Feb 27

When I was young, I celebrated the entire catalogue of Tom Clancy. This included his non-fiction books celebrating various types of units across the US military. I started with the Marines, continued to Armored Cav, and then blasted through Airborne, Special Forces and Aircraft Carrier. Since the US Army sections were the best, I joined the Army ROTC program in college. I wish I were joking.

In the Armored Cav book, Clancy interviewed a young Captain in the Armor branch who had squared off against Saddam Hussein’s tank forces and won accolades for the accomplishment. This Captain? H.R. McMaster, currently a Lieutenant General and now Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser.

I’ve thought highly of McMaster since I read about him in middle school, so I have some quick thoughts on his recent appointment.

Thought 1: He’s really good at personal PR.

Not only did I know of McMaster from that interview in a Tom Clancy book, but his book, Dereliction of Duty, made the Chief of Staff reading list when I was in college, so I tried but failed to finish reading it while in ROTC. (I have four or five other books sitting on a bookshelf in this same category.) McMaster then went on to do a military-world famous 60 Minutes interview about his experience in Tal Afar waging counter-insurgency well.

So the guy’s good at public relations and getting media. Why does this matter? Because I hope he can stand up to the Trump machine’s PR onslaught. Not a ton of hope, but some hope.

Thought 2: McMaster did COIN right.

Essentially, McMaster was the opposite of the “Rakkasan approach” to COIN, which is to kill them all and let God sort it out. (We wrote about this in a very disturbing, very early On Violence post.) This is the sort of thinking that believes if we just kill enough bad guys, well, then we win the counterinsurgency.

This never works and McMaster’s approach--which later went on to inform Petraeus’ COIN handbook--emphasized respecting the locals, building government capabilities, and influencing the population. I can’t wait to see how McMaster’s approach to COIN meshes with Trump’s approach to terrorism, which seems like the exact opposite.

Thought 3: And we agree on a bunch of other things.

McMaster thinks that war is fundamentally political. So do we.

McMaster believes that we need to fight our wars ethically. So do we.   

McMaster believes that we need to focus on the human element of war more than the technological. So do we.

McMaster has warned of the dangers of the military-industrial complex. So have we.

Thought 4: Too Much of “Defense” in the Three Ds.

Why did Trump have to pick another general for his administration, specifically for a national security post?

This is his third candidate for National Security Adviser if you count Admiral Harward, who declined the position and they’ve all been former/current military flag officers. He put a general in charge of Homeland Security and another general in charge of the Pentagon. It’s a miracle he didn’t pick a general as Secretary of State, instead choosing a hundred-millionaire business man, which is his other favorite type of person after billionaires.

Early in the Obama administration, it was trendy to talk about the three Ds of global affairs, Defense, Diplomacy and Development. Ideally, they work in concert and in balance. With Trump, he has no plans to use two of the Ds, it seems.

Thought 5: McMaster may really help stand up to bad decisions.

That was the point of McMaster’s book after all. Wars can be won or lost by the decisions in Washington D.C. first and foremost.

So will McMaster bring that same critical decision-making ability to the war on terror as he chastised the Joint Chiefs, McNamara and Johnson for Vietnam? I think so and we’ve already seen the signs. Take his approach to terrorism, which marries his willingness to disagree with his approach to COIN:

“President Trump’s newly appointed national security adviser has told his staff that Muslims who commit terrorist acts are perverting their religion, rejecting a key ideological view of other senior Trump advisers and signaling a potentially more moderate approach to the Islamic world.

"The adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, told the staff of the National Security Council on Thursday, in his first “all hands” staff meeting, that the label “radical Islamic terrorism” was not helpful because terrorists are “un-Islamic,” according to people who were in the meeting."

Thought 6: But still Bannon.

Yet one thought worries me. With Steve Bannon in the White House, the right wing’s war with Islam will continue, regardless of who holds the National Security Advisor position. Who will have Trump’s ear, McMasters or Bannon? Bannon runs the so-called “Strategic Initiatives Group” with Jared Kushner, and they have focused on stopping Islamic terror. As long as Donald Trump uses this group (and Fox News) instead of daily intelligence briefings to get information, McMaster's influence may be limited.

Feb 23

After Donald Trump’s election, one of the most inspiring podcasts for us was the super frank discussion between Brooke Gladstone, Bob Garfield and Katia Rodgers from On The Media (a must listen podcast if ever there is one) debating how the show will evolve after the election.

They struggled with something we struggled with last year: despite all our writing about the Republican primaries, despite his support of war, torture and murder, despite being the most un-endorsed candidate in history, Donald Trump became President (after losing the popular vote). And over the last month, we’ve seen that the Donald Trump from the campaign trail is the same one who took office. So where do we go from here when all of our past efforts have failed?

Well, you don’t give up. The OTM folks didn’t and have been producing great content.

And we don’t plan to stop writing either, as you’ve probably noticed. If anything, Donald Trump has been the best muse we could have asked for. (After eight calm and steady years of Obama, it got hard to get outraged. We no longer have that problem.)

If you thought that our “Most Thought-Provoking Event of 2016” held all our thoughts on this new Trump administration, boy, were you wrong. That series really only discussed Donald Trump in the context of what his election could mean for the liberal world order and our “Invisible Golden Age”. But Trump’s election has ramifications for defense spending, foreign policy, national security, criminal justice and diplomacy. And in the month since he took office, we’ve seen a radical shift from the Trump administration in all those areas. So how will On V confront the second President to take office since it launched? More importantly, how will we change?

Quick Reactions to the News

If you’ve been following the blog since the inauguration, you’ve seen that we started doing “Quick Reaction” posts to the headlines. For a long time, we didn’t like “chasing the news” and yet, under the current climate, we’re re-thinking that policy. Frankly, Donald Trump churns out more news in a week than Obama did in a month, and we need to track and respond to all that.

In the future, we’ll be responding to news as it breaks, with links to our past relevant material. We’ll do this both for huge stories and smaller ones.

Keep up the Hot Takes

At the same time, you don’t read On Violence for opinion pieces you could read anywhere else. You want something different. Off the mainstream. We plan to keep that up, providing our readers with both unconventional ideas (the Army needs better managers, not “leaders”) or non-traditional solutions (remember the International Criminal Court for Terrorists, Pirates and Trans-National Criminals? Or the new Global Marshall Plan?)

We’ll keep that going. We want takes as hot as, well, the potential the radioactive fallout from Donald Trump’s next nuclear war, and ideas crazy enough that they just might work.

We’ll Stay in Our Lane

In an Army live fire drill, you stay in your lane or you get shot by someone else. Though we are incredibly interested in domestic politics (as was obvious in last week’s post), we know that our biggest contribution to the national debate comes in the areas related to “violence”, broadly defined, mostly focusing on foreign policy and the military. (And some domestic policy related to police shootings, police militarization, and civil liberties, which we feel fall under our purview.)

Still, we know that we can’t cover every issue. Take, for example, the wars in Libya and Syria. We haven’t written a ton on those subjects--though we had some great stuff on the news coverage over Syria--compared to Iran, where we wrote a both a paper we’re quite proud of and over thirty blog posts. In short, we know a lot about Iran and we’re quite worried about America going to war there.

So we’ll try to re-hit some of the areas we’ve done before: Iran, The World is Getting Safer, Trimming the Size of the Military, Intelligence is Evidence, Counter-Insurgency (if we start another war) and International Relations Liberalism.

That’s to start. As the Trump administration gets rolling, we’ll keep adding to the arsenal, as long as it relates to violence. Including a new, broader focus...

Addressing Conservative Ideology and Hypocrisy

One of the reason we started this blog was because we wanted to write philosophically about violence, in addition to using Michael C’s personal experience to recommend improvements for our military and foreign policy. But both of us have loved philosophy since we were kids.

Frankly, conservative philosophy has been degraded in this country. First, across the spectrum, they’ve embraced an ugly, immoral, anti-Christian foreign policy that focuses on hatred of others and violence. More importantly, as it relates to domestic policy, Republicans have embraced party over country, power over principles. Republicans in Congress held their noses in the hopes that Trump will help them pass their ideological agenda, while many rank and file Republicans voted for him in the hopes of overturning Roe v. Wade.

One thing connects their ugly foreign policy and desire for power: hypocrisy.

In the years ahead, we’re going to address this problem, even though it touches on non-explicitly-violent domestic policy. The country needs strong, motivated, spirited debate. It also needs an ethical one. Focused around facts. That puts values and ethics above personal gain. We hope to provide that.

Going Forward

Is just blogging enough? Will our words make a difference? We don’t know. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking on this; we don’t think so. Words without action only mean so much and words on their own can’t stop Donald Trump. So we have some other plans to expand the scope of the blog.

But we aren’t ready to say anything quite yet, so stay tuned.

Feb 17

Sooner or later, I was going to write a post on my complicated relationship with General Mike Flynn. When I went to the Military Intelligence Captains’ Career Course, Flynn had been on a roll, publishing papers critical of Military Intelligence and the IC in general during the War on Terror. Here’s a vaguely positive quote from a very old post:

“The Army needs an AAR at the highest level. General Flynn, the head intelligence officer in Afghanistan, recently published an article at CNAS titled “Fixing Intel.” It reads like an AAR summary. But why did he have to publish a paper in CNAS?”

In person I was even more pro-Flynn. Then he became a crazy person who took payments from Russia and gave speeches in Russia and went on Russia Today...you get the idea. Then he did his speech at Trump’s Republican National Convention, promising to lock up his political opponent, an idea he must have gotten from all his time in Russia. I was even more dismayed to find that he believes ISIS poses an existential threat to America. (Which is absurd.) And that we are in a generational war with Islam. (We aren’t.)

Fortunately, he got fired before we had to dive into his generally war-hawk views and his potential disastrous run as national security adviser. But we have some more thoughts:

1. The NSA position should be approved by the Senate

Some people have pointed out that the scandal isn’t over Flynn’s firing but his hiring. And we agree. But like always, we want to offer solutions.

Here’s one: the National Security Advisor should be a cabinet level position. This should be a policy priority of Democrats. (We would throw in any permanent members of the National Security Council Principals Committee as well.)

2. Flynn had a super low VORP.

We agree with the consensus: we’re happy Flynn is not National Security Advisor anymore. But why?

Due to a notable lack of statistics, it is hard to conduct an “advanced metrics” analysis of politicians. (The analytics revolution hasn’t hit politics. Yet.) Wouldn’t it be great to know the politicians who out-perform their metrics at any given time on a regular basis? Like including efficiency metrics or associating fund-raising with dollar per political vote?

Though we don’t have the data to do that actual analysis, I still think we, as political pundits, can do this “back of the envelope” style. And my preferred self-made statistic is “Value Over Replacement Politician”, a la sports metrics like VORP or WARP.

I developed this “VORP for Everyone” philosophy back in the military and I use it today as a manager. Basically, if you are a manager, your goal should be to manage a team of all-stars. If you do, you’ll be a rock star. If you have a team of replacement-level people, you’ll struggle to achieve results. And if you have below average people, you’ll set the organization back.

In politics, I don’t just mean VORP as in getting things done/effectiveness, I also mean in making good policy decisions. Joe Biden was probably an average VP in that he didn’t screw up much, but he also didn’t really do anything. John Kerry had a higher VORP than Hillary because he really sealed the deal with Iran and the P5+1 and the Paris Climate Change accord. In the Bush Administration, there were definitely some high performers in terms of accomplishing things, but those actions had disastrous consequences. For example, Vice President Cheney’s “replacement politician” probably wouldn’t have invaded Iraq.

So that brings us to General Flynn. Flynn both had bad ideas (see above about civilizational war) and seemed to be ineffective. So, by being both ineffective and misguided, Flynn had a truly low VORP. In other words, if every reasonable candidate for National Security Adviser is ranked in their performance, you would have 0% (the worst potential candidate ever!) and 100% (the greatest Nat Sec Adviser ever!). Flynn is somewhere between 1% and 10%. The odds are overwhelming we will find a better (and safer) National Security Adviser.

(Though it looks like a solid candidate just turned Trump down.)

3. Trump is most upset at the leaks, so we’re glad Obama didn’t set attack leakers...oh wait, he did.

This entire scandal, the revelations about Flynn talking to Russia, came out through leaks. Clearly, leaks help keep the government honest by exposing wrongdoing. Presidents hate this.

Like President Obama, who aggressively prosecuted whistleblowers.

We’ll be writing updates on Wikileaks, Russia hacking, leaking and more in the months to come, but for now we’ll say this: we support responsible leaks in the public interest, shepherded and edited by responsible journalists. But the tools President Obama left for his successor to prosecute leakers should frighten us.

4. The real national security crisis.

A final point on hypocrisy. We’ll be writing about this for months, if not years, to come, but the Republican party's hypocrisy is becoming unbearable. Flynn opened up his convention speech arguing that Hillary Clinton’s email server put our national security at risk:

FLYNN: Yes; I use -- I use #neverHillary; that's what I use. I have called on Hillary Clinton, I have called on Hillary Clinton to drop out of the race because she, she put our nation's security at extremely high risk with her careless use of a private e-mail server.

And yet donald Trump, this weekend, discussed national security on the patio of Mar-a-lago. The hypocrisy of him and Republicans is astounding. Clearly, Republicans only investigated Hillary’s email server for political reasons. In retrospect, this is another argument against the media’s massive coverage of that issue.

Feb 15

This blog focuses on America’s foreign policy and military issues, with slight detours into terrorism, intelligence, gun violence, civil rights, and the overall safety of the world today.

In short, we don’t think explaining/debating/writing about election results falls under that purview.

Which isn’t to say we don’t have thoughts. Clearly some explanation is needed to explain how Donald Trump got elected to determine how we can best respond to that election. As the saying goes, you can’t know where you’re going/how to win elections, if you don’t know where you’ve been/why you lost. And though I, Eric C, am just bursting to write an entire book on what happened--and Lord knows people will--we’ll try to limit this to just one post. Mainly, we just don’t agree with most of the explanations and narratives put forward so far.

But first, let’s debunk two common misconceptions:

Misconception #1: X Factor Caused Hillary Clinton to Lose.

Notice we didn’t name the factor. That’s because, as is the case with almost every major event in history, no one thing causes one other thing. A whole bunch of them do. Was it Russia? Was it Comey? Was it Clinton’s campaign? Yes. And no. Actually, it was all of them. And more.

You may remember our analysis of the Iraq war. We listed a range of factors and provided our back of the envelope estimate for how much they caused us to lose that war. We’ll take the same approach for this election. Though we should mention, the “percentages” are in no way scientific.

Misconception #2: A Majority of Americans Supported Donald Trump.

I originally wrote the headline for this section as “Hillary Clinton lost the election” but deleted it because, well, she did lose the electoral college, and Michael C doesn’t like me getting too partisan on the blog. But of all the other things that can be said about the election, this is the most important:

The Democratic candidate for President received nearly three million more votes than the Republican.

Even more important: Democrats received six million more votes for their Senators. And how many votes cost Hillary the Electoral college? About 80,000 in a nation of over 300 million. So almost nothing. (0.02% in other words.) What about the enthusiasm gap? More people showed up to protest Donald Trump’s inauguration than attended it. And it spawned counter-protests across the country, including our very conservative home town of San Clemente, CA.

These facts may surprise you, because a ton of commentators, from the far left to the middle, have claimed the election proves that Democrats are out of touch with Americans. And Republicans and conservatives have used the results to claim they have a legislative mandate. We’ve seen pundits we love make this claim, even if they later they point out that people always overreact to elections. Probably the best example would be Glenn Greenwald, who’s alternately blamed drone strikes, NSA wiretapping, the Iraq War, Democrats support for Wall Street and more for the election result, even though some of those claims are clearly absurd.   

Repeat this mantra, Democrats: don’t act like losers when you didn’t lose.

So, with those misperceptions out of the way, let’s breakdown why Hillary isn’t President, starting chronologically. (To be clear, the last two causes are the most important, so if you don’t read the whole thing, skip to the bottom.)

1. Pessimism: 5%

2. Media Biases: 5%

As we wrote about in our “Most Thought-Provoking Event of 2016”, it’s been incredibly dispiriting to watch as America falls into an almost nation-wide despair over the last couple of years, disillusioned by police shootings of unarmed citizens, riots in response to police shootings, shootings of police officers, a vanishingly small number of terrorist attacks, economic inequality, the rise of ISIS and, finally, the election of an uninformed possible demagogue.

In reality, the world is as safe as it has ever been, which is why we’ve written over 20 posts arguing this point, and plan to write a whole bunch more. We’ll say it again for impact: these are the safest most prosperous times in human history. Ever. That includes the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.

Sense a disconnect?

As I wrote about a few weeks ago, Democrats, at every turn, fail to trumpet their victories. Left-wingers always complain about Democrats. The “mainstream media”, regardless of who is President, assumes an adversarial stance versus the party in power, focusing on the President. And conservatives? They’re mostly happy if they’re in power.

But relentless media negativity is only one of many ways the media actually favors conservatives:

- Mainstream media coverage tended to favor Donald Trump, mainly by trying to report “evenly” (in terms of time) on both candidates. This led to a false equivalency of both sides, with outlets like the New York Times (but not The Washington Post) running “investigations” on the Clinton Foundation without spending time on similar investigations into the Trump Foundation.

- Or you could point out the false equivalency every time someone said “Washington is broken” or “Nothing gets done!” without pointing out that Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, broke it. And it worked. 

- Another problem is that the media tends to close around the same daily topics. Thus, the media narrative focused Clinton’s emails, while never settling on one Trump issue, save groping.

- And the right-wing has an entire media apparatus, from Fox News to talk radio to Breitbart, dedicated to their cause, while most “left-wing” outlets (like NPR, PBS and the New York Times) still want to cover things fairly and follow ethical journalistic practices. Just look at the debate over the “Trump Dossier” compared to what conservatives promote on Alex Jones’ Infowars or Breitbart. Many far-left organizations (like The Intercept, Democracy Now! or Jacobin) are as critical of moderates as they are of conservatives.

Overall, these media biases, especially the overwhelmingly pessimistic coverage of the world today, led to an enthusiasm gap among Democrats that probably more than accounts for the missing 80,000 votes Hillary Clinton needed to win the Electoral College.

3. Systemic Republican Electoral Advantages: 20%

Republicans, due to a variety of factors, have a competitive edge electorally in America:

Geography: Voters in low population states have more representation in electing Presidents and Senators than high population states. The Senate looks almost like a national redistricting effort by the Founding Fathers, cramming a lot of Democrats into a few large states like California, New York and Illinois.

Redistricting: Republicans have a near insurmountable advantage in the House of Representatives because of gerrymandered districts.

Citizens United: Since the Supreme Court’s decision, Republicans have a big money edge over Democrats, especially down ballot.

The Media: See above section.

Voting Rights: Republicans have systematically restricted voting by closing polling places and creating ID requirements since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. The exact effects are uncertain, but it’s a problem that’s only getting worse.

To sum up, Republicans have a systematic advantage in our country's elections, hence why Democrats can win more votes for both the President and the Senate and still not hold office. As Nate Silver described it, Republicans are working to “preserve minority rule in this country”. What’s the catch? These advantages mean that the governing bodies of America no longer actually represent the views and opinions of a majority of Americans. That’s not good for the country long-term. 

4. Hillary Clinton’s Campaigning: 5%

5. A Bitter DNC Primary: 5%

6. Third Party Candidates: 3%

Critics on the far left are right about one thing: by consolidating around Hillary Clinton before the primaries began, Democrats failed to both adequately vet her weaknesses and nominated a sub-par campaigner. Hillary Clinton, in her own words, said, “I’m not a natural campaigner.” And her campaign failed to focus on the Rust Belt states.

This also showed up in an overall enthusiasm gap which, again, we blame on liberals and the media. Need proof of an enthusiasm gap? Just compare the size of Hillary’s crowds during the campaign to, say, the size of crowds at protests after the election.

Many Bernie Sanders supporters, cravenly inspired by Hillary’s loss, immediately said their guy would have won, though I doubt it, and I’m also a self-described socialist. But the ugly primary fight led a lot of Bernie Sander’s supporters to become (justifiably) disaffected with the system, especially after the release of hacked DNC emails. (More on this below.) Some Bernie supporters spent the entire DNC convention booing her. Then, some of Bernie Sander’s disaffected voters (understandably but regrettably) voted for third party candidates.

These factors weren’t huge (all told we only give them about 13%) but in an election of 80,000 votes, they matter.

7. Racism/Immigration: 1%

8. Economic Inequality: 1%

Since the election, the main topic of debate among pundits has been whether racism or rising economic inequality caused Trump’s victory. With apologies to easy media narratives, I doubt either issue swayed the election.

I think blaming economic inequality for the election overstates its impact. Put another way: if Democrats/America were more socialist, would that have stopped Trump? I doubt it. Last month, I got super annoyed listening to Fareed Zakaria GPS because Fareed made that exact point I’d been wanting to write. Namely, populist, right-wing, white nationalist movements have been popping up around the world, regardless of economic inequality or expanded social welfare programs:

“Supporters of Trump and other populist movements often point to economics as the key to their success — the slow recovery, wage stagnation, the erosion of manufacturing jobs, rising inequality. These are clearly powerful contributing factors. But it is striking that we see right-wing populism in Sweden, which is doing well economically; in Germany, where manufacturing remains robust; and in France, where workers have many protections. Here in the United States, exit polls showed that the majority of voters who were most concerned about the economy cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton.

"The one common factor present everywhere, however, is immigration. In fact, one statistical analysis of European Union countries found that more immigrants invariably means more populists. According to the study, if you extrapolate from current trends, “as the percentage of immigrants approaches approximately 22 percent, the percentage of right-wing populist voters exceeds 50 percent.” Hostility to immigration has been a core theme of every one of these populist parties."

Michael C disagrees. He thinks rising income inequality dampened enthusiasm among Democrats, a theme that runs through almost every section in this post. On this point, I think he may be right about one thing: Democrats have seemed ineffectual on combating rising inequality...mainly because Republicans have stopped them at every turn, by opposing any form of tax increases, Wall Street reforms, worker’s rights and government spending. And now that Trump has taken office, this trend continues, debunking the entire argument.

What about race? Some of Trump’s supporters certainly are racist. A certain segment of Americans, energized by the election of the first black President, then catalyzed by terror attacks, immigration and police shootings, were motivated by race. But do I think these people would have voted for Hillary under any circumstance? No. Republicans could have run Marco Rubio, and the other factors I’ve described (like media coverage, the electoral college, Wikileaks/Comey) still would have played a bigger role.

Overall, I doubt either racism or economic inequality swayed the election. At least not as much as the next two factors...

9. FBI Director James Comey’s Letter to Congress: 15%

10. Wikileaks Release of Hacked Emails: 15%

Hillary had a seven point lead in the election going into October. By election day, the polls had basically evened up to within 2% of the final popular vote total. This is pretty good as far as polling errors go. And it means you can pretty accurately assess which news stories damaged Clinton’s poll numbers.

FBI director James Comey’s unprecedented step of writing a letter to Congress in the weeks before the election, hinting at another possible investigation into a Hillary email server, clearly tipped the election to Trump. Wikileak’s release of the DNC emails got Bernie’s supporters upset at her and the release of another batch of Podesta emails in October kept negative headlines in the news. All three fed into a steady narrative about Clinton’s untrustworthiness.

Before Democrats start a debate about how to radically transform the party in response to the election, recognize that these two events did more damage than anything else, except the next factor. Again, Hillary got a majority of votes for President. And she only lost the election by about 80,000 votes.

11. The Electoral College: 25%

When critics say Democrats are blaming everyone but themselves for the loss, ask this, “If the election were determined by popular vote, where would Trump have gotten 3 million more votes?” Hillary Clinton got more votes than Donald Trump. Almost every other explanation falls short when you look at it this way.

Some people rebut this by saying, “Well, those are the rules everyone agreed to.” True, but the next logical question is: do you agree with this system? If you do, well, sorry, you’re wrong. The Electoral College is an anachronistic, anti-democratic holdover from the past and it needs to be abolished immediately. It’s archaic, propped up by a love of tradition or a desire to maintain the power of low population, less diverse states, as Bill O’Reilly quite inelegantly pointed out on his show.

In Closing, Democrats Needs to Fix the Systemic Problems in our Electoral System

To summarize the takeaway from this exercise, anytime you hear anyone (left, right or center; pundit, politician, analyst, reporter or civilian) argue that Democrats need to change their message or, God forbid, their policies remember this:

The Democratic message already appeals to a majority of Americans.

Looking at why Hillary Clinton isn’t president or why Democrats don’t control the Senate, it isn’t because of the Democrats “message” or policy priorities. The majority of Americans agree with those. Instead, systemic electoral disadvantages favor Republicans over Democrats. They favor rural voters over urban voters, white voters over minorities. Outside of Clinton’s weakness as a campaigner or Democratic pessimism, almost every reason the Democrats lost is out of their control.

Instead of changing their message to fit an electoral system that favors Republicans, Democrats need to prioritize fixing the electoral system to enact their policies, starting with redistricting efforts, reforming campaign finance laws, stopping voter suppression, investigating the FBI and Russian meddling in the election, and ending the electoral college. In terms of strategy, they need to open the Democratic primary to all candidates, learn to celebrate their victories, stop fighting with each other, and pressure the media to report fairly.

We plan to do our part, as we’ll discuss on Monday.

Feb 13

When you consider the war on terror, the rough calculus has always been, “To keep Americans safe, the military does things (“direct action” in military jargon) that result in people being killed.” To keep Americans safe from terrorists abroad, America fires missiles from drones, but those drone strikes sometimes kill civilians (foreigners, obviously). To keep Americans safe from Saddam Hussein, we launched the second Iraq War. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died in that war and thousands of Americans, but we “kill them there before they kill us here”, as Senator Tom Cotton has described it. So following this logic, the Navy SEALs on SEAL Team 6 raided a compound in Yemen to find intel to keep Americans safe.

They also killed an eight year-old girl.

So Americans sacrificed the life of an eight year-old girl for our own safety.

Keeping in mind that this real life “trolley carscenario is morally dubious at best and morally bankrupt at worst, this tactic won't help win the "war on terror". We’ll write more about this raid later (and many more like it to come if this mission is a sampling of the future) but it is important to, for now, just point out how stupid it is to kill women and children. But we don’t need a new post to say that, we have a bunch of older ones:

- Killing Civilians Pisses People off: Why Accuracy Matters

- Don’t Burn Korans, Kill Children, or Drop Bomblets That Look Like Candy: An Incomplete List of Counter-Insurgency Do’s and Don’ts

- Let’s Kill Women and Children: The Republicans on War Crimes

Through all these posts, one thing argument shines through: killing women and children almost always makes you look bad. No matter how skilled someone back at the Pentagon or White House is at justifying why eight year-old kids had to die to keep Americans safe, the people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and other countries don’t buy it. Killing children is the worst. This isn't the most original take, but one that can't be repeated enough.

Some other thoughts:

Also, Yemen has withdrawn permission for the U.S. to conduct operations there. This means that, even if you buy the counter-terrorism importance of the U.S. raids, this mission jeopardized that.

Some hot takes, from writers we respect, tried to question how much blame should be put on President Trump for this raid. Well, he halted all immigration from seven nations so he could review vetting procedures of refugees; he could have taken the same step here. Since an American SEAL and many other civilians lost their lives in this raid, we would argue that having a good process to vet potentially risky military operations would be just as wise.

And does anyone think that, had Hillary Clinton become President, Congress wouldn’t be calling for an investigation? Would this not be Hillary’s new Benghazi? So where are the Republicans calling for accountability now? Or was Benghazi more about politics than policy? (Yes.)

Feb 08

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2016: Trump, Brexit and Bears, Oh My!", please click here.)

Since the election, it’s been pretty trendy for journalists and pundits to quote paragraphs from articles they pre-wrote about Hillary's “inevitable” election win, and then explain what they either got right or wrong. I, Eric C, can do the same. Last year, I wrote a number of draft posts on violence, the media and pessimism as part of our “World is Getting Safer” series and in one of those posts I wrote the following:

“In some ways, it’s actually a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many conservative Americans believe they’re “losing their country”. Everything is falling apart as white people become an (allegedly) oppressed minority in this country, as evidenced by a lack of support for the police in shootings, income inequality, the push for immigration reform, and political correctness.

“The solution? Support Donald Trump in the polls.

“Ah, but Donald Trump rising in the polls? That’s actually a sign of imminent demise for liberals! Our political system is falling apart! The cycle turns over on itself, with self-reinforcing feedbacks loops that keeps making people feel the world is getting worse."

Well, pretty spot on, except Trump didn’t just rise in the polls, he won the election.

As we wrote in the introduction to this series, the 2016 election results reinforce one of the core theses of the blog: the world is as safe as it has ever been, but the media (left, right and center) and politicians (Democrats and Republicans) believe the opposite. Because of the overwhelming yet completely unjustified sense of pessimism across the political spectrum, many Americans wanted a change.

Yesterday, we called this the “Invisible Golden Age”.

So, to repeat as we have so many times before, the world is safer than it has ever been. In the last fifteen years, nearly a billion people were lifted out of poverty. The crime rate is still at a forty year low. Ebola--the disease that made everyone pessimistic in 2014--was under control by 2015. Though wars continue in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, global war is a fraction of what it was even fifty years ago. Even abortion rates in America are going down. And issues like income inequality, prison populations, climate change and improved during the Obama Administration. Hell, it seems like Steven Pinker is legally required to do one interview a year trying to explain this to people.

So how did we come to this point? The blame belongs to both politicians and the media, who failed to adequately explain to the American public how truly great things were both short term (during the Obama administration) and long-term (since the rise of the classical-liberal world order). We’ll start with politicians today, then hit the media next.

The Best Analogy for the "Invisible Golden Age"

When I think about how much we’ve written on “The World is Getting Safer”--not to mention Steven Pinker, John Horgan and countless others--and how little it seems to seep into the general consciousness of Americans, the best analogy I can come up with is global warming, except global violence rates are going down while global temperature keeps going up.   

The similarities are uncanny. Is there a scientific consensus? Yes, the people who study both (either climate scientists or political scientists) agree with a near universal consensus that the underlying facts say the world is getting safer/global temperatures are increasing, with some minor quibbles over the details. Is the trend a straight line? Nope, in either case. Most years the world gets a lot hotter; some years the temperature stays the same. Most years see a decline in violence; some years see spikes in war deaths or murders. (This applies to most rates of violence.) Do huge groups of people not believe what scientists tell them? Absolutely, in both cases.

The main difference between global warming and the world getting safer? Both Republicans and Democrats believe the world is in awful shape. (Though now that the Trump administration is actively misleading the public on violence, terrorism and crime rates, Democrats may realize the mistake they've made buying into this narrative.)

Blaming the Far-Left for Liberal Despair

You can (partially) blame the left flank of the Democratic party, who constantly complained that Democratic policies didn’t go far enough. On issue after issue, Democrats, led by Obama, made huge policy gains, but left-wingers (of which I am one) undercut their own success:

- Consider the Affordable Care Act. Some on the left felt it didn’t go far enough, wishing instead for a single payer option, so they didn’t want to cheerlead for it, though it both lowered the number of uninsured Americans and finally limited the massive yearly increases in healthcare costs. It even led pollsters to have to change how they polled the question just to clarify what people were dissatisfied about.

- Consider Wall Street regulation. Many progressives feel Democrats didn’t do anything to rein in the large banks, so much so that Bernie Sanders made it his central campaign talking point during the primaries, the left-wing version of a border wall. In reality, Dodd-Frank severely curtailed the profits of banks. As James Surowiecki wrote in the New Yorker, “But there’s no avoiding the deeper conclusion: regulations have simply made banking less profitable than it once was.” And it severely limited the chances for another crash. But ask yourself, how many Bernie supporters know this? Or care?

- Or look at the prison population. There’s no doubt that one of the central injustices of the last few decades has been America’s insane expansion in its number of prisoners. During Obama’s administration, the prison population finally started dropping. Did that fact make the news? Did it make the news compared to the countless think pieces talking about this injustice? You see, even when we make ground on an issue, the negativity overwhelms the progress.

Some of this is, possibly, a good trait to have. Democrats are never satisfied. They want more progress and improvement for all. But this is a recipe for dissatisfaction. It left an opening for Republicans politically, who constantly and consistently criticized Obama. When liberals joined that chorus--on the Affordable Care Act, Wall Street regulation, immigration, climate change, and criminal justice reform, and more--it sounded like no one was satisfied, even though both sides were arguing for opposite things.

And now, two weeks into the Trump administration, we’ve already seen Republican begin the process to repeal Dodd-Frank and the Affordable Care Act. Democrats are protesting like Hell to keep these very bills, even though many people spent eight years complaining didn't do enough. But some gains are better than nothing.

By failing to celebrate victories or general world improvement, Democrats let Republicans win the debate on the future of the country. Republicans painted a picture of America as a dystopian hellscape caused by Obama, which Democrats never adequately rebutted, creating an enthusiasm gap between their supporters. (I should clarify: this is one of many, many factors that cost Democrats the election. We actually have a huge post on the topic coming.)

It should be noted that Republicans don’t return the favor of not celebrating their victories. Indeed, just a week after the election, 49% percent of Republicans “already felt the economy was improving” compared to 16% the week before, which almost breaks your mind if you think about it too hard. And consumer confidence jumped to a 15 year high. Or you can read President Trump’s tweets, taking credit for good economic news he had nothing to do with. And conservative media has proudly celebrated Trump’s first few weeks in office. Democrats, during Obama’s first few weeks, were already arguing with one another over Rick Warren speaking at his inaugural.

The end result? It feels like Obama (and Democrats) had a mixed legacy, when really it was an extraordinary run.

Blaming Centrists for Not Defending the Liberal World Order

You can look at the previous section as an indictment of those on the far left for being too critical of the Democratic coalition, focusing on short-term (Obama’s administration). Consider this section an indictment of moderates, focusing on the long-term wins of classical liberalism. If you look at the period of peace and prosperity since the end of World War II, we’re living in amazing times.

As I wrote about last week, a majority of Americans support trade agreements, because the facts support trade agreements. But ask yourself, when did you hear politicians make a cogent argument defending trade agreements? Instead, politicians from both sides of the aisle capitulated to the loudest anti-trade voices of their parties. It’s not just that the mythical “elites” took the gains of globalization for themselves (though in countries controlled by right-wing politicians, they did); it’s that they never explained how far we’ve come and, more importantly, why.

This could extend to a whole host issues, from the importance of international institutions, foreign aid, and more. Overall, the classical-liberal world needs more supporters arguing for its cause. And explaining how the world has achieved such amazing prosperity, both in America and Europe.

Blaming Conservatives for Fear-Mongering

When discussing terrorism and national security, my initial reaction is to reflexively blame Democrats for echoing Republican talking points about the state of the world today, citing both Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Schumer describing the world as a “dangerous place” or that we live in “tumultuous times”. Or how, when Obama said ISIS didn’t pose an existential threat in his 2016 State of the Union, neither Republicans or Democrats clapped, though ISIS clearly doesn’t and didn’t pose an existential threat.

Of course, this would fall into the same logical fallacy I pointed out above, because when it comes to stoking fear, Democrats have nothing on Republicans.

This fear-mongering (there’s no better word for it) has been going on for years. For a quick primer, just check out our writing on the subject, including “Politicians STILL Don’t Believe the World is Getting Safer (And the Media Doesn’t Call Them On It)“, or our posts on Republicans during the primary, “Don’t Worry about EMPs, WMDs or ISIS: Sorry, Republicans The World is Getting Safer” and “ISIS, You Ain’t No Existential Threat, Bruv”.

This fear-mongering continues today. Donald Trump’s inaugural address was summarized by the two words “American Carnage” (more to follow in a few weeks). The Economist described General Flynn, now Trump’s national security advisor, as believing that, “Jihadism is an existential threat to the west, much greater than Russia or China.” Mike Pence just told Chuck Todd on Sunday, “But look, we live in a very dangerous world.

This extends to domestic policy as well. Republicans villainize entire minority and ethnic groups, with our President describing Mexicans as “rapists and murderers”, his administration blocking Muslim refugees from entering this country under the false pretense of security, conservative activists protesting the building of mosques, and conservative pundits describing African-Americans as “thugs”. When the crime rate started falling in the 1990s, the N.R.A. mis-leadingly started a campaign to stoke fear about crime across the country.

As a nation, we’re better than this.

Where do we go from here?

The irony, publishing this post now rather than four months ago, is that one could ask, “So, if convincing people the world is as safe as it has ever been would have turned the election, will trumpeting that message now help Republicans?” Not really. That question leaves out the “Why?” Why is the world as safe as it has ever been?

Because of trade. Globalization. International institutions and cooperation. Immigration. Shining a spotlight on police shootings. Criminal justice reform. In short, all the things Trump hopes to dismantle. And of course, his proactive policy choices could also endanger this invisible golden age, from the Muslim ban (which will inspire more terrorists) to building a border wall. More importantly: does anyone trust the President not to start wars?

In each case, by contextualizing the safety of today, we can (try to) stop these actions. Not only should we say this; we have to. Just this week, the President claimed the murder rate is at a 45 year high (it isn’t), both Sean Spicer and Mike Pence described the world as a “dangerous place” (it isn’t), and they claimed the media under-reporters terrorism (it doesn’t). To justify their policies, this administration will exaggerate violence; we hope to counter them.

President Trump may jeopardize this invisible golden age we find ourselves in, both domestically and internationally. And this needs to be said.

Feb 07

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2016: Trump, Brexit and Bears, Oh My!", please click here.)

What if you were living in a golden age of safety and didn’t know?

What if no one else knew either?

What if the prison population, for a long a time growing at an unjustifiable rate, started shrinking? What if these drops in incarceration were accompanied by a drop in crime?

What if the number of people living in extreme poverty across the globe dropped from over 40% to 10% in the last thirty years?

What if you lived in a society where women, minorities, the disabled and LGBT people had gained rights unimaginable fifty, a hundred or two hundred years before?

What if the percentage of people who died in wars was at or near an all-time low?

What if the same was true of crime?

And genocide?

And slavery?

And torture?

But what if no one knew? What if no one cared?

What if everyone said that, instead of a golden age, we lived in the worst years in human history?

What if major newspapers on the left, (“Is 2016 the Worst Year in History?”), right (“A Night to Bid Good Riddance to a Crummy 2016”) and center (“2016: Worst. Year. Ever?”) asked if the current year was the worst in history?

What if defense secretaries and intelligence officials consistently testified on Capitol Hill that the world was a dangerous place? What if the President described the country as “American carnage”? What if the Vice President called the world a dangerous place? What if the minority leader in the Senate called these “challenging and tumultuous times”?

What if you couldn’t even escape the negativity by listening to podcasts? What if everyone from the FiveThirtyEight to iFanboy talked about despair? What if Radiolab did a whole show on nihilism? What if you couldn’t even escape this feeling listening to NPR without the interviewer describing the world as a “time of great worry and consternation”?

What if the country’s most respected comedians made the same declaration, like John Oliver closing out his final show of the year? Or Trevor Noah?

What if comedians felt this way about every year that preceded it? What if people felt this way about 2015? What if “2014 was not a great year for people”? And 2013?

What if every year you felt like Peter Gibbons from Office Space?

But what if it weren’t true? What if the facts didn’t back it up? What if you were actually living in an invisible golden age and no one knew?

Feb 06

Both during the campaign and since he’s taken office, the Trump administration seems to have forgotten one major consequence of its “tough talk” regarding Iran. Putting countries “on notice” can cause war.

Trump--and the media he despises--have failed to mention that a potential war could cost thousands of Americans their lives.

We bring this up because, unfortunately, we have to respond to the President and National Security Advisor Michael Flynn putting Iran “on notice” for both supporting Houthi rebels in Yemen and testing ballistic missiles. Our simple reminder/hot take is this: war with Iran could be disastrous. Five years ago, we wrote 30 blog posts on the subject and then summarized those in a paper for The Small Wars Journal titled “The Costs of War with Iran: An Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield”.

Bottom line in the middle/TLDR: Iran is larger--in population and landmass--than Iraq and Afghanistan put together. Though their military is a fraction the size of America’s, they possess a lot of asymmetrical responses that could down our ships or planes--like speed boats armed with torpedoes and caches of anti-aircraft missiles--and multiple ways to attack/destabilize other countries in the region, should America try to pursue military options against them. Read the full paper to get a sense of how a war with Iran will not look like the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq.

We can’t predict how a future war could go, so assuming it will be bloodless or painless, as much of the Trump administration/politicians/the media do, puts us all in danger. As the President (recklessly) talks tough about Iran, commentators and reporters need to frame the risks of war accurately.

(As we wrote about last week, the Trump administration creates so much news, we’ve decided to to respond to some headlines, when relevant, with our own unique takes. Last week, we discussed the “Muslim ban”.)

Feb 02

When we started the blog, we made the decision not to “respond to the headlines”. Frankly, there’s plenty of other websites that handle that just fine. We were also mostly non-partisan to start. As we’ll explain in a few weeks, that’s not relevant anymore.

As almost everyone heard, last Friday night, Donald Trump issued an executive order barring travel from seven Muslim-majority nations, his first steps towards a “Muslim ban”, as Trump called it on the campaign trail. We could point out that the ban is cruel (which it is), could hurt the economy (which it will), will hurt America’s standing across the globe (which it has) or that it is ineffective (in the sense that it is already being used by terrorists for recruitment purposes), but others have already made all those points.

But we’d rather point out the fact that this bill is needless. Other commentators have pointed out the executive order targets refugees, who have largely not been involved in terrorism (you have a 1 in a 3 billion chance, rounded down, of being killed by a refugee). Or that the executive order targets seven specific countries none of whom’s nationals have committed terrorist acts on U.S. soil.

But we’d take this argument a step further: Terrorism itself is exceedingly rare. Only 3,400 Americans have been killed by terrorism in the last forty years on U.S. soil. That’s almost nothing.

But this sort of ban only occurs if the population is deathly afraid of terrorism. Fear is the emotion that drives terrible executives orders like this. Fear is what allows good Americans to support hurting the innocent. Fear is what keeps us from winning the “war on terror”. Politicians and the media need to contextualize violence and stop saying we live in a “dangerous world”. We need to stop overreacting to terrorism.

Or else dangerous policies like this will keep getting enacted.

Feb 01

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2016: Trump, Brexit and Bears, Oh My!", please click here.)

Today, we wanted to just out some “quick take” thoughts on our “Most Thought-Provoking Event of 2016”. These are the ideas that didn’t fill up an entire post, but are still worth sharing.

Quick Take #1: Is this the rise of the autocratic world order? Probably not.

One of the hot takes over the last few years has been the praise for China’s economic growth. China went from one of the poorest countries in the world to an economic juggernaut, and it hasn’t succumbed to democracy in the process. Combined with Russia’s meddling in global elections (definitely supporting far-right candidates in former Soviet bloc nations like Ukraine and Hungary, most likely hacking America’s election, possibly intervening in other democracies we don’t yet know about), this has helped lead to the “autocracies on the rise” narrative. If an illiberal America joins that group, we could have a new world order centered autocracies and dictatorships.

Not so fast. Ignoring that America isn’t an autocracy or illiberal democracy yet, as I wrote about last week, and ignoring that the EU isn’t dead yet, this hypothesis forgets how bad autocrats are at governing. Sure they can consolidate power, but they usually destroy their economy in the process. Example 1: Russia. Example 2: Egypt. Example 3: Cuba. Example 4: Venezuela. I could go on. And for three of those countries I just mentioned, the autocrats held onto control mainly through oil wealth, not good governance.

China is a miracle because it grew without democracy. But democracy is always right around the corner with China (Tiananmen Square, Hong Kong Umbrella Movement). In one election, America could right the ship (left the ship?). So no I don’t see a bright future for autocracy.

Quick Take #2: Free trade drives huge economic inequality.

The one clear problem with free trade is that the gains aren’t distributed evenly throughout the economy. When the free trade movement coalesced in the 1990s, we saw huge economic growth globally and billions were lifted out of poverty. But the upper 1% did even better. In America, despites decades of economic growth, median income growth has stalled. Globalization is a winner take all phenomenon.

Interestingly, the gains of globalization aren’t distributed evenly within the international system either. Or distributed evenly between businesses. Some poor countries just cannot get growth started and fail to benefit from open borders. Some national companies will fail to compete with multinational behemoths.

Inequality is a feature of the system, but fortunately one that could be corrected. The easiest solution is also the hardest: the uber wealthy nations and people of the world should directly transfer their wealth to the poorest. Super simple; super hard. But we’ve done huge wealth transfers before and that investment always pays off in multiples.

Quick Take #3: The "liberal world order" isn't perfect.

A hot counter to my articles last week is, “Yeah, has war really gone down? Is the liberal world order really so good?”

This argument would point to 9/11, then two American wars in Central Asia/Middle East. Then how, following the Arab Spring, the dictatorships were largely successful in crushing democratic uprisings. And that China has provided a model that seems like an alternative to democracy.

The world isn’t perfect, but the liberal world order doesn’t promise perfection, just progress. (We’ve debated before whether or not America’s actions make the world safer in general.) We’re talking about a broad trend of less war and more democracy. I would have loved to see democracies flourish in the Middle East, but we just haven’t developed the right strategy, tactics and institutions to help that messy transition. America could do much, much more, but we need to re-win the intellectual argument first.

Quick Take #4: This is an opening for China.

We have a theory about how you know if your sports team (Go Bruins!/Lakers!/Niners!) picks the wrong coach: does your rival team’s fans like the hire? Because if your rival team likes your pick, it’s probably because they thinks they’ll do a bad job.

I thought of this listening to Fareed Zakaria’s opening segment a few weeks ago. He made the point that China is cheering the election of Trump, since they feel his anti-trade stances will create an opening for China economically. Unfortunately, we agree with this assessment. Again, if your economic rival likes your pick for President, you probably picked wrong.

(I should caveat that Michael C doesn’t feel that China is a “rival”, certainly not an “enemy” and I agree. Too many countries are labelled negatively. Still, if America boycotts free trade, China stands to gain and they are an economic rival of America.)

Quick Take #5: The return to manufacturing? Why not a return to farming?

That’s really what’s so silly about the promise to bring back manufacturing jobs. The only reason people want the jobs back is because their parents did it. But all our great-great-grandparents were farmers, and we don’t want a “return to farming”. Progress has decreased the need for certain types of manual labor. First farming, and then manufacturing. What we want is good jobs, not specific types of good jobs.