Thursday, July 21, 2016

Marginal Analysis and Diminishing Returns

I'm getting closer to understanding the appeal of Mr. Trump (as well as the result of the UK's EU referendum and a host of other first-world political maladies) and here's my attempt at explaining the problem through which we're living. I'm not a political scientist. I'm a historian who is now teaching macroeconomics. These facts mean that my political analysis is shaded toward looking at a long-run perspective that emphasizes opportunity costs.

Propelling Trump's rise is a sense that things aren't good in America right now. Among the reasons why things allegedly aren't good are foreign trade trends, illegal immigration, and free-loading allies who are bleeding us of our wealth.

Looking at surface statistics allows partisans to find evidence to justify their point of view. Unemployment is lower than it's been since 2008, but the labor force participation rate is low, too. And unemployment is affecting some regions more than others. The stock market is doing well, but interest rates and inflation remain low. Our economy is growing (and doing so more robustly than most of the other rich nations), but it's growing below the historical trend. China's economy is slowing down, but not so much so to avert the reality that their GDP will eclipse ours before too long.

In other words, things aren't that bad right now. You could even argue that they're good. But they're not as good as they were 20, 30, or 60 years ago. And therein lies the political problem. Sixty years ago our economy was buoyed by a recently won world war, a war that depressed many of our exhausted economic rivals, gave us unparalleled opportunity to profit by rebuilding war-torn Europe, and an epochal demographic boom. Thirty years ago, those baby boomers were entering their prime earning years. Twenty years ago, our economy benefited from a perfect storm of the Iron Curtain's fall, liberalization of trade agreements, and the cresting of the baby boomers' earning years.

Our temptation now, as a democracy, is to not overreact to a present-day in which things are better than they seem, even though they're not as good as they were in our recent memory. In others words, we need patience and perspective. We're not getting that this week. Here's hoping we get it next week.

dIsmay



I've never been good at finding titles for my writing. Today I'm trying to be clever. Hastings Ismay was the first Secretary-General of NATO and he's often given credit for being the first to quip that NATO's purpose was "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down."

Now for the dismay: An article from the New York Times summarizing Mr. Trump's attitudes regarding America's alliance commitments.

Here's my summary: He'll treat our alliance partners the way he would a piece of real estate.

The article I reference above isn't the lame-stream media or the New York Slimes maligning a candidate or misconstruing his words. It's an interview he provided to this major news source. This is what he means to do as commander-in-chief. And to me, it's utter, sheer madness. Collective security, found in agreements like NATO, have been the underpinning of global security now for more than half of a century. Trump's first resort (pun intended) is a sane policy-maker's last resort: treating a nuclear-brimmed U.S. as a platform from which we launch a retaliatory nuclear strike.

Though NATO was created during the Truman administration, the embrace of collective security was an enormous part of Dwight Eisenhower's foreign policy. It's also true that Ike leaned heavily on the nuclear deterrent to combat Soviet aggression, but in some ways he came to regret that by the end of his presidency. I know it's fashionable to bash the foreign policy legacy of President Obama and Secretary Clinton (and I'm certainly not a champion of how our President has conducted foreign policy in his eight years) but I can't help but see extraordinary value in adhering to the perspective of a man like Eisenhower who had much greater perspective and understanding on foreign policy than Mr. Trump.

The logic of trying to keep the Russians out, Americans in, and the Germans down still has some credence in the 21st century. In fact, keeping the Russians out of Europe remains a compelling national interest for us. (Perhaps I've been watching too much of Occupied on Netflix . . . No, wait, this is really important.)

Interestingly, Trump (if elected) will prove to be the third U.S. president to underestimate President Putin. After all, George W. Bush misread Putin's eyes. Obama delivered the famous putdown to Governor Romney back in 2012 that the 1980s was calling to get its foreign policy back. Mr. Trump, it would seem, looks at Putin as just some rival real estate mogul. Mrs. Clinton doesn't escape blame here: she's infamous for the "reset" with Russia that didn't reset much at all. But . . .

Now she has a chance to learn from her miscalculation, something I'm sure Bush and Obama both had. I'm getting closer to seeing the positives of a Hillary Clinton presidency rather than just the negatives of a Trump administration.

One final observation . . . Oh, wait, that'll take a little bit too long. I'll return to this later.


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

So, what if we lose?

I left the Republican Party due to the imminent nomination of a man who troubles me deeply. I cannot abide by the arrogancy, bigotry, and emptiness Donald Trump represents. The New York Times just today reports that Secretary Clinton has a 75% chance of winning the election.

Too close for my comfort
As far as I'm concerned, the results this fall are a coin flip. This is an election for the Democrats to survive rather than win.

Is the Times being too optimistic saying Clinton's chances are 75%? I think so. So, too, is the analysis of The Economist which has an excellent article about how American political parties are often defined in defeat. In other words, Trump will probably lose the battle known as the 2016 election, but what he represents will live on to fight another day.

So, what if Trump wins? What the Democrats do this fall, in attempting to defeat him, matters a lot after November 2016, win or lose. I couldn't watch any of the coverage of last night's convention. But I read enough about it in the news to know last night was marked by anger and derision, attempting to bring Republicans together in what they hated. It's ugly.

The Democrats cannot stoop to that when they meet in Philadelphia. Tactically, they can't out-nasty the Trump campaign. Strategically, it will bankrupt a party that needs to brace itself to be the loyal, patriotic opposition in the event there is a Trump presidency. President Franklin Roosevelt gets credit for making the Democratic Party a big tent, in which there's a lot of room for a lot people. We must preserve that for the long haul.

worlds end

So while I was adventuring through the uplands of PA I was out of regular electronic contact with the rest of my world. As I traveled back and forth from a stunning vista (High Knob) in Loyalsock State Forest, I did intermittently pop into cellular range and in that brief moment, I found out that something like a coup d'etat occurred in Turkey. It took me more than 36 hours until I was able to read the news story of the suppressed coup attempt.

An ominous headline from The Economist website
Much seems to be falling apart. A coup attempt in a NATO ally shocks me enough. That the government is pointing fingers at the U.S. is all the more ominous. At roughly the same time, there's (another) bloody attack in another NATO ally, with the president of that nation pledging to ramp up raids on ISIS, which seems to be losing its caliphate but mutating into something more dangerous and unpredictable. Oh, and while we're at it, we have a presidential candidate questioning the cost of upholding the NATO alliance as well as the cost of maintaining security in East Asia. Let's not forget that in the midst of this we see the Peoples Republic building islands, challenging principles of sovereignty, and thumbing their nose at international tribunals that seek to check their ambitions.

In other summers I've turned off the news for a week to give myself a break. This summer I chose not to, and I don't see myself doing so before returning to work this fall. But my trip to Worlds End allowed me a chance to escape the news of a world where a lot of things seem to be ending.

Worlds End


I spent many, many days in Central Pennsylvania growing up. A several-day-long trip, without parents, to my grandparents was something of a tradition. When I got to be a little older than my son is now, my brother, cousin, and I wandered around the mountains near Gram and Pap's home. They lived in the eastern end of Nittany Valley.

Google Map image of Nittany Valley's East end.
This was the Central PA that I knew. It was hard for me to imagine any other area of Central PA that was as splendid as that little area. And it still saddens me that the days of looking out at that valley from the picture window in Gram and Pap's home are more than two decades behind me.

Again, I almost scoffed at other areas of Central PA. How could they possibly be as lovely. But as I've traveled in the state, I've become familiar with some of those other valleys. This weekend, I made it to World's End State Park, where the Loyalsock Creek cuts through a region known as the endless mountains, creating a valley that is stunning in its ruggedness and beauty.

Sunset at High Knob Vista

Double Run Creek

Double Run Creek

A waterfall along Double Run Creek

Rock formations along the crest near Loyalsock Vista

Man's attempt to tame nature: a marked portion of the Canyon Vista Trail

High Knob Overlook at not-quite sunset
So, maybe there are areas of Central PA more lovely than Nittany Valley.

When I think of my fondness for East End Nittany Valley, a fondness that borders on parochialism, and then contrast it with what I saw in Sullivan County this weekend, I cannot help but recall the words from the hymn "This is My Song." In particular, I think of the passage copied below.

I'm nearing the end of a month where I've been exploring the state with my family. We've so far been to Elizabethtown, Pittsburgh, Fallingwater, Mt. Davis, and Worlds End. Tomorrow, Philadelphia. This weekend might see us visiting Altoona. It's been a set of adventures that make the summer worthwhile.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Vocational Calling

The article linked here from the Washington Post speaks to me the most powerfully in the wake of tragic stories last week detailing horrible incidents between police and citizens.

I admire and identify with the way in which Lee Sjolander approaches his work. It's not a job to him, it's a calling. I don't know if there is much that's different between Lee the chief and Lee the husband, dad, citizen, or church goer. He understands the multiple layers of responsibility that go with the power inherent in his job. There is both pride and humility in the approach that he takes.

I hope it's what people see in me as a teacher. Like Lee, I try my best to reject an "us vs. them" mentality as I work with students, children really. I reject absolutes, knowing that what should work may work a majority of the time, but will not work with every child in every situation. I strive to master the subtle contours of the relationship between a teacher and his class. It's a job in which firmness must coexist with courtesy and dignity and in which a lot of correction can happen through humor or generosity.

And I was gratified (and proud) to read at the end of the article that Lee is a Lutheran. I figured it might be the case, given that he was a chief of a small town in Minnesota, and that inkling intensified as I read further about his philosophy toward his work. A friend of mine who is a pastor speaks of our vocational calling in life, and I feel like I was called to teaching rather than it being a job that I chose. And that calling powerfully shapes my work ethic, my relations with students, and my friendships with colleagues. The article helped reassure me that I'm not making that up.

I hope his message reassures others, either to rediscover the purpose to their work (or the work of a loved one) or to be reassured that the police who find themselves at the epicenter of a fissured moment in America are engaged in work meant to uplift and protect.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Unifying Themes

Clarifying for my students what distinguishes the two political parties from one another but what also serves as a unifying theme for each has been a challenge. Many of my students know that at one point in time conservative points of view were affiliated with Democrats and more liberal with Republicans, which is at odds to what one often sees today.

In the past few years, I've tried to share with them what I think is the core political value of each party. Democrats tend to believe government should reflect the will of the majority. Republicans tend to believe government should protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority. Neither of these standpoints are necessarily objectionable, though I do think the one I offer for the Republicans is more abstract than what most high school students want to hear. But, conveniently, it is a common thread that goes back to the Whigs and Federalists, forerunners of the Republicans.

Recently I was listening to the most recent installment of the very good podcast series on the presidents offered by the Washington Post. In that episode on William McKinley, Karl Rove was interviewed at length. He discussed how the 1896 election offered a clear mandate on a very old debate in American politics, about whether wealth is best created at the top (to then trickle down) or at the bottom, where it can rise up. That might be the enduring economic difference between the two parties.

Now if I could only find a coherent foreign policy thread for either party. Seems doubtful.