a week-long break, on which various universities will cancel classes, on which the Postal Service will halt deliveries, on which the Supreme Court will adjourn, and on which major American newspapers will postpone events that they had previously planned to hold. Across the U.S., flags will be flown at half-staff for a month.

Why? Irrespective of whether he was a great man or a poor one, George H. W. Bush was a public employee. He was not a king. He was not a pope. He did not found or save or design the republic. To shut down our civil society for a day in order to mark his peaceful passing is to invert the appropriate relationship between the citizen and the state, and to take yet another step toward the fetishization of an executive branch whose role is supposed to be more bureaucratic than spiritual, but that has come of late to resemble Caesar more than to resemble Coolidge.

Well said, Mr. Cooke.  I’d also add that the current practice of naming $1 billion warships after presidents has the same effect.  (Why not return to naming carriers after famous battles/events in U.S. history?  Honor the many who fought – not the ones who gave the orders from a fortress in D.C.)  Presidents do have an impact on the course of history, and their lives are worth remembering and examining.  But in a Republic, they should not be revered.

So what about Mr. Bush?  Politics aside, I submit his greatest legacy and example is in the 73-year marriage he shared with Barbara — the longest marriage of any president.  This marriage survived the death of a child, issues of depression, and the rough and tumble of political life.  Our nation could use many more such examples of love and commitment.

I have mixed feelings about Bush’s presidential legacy.  Clearly he had a successful foreign policy run.  Desert Storm restored a large measure of faith in the U.S. armed forces that had been missing since Vietnam.  Almost 30 years later, though, one could argue America fell inappropriately in love with its high-tech military, to the point of misapplying it to problems that are not intrinsically solvable by force of arms.  Where Bush’s legacy is likely greatest, though, is in his handling of the end of the Cold War.  As the Soviet Union collapsed, and with it the Warsaw Pact empire, it was by no means a foregone conclusion the great transition would be a peaceful one.  The Bush administration navigated a failed coup against Gorbachev, Yeltsin’s populist revolt, and the thorny question of what to do with Germany after the Berlin Wall fell.  It was not an amateur’s hour, and the nation was fortunate to have at the helm what might have been one of the best-prepared presidents for such a time.

Despite such impactful success on the international stage, Bush was unable to translate the political capital from it to impact issues at home.  Exiting the Gulf War with an approval rating of almost 90 percent, within months his inability to articulate “the vision thing” as he put it, cost him support in an America facing economic turmoil and uncertainty in a post-Cold War world.  As the 1992 election cycle began, six words came back to haunt him: “Read my lips.  No new taxes.”  Only 18 months into his presidency, Bush relented on that pledge as part of a deal that was supposed to include spending cuts.  Predictably, the taxes rose.  The cuts never came.  Once again, the Democrats’ Lucy had yanked the ball away from Charlie Brown, and Bush looked foolish for having trusted his political opponents, who gloated over the misstep.  Coupled with his reference to a “new world order” in the wake of the Cold War, the tax issue cost him dearly among fiscal conservatives and those wary of international entanglements.  This opened the door for the challenge by Ross Perot, who pulled enough support away (including, I regret to say, my own vote) that Bill Clinton was elected president.  Comparing the two men’s resumes, it’s laughable to think America would reject Bush in favor of “the man from Hope, Arkansas.”  But as I’ve pointed out on this blog, critical decisions are made more often on emotion than reason, and in this case Clinton connected with people in a way Bush did not.  And so it was that two of the most conniving political creatures America has ever produced — Bubba Bill and Her Hillariness — entered the White House, beginning a three-decade-long spree of influence peddling and assorted other nefarious activities.

It’s worth noting, however, the letter Bubba found in the Oval Office from his predecessor:

Jan 20, 1993
Dear Bill,
When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.
I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described.
There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.
You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.
Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.
Good luck — George

That last line should serve as a model in our electoral system, which has devolved into political total war against those who disagree.  Since that transition in 1993, both Republicans and Democrats have been guilty of wanting to see a president from “the other side” fail, seeking political opportunity regardless the cost to the country.  We need to relearn the ability to stand firmly on principle while still extending an open hand to those of good will and honorable intentions.

We also need to regain the discernment to tell those honorable opponents from charlatans and snake oil salesmen.

Politically, I’m even less of a Bush family fan than I was in 1992, in large part due to what I believe to have been wrongheaded policy by Bush the Younger after 9/11.  Despite all that, I offer my humble condolences to that family on the passing of a man who, regardless any political faults, was clearly a devoted husband and father.  May our nation be blessed to have many more such men.  And may we continue to remember that even when they occupy the highest office in the land, they are still just that: men.

The rigged game

*Update:  While my original post focused on how a mandarin class in our society has rigged the electoral game, this post focuses on how the concept of representative democracy itself has some inherent flaws and weaknesses.  None can deny that the electorate is complicit in the development of the current mess.  After all, pitchfork parades and tar and feathers are still options.  And far too many voters think they’re “sending a message” by voting for candidate X, when in fact they don’t know candidate X’s actual record or stated positions.  In other words, they’re voting by emotion, not fact and reason:

…as noted above, many people vote as an expressive act. The typical Obama voter knew nothing of his policies, but wanted to be “part” of “something”. There are all sorts of cultural and emotional connotations associated with Team Pepsi, and people want to affiliate themselves with those signals. Team Coke is no better: many Republican voters are in favor of a culture of God, Flag, and Apple Pie, and cast a vote for the GOP as an expressive act, without knowing or caring the actual positions of the candidates they vote for.  ((This, too, figures into the Rise of Trump, since many of his supporters see him as a chance to wave a middle finger at the mandarins, but haven’t taken the time to actually parse what he’s said. — Jemison))

ORIGINAL POST:

Read these two articles, then ask yourself: why is it we put so much faith in elections in this country?

After the final vote count in Nevada, Hillary Clinton has 52 pledged delegates and Bernie Sanders 51 — delegates required to vote for them at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. All were acquired in state primaries and caucuses as a result of a vote of the people.

So Clinton and Sanders are virtually tied, right?

Wrong. Clinton is leagues ahead of Sanders in the overall delegate count, 503-70. This is because of “superdelegate” rules that allow 712 Democratic Party insiders to decide on their own whom to support at the convention.

The Democratic Party’s superdelegate rules, devised after George McGovern’s 1972 defeat, are not particularly democratic, reflecting an era when party officials were reluctant to lose control of the presidential nominating process.

The Republicans are little better:

That rule was fortified by amendments made at the Republican convention of 2012, ironically to handicap insurgent candidates in the future. It was a response to the phenomenon of Texas Rep. Ron Paul winning nearly all of the delegates in states like Maine, Minnesota and Nevada, in spite of losing wider initial contests in those states.

What point is there to elections if Elephant and Donkey insiders always get to pick the candidates?  We’re stirred up to resent the influence of “big money” in elections, but Big Political Party shenanigans constrain our ‘choices’ as much or more than does donor activity.  Is it any wonder our government’s policies are so out of line with what the people want?  The bi-factional ruling class makes sure the only “choices” the public perceives are slight variations around a tightly controlled mean.  That way they continue to do what they want, public wishes be damned.  The best explanation for Trump’s meteoric rise is that so many people think he represents a means to say “up yours” to the insiders rigging this game.  (He doesn’t; he merely represents another facet of that rigged game — the face that’s shown when the electorate needs to blow off a particularly large head of steam, as it does this year.  The real function elections seems to serve in our country is pacifying the electorate with the illusion they have some input into what Washington does.

As I’ve said in previous posts, I have no idea where this is going, but I’m pretty sure we won’t like the destination.  Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul were “insurgent candidates,” to use the term in the article above.  Agree with them or not, they had a developed view of how they would approach governance.  Perot self-destructed, but the other two were deliberately (and in the case of Ron Paul, frantically) marginalized by the party apparatus — and the electorate let them do it.

So, having passed those off ramps, the course our nation is on has led to The Donald and his yuuuuuge ego, Bernie Sanders and the usual “hey kid, want some free stuff?” come on of socialism, and Her Hillariness, who promises to do for Washington what she did for information security at the State Department.  At this point I’m tempted to just write in “George Washington” this November.  I don’t think it would make my vote count any less.

Wake me when it’s time to rebuild from the ashes.

Saturday Sounds (updated)

Ross Perot called it, way back in 1992: that the North American Free Trade Agreement would result in a “giant sucking sound” as good paying American manufacturing jobs fled to Mexico.  Two and a half decades later, that suction continues.  American leadership refuses to protect our borders, our values, and our economy from pillaging by multinational businesses that care not one whit for the so-called land of opportunity that gave many of them their start.

And our elites wonder why there’s so much anger out there in the electorate…

UPDATE: Feb 13 at 19:20 –  Vox points out a solid perspective on the fundamental flaw of what is called “free trade:”

When I was growing up we were taught in sixth grade that Democrats wanted “tariff for revenue only;” Republicans wanted protective tariff to keep manufacturing – and jobs – at home. Abraham Lincoln said of tariff, if he buys a shirt from England, he gets the shirt but the money leaves the country and pays wages to Englishmen; if he buys it from a US manufacturer, he has the shirt, and the money stays in America, paying American workers. This is, according to Ricardo, far too simple an analysis; but it appeals to reason. American goods may cost more without overseas competition, but the money and jobs stay/ cheaper goods are not always appealing to those who have no jobs to give then wages, and must rely in government to pay them for not working; and a sizeable number of “workers” resent being on the unemployment role and getting welfare aid.

The US establishment went to war in 1940, and suddenly produced tanks, rifles, airplanes, trucks, bandages, ammunition, cargo ships and battleships; when the American people rose up they drowned Germany and Japan in war materiel. The German war machine used animal drawn transport to supply much of the Wehrmacht; The United States turned the last cavalry regiments into mechanized units and the Red Ball Express that supplied Patton. I used mules to plow cotton fields during World War II; but our soldiers did not depend on mules for ammunition. If all our plants had been in Frankfurt instead of Detroit, the outcome might have been different.

Worth thinking about as we continue to watch what’s left of our industrial base migrate to shores with cheaper labor…