It is a truly amazing thing watching the neo-liberal Left and neo-conservative Right in apoplexy over the summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. That the President has managed to unite these two groups in outrage is quite an achievement.
It is also an opportunity for cultural, historical, and economic literacy to overcome fake news. The neo-con Right and neo-lib Left are now clearly a single corporatist monolith. The only difference between the two is the corporate clients — the military/industrial complex for the neo-con Right and the virtue-signaling of Silicon Valley for the neo-lib Left. Both have their version of corporate media — who take something someone says, interpret it in the most inflammatory way possible, find people to be outraged by their inflammatory interpretation, and then report the outrage as if it is “breaking news!” (Fox did this to President Obama numerous times, but CNN and MSNBC have turned it into an art form with Trump.)
Neo-Cons Apparently Didn’t Get the Memo
Ronald Reagan saw the Soviet Union for what it was: an Evil Empire. Pope John Paul the Great personally experienced this evil, and Lady Margaret Thatcher was (and is) probably the closest thing Great Britain has had to Winston Churchill. Together their moral clarity gave impetus to the Polish Solidarity party and Lech Walesa, whose successful opposition to Soviet domination over Poland set off the chain of events that ended the Cold War as the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own internal contradictions.
Listening to the neo-con/neo-lib corporatist cabal today, you would think none of that ever happened.
The intellectual foundation for the Cold War was laid by George Kennan in what is called The Long Telegraph. Neo-cons, in particular, would do well to read it in full, lest they fall victim to the oversimplification Kennan expressly sought to avoid (emphasis added below):
[U.S. interests in the Soviet Union] involves questions so intricate, so delicate, so strange to our form of thought, and so important to analysis of our international environment that I cannot compress answers into single brief message without yielding to what I feel would be dangerous degree of over-simplification.
The history of thinking about relations between the U.S. and Russia is astonishing. In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville wrote the following:
There are at the present time two great nations in the world, which started from different points, but seem to tend towards the same end. I allude to the Russians and the Americans. Both of them have grown up unnoticed; and whilst the attention of mankind was directed elsewhere, they have suddenly placed themselves in the front rank among the nations, and the world learned their existence and their greatness at almost the same time… The American struggles against the obstacles which nature opposes to him; the adversaries of the Russian are men. The former combats the wilderness and savage life; the latter, civilization with all its arms.
Then in 1921 Josef Stalin said the following, as reported by Kennan:
In course of further development of international revolution there will emerge two centers of world significance: a socialist center, drawing to itself the countries which tend toward socialism, and a capitalist center, drawing to itself the countries that incline toward capitalism. Battle between these two centers for command of world economy will decide the fate of capitalism and of communism in the entire world.
Kennan goes on to brilliantly elucidate what he called the Kremlin’s “neurotic view of world affairs” as being rooted in the “… insecurity of a peaceful agricultural people trying to live on [a] vast exposed plain in [a] neighborhood of fierce nomadic peoples.”
Reading back to de Tocqueville, and then reading forward to today — if one is geographically literate — the challenges faced by the Ukraine in particular are easily understood. Between Kiev and Moscow is nothing but a plain — by which an invading military could easily advance.
And if the conflicts between other ethnic groups before World War II were not enough, Adolf Hitler’s invasion of those Russian plains leaving 25 million Russian dead would sear neurotic suspicions into the Russian psyche. President Barack Obama was fond of fantasizing about the 21st century. From the dawn of recorded history, no century has been kind to the Russians. Only a fool would think their view of the 21st century would be any different. Kennan’s most salient contribution to today’s discussion about Russia is in his noting how their way of thinking is “so strange to our form of thought.”
Because we lack the memory of losing 25 million people to war (something we should be eternally grateful for), and because our world view emerged from conflict with the wilderness rather than with other ethnic groups, we can at least recognize the existence of an internal logic which makes perfect sense to the Russian mind — even if we will never fully follow it ourselves; our respective views of the world diverge too dramatically.
Condoleeza Rice, writing in her book Democracy, walks the reader through events following the end of the Cold War. Rice is, in my opinion, part of the neo-con establishment and fails to apply Kennan’s excellent advice when viewing events after the end of the Cold War.
But importantly, she explains how Russia tried Western style democracy with the election (with the help of American political operatives — gasp!) of Boris Yeltsin. Rice herself describes the outcome as chaos. Having been subjected to scarcities by communism, Russian democracy was a viciously Darwinian free-for-all. Ordinary Russians (who Kennan notes gave up on communist ideology all the way back in the 1940’s) learned to equate American-style democracy with chaos rather than prosperity.
It is an amazing example of the neo-conservatives’ culturally illiterate, self-serving echo-chamber that they fail to see that American influence in the election of Yeltsin is exactly what created the absence of orderliness Vladimir Putin later filled. Russia has a strongman leader today precisely because the neo-conservative foreign policy establishment here failed to heed Kennan’s advice.
Neo-Libs Are Living an Alice-in-Wonderland Economic Fantasy
Toward the end of his cable, Kennan put the onus of the challenge of the Soviet Union right where it belongs — on us (emphasis added):
Much depends on [the] health and vigor of our own society. World communism is like [a] malignant parasite which feeds only on diseased tissue… Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people, is a diplomatic victory over Moscow worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiques. If we cannot abandon fatalism and indifference in face of deficiencies of our own society, Moscow will profit — Moscow cannot help profiting by them in its foreign policies.
Even if we grant the premise of Russian “meddling” in the 2016 election — and as a cyber security professional, I know full well how easily cyber activity can be spoofed or forged — if the Russians are attempting to stoke divisions within American society we might want to consider the source of those divisions. If we had done this in the aftermath of the financial crisis, for example, it is entirely possible the Russians would be an afterthought in our current politics.
Donald Trump is President for a simple and mathematically irrefutable reason. The “Blue Wall” of the Rust Belt states collapsed on the Democrats. Rust Belt voters have listened to neo-liberal Democrat nostrums about free trade for a couple decades now, looked at their empty pantries, and stood up from their dinner tables after explaining to the kids why they could not afford to send them to college — and then called bullshit on the whole enterprise by voting for Donald Trump.
The Benefits of Trade Require All Participants to be Creating Wealth…
Neo-libs (and, frankly, neo-cons and all corporatists as well) have completely forgotten how wealth is created. Our craft beer industry here in San Diego offers us a wonderful (and delicious) example: Every single craft brewery started as a science project in someone’s garage. The brew master took the things of the earth (grains, hops, water, and other ingredients) and made something from them that others enjoy. People started lining up to buy these new and interesting varieties of beer and it became clear that demand could not be met as long as it remained a science project.
So the brew master went to Wall Street to secure a loan — and the proceeds were not used to speculate in commodities, real estate, or crypto (gasp!) — they were used to buy plant and equipment(!). A craft beer brand is born and the capacity for wealth creation is multiplied and expanded.
And then something else happened… The “tasting room” as a place for socialization was born. This is not much different from the coffee shop — and follows the same dynamic: the farmer takes the things of nature and grows a crop of coffee. The potter takes the things of nature and forms and fires a coffee mug — and now the barista has a job.
Neither the bartender nor the barista create wealth. That is done by those who are taking the raw materials of nature and making useful or desirable things from them. But when left alone (meaning free from rent-seeking corporatist lobbies and overbearing government bureaucracies), the creation of wealth introduces new forms of value. Having a place to entertain friends while celebrating a child’s birthday is but one example — and we see that in our local craft brewery tasting rooms(!). Building a relationship with the young people working at the local coffee shop — and knowing that our patronage is helping them gain experience as they finish college — is another form of value for which we gladly pay a reasonable price.
We are told that exporting a manufacturing job and importing a service sector job is an equal exchange — a job is a job is a job. But when we return to an understanding of how wealth is created, the stench of bullshit proves otherwise.
…by Actually Making Things
Free trade used to be a dynamic where one country could produce a needed product because of an abundance of the required raw materials. They would trade with another country which produced a different product — again by virtue of an abundance of the needed raw materials. Each county’s demand for the other country’s product was, likewise, a function of local scarcity of the raw materials. Both countries were creating wealth because both were taking the things of nature and making useful or desirable things. And if the products of each are allowed into the other’s market free from tariffs, we have genuinely “free trade” which equitably promotes the creation of wealth.
We don’t have that today. To use NAFTA as an example, we have an arrangement that allows China to send aluminum to Mexico, with which Chinese owned companies in Mexico do just enough to game the “country of origin” designation, and then dump that aluminum onto the U.S. market, decimating the U.S. aluminum industry. (China subsidizes the energy used to smelt aluminum in China where our mills have to pay their own energy bill.)
Rust Belt workers in the aluminum industry know the score here painfully well. They have been victims of a “trade war” long before that term re-entered the media’s vocabulary. The only news here is that the U.S. is finally starting to fight back.
But more broadly speaking, the current arrangement is one where capital searches out the cheapest labor without respect to abundance or scarcity of raw materials. “Capital” does not have kids in high school. “Labor” does, and cannot just up and move like capital can. When we allow ourselves to be deceived into believing the exporting of manufacturing is a net gain with the importing of service sector jobs, we end up exporting the creation of wealth (and the dignity which comes with it) and are left with an economy of mansions, butlers, and maids.
This is not the “America” our forefathers staked their treasure, honor, and lives to establish. This is not “capitalism” as it was envisioned by Adam Smith, but a cheap, corporatist imitation. It is not the “America” symbolized by the flag to which we pledge allegiance. It is a corporatist America run by and for the rent-seeking class and their central bank.
We would do well to heed Kennan, and seek out “[e]very courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people…” Russian activity on social media will then be nothing but a passing curiosity.
Please. Just Go Away. We Don’t Believe You Anymore
We want to leave our kids with a country where we are creating wealth again, and an environment of less government and genuinely free enterprise which allows as much wealth as possible to be created, and justly enjoyed by as wide a swath of American society as possible. You probably will say you want the same. But you have failed to provide it.
You told us a trade deficit is a “capital account surplus.” We imagine such a thing is nice — for those who have capital. But for those who don’t, who only have the work of their hands to generate an income, that surplus comes at the cost of devaluing their labor, and thus robbing them of their dignity. Forgive us if we are not OK with this.
You have taught us to genuflect at the altar of free trade. You failed to mention that the lamp by the tabernacle no longer burns. It has been out for decades; the tabernacle is bereft of the presence of hope for a prosperous future.
You have failed to deliver. We know what you are selling… and we are not buying. Please, just go away. We don’t believe you anymore.
So finally, we come to John Brennan and his neo-conservative ilk, carelessly throwing around words like “treason.” We see Rod Rosenstein hand down an indictment on Russian agents who will never come under the jurisdiction of our courts. And even if they did, the central allegation of hacking into Democrat servers requires a chain of custody over the servers themselves — something the FBI inexcusably and inexplicably failed to secure.
You have no case. You know you have no case. We know you have no case. But you hand down an indictment just the same two days before the summit between Trump and Putin.
We know the score. Your deranged apoplexy is fed by a world view which refuses to entertain the realism so carefully articulated and counseled by George Kennan.
My boys are 18 and 20, and have no memory of an America that was not at war. Your idea of “national security” has us fighting wars with no culturally or historically credible end-state. Bluntly put, we understand well what your view of national security requires. It requires we send another generation into the meat grinder of war, that we give up civil liberties at home, and that we court another full-scale war with Russia. Can we be forgiven for thinking an America which is secure is an America which is at peace?
We know what you are selling… and we are not buying. Please, just go away. We don’t believe you anymore.
And in case you did not get that memo in 2016, we will gladly send you a copy for your records in 2020.