Climate “Solutions” that don’t solve the problem

We would be better off focusing on the important issues and potential solutions that will make a difference. Subsidizing electric cars and outlawing natural gas appliances will not solve the problems they are intended to address.

Microsoft Surface – a Dead End

I was a fan of the idea of the Microsoft Surface tablet / laptop.  When the Surface Pro 2 came onto the market in the fall of 2013, I thought the worst of the bugs had been squeezed out of it, and it would be a suitable machine for work while traveling.  (My office, like most law firms, is centered mostly in the world of Microsoft Office, plus a few specialized other programs, so various Apple and Google alternative systems haven’t historically been ideal.  A tablet running full Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office offers the most seamless integration with the office system.)

I had to return the first one within a few months, but the replacement machine that I got in December of 2013 seemed to work well.  The keyboard was never great, but I got several years of good use out of it.

Then, for no reason, the blinking orange light of death struck in 2016.  There are any number of posts about the problem around the internet, and in this list of tips and this similar list Microsoft itself tacitly acknowledges it to be fairly widespread problem.  (The various problems with the Surface Pro models and “sleep” mode have continued for years and still don’t seem to be fully resolved.)  I understand that Consumer Reports no longer recommends the Surface products because of these, and other, reliability issues.  Many of these problems are annoying, but often there are work-arounds and ways of dealing with them.

But the blinking orange light of death for some Surface owners like me means the device is now bricked, or permanently unusable.  Apparently, the machine has gone to sleep in the middle of an upgrade and it cannot be awakened.  I tried a lot of solutions, and a kindly Microsoft store employee even spent an hour with me also trying the recommended solutions – and other informal solutions – to no avail.  So, there is no meaningful fix since Microsoft will charge hundreds of dollars to “repair” it (but of course they are not able to repair this, so at best you’ll be shipped a refurbished old one).  And a straightforward “out of warranty” exchange seems to be $700 (truly silly for a 4 year old device that sells on Ebay for $2-300).  The Microsoft store was sympathetic, but told me there was no practical solution and that I’m at the end of the line with this brick.

No one realistically expects consumer electronics to be very durable, and users break things all the time.  Some might say that since I got almost 3 years of use from a $1,500 computer, I shouldn’t complain.  And, in general I’m not against upgrading.  But usually, its the requirements of new or updated software, or old and slow hardware that cause you to upgrade.  Or, of course, dropping the thing or otherwise physically abusing it.

When Microsoft’s updates, software upgrades and system patches cause the machine to simply stop working, you feel like you’ve not gotten the benefit of the bargain.  And the fact that there’s no recourse, and something that “should” be working just stops working because of what the manufacturer has done to it, strike me wrong.  Its a “first world” problem, to be sure, but an irritating one.

Where does the “alt-right” fit in?

Jeff Goldstein argues here that the so-called “alt-right” with its extremist and dangerous views is not alone on the political spectrum.  It has counterparts on the left that are perhaps equally extremist and dangerous.

He says the alt-right wrongly claims to represent conservatives:

The alt-right is a European-style right-wing movement that is at odds with the classical liberalism upon which our country was built, and which the Left has redefined as “Right.” That is to say, the European “Right” is mapped onto a political spectrum different than our own. Our “right” — conservatism or classical liberalism —is dead-center on our spectrum, no matter how persistently the Left tries to claim otherwise. It is constitutionalism, which incorporates federalism, republicanism, legal equity, and a separation of powers.

So, I suppose that the alt-right is, in fact, the far right in his way of viewing the spectrum.  And the traditional, classical liberal view – now called the “right” in US politics – is actually “dead-center,” he says.  That might be a helpful way to view it, but most of this noise is name-calling to try to discredit and marginalize opposing viewpoints.  I suppose conservatives could (and do) engage in similar name-calling / discrediting / marginalizing of the Bernie Sanders / socialist left.

We’re not really better off for having called each other these names, but its good to get a little more perspective.

The other reason that the left likes to label certain conservatives as alt-right is because it can then lump those folks in with neo-Nazis and fascists and white supremacists of various kinds.  Of course, these kooks have always been around and likely always will be, but based on what I’ve seen, their numbers are tiny and they would go almost totally unnoticed except for the attention that the left-of-center press lavishes on them.  They can be sensational, so covering the kooks feeds the ever present thirst of the press for something outrageous to get those ratings and clicks.  And reasonable people of all kinds can deplore them and condemn them.

So, we’ve got fringe groups on the far right and the far left, and by and large we should ignore them.  If and when you want a serious discussion of actual issues, you can get plenty of that without wasting time on what the kooks on the left or right are pushing at the moment.

A Complete Picture of the US War in Vietnam?

My wife and I have just finished watching all of Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s 10-part documentary, “The War in Vietnam.”  (You can stream it from here.)  Of course, Burns is a pro at this sort of thing, having done a number of overview projects like this; the production is first-rate in many ways.  But is it a complete picture of the war?  Even from the American perspective at 40+ years after our involvement ended?

I was too young to have really appreciated the significance of events in the early and mid-1960’s as they were happening, but was still shaped in minor ways by the war.

When I Became Aware of the War – I grew up in a household that was politically aware and engaged.  My parents were conservative and as a teenager, I mostly accepted my father’s views that the war was a mess because the military were subject to political limitations on their ability to wage and win the war.  He was also an anti-communist and I mostly accepted the prevailing view that the so-called “domino theory” was valid.  Thus, even though Vietnam itself was not terribly significant to US national security interests, it was important that southeast Asia not be allowed to come under the control of communists.

My Draft Card – I turned 18 in 1973, and had a high 90’s draft number.  I believe that in 1972, anyone in the top 100 was likely to be called up.  So, I had a real-time, personal interest in the war and the winding-down of the war.  But, by the time I would have been called up, the sharply decreasing manpower requirements meant that I never received that letter ordering me to report for duty.

The End of US Involvement in Combat – While I was in college, we saw the winding down of the war and the fall of President Nixon in the Watergate scandal.  By then, the war was much less important on college campus’ than it had been 10 years earlier; I don’t remember very much attention being paid to the setbacks encountered by the South Vietnamese military, or the eventual fall of the South to the communists in April 1975.

Walt Rostow’s Visits? – In 1975, I took an economics class at college taught by Walt Rostow.  Rostow had been JFK’s and LBJ’s National Security Advisor and was a “hawk” with respect to the Vietnam war.  Around the time I was in that class, South Vietnam was in the process of falling militarily to the Communists.

(Even after Robert McNamara wrote a memoir in the 1990’s confessing to poor judgment, etc in Vietnam, Rostow wrote a rebuttal, maintaining that US policy and actions were right, but were implemented too timidly.  The NYT recently wrote that Rostow “never apologized”.)

Although I’ve never seen it confirmed, we heard rumors that Rostow was making trips that year back to Washington to urge policy-makers to intervene militarily to prop up South Vietnam.  So, we still had real-time reminders of how the war continued to impact the USA even though our involvement “ended.”

So, I watched Burn’s / Novick’s documentary from the somewhat distant perspective of one who had my own Vietnam-era memories and opinions, but was not scarred or haunted or deeply affected by them.

Strengths of the Burns’ Vietnam Series

  • long enough to at least touch briefly on many major themes and events – at 18 hours, there’s enough time to at least mention most everything of consequence
  • presents the current views of around 80 people who participated in some way in the actual war or were closely tied to it – this is Burns’ traditional approach to history by looking at the micro stories and emotions, mixed in with a survey of the macro events
  • focuses on events at home, that were reactions to or caused by, the war – we see the war’s impact on families, and hear how domestic political currents affected, and were affected by, the course of the war
  • illustrates the divisions in US society that the war created – there’s a fair bit of emphasis on the anti-war movement, a deserter, families who had different opinions about the war
  • includes extensive interviews with North Vietnamese and Viet Cong – they were our enemy, but show gives lots of time to their perspectives
  • features recorded conversations between LBJ and Nixon with their respective advisors showing their assessments – showing how they agonized over how to reconcile various policy and political goals

Weaknesses of the Burns’ Vietnam Series

  • focuses excessively on the idea that the USA government “lied” to the public – they spend a lot of time illustrating the point that governments sugar-coat and lie to their public about progress and success in the war effort.  They suggest this is something new or unusual.  (Listen to one of the incomparable Alistair Cooke’s “Letters from America” where he talks about the importance of how a war is described by the media in countries – The Lessons of Potsdam – and wonders if a democratic country can wage a war if it sees on the TV news every day, the brutality of war.)
  • is infused with Burns’ essential pacifist / anti-war bias – its a simple and plain bias.  Nothing wrong with that, but don’t imagine that he’s being “objective” about this.
  • over-emphasis on soldiers who later came to oppose the war and under-emphasis on those who didn’t – as you would expect from someone with an anti-war bias, he favors the stories of those who agree with his views
  • overstates the popularity of the anti-war movement in USA generally – although mentioning that US public opinion favored our goals and our participation in the war for many years, Burns and Novick paint views that are sympathetic to the anti-war left and leaves the viewer to wonder why the majority of Americans did not share those views
  • understates the role of the press in criticizing the government and thus, eroding support for the war – in many ways, the Vietnam war was covered differently from prior wars such as the press’ ability to roam freely on the battlefield and report whatever they wanted, and publishing stolen material like the Pentagon Papers for the sole purpose of supporting the anti-war movement
  • pays little credence to the domino theory and the importance it held in policy – of course, none of what Truman / Eisenhower / Kennedy / Johnson / Nixon did makes sense today unless you realize that the domino theory was widely accepted by both political parties and commentators of that era
  • virtually omits any mention of how USSR and China featured in the decision-making – there is very little discussion of the fact that the Soviets and the Chinese played a role in the Vietnam war that was the reciprocal of the US role.  Instead, all the attention is on South + USA vs. the North.  Its highly unlikely that USA would have ever become involved in Vietnam had the Soviets and Chinese communists not been supporting the North Vietnamese.  I don’t recall one single interview with a Soviet or Chinese person describing their involvement; the overall impression is that USA was evil and aggressive
  • focuses more on the perspectives / justifications of the Communists than the south Vietnamese fighting them – the documentary constantly emphasizes the corruption and incompetence of South Vietnam in civil and military affairs, and gives a lot less attention to the negative features of life in the North
  • in general, glorifies the goals and sacrifices of the North Vietnamese and denigrates the goals and sacrifices of the South Vietnamese – we tend to forget how awful the Soviet and Chinese communists were, and why USA acted so strongly to oppose them and their proxies – a bit off topic, but listen to another of Alistair Cooke’s talks about comparing the evil of Hitler and the evil of Stalin and how the press coverage shapes those views – “The Maddest and Most Criminal of Tyrants”.
  • suggests that American battlefield atrocities were more reprehensible than those of the enemy – the filmmakers spend a lot of time emphasizing the brutality and losses of warfare, but devote an excessive amount of time to Calley & Medina and the My Lai massacre.  Assuming the worst interpretation of those events, it represented the unjustified killing of 300-500 civilians.  Horrible, of course, but slaughtering innocents in guerilla warfare was hardly a one-sided affair and the amount of attention given to it is out of proportion.  (Americans tend to remember, naturally enough, that 58,000 American’s were killed, but we don’t remember quite as easily that as many as 3 million Vietnamese lost their lives.  And then war in Cambodia that followed between Soviet-backed Vietnam and China-backed Cambodia resulted in 1 to 3 million more deaths.)
  • suggests that the US cultural revolution in the 1960’s was primarily about the war, when it was only a part – the disintegration of US society in the 1960’s featured an anti-war element, but one can argue that the size and popularity of the anti-war movement in some circles was more a product of the cultural revolution rather than the cause of it

So, is the Burns/Novick documentary the complete picture of the US war in Vietnam?  Not really, but no one piece could be.  You need other perspectives as well to gain a better sense of the war and the lessons that we should learn from it.




Trump’s Wall

Trump wants to build a wall along the border between Mexico and USA.  Its purpose is to restrain or reduce or eliminate illegal border crossings from the south to north.

What’s the Issue?  There is a widely held view that there are “too many” immigrants in the USA.  The percentage of immigrants in the USA population is very close to its previous all-time high in the early 1900’s (which was followed by severe restrictions on immigration beginning in 1920). When people say “too many immigrants,” they generally mean too many illegal immigrants.  Immigrants can be “illegal” for many reasons, such a overstaying their visas, but the immigrants that people focus on in this debate is those who cross without following border crossing laws and then remain in the USA in violation of those laws.  Because the Mexico / USA border is just under 2,000 miles long, much of it open, rough territory on both sides, it presents a relatively accessible, low-tech way to enter the USA (compared to arriving by sea or by air directly from another country).  So, those who want to build a wall, including Trump, are doing so to reduce or eliminate this type of illegal immigration.

What will it cost?  Who knows, but all big public projects are over budget and late, so we probably should not rely on any estimate at this point.  I’ve recently heard numbers of something around $15 billion.  About one-third of the border already has a fence of some kind from a wall-building program 10 years ago; some of that is probably good enough to stay in place.

Who will pay for it?  The USA, of course, will pay to build it.  That’s true even if we somehow impose a foolish tax on imports from Mexico to try to reimburse ourselves for those costs.

What’s the symbolic point?  The goal of building a wall is both symbolic and practical.  It’s symbolic because it is a clear and simple statement that USA intends to stop this type of illegal immigration.  It shows that USA is serious about the extent of the problem and is “doing something” about it.  Taking action can be viewed as preferable to just wringing our hands and complaining that “nothing can be done; there is no solution.” The wall is one visible aspect of Trump’s stated policy goal of reducing illegal immigration, but some of the other points are harder to visualize and explain.  Everyone understands a wall.

What’s the practical point?  The practical aspect is that walls like this might be somewhat effective.  The USA built a wall for a short distance in Southern California that you can see in these pictures.  By some measures, it has been effective in deterring drug trafficking and illegal crossings, although some of that traffic has just moved to other areas where there is no wall.  Walls and fortified borders are found around the world, and they generally work to stop or slow illegal crossings.  The fence/wall that Israel built along its defacto border has been effective in deterring attacks in Israel by Palestinians.

Will it work?  Critics point out that it is impossible to stop all illegal crossings, with a wall or any other means, but of course that isn’t really the point.  As long as the supply chains for illegal drugs run through Mexico into USA, there will be a strong incentive to cross the border.  As long as Mexican political and economic policies keep its population relatively poor, there will be a strong incentive to cross the border.  As long as Mexico allows poor Central Americans (and Cubans and others) to use Mexico as a conduit to reach the USA, there will be strong incentives to cross the border.  But the wall has a place in a new immigration and border security policy and program.

Will it be “worth it?”  This is a more difficult question.  Trump made illegal immigration from and through Mexico a signature issue of his campaign.  Of course, he’s done it in a way that is clumsy and offensive to Mexicans as well as Americans of Mexican descent.  He really has no political choice other than to follow through with a wall-building program. Charles Krauthammer has written persuasively that the only solution to the illegal immigration problem is enforcement first and then legalization of those already here.   The wall, in combination with other measures to actually reduce illegal immigration, will give Americans the confidence to then offer some means of legalization (although perhaps not citizenship) to the 11+ million illegal immigrants in the USA today.  If the wall enables comprehensive immigration reform to take place, then it will be worth it.


A little clearer thinking on Immigration

Well, say what you will about the actual policies and political theater, Trump certainly knows how to swat at the hornet’s nest!

From what I know about the initial executive order on immigration, it really doesn’t trouble me. Trump promised there would be a review of existing standards and programs for immigration from trouble spots, so this is just following through on that.

It was implemented in a pretty clumsy fashion, but that’s Trump. (The crafting and implementation of it gives the anti-Trumpers even more to complain about than the policies themselves.)

Of course, if it morphs into more permanent limitations that seem unwise or unjust (for example, permanent prohibitions on all immigration from Syria), then you’ll see a lot more people object to the restrictions.  But for now, it’s a time-out to review/revise policies and procedures.

For those with the patience to sift through it, this piece reviewing the elements of the recent executive order helps give some context and details about what it actually says.

More broadly, immigration has a long history as a public policy football in the USA and we shouldn’t pretend that Trump is doing something new and innovative. Maybe Congress will get with the program this session and actually make some long overdue and rational changes to the legal and illegal immigration laws.

This California commentator – who is no friend of Trump – acknowledges that immigration is multi-faceted basket of issues where the public has some definite ideas in this column advocating for something like Canada’s criteria.

I liked this Charles Krauthammer column on illegal immigration issues in the 2016 Presidential political landscape.  His thesis:  the political reality is that there is only one achievable solution to the problem of illegal immigration into the USA:  enforcement plus legalization.

More to come, I’m sure…

On the Eve of the Election, Reflections on How we Got to This Point

I have just marked my ballot in the 2016 USA election. I’m voting early, so even though it’s not the “Eve” of formal election day in November, it’s sort of the “eve” or later for me.

Ugh.  What a mess.  All through this US Presidential election “season” – which is to say the last year or 18 months – I’ve found myself wondering “How in the world did we get to this point?”

Democrats– For the Democrats, I suppose there was a certain inevitability to Hillary. That was also supposed to be the case in 2008, but that year produced a candidate that was more attractive to Democrats and so Obama was able to overcome the “inevitability” of Clinton – with relative ease, as it turned out. Not so, this time. Hillary filled those years since 2008 building a resume, like an earnest student seeking to impress her prospective employers with her well-roundedness and achievements. Through her public offices and her foundation, she stayed in the public eye and at the center of party politics and fattened up her personal wealth and political capital.

Inevitable?  Despite all that, if there had been another “Obama-like” candidate this year, she would have been beaten again in the primaries. She, and her story, are just so unappealing that a credible alternative could have won. But, the field of announced candidates (remember them? I can’t name them all…) did not have a credible alternative and when Joe Biden announced he would not run, then the race was mostly over. The only truly remarkable aspect of the Democrat primary process was that an unknown Socialist like Bernie Sanders would have given her as much opposition as he did. Its due in small part, I think, to Sanders himself, but in large part to the macro trends in the electorate and the disdain that a significant minority of the Democrat party faithful has for Clinton.

Are you Surprised by ANYTHING she says or does?  No one is, or should be, surprised by any of the revelations about Clinton that have arisen or re-emerged during the primary and general election campaigns. The “old” Clinton scandals, Benghazi, the email server, the smarmy, but typical “inside baseball” of party politics and intrigue, the general “I’m above the law and those rules don’t apply to me” attitude. This doesn’t surprise those who love her or hate her – we’ve know this generally for years and the WikiLeaks revelations from hacked emails only confirm and add details to the story of her character. It’s hard to imagine any revelation we could hear about her at this point would change anyone’s mind – not even that 5-15% of the electorate that will chose the president. You know what you’re getting with Clinton, both in terms of her character and her policies.  In the end, I think a large part of her support comes from those with the “Never Trump” sentiment.

Republicans – For the Republicans, it’s a different story, but one with some themes also found in the Democrat primary process. As the various candidates announced they were running, I was pleased and excited about the depth, breath and quality of the field. Wow! There was every sort of candidate you could imagine. For those who think diversity is one of the highest values, we had that in spades – blacks, browns, women, men, old, young, religious and not, insiders, outsiders, Easterners, Westerners, Southerners, Midwesterners. Etc. Those who complain that there’s never any “real” choice and that all of the politicians are “the same” could not have asked for a better group than those 15 (or more?) candidates. (Remember that we had too many bona fide candidates to fit them all onto the stage, so we had to have JV debates for the lower-polling folks!)

Wasn’t Bush “Inevitable” Too?  The early theme that the media and pundits pushed was that 2016 was destined to be another “Bush vs. Clinton” event. Jeb Bush had an operation that paralleled what Clinton was doing with the Democrats. He was supposed to be “inevitable” as well. Bush was never my favorite, but early on in the process I concluded that I could accept as the GOP nominee Bush or any of the other sitting or past governors, although some were much stronger than others. I accept the conventional wisdom that US senators are traditionally at a disadvantage compared to governors in terms of campaigning and governing. And, given that this person would be running against a very unlikable Clinton, just about any of the governors could have won the general election.

So many fine alternatives, but we got Trump.  But, as the field narrowed, the governors fell away. Then I convinced myself that Rubio was the best of the remaining choices, although he is, in various ways, a “Republican Obama” – good-looking, smooth talking, with an interesting personal story and a record of having achieved nothing. Rubio melted down, and then in the end, it was Cruz, Kasich and Trump. Around this time, I realized that there was not a happy ending in sight.

Cruz is too narrow, doctrinaire and unlikable. Kasich has some admirable traits, and a better resume for this job than just about any of the others, but this was not a year when strong resumes would prevail. Until it narrowed down to those three, Trump was never someone who I imagined could obtain a majority of the GOP primary electorate.

Failure to Rally behind One Strong Candidate.  In hindsight, it’s clear that the reason Trump won is because there was not a single person in the 15+ candidates who could assemble the majority of voters needed to beat the 25-40% who truly supported Trump. Had Kasich not selfishly stayed in to the end, perhaps (but only perhaps) Cruz could have won over enough of the doubters. But the process and mindset changed at a certain point and at that stage, a sense of resignation and futility took over. No one other than Trump could achieve a majority, so the rest of the folks folded their tents and went home. Today, despite severe misgivings, most Republicans will vote for Trump. (A recent poll said 74% of Republicans will vote for Trump vs. 78% of Democrats who will vote for Clinton. I suspect that many Republicans are embarrassed to say publicly that they will vote for Trump and the real number is higher.)  And this is true even for the evangelicals who are truly conflicted about what to do.

Are you surprised by ANYTHING he says or does?  Trump – or at least the Trump we see campaigning for President – is a disaster.  Say whatever you like about his devoted supporters, but it’s certainly easy to conclude that HE is “deplorable.”  But I’ve been disappointed to see some of those who supported him earlier drop away because of the dirty talk caught on tape and revealed in October.  I’m disappointed because I can’t see how the revelation that he said crude things was the least bit surprising.  He’s a serial adulterer on his third marriage with a full and undeniable record of standing for everything OTHER THAN “family values.”  We may not know much about what Trump would do as president, but we certainly know about the man’s character.  Like Clinton, many of Trump’s personal and political attributes are off-putting and worse.  If you vote for Trump, you do so not because you admire much of anything about his character or values.  In the end, I think a large part of his support comes from those with the “Never Hillary” sentiment.

In the end, you choose.  So, that’s how we got here.  Pundits say we’ve never had an election where both candidates were so disliked.  That’s true, at least in my voting lifetime.  Part of that is because the candidates themselves are so weak, and part of it is because the culture and media delight in tearing them down and exposing every real or imagined flaw.  How could we NOT have a low opinion of them both?

But one of them will be our next president.