Monday’s Mtg (5/28/18): Will nuclear war remain unthinkable?

How can nuclear war be thinkable? Everybody knows these weapons are unusable. Their only purpose is to deter other countries from nuking us. Trying to stop other countries from getting the technology has been a top global priority for decades, as we have discussed recently. But other than that isn’t “nuclear strategy” an oxymoron?

Not really. The absence of nuclear wars may have been an intrinsic feature of mutually assured destruction (the infamous MAD).  but, we have always had a formal deterrence strategy. The Trump Administration has updated it.  Our nuclear posture has many moving parts and the basic concepts underlying deterrence are a bit complicated.

In short, U.S. nuclear weapons strategy involves:

  • Maintaining the stockpile: Keeping our nuclear arsenal in working order and able to survive a first strike, so as to keep a credible deterrent.
  • Managing crises: Minimizing the risk that nuclear war could break out in a crisis or by accident, and maximizing our ability to stop one once it starts.
  • Stopping proliferation: Preventing other countries from developing nuclear weapons programs and stopping those that have them (like North Korea and Pakistan) from helping other countries or terrorists to get them.
  • Managing deterrence: Keeping the threshold for using nukes very, very high and NOT doing anything stupid that would lower that threshold, like flirting with the idea of using them ourselves in a preemptive strike or in a conventional war, or weakening the global commitment to non-proliferation.

On that last one, funny story. President Trump has taken steps to do all the dumb things. There is also (1) his high-wire brinksmanship with North Korea and Iran and the increased risk of regional nuclear arms races if his gambles fail; and (2) serious concerns over this president’s mental health, impulsiveness, and the quality of the advice he is getting. Worse, as a key article below explains the march of technology is edging closer to having an impact on nuclear strategy – notably in missile defense and cyberwar – and no one is really sure how.

To be sure, the danger of nuclear war is small and likely will remain small. After all, despite some close calls deterrence has worked for 70 years. One might even argue that Trump’s foreign policy could end up lowering the risk of a nuclear war, at least one involving the United States. (I wouldn’t.) Still we’re talking about nuclear war here. So, even though nuclear deterrence is a surprisingly complicated topic it a timely and appropriate one for our Memorial Day.

Plus, there’s coffee.

I am supposed to know a fair amount about this topic.  So I will open with a short explanation of how deterrence functions and some of its weirder and paradoxical qualities. Then I will summarize recent developments in this area with a focus on the steps the Trump Administration is taking/not taking. I will leave the astonishing Trumpian moves towards North Korea and Iran for our discussion.

Here are the usual optional background readings. Some are a little technical, so skim for key ideas or just stick to the recommended ones.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Pros and cons of a Universal Basic Income (UBI).

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Monday’s Mtg (5/21/18): Do the various genders communicate differently?

Remember Men and From Mars Women Are From Venus? It was a huge best-selling book in the mid-1990s, and it was only one of many books in the last 30 years or so that tried to explain differences in the psychology and biology of men and women. Today, a lot of the well-known pop science explanations of innate (or even socially determined) differences between the genders have fallen out of fashion. Maybe as equality in the workplace and personal relationships has edged closer to reality people are less inclined to believe that men “are” one way and women “are” some other way.

Still, we have all noticed characteristics that appear to be more common in women than in men, haven’t we? I think I have observed some differences in communication styles, if in nothing else, over the years in professional and personal settings.  This includes the more than 600 Meetup-like meetings I’ve presided over or attended (CivCon = 50 mtgs per year x 9 years alone!).

What about you? Have you observed that men and women have distinct communication styles? In which aspects of life do they manifest – at work, in romantic relationships, in child-rearing, at certain ages? If men and women communicate differently, why? Is it a gender thing – either due to genetics or socialization and discrimination? Or, is it the product of other factors, like social class, education, media exposure, parental or peer pressure, etc.? To me, separating reality from stereotypes and gender socialization from other causes will be the challenge (and the fun) for us.

The links below are…my best guess at background readings that cover some of the major theories and points of view on gender communication differences. See if they add any useful information or perspective for you.

See you on Monday.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK on Memorial Day:  Nuclear war: Will it stay unthinkable? 

Monday’s Mtg (5/14/18): Status anxiety as a social and political force.

This is one of those topics that has no particular design or agenda lurking behind it. It was spurred by all of those studies and surveys that show that many Trump voters were motivated by anger at losing economic and/or social status in a 21st century economy an culture that (allegedly) devalues people like them. But, there are a number of different ways our discussion could go.

We could talk about the role that social status and social rank play in psychology and society. We could discuss the purported recent rise in generalized anxiety in the United States and try to relate it to social status concerns, especially those of Trump voters. We could even get into the role anxiety plays in say, adolescence, or examine anxiety disorders, like agoraphobia and PTSD.

Maybe some of you know something about these or other aspects of social status that are non-political. I don’t.  So after some reading (including the ones below) I will turn what I learn into a short introduction to open our meeting.

Also, I added some new meetings from our schedule to the Meet-up site. The dates for two meetings in June have been switched to accommodate someone who knows a lot about one of the topics and really wants to be there. The new order is:

  • June 18th – Brinksmanship as a foreign policy tool.
  • June 25th – Power and privacy in an age of Big Data corporations.

Trump’s meeting with North Korea’s leader is supposed to happen on June 12th, so that works out well. Revised hard copies will be available Monday.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Basics –

Is status anxiety on the rise?

Trump voters –

  • Loss of social status was their main motivator. Or was it?
  • Yeah it was, albeit in a complex way that deserves some sympathy. Recommended.
  • Unfairness: It was his voters’ sense of the unfair way their security and status were taken from them that was the motivator.  Long but a great read.

NEXT WEEK: Do the genders really communicate differently?

Monday’s Mtg (5/7/18): What does American conservatism stand for now?

Is this the future of political conservatism in America: Right-wing? For the moment, President Trump has made the Republican Party and the movement conservatism that dominates it anti-immigrant, openly corrupt, contemptuous of governing norms and legal restraints, and oddly schizophrenic on foreign policy.

Our questions for this week are two.  How real is all of this; i.e., has Trumpism taken over the conservative movement in substance or mainly in style? And how lasting will it prove?  Is Trump transforming U.S. conservatism or has he just borrowed it for a while?  To do this we will need to look at both what conservatism in America has been and what the Trumpists are trying to make it become.

Traditionally of course, American conservatism has been described as a coalition of interest groups and voters with a range of substantive needs and philosophical and ideological beliefs. Among these were the Religious Right and other culture warriors, big business, supply side-loving ideological elites, libertarian voters, and a mix of small town working class and upscale Whites. Over the last two decades several other major players have joined the conservative movement, notably the right-wing infotainment complex of talk radio, Fox News, and internet; and billionaire dark money donors like the Koch Brothers.

YMMV, but I found these distinctions less and less useful for understanding the conservative movement even before Trump. There is almost a universal consensus that in the last 20 years American conservative has grown increasingly united and ideological.  I think it is largely because of the growing dominance of those last two groups above, but there are other possible reasons.

So, maybe on Monday we could begin by trying to look at today’s conservatism (and thus tomorrow’s too) from some perspectives that might be more illuminating than just interest groups and ideology. Specifically:

  1. Psychological type and world view.
  2. Status in society, cultural as well as economic.
    –>  FYI, we can save some of this for next Monday’s mtg on status anxiety.
  3. Philosophy and ideology.
  4. Policy preferences.

This may seem like a tall order. But, as with progressives the Venn diagram of these four groups overlap quite a bit and, IMO, does a lot to explain the direction conservatism seems to be moving in. Of course, we must be careful not to reduce conservatism (or any other political belief) to a mere byproduct of its adherents’ cognitive makeup. Yet, I hope that thinking about conservatism in this way (political beliefs flow from cultural beliefs and worldviews as much as from material interests) will help us to shed more light than shadow on this topic.

This will be a busy, vibrant meeting. Thank you in advance for your self-restraint and empathy for your humble moderator. Mr. Humble will start the meeting with a short introduction that explains some of these different ways of thinking about what American conservatism is and what it “stands for.”

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Yesterday’s conservatism –

Today’s conservatism –

Tomorrow’s conservatism –

NEXT WEEK: Status anxiety as a social and political force.

Monday’s Mtg (4/30/18): Should the United States promote democracy abroad?

A discussion on the benefits of the United States nurturing democracy in other countries may seem a bit quaint. Democracy promotion has lost much of its luster in the 25+ years since the fall of communism. As we have discussed, the last ten years has seen backsliding on democracy and the rule of law in a number of countries, including in the former USSR, eastern Europe, and Latin America.

And now, we have a president who is an avowed opponent of promoting democracy abroad and openly admires a number of authoritarian foreign leaders. With other wealthy democracies turning inwards and/or experiencing their own domestic crises of faith in liberal democracy, at the very least democracy promotion will lack global leadership for the rest of this decade.

So, what? Beyond being kind of noble, is the cause of spreading liberal democracy also practical and in the American interest? If so, how can it be made more effective, especially in bang-for-the-buck terms, since not much money is devoted to it?

We have discussed these issues before, most recently in 2016. Here are a few other optional background readings. See you Monday.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Should we promote democracy Y/N?

Has Trump abandoned democracy promotion?

How to promote democracy

NEXT WEEK: U.S. conservatism: What does it stand for now?

Monday’s Mtg (4/22/18): Is the rule of law under serious assault in the United States?

How screwed are we? The Trump Administration’s open corruption and contempt for any person or institution, public or private, that challenges its power goes on apace. Republican Party leaders either stay silent or collaborate.Yet, does the Trump Administration really pose a serious threat to American democracy itself?  Is the rule of law here really so fragile that it can be toppled by one president and his enablers?

The answer will depend, obviously, on what is meant precisely by the “rule of law” and how strong the institutions and people that sustain it really are.  Oh, boy.

I will open our meeting on Monday with a brief soliloquy on what the term can mean and the role that different institution play in maintaining it. Then, we can debate how corrosive Trump’s actions and rhetoric have been, why he’s getting away with it (and is cheered for doing it!), and prospects for unwinding the damage, if any, in the future.

To preview what the topic is trying to get at, consider the words of one legal scholar:

…it is a mistake to focus on [Trump himself] rather than on the institutions that give rise to the rule of law. Leaders with authoritarian personality traits are common, but authoritarian governments exist only when surrounding institutions enable them to express their authoritarian impulses and do not throw up barriers to restrain them…As long as our legal and political institutions remain resilient, we need not worry about Trump becoming an authoritarian leader. And these institutions, ultimately, are made up of the beliefs, attitudes, commitments, and practices of the people who hold official positions.

Of course, in the long run the rule of law in a republic is sustained by a supportive public. Citizens must believe that the law and the political system that creates and enforces the law work for them.  See the last two discussion questions, below, for some reasons to worry about that, too.  If the tide of anger that Trump rode to the oval office never ebbs and is forever ignored by elites, it is hard to see a fully-democratic, non-authoritarian American future.

Lots of detailed links this week. Except for the recommended ones maybe consider them mainly as a reference source for the future.  Thank you in advance for being so civilized during this one.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Context:
    1. What is the “rule of law?” Why is it important + how relates to democracy? Which institutions and people are supposed to protect RoL – Congress, courts, political parties, news media, etc.? How important are norms?
    2. Did we have genuine rule of law before Trump? What/who was missing?
    3. How fragile is rule of law – lessons from U.S. history and abroad?
  2. Trump: How damaging have his actions + rhetoric really been to rule of law so far? How so? Evidence? Worst vs. overblown damage?
  3. Enablers – GOP: Why is the party of Lincoln supporting this?
    1. Practical/cynical: Electoral calculations, fear of GOP base, fear of Fox News conservative media, etc.
    2. They are authoritarians themselves.
  4. Enablers – Others:
    1. Democrats (centrists or left-wing)? Mainstream media? Social media? Passive voters? Angry voters – why?
    2. Events: 9/11, Great Recession, Electoral College, Russian bots?
  5. Future I: How bad will it get + how easily reversed?
    1. Trump era – Before 11/18, if Dems win in November, next 3 (!) years.
    2. After Trump: Will lawlessness and authoritarianism be a hallmark of the Party going forward? Will Dems follow?
  6. Future II: If economic/cultural anxiety persist or worsen (AI/robots, gig economy, rising inequality, rural decline) how can rule of law be…
    1. Sustained (or restored).
    2. Consistent with both liberty and social justice?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Trump and the rule of law –

Less alarmed POVs –

  • So far Trump’s efforts to undermine rule of law have been thwarted. We will survive this presidency, says Joe Scarborough.

NEXT WEEK: Do/should the USA support democracy worldwide?

Monday’s Mtg (4/16/18): Does a good life need to have a purpose?

Next Monday’s topic will be a welcome breather before we tackle some much darker stuff the next week and in early May. The latter will explore the most urgent and important issue in American public affairs in a generation, IMO: How serious is the Trump Administration’s assault on our country’s democratic institutions and rule of law, and will the Republican Party’s current acquiescence to and collaboration with authoritarianism survive his presidency? Told you we’d need a breather, and thanks to Gale for suggesting this interesting one.

She asks: Does a good life need to have a “purpose?” What does that even mean, for starters?  What kind of a purpose can a life be directed towards? Service and altruism? Fighting injustice? Finding love and nurturing close family relationships? Money and material acquisition? Social status and approval? Spreading Gospel’s good word and God’s plan?

How many of us have ever had a single purpose or goal that we used to drive our life choices? Where did we get the notion from? Is being highly purpose-driven a function of personality type or upbringing? Does it come from religious faith or personal philosophy? From our educations and/or personal experiences?

How many people do this sort of thing? We all know of famous people that were driven to have their life turn out a certain way and they succeeded, like Bill Gates, LeBron James, and so on. Are they the exceptions? How do most highly goal-directed people react to disappointment? When should they (and you) give up their dreams? There are many other good questions.

Do we have any answers? I think some of us in CivCon underestimate how good our discussions are in some of our more personal topics. So, I’m looking forward to Monday’s meeting. April 23 is our can democracy survive meeting, so let’s enjoy this one! Here’s a few light reading suggestions this week.

(GALE: Would you like to start us off by describing what you had in mind?)

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Is the rule of law under serious assault in the USA?

Monday’s Mtg (4/9/18): Are Atheists Intolerant?

That atheists are among the most despised and least trusted Americans is common knowledge. (Some statistics here) Most atheists and some secular people see this as simple bigotry. More generously, it could be viewed as a failure of imagination, an inability to grasp that secular values not revealed to us by a supreme being can be moral and decent too.

But, is it possible that atheists themselves contribute to the intolerant climate by being intolerant themselves? Do prominent “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others speak for all American atheists in their open contempt for religious faith? If not, what do most regular atheists and/or agnostics really think about religion and the (vast majority of) people in the world that practice it?

Perhaps the answer depends in part on what it means to be “intolerant.” How are atheists intolerance – through which words and actions?  And, what is its origin nd to whom or what is it directed?

Sounds like good wholesome fun. Here are some discussion questions that might stimulate your thinking and some (highly optional this week) readings. Our religion topics usually attract curious new members. So, let’s make sure to stay Civilized on Monday – as we almost always are.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. “Atheists are intolerant” means…
    1. How? Contempt, mockery, acting superior, merely disagreeing with and refusing to bow to religion’s superiority?
    2. Towards what/whom? Of organized religion? The idea of faith itself? Of revealed truth? Miracles? An afterlife? Non-material causes? Fundamentalism and biblical inerrancy? Politicized religion?
  2. Are atheists really this way? Which ones?
  3. Why?  Do atheists have good reasons to be angry at religion? Are atheists persecuted, persecutors, or both?
  4. Discuss this comment: “The accusation of the strident atheist is similar to the “angry black man” trope in that it is designed to get people to shut up and disenfranchise people who are saying things that the accuser does not like.”
  5. Discuss this comment: “If religion is responsible for that which it seems to inspire [evil, violence], one must take the good [it also inspires] with the bad; if it’s just an excuse we lay on top of our actions, then moral indignation at religion’s harms are unfounded.”

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Non-religious and atheist Americans –

Are atheists intolerant?

NEXT WEEK: Does a good life need to have a purpose?

Monday’s Mtg: Will technology make war too easy?

A technological revolution is coming to…everything, obviously, including warfare. We aren’t talking just about smart bombs and armed drones anymore. The future might bring us automated battles fought by robots with artificial intelligence, swarms of micro-drones that can replicate themselves, self-guided bullets, non-lethal weapons (that can be used on political protestors, BTW), particle beam rifles, gene-spliced bioweapons, and other armaments beyond our imagination.

This stuff is so important that in the next two month we will have three topics related to it. First up on Monday is the basics. We will learn about some of the wilder military technologies that are being developed to the extent we can know about such secret stuff; how their availability and employment could change how we get into/avoid wars, fight them, and finish them; and some of the broad ramifications for national defense, international relations, and our safety.

On May 28 we will consider the future of nuclear deterrence in particular, as suggested by James, focusing on whether nuclear war is going to remain as unthinkable as it is today. Finally, on June 18th we bring it all together and also tackle President Trump’ specialty: Brinksmanship and threatening war as a routine tool of negotiating.

Here are the usual discussion questions and optional readings. The reading focus on future gee-wiz weaponry under development and possible implications for war and peace. As you read, think about our basic topic question: Is war about to become too easy to wage? In my opening remarks I will list some of the technologies and some hopefully useful ways to think about some of these dilemmas.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. History: How has the world dealt with military technological revolutions in the past? E.g., nuclear weapons, chemical/biological, and earlier? Lessons learned?
  2. Future war: Which technologies are at issue and how could they make wars easier to start and harder to deter and end? Easier/harder for whom – USA/allies, adversary nations, terrorists and criminals)? What will “war” mean in 20-30 years?
  3. Implications: Tradeoffs (esp. reducing costs of war vs. lowering its threshold). Implications for deterrence and diplomacy? Ethics/morality.
  4. Uncertainty: What is the danger of us thinking future wars will be easier and being proven wrong, or vice versa?
  5. Options: What’s best – Develop capability, arms races, arms control, alliances, prepare the public to live with uncertainty?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

  • Key point: Technological advances never made war unthinkable in the past.

New technologies –

War becoming too easy?

No, war will never be easy –

NEXT WEEK: Do atheists tend to be intolerant?

Monday’s Mtg (3/26/18): Do we need another Eisenhower?

People have been pining for “another Eisenhower” off and on for decades. As with most historical analogies, the desire for another Eisenhower probably says more about the political views of those pining away for him than it does about our current problems and the type of political leadership that could address them.

Wanting an Ike-like president can mean one or more of several different things, I suppose. It can mean a desire to revive an extinct species: Moderate Republicans, along with a leader that can make the GOP accept the Great Society and its extensions the way Eisenhower accepted the New Deal. Or, maybe it reflects a yearning for a return of the bipartisan consensus politics of the 1950s and a politics of decency and civility. Or, maybe some folks just like the idea of a successful military leader who can knock a few heads together in Washington. a.

Obviously, Eisenhower’s presidency and 1950s politics and culture were not as rosy as some folk think they were. The 1950s were before civil rights revolution was completed and before equal rights for women and LGBT folks were even on the table. The Cold War was at its most dangerous heights. Moreover, unless you have a “great man” view of history, it is not very enlightening to compare one president’s managerial and personal style and to another’s.

However, I think it could be useful to examine two things. First, we can explore how the social and political structures of the Eisenhower era shaped political decisions and constrained the choices that could be made.

Yes, President Trump seems to make decisions more based on the last thing he saw on TV and desires for vengeance against enemies (real and imagined) than on the normal factors that shape presidential behavior. Still, no presidency is about one person even if this one thinks it is. Comparing today’s political and social climate to the one that Eisenhower and other political leaders of the era faced might be instructive for today – and tomorrow, assuming someday American politics returns from the ledge it has crawled out on.

Second, we could discuss the whole idea of consensus-based politics. Is bipartisanship and cooperation even possible anymore, or desirable? Our nation’s politics are so polarized, its problems are so daunting, and its international position so rapidly-weakening that perhaps a return to the kind of cautious incrementalism that consensus politics usually requires may not make much sense anymore. In my opening summary on Monday I will explain this POV a bit more and introduce some possible historical parallels that might make the Eisenhower presidency relevant to our current crisis.

We probably should get into foreign policy a fair amount, too. Yesterday, Trump picked uber-hawk John Bolton to be his national security advisor. An Islamophobic fringe figure who has repeatedly called for war with Iran and North Korea will control the flow of foreign policy information to our knowledge-challenged president. I cannot imagine a better time to talk about Eisenhower, a fervent Cold Warrior president that was also known to exercise “strategic restraint” and left office warning about the over-militarization of foreign policy.

This week’s optional readings include backgrounders on Eisenhower’s presidency and some comparisons of Ike to Trump and Obama. WWID: What would Ike do? Let’s figure it out Monday.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

His presidency –

Some specifics –

Comparisons –

 

NEXT WEEK: Will technology make war too easy?