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An Uneasy Labor Day

Labor Day is supposed to provide a brief respite from the news, but lately there is no escape.
On Sunday the nutcase dictatorship running North Korea successfully tested a thermonuclear bomb five times more powerful than anything in its previous arsenal, which comes shortly after provocative tests of long-range missiles that could reach as far America’s west coast, and follows decades of verbal provocations that have lately been ramped up to an alarming level. This seems a particularly inopportune time to pick petty fights with our longstanding allies in the very sane democracy running South Korea, but that is exactly what President Donald Trump has chosen to do.
Trump “tweeted” shortly after North Korea’s nuclear test that South Korea’s ongoing efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the crisis amounted to “appeasement,” adding that the North Koreans “only understand one thing,” with an exclamation mark added for emphasis, and he also reportedly instructed his aides to begin preparations for a unilateral withdrawal from a free trade agreement with South Korea. Neither stand seems to comport with the very complicated facts of the situation, and neither seem likely to do anyone any good.
South Korea’s efforts at diplomacy are easily understandable, given the devastation that the country would suffer even in a brief war involving only conventional weaponry, but Trump should be aware that they’ve also backed up their efforts with a strong military posture. The South Koreans are currently conducting bombing drills, practicing ballistic missile strikes on key North Korean targets, and defiantly continuing other large-scale military exercises with American forces. They’ve also reluctantly agreed to proceed with a American-made missile defense system that President Barack Obama negotiated, all the more reluctantly after Trump tried to make them pay billions of dollars for the equipment that is mostly intended to shoot down any missiles heading toward America’s west coast, and won’t offer any protection from the old-fashioned artillery barrages that could rain down on the more than 10 million people of Seoul who are just 30 miles away from the supposedly demilitarized border.
So far as we can tell South Korea hasn’t offered any concessions of land or other strategic advantages to maintain the tenuous peace, which is the definition of appeasement that has informed the past many centuries of diplomacy, and our guess is that after 54 years of coping more or less peacefully with their nutcase neighbors to the north they know them better than Trump ever could.
There are some strong arguments to be made against that free trade agreement with South Korea, which didn’t increase overall American exports to the country as promised and instead increased the trade deficit, and Americans can rightly complain that our very sane democratic allies have taken full advantage of some badly negotiated loopholes, but of course the facts are more complicated than that. There’s also a strong argument to be made that for all sorts of complicated reasons our exports to South Korea might have fallen even further without the agreement, that America’s trade deficits with other countries are no more troubling than your own swelling trade deficit with your local grocery store, and that in any case South Korea’s doubling of its financial investment in America’s economy since the agreement was made more than makes up for the difference.
All politics is local, too, and here in Kansas and other red states it’s widely noted that beef exports to South Korea have increased by an impressive 150 percent since the agreement. We suppose that the local aircraft plants have also been among the winners, and given how very good the world-class steaks are around here we’re sure that some epicurean South Koreans have also benefited.
Some future economic historian might definitively prove that both sides came out ahead, with South Korea relatively slightly better off from the deal, which is fine by us but is surely anathema to every fibre of Trump’s being. Trump might flip-flop on all sorts of other positions, but he has always maintained with a granite consistency that every negotiation comes down to a matter of winners and losers, and that no matter how far ahead you get if the other guy gets even further ahead you’re the loser. This view has always had a certain appeal to the “America First” types from pre-World War II up until now, and seems work well enough in the New York real estate biz, but it’s never been the way for the country’s preeminent economic, military, and cultural power to conduct business with the rest of the world.
Especially when you’re dealing with a complicated situation between a sane democratic ally and the nutcase dictatorship just to the north of them who might now be able to launch a missile with a thermonuclear bomb atop that could devastate one of the cities on America’s west coast. Trump is safely ensconced on the east coast, where he’s talking tough on both trade and thermonuclear war, and can be sure that no matter how devastating the war at least he and most of America came out the relative winner, but we’d prefer he take a broader view of the situation. That $20 billion or so trade deficit with the South Koreans is a mere rounding error in the context of a multi-trillion dollar economy, and nothing close to the hit that the stock markets the rest of the American economy would take if Seoul or Tokyo were flattened or an international trade war broke out, and there’s also a strong argument to be made for the lives of all those millions of people in Seoul and Tokyo and now America’s west coast, so now hardly seems the time for  petty spats with the South Koreans.
According to press reports all the military generals and Goldman-Sachs veterans that Trump has surrounded himself with have been urging that he speak more softly while still  wielding the big stick he inherited from all those previous hated presidents, as another populist Republican president with more bona fide tough guy credentials once advised, so we’ll hold out some hope they’ll prevail. During the campaign all of Trump’s reluctant supporters assured us that he’d hire such seasoned hands and heed their counsel, but he kept talking about how he knew more than the generals and that he was his own main security advisor and could make decisions without all the information that those squishy establishment types seemed to need, and we guess we’ll have to wait to see how that turns out.
In the meantime we plan to have some charbroiled Kansas beef and a couple of Colorado-brewed beers, watch some baseball, and otherwise celebrate America’s labor and take a day off from the rest of the news. We hope it turns out pleasantly for all you, as well.

— Bud Norman

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Viva Mexico, and Us, and Both of Us

Unsurprisingly enough, America’s diplomatic relationship with Mexico is currently rather contentious. A planned meeting between American President Donald Trump and Mexican President Pena Nieto has been called off, angry “tweets” have been exchanged, populist pressures are being brought to bear on both leaders, and it’s the sort of thing you hate to have going with a neighbor.
Relationships with neighbors can go sour from time to time no matter how hard one tries, and we have a few stories of our own you could empathize with, but for the most part we and the rest of America have been rather lucky. The United States of America only has two abutting neighbors, which is a good start, and compared to what Israel or Finland or Jerry Seinfeld had to put up with they’ve not been very troublesome. Except for the War of 1812 and all that fuss about “fifty-four forty or fight” back in 1818 Canada has been a good neighbor, even if they are rather snooty about their single payer health care system and have a strange tendency to punt on third downs, and even if we did delay that XL Pipeline all through the Obama years and our relatively low income tax system allows us to consistently beat up on their sports teams.
The relationship with Mexico has been more complicated, what with that Mexican-American War and the Marines marching into the Halls of Montezuma back in the 1840s, and the resulting re-drawing of the maps of both countries, and that other time in the early 20th century that the American military went into Mexican territory in hot pursuit of Pancho Villa’s marauding bands, not to mention their disputes with American oil companies and the many decades or argument about the large numbers of Mexicans seeking and finding employment in America and countless other quarrels. Despite it all there have been diplomatic protocols and trade agreements peso bailouts and other arrangements, and no outright wars between the two countries for the past 169 years, which is not bad by historical international standards.
In the current dispute we think that America can make a convincing case for itself. Whatever the still-disputed causes of that long-ago Mexican-American War we think the the re-drawing of the map it wrought turned out best for the people who found themselves on the north side of it, and we doubt that many of them of any ethnicity would want to revisit the matter, and in any case we think that America should resist such revanchism there just as it should in the Ukraine and the islands of the South China Seas. In the unlikely event that rebels intent on overthrowing the American are wreaking havoc in northern Mexico we wouldn’t mind the Mexicans the chasing them into American territory, and the nationalization of American-financed and American-made and duly negotiated oil industries still strikes us as outright theft, and the very significant influx of legal and illegal Mexican immigrants that has occurred since does include a certain number of rapists and other criminals and seems a decidedly mixed blessing for both countries, and the idea of enforcing borders seems altogether reasonable, and some of those trade deals probably could have turned out better for America.
We’re still hoping for an amicable resolution to the latest quarrels, but only with faint hope. Trump’s constantly repeated campaign promise to build a literal wall between the countries is now an executive action, threats of making Mexico pay for it through a 20 percent import tax and other measures have been expounded by his press secretary and “tweeted” on his almighty account and will soon be taken up by Congress, and after that imbroglio with the American judge of Mexican ancestry who was presiding over the Trump University lawsuit that Trump wound up settling for $25 million and the rest of the campaign rhetoric it’s hard to argue that Trump has a certain animosity toward Mexicans. Mexicans are no more amicable to Trump, judging by the red hot market for Trump pinatas and mass protests on both sides of the border, and although Nieto offered an ill-advised helping hand by inviting candidate to a presidential-looking Trump to a state visit back when things were still up for grabs he’s now forced by overwhelming public to take a more adversarial stance against his self-proclaimed adversary.
Our experience of dealing with neighbors has taught us to well consider their positions, and in the current matter we can well understand why they’re miffed about being asked to pay for a wall to separate them from us and all the implicit and explicit anti-Mexican rhetoric that has gone along with it. Perhaps it’s another of Trump’s brilliant negotiation ploys to start from such an antagonistic position, but all of Trump’s past negotiations were with other businessmen who weren’t accountable to millions of Mexicans who felt their pride had been impugned by such tactics, and even then he still occasionally wound up in bankruptcy. If the currently unpopular yet relatively sane Nieto does succumb to Trump’s art of the deal he’ll likely be replaced in an upcoming election by one of those Latin American socialist demagogues who wins election by fanning the flames of resentment against the damned Yanquis, just as Trump won in part by fanning the flames of resentment against Latin Americans, and the next round of negotiations will be even more contentious.
Even in the worst case scenario it probably won’t come to another outright war, given that Mexican national pride lags far further behind its military prowess than it did even back in the 1840s, and despite the havoc it would wreak on America the Mexicans would would be advised to avoid a trade war, given that the past century and a half of Mexican socialism hasn’t improved its economic standing relative to the Americans, even if Trump and his more nationalistic supporters think that a huge portion of the American middle class wealth has been redistributed down there, but by now it should obvious even in America what people will endure as a matter of national pride. A mutually beneficial situation with Mexico could be worked out, just as we’ve managed mostly successful relationships with the many Mexican and Mexican-Americans we daily encounter here in the heartland, such as that comely Mexican-American woman who sells the best-deal-in-town donuts at the nearby Juarez Bakery with a mellifluous “buenos dias” and the guys who make the Carne Asada at the Lopex drive-thru late at night and the Esteban Jordan y Rio Jordan conjunto that we sometimes play on the cassette player,  but we can’t see it ending well if either side insists on winning.

— Bud Norman