It started with learning about investing.
If you invest your retirement savings in the US stock market, what kind of return should you expect to get on that investment? Well, you can look at historical returns on the US stock market, but that’s going to be misleading. Many countries had a much less good record of economic growth than the US did over the 20th century. Argentina, for example , was one of the richest countries in the world in the early 20th century, but has not had such a good run of things since.
This argument is conventional wisdom in the personal finance world–but it has unsettling implications for what the history of the 21st century is likely to look like. It’s natural to believe that the United States’s track-record of success as a country reflects deep strengths as a country that will continue into the 21st century. But what if we’ve just gotten lucky repeatedly? The more I learn about American history, the more I see points when with worse luck, things could have turned out very differently:
- I’m currently reading Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton and dear Lady Liberty is it easy to imagine something going wrong in those early years in a way that would lead to the history of North America looking a lot more like the history of Latin America.
- The Civil War. This should be self-explanatory.
- The Great Depression/WWII. FDR put people in concentration camps. I suspect this was less a reflection of FDR’s character than the political currents of the time. A less scrupulous leader could have been much worse. It’s very easy to imagine an alternate history where Huey Long or Douglas MacArthur establishes himself as absolute dictator over America.
- The Cold War. It’s total luck that we didn’t blow ourselves up during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about Matt Yglesias’s argument that American democracy is doomed–that the Madisonian system of checks and balances is actually a recipe for constitutional crisis, which we only avoided in the 20th century because segregation prevented the emergence of ideologically coherent parties.
I almost said “avoided so far”, but I think the Civil War might count as a constitutional crisis. To really understand the Civil War, you need to understand the flaws in the Madisonian system of government. Do you realize how much of the run-up to the Civil War involved horse-trading around admission of new states to the union, so that the North and South would have equal representation in the Senate?
Finally, I’ve come to believe that too many people have worldviews dominated by whatever was going on in the world when they were in their 20s. Sometimes, this leads to irrational freak-outs. Was inflation high when you were young? You will spend the rest of your life terrified of hyperinflation. I suspect my own generation will spend the rest of our lives living in fear of another 9/11 that never comes.
But the corollary is that almost nobody learns from history. If you haven’t personally lived through a particular type of catastrophe, you will act as if it cannot possibly happen again. During the Cold War, many veterans of WWII made the mistake of thinking WWIII could be fought like the previous world war. But now that baby boomers are running the world, our leaders think another war on that scale is impossible. Similarly, the idea of America becoming a dictatorship seems impossible to take seriously.
Now look at the 2016 election. Here are our choices:
Clinton, Rubio, Kasich:
The “establishment” candidates. All three have argued for a no-fly zone over Syria. I’ve argued that this would be a good way to start a nuclear war with Russia. Since I’ve started saying this, a number of people have told me these worries are overblown. But as I’ve gone looking for specific counter-arguments, what I’ve found has not been reassuring. For example, an article in Foreign Policy magazine argues:
Critics may say that safe zones will require greater military commitment to Syria and risk a military clash with Russia — if, for instance, Putin decides to test the no-fly zone by infringing on it, as he has done for years with the airspace of NATO allies in the Baltics, and more recently in Turkey. These critics may well be right.
But weakness and indecision seldom prevent aggression; instead they encourage it.
The article doesn’t even try to argue there’s some way we could establish a no-fly zone over Syria without risking military conflict with Russia. Instead, it falls back on cliches about appeasement.
Or consider this WaPo article, co-authored by a Harvard professor and a former US ambassador, which dismisses the risk that a no-fly zone would lead to escalation with Russia with a single sentence: “Once a zone were established, we do not believe Russia would challenge the stronger U.S. and NATO forces, particularly if they were operating mainly from Turkey.” Again, there is no pretense that Russia might actively support a no-fly zone–but the authors insist Russia would nevertheless back down.
So would Russia back down in the face of the US shooting down, or threatening to shoot down, Russian planes over Syria? Some people insist the answer is “yes”, citing other examples of cases where planes have been shot down without the incident escalating into a larger war. But I’ve looked at the examples that get used in this argument, and they generally fall into one of three categories:
- Someone screwed up (navigational mistake led to violating someone’s airspace, or a civilian flight got mistaken for a military flight)
- Someone got caught trying to secretly do something they weren’t supposed to be doing (spy flights)
- Someone did something they weren’t supposed to do, but successfully passed it off as a screw up (this is a hypothetical possibility—or is it?)
By contrast, establishing a no-fly zone over Syria would require the US (or NATO, if we postulate that it would be a team effort) to assert rights that Russia does not currently recognize. That would be a dangerous gamble.
The distinction between, say, shooting down a Russian plane over Turkey and shooting down a Russian plane over Syria may seem arbitrary. But the very idea of national borders itself is to some degree arbitrary, and no one imagines that the US ought to be able to violate Russia’s borders with impunity.
Why do we respect national borders, anyway? On a deep level, it’s because “fight to preserve the status quo, but not otherwise” is game-theoretically stable. In this case, we have to recognize that the status quo is that Russia can fly bombing missions on behalf of one of its allies. The Atlantic recently ran an excellent profile of Obama that nailed this issue:
“The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-nato country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do,” [Obama] said…
“People respond based on what their imperatives are, and if it’s really important to somebody, and it’s not that important to us, they know that, and we know that,” he said. “There are ways to deter, but it requires you to be very clear ahead of time about what is worth going to war for and what is not. Now, if there is somebody in this town that would claim that we would consider going to war with Russia over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, they should speak up and be very clear about it. The idea that talking tough or engaging in some military action that is tangential to that particular area is somehow going to influence the decision making of Russia or China is contrary to all the evidence we have seen over the last 50 years.”
Here, Obama is showing he’s an excellent game theorist. The candidates who’ve proposed a no-fly zone over Syria, on the other hand, are giving us tough talk with no clear strategic thinking behind it. They show no sign of having a clear view of what is and is not worth going to war for.
To be clear, if the US and Russia wound up in a standoff over Syria, I think that both sides would try to find a way to resolve the crisis without a war. But a drawn-out standoff would greatly increase the odds that an equipment malfunction or the actions of a jumpy submarine commander could cause an unthinkable catastrophe. That’s a risk I don’t think we can afford to take.
Trump. Trump? Trump!
The thing that bothers me most about Trump is not his saying that Mexican immigrants are mostly rapists and murderers. Nor his promise to build a giant border wall. Nor his promise to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. Nor even his plan to bar Muslims from coming to the US. None of these things come close to being what worries me most about Trump.
Rather, it’s Trump’s openly-expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin. And Kim Jong-Un. And, lest you think this is some bizarre tactical calculation that authoritarianism just happens to be what Americans are hungering for this year, he praised the Chinese government for showing a “firm hand” in dealing with the protests in Tienanmen square.
I think Trump honest-to-God wants to be an authoritarian dictator. I recently heard it said, “It’s important to understand that a man like Trump is the type of personality that cares much less about how he is remembered. What Trump cares about is that he is remembered.” That’s the impression I got reading two biographies of Trump. And what better way to ensure you will be remembered than to become America’s first dictator?
Some people might assume that there’s no way Trump could become a dictator even if he wanted to. But there are several reasons to be afraid. In America, we’re going on fifteen years of dramatic expansions of presidential power in the name of fighting terrorism. Bush authorized torture and indefinite detention. Obama has ordered the assassination of US citizens.
Trump is already talking about “shutting down parts of the internet” in the name of fighting terrorism, and changing libel laws to make it easier for him to sue his critics. Then there’s the way his rallies are turning violent. And Trump wouldn’t need to abolish democracy all at once. In his book Winter is Coming, Garry Kasparov describes how Vladimir Putin destroyed democracy in Russia gradually (building on legally questionable things Yeltsin had done).
Trump’s one saving grace is his age. If elected, he’ll be the oldest president in US history, eight months older than Ronald Reagan was on taking office. A 50-year-old version of Trump might be able to serve two terms, run for VP with a trusted lieutenant at the top of the ticket for a de facto third term, then get loyalists he spent twelve years installing in state legislatures to pass an amendment allowing him to become president for life. (Cf. Vladimir Putin’s four-year stint as Russian Prime Minister while his lieutenant Dmitry Medvedev served as President.)
Yet another of the many books I’ve been reading over the past few months is Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power. The parallels to Trump are uncanny, including the complacency of many observers and the fact that Hitler never openly proposed death camps, and instead talked about deportations. At this point, all Trump needs to do is accuse ex-Muslim converts to Christianity of being secret Muslims, and the parallels will be complete.
I’ve joked that worrying about Trump starting a war with Russia is like opposing Hitler because you were worried he might start a war with Italy. On the other hand, Mussolini did threaten Nazi Germany with war at one point as a result of their dispute over Austria. On the other other hand, Trump’s admiration for Putin seems to be sincere, so perhaps he would be quick to back down if he stumbled in to a confrontation with Russia.
One other thing: in retrospect, we could have done much worse than electing Obama in 2008. But damn him if President Trump ends up using Obama’s drone warfare program as a precedent to justify killing political opponents.
At one point, I thought Ted Cruz might be the least-bad option within the GOP field. But Cruz’s track record of dishonesty gives me pause. Few politicians are entirely truthful—but usually, it’s a matter of half-truths, exaggerations, and poorly-checked rumors, with bald-faced lies reserved for when they’re backed into a corner. And usually the untruths are kind of obvious. But Cruz’s lies seem crafted with a care that disturbs me. It’s also not clear that Cruz’s lies are in the service of any ideology. He’s lied about his immigration record in ways that make him seem more rigidly ideological than he really is.
So what would Ted Cruz be like as president? I feel like I have no idea, and that scares me.
I can’t pretend electing Bernie Sanders would carry no risks. He speaks eloquently about unintended consequences of US military actions, but seems to think not at all about unintended consequences in the realm of economic policy. Would Sanders end up bungling economic policy catastrophically, perhaps via his ideas about the Federal Reserve?
Last July, Sanders floated Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Robert Reich as possible cabinet picks. I’m not sure about Reich, but I’ve read a fair amount of Krugman’s and Stiglitz’s writings and I’d feel pretty optimistic about a Sanders administration advised by either or both of them on economic policy. (Among other things, I think they’d try to reign in Sanders’ worse instincts regarding trade.)
If the United States didn’t have presidential term limits, I’d prefer electing Obama to a third term to electing Sanders. But given the available options, I’ll take my chances with Sanders.
What to do?
First of all, right now I’m doing everything I can to support Sanders. Post-Michigan, I think he has a significant chance of winning the nomination. The Sanders for President forum on Reddit has a lot of stuff on what people can do to help.
At the same time, though, I’ve started a Change.org petition designed to try to get candidates who’ve endorsed a no-fly zone over Syria to walk back their comments. (I mainly hope it will influence Clinton, but I thought the petition would be more effective as a general call.) This is a long shot, and I don’t expect it to influence the candidates directly, but if it gets some media attention maybe a debate moderator will press the candidates on it.
If Clinton walks back her support for the Syria no-fly zone, she’ll become a candidate I can tolerate, and vote for in good conscience in the general election if she wins the primary, even if I’m not thrilled with her. If not, I’ll be seriously considering voting third-party.
Another thought: given the way Clinton has been using Obama as a way to deflect all criticism of herself from the left, maybe someone can press her on why she’s called for a no-fly zone over Syria in spite of the fact that Obama has called the idea “half-baked”. Just a thought.
But above all else–I beg the people reading this, take this election seriously, and don’t think that America’s enormous success so far as a country are a guarantee of future results.