Thursday, March 23, 2023

Planeta Nostrum

It's cold in the shade, but sunny and clear on a beautiful Tuesday afternoon in Almada, Portugal just a five-minute ferry ride across the Tagus from Lisbon.  I'm 10th in line to get into Ponto Final.  Behind me a French group banters as to whether they should've gone to McDonald's instead.  In front of me an Italian couple wonder how much longer it will be.  And every so often the Portuguese maitre d' comes along and asks each group how many they are.  All of us are connected, not just by the fact that we're waiting to get into a trendy restaurant but also as heirs to Roman culture and language.

It is as much historical fact that Rome fell to Germanic invaders from the north, as it is that Germanic invaders from the north fell to Rome.  The rot of the Roman elite, both physical and moral, and its never-ending wars did bring the political entity that was the Roman Empire to an end in approximately 500 AD, but not before that Empire established cultural hegemony across much of Europe.  That 1500 years later I was able to get the gist of the French spoken behind me, the Italian in front, and the Portuguese to the side is a testament to this.

When directed to my table, however, English was the language of choice.  There have, of course, been many important empires between the fall of Rome and the establishment of the American world order after World War II.  But in political, military and especially cultural hegemony none have been as relevant in my opinion, as post 20th century America.  I have seen it with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears, from Tokyo to Lisbon.

It is sad that the America First isolationists will never realize how important their language and culture are to the rest of the world.  They may, at most, get a curated view of a few Caribbean islands on a bad cruise.  America is to the world today what Rome was once to the Mediterranean, only better. Constrained by the rule of law and an international order we help maintain, spreading our culture, our language and our prosperity everywhere we go.  I hope there are enough of us left to defend this vision in the coming years.

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Bukele's Sins

Criticize El Salvador's authoritarian president for the right reasons.

Let me be clear: the mistreatment of prisoners is absolutely incompatible with the rule of law.  However, this weekend I ran across an unfortunate editorial in El País which equates the parading of uniformly attired prisoners during their transfer to and processing at a new detention center with mistreatment and torture.  This editorial shows how out-of-touch certain sectors of the global elite are vis-a-vis crime and yes, punishment.  

President Bukele may very well be a tyrant in the making.  His strong-arming of Congress and the Supreme Court have all the hallmarks, at the very least, of the traditional Latin American right-wing strongman.  We must criticize him for this; but let us not fall into the trap of criticizing everything the Salvadoran state does under his watch as dictatorial and authoritarian.  Especially its treatment of the most brutal elements of society who have been allowed to terrorize the population for decades, often exporting their violence and decadence north of the border.

A quick search reveals the brutality of the MS-13 gang, often in America, and often perpetrated by minors.  We must, of course, be concerned by the casting of the wide net in El Salvador, and its potential to ensnare innocent victims.  And we must ensure that all prisoners, but especially those who are below a certain age are treated in accordance to basic principles of human rights.  But let us not kid ourselves; when Human Rights Watch complains about minors being incarcerated by the Salvadoran state, it could very well be talking about stone-cold 16 and 17 year-old murderers who hack people to death.

Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world.  As I watched the images of the prisoner transfer in El Salvador, they reminded me of several documentaries I've seen on the Japanese prison system.  It is regimented. It is strict.  It is extremely disciplined.  It may negatively impact prisoner psychology.  And there may be isolated cases of prisoner abuse.  The abuse I condemn without reservations. But about all of the former I say: don't commit crimes.  More prison systems should follow the Japanese model as a way to 1. impart justice; 2. prevent future crime; and 3. protect weaker prisoners from the law of the jungle and abuse by other inmates. If El Salvador is implementing something similar we should be celebrating it, not condemning it.

As mentioned in the NBC piece linked to above, President Bukele has the highest approval rating of any leader in Latin America.  [As an aside, I find it hilarious and extremely hypocritical that El País ends their editorial by quoting from Gustavo Petro, a president whose approval rating continues to dip, and a former member of the Communist terrorist drug dealers of the M-19 guerilla movement in Colombia.] I would not vote for Bukele.  However, I personally know many people across Latin America who admire his governing style.  This fact is unfortunate, but with naive and misguided pieces like the one in El País it is no wonder that common people across Latin America who are afflicted by crime and corruption on a daily basis distrust the media and vote for authoritarian leaders such as Bukele.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

We The People

A new constitution will not solve Peru's problems.

The Dominican Republic has had 32 constitutions, a world record.  The United States has had one two [I forgot about the Articles of Confederation when I was first writing this].  The DR has a GDP per capita of $8,476.80.  The US GDP per capita is $70,248.60, almost 9 times higher.  The Dominican Republic is ranked 68/100 on the Freedom House Index.  The US gets an 83/100.  The higher the score, the freer the country.  Surely, if writing a new constitution every six months improved economic and freedom indices the DR would be freer and more developed, while the US would be poorer and unfree.  In fact, the opposite seems to be true: greater constitutional stability leads to less chaos, greater freedom, and more economic development.

It's not that Dominicans are incapable of creating a prosperous and free country. Yes, their culture is different being mainly of Spanish, African, and Native Caribbean extraction. But a similar cultural and ethnic admixture is found in many parts of the US, and indeed other Caribbean islands which are more highly developed and enjoy greater political freedoms.  What populists fail to understand is that a constitution is only as effective as the people who enforce and respect it.

A constitution is a general framework, often worth the paper it's written on without a serious commitment from all institutional actors to respect what is on it.  And what's on it should be: as little as possible.  Basically a common commitment from across the political spectrum to economic and political freedoms.  The details of day-to-day policy, whether to increase taxation in order to help the poor or reduce it to induce economic development, should be up to a popularly elected parliament.

Peru's problems stem from endemic corruption, from the political class down to beat cops.  This cannot be solved by electing a constitutional convention and spending a year discussing whether the new constitution should have a clause asking the Spanish King to apologize for the destruction of the Inca Empire 500 years ago.  Yes, its semi-presidential system as currently set down gives too much power to Congress when it comes to the impeachment of the President and her cabinet.  But fixing this should be done through an amendment process, not by starting from scratch.

To tackle corruption improve the security services, the prosecutorial service, and the judicial system as a whole.  Pay beat cops and prison officials more so that they stop asking for bribes at traffic stops and stop forming part of prison criminal gangs. Prosecutors and investigative judges should be well paid and protected.  They should be thought of as the tip of the spear in the battle to tackle corruption at all levels of government.  Likewise judges should be free from intimidation and political meddling.

Doing these things does not require a new constitution. It may require amending the current one, but that process should be less fraught and divisive than what the Venezuelan-inspired radical left wants to do.  A constitution is like a supermarket shopping list: eventually you'll end up in your kitchen with all of the ingredients for your meal, but you'll have to put in the time, effort, and maintain the peace once everyone sits down to eat it.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Build the Wall, Grant the Visas

The Biden administration has a proposed a compromise to try to get a handle on the Southern border: 30,000 visas a month for Cubans, Venezuelans, Haitians and Nicaraguans as long as the migrant is able to find a sponsor in the US and pass a background check.  This means the sponsor is financially responsible for the parolee, i.e. the immigrant is not eligible for public assistance, read welfare.  The counterweight is continued enforcement of Title 42 at the border, with deportations to Mexico of those found to have crossed illegally.  This is a common sense strategy which deserves broad support from the American public.

The alternative is the mythological wall, proposed by a National Populist candidate and later president who then proceeded to pay lip-service to it, but not actually build it.  If National Populism is a virus, "The Wall" is one of its most repugnant symptoms.  Not because it is wrong to want to secure national borders against violations of the rule of law, but because it was used symbolically to divide the American people and instill a disdain and hate of "the other," often brown or black.

What conditional sponsored visas do is restore the rule of law to immigration policy.  It is not viable national policy to allow unrestricted violations of the law on a daily basis, no matter how desperate a group of people may be.  Those individuals in need, capable of passing a background check, obtaining economic sponsorship in the United States, working upon arrival and renouncing access to public assistance are the type of people we need in this country.  Far from demonizing them, nor allowing them to be used as wedges by the National Populist movement, we should welcome these individuals and encourage their integration into American society.

This may also be a time to rethink American birthright citizenship.  But not in the way National Populism wants.  I was given my American citizenship, and I then proceeded to earn it. How?  Through three years of military service, 20+ years (and counting) of regular employment, yearly contact with the Internal Revenue Service, and by being what some may call an upstanding citizen with no violations of the law.  Whenever I encounter a birthright National Populist, kin to the Know Nothings of old, my first reaction is to wonder: besides being lucky enough to have been born in the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave what else have you done for your country?

My controversial proposal is to strip everyone of birthright citizenship and make them earn it after their eighteenth birthday.  And not necessarily through military service.  Sure, that would be one option, but many other options for national service exist: the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, intelligence agencies, diplomatic corps, etc.  At the end of such service, a citizenship test would be administered to assess not only knowledge of English and American history, but also knowledge of civics: respect for the opinions of others, knowledge of the concepts of separation of powers and co-equality of the branches of government, respect for the rule of law, respect for the principle of majority rule, as well as its co-existence with minority rights.

Let's enforce our Southern border, of course.  But let's also come up with bold, pragmatic, and radical centrist ideas that prevent the extremes on the left and the right from taking over the debate.  I believe the Biden administration's policy is a good start.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

The Case for Democratic Globalization

There is a quote, reputedly attributed to Lenin, which says something to the effect of 'a capitalist will sell you the rope with which you will hang him.'  That type of capitalism has no room in today's World, characterized by the tyrannies of Russia, China and Iran.  The Nixon-Kissenger opening of China was strategic and pragmatic in the context of the Cold War, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union it made little sense to continue the same policy.  The reason is that tyrannies do not play by the same rules as democracies.  Globalization, economic ties, and free trade should be the norm, but only between democracies.  Autocracies should be ostracized and isolated.

According to Google, Nixon visited China on February 21st 1972.  In 1972 Chinese GDP was $113B ($887B in 2022 dollars), by 2022 it was $18T. Yes, that's T as in trillion.  In 1972 China was a feeble Communist theocracy with Mao as Supreme Communist Ayatollah.  Under the theory of the enemy of your enemy is your friend, it made sense to open political and economic ties to China in order to counter the Main Adversary, the Soviet Union.  After the Soviet collapse in the late 80s and early 90s, however, with China becoming the World's manufacturing hub, the same levels of relations did not make sense anymore. The Western foreign policy establishment had drunk the 'end of history' Kool Aid and became asleep at the wheel.

To me it is quite obvious but bears repeating: tyrannies do not operate by the same rules as democracies. Whereas Western economic policy is generally guided by market principles, tyrannical regimes look at everything through the lens of strategic advantage. Russian intelligence uses deeply embedded illegals to influence everything from political parties to the media. China uses its Confucius Institutes to exert pressure and control on college campuses, as well as well-placed academics and scientists to achieve its industrial espionage goals.  It's asymmetrical warfare on a grand scale. Can anyone seriously imagine the Chinese Communist Party allowing anything remotely similar to CIs on Chinese university campuses.  I omitted the question mark on purpose.

Globalization and international trade was the tool through which the dictators of the Chinese Communist Party were able to achieve economic success and control, at a huge cost to Chinese civil society.  Beyond Tiananmen, China has been able to build a totalitarian state which would make Big Brother proud.  It is ridiculous that the China-Australia free trade agreement was signed in 2015, and that as of 2023 Australia does not yet have a free trade agreement with the European Union.

The solution to this problem is not Trumpist chaos nor the retrograde industrial policy of the Biden administration, even if it is more enlightened than the former.  We solve this problem by realizing that consolidated democracies must move towards ever greater economic, and eventually political integration.  Free trade agreements should only be entered in and globalization fostered with other democracies.  There should be trigger clauses that suspend trade agreements incrementally as a country falls deeper into populism, and the rule of law begins to wane.  The goal should not only be to achieve economic, military, and diplomatic superiority over despotic regimes; the goal should also be to prevent them from achieving this themselves.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Mob Rule in the Americas

It was with great sadness, but not surprise, that I processed the recent events in Brazil.  Populism is the cause, and the rule of law is its antidote.

Lula and the PT are, of course, hypocritical leftists who have stolen with abandon with the left hand, while holding up the Marxist bible with the right.  But just as it was, and is, a patent lie that the 2020 American election was 'stolen', there is absolutely nothing I've seen yet that indicates foul play in the recent Brazilian election.

Populism is a cancer.  The enlightened leader tells the people what they want to hear, and then wallow in the soiled adulation that follows.  It's the bread and circus of Roman times; it's nothing new nor original, regardless of how many MAGA hats or America First t-shirts you manage to sell.  Just like the Trumpist mob, the Bolsonaristas wanted to believe that the only way they could lose the election was through meddling with the electronic voting machines. They wanted to believe it, and their leader told them that it was so.  The mob that overwhelmed police in Brasilia was simply the logical conclusion of this.

In a dictatorship the law is whatever the dictator says it is.  In a failed state multiple warlords or a corrupt political/economic class determine what is legal.  One of the defining characteristics of a republic, however, is adherence to the rule of law and enforcement after its breakdown. Individuals, political parties, and interest groups are of course free to lobby for changes in the law, but they must always respect it.  The breakdowns in the rule of law that we saw in the US in 2021, and Brazil in 2023 must be corrected.

How? First, the security services must document and then refer each violator to the justice system. Everything I've read indicates the FBI has done an excellent job at this.  Second, the prosecutorial service must seek maximum penalties for those who assault the republican system of government.  Third, juries and the courts must hand down maximum penalties.  These are the immediate remedies.

Long-term fixes require long-established institutions, including the media, to regain public trust. It is just as unacceptable for The New York Times to be the official state organ of the woke left, as it is for Fox News to be the mouthpiece for the racial-populist right.  Those in leadership positions inside traditional political parties must do everything they can to resist the lobby and political horse-trading that gives their wingers any more power.  I still find it unbelievable that the Republican Party allowed itself to be hijacked by a pretender who never had more than 40% support.