Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What the Rest of the World Thinks

    As you are reading this, I am flying to China for three weeks. China has now passed the United States as the world’s leading economic power.
    That’s true at least for a bare majority of Americans surveyed this spring, 41%, with 40% rating the US as the top economic power. As the Chinese economy has boomed while ours has stagnated, these ratings have continued to shift away from the US. In Western Europe, home of our strongest allies and some of our largest trading partners, the great majority pick China. The Japanese rate us about equal. One of the few places where the majority of people surveyed think the US is still the world’s leading economic power is in China itself.
    Such ratings are not the same as actual economic power. But much of politics and economics depends on favorable perceptions, which are inexorably shifting toward China.
    This is one example of how the Pew Research Center’s international surveys offer much to think about in today’s interconnected world. For example, the current use of drone aircraft to target our enemies is very unpopular across the world. While Americans support this tactic 62% to 28%, majorities everywhere else disapprove, especially in the Middle East. I don’t think we should put our foreign policy up to a global vote, but we need to pay attention if killing a few Al Qaeda leaders alienates millions of people, Muslims and non-Muslims.
    The global survey offers useful evidence about the success of President Obama’s foreign policies. Compared with President George Bush in 2008, many more people across the globe have confidence in Obama “to do the right thing regarding world affairs”: five times as many in Western Europe, three times as many in Japan and Mexico, more in Russia and China.
    The conservative criticism that Obama ignores our allies and favors countries who oppose us is contradicted by perceptions across the world. Obama’s reelection is favored by over 70% of western Europeans, but rejected 3 to 1 in Arab countries and in Pakistan.
    Although the United States remains popular in most parts of the world, very few people believe that we care about what they think. In most countries, fewer than 10% say that the US takes their interests into account “a great deal”, while in nearly every country surveyed a majority, mostly a very large majority, answer “not too much” or “not at all”. Except China, again. This markedly contrasts with our own perceptions: 77% of Americans said we take the interests of other countries into account “a great deal” or “a fair amount”.
    The results of these surveys should influence how we vote in November. While solving our domestic economic problems is the number one issue for voters, foreign policy is also important to our future. For example, had we not started wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, our national budget would look very different. The research project “Costs of War” at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies estimates that the total cost of these wars will reach at least $3.7 trillion. That is a sizable chunk of our current $15 trillion national debt.
    Those political leaders who talk openly about attacking Iran, mostly Republicans, would be committing more trillions to another unnecessary war.
    Many politicians today, especially conservatives, appear to disdain the opinions of people outside of the US. Their attacks on the United Nations, disparaging comments about our allies in Europe, and generally go-it-alone attitudes toward international problems could hurt American economic prospects. Republican attacks on President Obama often call his policies “European” as a way of disparaging his American patriotism.
    Mitt Romney constantly attacks European governments as failed socialists, when in fact rightward leaning parties have been in power in Germany, England, and France. In January, Romney purposely put a wedge among NATO allies by saying, “I don't believe in Europe. I believe in America.” European newspapers have noted that Republicans portray Europe not as a kindred continent, but as the kind of dystopian society the US might become should the wrong person win.
    It appears that China is the biggest target for Republican politicians trying to win votes by criticizing foreigners. In the October Republican debate, Romney said, “And on day one, I have indicated, day one, I will issue an executive order identifying China as a currency manipulator. We'll bring an action against them in front of the WTO for manipulating their currency, and we will go after them.” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher from California compared the Chinese government to Adolf Hitler during Congressional debate last week.
    I would not make a good Chinese citizen, because I value political freedoms and human rights. But thoughtless attacks on the nation which holds much of our debt demonstrates the same kind of failed foreign policy which got us into unnecessary wars.
    I won’t be sending columns back from China, but when I return I will write about what I see there.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, 19 June 2012

Monday, June 11, 2012

Can Democrats Be Patriots?

    If you listen to conservative politicians, you might think that voting for Democrats is an unpatriotic act. Mainstream Republican politicians say that liberals are ruining the country and hint that they don’t really have the best interests of our country at heart. Further out at the right fringes, there is less restraint: liberals are actually socialists trying to destroy America. President Obama is the lightning rod for these accusations of treachery – he is really an African-born Muslim doing his incompetent best to destroy capitalism and deliver us to his terrorist friends.

    Nothing new there. Richard Nixon got into the Senate in 1950 by painting his liberal Democratic opponent, Helen Gahagan Douglas, as a traitor, “pink right down to her underwear”, whose real allegiance was to the Soviet Union.

    It’s nonsense, and here are two examples to prove it – my father and my father-in-law, both lifelong liberal Democrats, both patriots.

    My father, Ernst Hochstadt, came to this country when he was 18, narrowly escaping the Nazis in his native Vienna. He lost his accent, learned to love baseball, and became an American. Everyone called him Ernie, unthinkable in formal European society.

    He also became a Democrat. From him and my mother I learned to support the struggle of African Americans for equal rights, symbolized for us by the Brooklyn Dodgers’ star Jackie Robinson. I learned from them that women were as good as men, that labor unions protected the rights and livelihoods of workers, that government should help those in need.

    These lessons didn’t come in political lectures. My father was quiet about his beliefs, like he was quiet about having volunteered for the US Army so he could go back to Europe as an officer to fight the Nazis.

    My father’s allegiance to his adopted homeland and the freedom it offers was based on his own experiences of tyranny and persecution.

    Unlike my immigrant father, my father-in-law, Roger Tobin, personifies the red-blooded American. A lifelong athlete, he delighted in beating all comers at tennis, badminton, basketball, and any other sporting endeavor. His infectious good humor made him a great salesman, who rose through the ranks of his company to become President at the end of his career. He snuck into the Marine Corps at 17 after Pearl Harbor and ended up in Japan.

    Roger was a proud Democrat, who wore his liberalism on both sleeves. His financial success put him into the company of lots of rich Republicans, with whom he loved to argue. He never let his friends forget Richard Nixon’s disgrace.

    Roger came from a Democratic family. His mother became a social worker during the Depression to help make ends meet and to help those who were even needier. His liberalism came out of the experience of seeing how government could make people’s lives better in hard times.

    For Roger and Ernie, liberalism and patriotism were the same thing. They loved the US because the liberal ideals of equality and fairness are at the heart of the American story. They voted for Democrats as an expression of patriotism.

    John F. Kennedy expressed their kind of liberal love of country during his campaign for President in 1960, describing his own view of a liberal, when his Nixon tried to tarnish him with that label: “someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a Liberal, then I’m proud to say I’m a Liberal.”

    Although they disagreed with Republicans, I can’t remember ever hearing Roger or Ernie imply that their fellow citizens with more conservative beliefs were unpatriotic. To them, that would have been un-American.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 12, 2012

Monday, June 4, 2012

What Should Government Do?

    Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives are fiercely debating widely differing conceptions of what tasks our government should perform. Although the shouting often seems to be only about money, it’s really about how public money should be spent and on whose behalf.

    I’ll offer one task that I believe every good government, at any level, should perform – to help people put into crisis by circumstances outside of their control.

    I’m thinking of families whose houses have been destroyed by tornado or wild fire or flood; victims of crime, by violence or fraud; those injured in industrial accidents or train wrecks, who might be covered by somebody’s insurance or might not.

    We expect our government to provide a safety net for innocent victims of all such disasters, who have lost too much to help themselves. The quality of that net can serve as a measure of a government’s competence and values. The inability of FEMA to cope with the elementary needs of the people dislocated by Hurricane Katrina was judged as a more general failure of George Bush’s administration. Good government should have done better. The net should not have gaping holes.

    If a good government must come to the aid of its most distressed citizens, then it certainly must also avoid creating widespread crises. Governments can’t control tornados, but they can make our highways safer and build better levees to reduce floods. If inadequate funds are directed toward maintaining our infrastructure, disasters like the Minneapolis bridge collapse are more likely.

    The greatest source of social disasters is war. War destroys lives and livelihoods, houses and hometowns, possessions and infrastructure, on a scale far greater than any natural disaster.

    Even though the wars we are fighting right now are far from our shores, even though we have great advantages in technology and personnel, hundreds of thousands of American families are suffering from war. More than 6,400 troops have died in our wars since 2001. The unprecedented ability of modern medicine to preserve the lives of the wounded has led to an unprecedented number of veterans and families who need continuing help. More than 95 percent of troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan have survived. The result is that nearly a million veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have applied for compensation for injuries they say are service-related. Underfunding and neglect of the Veterans Administration and its medical facilities means that the claims of more than 560,000 veterans from all wars are backlogged more than 4 months.

    War is a decision of government. If our government enters war, it must take responsibility for the social and economic consequences, at a time when the federal budget is badly out of whack. Leaders must recognize and plan for the medical and emotional damage to our society.

    We have killed many more people than we have lost. We have caused vast destruction in other countries, but avoided it here. We have punished many of those responsible for 9/11 and other terrorist plots. Yet the accomplishments of America’s two wars of the 21st century have not been worth the millions of American victims these wars have created.

    These days, having left Iraq and planning to leave Afghanistan, we again hear talk of an new war, a war against Iran. Like the failed wars we have been fighting, this future war is presented to us as a moral imperative, the inevitable confrontation with evil, a war we must fight.

    Unless Iran actually puts our nation in mortal danger, declaring war on Iran would violate the trust that Americans put in our government to protect the lives of our citizens, to avoid creating predictable disasters. It’s what our government shouldn’t do.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 5, 2012