Category Archives: Mtg Announcements

Monday’s Mtg: Fair Trade – What is it and do we need it?

Oops.  I forgot that “Fair Trade” is the name of a consumer movement that asks people to make ethical choices when buying imported goods. Consumers are encouraged to buy only products that carry the fair trade label indicating they are produced sustainably by companies that pay a living wage, keep safe working conditions, etc.  The Fair Trade movement is interesting of course. It’s one small way individuals can make a difference in the world of foreign policies few of us have any input in fashioning, and the movement helps to build awareness of global poverty and how people in rich countries can contribute to it (even though in the broadest sense globalization has reduced poverty in developing nations).

I had in mind something more ambitious. How “fair” is free trade to, well, to Americans? The consensus in favor of free trade has collapsed. President Trump owes his election to pandering to resentments of all sorts, of course. But anger over “unfair” trade agreements allegedly foisted on pitifully-led Americans by wily foreigners was a major theme of his rage-filled campaign. It resonated because Republican voters are actually more hostile to free trade than Democratic voters – probably because blue cities benefit more from globalization than redder areas. Yet, many Democrats, too, are abandoning free trade, as Bernie Sanders’s near-success and Hillary Clinton’s reversal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact attest.

Why do so many Americans believe trade and globalization are unfair? Some dumb reasons, sure. But, I think the links below finger a very legitimate reasons: Modern trade agreements go far beyond simply knocking down barriers to increased imports and exports. They have sought to rewrite some of the basic rules of business and commerce to harmonize them across countries, areas of policy that used to be the sole province of national governments. Progressives sometimes exaggerate the extent of this, IMO. But, it’s real, and a big change in how the now highly-integrated global economy is managed. More is at stake than freer trade.

This notion and other reasons why free trade allegedly has turned against us are highly-disputed. It’s complicated and not just a left-right thing. Trump’s reality-free trade rhetoric doesn’t help the debate, nor did Bernie’s big foreign policy vision speech yesterday that ignored trade. Still, I think we can carve off a few digestible chunks of the controversy over the fairness of free trade and turn the chewing into an informative meeting. Maybe we could focus on these questions a bit.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Consumer movement: What is buying Fair Trade + where can I get more info?
  2. Trade v. convergence: How much have global trade rules gone beyond freeing trade towards harmonizing economic regulation in general?
  3. Quo bene? Why was this done? Whose interests were served? Elites/big biz? Doesn’t trade help the public interest via faster growth, spurs innovation, etc.?
  4. Quo screwed? Who has been harmed? What evidence it was due to (1) trade and (2) trade agreements?
  5. Alternatives: IF trade has turned against interests of U.S. public and/or democratic accountability, now what? Renegotiate them, one by one (Trump)? Do nothing/double down (GOP)? Attach labor and enviro standards (some libs)? Strengthen edu/training + social insurance/safety net (other libs)?

 

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  Fewer this week, but longer ones.

NEXT WEEK: Social security reform.

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Monday’s Mtg: Does Big Money really control U.S. politics?

That big money has too much control over our political system is one of the few political statements that almost all (85%-90%) Americans agree with. Most progressives I know think Big Money is pretty much the root of all evil in politics, or at least the largest single impediment to solving our national problems. Few conservatives I know go quite this far, but polls show a majority of conservatives and Republicans agree with the general proposition that regular people are priced out of the system.

We last discussed campaign finance reform in 2015, although we do related issues periodically, like corporations’ free speech rights in 2014. For this one, I thought we could sharpen our understanding of the (alleged) problem a bit. How did big money get to be the lifeblood of politics at almost all levels of government? What’s the evidence that Big Money really is our political system’s worst problem (as opposed to other factors, see below)? And, what might be done about big money’s dominance given the GOP’s almost total dominance of government these days and its almost complete opposition to any reforms progressives would support?

I will do some kind of informative, non-polemical opening to set the stage for discussion then open things up. Here are some readings and some more-detailed-than-usual discussion questions.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Big Money’s rise: Trends and amounts, who spends and on what and why do they do it?
  2. Regulations’ failures: Deregulation of campaign finance and lobbying rules. Citizens United et al. Rising economic inequality reinforcing political inequality. Over-regulation of economy led big biz to fight back? Recent state/local govts trying to reign money in.
  3. Harms: In elections vs in between elections. At which levels of govt? Visible vs. invisible harms. Crowding out the public interest vs. actively opposing it?
  4. Benefits: Are there any benefits to so much money in politics?
  5. Dogs that don’t bark: What things don’t happen due to big money’s influence that would or should happen?
  6. Other culprits: Ideological and partisan polarization, voter apathy/ignorance, changing news media/social media effects, candidate quality, etc. à Is big money really more important than all of these factors?
  7. Solutions: What fixes might be constitutional, possible given total GOP opposition at all levels, and effective?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING – (many, some long – pick and choose)

NEXT WEEK: What is “fair trade?” Do we need it?

Monday’s Mtg: Is it time to rethink U.S.-Saudi relations?

American discomfort with its relationship with Saudi Arabia has been growing for many years. It’s not just a result of 9/11. Human rights, democracy promotion, and gender equality play larger roles in U.S. foreign policy than they used to do. The Arab Spring, which the Saudi regime fiercely opposed, spurred at least a faint hope that the Middle East could one day get long without a brutal theocracy and exporter of radical ideology at its center.

Yet, the same obstacles to downgrading our de facto Saudi alliance that have led every president since FDR to rely on it. Saudi Arabia is the only big oil producer with enough reserves and spare refining capacity to maintain supplies to the West and keep prices from fluctuating wildly. The House of Saud has been a pro-American (in its policies, if not in rhetoric or support for radicals) anchor of stability in a troubled Middle East. This has been especially true since 1979 when the revolutionaries toppled our only big secular Arab ally, the Shah of Iran; and it’s been reinforced recently as Bush/Cheney’s hope to install a stable pro-Western regime in Iraq turned to ashes. Also, despite its long-time support for radicalism, the Saudi government has been relatively tolerant of Israel in recent years, hostile to Iran, and since 9/11 willing to help us fight Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Now comes President Donald Trump.  As they say in the Middle East, oy, vey.

It is very hard to know where Trump stands on most any foreign policy issue or how long he will stand there. But, so far Trump appears to be doubling down on Saudi Arabia. As the articles below explain, Trump’s first foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia. They lavished Trump with praise, awards, and gifts, and as a result he appears to have green lit the Kingdom’s blockade of one neighbor (Qatar) and continued savage war against another (Yemen). Trump also reportedly really, really wants to abrogate the nuclear treaty with Iran, which the Saudi government absolutely would love since it is locked in a virtual Cold War with Tehran and desires our support.

I think all of this leaves us with a few basic questions and partial answers, such as…

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What major interests do we have in common and not in common with the Saudi government?
  2. Has that changed recently? What is Saudi govt trying to accomplish domestically and abroad? Is it achievable? Risky? Good for us?
  3. What is Trump doing? It is a coherent policy shift or more of a whim?
  4. Will these changes hold; i.e., can a president fundamentally change the U.S.-Saudi relationship, or do its roots run deeper?
  5. How, specifically, could we downgrade the U.S.-Saudi relationship? Range of possible consequences, including Riyadh’s and others’ responses.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Pre-Trump –

Trump –

After Trump –

  • U.S.-Saudi relationship will survive Trump because for better or worse we’re stuck with each other.

NEXT WEEK: Does Big Money really control U.S. politics?

Monday’s Mtg: Are corporate monopolies damaging our economy?

What’s gone wrong with the U.S. economy? Outside of the horror of our national politics, this may be the central public issue of our time. This is true even though we have had almost eight straight years of economic growth, 4% unemployment, a 20,000 Dow, and record corporate profits.

Something just seems…broken. Wage growth is anemic and average real wages haven’t risen for 40 years. Economic inequality is at 1920s levels. Droves of Americans have dropped out of the labor force. Rural areas are especially stagnant. The gig economy and intelligent robot workers are coming. Americans are angry and anxiety-ridden.

We have talked about these structural problems of modern capitalism for many years in Civilized Conversation. Left and right tend to finger different culprits. But, as I have said before, experts focus their inquiries on these four broad causes:

  1. Technology – Technological advances have raised demand for highly-educated knowledge-based workers but not for anybody else.
  2. Globalization – Free trade and outsourcing expose more Americans to low-wage foreign industries.
  3. Immigration – Migrants depress wages, especially in labor-intensive sectors; and
  4. Government – Tax policy, regulation and/or deregulation, and lack of public investment have weakened the economy and benefitted only a sliver of Americans.

Monday’s meeting concerns a 5th possible perpetrator, one that is getting a lot of attention lately, even in the popular press: Corporate concentration and monopoly. There might even be some room for agreement among liberals and conservatives on the issue (although all national policy will remain frozen for the foreseeable Trumpian future).

But, the harm caused by monopoly power and how to combat it are tough issues. No one denies what we all see around us: Industry after industry has grown to be dominated by a handful of (3-5 or even fewer) gigantic companies. It’s true for health insurance, telecommunications, energy, mining, banking, social media platforms, even retail. Only a few industries are monopolies, dominated by a single company selling to the public. But, many are oligopolies (several firms dominate sales) or monopsonies (they dominate as buyers, of labor and supplies).

Yet, it is not clear exactly how much harm monopolistic concentration is doing to our economy. Experts even disagree on who is being harmed and how entrenched today’s monopolists are. I will go into more detail on Monday, but basically monopolies might be:

  • Extracting what economists call “rents” from the rest of us; i.e., profits in excess of what could be earned in a competitive market;
  • Raising consumer prices and limiting consumer choice;
  • Extracting wealth from their supply chains or employees via lower wages;
  • Depressing innovation and R&D;
  • Contributing to growing economic inequality; and
  • Buying off political power that could be used to stop them.

Here are some readings that purport to explain what’s going on. I’ve tried to note which ones are the easiest and hardest reads. Note the ones that argue growing monopoly power is NOT a big problem.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Re-thinking the U.S.-Saudi alliance.

Monday’s Mtg: What do today’s movies and TV shows say about us and our future?

Ali’s topic idea is interesting I think, for several reasons. Obviously, a society’s fiction reflects its zeitgeist. Popular culture like TV and movies can mirror back our moral values, our gender and racial expectations, our political beliefs, and so forth. TV/movies can influence culture and public opinion. A few months ago we talked about science fiction in this context. I thought I found some cool background readings for that meeting, like this one and this one. In 2014 we did comedy’s affect ton U.S. politics, in which we focused on the Stewart/Colbert effect. Extending our sci-fi conversation to TV/movies in general sounds like fun.

There are way too many angles to the topic for us to discuss them all (much less for me to find readings on). So, depending on what you all want to do, we might want to focus on some aspects TV/movies’ influence to the exclusion of others; e.g., politics, religiosity, gender roles, racial attitudes, or effects on children. We could focus on specific genres, like reality TV or war movies; or on specific influential shows. After I do the reading I’m sure that I, like you, will think of other ways we could slice the salami.

One other thing I want us to get into.  The entertainment industry is on the leading edge of the digital technology revolution that will sooner or later transform every other industry and corner of our economy. New technology affects how media is enjoyed/consumed (on mobile devices, on demand whatever/whenever we want), and manufactured (on a global scale for a global audience). The industry is decentralizing and centralizing simultaneously as power shifts from producers to consumers, but also to a tiny handful of distributors. Can we see the future of our entire economy in what’s happening to Hollywood?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Are corporate monopolies hurting America?

Monday’s Mtg: A New American Nationalism?

We picked a bad week to give up sniffing glue. I mean we chose a hard week to talk about American nationalism, given the fuhrer furor over President Trump’s responses to Charlottesville. Trump’s “new American nationalism” has finally been totally laid bare. It’s ethno-nationalism, pure and simple. It’s a largely symbolic one, too. As was bluntly pointed out today, he has no concrete plans on trade or infrastructure, nothing new on managing the economy, and nothing serious on national security. Bannon/Trump’s Economic Nationalism only works in the areas of (hmmm) immigration and civil rights. We’re deporting more illegal immigrants and changing sides at the Justice Department. It was a con.

Still, the empty content of Trump’s patriotism does not preclude the rise of a genuinely new American nationalism of another kind. Americans love their country and want it to succeed again, for them and their children. As we will discuss, other factors could be public weariness with global leadership, long-building fear of Islamist terrorism, economic inequality and stagnation that needs a culprit, or (mainly) White resentment of globalism and its attendant economic integration and cosmopolitanism.

I am game to try to discuss it all civilly if you are. I’ve been ill this week so I won’t have time to prepare anything. Here are a few optional background readings and the discussion questions I imagine us focusing on.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. American nationalism: How many kinds/flavors of U.S. nationalism it are there? What makes them wax and wane?
  2. Trump’s White nationalism:
    • What is it? How popular is it?
    • How differ from older forms of White supremacy, or same old thing?
    • Why did GOP elites – and voters – ride this tiger for so long? What will they do now?
    • Will Trump profoundly change U.S. nationalism, or be a blip?
  3. Another New Nationalism:
    • Is a more benign “New American Nationalism” emerging, too? What are its main elements (e.g., exhaustion w/global leadership, economic insecurity, anger at Lefty anti-nationalism)?
    • Why has this happened? Is it just a conservative thing?
    • Impacts good bad?
  4. Liberal nationalism:
    • What is the case for a progressive nationalism?
    • Why do many progressives hate all nationalisms? Good/bad thing? When is patriotism just chauvinism?
  5. Global resurgence: Why is nationalism surging in many countries? Effects/will it last?

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: What do today’s movies and TV say about us?

Monday’s Mtg: Can California Stop Trump?

Has the worm really turned on federalism? Can blue states successfully resist the ultra-conservative agenda emanating for Republican-controlled Washington?   A lot depends on California. In the words of one observer (see link below):

“California is the Trump administration’s most formidable adversary, not only on matters of immigration, but on damn near everything. No other entity—not the Democratic Party, not the tech industry, surely not the civil liberties lobby—has the will, the resources, and the power California brings to the fight. Others have the will, certainly, but not California’s clout.”

Yes, the GOP and Trump have been slow and incompetent at enacting their program. But it is still coming, and some of it will hit California hard (and is aimed specifically at us), including on climate and energy policy, immigration, health care, and even housing and transportation. A lot has already happened. Governor Jerry Brown, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, and others have been talking tough – and passing laws and filing lawsuits – on almost every conceivable front. This week’s links give some of the details.

How successful CA’s “resistance” to Trump/GOP will be in the long run will depend on all of the usual factors in federalism disputes: Law, legal strategies, and judges; public opinion; congressional priorities; media coverage and sympathies, and so forth. It also will depend on wild card factors of a kind that has become an exhausting staple of the Trump era: Things like the President’s volatile personality, congressional GOP foibles and schisms, and God knows what else.

On Monday, I will go over a few of the main policy battleground areas and talk a little bit about the shape of the legal and political terrain ahead. I’m not up to date on all the details in the news, but maybe some of you who focus more on state politics are.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What are the main Trump/GOP policies that will be aimed at CA and its interests? Which ones require new law v. merely regulatory changes?
  2. Which ones are top priorities for the GOP and/or Trump? What’s coming next?
  3. Pols: What has California done so far to oppose specific GOP/Trump actions? Other states? How is GOP trying to crush it?
  4. Points: Who’s winning so far? Who decides and (how) will the fight end?
  5. People: Do Californians support all of these actions? The broader U.S. public? Does public opinion really matter?
  6. Principles: Is federalism just a tool for hypocrites? What actual and enduring principles are at stake here and is anybody being consistent?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Is there a “New American Nationalism?”

Monday’s Mtg: Does history have a direction or purpose?

I think this will be a really fun topic. We love our history in CivCon. Yet, this one asks a bit more of us than usual. Determining what “history” is and how and why it moves the way it does can get very complicated very fast. An entire subfield of philosophy is devoted doing so. It’s called the Philosophy of History, and some of the giants have wrestled with its questions, including Voltaire, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Vico, and Foucault.

But, those links are more FYI. For our purposes, I think just asking some of the basic, big questions about history would be a good way to start our discussion. It also might guarantee we go a bit deeper than History Channel-level generalizations about what history’s direction or purposes might be.

Now, many religious people, obviously, claim history has a divine purpose and/or end-point. YMMV. But, secular people also like to believe that history is governed by comprehensible rules and mechanisms. Some of the philosophers and historians have even seen predictable cycles and scientific laws in history. We can talk about those, too.

If I can find the time this weekend I will work up a short opening presentation on some of this stuff. Try to peruse some of the recommended readings or at least briefly ponder questions like these, please.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What: What is “history?” Just facts and events? Which events and whose facts? Does history contain a central narrative, or do we make one up? Is history more myth and rationalization than science?
  2. Why: How can historical cause and effect be determined and combined into mechanisms? How complicated is contingency? Can we detect an overall narrative or meaning to history that isn’t just self-reflection?
  3. Who: Who/what drives history? Role of big, impersonal forces (e.g., economics, science/technology, war, cultural interaction) versus individual agency and chance?
  4. Direction:/purpose
    1. Is there a natural direction to history? Are we “progressing?”
    2. Does history repeat or move in cycles?
    3. Does biology or some other natural force provide us a purpose?
  5. Lessons: Types of lessons from history and their use/misuse.
  6. Examples: What is your favorite and least favorite Law of History / theory of history’s purpose/direction?

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Can California resist Trump’s agenda?

Monday’s Mtg: Is the Future African?

Africa matters. Yes, media coverage of the continent tends to focus on the bad news like civil wars, coups, corruption, poverty, and disease. And, much of Africa suffered a kind of lost decade in the 1990s, as many of its most brutal post-colonial regimes finally fell from power and civil strife engulfed them. Think Rwanda, the Congo, Liberia, Sudan, and Sierra Leone. Chaos and war and famine reigned in the 1980s and earlier in some countries.

But Ali asks, is Africa poised to turn it all around and be the next big global success story?  Could it one day command as much of the world’s attention and respect (and trade and investment) as Asia does now?

It’s a little hard to generalize about such a vast and diverse continent. As this striking map shows, the United States and China and India and Western Europe could all fit inside of Africa, with room to spare. The Congo alone is about as large as the USA west of the Mississippi.  Africa contains one-fifth of the world’s population (1.2 billion) and will hold one-fourth of it by 2050. In terms of diversity, how about 54 countries, some thinly-peopled desert nations, others tropical, others mountainous. Africa possesses vast natural resources, a rapidly-growing young labor force, and a lot of recent industrial and technological success to brag about. The links below give more details.

the continent has a long list of problems, as well. Civil wars, communal violence, and terrorism still plague some African nations. There is enormous rural and urban poverty, corrupt governance and weak civil societies. In many countries, institutions essential to economic/social development are underdeveloped, like infrastructure, K-12 education, agriculture, and public health.

Yet…so was East Asia’s! Maybe the real underlying issue here is one we have discussed before: What’s the secret sauce of economic, social, and political development? What can African nations do (individually, since “Africa” doesn’t do anything, and together, since regional cooperation is underdeveloped too.) to help themselves turn the corner? How long will it be before centuries of foreign exploitation and decades of local misrule are a memory? Finally, what can we (the United States, the West, whoever else) do to help?

Africa is a yawning gap in my international knowledge. I will cook up a brief intro to our topic and then we can discuss. I hope we can take a stab at answering Ali’s question and coming up with factors might determine if Africa’s rosy future ever comes true.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. How has Africa fared in the 21st century? In general, big anchor countries, smaller nations?
  2. Reasons to be optimistic? People, leaders, institutions, economies, etc.
  3. Pessimistic same. Worst problems and emerging problems.
  4. What needs to be done: By Africans? By outsiders?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

About Africa –

Africa’s immense prospects – and problems.

Some specific problems –

Specific Countries –

  • [Maybe I’ll add some this weekend.]

NEXT WEEK: Does history have a direction or goal?

Monday’s Mtg: What is the purpose of our criminal justice system?

Criminal justice reform stays perpetually under the Media radar, but not CivCon’s. We have debated juvenile justice, the death penalty, mass incarceration, marijuana legalization, and other topics. This stuff can get complicated and it is not my area, so I usually like to tackle it one issue area at a time.

But, Linda had an interesting idea: Go back to first principles. What should our criminal justice system be trying to do? Is the goal punishment, vengeance, public safety, rehabilitation, or something else? Who sets those goals and how do we know which purposes are the priority?

The Trump Administration sure acts like it knows. And you’ll applaud if your idea of reform is to reverse Obama-era reforms that made the system a little less punitive. As promised, law and order is back. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has expanded use of mandatory minimum sentences and local police departments’ asset forfeiture powers. He probably will refuse to enforce the many consent decrees that the Obama DOJ negotiated city-by-city to clean up systematic police mismanagement and abuses. There’s more, and more coming. See the links.

Liberal reforms still have momentum, however, because a fragile but bipartisan consensus has emerged at the state/local levels that the current mass incarceration-producing system needs a big rethink.  It is unsustainable financially, politically, and morally.  It probably has passed the point of net marginal benefit (to society, individuals) and it is no longer necessary as crime rates have dropped.

So, despite events in Washington, D.C., Linda’s question fits the times. Specifically, Linda asks whether the true purpose of America’s criminal justice system is:

  1. Punishment,
  2. Retribution, or
  3. Rehabilitation.

To those goals I might add:

4. Incapacitation (warehousing so they can’t commit more crimes),
5. Deterrence,
6. Restoration (reconciling with their victims and communities).

We also can debate more controversial notions about The System’s real intentions, such as whether it is a deliberate system of racial control and/or increasingly just a big stream of cash to be privatized for a profit motive. I have other theories that I will raise. This is a big topic.  But, how can we judge the need for criminal justice reform without knowing what the current system is trying to do?

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. In whose eyes? Who sets the purposes of justice? Legislatures/courts? Bureaucrats? The police? Experts? The public (which public)?
  2. Motives/Incentives: What motivates each of the above actors? Different interests/preferences or different biases?
  3. The System – Purposes: Which ones matter overall the most and how do you know this?
  • Punishment
  • Vengeance
  • Rehabilitation.
  • Incapacitation.
  • Deterrence.
  • The precautionary principle or the inertia of decision accretion. Important concepts!
  • Others: Racism, fear, profit, etc.
  • JUSTICE? What does that mean?

    4.  The System – Evolution: How have purposes evolved since 1980? Why?
5. Future: Which way will reform go? How can your preferred direction be realized?

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING – 

Purposes

Trump’s Reforms –

Stuff you may not know –

NEXT WEEK: Is Africa’s future a bright one?