Saturday, December 24, 2022

The Virginia Resolution at 224: Still Very Much With Us, As Red Seeks to Block Blue, and Vice Versa

Madison’s Anniversary

Can the states interpose their power in opposition to what they deem to be noxious federal policies?  That’s a question that comes up a lot these days, even if the word “interpose” isn’t much used.  Yet by whatever name, the idea of using legal and political strategies to block unwanted federal policies is popular, both with the left and the right.  These days, as diversity muscles past uniformity, few federal policies are well regarded nationwide.  As a result, state leaders--governors and other officials--operating from their respective blue and red bastions, find themselves at odds with various federal policies.  It was never the case that one size fits all in this country, and the Founders understood that, which is they wired federalism into the Constitution. 

Yet in our time, it's all the more obvious that one size doesn't fit all 335 million of us, even as, of course, the federal edifice is vastly larger and more encroaching than it was three centuries ago.  Therefore, more state-federal feuds are inevitable.  And so, in their many legal, political, and ideological tussles with the central government, state leaders today, left as well as right, are recapitulating the periphery vs. core dynamic that preoccupied the Founders, albeit today we see it on a grander scale. 

So on this, the 224th anniversary of the use of the “i” word, interpose, by a major figure in American history, James Madison--the author of the U.S. Constitution and our Fourth President, as well as the author of the Virginia Resolution that we remember today—let’s consider how interposition has manifested itself, is manifesting itself, and will manifest itself in the future, as red states grow redder, and blue states become bluer. 

As we all know, the red-blue split is one of the most important trends of our time.  It’s not just the difference between Republicans and Democrats in Congress—who are veering further apart in their partisanship—but the difference between the political cultures of red states and blue states.  Indeed, if we consider the red-blue split in cultural, as well as political, terms, we can see its full depth.  Think rural vs. urban.  NASCAR vs. NPR.  Chick-fil-A vs. Patagonia. Diversity, in the fullness of the concept, is real.  Fortunately, we have a mechanism for managing--even, if you will, celebrating--that diversity: the U.S. Constitution.  

As recently as two years ago, blue states seized every opportunity to block the policies of Donald Trump.  For instance, then-California attorney general Xavier Becerra, a Democrat, sued the Trump administration more than 100 times, on matters ranging from immigration to the census to gun control.  In so litigating, Becerra became a hero to the left; in 2021, in recognition of his service to the blue cause, President Joe Biden appointed him secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. 

Yet these days, the shoe is on the other foot.  Now it’s red states—most notably, Florida—opposing the Biden Administration.  Indeed, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis isn’t just opposing federal policies; he is actively seeking to investigate the federal government for "crimes and wrongdoing committed against Floridians related to the Covid-19 vaccine."  The idea that a U.S. state would investigate the feds is extraordinary.  But okay, these are extraordinary times, and so we shouldn’t be surprised that the national EQ—Extraordinary Quotient—keeps rising.  

To sum up, at different times, and on different issues, both blue and red states have sought to interpose their sovereign power against federal policies. (Some might say that they have sought to nullify.)  Once again, this is diversity on display: The Democrats have their vision of the good life, and good politics, and Republicans have theirs—and increasingly, with apologies to Rudyard Kipling, never the twain shall meet. 

So if the Democrats hold the White House in 2024, it’s a safe bet that Republican states will continue to oppose the blue administration, and if Republicans win, Democrats will immediately rediscover their Becerrra-esque legal-oppositional moves. 

But let’s go back to “interposition.”  In 1798, Virginia was reacting, negatively, to the policies of President John Adams, most notably, the Alien and Sedition Acts.  That legislation, enacted by the Federalists who controlled the Fifth Congress, made it a crime to publish “any false, scandalous and malicious writing” about the U.S. government or its officials.  Plainly, the new law was an urgent threat to personal liberty.  In response, members of the rival party to the Federalists, the Democratic-Republicans, flexed their muscles of opposition in the legislative bodies they controlled.  And so on December 21, 1798, the Virginia House of Delegates passed a resolution, written by Madison—a former Member of Congress from Virginia, now a private citizen living in Montpelier—and then, three days later, the Virginia Senate passed it, too. 

The language of the resolution was fully Madisonian in its measuredness:

That this assembly most solemnly declares a warm attachment to the Union of the States, to maintain which it pledges all its powers; and that for this end, it is their duty to watch over and oppose every infraction of those principles which constitute the only basis of that Union, because a faithful observance of them, can alone secure its existence and the public happiness.  [emphasis added] 

Precisely because we love the Union, Madison is saying, we must protest any encroachments on its integrity.  Madison continues, adding in the “i” word: 

the states who are parties thereto, have the right, and are in duty bound, to interpose for arresting the progress of the evil, and for maintaining within their respective limits, the authorities, rights and liberties appertaining to them. [emphasis added] 

We can observe that the word “interpose” is studiedly soft and a bit vague, even if Madison's use of the word “evil” is, well, neither soft nor vague.  So the resolution was definitely a throw-down. 

Strikingly, a similar resolution had passed earlier that same year, on November 11, in Kentucky, another state controlled by the Democratic-Republicans.  Declaring the states’ ability to block federal legislation it deemed odious, the Kentucky Resolution used the word “nullification,” a much stronger word than “interpose”: 

the several states who formed that instrument [the Constitution], being sovereign and independent, have the unquestionable right to judge of its infraction; and that a nullification, by those [states], of all unauthorized acts . . . is the rightful remedy.

Interestingly, the secret author of this resolution was none other than Thomas Jefferson, then the sitting vice president (those were the days, of course, prior to the 12th Amendment, when presidents and vice presidents were not elected on the same ticket, so Vice President Jefferson never pretended to be an ally of President Adams).  

Yet because Virginia was by far the largest state in the Union—and the home of George Washington, then still living—the resolution coming out of close-in Richmond resonated much more with the nation than the one from distant Frankfort.  Still, it must be noted that the other 14 states were not in accord with either Virginia or Kentucky.  Asked to agree with the resolutions, four states had no response, and ten rejected them. 

Yet even so, the resolutions were impactful.  In the presidential election the following year, 1800, the Sedition Acts were a major issue.  And the Democratic-Republicans, the party of Madison and Jefferson, swept out the authors of the Sedition Acts, Adams and the Federalists.  In fact, the popular vote was a landslide, even if the electoral-vote counting was iffier.  

Having been elected to the presidency, Jefferson would serve two terms in the White House.  In his first year, 1801, the Sedition Acts expired; moreover, the Third President pardoned all those previously convicted under their provisions.  Then Madison followed Jefferson in the White House in 1809, serving two terms of his own.  (As a relevant aside, the electoral geography of the 1800 election foreshadows the red-blue landscape of today: The Democratic-Republicans carried the South and West, such as it was, while the Federalists carried New England.) 

The Resolutions Today

Political events thus mooted the immediate legal and constitutional questions about the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions.  However, the underlying issues they raised are unresolved to this day.  Taken together, the resolutions made two arguments that continue to echo:

First, the Union is a compact among individual states; as Madison wrote, the Union was “resulting from the compact to which the states are parties.”  The idea that the Union is a compact among the states suggests, of course, that if the terms of the compact are broken, the compact itself—that is to say, the Union—can be broken.  We can realize immediately that this sort of thinking helped inspire the South to secede in 1861.  In other words, the idea of the United States as a compact is a deeply loaded proposition.  And while Madison and Jefferson were long dead by the time of the Civil War, their words in the resolutions were cited frequently by Southern champion John C. Calhoun, as well as by the fire-eating secessionists who followed him after his death in 1850.   

Second, the resolutions argued that states had delegated certain specific powers to the federal government, while reserving the remaining powers for themselves.  And among those powers was the right to interpose state sovereignty to protect citizens from the depredations of the federal government.  That is, it’s not so much that the states are rejecting the idea of the Union; they are just declaring that egregious (in their view) federal rules should not apply.  

It’s this second argument of course, that echoes into our time, epitomized by figures such as Becerra for the blue Democrats, and DeSantis for the red Republicans.  

Some will say, of course, that the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause settles this issue—that the states can’t interpose against the federal government.   Of course, the Supremacy Clause was written by the same Madison, who then argued, a decade later, that the states could, in fact, interpose.  Later in his long life, Madison had much more to say on the topic of interposition.  For instance, during the Nullification Crisis of the early 1830s, the then-80-something Madison asserted that the threat from the Sedition Acts was so serious that it justified interposition, whereas the imposing of a mere tariff did not.  Of course, the definition of a justifiable “trigger” for interposition will vary in the eye of the beholder.

Others will say that the Civil War, or the New Deal, or the Supreme Court, has settled the question about the supremacy of the federal government over the states.  

Yet even today, the mostly liberal legal establishment is torn on the issues raised by the resolutions.  On the one hand, the legal establishment mostly applauds the assertion of federal power over the states, that being a legacy of Abraham Lincoln’s victory in the Civil War, including his “new birth of freedom” at Gettysburg.  Yet on the other hand, the resolutions’ vigorous defense of free speech and civil liberties is deeply appealing to the left. 

This tension is illustrated in a 2009 essay by Douglas C. Dow, a professor of political theory, published by the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University: 

The complex legacy of the resolutions stems from lingering questions as to whether they are best understood as a defense of civil liberties or of states’ rights.  Rather than asserting the principles of free speech and civil protections for aliens not charged with crimes, Jefferson and Madison argued that the power to pass such acts was not properly delegated to the national government by the states.  The tone and language of the resolutions are not that of a newspaper editorial meant to shape public opinion, but rather are constitutional treatises designed to elaborate on essential structures of government. 

So that’s clear enough statement of opinion: If the resolutions defend free speech and civil liberties, they’re good.  But if they defend states’ rights, they’re not so good—and quite possibly bad. 

Yet 13 years after Dow’s essay, in the wake of wokeness, it can’t be said that the contemporary left completely champions free speech.  Why is this?  Because today’s left, including the American Civil Liberties Union, is often preoccupied with opposing what it deems to be hate speech

Yet still, most liberals will be stalwart in vindicating free speech.  And at the same time, the experience of the Trump presidency has convened many, if not most, on the left that diversity among the states is a good thing.  After all, it was Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, a lion of liberalism, who back in 1932 championed the states as "laboratories of democracy."  By now, nine decades later, just about everyone has come to see that Alabama and California can't and won't be governed the same way, for the simple reason that Alabamans and Californians are so different.  And they aren't about to converge. 

So much of the left has now joined the right, albeit without quite admitting it, in wishing to use the power of the states to oppose—dare we say interpose?—unwanted federal policies.  Of course, left-leaning states oppose different federal policies than do right-leaning states, and yet as they say, sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.  So if the left says it’s fine for a blue state to interpose against the federal government on behalf of, say, sanctuary cities, it’s hard to come up with anything more than a situationalist argument for saying that a red state can’t interpose on behalf of abortion restrictions.  

Thus we come to see why both blue and red are at peace with at least some of the ethos of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions.  At one time or another, folks everywhere in America have felt threatened by federal restrictions on speech or expression.  This goes for today’s red (Kentucky), today’s purple (Virginia), and today’s blue (John Adams’ home state of Massachusetts).  Indeed, the commonality of the feeling of dissonance goes beyond speech and expression.  Be they fans of Becerra or of DeSantis, they both accept that the states are so divergent that they have a right to affirmatively defend state policies that express those divergences.  

A Case in Point: One Size for Health Does Not Fit All

We might close on a particular issue that connects, in a sort of matter/anti-matter sense, Becerra and DeSantis.  As the federal secretary of health and human services, Becerra oversees the Food and Drug Administration.  During the Covid crisis, the FDA joined with an independent agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to enforce the various rules concerning masks and vaccines.  As we have seen, it’s this cluster of rules that is the object of DeSantis’ new legal assault.  And while we can’t yet know the legal outcome of DeSantis’ actions, we can already see the political impact: the Florida governor has rallied the red-state right.  

That is, just as Madison and Jefferson rallied the Democratic- Republicans in 1798 with an eye to victory in 1800, so DeSantis is rallying the Republicans (in geographical terms, the obvious descendants of the Democratic-Republicans of yore) in 2022 hoping for a victory in 2024. 

Back in February, this author argued that healthcare was a natural issue in which the states could and should assert their sovereign rights.  Just this month, in the wake of DeSantis’ attacks on the federal health edifice, I re-upped the argument.  

It is, I believe, counterproductive for the FDA, joined by the CDC, to have a vise-grip on American healthcare.  That is, we shouldn’t allow these old-paradigm bureaucracies to oversee the $5 trillion national health expenditure, to say nothing of the health of all Americans.  Are we really to believe that the FDA/CDC know what’s best for us as individuals?   No doubt some Americans have that faith, but many of us do not.  And happily, this diversity of opinion can be expressed in the diversity inherent in federalism.  

In that spirit, many of us would love to see a state such as Florida interpose against the federal healthcrats.  At the moment, that might seem to be a right-wing position, but if Republicans win the White House in 2024 and start applying their views to, say, reproductive matters, the Democrats will quickly rediscover their own progressive enthusiasm for interposition. 

I am confident that I speak for many creative forward-lookers on the libertarian left when I say that the FDA/CDC being in charge of health is as if the Postal Service were in charge of all shipping and communication.  So sure, we want to liberate healthcare from this droopy duopoly of power, the FDA and CDC.  And if that's a legal and constitutional issue in 2022, it ought to be a political issue, a voting issue, in 2024. As in, sweeping out of power the stubborn of overweening federal power, just as Jefferson swept out Adams.  The states can't fulfill their optimum destiny--as the laboratories of democracy, prosperity, and technology--if the feds have put on top of them a wet, woke, blanket. 

Even in the 21st century, a wide spectrum of Americans draw no small degree of inspiration from arguments made in the 18th century.  Thanks again, James Madison.

Thursday, November 03, 2022

Lucianne Goldberg’s Place in Internet History: Six Lessons for Today

Lucianne Goldberg, who died on October 27 at age 87, lived a great life.  Although she had a long career as a writer, ghostwriter, and literary agent, she will be best remembered for her advisory role in the Monica Lewinsky saga. Here’s one admiring obituary.

Yet there’s still another aspect of her life that’s worth recalling, because it echoes to this day: Her role as a digital activist, followed by her time as a startup entrepreneur.  

For Goldberg as a digital figure, the hinge period was the year 2000, when the internet was still young.  Indeed, if we look back to that formative period, we can see that many of the issues that she, and we, confronted then—toxicity, censorship, cancelling, scaling up, political activism—are still issues now.   As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  

So at a time when the internet is changing yet again—as Elon Musk has taken over Twitter while Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook, now Meta, has fallen on its face—it’s worth both recalling this moment in Goldberg’s life and pondering the parallels, then and now. 

In the beginning of the widespread internet, three decades ago, nobody knew what this new thing would be.  In 1993, Howard Rheingold published The Virtual Community, which put forth a sort of liberal Whole Foods-y utopian vision.  In the meantime, others thought that the net would be a series of “walled gardens,” proprietarily managed by corporations such as America Online and Compuserve.  Or perhaps it would be controlled by even larger corporations, such as AT&T and Time-Warner.  And of course, everyone wondered what the dreaded Microsoft would do.  

In 1996, the poet and rancher John Perry Barlow made an early stab at a libertarian vision for the net.  His “Declaration of Independence of Independence of Cyberspace,” includes this ringing preamble

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind.  On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone.  You are not welcome among us.  You have no sovereignty where we gather.

That don’t-tread-on-me spirit seemed especially fitting for one early site, Free Republic.  Launched in 1996 by Jim Robinson in Fresno, CA, it was an unmoderated bulletin board for conservatives—free speech, away from liberal bias, was the goal.  For a while, Free Republic flourished; it had the eager participation of its users, known as Freepers, who felt unconstrained by the rules, taboos, and technological limitations of older media.  Freepers could post articles they had culled from other news sources and then comment on them endlessly, in a new phenomenon called “threads.” 

Then in 1998, the Monica Lewinsky story broke, and Free Republic, feasting on this and other Clinton scandals, took off.  It attracted an avid poster in “Trixie,” the user name of Lucianne Goldberg.  

Yet Free Republic had problems.  It was heavy on “flames,” another new phenomenon, and had some outright hate speech and invitations to violence.  Much of this was curated by an opponent, who published it in in 1999.  

To be sure, flaming, hating, and threatening were hardly unique to Free Republic’s corner of the internet.  As far back as 1990, the American attorney and author Mike Godwin outlined what came to be known as Godwin’s Law, which holds, somewhat jokily, that online chats eventually degenerate into accusations about Hitler and Nazis.  Strictly speaking, that’s not fair or true.  And yet it does seem that online discussions, especially when cloaked in anonymity, have a way of ending up in hostility, nastiness, and yes, what’s been called the Reductio ad Hitlerum.  Like it or not, noxious speech is still—at least most of it—protected free speech.  And yet too much venom makes for an unattractive brew.  It’s especially repellent to advertisers, who are the mother’s milk of non-paywalled websites.  

Moreover, in 1998, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post sued Free Republic for copyright infringement—all those articles being lifted and posted.  The newspapers won.  

Sill, Free Republic had energy.  Indeed, founder Jim Robinson saw the site as a platform for more than just online gathering.  As that same Salon article noted, Robinson and his colleagues had a “desire to turn Free Republic from a mere Web site into a political organization.” 

That idea certainly made sense—if people could gather online, they could gather in person—and yet for Free Republic, the execution proved problematic.  

For instance, in December 2000, during the extended Bush-vs.-Gore recount drama, Freepers staged a protest in front of the New Haven, CT home of Gore’s vice presidential running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman.  And that turned nasty.  The headline in The Hartford Courant on December, 13, 2000 read, “Anti-Semitism Reeks Outside Lieberman Home.” The article noted the presence of Nazi and Confederate flags and a sign that read “Judas Joe.”  The participants denied that they were anti-Semitic, saying that the most offensive material was placed by provocateurs.  

There’s no point, 22 years later, in trying to hash through these claims and counter-claims.  But we can say that the public face of Free Republic now appeared toxic, at least to many.  In fact, the Courant quoted Goldberg as saying that Free Republic had “let all the Y2K, gun-nut, Jew-baiting crazies take over and flame the plain old conservatives.”  The word wasn’t used then, but one might say that Free Republic was cancelled, at least in the minds of many. 

Whereupon Goldberg started her own site,, with many of the same features as her old haunt, including posts, threads, and flames.  For awhile, Goldberg’s site was happening.  But then others began to see that this new thing could be the Next Big Thing.  And so came a rush of new sites, including Silicon Valley-backed newbies such as Friendster and MySpace.  These sites could see that attention was something that could be monetized—and they were infinitely more effective at doing it.  

So “social media” was born, and it was big.  Hardcore techies—-which Robinson and Goldberg were not—realized that the future of the medium would belong more sophisticated sites that allowed for posting pictures and video, as well as peer-to-peer messaging and e-commerce, all arranged by algorithms, supported by advertising, and frictionlessly transferred, as the tech became available to mobile.  So while both Free Republic and Lucianne still exist today, they are just small niche players.  

Needless to say, this sophistication of the new giants—now known as platforms—brought problems, most notably, the loss of privacy, and then, of course, the issue of censorship, or “de-platforming.”  But in their knowingness, even intrusiveness, the new sites—soon to be dominated by Facebook, followed by the smaller Twitter—offered a new kind of political tool, thus realizing at least part of Robinson’s activist vision. 

To a large extent, both Barack Obama and Donald Trump based their presidential campaigns on Facebook.  Why?  Because Facebook knew so much about its users, it could offer the most “granular” of targeted advertising; it was vastly “smarter” than cable TV or dead-tree paper.  To candidates, Facebook offers the features of an old-style political machine in new digital garb: Like the ward-heeler of yore, it knows all about you.   And so, like the machine of old, it could monitor your progress to ballot-casting. 

So what lessons can we draw as we compare the tech transitions of 2000 to the tech transitions of 2022?  Here are six: 

First, if content is king, content-moderation is queen.  How to allow free speech on a site without it becoming a sewer?   First Amendment absolutism doesn’t last long in the face of online cruelty, even depravity and criminality.  This is a problem that bedevils all sites today, from Facebook and Twitter to the newer social sites of the right, such as Caucus Room, Gab, Gettr, Parler, and Truth Social.  For sure, Elon Musk struck a blow for free speech when he fired the wokesters who had de-platformed, say, The Babylon Bee, but on that same day, October 27, he tweeted a statement entitled “Dear Twitter Advertisers,” in which he wrote, 

Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences!  In addition to adhering to our laws of the land, our platform must be warm and welcoming to all, where you can choose your desired experience according to your preferences.

Translation: Musk Twitter will be less censorious than Woke Twitter, but it will have plenty of rules.   Indeed, Musk is notably going slowly, consulting widely, as he ponders what changes he might—or might not—be making in Twitter’s content-moderation policies. 

Second, the stubborn vision of the founder can make an organization great, but the same stubbornness can later bring it down.  That was the story of Free Republic’s ill-starred foray into political activism two decades ago in Connecticut, and it’s the story of Mark Zuckerberg’s foray into the metaverse today. Earth to Mark: Nobody wants to wear virtual reality goggles all the time.  Today, Facebook’s—now Meta’s—stock is down by more than 70 percent since the beginning of 2022.

Third, users will always crave interactivity.  And that interactivity can be defined as everything from community to combat.  Does that seem complicated?  Even contradictory?  Welcome to human nature.  

Fourth, the world is still looking for a media that is both participatory and online.  The old model of simply grabbing content online has been suppressed by lawsuits, and yet people, working within the guidelines of “fair use,” will always want to work over the news: upvoting it, forwarding it, commenting on it, and mashing it up with music or special effects.  So any site benefits from what might be called “dimensionality”—that is, it’s not just flat on the screen, but instead reaches out to the viewer, who can then take action, or be called to action.  That’s the problem, for example, with cable news, relying as it does, on pre-internet technology: You can watch cable TV, but you can’t do anything with it.  To do something, you have to go to a different, interactive, screen.  It’s the inertness of cable that will doom it, thus bringing more hope to online news.  

Fifth, the dream of a hybrid political organization, both online and real-world, is still to be realized.  Free Republic and Lucianne never scaled, and Zuckerberg’s Facebook, which more than scaled, is no longer trusted.  For his part, Musk has said that he wants Twitter to be an “everything app,” that will let you do everything, including, one might presume, political things.  We’ll see. 

Sixth, it’s possible that the big sites are, well, too big. This is a diverse country, and an even more diverse world, and it might just be the case that a single site can’t encompass all the different points of view in a harmonious whole.  Just as everything-for-everybody department stores have faded, we might see that the big socials find themselves nibbled away by nimble sites that can better reflect the values and interests of their chunk of users. 

So could that spell a revival for niche legacies such as Free Republic or Lucianne?  Perhaps, but more likely, at least in the U.S, the division will be a duality, red vs. blue.  As we know, red vs. blue isn’t just about politics, it’s also about life and lifestyle.  There’s a Red America now, and a Blue America.  And so the internet successes of today and tomorrow will scaled to one or another half—and that’s hundreds of millions of people.  

Still, the smart players will know their history.  And Lucianne Goldberg provides an instructive case study.  Entertaining, too. 


Friday, August 19, 2022

A Grand Bargain For Taiwan: Literally

We all know that the stakes are high—maybe mushroom-cloudily high—in regard to Taiwan. “A Fight Over Taiwan Could Go Nuclear,” headlines Foreign Affairs, not a publication known for sensationalism.  And that header ran on May 22, weeks before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August 2 trip to Taiwan.  Since Pelosi’s visit, concern about a possible Sino-U.S. conflict over the island has ratcheted even higher.  

Hence an ominous second headline from Foreign Affairs, post-Pelosi trip: “America Must Prepare for a War Over Taiwan.”  Meanwhile, headlines from around the world veer from pensive to panicky.  From Germany: “Pelosi in Taiwan—important signal or historic mistake?”; from the United Kingdom: “Horrifying escalation of tensions.”  And the fear is that the war may spread to neighbors in Asia.  Japan: “China’s planned military exercises near Taiwan may have another target: Japan.”  Smaller countries, too, are worried; Malaysia: “Crossing Red Lines to Nuclear War.”  

Just on August 15, a second U.S. Congressional delegation visited Taiwan.  To which the People’s Liberation Army responded by staging more menacing “drills.”   Meanwhile, back in Washington, D.C., on August 16, the Chinese ambassador to the U.S., Qin Gang, delivered a 90-minute tirade, which Politico characterized as “doubling down.”  Qin accused Pelosi of “political provocation” and of “changing the status quo”—and implying that China would be within its rights to change it some more.  To which U.S. Air Force secretary Frank Kendall responded, in effect, on August 19: “The military activities that China engaged in during the time of the speaker's visit increased the level of risk and they violated a number of norms, crossing the line was one, firing into the exclusive economic zone of Japan was another, and firing over Taiwan itself was another.” Kendall added, “These are not actions that are designed to promote peace and stability in the region, they are very provocative and they increase the level of risk.”

Stepping back and adding perspective on this ominous tit-for-tat, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger told The Wall Street Journal, “We are at the edge of war with Russia and China on issues which we partly created, without any concept of how this is going to end or what it’s supposed to lead to.”  

So maybe, as we seek to sort things out, we should pause to remember wisdom from Winston Churchill: “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”  As we know, Churchill never shrank from an unavoidable fight, and yet at the same time, he believed that war should always be the last resort.  

With such prudence in mind, we should consider all possible ideas for staving off a conflict, including those from outside the box.  One such outside-the-nine-dots thinker is Greg Piccionelli, a Los Angeles-based polymath who has combined law, biology, physics, inventing, music, and bird-care. He has an interesting suggestion: The People’s Republic of China should buy Taiwan.  Not conquer it. Not nuke it.  Not blockade it.  Buy it.  That’s truly a Grand Bargain.  

“The U.S. bought Louisiana in 1803,” Piccionelli says. “Perhaps we could have taken it by force from the French, but we’ll never know, because we bought it.  Same with Alaska in 1867.  The Russians were a strategic threat to us, and we were a strategic threat to them.  So instead of risking a conflict in the Pacific Northwest, we just bought the territory.  A win-win.”  So yes, with apologies to Churchill, at least in some cases, buy-buy is better than war-war.  

We can add that in 1821, the U.S. acquired Florida from Spain.  As part of the deal, the U.S. assumed some $5 million in liabilities, and yet the cession was a bit more complicated than just a purchase, in part because Florida was filling up with American settlers and also because Spain was at the time fighting revolutions all across South America.  Still, it was a peaceful addition to the U.S.  Interestingly, the Florida deal was negotiated by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams.  Today, he is remembered as an apostle of foreign-policy restraint; as he said of America in his famous oration of July 4, 1821, “She goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.  She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.  She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”  All true, and yet at the same time, Adams was a realist champion of American interests. He knew that it was better for the U.S. to have Florida than for Spain to have it—and if he could get it for a mere payment, all the better.  

In addition, in 1854, the U.S. made the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico, gaining parts of today’s states of Arizona and New Mexico.  Just in the previous  decade, the U.S. had fought a war with Mexico, seizing substantial amounts of territory, and yet this time, the U.S. chose a peaceful approach.  In fact, Wikipedia lists some two dozens instances in history in which territory traded hands via purchase, not conquest.  In other words, there’s ample precedent for buy-buy as a way to gain land-land.  

So now to Taiwan. “If China offered $1 million to every man, woman, and child in Taiwan if they agree to vote to voluntary reunify with the mainland, the cost would be $24 trillion—24 million people times one million dollars,” Piccionelli suggests. “That $24 trillion price tag would accomplish peaceful reunification without an incredibly more costly cold war with the U.S. or an even more costly and catastrophic hot war with the U.S. and its allies.”  So there’s the deal.  

To be sure, $24 trillion is a lot of money.  And perhaps the price of $1 million per Taiwanese is too high—or maybe it’s too low.  That’s what would need to be negotiated between the parties.  However, as Piccionelli says, almost whatever the per capita valuation, war is more costly.  On August 8, Yahoo News cited a RAND Corporation study suggesting that a war with Taiwan would cut China’s $17 trillion GDP by as much 25 percent.  That’s more than $4 trillion, just in a single year.  Which is to say, stretched out over many years, the cost of a war with Taiwan would vastly exceed the possible purchase price of Taiwan.  And in the meantime, a Taiwan war would clip off about five percent of U.S. GDP, which is currently $23 trillion.  So that would be another trillion or so lost.  And there’d be sizable impact on the rest of the world, too.

Of course, we haven’t mentioned yet the price in lives, buildings, cultural artifacts, and so on—all the treasures that are being destroyed tragically, on a daily basis, in Ukraine.

We can add that the RAND numbers assume that the war would be contained—and who can make any such assumption?  Perhaps it’s fitting that I am writing this in the month of August.  It was in another August, 108 years ago, that The Guns of August roared, and World War One commenced.  Few of the war’s protagonists had any idea how destructive it would be: in lives, in money, in cultural and political capital.  

One who did foresee the true cost of a great war was Norman Angell, the British journalist and essayist.  His 1910 book, The Great Illusion, argued that war had become so destructive that it was no longer “profitable” to think of conquest.  In particular, Angell cited the importance of intangibles, such as credit—which would evaporate in a conflict.  As he wrote, these intangibles would evaporate in the event of a war: “Because of this delicate interdependence of our credit-built finance, the confiscation by an invader of private property, whether stocks, shares, ships, mines, or anything more valuable than jewellery or furniture—anything, in short, which is bound up with the economic life of the people—would so react upon the finance of the invader's country as to make the damage to the invader resulting from the confiscation exceed in value the property confiscated.” 

Angell was pro-peace, but he was tough-minded. He conceded that in countries without industry, there was gain to be found in pillage.  As he wrote, “Where Nature does not respond readily to industrial effort, where it is, at least apparently, more profitable to plunder than to work, the military tradition survives. The Beduin has been a bandit since the time of Abraham, for the simple reason that the desert does not support industrial life nor respond to industrial effort. The only career offering a fair apparent return for effort is plunder.”  But for countries and civilizations that had evolved beyond smash-and-grab, Angell insisted, war was a costly mistake.  

Angell is often mocked, because just four years after the publication of his book, World War One erupted.  But in fact, what was then known as the Great War proved his point: All the countries of Europe, even the “victors,” were, in fact, losers.  The Europeans recognized Angell’s enduring wisdom, and so in 1933, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

If Angell was correct a century ago, he’s even more correct today. To be sure, plenty of advanced countries go to war—and yet when they do, they are economic losers, not winners.  The recent military misadventures of the U.S. in the Middle East are a case in point.  

Updating Angell, we can observe: In the past, if a country conquered a territory, it would get the land, and maybe, too, future subjects or slaves.  But these days, when a territory is conquered, the conqueror gets craters and ruins.  (Yes, theoretically a lightning strike could decapitate the regime and leave the nation intact—that’s what Putin was aiming for in Ukraine, and it didn’t happen.)

Yet even if the kinetic damage is somehow held to a minimum, the damage is still severe.  Not only does the credit evaporate, but so does the human capital and the intellectual property.  And if economic sanctions and capital flight are piled on to those costs, then all the more, even the winners become losers.  So the Russians will not wring profit from the parts of Ukraine that they have conquered and devastated. 

Admittedly, a few countries and regions might be so abundant with natural wealth—gold, oil, perhaps rare earth elements—that they might, in some cruel calculus, be deemed “worth” conquering.  Yet Taiwan is not one of those countries.  It’s prosperous, for sure, boasting a per capita GDP of more than $33,000, and yet that wealth is found in the brains of its people, not underground.  Moreover, Taiwan’s prosperity is built on gossamer webs of globalism, linking its crucial exports to the rest of the world.  For instance, China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner, and Taiwan is China’s tenth-largest trading partner

Specifically, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), which Pelosi visited, makes 56 percent of all the computer chips in the world, (other Taiwanese companies make another 10 percent), and accounts for 92 percent of the most advanced chip-manufacturing capacity.  So yes, these trade links are quite real, in the sense that the world economy relies on Taiwanese chips, and yet at the same time, the links are fragile.  On August 1, the president of TSMC, Mark Liu, spoke out about  the perilous situation, as it might affect his company—and the world.  He said that a military attack from the PRC would render TSMC factories “non-operable,” because “suddenly their most advanced components” would disappear.  Liu explained that TSMC depends on real-time exchange with partners and suppliers around the world, for everything from “raw materials and chemicals to spare parts and software.”  And so, Liu continued, “nobody can control TSMC by force.”  The result of a war, he concluded, would be “great economic turmoil on [both] sides.” 

So even if the PRC were to subdue Taiwan by non-lethal means—say, an economic blockade, or turning the electricity off—plants such as TSMC, having lost their supply chains, and also many of their tech workers, would soon be reduced to worthless hulks.  

Okay, so now to possible objections to the Grand Bargain.  Here are five:  

First, would either the Taiwanese government, or the Taiwanese people, be at all interested in this proposal?  The immediate answer is that this sovereign power should be up to the Taiwanese and their democracy. Unlike the PRC, Taiwan is a democracy, where human rights are respected—and so the nation can have a full and free debate on its destiny.  Without a doubt, it’s nice to be an independent country. (Officially, Taiwan is the Republic of China, ROC, so it’s legally arguable that it’s just a different government for China, even if, course, in reality, it’s its own nation.)  Yet at the same time, it's also nice not to have to worry about being invaded, bombed, or maybe even nuked.  So perhaps the Taiwanese will deliberate on this matter, decide to take the deal—and then take the money and run. That is, skedaddle to California or Canada with the million bucks in hand.  (This assumes, of course, that those countries would take these economic migrants in such huge  quantity; in fact, given their wealth, as well as their presumed skills, it's quite possible that a new kind of international competition for Taiwanese human capital would emerge, with shrewd host countries gaining much.) 

This author will volunteer that there’s no reason to think that the PRC would treat an owned Taiwan, and its population, any better than it has treated an owned Hong Kong.  Yet still, more than 98 percent of Hong Kongers have remained.  Evidently, in the minds of most residents of that former British colony, rule by the PRC isn’t so bad.  But once again, the choice should be made by the Taiwanese, whether to take the deal, or not—and whether to stay in Taiwan, or not.  

Second, would the Beijing government have any interest in this idea?  After all, Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping might think to himself, Taiwan is already ours, so why should we pay for it?  To which we can point out: Possession is nine-tenths of the law, and the PRC does not actually possess Taiwan.  So maybe Xi will see the value in a war-free, blood-free way to tidy up that geopolitical discrepancy.  Indeed, a purchase might be a face-saving way for the PRC to gain sovereignty over Taiwan, without the risk of Putin-Russian type Ukraine debacle.  Better to gain Taiwan by moving in on little weiqi cat feet. 

Third, there’s that $24 trillion price tag.  Rich as China might be, that’s a lot of money.  So here’s perhaps where international finance could help.   And why might the Rest of the World (ROW) be helpful?  Because the ROW realizes that a war over Taiwan would be an economy-tanker across the planet, and that would be bad for ROW asset values.  And if the war went worldwide, well, that would be even worse—much worse. To stave off potential planetary peril, the ROW might see the value in creating some sort of financial instrument to help the purchase along, perhaps by providing the money upfront to the Taiwanese, with Beijing operating on a longer-term installment plan.  Indeed, it’s quite possible that fear of a war over Taiwan is already “priced in” to the value of stocks and currencies—that is, depressing their value—around the world.   So if the threat of war were to go away, those valuations would rise, worldwide.  And there’re quants on Wall Street—and in London,  Tokyo, and Shanghai—who can figure out how to securitize, and monetize, that potential good news.  In other words, properly thought through, a permanent peace between China and Taiwan would be remunerative good news.  Plotting peace and getting richer as a result surely counts as a virtuous kind of market manipulation. 

Fourth, some will say that any suggestion that there’s an impermanence to Taiwan as an independent state undermines the freedom and autonomy of the Taiwanese people.  That is, the mere thought that Taiwan might be “for sale” could undercut its sovereignty and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  This is a valid concern.  However, the idea that world could go to war over Taiwan—and maybe it would even be a nuclear war—is also a valid concern.  And the idea that the world, including the United States, might, in fact, “blink” on the defense of Taiwan is yet another valid concern.  For half a century, the U.S. has had a policy of “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan; that is, we won’t say what we will or won’t do, militarily.  President Joe Biden has said three times that the U.S. would, in fact, defend Taiwan, the administration has unsaid it three times.   So there are many valid concerns, there is much ambiguity—and very high stakes.   So maybe it’s not so bad to consider different solutions—even outside-the-box bargains.  

Fifth, many on the right, as well as the left, will be concerned that paying money for territory and nationality would represent a further commodification of mankind.   Perhaps the most revered of all conservatives, Edmund Burke, sighed that the age of noble chivalry was being yielded up to “sophisters, oeconomists, and calculators.”   And Karl Marx’s declared that the bourgeoisie was reducing all human interactions to the “egotistical calculation” of the cold cash nexus.  Myriad thinkers and philosophers, before and since, on the left and the right, have further scorned the idea that human affairs can be reduced to a price point.   So how would Taiwan Grand Bargainers plead to these charges?  That they are crassly auctioning the organic, the intrinsic, the historic, and the heroic?   In their defense, the financializers might argue that over the last two or three centuries, innovation, including financial innovation, has increased the standard of living some 20-fold.  Still, it’s hard to address non-monetary concerns with money, because one side is talking taboo, while the other side is talking tradeoff.  But it’s worth trying to make these minds meet; that’s what diplomats are for.  With apologies to Churchill, jaw-jaw is good.  Indeed, the beginning of bargaining could be a path to the resolution of other international disputes.  Around the world, there’s plenty of territory that’s probably better paying for than killing for.  

In fact, the lethality of warfare is ever increasing.  That’s not just because of nuclear weapons, but also due to artificial intelligence, which makes possible new agents of mass destruction, from drones to robots to gain-of-functioned viruses.  To put it bluntly, dark technological innovation is making the planet more dangerous, and that’s not even including environmental concerns such as climate change.  Stepping back on all the dangers confronting Spaceship Earth, Piccionelli espies all the dangerous techno-trends and labels them the “doomsday curve,” which is not curving in a good direction for humanity.  So perhaps, as a possible partial solution, we need nuanced political and financial innovation that offers new hope for not only peace, but survival.  

Let’s let Piccionelli have the last word: “A purchase of Taiwan is, first, good for the world order; second, gets the U.S. off the hook for Taiwan’s defense; third, makes China look like a responsible superpower.  A win-win-win.”  

An intriguing argument.  Now we’ll have to see what Taiwan, China, —and the rest of the world—make of it.  

Addendum: I am reminded that I wrote in praise of a report that Donald Trump wanted to buy Greenland.  

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

America’s Dilemma: Power Abroad, Weakness at Home—and What to Do About It

First of Five Parts

Part One: The Power of the Anglosphere

It’s paradoxical that American soft power—that is, our political and cultural influence around the world—seems never to have been greater, and yet at the same time, America itself seems to be fissured.  That is, our politics riven and our population polarized.  Over time, this fissuring is assuredly problematic, not only for the sake of our beloved republic, but also for the sake of the free world coalition, which is under dire threat in Ukraine, and, also, to a lesser extent, in Taiwan. 

“Soft power,” of course, is a concept coined by Harvard’s Kennedy School academic, Joseph Nye.  He first used the term in his 1990 book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, and then elaborated on it in his 2004 book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.  As he wrote

Everyone is familiar with hard power.  We know that military and economic might often get others to change their position.  Hard power can rest on inducements (“carrots”) or threats (“sticks”).  But sometimes you can get the outcomes you want without tangible threats or payoffs. 

Applying the same carrot/stick concept to nations, Nye continued, 

A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries—admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness—want to follow it.  In this sense, it is also important to set the agenda and attract others in world politics, and not only to force them to change by threatening military force or economic sanctions. This soft power—getting others to want the outcomes that you want—co-opts people rather than coerces them.  Soft power rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others.

Shaping the preferences of others, for better or worse, is exactly what the U.S. does best.  We might consider: Just in the past decade, such distinctly American concepts as Occupy Wall Street, #MeToo, the Green New Deal, and Black Lives Matter have resonated around the world.  In 2020, for instance, Keir Starmer, the leader of the British Labour Party, took a knee.  Starmer might well be a future prime minister of the United Kingdom; and yet he’s been imitating the gestures of an American football player.  We can add that the Dobbs case, reversing Roe v. Wade, was the subject of worldwide commentary, including from heads of state.  

Indeed, American memes are so strong that they even regularly infect adversaries; in March 2022, Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin railed against "cancel culture."  (Strange to think that Moscow was once a master of meme-generation, streaming out to the Communist International, but that was then; now, the Russians grope for our memes.) 

Part of American meme-mastery, of course, is American social media.  We can ask: Is there any important country in the world that does not have a Twitter account?   Is there anyone in the world who does not know about Donald Trump?  The yellow hair?  The red tie? MAGA?  

This is all part of the Anglosphere, the quasi-geopolitical notion that the world’s English-speaking peoples are destined for some sort of political unity, as well as cultural unity.  In fact, some 1.5 billion people around the world speak English—that’s about a fifth of the world’s population.  However, among the elite, the chattering classes, the percentage of English speakers is surely far higher.  So it was that the American journalist Ben Smith could declare that his forthcoming publication, Semafor, will target these English speakers, wherever they are on the planet.  “There are 200 million people who are college educated, who read in English, but who no one is really treating like an audience, but who talk to each other and talk to us,” he said. “That’s who we see as our audience.”

Yet the soft power of the Anglosphere is more than just the hegemony of the English language.  It’s also the appeal of the Anglo-Saxon idea—or, if one prefers, the liberal idea— of freedom of speech.  One needn’t argue that Francis Fukuyama was right about the worldwide “End of History” to nonetheless concede that he was right about the preference of many people.    

For many—and by many, I mean billions—this endless give and take that comes with freedom is what makes American debates, cultural as well as political, so exciting.  In the most literal sense, you don’t know what’s going to happen next, because there’s no controller and no censor.  Whatever comes spewing out of American media, including social media, is whatever people are thinking.  And if much if it is unappetizing, there’s always some of it that is appetizing, and there’s always much of it that is compelling.  

So we might be reminded of what Thomas Jefferson wrote from Paris in the 1780s: If he was faced with a choice of “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” This endless contention of media not only makes for interesting news consumption (even if it takes some effort to smelt away the dross) it also makes for better governance, as a free press checks and balances the state.  This point made by Jefferson, our first secretary of state, was well articulated by the 71st secretary of state, Antony Blinken.  On March  18, 2021, in an impromptu debate with the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, Blinken declared

. . .  there’s one more hallmark of our leadership here at home and that’s a constant quest to as we say, form a more perfect union.  And that quest, by definition, acknowledges our imperfections, acknowledges that we’re not perfect.  We make mistakes.  We have reversals, we take steps back.  But what we’ve done throughout our history is to confront those challenges, openly, publicly, transparently. Not trying to ignore them.  Not trying to pretend they don’t exist.  Not trying to sweep them under the rug.  And sometimes it’s painful.  Sometimes it’s ugly.  But each and every time we’ve come out stronger, better, more united, as a country.

Fact check: True.  At least for most of U.S. history.  Yet today, many argue that “disinformation” is such a threat that something must be done, such as Sovietly named—and mercifully short-lived—Disinformation Governance Board.  Yet whatever the U.S. government does, or doesn’t do, about “disinformation,” there are easily a hundred, if not a thousand, non-profits, all monitoring, analyzing, and warning against “disinformation.”  Of course, as a reminder of the power of the Anglosphere, one can go to the internet and google (two more agents of the Anglosphere) and read all about it.  

Of course, a Google search for “civil war” and associated concepts will yield up a gazillion hits.  And it’s hard not to agree with at least some of the concerns about the future of our union.  As I wrote in March for The American Conservative, “The United States has all the preconditions for a civil war today except one: the willingness to actually fight for the sake of disunity.”  I still think that’s true, even if I’m a little less sure about the unwillingness to actually fight. 

So this is the dilemma of American power: Around the world, the Anglosphere is robust, and yet here at home, America is deeply divided.   So can this divided house still stand?

This question is likely to be sharpened if America continues to show success in Ukraine.   As of mid-August, it seems that Western military aid is so enhancing the courage of the Ukrainian armed forces that it’s possible, maybe probable, that Ukraine will fight Russia to some kind of draw.  A Korean-style stalemate seems likely—and given the early expectations of a swift Russian victory, that’s a comparatively positive outcome.  To be sure, it’s tragic to think that Russia will hold on to a single acre of Ukrainian territory, and yet the good news is that Ukraine is now firmly anchored in the West.  At this rate, it will soon be obsolete to speak of Russia’s implied dominion over Ukraine, just as it is anachronistic to speak of Japan’s dominion over Manchuria, or of Britain’s dominion over Palestine. 

So that’s the good news: The perimeter of the Free World has been expanded, with Ukraine firmly within the perimeter.  As has long been the case, the perimeter of freedom is mostly safeguarded by the hard power the American military, bolstered and amplified by American soft power.   

Yet the bad news is the aforementioned weakness at home.  The fierce debate over the legal issues surrounding Donald Trump are likely enough to resolve themselves soon enough—the American legal system may move slowly, but it grinds hard—and yet the deeper conflicts of geography and demography are likely to remain, and that could undercut our hard power, and maybe even our soft power.  As I argued in that March piece, red vs. blue could be the new Austria and Hungary. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  My only point now, in part one of this four-part series, is to emphasize the strangeness of our situation: Our soft power abroad is manifest, and yet our soft underbelly at home is obvious.  So it’s useful to explore how past realms managed their soft power.  

Next in Part Two: How the Romans wielded soft power.   

(Picture credit: Wikipedia)