This past month the long-hyped “Avengers: Infinity War” hit theaters across the world, grossing over $1.85 billion and earning its place amongst the top-selling films of all times. The nineteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), directed by the Russo brothers and distributed by Disney, it was sold to the public as the culmination of the prior Marvel films’ story arcs.
As reports have demonstrated, it has left audiences as shocked as the suspense leading up to it led the public to believe they would be. With a 92% audience rating at movie-rating site Rotten Tomatoes, fans widely praised the smooth integration of many popular characters from past movies, the boldness of story arcs, and were floored by the ending.
The sequel will be coming out in April 2019, leaving viewers an entire year to wonder whatever possible more storylines and conclusions the Russo brothers may have in mind.
The Marvel movies take their inspiration from a comic book series that truly came into a recognizable form to its modern iteration in the 1960’s. Since then it has also spawned a variety of other entertainment products ranging from video games to television series to toy figures.
It was the unveiling of the Avengers movie series that truly brought the series to a broader mass audience, beginning with “Iron Man” in 2008 directed by Jon Favreau and starring Robert Downey Jr. as the eccentric billionaire tech-genius Tony Stark.
Since then, it seems like every year there has been a film or two expanding on the endless series of content packed into decades of tangled Marvel storytelling. From 2011’s “Thor” starring Chris Hemsworth, 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” to this year’s blockbuster “Black Panther,” every movie has steadily built up its own profitability, production mechanics, and public brand.
Few movie franchises have achieved what Marvel has done this past decade in consistently producing a series of memorable and high-grossing films. The only franchises that come even close are the eight “The Fast and the Furious” movies from 2001 to 2017, the eight “Harry Potter” films from 2011 to 2011, and the roughly 26 “James Bond” films from 1962 to 2015.
In the future it is doubtless that Marvel will continue producing live-action cinematic and television series, as their “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” has also done very well since 2013.
While in the past the Marvel series, as all entertainment and creative stories, have faced a variety of rights issues over intellectual property, they’ve now consolidated enough to give Disney a powerful ability to continue to generate both entertainment content for both the general public and particular audiences for many years to come.
It initially seems strange that comic book stories could so captivate the imagination, attention, and money of so much of the public at large. This is particularly so when we’ve seen the movies from the “DC Comics” universe, such as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and more, not perform as well in comparison, with occasional exceptions.
To compare, since DC films began being released in the 1970’s, in recent years mostly owned by Time Warner’s Warner Bros., the 33 films have brought in $9.6 billion in box office gross on a combined budget of $3.2 billion for a profit of roughly $6.4 billion.
In contrast, Marvel’s 19 films since 2008 have brought in $16.7 billion on a budget of $3.7 billion for a profit of roughly $13 billion.
We saw this most prominently in 2017’s “Justice League” movie, which acted in a similar way to the “Avengers” movie as a culmination film bringing together many characters. It only grossed $658 million on a budget of $300 million, compared to the 2012 “The Avengers” gross of $1.52 billion on a budget of $220 million, let alone this year’s “Infinity War.”
It is great for our country that we have such a fascinating and inspiring source of entertainment and thought from the Marvel and DC story universes. The film production studios have also done an incredible job in taking the content and making them into lasting modern works of art, using everything from increasingly advanced computer-generated imagery (CGI) to the best cast of actors and staff in the world.
Every day on the road we pass by them. Trucks, bearing the logos and cargo of companies in industries ranging from manufacturing to food, consumer goods to raw materials, each day traverse the seemingly endless thousands of miles of road in our nation to fill our stores and homes with their goods.
It’s an industry that many of us do not give much thought to unless we have direct contact with the trucking sector. The work is largely done behind the scenes, beyond the brief public view as we see their mammoth vehicles roll alongside us on the roads. Yet it’s an industry that affects nearly everyone to a quite significant degree, as well as our economy at large.
In 2016 trucking freight revenues accounted for over $738.9 billion in the United States. Over 10.55 billion tons was transported by over 3.5 million truck drivers.
I recently had the chance to look over a particular policy issue that’s been affecting the trucking industry, specifically the implementation of an “Electronic Log Device” requirement and the schedule that must be followed from it.
The federal rule, implemented in 2015 by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and only beginning to be enforced in recent months, has caused already a wide array of complaints across the trucking sector due to its rigidity and disconnection from the realties of how the business is run.
Even a small violation can get a trucker in trouble and put a company out of business, due to the log lacking fluidity for breaks, loading, unloading, traffic jams, and more.
On a broader scale, it appears that the rule was implemented as well with only a little input from the trucking associations but almost nothing from truckers themselves, who are exposed to the realities of the business on a daily basis.
The rule was well-intentioned in tracking the driving time of truck drivers in a bid to prevent over-work and thus both abusing the driver and increasing road accidents from tired workers.
However the precise nature of its implementation appears to be resulting in significant small business disruption, inefficiencies, and even potentially a tragically ironic increase in traffic incidents as drivers are rushed in attempting to conform to the ELD log’s absolute requirements.
Wider potential ripple effects including effects on the prices of food, consumer goods of every sort, industry, and just about every industry that relies on trucking, which constitutes about 70%, as compared to trains, planes, cars, and ships, of freight transportation in the United States.
I think this ELD trucking issue illustrates one of the big difficulties the policy process has always wrangled with, which is how to best understand the actual situations that are being regulated and the results of policies as compared to theoretical reasoning.
The federal rulemaking process incorporates industry feedback as well as general public comment, but as one person with whom I recently discussed the ELD issue with mentioned “Truck drivers don’t sit around reading the Federal Register,” with the Federal Register being a place where rule notices are published.
The wide array of industry and association groups are always busy in trying to bring their constituents’ concerns and hopes to the consideration of policymakers, whether on the executive side or the legislative side. Yet even here it is an imperfect process, and one that faces an extraordinarily complex and rapidly changing labyrinth world.
Undoubtedly the ELD rule will eventually find a fix, as many other particular regulations do in the constantly grinding gears of Washington D.C. and our state and local representative and administrative governments as well.
Nonetheless, this trucking regulatory mishap that is having a wide array of unintended effects shows the importance of citizen engagement. Citizen engagement is required both by the people themselves as well as needs to be considered and respected by those in policymaking power. That is the ideal of self-government, and one that constantly needs refreshment and renewal.
There’s been an endless series of articles, essays, books, and research about the 2016 election. However I felt even now there’s still been a lot of misunderstanding and omission in the discourse, particularly regarding what really fueled then-candidate Donald Trump’s rise and why his ascendance flabbergasted the chattering class at nearly every turn.
Even now we still see the half of the nation that voted for, or has a favorable opinion of, now-President Trump misunderstood and vilified. The 2016 election, in which up until the final results the Huffington Post polls aggregator predicted Hillary Clinton to have a 98% chance of winning, shook many out of their daze.
A good number of those who previously dismissed Trump supporters have now begun trying to reach out to conservatives or make expeditions out of the cosmopolitan centers and into the American heartland, but there still remains a big gulf.
It’s a little late among books about the 2016 election but recently I published my short book “A Time Like No Other: One American’s Journey Through The 2016 Election And After,” available at Amazon.
I served as a Trump campaign official in Virginia during the tumultuous 2016 general election. During that time I also was elected at a fiercely divided state convention, as Cruz and Trump supporters fought in anticipation over a contested RNC convention, as one of our two statewide Electoral College nominees, using the bully pulpit to promote our Republican ticket.
Prior to that, I served on Ohio Governor John Kasich’s campaign staff in Virginia through nearly the entire primary. Combined with years of experience in politics and government prior, from these roles I was able to get an in-depth panoramic view of the 2016 presidential primaries and general election.
The 2015 presidential primaries and 2016 election saw much of the current misunderstanding of Trump supporters at an even greater level than now. Many simply didn’t believe Trump supporters actually existed, and even now some explain Trump’s wins with potentially Russian hacking of voting machines.
Yet the fact was, in having experienced firsthand the turbulence of the 2016 primaries and general election day-by-day, was that the bulk of the support behind then-candidate Trump was a deeply felt need to restore our country from the direction it had seemingly been tilting in recent years.
Though now our nation’s policy achievements are winning widespread favorability and, even with our discourse’s current problems, are creating massive prosperity, innovation, and optimism, the years prior to 2016 were the precise opposite.
The 2012 election itself was held in a depressed environment, with a mix of the sluggish recovery and the disturbances created by Occupy Wall Street shaking the nation.
The years between 2012 and 2015 only saw much of it worsen. Our nation drifted towards hyperpolarization never before seen, with the rhetoric on both sides increasing harshly.
The Constitution increasingly seemed mere paper rather than law. Our nation internationally had become a paper tiger, allowing bad actors to run amok.
Even in our own country, we saw venerable institutions ranging from the military to law enforcement to the Founding Fathers to the very nature of our country itself all become the target of hatred by a new extreme left faction.
The Democrats had also drifted far from their party’s nature throughout most of the 20th century and even during President Bill Clinton’s centrist leadership. Rather, the Blue Dogs had gone extinct and the radical left was beginning to seep in – with the far-left’s rhetoric ranging from attacking God openly to denouncing the entire capitalist system. Many “Reagan Democrats” had already been leaving over the years, but now the flow became torrential and complete.
It was amid this environment that Trump captured the pulse of the American people and rode it to the Presidency, deflecting in Teflon-fashion countless other gaffes and mishaps that would have sunk traditional candidates long ago.
The 2016 election was an extraordinary time in American history that, despite all the writing about it, clearly has still not been understood by our national discourse. I hope it someday can be, particularly as we face extraordinary upcoming policy challenges in the foreign policy and economic field this next decade.
Saturday, May 5th this year was the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth in Trier, Germany. On that day in 1818, a philosopher was born whose ideas would soon after prove essential to the historic torment of revolution, international conflicts, totalitarian rule, human suffering, and death that defined the 20th century across much of the world.
Reactions across the Western world were, generally, commemorative rather than mournful or condemning. The New York Times ran an op-ed titled “Happy Birthday, Karl Marx. You Were Right!” In Trier itself, a 14-foot bronze statue was unveiled by the city. The British Museum in London proudly showcased a signature in a guest book Marx made in 1874.
Halfway across the world, China’s Communist government was celebrating too. Speaking at a grand ceremony for the occasion in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping proclaimed “[t]oday, we commemorate Marx in order to pay tribute to the greatest thinker in the history of mankind and also to declare our firm belief in the scientific truth of Marxism.”
2017 itself was the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, marked by members of the United States Congress, the White House, and countless other groups and persons from across the nation. The White House even issued a proclamation declaring November 7, 2017 the “National Day for the Victims of Communism,” remembering the day a hundred years ago when the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia began.
These anniversaries provide us an ample opportunity to remember the ideas and conflicts that defined not just much of American history in the 20th century, but world history.
For half a century our country fought the Cold War, which seems inaptly named given the numerous active wars and operations our nation fought during that time, such as in Korea and Vietnam, to contain the spread of Communism and support our free allies.
Even when there was not active conflict, our military, intelligence services, and diplomats fought a harsh struggle everyday in nearly every nation in the world to try to win the battle for the “hearts and minds,” to borrow a phrase from the Vietnam era, of the world.
America’s citizenry faced the constant fallout from Marx’s ideas even in peacetime as well, ranging from shelter drills in response to the threat of nuclear annihilation to worries over even revolution and subversion in our own nation.
The toll from Communism worldwide remains horrific and worthy of perpetual memory. Precise accounting remains difficult, due to a combination of destroyed or nonexistent records, the worldwide span of Communist crimes, and the still-chaotic or authoritarian situations of many such sites.
Nonetheless, it is estimated that Communism over the course of the 20th century remains at least directly responsible for over 100 million deaths in the form of forced starvation, executions, torture, or massacres.
The victims ranged from those of the Great Purge in Russia to the Cultural Revolution in China. They ranged from the Eastern Bloc nations to North Korea’s Orwellian regime, from Ethiopia’s “Derg” to Afghanistan’s bloody 1980’s, from Latin American guerillas to Cambodia’s Khmer Rogue to Greece’s civil war, and many more nations, conflicts, and peoples across the entire globe.
Yet the victims do not only include those who lost their lives, but also those who suffered but lived. Those who lost family members, friends, careers, were imprisoned, tortured, or became refugees – they all are victims too, and number in the additional hundreds of millions.
Communism’s legacy today remains complex and uncertain, as we see worrying anti-capitalist sentiments growing and a fifth of the world still technically living under governments professing Communism.
Nonetheless, what is certain is that this is no time to celebrate, besides to celebrate the triumph of human freedom over the unimaginable horrors that claimed or crushed the lives of so many over this past century.
As President George W. Bush said in 2007 when he dedicated a memorial to the victims of Communism in Washington, D.C., “…when an ideology kills tens of millions of people, and still ends up being vanquished, it is contending with a power greater than death…freedom is the gift of our Creator, freedom is the birthright of all humanity, and in the end, freedom will prevail.”
Netflix. Amazon. Google. Twitter. Facebook. Apple.
It seems like increasingly at least some aspect of our lives is now influenced by these behemoth technology companies that have, in just the last two decades, completely transformed our economy and very way of life.
The U.S. population is estimated this year at roughly over 326 million people. Of that, at least 55 million are Netflix subscribers, over 200 million are estimated to be on Facebook, and 230 million or so own smartphones, with about half of them iPhones.
While the stereotype of big tech companies starting out in dorm rooms or garages is nowadays increasingly unlikely, many of these original tech giants really did begin as bootstrapped experiments by folks who were bright, brave, and lucky.
As these tech giants grew, so did the rest of the population share in the benefits of their rise. Over a billion hours of video are now watched on YouTube every day. Every second, at least over 2.5 million emails are sent, 50,000 Google searches performed, 5,000 Facebook statuses posted, and 7,000 Tweets sent.
However now it looks like we are beginning to see a turning point. This past year has seen many tech companies face major public and government scrutiny for a whole slew of issues that have been discussed for years but that never rose to the general attention until now.
Back last fall the tech giants were dragged before Congress to testify as to Russian interference efforts through bots, political ads, and online organizing through these social media giants.
Then the Cambridge Analytica scandal happened in March of this year, and a whole Pandora’s box was opened that went far beyond the data debacle itself.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself was called before Congress himself and testified on a wide array of subjects, ranging from Facebook’s data privacy protections to more complex topics, such as how Facebook collects and uses user data and how comprehensively are users aware of the data use.
Facebook also faced a line of questioning that seemingly had little to do with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, namely Facebook’s role itself in potential public opinion influence and election manipulation.
Indeed, public polling has shown that there are widespread worries about Facebook’s, and other tech companies’, own power to control the flow of information. A recent HarrisX poll showed over 70% of Republicans, 54% of Independents, and 46% of Democrats believe there is evidence of censorship and bias by Facebook itself on its platform.
The poll also showed over 49% of Americans want heavy regulation of Facebook, with 39% supporting light regulation and 12% no regulation. 67% want explicit opt-in for data collection to 6% against, 84% believe tech companies are responsible for content published on their platform, and 83% want harsher penalties for data privacy breaches.
The House Judiciary Committee recently had a follow-up hearing on the specific topic of content censorship and manipulation by social media companies, particularly focusing on the internal controls for how content is moderated and the transparency of guidelines. Though Google, Facebook, and Twitter were invited to the hearing, in poetic irony they decided to not attend.
Tech companies have been under not just U.S. pressure, but also international pressure from a variety of governments recently over the need more transparent and accountable to both their users and the public at large.
Facebook itself has seemingly been edging towards that direction, such as by releasing their content guidelines and bettering the process for appeals. Twitter has also done the same, with their CEO even recently personally publicly apologizing to a conservative media personality in a gesture of openness that these long-secretive tech companies should consider more of.
While technology companies are private organizations, they have grown simply so large and powerful nowadays that it is almost undeniable how influential on the public discourse they can be. A small algorithm change can disrupt entire industries, such as Facebook’s revamp earlier this year.
By giving certain content greater visibility and other content less, such as Facebook’s recent highly-publicized mishap with conservative personalities Diamond and Silk, it is clear how these companies can themselves have an outsized impact on influencing public opinion on not just political topics but almost every business and social issue imaginable.
How our country, let alone the rest of the world, sets the boundaries for a now seemingly mature tech industry remains highly uncertain. These tech giants have transformed society for the better, connecting and enriching the lives of many.
Yet their increasing power is also worrying to all, as visions of a futuristic Orwellian dystopia also begin to seem at least possible and feasible, if still remote. This clearly will be a tough and uncharted path as our country figures out the proper solutions.
Last week the unthinkable has been taking place. Not nuclear devastation, but rather the precise opposite.
North Korea has announced that they are considering denuclearization without conditions, such as withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea, that were previously a persistent barrier to any potential talks.
South Korea and North Korea have even re-established the hotline between the two capitals, dormant since 2016 when North Korea’s current series of nuclear tests began.
With CIA Director Mike Pompeo having apparently already met North Korean leader Kim Jung-un and President Trump potentially set to in the future, we could be seeing what is a remarkable change in relations on the Korean peninsula.
On the other hand, we could also be seeing more of the same.
A country giving up its nuclear weapons is rare, but not unheard of. South Africa dismantled its nuclear arsenal in the early 1990’s. Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus each disarmed as well in the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution.
These instances were the result of the economic, diplomatic, and military benefits far outweighing the seeming security reduction in abandoning a direct nuclear deterrent. For example, Ukraine only did so in exchange for international treaties protecting its borders and security.
With North Korea, similar has been tried for decades with little progress. In fact, denuclearization talks since the 1990’s have often featured a predictable dance of North Korean openness to halting its nuclear program, demanding concessions, often in the form of economic aid and particularly food.
After the concessions are received, North Korea then abandons the talks and goes back to developing its programs until the next time it seeks international assistance once again and initiates such talks.
The difficulty with North Korea remains the fact that they see their nuclear deterrent as essential in preserving a regime facing increasing international hostility, even from long-time allies such as China.
It could be argued that North Korea retains a significant deterrent in its long-time ability to devastate the South Korean capital of Seoul with its artillery, which could result in millions of casualties.
Nonetheless, artillery remains far more localized than ballistic missiles, and can be neutralized by air, missiles, other artillery, or more. Furthermore, South Korea has been increasingly developing mechanisms to detect North Korean artillery being moved into range, increasing the possibility of evacuation or sheltering in time.
Artillery is also increasingly able to be potentially intercepted by anti-projectile defenses. As Israel’s successful Iron Dome defense system has shown, projectile-based artillery is increasingly becoming less of a threat, as Israel has reduced successful surface-launched missile attacks almost entirely against its territory.
All this essentially means that the realpolitik of North Korea giving up its nuclear program remains tenuous at best. It is worthwhile to attempt to put a diplomatic resolution to the problem, as the continuation of current trends means only a much worse and less resolvable crisis in the future – and one that could potentially cost millions of lives.
Even if talks are successful and North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons, deactivates its programs, and ends its tests, the Korean peninsula’s issues will not be fully resolved.
North Korea remains a horrific Orwellian totalitarian dictatorship, starving, torturing, and brutalizing its people mentally and physically on a daily basis. From a series of brutal labor camps to constant surveillance, from a meager GDP per capita of $1,800 while its top few rulers live in luxury, North Korea’s diplomatic normalization would be complex, both from a policy and moral standpoint.
That’s not to say countries have moved in such a direction before. The People’s Republic of China, while still a Communist-run nation, since the 1980’s has moved far away from the horrors of Maoist China, from which terrors such as the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward are remembered in perpetuity for their almost unfathomable evil.
How the North Korean situation eventually resolves itself, whether by the regime’s own evolution, international action, or internal revolution, remains uncertain and distant. It would benefit world security were North Korea to denuclearize, but it won’t be even close to the end of the problems that have plagued the Korean peninsula for now almost 75 years.
It almost seems like déjà vu. Like just around this time last year, Syria’s Assad government has apparently used chemical weapons on his own citizenry and civilians, leading to horrific casualties.
Just like then, the footage and pictures from the region are tragic and devastating. With roughly 70 people estimated killed and hundreds more affected, roughly equivalent to last year’s chemical attack toll, such an awful war crime has merited again widespread international condemnation amid the brutal Syrian conflict that has already taken the lives of an estimated almost 500,000 people the last few years.
Similarly, the United States has responded with missile strikes against Syrian military targets, with the hope to deter Assad while not entangling ourselves too deeply in the conflict.
However the situation is also different in several key aspects compared to the strikes last year. First is that while the missile strikes against Assad’s government in April 2017 were afterwards supported by a wide international group ranging from NATO and the EU to Turkey.
This time it appears however that France and the United Kingdom were directly involved in the actual military operation itself, although the precise details are not clear. This indicates perhaps an increasing willingness among Western allies to take forceful military action in Syria, seeing that the initial round of missile strikes may have not sufficiently deterred, but only rather delayed, Assad.
Second is that the situation in Syria itself has changed. While there are still innumerable groups in the anarchic war-torn landscape, ISIS has almost been completely defeated since the latter part of last year and the fall of their main base of operations, Raqqa.
There appears to remain some ISIS remnants that the U.S. has announced it will continue to pursue, but the situation in Syria now appears to have become between Assad’s government, the Kurds, somewhat-democratic factions, and other more disorganized branches of extremists.
Though the strikes as a retaliatory measure appear to be relatively straightforward, they raise very complex policy, legal, and moral questions that have already erupted near-immediately afterwards.
First is that, as several members of Congress have noted in the media almost immediately after the strikes, is that we continue to see it as questionable whether the executive branch has the authority to engage in seemingly offensive actions as with the Syria missile strike.
Multiple Democratic Senators, ranging from Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) to Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Senator Cory Booker (D-MA), as well as a handful of Republicans such as Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), questioned not the rationale itself for punishing Assad’s government for their war crimes but rather emphasized the need for Congressional authorization for such military acts.
Ironically, the outrage from Democrats and relative agreement by Republicans mirrors the calls for President Barack Obama to seek military authorization from Congress when attempting to engage in airstrikes and other military action against ISIS and Assad’s government in 2014.
Obama’s military authorization never even came to a vote, due to the complex controversies and intricacies surrounding the legislative decision-making process. Nonetheless, the bulk of military actions in the Middle East and worldwide in recent years have been justified by the executive branch as stemming from Congress’s military authorization passed after 9/11 in 2011.
From a policy and moral perspective as well, it is clear that the Syria situation has been extraordinarily destabilizing in recent years to other countries in the region, such as Iraq, and been used as a proxy conflict for actors such as Russia and Iran. It also has had wider international impact, such as creating the flow of millions of refugees to Europe which has, in turn, contributed in part to fomenting the rise of extreme right-wing groups into mainstream politics there.
On moral grounds however, it also increasingly appears that the free nations of the world have difficulty standing by while countless innocent civilians are slaughtered in horrifying and cruel ways. As the world learned in the wake of tragedies like Rwanda, inaction can lead to horrific consequences.
It remains to be seen how the Syria situation develops and what America’s role in it will be. If solutions were easy and clear, they would have been implemented already.
President Trump this week has begun a tit-for-tat trade battle with China that has sent the stock market into a spiral and left economists and policymakers on both sides of the aisle scratching their heads.
It all began several days ago when China implemented approximately $3 billion in tariffs in response to the steel and aluminum tariffs implemented by the administration last month, which affected China significantly in particular. The Trump Administration then began the process of implementing a 25% tariff on over 1,300 imports totaling approximately $50 billion a year in trade, citing China’s continued alleged lack of protection for American companies’ intellectual property rights despite repeated promises to do so.
China responded in kind, implementing similar tariffs on $50 billion of U.S. imports to China. Trump then escalated the battle by announcing he was considering tariffs on another $100 billion in Chinese imports, with China responding again to match and saying it would fight “to the end” in this trade battle.
To compare, in 2016 the U.S. imported over $462.6 billion in goods from China while exporting $115.6 billion in goods to China.
The President’s surrogates, including his new National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, have suggested that the tariffs are not meant to be a permanent state of affairs. Rather, they say, the tariff battle is meant to be a heavy-handed negotiating tactic to convince China to better play by the rules and norms of international trade.
Even though President Trump embraced openly protectionist sentiments on the campaign trail and throughout much of his life, his policies since taking office have more often lean towards enforcing fair trade, with the occasional exception such as his proposed border adjustment tax that didn’t pass Congress. These past few months however we’ve seen increasing actions that, while they could still be interpreted as being meant to encourage a level playing field, are starting to turn towards protectionism.
Long-standing U.S. demands that have been met with varying degrees of success in recent years include allowing China’s currency to have a free-floating exchange rate, increase human rights and labor standards, and give U.S. companies both greater intellectual property protections and more market freedom to operate within China.
In recent years and months China has apparently begun to move in a more economically friendly direction to American companies, such as with reforming their financial services sector to allow greater foreign ownership of domestic institutions. This would essentially allow foreign banks to operate with far greater independence in China and increase the flow of Chinese capital to and from the wider world.
China also promised to finally increase intellectual property protections, which the U.S. Trade Representative recently estimated to cost the U.S. a staggering $225 billion to $600 billion annually. It is the seeming slowness or ineffectiveness of those promised increased protections from back in November that appears to be the spark for the current trade conflict.
It is nearly impossible to determine who will prevail, if anyone, in the end from this high-stakes international economic and political battle. Any diplomatic incident where both sides risk seeming weak if they concede is difficult to resolve with any alternative but a return to the status quo, and this saga seems to likely be little different.
Furthermore, this trade war looks to potentially be far more damaging to U.S. businesses and consumers. While the previous tariffs were on items such as washing machines and solar panels, and then more important materials such as steel and aluminum, these tariffs cover what appear to be over a thousand products and counting, ranging from food to toys to raw materials.
For a long time the United States has faced the difficult situation of benefiting greatly from our trade relations with China but also systematically at times seemingly being exploited as well. On one hand, the United States has over the years gained much in terms of lower business costs and consumer prices, and thus increased efficiency. On the other hand, the benefits to the United States would have been and could still be far greater were China to play on a level playing field in terms of regulatory frameworks and market forces.
For all of our sakes, hopefully the trade battle between the United States and China soon resolves, ideally with the President’s hardball negotiating tactics resulting in a more level and fairer trade relationship. If the trade war doesn’t subside soon however, we may be facing rapidly increasing costs and prices across a multitude of sectors.
This past week Congress passed and the President signed a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill. The 2,232-page bill avoids a government shutdown that would have otherwise happened this past weekend and will keep the government open till at least September.
The omnibus bill, H.R. 1625, did not pass without great controversy however. Many on both the left and right derided how the bill increased federal spending and will add over a trillion dollars to the federal debt through running its course.
The most notable provisions from the bill were an increase in military spending, $1.5 billion for President Trump’s border wall, and funding to better prevent gun violence through fixes to background checks and increased training.
Despite January’s government shutdown being caused over brinkmanship negotiation positions over creating a permanent solution to DACA, the bill did not address a solution for recipients in anyway. Both Republicans and Democrats took to blaming each other over the lack of a solution, as legislative circling has kept this issue from being properly addressed.
In the Senate, 25 Republicans and 40 Democrats voted for the bill compared to 23 Republicans and 9 Democrats that voted against it. In the House, 145 Republicans and 111 Democrats voted for the bill compared to 90 Republicans and 77 Democrats against.
In an ironic way, the omnibus was a bipartisan bill in a hyperpolarized Washington. The lead up to the eventual package was marred by immense fighting over every issue from sanctuary cities to Planned Parenthood, from full funding for the border wall to a federal support of the “Gateway” commuter rail tunnel being built to connect New York and New Jersey.
Procedural concerns were also vast, as many complained of the short timeline between the bill’s release and its vote, as well as its deficit impact.
Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who personally created a one-night government shutdown back in early February, took to Twitter and deridingly said “Victory for conservatives today is that all of America now knows what a budget-busting bomb this bill is. Hopefully, today’s battle will embolden conservatives to descend on Congress and demand Constitutional government."
Senator Paul’s sentiments were shared by many Republicans who voted against the bill, as well as grassroots activists, citing its fiscal irresponsibility and lack of any contribution towards reducing our country’s spending deficit let alone overall debt.
The deficit question always comes up every so often in debates over spending on the Hill but rarely has it ever been enacted on in a serious way. There are a multitude of reasons for this, beginning with the fact that no individual members of Congress have a clear incentive to look after the “forest.” Rather, members of Congress all have their various issue priorities and objectives they hope to get into the bill and for which they can claim success for.
Secondly is the still low economic impact of the debt as of the moment, even if the future is worrisome if we stay our current course. Currently the national debt stands at roughly $21.05 trillion or 105% of GDP. We still are a far ways away from Japan’s infamous and economy-crushing national debt, which stands at 238% gross of GDP.
Nonetheless, according to the CIA Factbook our country remains in the top twenty nations worldwide consistently for the level of our public debt compared to our economic production. In comparison, the gross debt-to-GDP ratio of the United Kingdom is 84.9%, Germany is 81.9%, Brazil is 71.2%, China is 65.7%, India is 41.1%, and Russia is 10.9%.
It is also worth noting that our national debt has been increasingly rapidly in not just recent decades but recent years relative to our nation’s overall economy. Prior to the 2008 financial crisis, our debt-to-GDP ratio stood at a mere 62%. In 1980, it was a mere 31%.
Undoubtedly our current fiscal practices will eventually need remedying, as our country’s strong economic engine cannot keep pace spending on a limitless credit card that is only consequence-free for so long.
However, as the recent omnibus battle showed, in a Washington that is facing extreme tension over a variety of controversial policy debates it is difficult enough to even keep the government open let alone address longer-term priorities. Once our country has gotten itself out of the current paralyzed situation it is in, we may hopefully begin to finally do so.
Last week Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District went from voting for then-candidate Donald Trump in 2016 by roughly 20 points to, at the moment barring a recount, voting for a Democrat by just under three tenths of a percent.
As with each special election since the beginning of President Trump’s term, the pundits and strategists have been putting their spin on it to try to somehow line it up with the agenda they are seeking to push, no matter the results.
What are clear however are the facts. Democrat Conor Lamb, a Marine officer and Ivy-League educated former prosecutor, ran as essentially a conservative Republican according to the RNC and others. He was pro-life, pro-firearms, and “anti-Nancy Pelosi.”
In contrast, Pennsylvania State Representative Rick Saccone ran under the message that he “was Trump before Trump was Trump.” While seemingly a smart strategy in a district that seemingly was so heavily for Trump in 2016, the fact that it didn’t work out is indeed noteworthy.
Pennsylvania’s 18th District, at least until the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s ordered redistricting takes place in just a few months for this November, is a mix of both “Trump Country” and traditional “Republican” strongholds. Located largely on the Alleghany Plateau, it is a mix of Pittsburgh suburbs and rust belt former industrial centers.
The Cook Political Index rated the district as R+11 in 2017, which, given Trump’s margin of victory in the district, represents well how Trump swung the remaining “Reagan Democrats” to his cause to surprisingly win states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin back in November 2016. Trump outperformed Mitt Romney’s 17-point win in 2012 as well as Senator John McCain’s (R-AZ) 11-point win in 2008.
The fact that now, almost a year and a half later, the district went blue may speak less about national trends but more about how some districts still have voters that are up for grabs.
In our current hyperpolarized time, many political strategists and operatives will suggest, often rightly, that the key to winning in the general election is to drive out the base. This is instead of trying to swing what is believed to be an increasingly non-existent middle of swing voters.
However in the case of PA-18, those swing voters actually existed and were swung. While Saccone did not have any major “push” factors himself as a candidate, Lamb’s campaign and his own background undoubtedly was a strong “pull” throwback to a moderate Democrat message that has been lacking in the national discourse in recent years.
It remains to be seen whether Lamb will join Alabama’s new Senator Doug Jones in what seems to be a small rebuilding of the Democrats’ moderate wings that were decimated in the 2010 Tea Party wave, but it wouldn’t be far-fetched whether from evaluating Lamb personally or his likely political calculus.
Nowadays pundits and strategists have become very accustomed to districts and voters behaving like they’ve always done in the past. Indeed that expectation often proves true – until it doesn’t, as in both 2016 and since.
The special elections this past year have seen point swings in some districts that remind us of the reality that voters are not stern partisans that cannot be swayed, whether in choosing to come out to vote or in the candidate they choose to vote for.
Current our country sees candidates often play to the bases of their parties, believing that is an effective way to both nullify primary challenges and win the general election. While that trend is in some ways both a reflection of as well as fuel for the fires of polarization, elections such as PA-18 show that the political calculus doesn’t always reward such a strategy.
Elected officials are creatures of opinion and habit, and as they see they can win by appealing to a broad and unified middle we will undoubtedly see them move in that direction. While this will not necessarily iron out real differences in policy belief that do and always will exist, nonetheless it is a realistic step towards simmering down our currently overheated politics at least a bit.
NOTE: "The Conservative Voice" was my nationally syndicated weekly column from 2017 to 2018 printed/distributed by newspapers in dozens of states across the country. It offered conservative analysis of modern political, social, economic, and cultural issues. The 2017-2018 blogs in this section were part of "The Conservative Voice."