Monday, January 7, 2019

Climbing The Walls

What is it about immigration that causes us to lose our minds?

I’m not even referring to the absurd spectacle of toilets overflowing at national monuments and hundreds of thousands of federal workers going without pay. In theory, at least, there’s a reason for that: The President promised his supporters a magnificent structure across the Southern Border, and the Democrats don’t want to advance Mexico the money to pay for it.

I’m talking about the insanity of not addressing the root issue—actual immigration policy. Let’s be honest with ourselves, a few billion dollars for something that seems to be morphing in composition and cost every day doesn’t solve our immigration woes. It doesn’t build a Wall, either. We would be taking on the largest infrastructure project since the build-out of the national highway system, lasting many years and including enough eminent domain (because a considerable amount of border land in Texas is in private hands) to cause conservative heads to explode. A few billion is barely seed money for the lobbyists.

So, let’s talk about what we should be talking about: Immigration policy. And let’s start with a hypothetical: The nation has decided to make you Immigration Czar. You have the absolute power to determine policy for the next two years. What do you want to do with it?

Before you begin this glorious-but-thankless quest, I have to include two pre-conditions.
First, you start with the country we have now. You can be as generous, or ruthless and arbitrary as you would like, but the law matters. You cannot assume authority greater than already exists: No giving of universal citizenship, or retroactive revocation of citizenship or permanent residencies previously granted. No magic wand that returns you to the demographics of 1950. No fanciful interpretations of the Constitution or Supreme Court decisions. Be bold if you like, but observe the guardrails.

Second, you understand that we live in a republic, and while we’ve given you this power now, you are an American-Style Czar, but not an Emperor, and anything you do automatically sunsets in two years and defaults back into the current mess unless reauthorized by Congress and signed by the then President. So, make it good, or expect it to blow up.

Adherence to law and attempting to make something balanced enough so that people would keep it? Takes all the fun out of it. If it’s going to be this unrewarding, you might reasonably ask, why would we need a Czar at all? After all, we collectively have always had the power to set limits, to enshrine our preferences and our prejudices into law, to build walls, to intern, imprison and deport, to reject even those with a legitimate fear of persecution and death. And we have acted on those powers, more than 40 times by the venerable and quaint “how a bill becomes a law” technique, and many more through enforcement tweaks (and yanks) by the Executive Branch.

Not all of those choices show us in the best possible light. After we argued for many decades and then fought a Civil War over the status of those of African descent, we turned our animus towards the Chinese. We legislated against them, several times, including the evocatively-named Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. But that didn’t settle our fears. Immigration absorbed us so much we went back to the well seven more times between 1882 and 1907, before deciding in 1918 that it wasn’t just the Chinese who should be verboten, but, to feel culturally safe, we also needed an entire “Asiatic Barred Zone.” In 1921, we were so overwhelmed by non-barred people that we instituted actual quotas: In any calendar year, the maximum any country could send us was 3% of the total number of people from that country who were already in the US, as of the 1910 Census. Eventually, we turned our eyes to a more dangerous type: Communists. And then, the perennially terrifying Mexicans, culminating in 1954’s “Operation Wetback,” from which it is estimated that 1.3 million Mexicans were either deported or left. More recently, we’ve waxed and waned between enforcement and comparative openness, with ambitious electeds (are there any other kind?) either making genuine efforts to improve things, or looking for the nearest camera to show their bona fides.

I’m always struck when some politician says, “We are better than this.” No, not really. Compassion and tolerance hasn’t always been our strong suit with immigrants—even those we let in. We have marginalized them, limited their political power, interred them, even assaulted and occasionally murdered them. Our Town Halls and County Clerk’s offices are filled with property deeds that restrict ownership and occupancy to only those “of the Caucasian Race.” We had an entire political party (the Know-Nothings) built on opposition to Catholicism and immigration, particularly by the Irish and Germans. Our scapegoating of immigrants for every possible social dysfunction did not begin with the current occupant of the White House and will not end with his leaving it. When it comes to the mortal dangers to our culture and our very way of life posed by a starving eight-year old who doesn’t speak much English, hysteria is always in season.

What we have not done is fix anything. We have, at times, tried hard. Ronald Reagan and Congress made creditable efforts in 1986, and accomplished a great deal, but the weaknesses of the Immigration Reform and Control Act are the things held up by hardliners as reasons to get even more stringent, while the substantial achievements of it are largely forgotten.

The reality is we have not made our borders impermeable, or settled on what a policy for short- and long-term legal immigration should be, or decided who can become citizens, or even determined how much desperation is enough desperation that it merits possible asylum. We have come up with some terrific slogans and some really scary television ads, but where we are right now, for better or (mostly) worse, is the sum of our choices.

Failure is not inevitable. The issues are complicated but not insuperable. To an extent, you can blame both sides for refusing to accept the validity of contrary arguments. Many immigration advocates don’t grasp the potential burdens illegals place on already strained social services. They are so wound up in what they see as a humanitarian crisis that they don’t realize it comes at the price of support for legal immigration. On the other side of the equation, many immigration hawks have shown that they aren’t really for comprehensive reform because they aren’t really for the implications of comprehensive enforcement. They want punishment of the immigrant at no cost to our society. We could couple a generous guest worker program with the application of E-Verify at virtually every level of employment, and make the fines so punitive that anyone would think multiple times before employing any illegals. We don’t, because the businesses that rely on them as seasonal workers, day-laborers, and others doing disgusting jobs for low pay would suffer, and those businesses write some mighty big checks. We could prevent foreigners from competing against “our kids” for spots at the best colleges and universities by limiting or getting rid of student visas. But then you would be turning back highly qualified students who can pay full tuition. Same for hi-tech and academic jobs—we could stop issuing H-B1 visas, and then lose some of the best minds in the world who have contributed to discovery, innovation, and economic growth. And all of that is without taking into account the costs of possible retaliation from the countries we select as targets. Pick your issue, and there is always a tradeoff. The sour stalemate we live in is a reflection of our unwillingness to face that.

This isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of people of good will who are willing to make serious efforts at reform—the problem is that they aren’t really sure whom to trust if they put themselves out there. Immigration is the true third rail of American politics, and if you want to see a naked illustration of how it makes the courageous cautious and the weak and ambitious duplicitous, go back six years to the Senate Gang of Eight. In 2012, Senators Schumer, McCain, Flake, Rubio, Durban, Bennet of Colorado, Menendez, and Graham put everything on the table and came up with a far-reaching compromise. The Senate passed a bill based on that agreement, and there it stalled. First John Boehner, invoking the “Hastert Rule,” refused even to take it up in the House. Then, Marco Rubio, fearful about damaging his own Presidential hopes, sold out his partners by backing a Senate amendment by John Cornyn that McCain called a “poison pill.”

What we learned from the Gang of Eight experience is even more true today: It isn’t that we can’t come up with reasonable solutions; it’s that too many politicians profit from the status quo of no deal. They want the issue, but not the resolution.

There is an old adage to the effect that there are three kinds of people: Those who do; those who complain, but do; and those who just complain. In the immigration debate, where seemingly everyone has a beef, no one just “does,” so we have to be able to identify, and back, the “complains and does” over the “just complains.”

Which one is Trump? I wish I knew, because Trump’s intransigence, his inflammatory rhetoric, and his casual cruelties make him the perfect guy for a “Nixon to China” moment. But I don’t know that he’s willing. Remember that Trump’s approach is purposeful—there’s the tactical choice of intimidation and the strategic choice of supporting his reelection campaign, which revolves around motivating his base.

What is clear is that if Trump doesn’t want to come to a reasonable, comprehensive agreement, there is no way a GOP-controlled Senate and a relatively narrow Democratic House majority can possibly make him. So, the question becomes, how do you incentivize Trump to come to the table? For a serious, bipartisan effort passed by both the House and Senate and signed by him, I expect him to demand a price. He’s made a career and a fortune trading other people’s money for personal gain, and I suspect he’s fine with trading other people’s misfortune in the same way.

Can we afford to pay his price, if he’s even selling? It should be blatantly obvious from this synthetic shut-down crisis that the Wall is largely an incredibly costly symbol, a branding opportunity. You could give Trump $50 billion and an unlimited supply of crocodiles to fill the moats, but if he’s really going to let Rush, Laura Ingraham, and Ann Coulter write immigration policy, there’s no deal to be made.

Maybe it just can’t be done with Trump. That leaves us where we are now…no coherent policies, millions of illegals here, relatively porous borders, no clarity on DACA or a pathway to citizenship, rhetoric that angers some of our allies, and a blind eye to humanitarian issues that further damages our reputation. Something horrible for everyone.

Of course, we Czars (the voters) could get disgusted enough to tell our politicians that we understand that the enemy of the good is the perfect, that we are tired of this mess and this mindless bickering, and that we expect them to stop complaining and start doing.

Now, that's a completely crazy idea.

"Climbing The Walls" was originally published on on January 7th, 2019 at

and, please follow us on Twitter at

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Holiday Ditty 2018-Here We Are At Mar-A-Lagah

With the most abject apologies to Allan Sherman

Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah
Here we are at Mar-A-Lagah
Trump is angry, and he’s tweeting
He’s unhappy with Melania and the seating.

Playing ping pong with Chris Christie
Jared Kushner, and Mulvaney
And there’s cheery Stephen Miller
Disappeared into the swamp right after dinner

Sarah Sanders hates reporters
George and Kelly not divorcers
Steve Mnuchin cutting spending
Sends his wife to London Rome and Copenhagen

Now I want you to forget it
Scottie Pruitt can’t make bail yet
You remember Rickey Perry
Put a drill rig on the Staten Island Ferry

Take me home, oh Muddah, Faddah
Take me home, I hate Mar-a-Lagah
Don't leave me on the tarmac where
I’m watching Lou Dobbs on a dare

Take me home, I promise I’ll have
No guns for toys, or vid-yo games with
Other boys, oh please don't make me stay
Tomorrow Rudy’s here all day

I should tell ya, darling Betsy
Packs a pistol, nothing fancy
V-P Pence says, she’s a winner
But he runs away before the start of dinner

Then there’s Wilbur, inside trader
Made a billion, maybe greater
Sad Jeff Sessions, chugged a brewski
Joining Gorkha, Bannon, Spicie and the Moochie

Take me home, oh Muddah, Faddah
Take me home, I hate Mar-a-Lagah
Soon, they’re teaching us to build the Wall 
While saying Merry Christmas to y’all

Take me home, I promise I’ll get 
A’s in school, and learn to play the 
Oboe too, oh please I want to go
My swim buddy is Mikey Pompeo

Dearest Fadduh, Darling Muddah
Should I mention, Counselor Kavanaugh?
Let me come home, I’ll be quiet
I would even clean my room and then vacuum it

Wait a minute, something’s happening
Girls are waving, guys are shouting 
Who’s that old guy, gee that's Muellah
Muddah, Faddah kindly disregard this letter

Merry and Happy from all of us

Michael Liss

Monday, December 10, 2018

A Bear Ate My Turkey: Lessons From the Midterms on 3Quarks

The day before Thanksgiving I got this wonderfully understated text from a close friend:

A 🐻 ate our 🦃 last night. (I forgot it on the patio while it was brining.)

There is a lot that’s packed in there. He followed it up with a picture of the now-overturned and empty brining vessel, and a quite stunning shot of bear tracks in the snow leading away from the patio. Unless a local who knew of his remarkable culinary skill with fowl decided to approach the house wearing bear-claw flip-flops (to throw him off the scent, as it were), there was definitely a visitation from a neighborhood ursus americanus.

Fortunately, he resides in a rather bucolic part of a rather bucolic college town, which enables him and his family to live a bucolic life…, but they have access to several Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and similar establishments when these unexpected encounters occur. The turkey in question was, in absentia, bid a respectful adieu, and quickly and calmly replaced. My friend happens to be unflappable. I, on the other hand, am more urban, and have more flap about these kind of things, so I asked a follow-up question. As the brined bird and the bear claw were really close to the back door, was he prepared to exercise his 2nd Amendment rights, if hearth and home were threatened. I’ll leave the answer to that one to the imagination.

Wild game and guns, a perfect lead-in to the Midterms and the Whole Foods-Cracker Barrel Old Country Store split that pollsters identified. Cracker Barrel has exactly one location in each of Maine, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, two in Connecticut, eight in Massachusetts (take that, Michael Dukakis), and none in Vermont. By contrast, it has 39 in West Virginia, with nary a Whole Foods in sight.  In January (numbers from Dave Wasserman, the U.S. House Editor of the non-partisan Cook Political Report), House Democrats will represent 78% of Whole Foods communities and 27% of Cracker Barrel ones. Apparently, my people are better with organic duck breast pate than chicken-fried steak.

OK, I’ve had my fun, so let’s get down to the actual meal. There were a couple of bumps (like the Senate), but, on the whole, the Democrats did quite well in November—at current count, they flipped a net 40 Congressional Districts, 400+ State legislators, 7 Governors, and an assorted contingent of State Treasurers, Secretaries of State, Commissioners and other sub-luminaries.

Wild game and guns, a perfect lead-in to the Midterms and the Whole Foods-Cracker Barrel Old Country Store split that pollsters identified. Cracker Barrel has exactly one location in each of Maine, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, two in Connecticut, eight in Massachusetts (take that, Michael Dukakis), and none in Vermont. By contrast, it has 39 in West Virginia, with nary a Whole Foods in sight.  In January (numbers from Dave Wasserman, the U.S. House Editor of the non-partisan Cook Political Report), House Democrats will represent 78% of Whole Foods communities and 27% of Cracker Barrel ones. Apparently, my people are better with organic duck breast pate than chicken-fried steak.

OK, I’ve had my fun, so let’s get down to the actual meal. There were a couple of bumps (like the Senate), but, on the whole, the Democrats did quite well in November—at current count, they flipped a net 40 Congressional Districts, 400+ State legislators, 7 Governors, and an assorted contingent of State Treasurers, Secretaries of State, Commissioners and other sub-luminaries. The aggregate margin in CD races was 8.6 percent, some 9.7 million more votes, and, by some measures, it was the best midterm performance in over a century. Turnout was the highest since 1914.  Philip Klinkner, Chair of the Department of Government at Hamilton College, was kind enough to let me use the graph below to illustrate the upsurge, and how comparatively poor turnout has been recently, even in wave years.

I’m sure I’ve whetted your appetite for more data: In January, House Democrats will represent 79% of all Asians, 72% of all Latinos, 66% of all African-Americans and Clinton voters, 60% of all college grads, 45% of all whites, 39% of all Trump voters—and just 20% of America’s total land area. There will be 33 Freshman women in the House—32 of them Democrats. Democrats dominated among younger voters: 67% of the age 18-29 cohort, and 58% of the 30-44 year-olds. Republicans, in an interesting straddle that tells you quite a bit about a key portion of their coalition, took 61% of white men with no college degrees, and also narrowly won both the $100-199K and above-$200K income brackets.

Was it an epic wave, an awesome wave, a tolerably solid wave, or just an ankle-buster wave? Fun, but irrelevant question. The water moved, and it’s better thought of as an essential-to-the continued-viability-of-the-Democratic-Party wave. With it (or on it) came not only new blood and new energy, but some real competitiveness in new places. The incredible flip of California’s conservative Orange County got a lot of the headlines, but the one that made me smile was the victory by 43-year-old lawyer Lizzie Pannill Fletcher in the Houston-area 7th CD. That District had gone Democratic for 80 years until 1966, when it was won (seemingly permanently) for the Republicans by a Texas oil man named George Herbert Walker Bush.

What does this mean for 2020? It is really unclear. The road to 1600 Pennsylvania is probably a lot like 2016: it runs through the same states that flipped from Obama to Trump—Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. But it also may be subtly different, because of both an ongoing electoral realignment, and an acceleration in demographic movement. Those same younger people who broke sharply Democratic have also been moving from rural and economically challenged areas to college towns and cities, while older, more conservative voters are doing the opposite. This is probably a net negative for Democrats, particularly at the Electoral College level. You don’t get extra points for expanding your landslide in California, New York, or Massachusetts. Another warning sign for Democrats: While turnout was spectacular, late and same-day voters in the Midterms were more Republican than early voters—Wasserman estimates that a late surge in Republican enthusiasm saved roughly 10 Congressional seats, and he traces that surge to President Trump motivating his base.

You might have noticed, and have to be impressed by the fact that, until this last sentence, I managed to get over 800 words through this sumptuous meal without mentioning The Really Big Bear In The Room. But it’s time to clear the small plates and ask the question “Is Uncle Donald showing up in 2020?”

The short answer: If Donald wants to come, Donald will come. He’s the incumbent, and he’s in total control of the GOP, and every Republican (including the handful of battered dissidents) knows it. Only an outsider can mount a primary challenge to him, and that’s a vanity project at best right now. Those conservatives hoping for a Kasich/Ben Sasse-type can forget it. No traction whatsoever. This isn’t because most elected Republicans secretly wouldn’t prefer someone more conventional. It’s strictly self-preservation: there’s no safe harbor to oppose Trump and not get mauled by him and primaried by the angry Trump base. If Trump demands the best chair, and both drumsticks, they are his, and the only person he needs to worry about is Mike Pence slipping a little something into his Diet Coke.

Conventional wisdom says Trump will demand it. He cannot stand giving up the prize he won. He loves the tweeting, the rallies, the fawning coverage by supportive media, and the control over the Justice Department and Pardons that he sees as both necessity and right. As Henry Kissinger once pointed out, power is the greatest aphrodisiac, and few politicians have ever been more obsessed with their potency than Trump. He knows that the minute he walks out that door, he’s like every other former President, no matter how admired—just a piece of history, a cancelled reality show.

I think that conventional wisdom is wrong, and he won’t run again. It’s obvious he hates most of the real work of being President. He hates the briefings, has contempt for the policy wonks and process, and thinks the details are ridiculous. He hates the “pastoral” role Presidents are expected to take on, like joining in Armistice Day commemorations and going to Arlington on Veterans Day. A different, less alienating person could have built a crack team around him to make up for his weaknesses. Trump is not that sort—his ego demands he be perceived as not only the decision-maker, but the only doer. That’s impossible: no one person has the complete skill set to do all of the world’s most demanding job.

Then, there’s Robert Mueller. Does he have the goods, and, if he does, will he be permitted to release them? Taking apart the nested Russian dolls is not easy. The whole thing is a kaleidoscope of seamy. The Manafort double-flip, with his lawyers inexplicably feeding information to Trump’s lawyers. The Michaels, Flynn and Cohen. The Roger Stone-WikiLeaks connection. The meeting at Trump Tower. The jack o’lantern face of Rudy Giuliani spouting cringeworthy garbage. But seamy is of a piece with swamp-like, and the electorate has already internalized that feature when it comes to Trump. What matters is “criminal.” Given the bizarre banana-republic nature of this whole thing and the utter lack of credibility of many of the witnesses, there may be a practical limit to what criminal conduct Mueller can prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

But what Trump doesn’t realize is that Mueller’s problem is actually Trump’s problem. Trump thinks he has control: he can direct his AG to fire Mueller, he can tweet, he can use every tool at his disposal to take down the Independent Counsel, and, in the end, he has a firewall of elected Republicans. But what he doesn’t realize is all that seaminess, even if what can be proven is short of criminal, gives Putin the high card. Putin can deny collusion and extract a price from Trump (meaning a price from the United States) or he can admit collusion (whether it occurred or not) and create chaos. Or, and perhaps most corrosively, Putin can play “breadcrumbs” with us all, selectively dropping hints, releasing a combination of truth and lies that further erodes Trump’s legitimacy and his ability to act.

It’s this last eventuality, the diminishment of Trump, at home and on the world stage, that leads me to believe that he might finally realize he’s had enough and walk away from the table. He hates losing, and every President has some losses. Right now, Putin is challenging us in Ukraine and, just this past Wednesday, threatened an arms race. Xi is being provocative in the South China Sea—and, hitting Trump where he lives, on trade. This is only the beginning of it—both men are probing Trump for weaknesses, and finding them in his lack of grasp of policy nuances and his overarching pride. No matter how much Trump and his spokespeople engage in self-praise, reality is eventually going to crowd out messaging. Public failure is excruciating.

What’s next? There’s a paradox to Trump’s Presidency. There is no question that this is now The Trump Republican Party™. Yet Trump, for all his unorthodoxies of speech and behavior, is, on policy, largely governing as a conventional Republican. Much of Trump’s “winning” turns out to be baubles that Big Daddy Trump brought home to the traditional GOP—the judges, the hard-right social agenda, the ravenously destructive approach to the environment. But that’s not what drew many voters to Trump in the first place. The central premise of a Trump Presidency is that of tough big-time negotiator striding across the world stage, breaking scores of eggs, bringing home the trophies. The reality of Trump is more prosaic. He has blood flowing on immigration, but doesn’t have his Wall, despite Republican control of Congress. On trade, his brag has exceeded his bite, deficits are soaring, and “Tariff Man” is causing a lot of collateral damage to the very people he promised he would help. The tax cuts mostly went to stock buybacks and dividends. More plants are closing than opening, and his freak-out to Mary Barra of GM doesn’t change that. Don’t take my word for it: The St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank said this summer, “Never have corporate profits outgrown employee compensation so clearly and for so long.”

Most voters don’t expect miracles from government—they just want their piece of the world to get a little bit better. Trump recognized and exploited that in 2016, and Democrats need to now. There are signs they already are thinking that way: Rep. Cheri Bustos (IL) is the new Chairwoman of the DCCC. Trump won her district in 2016, but she was re-elected in 2018 by a 24-point margin, the best performance by any Democrat in a Trumpian district. Bustos thinks Democrats must learn how to do better in Republican areas—and a start is to forget talking about impeachment, and focus on things that resonate at home: jobs, wages, and health care. Issues that matter wherever you live near a Whole Foods or a Cracker Barrel.

That’s a strong start. Now all they need to do add in political infrastructure, tons of money, nerve, the common sense not to be drawn into dumb arguments, and youth and vigor. And new candidates, as many attractive ones as you can find: let’s not have any coronations or nostalgia for the good old days—the well of deference has been sucked dry. Finally, and most controversially, don’t run “against” Trump. The country already knows what kind of man he is, and they have either embraced that or rejected it. Instead, learn from two of the most popular governors in America, Larry Hogan of Maryland and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, both Republicans in very Blue States—figure out what the largest number of your citizens want, regardless of their Party ID, and try to deliver it to them.

Do that, make that your message, and maybe two years from now there will be so many folks at your table you will need a second bird. Just don’t leave it outside. There’s bears in them thar woods.

A Bear Ate My Turkey: Lessons From the Midterms first appeared on on December 10, 2018 at:

and please follow us on Twitter :

Michael Liss

Monday, November 12, 2018

An American Tries To Understand Armistice Day-On 3Q

This past Sunday, November 11, marked the Centennial of Armistice Day, the European commemoration of the agreement to end World War I. Representatives from more than 60 countries attended carefully choreographed ceremonies to honor the sacrifice of those who fought.

The Europeans take the Great War seriously. Americans really don’t. It just doesn’t feel like our war. To us, it’s an old chest filled with musty, tattered maps and the remains of broken monarchies and shattered ambitions. Even the early film footage, jerky and grainy in black and white, looks more like a silent movie than something real. We know we participated, and naturally we were heroic. Our boys saved the Allied powers from the Huns, all the while singing “Over There” and wooing the local pulchritude. It’s what we broad-shouldered, brave, optimistic, can-do Americans do.

But, if you want to contextualize our actual contribution, consider the following:

The United States committed 2.8 million servicemen to the war, and suffered 53,402 killed in action, 63,114 deaths from disease and other causes, and about 205,000 wounded. On an absolute level, that’s a lot of lives. But, by contrast, in just one extended, insane battle, the Europeans fought the Somme Offensive, with more than 3 million men engaged and 1 million casualties. Then there was Gallipoli, the infamous, disastrous push by then-First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill in the Dardanelles, which provided the Ottoman Empire with its last meaningful military victory, and included a horrific sacrifice by ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand combined forces) and half a million casualties. And Verdun (between the French and the Germans), which lasted close to 11 months in 1916, and yielded nearly 700,000 casualties and more than 300,000 dead. And Passchendaele (3rd Battle of Ypres, Flanders Fields), between Great Britain, France, Belgium and Germany, in July to November 1917, in which the dead and wounded may have been as high as 700,000. And Operation Michael, the last major German offensive in the West (Germany, the UK, France, and, finally, the United States), which had almost 500,000 casualties. That, of course, skips every battle between the Germans and the Russians.

Read about these and you are stunned by not just the numbers (the human cost of the Somme alone was comparable to the total of all US casualties for the entirety of World War II) but the sheer arrogance and pig-headedness of both the military and political leadership of the time. I don’t know if it’s possible to understand the thinking that you could apply 19th Century concepts of cavalry charges (without the horses) in the face of 20th Century killing technology. It takes an astounding amount of myopia to see what is in front of you and refuse to adapt, and almost a contempt for human life to see it wasted this way. We talk about The Lost Generation (in Europe, the “Generation of 1914”), but they were lost by leadership who valued their lives far too little. We have to ask ourselves, what impelled so many civilized nations to walk down this road of utter and mindless self-destruction?

You can’t begin without recognizing that WW I didn’t just happen. Europe had been seething for decades. The ground was still hot from the First and Second Balkan wars (one Balkan War not being enough). But, if the tinder was there, the match was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire crown. The killer, Gavrilo Princip, was a Bosnian Serb member of Young Bosnia, a group seeking to end Austro-Hungarian rule in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

That should alert you to two critical tectonic forces. A monarchy that no longer exists, exercising control over an adjoining country, which had previously been under control of yet another monarchy (the Ottoman Empire) that also no longer exists. Add to this stew the rest of the Balkans, riven by centuries-old tribal rivalries, constantly shifting borders, two alpha-dogs in Serbia and Bosnia, and the toxic catnip that being “the soft underbelly of Europe” represented to other European powers. The stage was set.

Then, an ominous pause of almost a month as Austria-Hungary evaluated its options, and then issued an ultimatum to Serbia. Serbia considered it, consulted with its Russian allies, and acceded to certain points, but not the entire proposal. It was not enough. Austria-Hungary’s pride (and hunger) unsated, and being emboldened by a German “Blank Check” of unconditional support, it declared war against Serbia. Both the Germans and the Austrians gambled that the Russians, who had shown a recent predilection for backing down, would do so again. This time, they were wrong. Russia saw a need to come to its Slavic brother Serbia’s defense. We now had a regional war.

It would soon go continental, driven by the incredible entanglement of mutual defense treaties. The Russians and the Serbs and the Germans and the Austro-Hungarians weren’t the only pairs of “allies.” The British had an arrangement with Japan; France had one with Russia and another with Belgium. Finally, France, Britain, and Russia came together as the Triple Entente. As one country after another entered the war, their allies felt compelled to honor their agreements, eventually sorting themselves out into two opposing teams: The Allied Powers (the Triple Entente, then Italy, eventually joined by United States) and the Central Powers, consisting of Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria.

Of course, these countries didn’t come in just out of a sense of honor. Opportunism and empire-building played a critical role. All thought of themselves as great powers. They had spent the last few decades in competitive arms buildups, secret diplomacy that often showed a stunning lack of consistency and integrity, and a globe-spanning grand colonialism that allowed every country to dream of more land and more conquests. Those conquests could be on other continents (Africa, South America, Asia) or, quite literally, right next door. Early 20th Century European states did not see the map of Europe as immutable. Entire regions belonging to adjoining countries might be up for annexation, as they had been for the entire 19th Century. What’s more, the collective leadership of Europe seemed to agree that to the strongest went the spoils. All those “allies” were also rivals.

This made a good little war seem a bit appealing to many, not unlike a duel on the field of honor. It would be quick; you would bloody the nose of your opponent and walk away with a deep harbor, some fertile lands, perhaps some mining interests, or even a collection of factories.

Germany certainly thought that way. Since Bismarck, they had been building military strength, both on land and at sea, testing others for weakness, and pining for recognition. They resented the British for the size of their Empire, had contempt for the perceived weakness of the French, and saw the “Slavic Menace” as existential, yet something that could be defeated easily, if it were done soon enough. They were confident they could fight a two-front war, with speed being the essential component in the West. Their Schlieffen Plan called for a quick thrust through then-neutral Belgium to defeat the French and bottle up the British Expeditionary Force. The Kaiser told his soldiers they would be home “before the autumn leaves,” and what evidence we have indicates that most of them, as well as the public, thought the same.

In the actual event, things didn’t quite work out as planned. In both the West and East, Germany’s early successes were ultimately met with determined resistance. Its ally, Austria, with an ambition greater than its abilities, decided to see what goodies it could take from the Italians, and it bogged down as well. Suddenly, Germany was in a three-front war of attrition—no dashing cavalry, no lightening victories. The leaves began to fall, and the troops stayed to watch them.

While there’s little doubt that the making of European policy was dominated by the aristocracy and the military, what about the home front, what about the opinions of the best minds? In Germany, many of them were ardent supporters of the war. There was the “Manifesto of 93,” signed by 93 scientists, authors, theologians, artists and historians, musical composers and playwrights, including a dozen past and future Nobel Prize winners. “As representatives of German Science and Art, we hereby protest to the civilized world against the lies and calumnies with which our enemies are endeavoring to stain the honor of Germany in her hard struggle for existence—in a struggle that has been forced on her.”

Some of these best minds took a more active role than boosterism. On April 22, 1915, at the second Battle at Ypres, Germany shattered the 1899 Hague Declaration banning the use of chemical weapons by using massive amounts of chlorine gas. Otto Hahn, a future Nobelist in Chemistry (1944) helped install the cylinders, after being convinced by Fritz Haber (Nobel in Chemistry in 1918) that poison gas would shorten the fighting. Later, Haber would recruit two other future Nobel prize winners, James Franck and Gustav Hertz.

Haber’s initiative ushered in a more lethal phase of the war. Once the Germans used it, the French, then the British, and then finally the United States began to develop their own brands of toxins. In a cruel twist, Haber’s wife, the brilliant Clara Immerwahl, a PhD in her own right, grew increasingly haunted by the use of gas. She begged her husband to stop, he refused, and one day, after a particularly heated row between them, he stalked off to conduct an attack on the Eastern Front. In his absence, she committed suicide.

Of course, Haber was wrong. The gas didn’t end the war, nor the introduction of tanks, nor dirigibles and planes dropping new kinds of bombs, nor extraordinary amounts of artillery. Men were stuffed into uniforms, ferried to the front with bayonet and spade in hand, and, on orders from detached commanders who saw their troops as mere abstractions on a chess board, sent to charge into the machine gun fire.

Again, one has to ask, why, when it became obvious there would be no quick and decisive victories, when the death count was mounting far higher than anyone could have anticipated, did it have to continue? Why didn’t saner heads draw back in 1915 and 1916?

They did, a bit. There were some peace discussions going on, even as early as 1914, with the Germans attempting to cut a deal with the Russians and even the French. Before US entry into the war, Woodrow Wilson made proposals that would have largely restored the status quo ante. In 1917, the Pope, worried that Europe was falling apart, proposed something similar to Wilson’s framework. Finally, the Austrians, recognizing their own efforts flagging, and with famine at home, reached out to the British and French, offering some concessions. But, with the exception of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March of 1918, where the new Bolshevik unilaterally settled with the Central Powers, none of these even approached fruition. In hindsight, one can see why—none of the combatants could bring themselves to say yes. Time and again, the parties wanted things they hadn’t achieved on the battlefield. They were still building empires at the price of lives.

And so, it went on. More trenches and barbed wire, more machine guns and gas. More corpses and more mourners. From the mouth of Remarque’s fictitious Paul Baumer, “We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation.”

Annihilation came. When it was over, four dynasties had fallen—Austria, Germany, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. Between 17 and 20 million died, another 20 million wounded, the majority, civilians. The victors imposed an unwise peace at Versailles, paving the way for a second, far more destructive war. The fields of France and Belgium, pockmarked by trenches and adorned with barbed wire, were later filled with cemeteries. They were crowded yesterday with ordinary people carrying poppies, paying their respects to the fallen, and perhaps, to the end of innocence itself.

“We are the dead,” the poet said. Their grave markers stand, not just as a reminder of their sacrifice, but also as a dignified, silent reproach to the leaders who failed them.

An American Tries To Understand Armistice Day first appeared on November 12, 2018 on

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Mortar and The Pestle on 3Q

My dad was a pharmacist. He had an old-fashioned store (including an actual soda fountain and stools) and some of the old-fashioned tools of the trade: scales and eye-droppers, spatulas and ointment bases, graded flasks and beakers, amphorae, and his mortar and pestle.

Pharmacy was a bit more of an art in those days and doctors often wrote prescriptions that had a little eye of newt in them. This could make Dad cranky, as they took time and counterspace, but I suspect that, secretly, he liked doing them. He would bring out the mortar and pestle (sometimes with a Remington’s Practice of Pharmacy), and, for all intents and purposes, he could have been an herbalist for a Pharaoh, so old was the tradition of combining exotic ingredients and using time and pressure until the desired potency and texture was achieved.

I have been thinking about that mortar and pestle the last few weeks. They remind me of how just the simplest set of tools, coupled with accumulated knowledge and craftsmanship, can produce something useful and even essential. And, they make me wonder whether, in this insane age, where ignorance and even falsehoods are celebrated and experience scorned, there is anything at all they still have to teach.
Last month, I attended the 16th annual conference of Columbia’s Center on Capitalism and Society. The topic was “The Economic Consequences of Mr. Trump: Jobs, Wages, Trade, Growth, Health and Satisfaction.” The organizers made a real effort to include views from across the spectrum, although it’s fair to say a majority were not Trump supporters. Nevertheless, the overall tone was cautious and analytical, rather than hypercritical. These are serious people (including three Nobel Prize winners), all literate and classically trained, and all share a deep understanding of the laws of economics, and a vast knowledge of data and historical trends.
There is no way I can do justice to a day of such intense sobriety, so I’m going to take a shortcut. Trump is not like anyone in their collective experience.
Rather, he is the mad scientist who tosses out the Remington while throwing into the mortar things they warned you in apothecary school definitely don’t go together. At the bottom of the bowl is a bizarre combination of traditional Republican pro-business policies and an utterly unconventional dose of populism, corporatism, and mercantilism. To thoroughly abuse Neil Simon, it can best be described as either very bad meat, or very good cheese.
But does it work? Or does the toxicity-to-efficacy ratio leave the patient on the brink of multi-organ collapse? The conferees’ goal was to make some sense out of it all.
It wasn’t all negative. Even Trump’s harshest critics didn’t deny some upside. There has been growth and lower unemployment, and the stock-market has (or had) been making new highs. Trump does plenty of mainstream things that conservative economists love—mostly cut taxes, provide a safe harbor for repatriation of profits held abroad, roll back regulations, and aim at non-military government spending. For the rest of Trump’s package, there was considerably less enthusiasm. There was a lot of concern about the deficit, and surprising consensus on Trump’s gutting of environmental regulations and his obsession with coal. I expected the more conservative members of the group to defend this, but just about everyone saw the costs dwarfing whatever short-term economic benefits might accrue. And virtually no one liked the trade wars and tariffs; bear in mind, to a classically trained economist, the infamous Smoot-Hawley bill, passed in 1930 and signed by Herbert Hoover, remains the gold standard of bad.
Yet in all of these cool and calculated observations, graphs, and charts, there was also an interesting undercurrent: Trump is not an idiot—he can be appallingly ignorant, but most of the time he’s just purposely unorthodox and lacking in subtlety. And perhaps he has done us all a favor by identifying issues that we have been unable to reconcile using the old ways—things that the electorate may have internalized and voted on without having fully articulated. There are two main themes of the start of the 21st Century. The first is the unraveling of the post-World War II international order, which is based on a web of military alliances cinched together with trade agreements. The second is the crumbling “domestic” order that is supposed to deliver both widespread prosperity and the type of government that the largest number of people can accept as beneficial and reasonable. These are things that need our attention.
Of course, Trump’s medicine for both is typically Trumpian: A strong dose of Trump. “Real” America is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, either at home or abroad. Get on board, pay the toll of obeisance, or get stomped on.
Can this work? Trump says he can win any trade war. Few professionals agree, yet he did renegotiate NAFTA and get some concessions. We can debate the extent of his victory, but even if there is a marginal improvement, then the question is strictly whether the damage to relationships with the Mexicans and Canadians (and, potentially, those other countries who may no longer see the U.S. as a stable negotiating partner) was worth the price. Is the NAFTA example scalable, and can it be applied to foreign policy? Is Trump’s fetish for Putin and his contempt for NATO partly for show to persuade the Europeans to take greater responsibility for their own security? If so, will that also reduce our influence? Pretty much all of us know what the Establishment’s consensus on that is—he’s a reckless fool. But he’s a reckless fool who happens to be President, and until he leaves, he’s the only game in town.
When he does leave, what’s next? To this point, I had a fascinating conversation last week with a semi-retired journalist who had spent many years covering the inner workings of Congress. He talked about the destructive influence of partisanship, but what was really interesting was his insights as to how laws are made. What most people don’t understand about legislating is that, to do it right, you need both openness to other ideas and sufficient depth to grasp the nuances. Obviously, Senators and Congressmen can’t possibly have granular expertise in every topic (most of them aren’t interested anyway) so they rely on aides who theoretically do. The system works if the aides are serious and involved—they really can be the unsung heroes of good legislation. The problem, the journalist told me, is that the aides are no longer any good. Where once they were hired for their abilities, now they are either basically publicity people, focusing on the soundbite that will make their boss look good, or come from (and will return to) the industries or special interests they are supposed to help regulate.
When the aides are bad, the laws they write are bad, shot through with technical errors and sprinkled with spoils and petty punishments. This, perversely, feeds the disdain that most Americans have for their government, and further radicalizes them, leading to ever-more extreme office holders with even less capacity for doing anything well. The process repeats itself in election after election, until what we have is the distilled essence of stupid, and leads, inevitably, to someone like Trump. So, whether Trump is the apotheosis of an age that rejects knowledge and nuance because it seems ineffectual, or just the product of it, is beside the point. The trendlines have been here for decades, and it’s the electorate itself that has engaged in self-sabotage. The shock of 2016 shouldn’t have been that Trump won the Electoral College. It’s that anyone like Trump could get 63 million votes. That reflects our, and conventional wisdom’s, collective failure.
How do we stop failing, regain our secular faith in our system and recapture our competence? As the Kavanaugh hearings showed us, grandstanding, preening for the cameras, and the worst kind of rank partisanship seem to be the default setting for virtually everyone in, or aspiring to, higher office. When you get this sick, there is no overnight miracle cure.
Maybe we just have to go back to basics. There is one thing my Dad sometimes did that sticks with me. He couldn’t spend time with everyone picking up a prescription. But occasionally, especially for a worried parent, he did. He would emerge from behind his raised white work area, the magic potion in his left hand. He used his right as a musical conductor might have in a quieter passage, held at a 45 degree angle, palm face down, gently counting beats as he gave precise instructions. He identified possible side-effects, mentioned that improvement might not be linear or immediate, gave markers of progress to watch for. Only then would he place the package into anxious hands. These interactions, which rarely lasted more than a minute or two, very often calmed people, made them a partner, and gave them agency.
Expertise, partnership, and agency is exactly what many want from their government, not endless bickering and embarrassing public displays. There’s a palpable ache out there to be called to something better, something with beauty and meaning and value. Most of us feel it, but it is particularly acute in younger people, for whom the future is a lifetime of learning, and the mistakes of the past not their doing.
Perhaps that explains two emails I received from my friend Christine Helmer, a Martin Luther scholar and Professor of Religious Studies at Northwestern:
“The quarter started yesterday—my intro to theology is oversubscribed, odd, seems like the kids are really anxious nowadays and seeking some lasting values (amid a news cycle that is thoroughly distressing)” and then, “Getting ready for my oversubscribed class, dealing with the knowledge of self and knowledge of God…”
If the future of this country wants to grapple with big issues like philosophy and theology, maybe the rest of us should take heed and hold up our end.

Or, to borrow from a different liturgy, the Gates of Repentance are always open.
Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)
The Mortar and The Pestle was first published on October 15, 2018 in

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