The New Guns of August

The renowned historian Barbara Tuchman wrote a masterful history that described the events of August 1914 that led inexorably to World War I. This contains many parallels with today’s growing confrontation with North Korea. In her telling, what stood out was how inadvertently it played out over a century ago. Each party had goals and imperatives but none of the adversaries seemed to understand or account for those of their opponents. Moreover, the key figures making decisions were none too bright. Does this strike any bells?

It is often said that we have no good options. Indeed, many argue that the safest alternative is simply to accept a de facto nuclear power in North Korea, even one with a proven ICBM capability. We have done so with other countries. But there is a distinguishing characteristic of the North Korean regime that represents an unprecedented threat. Our best analysts believe that Kim Jong-un has concluded that his most effective nuclear strategy is to strike first with all available weapons in the event that his regime is at existential risk. When combined with his proven paranoid impulses, this establishes a ticking time bomb for major conflict in the region.

Those recommending a diplomatic resolution permit their hopes to blind them to the lessons of history. Diplomacy has a key role in this but only after our adversary has truly accepted it as the best course, not as a convenient diversion as in the past. This does not mean that there is nothing left but military confrontation. That is a false dichotomy, although a kind of warfare that falls short of direct conflict by major military forces may be required.

I can conceive of a promising though dangerous alternative, but one that involves activities for which we have shown little aptitude to date. It is based upon the hypothesis that Kim Jong-un is not a lunatic as some portray and that his sole and overriding imperative is to maintain his position of power. In this view, his unrelenting march toward nuclear power status derives from the belief that failure to follow through on comparable intentions was what led to the end of Saddam’s regime in Iraq and Gaddafi’s in Libya.

First and foremost, we must establish explicit, non-negotiable demands and make them abundantly clear. There must be no tweets and no mixed messages from disparate administration factions. Forcing Kim Jong-un to completely relinquish his most treasured protection is a bridge too far. We should only seek precisely two results. All nuclear testing and all long-range missile testing must end. This can be easily monitored. It will freeze his program in place, since live testing is the only method of establishing an operational and reliable weapon. He could retain his conventional power as an adequate defense.

We must have something worthwhile to offer in return for this concession. This could be the acceptance of a compliant North Korea into the global community of nations. This means the removal of sanctions, normalized trade, membership in community organizations, and so on. But this should be done slowly and in stages so that there remain benefits to be attained for a long period of time. And a violation on their part should instantly remove and reverse all benefits. Since the United States will have by itself achieved this resolution, we would retain sole authority to identify such a violation.

This kind of clearly defined carrot and stick approach was not employed with either Saddam or Gaddafi and it isn’t being used with Assad in Syria. I think this is mainly due to our blind sense of self-righteousness, combined with a crippling lack of realpolitik.

To achieve compliance, I propose that we initiate a major covert effort that incrementally applies painful pressure while never threatening to bring down Kim Jong-un’s regime. The word covert is key. We mustn’t announce this policy nor boast of its successes, political ramifications notwithstanding. Instead we should constantly employ world forums to reiterate our goals for the region. Primarily economic in nature, this effort can and should involve the kind of forceful acts that ISIS successfully employs. The key is always having plausible deniability while leaving the North Koreans no doubt whatsoever that we are directing these efforts. When accused by the North Koreans or their supporters, Russia and China, we should blandly deny all and refuse to discuss the matter. Great care is essential so that no single act would be enough to goad them into violent reaction, but the pressure should be painful, unrelenting and constantly increasing.

This can include all of the methods of non-conventional warfare. There would be no limiting rules of engagement whatsoever except one. There can be no use of weapons of mass destruction. Whatever else would work and cause pain should be on the table. It must be carefully targeted at the regime itself, not the North Korean people at large, though we should not be squeamish about inevitable collateral damage. No warfare spares the innocent, though we certainly shouldn’t use them as pawns in our struggle. And make no mistake, this is a kind of war.

Economic measures will require cooperation by the international banking system. From past experience we cannot expect voluntary help. It must be coerced and we have the tools to do this if we are willing to risk offending some trading partners and enduring some costs ourselves. This effort must also be covert. If we meet resistance it should be made clear that there can be no economic neutrals in this conflict.

Any open counter-response must be immediately and overtly countered with something comparable and proportionate. This should appear to be automatic and preplanned so that our adversary would have no expectation that their acts would serve to reduce the pressure. For example, if they sink a South Korean vessel, as they have done before, we should promptly sink a comparable one of theirs. There would be no talk, no bluster, no warning, and also no escalation, just essentially a robotic counteraction.

A necessary correlative is that we should tone down our current provocative military posture in the region. There should be no more joint military exercises with the South Koreans, no further expansion of our THAAD systems, and definitely no deployment of naval forces to the region. There must never appear to be a connection between actions on the ground and our covert campaign of pressure.

We should expect a counter campaign of some sort from the North Koreans. They have a proven capability for non-conventional warfare, especially in the cyber realm. We won’t go undamaged. But our capability is far greater and more lethal, assuming we have the steel in our backbone to use it. Any counterattack should provoke an escalation of our campaign. Fortunately, in a sense, we can freely publicize their attacks so that public support for a strong response should be high. As a result, we may consider pulling back the curtain just a bit on our ongoing efforts.

We must never unilaterally offer to negotiate or even to talk with the North Koreans, but we should be willing to respond quickly and positively to any such offer on their part that involves no preconditions. However, offers like this from their interlocutors in China should be ignored. China is not our friend in this conflict and we shouldn’t vainly hope otherwise. Meanwhile, such talks that do arise should have absolutely no effect on our covert campaign until they bear concrete results that meet our goals. The rule is no concessions to achieve compliance.

So, that summarizes my idea. It involves significant risk, but I believe that so do all currently discussed alternatives. And, in my opinion, permitting the nuclear program in North Korea to fully ripen is virtually certain to lead to nuclear war. It would be simpler to kick the can down the road, hoping that events will overtake the need for action. If we do this, history won’t treat us well.

But let me expand upon what I said at the beginning. Doing this successfully requires calm precision, careful planning, ruthlessness and, above all, discipline. Not a single one of these requirements can be met under the erratic and incompetent Trump administration. Thus, this must wait for a more competent replacement. Whether we can afford this delay is an open question.

Do we have a disaster recovery plan?

Last week, a deranged gunman opened fire on Republican congressmen practicing for a friendly baseball competition with Democratic colleagues. Casualties were light, given the circumstances, but now some congressmen are pushing for open-carry permits so that they can defend themselves. The only reason that there weren’t many more victims in this shooting is that one of the players, Rep. Steve Scalise, has a full-time security detail as Majority Whip. And these brave officers successfully intervened, at great cost to themselves. But sad as this all was, it reminds us that far worse threats are lurking.

On 9/11, United Airlines Flight 93 was hijacked but crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania. Its intended target, believed to be the US Capitol, was saved by the intervention of passengers who took matters into their own hands. There are many lessons that can be learned from this tragedy, not the least of which is that ordinary people can do extraordinary things given the means and the opportunity. It makes me think that arming at least some qualified, sensible people might not be as bad an idea as it is generally portrayed.

A second lesson is that we came very close to mass casualties on Capitol Hill. So, what if we lost many members of Congress, killed or injured, in a terrorist attack? You might think, given the situation and past experience, that we would have a plan for continuity of government, but you would be mistaken! There are certainly plans for the Executive Branch, with a clear line of succession, a protected safe facility, and rules for assuring there is at least one eligible survivor. The Senate is assured of rapid recovery because Senators who cannot perform their duties can be replaced with interim successors by the Governors of their states. At most a few days would be required to restaff a diminished Senate. But the House of Representatives is another matter entirely.

Our founders believed strongly that our two Houses of Congress should be vastly different in their members and how they conduct business. The Senate was designed as a wise, senior check on the winds of public sentiment. In fact, originally, Senators were not even chosen by popular vote at all. Rather they were selected by state legislatures, presumably from senior political figures, not unlike the framers themselves. There remains a faint memory of this approach in how replacements are still chosen when needed.

The House, however, has no such mechanism. It doesn’t permit unelected members. Indeed, House members pride themselves on the fact that no person has ever voted in their chamber who wasn’t first elected by the residents of their congressional district. States have fairly restrictive rules about conducting elections, so many months might pass before a decimated House could be reconstituted.

What if Flight 93 had caused mass casualties on the House side? Take a worst case, where perhaps only a dozen members were among the uninjured. What if they happened to be all members of one political party? Isn’t it possible that some fairly extreme bills might be passed? Of course the Senate and President could take their normal role as balancing forces. But that assumes they are also able to function. And there’s the rub.

If many House members survived but were incapacitated, they would all still be counted for the purpose of a quorum. So it is possible that the House would be virtually unable to function. If this isn’t enough to raise your hackles, the condition of the Capitol Building after an attack could also be crucial. If it is so badly damaged that it couldn’t be used, and if the House were crippled through lack of a quorum, then even the Senate would be out of business too. That is because meeting at an alternative site requires formal concurrence of both Houses.

I suppose there are some today who might rejoice if we had no federal legislative branch at all, at least for a while. Remember Mark Twain’s cynical quote, “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session.” But be careful what you wish for. The wheels of our economy would grind to a halt quickly without prompt and effective reaction to a shock of this type.

So why does the House let this threat go unanswered? It isn’t for want of attention. Efforts to develop contingency plans have foundered because they all abridge fundamental principles of the House that distinguish it from the Senate. Thus we remain a hostage to providence. We can hope, as Bismarck is said to have remarked, that “God protects fools, children, and United States of America.” Apocryphal or not, this seems to me to be a slender reed.

Trump and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Donald Trump is driving almost everyone crazy, even some of his supporters. The media are rife with pop psychology purporting to explain his odd behavior, outrageous tweets, and conflicting statements. It varies from deep conspiracy theories to pure psychobabble, even by observers who one might expect to know better.

But now I believe that some academics have hit on the real answer. Trump’s actions and thoughts are clearly a manifestation of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This describes a syndrome in which people who are the least competent at a task rate their skills as exceptionally high because they are too ignorant to know what it means to have the skill.

Not only do sufferers of this disability fail, they don’t even learn from their mistakes. Their misplaced confidence causes them to attribute all failures to others. It is always either incompetent associates or a vast array of enemies who are responsible. Think about it. Listen to Trump the next time he stumbles or misjudges the problems every President faces.

Conservative columnist George Will expressed it succinctly and devastatingly. He wrote that Trump suffers a dangerous disorder not only because he is ignorant and is unaware of his ignorance, but also because “he doesn’t even know what it means to know something.

Trump has very little understanding of the real job of President of the United States, and he is blissfully unaware of this deficiency. He thinks that this is a management position where someone leads the country toward greater prosperity and happiness. This isn’t wrong but it is startlingly superficial. In truth, this is a highly complex job requiring specialized knowledge and skills, in many respects like the job of a physician.

Like a doctor, a President must accurately diagnose problems and prescribe cures. He must recognize when an issue exceeds his expertise and training, seeking appropriate experts to bring about a resolution. He must establish rapport to guide those he serves toward accepting and implementing his remedies. Often he must work effectively as a team member. Most importantly, he must study intensively to acquire constantly evolving knowledge.

Does any of this make you think of Donald Trump and his approach to the crucial office he holds? Face it, Trump is not a real President. As the saying goes, “He just plays one on TV.

The Future of Obamacare

changeahead1-copyTrump’s cabinet choices make it clear that he really does mean to drive a stake through Obamacare. In particular, his choice of Rep. Tom Price to head Health and Human Services puts one of the foremost critics of Obamacare at the helm of its management. But – cliché alert – the devil is in the details. Republicans in Congress can effectively repeal it through a reconciliation process, which requires only a bare majority in each house. (See the postscript below for details.) They have only a two seat margin in the Senate, so caucus discipline must prevail if this is to work. But it seems unlikely that they would wound their new President by resisting. However there is a nuance. This cannot be done quickly. A reconciliation process can only be associated with a budget bill, so this stratagem must await development of a suitable budget. That will take months in the new Congress.

Replacing Obamacare with a plan more to conservative tastes is an entirely different story. This must go through the normal legislative process and would be subject to a likely filibuster in the Senate. However Trump has pledged that there will be no interim period where 20 million people have no alternative for medical insurance. The Senate could of course invoke the nuclear option and change their rules to forbid a filibuster. But that is a slippery slope that Senators would be loathe to risk. So what’s the plan?

Here’s what I hear. When they repeal Obamacare, they will delay its demise for enough time – they hope – to produce a replacement. This will probably push actual termination well into the future. The Republicans believe that given the choice of no plan or one that they don’t much like, Democrats in Congress will cave. But Chuck Schumer, the new Senate Minority Leader, begs to differ. He says he won’t budge on anything that Democrats consider to be minimum health coverage. Sticking points will likely be contraceptive coverage, federal subsidies, expanded Medicaid and the issue of pre-existing conditions, at the very least. And he evidently believes that Republicans will flinch before tossing all those millions over the cliff.

So, we are heading toward a colossal climax that will make our periodic budget battles look like child’s play. I hesitate to predict the outcome given my prognostication record during the election but, never daunted, here I bravely go.

Trump can’t give in on his first big policy fight or else his Presidency is toast. But Democrats desperately need a banner to wave in 2020 so they could be willing to sacrifice some people now for what they see as the greater long-term good. I predict that there will be no replacement at all and we will simply return to the situation before Obamacare was created. Eventually, of course, we will come up with some sort of solution to our nation’s healthcare crisis, but not now and not soon.

obamacare-cartoon-5I am not predicting this because that is my wish, but I am not so sure that it is actually a bad outcome. Obamacare is actuarially unsound and it is headed toward a catastrophic collapse in any case. Moreover, the number cited of those at risk, 20 million, is basically a lie. Many of those “benefiting” from Obamacare essentially have fake policies. If you have a massive deductible, as much as $14,300 for a family under the Bronze plan in 2017 for example, what use is this other than as disaster insurance? It should reduce the number of medically-induced bankruptcies, but for customary medical insurance it is close to useless. For the vast majority their premiums simply lower their standard of living. True, there are subsidies available under certain conditions that mitigate this problem, but they don’t eliminate it. If you live paycheck-to-paycheck, as even many relatively well-off families do, paying thousands of dollars out-of-pocket before insurance kicks in is out of the question.

The bottom line is that we will eventually, and for many conservatives reluctantly, acknowledge that a public, single-payer plan is the only workable solution. Most advanced societies have already reached that conclusion and predicted disasters have not occurred. So I finish my foolhardy prediction by saying that the eventual resolution will be something like Medicare for all. In the meantime, expect some pain and conflict.

[POSTSCRIPT] One of my smart followers has pointed out that the reconciliation process cannot achieve full repeal of Obamacare. That is correct. All that is possible is to delete those sections of the law related to taxes and spending. This would include subsidies to buy health insurance, tax credits, the full expansion of Medicaid and penalties for not having insurance (considered taxes by the Roberts Court). This guts the law and makes it even more obviously a financial disaster. True, provisions that allow children to remain on their parents’ plan until age 26 and the popular protection against refusal due to pre-existing conditions remain intact. Actually, Trump has already said he likes those provisions. But this will remove even the currently flimsy financial props of Obamacare, leaving at best a zombie law. Costs would be prohibitive and few insurance companies would even bother to participate.

“Sooner” or “Later”?

Oklahoma is crazy Republican territory. Before we had political parties it was just crazy territory so perhaps it is unfair to blame the GOP.

Here are a few scary facts, for Sooners anyway. In 2007, Oklahoma had one earthquake of magnitude 3, the lowest level that can be generally felt. Last year there were 890. Of the 12 largest recorded earthquakes in Oklahoma history, 10 have occurred since 2011. And it has been 300 million years since this seismic zone was last active. Move over California, in December 2014, Oklahoma won the dubious honor of becoming the state with the most earthquakes.

Now here are some possibly related facts. Last year the state finally acknowledged that water injection involving in fracking might conceivably play some role in these geological occurrences. But not certainly, you understand. If you want to know more about fracking and its consequences, check this discussion. The fracking technique has been in use for decades, but it has only been since the end of the Great Recession that it really surged. Note when earthquakes also surged in Oklahoma in the chart below. At the current rate, they are well on their way to setting new records in 2016. Not incidentally, the proportion of jobs in Oklahoma related to the oil and gas industry is 20%. Oh, and by the way, the number of seismologists currently employed by the state is zero.


This is yet another of a long line of misbegotten policies of wantonly disregarding scientific data when the consequences might conflict with business goals or threaten jobs. Are we really sure that sucking tubes of lit tobacco causes cancer? I know several people who lived to ripe old ages while smoking two packs a day. And isn’t the evidence of global warming pretty flimsy. After all, in many parts of the country, today’s weather is actually colder than yesterday’s was. And it could just be coincidence that the increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases has occurred in conjunction with an increase in human industrial activity. As I’ve often noted, the plural of anecdote is not data, but there seems to be no upper limit to our human capacity for self-deception.

594c6bd7a010544790f24a740bc7a51bThe Oklahoma state bird is the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and a beautiful little creature it is. But I suggest that a more appropriate choice would be Struthio camelus, the common ostrich. To be fair, the state government does seem to be belatedly paying attention to this looming threat, but past history suggests that this might be largely window-dressing.

There is a perfectly logical reason that Oklahomans are called Sooners. The name derives from the “sooner clause” of the Indian Appropriations Act of 1889. This stated that anyone occupying the territory that became Oklahoma before its opening for settlement could be denied the right to claim land. In the event, this rule was widely ignored by eager settlers. Perhaps now a better name might be Laters.

The Syrian Refugee Dilemma

There is no denying that refugees from the war, disorder and lawlessness in the Middle East present a practical and humanitarian crisis. It is in our best interest to aid in resolving this crisis, and to do so beyond simply exhorting those in the region to help. But stepping up by accepting large numbers of refugees to our shores presents a genuine dilemma.

First, let us agree that both sides of this issue obfuscate reality. There is little doubt that considerable effort and time will go into vetting candidates for immigration. This will go far beyond typical actions by other countries. But none involved could reasonably claim that it would be perfect. Circumstances in the region preclude effective investigation, and it would not be hard for those intent on harming us from obtaining sufficient documentation and affidavits. The modern technical skills shown by ISIS and the proven reluctance of family and associates to provide warnings are both major risk factors in avoiding a mistake. And it takes but one or two mistakes to lead to events here comparable to those in Paris a few days ago.

So the issue basically comes down to the question of acceptable risk. The administration is confident that this risk is small in the context of our national interest in resolving the crisis. However it is unclear how this trade-off was reached. One cannot help but wonder if they would reach the same decision if it involved personal risk. For example, would President Obama be willing the accept one chance in a hundred that Malia or Sasha would get blown up by a suicide bomber? One chance in thousand? Obviously we don’t know the real odds, but I suspect that very few parents would accept either risk, notwithstanding humanitarian impulses.

We are a compassionate people. Suffering anywhere in the world always brings out the best in us. But political executives, like the President and our state Governors, have one overriding obligation. They must always put first and foremost the well-being and safety of those they serve. Many Governors, and not just Republicans, have expressed this obligation forcefully by rejecting Syrian refugees without assurances that risk has been effectively eliminated.

syrian-refugees-postWhether this has any legal effect is unclear, given the supremacy of federal law, but surely it should influence a thoughtful President.

Puerto Rico Bankruptcy


Several months ago I posted a warning that Puerto Rico was about to become our version of Greece. Its profligate policies and misguided tax manipulations by the federal government have created a financial disaster. Basically, Puerto Rico is a third-world economy attempting to live like a U.S. state, very much like Greece’s position in the E.U. Just like Greece, Puerto Rico is in a monetary union with the rest of our states but without a common fiscal policy. Now the predictable consequences have come to pass. Within weeks, Puerto Rico will default on its bills and will be unable to provide municipal services. Before long, chaos will ensue unless something is done promptly in Congress. What chance do you think that has of happening?

There is so much wrong that no simple solutions will work, and some possibilities are precluded by their commonwealth status. Under current law, their municipalities and public corporations cannot file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, an option allowed in any of our 50 states. Changing this requires Congressional action, and without this option a disorderly disintegration of public services will eventually occur. But by the best accounting, even that change probably is insufficient as the commonwealth’s public debt is unserviceable. Default will freeze investment, with unknowable consequences.

Belatedly, the Obama administration has gone before Congress to present a solution and it is breathtaking in its concept. Recognizing that only a major action might work, the plan proposes to allow Puerto Rico itself to declare bankruptcy. No U.S. state can do this. In fact some scholars argue that the Constitution wouldn’t even allow that for states, which retain residual sovereignty. Nevertheless, allowing Puerto Rico to declare bankruptcy would no doubt impair every state’s fiscal rating, as the suspicion would linger that some might grasp this lifeline in extremis.

The White House has stated that this resolution would be restricted to U.S. territories, so that Guam for example could go bankrupt but not Mississippi or California. However this is just a statement of policy, not law, and suspicious buyers would likely demand higher interest on all state bonds. This administration approach will be very costly, as federal funds in the billions would be needed and the indirect cost from higher interest rates would add immeasurably.

There is a side effect of this resolution that isn’t insignificant. The status of Puerto Rico is odd. Its residents are citizens of the U.S. but they have only non-voting representation in Congress. They have had plebiscites offering the alternatives of independence or application for statehood, but so far neither has achieved the necessary support. In fact, it is not obvious that statehood would be granted. What benefit do we accrue from adding them as our 51st state? But in any case, if this bankruptcy idea were actually employed, that would probably preclude statehood for the foreseeable future. As a result we would have this dependent child to support for decades to come.