The Case for Compensated Free Trade–The CFT Plan


November 17, 2018

The Case for Compensated Free Trade–The CFT Plan

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https://www.project-syndicate.org/

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According to Harvard’s Dani Rodrik, the nation-state, democracy, and globalization are mutually irreconcilable: we can have any two, but not all three simultaneously. In fact, there may be a solution to Rodrik’s “trilemma.”

LONDON– Almost all liberals support globalization and oppose economic nationalism. They ignore the mounting evidence that, in its current form, globalization is dangerously incompatible with democracy.

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In his 2011 book The Globalization Paradox, Harvard’s Dani Rodrik says that the nation-state, democracy, and globalization are mutually irreconcilable: we can have any two, but not all three simultaneously (he calls this a “trilemma”). All over the world, the “nation” has been revolting against globalization in the name of democracy.

That became clear this year when US President Donald Trump imposed the first of a widening set of tariffs against Chinese goods, with China retaliating in kind. Trump has also torn up two major international trade treaties and threatened to withdraw from the World Trade Organization.

The trigger for America’s turn to economic nationalism is its widening trade deficit – $566 billion in 2017, and growing – as the US economy recovers. But the deeper reason is the correct perception that the resulting current-account deficits are not “benign” when they are being financed by inflows of short-term capital, or “hot” money.

A current-account deficit means that a country is importing more than it is exporting. And those excess imports can lead to a net loss of “good” jobs. Six million manufacturing jobs disappeared in the first decades of the 2000s. The Rust Belt made Trump president. “It’s time to rebuild Michigan, and we are not letting them take your jobs out of Michigan any more,” he told cheering crowds in Detroit in 2016.

Trump’s protectionism also has a geopolitical root. Metal imports have led to the closing of many enterprises that might be needed for defense. China’s strategic “Made in China 2025” plan is a high-tech industrial policy aimed at transforming China into a dominant global leader in the industries of the future. It significantly relies on stealing advanced technologies from the United States. If MIC25 is successful, the US will have a depleted economic and political future.

In strictly economic terms, the political character of one’s trading partners should not matter. However, in a world of strategic competition, international commerce can be, and usually is, an instrument of policy, and its use in that context should not be denied simply because it breaches the sacred principle of free trade. As Friedrich List, the nineteenth-century pioneer of economic nationalism, pointed out, free trade assumes a peaceful world.

Selective tariffs can be useful for protecting defense-related industries or to prevent other countries from stealing cutting-edge technologies. But as an overall trade policy, tariffs are crude and inexact. The US will incur high costs and might end up without a substantially lower trade deficit or other meaningful benefits.

Is there a way to limit free trade that does not lead to trade wars? The economist Vladimir Masch has advocated an ingenious “compensated free trade” (CFT) plan as a way to achieve legitimate protectionist aims without disrupting the world economic system.

Under this plan, policymakers would establish a ceiling for the trade deficit each year and impose limits on trading partners’ surpluses. (Any products needed from a surplus partner would be exempted from the partner’s export limit.) In the US case, this ceiling would largely affect China, Mexico, Japan, and Germany, which contributed $375 billion, $71 billion, $69 billion, and $64 billion, respectively, to the overall trade deficit in 2017.

Under CFT, a trade surplus country can reduce its exports to the set limit. But it could also exceed its export quota if its government paid the partner government a fine equal to the value of the excess exports, either collecting the necessary sum from its export producers or using its currency reserves. (The receiving government could use the fines to enlarge its own investment programs.) But if the surplus country tried to exceed its export limit without paying the fine, its surplus exports would be blocked.

This “smart” protectionism has several advantages over crude tariffs. First and foremost, it would automatically prevent trade wars. Because CFT imposes limits just on the trader’s surplus, any attempt by the surplus country to decrease the value of its imports from the US would automatically decrease the value of its allowed exports.

Second, CFT would confront, in one stroke for each partner, government subsidies, price and currency manipulations, and the other dirty tricks of international trade. In contrast to prolonged and often fruitless haggling over trade treaties, results would be obtained immediately.

Third, by re-balancing the financial and trading arrangements of the global economy’s participants, CFT would represent a step toward addressing its current dysfunction. CFT is not a complete solution, because it leaves open the question of who should adjust to whom. A reformed global payments system, which mandates symmetrical adjustment of global imbalances, would need to tackle this issue.

Fourth, because of America’s leverage, its adoption of CFT would “nudge” reluctant trade surplus countries to accept such a payments system. Global finance would have to operate within the limits that a balanced payments system establishes.

Fifth, in terms of economic benefits to the US, implementing CFT would stimulate the return of off-shored enterprises and jobs, thus restoring the country’s industrial potential and social balance.

From a historical perspective, CFT essentially amounts to a unilateral activation of the scarce-currency clause (Article 7) of the Bretton Woods Agreement, which allowed the International Monetary Fund to declare “scarce” the currency of a country running a persistent trade surplus, permitting other members to discriminate against its goods. It is consistent with Article XII of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (the WTO’s predecessor), which states that any country “in order to safeguard its external financial position and its balance of payments, may restrict the quantity or value of merchandise permitted to be imported.”

Inshort, CFT addresses trade deficits, overcomes the limitations of tariffs, fights trade manipulation, corrects current mainstream economic theory, and is a necessary step toward re-establishing a feasible global payments system. In a nutshell, it overcomes the Rodrik trilemma: one can have the nation-state, democracy, and globalization at the same time.

But only one nation-state, the US, has the clout to deliver this. By doing so, it would stop the global stampede to a virulent form of economic nationalism. For that reason alone, the Masch plan deserves serious consideration.

Lord Skidelsky, Professor Emeritus of Political Economy at Warwick University and a fellow of the British Academy in history and economics, is a member of the British House of Lords. The author of a three-volume biography of John Maynard Keynes, he began his political career in the Labour party, became the Conservative Party’s spokesman for Treasury affairs in the House of Lords, and was eventually forced out of the Conservative Party for his opposition to NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999.

 

 

What Now for America?


November 9, 2018

What Now for America?

Now that the Democratic Party has won control of the US House of Representatives, it must resist pressure to launch impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. If the party is to win back the White House in 2020, it should adopt a simple core message for the next two years.

 

NEW YORK – At least it wasn’t a disaster. If the Democrats had failed to secure a majority in the US House of Representatives, President Donald Trump would have felt almighty, with all the dire consequences that would entail. But the Republicans still control the Senate, and that means that the judiciary, including the Supreme Court, will be pushed further to the right. And the election of Republican governors in major states like Ohio and Florida means that electoral districts can be finessed to boost Trump’s reelection chances in 2020.

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One of the most common political clichés ahead of these midterm elections was that they were a “battle for America’s soul.” It is easy to imagine Republicans and Democrats standing for two different versions of the country: one is overwhelmingly white, modestly educated, not very young, strong in rural areas, often male, and proud to own guns; the other is better educated, younger, urban, racially diverse, more female, and keen to control guns. These are caricatures, but they express a very recognizable reality.

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Though both sides believe they are patriotic Americans, their idea of patriotism could not be more different. The writer James Baldwin put the case for “progressive” patriotism well: he loved America more than any country in the world, and for that reason insisted on the right to criticize her perpetually. Trumpian patriots would have denounced Baldwin as a traitor.

The big temptation for the Democrats, now that they have won control of the House, is to make the most of what they see as their greatest strengths: racial and gender diversity, and a shared loathing of Trump. This would be a logical position. Trump is indeed dreadful, and the Democrats could legitimately claim that older, rural white men are less representative of America today than the young, the urban, the nonwhite, and newly empowered women.

And yet, to focus the Democratic agenda on Trump and diversity would be a mistake. There will be pressure, especially from younger Democrats, fired up by their success, to impeach the president. But as long as the Senate, which would have to convict him, is in Republican hands, an indictment by the House would be practically meaningless. Even if impeached, he would still be president, and Republicans would be inclined to defend him even more fiercely.

It is certainly a good thing to have more women and nonwhite, non-Christian representatives in the legislature. This provides a refreshing and necessary contrast to the Republican Party, which has remade itself in the image of its leader: angry, white, and often openly racist. But to fight Trump’s identity politics with an equally aggressive form of identity politics would make political tribalism worse, and could make it harder for the Democrats to win national elections.

There is always a danger that the Democrats will be divided, with younger radicals pitting themselves against the mostly white establishment. But the Republicans, who seem utterly united behind their leader, have a problem, too. The socially liberal, highly educated Republicans who used to be the backbone of the party have been pushed so far to the margins that they are almost invisible. John McCain was perhaps the last of those Mohicans.

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The Democrats should capitalize on that. And the way to do it would be to put less stress on sexual, racial, or gender identity, and more on the economy. This might seem a naive strategy during an economic boom, when Republicans can boast of record-low unemployment. But even many traditional laissez-faire conservatives should recognize that a yawning divide between rich and poor is not good for business. Henry Ford, who was not a fount of wisdom on many matters, recognized that if you want to sell cars, you have to put enough money into people’s pockets so that they can buy them.

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This, too, is an issue close to America’s conflicted soul. For some, American identity is based on red-blooded capitalist enterprise and rugged individualism, unhindered by excessive government regulation in the pursuit of material happiness. But for others, America stands on an ideal of greater social justice and economic equality – which nowadays should include a commitment to address climate change (a barely-discussed issue in the midterms), given that global warming will harm the poor more than the rich.

There have been boom times for the very wealthy, such as the Gilded Age in the late nineteenth century, when 2% of American households owned more than a third of the country’s wealth, or indeed our own time, when the top 1% owns almost half the wealth. And there have been periods of reform, when governments tried to redress the balance. The most famous example is Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s.

It is clearly time for New Deal II. Instead of promising more tax breaks for the richest citizens, a more equitable fiscal policy could pay for necessary bridges and other public goods and services that would improve everyone’s life. Affordable health care for all citizens is a mark of a civilized society. The US is still a long way from that goal. The same is true of high-quality public education. It is grotesque that so many people who stand to benefit from such “socialist” policies are still persuaded to vote against them because they are supposedly “un-American.”

Concentrating on egalitarianism would appeal to liberals, of course, but it should not alienate moderate voters either, because more equality would be good for the economy. And it might even persuade some angry, poor Trump supporters to recognize that his pseudo-populism is not about helping the left-behind folks in Rust Belt cities and rural hinterlands. It is about giving even more money to the very few. The Democrats’ core message for the next two years should be that in a plutocracy, everyone else loses.

 

Blame the Economists?


November 7, 2018

Blame the Economists?

by
economists

Ever since the 2008 financial crash and subsequent recession, economists have been pilloried for failing to foresee the crisis, and for not convincing policymakers of what needed to be done to address it. But the upheavals of the past decade were more a product of historical contingency than technocratic failure.

 

BERKELEY – Now that we are witnessing what looks like the historic decline of the West, it is worth asking what role economists might have played in the disasters of the past decade.

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From the end of World War II until 2007, Western political leaders at least acted as if they were interested in achieving full employment, price stability, an acceptably fair distribution of income and wealth, and an open international order in which all countries would benefit from trade and finance. True, these goals were always in tension, such that we sometimes put growth incentives before income equality, and openness before the interests of specific workers or industries. Nevertheless, the general thrust of policymaking was toward all four objectives.

Then came 2008, when everything changed. The goal of full employment dropped off Western leaders’ radar, even though there was neither a threat of inflation nor additional benefits to be gained from increased openness. Likewise, the goal of creating an international order that serves everyone was summarily abandoned. Both objectives were sacrificed in the interest of restoring the fortunes of the super-rich, perhaps with a distant hope that the wealth would “trickle down” someday.

At the macro level, the story of the post-2008 decade is almost always understood as a failure of economic analysis and communication. We economists supposedly failed to convey to politicians and bureaucrats what needed to be done, because we hadn’t analyzed the situation fully and properly in real time.

Some economists, like Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard University, saw the dangers of the financial crisis, but greatly exaggerated the risks of public spending to boost employment in its aftermath. Others, like me, understood that expansionary monetary policies would not be enough; but, because we had looked at global imbalances the wrong way, we missed the principal source of risk – US financial mis-regulation.

Still others, like then-US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, understood the importance of keeping interest rates low, but overestimated the effectiveness of additional monetary-policy tools such as quantitative easing. The moral of the story is that if only we economists had spoken up sooner, been more convincing on the issues where we were right, and recognized where we were wrong, the situation today would be considerably better.

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The fact that Obama failed to take aggressive action, despite having recognized the need for it beforehand, is a testament to Tooze’s central argument. Professional economists could not convince those in power of what needed to be done, because those in power were operating in a context of political breakdown and lost American credibility. With policy making having been subjected to the malign influence of a rising plutocracy, economists calling for “bold persistent experimentation” were swimming against the tide – even though well-founded economic theories justified precisely that course of action.—

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The Columbia University historian Adam Tooze has little use for this narrative. In his new history of the post-2007 era, Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World, he shows that the economic history of the past ten years has been driven more by deep historical currents than by technocrats’ errors of analysis and communication.

Specifically, in the years before the crisis, financial deregulation and tax cuts for the rich had been driving government deficits and debt ever higher, while further increasing inequality. Making matters worse, George W. Bush’s administration decided to wage an ill-advised war against Iraq, effectively squandering America’s credibility to lead the North Atlantic through the crisis years.

It was also during this time that the Republican Party began to suffer a nervous breakdown. As if Bush’s lack of qualifications and former Vice President Dick Cheney’s war-mongering weren’t bad enough, the party doubled down on its cynicism. In 2008, Republicans rallied behind the late Senator John McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, a folksy demagogue who was even less suited for office than Bush or Cheney; and in 2010, the party was essentially hijacked by the populist Tea Party.

After the 2008 crash and the so-called Great Recession, years of tepid growth laid the groundwork for a political upheaval in 2016. While Republicans embraced a brutish, race-baiting reality-TV star, many Democrats swooned for a self-declared socialist senator with scarcely any legislative achievements to his name. “This denouement,” Tooze writes, “might have seemed a little cartoonish,” as if life was imitating the art of the HBO series “Veep.”

Of course, we have yet to mention a key figure. Between the financial crisis of 2008 and the political crisis of 2016 came the presidency of Barack Obama. In 2004, when he was still a rising star in the Senate, Obama had warned that failing to build a “purple America” that supports the working and middle classes would lead to nativism and political breakdown.

Yet, after the crash, the Obama administration had little stomach for the medicine that former President Franklin D. Roosevelt had prescribed to address problems of such magnitude. “The country needs…bold persistent experimentation,” Roosevelt said in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression. “It is common sense to take a method and try it; if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

The fact that Obama failed to take aggressive action, despite having recognized the need for it beforehand, is a testament to Tooze’s central argument. Professional economists could not convince those in power of what needed to be done, because those in power were operating in a context of political breakdown and lost American credibility. With policymaking having been subjected to the malign influence of a rising plutocracy, economists calling for “bold persistent experimentation” were swimming against the tide – even though well-founded economic theories justified precisely that course of action.

Still, I do not find Tooze’s arguments to be as strong as he thinks they are. We economists and our theories did make a big difference. With the exception of Greece, advanced economies experienced nothing like a rerun of the Great Depression, which was a very real possibility at the height of the crisis. Had we been smarter, more articulate, and less divided and distracted by red herrings, we might have made a bigger difference. But that doesn’t mean we made no difference at all.

J. Bradford DeLong is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He was Deputy Assistant US Treasury Secretary during the Clinton Administration, where he was heavily involved in budget and trade negotiations. His role in designing the bailout of Mexico during the 1994 peso crisis placed him at the forefront of Latin America’s transformation into a region of open economies, and cemented his stature as a leading voice in economic-policy debates.

Trump’s uncanny political instincts and his ruthless “amorality”—A Formidable Challenge


October 28, 2018

Trump’s uncanny political instincts and his ruthless “amorality”—A Formidable  Challenge to Blue Democrats.

by Dr. Fareed Zakaria

ttps://fareedzakaria.com/columns/2018/10/25/trump-owns-the-bloody-crossroads-of-american-politics

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“Democrats create mobs, Republicans create jobs” has become a rallying cry for Republicans ahead of the midterms

For those who believe that President Trump is a clownish know-nothing who somehow tapped into the mood of the electorate, or just got lucky in 2016, the last month has been instructive. Trump has demonstrated uncanny political instincts.  When combined with his ruthless “amorality” — a term used by one of his own senior officials in an anonymous New York Times op-ed — he presents a formidable challenge to his opponents.

Trump faces a familiar landscape. The party that holds the White House traditionally has low turnout and does badly in the midterm elections. But rather than accept this as inevitable, Trump has been aggressively trying to beat the odds. He’s turned what are usually disparate races in the House and Senate into a single national election, fought on an agenda that he has defined.

Item one on his agenda is immigration. The reason is obvious: The issue rouses his voters like no other. Trump campaigns relentlessly on it, making the false accusation that if the Democrats win, they will open up the borders and let everyone in.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump along with Republican Senator from Wyoming John Barrasso (L) and Republican Senate Majority Leader from Kentucky Mitch McConnell (R), walk to a Republican Senate luncheon in the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 28 2017.

He has used the current caravan of Central American migrants to highlight his case against the Democrats. Since Republicans are also still highly motivated by fears of terrorism, Trump threw in the accusation that there are “Middle Easterners” in the caravan. (First, there is no evidence for that claim, which Trump himself even admits; and second, if there were, it is an ugly slur to imply that any Middle Easterner is a terrorist.) As the media eagerly fact-checks his rhetoric, Trump seems well aware that they are incidentally repeating his claims and reinforcing the suspicion and fear in the public’s mind.

The second way Trump has turned the midterms into a national vote is by raising the specter of impeachment. Nothing would anger his base more than the notion of an elitist conspiracy (of lawyers, journalists and judges) determined to undo the results of the 2016 election. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders declared that impeachment is “the only message [the Democrats] seem to have going into the midterms.”

Trump’s midterm strategy was foreshadowed by Stephen K. Bannon several months ago, when he explained, in an interview with me on CNN, that the Republicans needed to turn the midterms into a referendum on Trump. “Trump’s second presidential race will be on Nov. 6 of this year,” Bannon said. “He’s on the ballot, and we’re going to have an up-or-down vote.”

How does one counter this campaign? Many Democrats angrily maintain that they do not, in fact, favor open borders and impeachment — that their positions are more nuanced. But when you are explaining nuance in politics, you are losing. The Democratic Party has not found a way to go on the offensive and get Trump to explain that he has, in fact, a more complicated position on any given topic.

But there is a substantive problem in addition to one of style and tactics. The Democratic Party is insisting that recent election results are an unmistakable sign that it needs to change course and become far more populist on economics. But the data clearly show that the American public is very comfortable with where the party is on issues such as health care and inequality.

The challenge for the Democrats is a set of cultural issues — chiefly immigration, but also things such as transgender bathroom laws and respecting the flag — on which a key group of Americans thinks the Democrats are out of touch. An excellent study by the Democracy Fund found that people who had previously supported Barack Obama and then voted for Trump in 2016 (a crucial segment that Democrats could win back) agreed with the Democrats on almost all economic issues but disagreed with the party on immigration and other cultural matters.

Put simply, the study makes clear that the challenge for the Democratic Party politically is not whether it can move left economically but whether it can move right on culture. I say this as someone who agrees with the Democrats on almost every one of these cultural issues. But a large national party must demonstrate that it can accommodate some people who disagree with it on some issues. Doing this without abandoning one’s core principles is a challenge, but it is a challenge Democrats will have to embrace if they seek a durable governing majority.

Eventually, the electorate will be more young and diverse, but in the meantime, the Republican Party is utterly dominant in American politics because it owns the bloody crossroads where culture and politics meet.

 (c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

New York Times Book Review–Unhappy Conservatives


October 26, 2018

Books of The Times

To hear Max Boot tell it, he feels as forlorn as the despondent, battered elephant on the cover of his new book, “The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right.” Boot minutely describes a disillusionment that wasn’t only “painful and prolonged” but “existential.”

Here he is — a lifelong Republican with sterling neoconservative credentials (an enthusiastic supporter of the Iraq War and a champion of “American empire”) — explaining why he’s eager for the day when “the G.O.P. as currently constituted is burned to the ground.”

The scorched-earth rhetoric reflects not just a pro-war pedigree but also a profound feeling of betrayal. In the run-up to the November 2016 election, Boot was a vocal Never Trump conservative who couldn’t fathom that a “crudely xenophobic” reality television star would become the standard-bearer of the Grand Old Party, much less president of the United States. Along with Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse’s “Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal,” another new volume by a Republican critic of Trump, Boot’s book attempts to answer a looming question for conservatives unhappy with the current occupant of the White House: What now?

“The Corrosion of Conservatism” does double duty as a mea culpa memoir and a political manifesto, detailing Boot’s “heartbreaking divorce” from the Republican Party after decades of unstinting loyalty. He charts a political trajectory that gave his life social and emotional meaning. As the 6-year-old son of Jewish refuseniks, Boot emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1976; at 13, he was inducted by his father into the world of “learned, worldly, elitist” conservatism with a gift subscription to National Review.

Max Boot CreditDon Pollard

Years later, even amid the peer pressure of “Berzerkeley,” the young Republican persisted. He may have been a white man of some means, but he enjoyed seeing himself as a besieged minority.

He “loved making a bonfire” of Berkeley’s “liberal pieties” in his column in the student newspaper and trolling his peers with a “Bush-Quayle ’88” sticker on his dorm-room door. He swiftly clambered up the echelons of the conservative establishment, editing the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal by the time he was 28 and eventually advising the presidential campaigns of John McCain, Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio.

Those candidates all lost their bids for the highest office, but it would take Boot a while to get to where he is now — repulsed by the Republican Party’s fealty to President Trump and instructing Americans to “vote against all Republicans.” His surprisingly anguished book is peppered with so many penitential lines (“I am embarrassed and chagrined”) and so much bewildered disappointment in figures like Rubio (“I thought he was a man of principle”) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (“I had viewed him as smart, principled and brave”) that even the most die-hard leftist might be moved to hand Boot a hankie.

Not that he’s a particularly moving stylist; Boot’s clean, starched prose marches forward with all the spontaneity of a military parade (he’s uncommonly fond of words like “pusillanimous” and “japery”). But the stodginess reveals how much soul-searching it must have taken to write this candid, reflective book.

For his entire life, Boot wanted to be a good soldier. Instead he’s now in his late 40s, waking up to the historical brutality of “white identity politics” (“I have had my consciousness raised,” he says) and incredulously wondering: “How could all these eminences that I had worked with, and respected, sell out their professed principles to support a president who could not tell Edmund Burke from Arleigh Burke?”

How indeed? And Arleigh who? The confident name-dropping (of an admiral in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, natch) is quintessential Boot, who describes himself as one of the “sophisticates” of the Republican Party.

There’s something refreshing about an elite conservative owning up to being an elite conservative. The closest that Ben Sasse comes to doing the same in his new book is a cryptic recollection about how, when he and his wife lived in Chicago, they “were fortunate to be able to make ends meet.” (He was working as a management consultant at the time.)

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BenSasse (B.A. from Harvard, Ph.D. from Yale) spends a great deal of “Them” honing his down-home credentials (Nascar, TGI Fridays). He emphasizes the importance of civil debate, denouncing Fox News and MSNBC, and laments the extreme partisanship that characterizes public life in the Trump era. But “the dysfunction in D.C.,” he says, stems from something “deeper than economics,” and “deeper and more meaningful” than politics. “What’s wrong with America, then, starts with one uncomfortable word,” he writes. “Loneliness.”

He shores up his argument by referring to scholars of social isolation like Robert Putnam and Eric Klinenberg — though the socially conscious Klinenberg (with his emphasis on the crucial role of publicly funded institutions) might find it hard to recognize the conclusions Sasse has drawn from his work. Community, Sasse says, is fostered by individual acts of charity and fellow-feeling; government does what it needs to do when it gets out of the way. “Citizens in a republic must cultivate humility,” he writes in a section titled “Civics 101.” It’s “the only way to preserve sufficient space for true community and for meaningful, beautiful human relationships.”

This is standard conservative stuff; a little cloying in the delivery, sure, but not shocking. After all, Sasse — who regularly boasts about having one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate — doesn’t have a responsibility to become a Democrat in the Trump era, much less satisfy Boot’s desire for a politician who can “make centrism sexy.” (I had to laugh before I cringed.) Even Sasse’s ability to sentimentalize “rootedness” in little communities in one breath and welcome the “uberization” of existing industries in the other can be chalked up to an old strain of techno-optimism among business-friendly conservatives.

What’s curious, then, is not so much the careful avoidance of politics — politicians are really good at this — but Sasse’s repeated assertions that political solutions are meaningless. “Ultimately, it’s not legislation we’re lacking,” he writes. Public servants like him “simply need to allow the space for communities of different belief and custom to flourish.” It’s a pretty idea, though anyone familiar with how “belief and custom” have long propped up local prejudices (Jim Crow being a glaring example) knows that there’s nothing simple about it.

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As he did in his previous book, “The Vanishing American Adult,” Sasse talks a lot about the importance of “meaningful work,” yet he has chosen to be a United States senator, spending five days a week away from his family back in Nebraska in order to do whatever it is he does in Washington — which is what? Apparently vote with Trump close to 90 percent of the time and help his party try to bulldoze health care legislation and tax cuts through Congress, keeping crucial details secret until the last minute — all the while writing a book that solemnly proclaims the necessity of respectful debate and “engaging ideological opponents.”

“Our occupation links us to other people and gives us an identity and a sense of meaning,” Sasse muses, before waxing lyrical about a bedbug exterminator. For all his paeans to other people’s jobs, you might begin to wonder what the senator makes of his own.

Follow Jennifer Szalai on Twitter: @jenszalai.

The Corrosion of Conservatism
Why I Left the Right
By Max Boot
260 pages. Liveright Publishing. $24.95.

Them
Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal
By Ben Sasse
272 pages. St. Martin’s Press. $28.99.

 

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Dismantle The G.O.P.? Or Just Look Past Politics?

The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World


 

October 16, 2018

The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World

Reviewed by: Francis P. Sempa

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The “liberal world order” created by the United States after the Second World War is an historical anomaly that may be coming to an end, according to the Brookings Institution’s Robert Kagan in his new book The Jungle Grows Back.

Kagan, who served in the Reagan State Department in the mid-to-late 1980s, is the quintessential foreign policy neoconservative who believes that “the liberal order is like a garden, artificial and forever threatened by the forces of nature.” It can only be preserved, he writes, by a “persistent, unending struggle against the vines and weeds that are constantly working to undermine it from within and overwhelm it from without.”

The “vines and weeds” that threaten it today, according to Kagan, all come from the political Right—authoritarian foreign powers such as Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea and domestic conservatives who yearn “for order, for strong leadership, and . . . for the security of family, tribe, and nation.”

Kagan views authoritarianism as a greater threat to the survival of democracy than communism because in his view an unenlightened authoritarianism is more consistent with human nature. The United States and the countries of Western Europe, he writes, are retreating to nationalism and tribalism while moving away from the enlightened universalism that has supported the liberal world order since 1945.

He criticizes the foreign policy “restraint” of the Obama administration and the “America First” foreign policy of the Trump administration, yet he acknowledges that both appeal to many Americans who yearn to be a “normal” country and who recoil from being the world’s policeman.

For Kagan and some other neoconservatives, the end of the Cold War changed nothing. America’s global responsibilities remain the same, albeit with different adversaries and more diffuse threats. Those who today counsel restraint, Kagan warns, risk repeating the errors of the 1930s and the 1970s when America’s timidity enabled geopolitical threats to grow.

Kagan worries that as American power wanes in Europe and East Asia, the transformation of the global power structure accomplished by the creative statesmanship of the immediate post-World War II period will end. European geopolitics may return with a vengeance, while East Asian geopolitics will intensify. He even raises the specter of nationalistic Germany and Japan once more acting assertively on the world stage.

Although Kagan decries the “new realism” that emphasizes the limits of American power, it was, ironically, the success of Kagan’s worldview as practiced by the George W. Bush administration that produced the political environment for a more restrained American foreign policy.

The seemingly endless war in Afghanistan and the unsuccessful war in Iraq—waged to implant democratic values and practices in regions inhospitable to democracy—demonstrated for those not blinded by hubris the limits of American power.

In some parts of the book, Kagan confounds more than he informs. China and North Korea, as Kagan surely knows, are not rightist conservative powers; they are leftist communist regimes. Americans, despite Kagan’s claim to the contrary, did not exaggerate the risks communism posed to their way of life. A successful U.S. foreign policy does not require “a belief in the universalism of rights.”

Geopolitical restraint has a very rich tradition in American history—from George Washington’s wise policy of neutrality in the 1790s and his wise counsel to avoid sentimental attachments to foreign powers, to John Quincy Adams’ counsel to avoid going abroad to seek monsters to destroy, to Theodore Roosevelt’s “big stick” diplomacy, to Dwight Eisenhower’s strategic deterrence, to Richard Nixon’s triangular diplomacy, to Ronald Reagan’s “peace through strength.”

Those presidents succeeded by husbanding and deftly wielding American economic and military power to support American interests, not by dispatching American troops willy nilly to spread democracy or transform the world. America, John Quincy Adams said, is the well-wisher of freedom to all but the champion and guarantor only of her own.

While Kagan’s worldview contains some elements of Wilsonianism, he also writes persuasively about some eternal truths of international relations that should inform any U.S. administration’s approach to the world.

He understands that it is American military predominance, not “soft” or “smart” power, that ultimately supports the U.S.-led world order. He realizes that the struggle for power is a permanent feature of international relations.

He has a pessimistic view of human nature and notes that policy choices are frequently limited to bad and worse options.He knows that there are no permanent solutions to foreign policy problems and that containing or keeping a lid on trouble is often the best we can do.

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He recognizes that a rising China poses the greatest geopolitical challenge to the United States in the early 21st century.

Kagan cites Bismarck and Disraeli, both realists, as the most masterful statesmen in history. He might better appreciate counsels of restraint by remembering that it was Bismarck who wisely remarked: “Man cannot control the current of events, he can only float with them and steer.”