What a week it’s been for Americans invested in the stock market. Last week the Dow Jones traveled more than 22,000 points over just the course of a week, resulting in price volatility we haven’t seen in years and suddenly shaking everyone out of the laid-back seemingly ‘growth-without-end’ environment we’ve been accustomed to recently.
The complex and multifaceted economics aside, it is also worth noting how the market’s turmoil naturally soon became a part of the daily tornado in our national political discourse as well.
The rising stock market, which has soared since election day, has been one of President Trump’s most touted talking points amid the other positive macroeconomic trends in employment, consumer optimism, and growth.
It is indeed true that over this past year, pro-growth regulatory and legislative policies coming from D.C. have created a more nimble environment for businesses, whether large or small, to operate in, and contributed to increased business profitability and thus stock gains.
Despite this week’s volatility, the fundamentals point to more positive indicators on the horizon, with economic growth looking optimistic and companies continuing to drive jobs and innovation in this environment, such as with Apple’s recent announcement that it would be investing over $350 billion in the United States over the next five-years.
This seemingly endless parade of positive economic news came to a brief halt last week as the floor suddenly fell out from markets. Many on the left quickly took this opportunity to mock the President and Congressional Republicans for this turn of events, with the President himself even taking to Twitter to denounce the seeming irrationality of the stock market’s sudden decline.
While the debate over the stock market has been a persistent knot throughout the first year of Trump’s Presidency, with many critics saying that much of the market’s current momentum is attributable to President Obama’s work, this week’s sudden turn of events sheds light on the complex relationship between politics and economics.
Year after year, polls repeatedly show that the economy ranks in as either the top or second most important issue Americans are concerned about. As James Carville famously said as a strategist for then-candidate Bill Clinton in 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid!”
It is therefore natural for politicians to claim credit for positive economic developments and to try to shift the blame when the trends are negative. We see this time and time again, whether in the years of pointing fingers after the financial crisis, the attribution battles over the 1990’s tech boom, or in the ever-present yet difficult-to-prove assertions that growth could have been faster or slower under a different set of policies.
The facts usually are far more complicated than the simple “before and after” comparisons that are the standard boilerplate in political ads and flyers. The economy is driven by a multitude of factors ranging from credit and monetary leverage to legal frameworks to changing consumer tastes and tolerances, and even the most hardened and well-compensated mega-fund quants and their algorithms have a tough time predicting developments.
Zooming in a little bit, we quickly see that behind each numerical movement in economic growth are the countless innovators, investors, workers, analysts, and many more who are the ones actually creating the activity that in aggregate results in a move in GDP, job numbers, or company earnings.
That is not to say that our government, and the leaders inhabiting its offices, do not have an enormous role on our economy’s direction. Policies and regulations essentially create the playing field that all of these actors operate in and can very easily accelerate, create, slow down, block, or reverse growth and innovation.
No one knows for certain how the market or economy will develop, even if current projections remain bright. What does remain certain however is that we can always continue to expect, as we saw this past week with Trump and his opponents, economic developments to be rightly or wrongly used as political fodder.
On Sunday night in a chilly Minneapolis stadium where the temperature was reported at 0 °F with a wind chill of -14 °F, the upstart Eagles, who had never won a Super Bowl until then, and five-time Super Bowl champions faced off in Super Bowl LII. It was a thrilling game that had a jaw-clenching conclusion as the Eagles won against the Patriots 41-33.
All across America, an estimated over 111 million Americans tuned in to the game as billions of dollars were spent on chicken wings, pizza, chips, and drinks. An estimated 1.35 billion chicken wings were consumed, with the average American spending just over $80 on Super Bowl consumables and events.
Yet this year’s Super Bowl took place amid a big star-spangled elephant in the room. A matchup between the underdog Eagles and long-time champion Patriots would normally bring lots of heated passions, but of the fan interest sort rather than political or cultural.
With the controversy over standing for the national anthem at games still marring the sport, this year’s Super Bowl was met in the lead up by political division that has caused incredible and emotional polarization in one of America’s most entrenched and previously unifying national pastimes.
While controversies such as Deflategate and the CTE crisis have emerged sporadically in the NFL over the years, it was really in fall last year that NFL players kneeling in response to the anthem and flag that it began to take off in a more political and cultural direction.
Then-San Francisco 49’ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling, rather than sitting as he previously had, for the national anthem in the fall of 2016, yet it took a year for the protests to really spread among other players and teams.
And when it did finally spread, we saw how a sport that had long been characterized by tribal opposition take a political tone, as each team suddenly found itself having to decide its policy on kneeling. Many fans demanded that their teams kneel, while others threatened boycotts and abandoning even long-beloved teams over kneeling.
Some teams even split, such as when Pittsburgh Steelers player and U.S. Army veteran Alejandro Villanueva came out to stand for the anthem while the other players decided to try to avoid controversy by remaining in the locker room. It is worth noting that in later games the entire team stood for the anthem.
Eventually in early October it seemed as if the kneeling controversy would be put to an end when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent a letter to NFL team owners saying that they wanted the players to stand for the anthem. Yet by then Pandora’s Box already had been opened and the kneeling protests have continued sporadically since.
The NFL controversies have been complex, as on one hand undoubtedly almost all Americans wish to address systematic abuses and inequities that face some of us. However on the other hand, to disrespect the national anthem and turn a unifying sport like football into a political battleground adds to our national division at a time when we already are at dangerous levels of polarization.
Perhaps the best way will be for Democrats and Republicans to come together to seriously examine and ensure that our criminal justice system is truly protecting the liberty of all Americans properly. Indeed there is hope on the horizon in this regard.
As one example, In October last year Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) and Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA) brought together a diverse bipartisan coalition in the Senate to present the “Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017.”
The act, which unfortunately has not moved anywhere in the legislative process this session, would revise perceived inequities in criminal sentencing for for non-violent drug offenders, promote rehabilitation for low-risk convicts, and create a national commission to make a serious comprehensive examination of our nation’s criminal justice system.
The issues surrounding law enforcement and criminal justice are extraordinary complex and can be deeply polarizing, but it is worth remembering that the overwhelming of Americans want an equitable and just system that protects our freedoms while also punishing criminals and securing our communities.
And so while millions of Americans still enjoyed Super Bowl LII despite the controversies of the past year, it is worth hoping that we can someday again enjoy a great sport like football without such heated political controversies as well as ensuring that “liberty and justice” for all is truly the case in our country.
What a year it’s been. President Donald Trump will give his first State of the Union address on Tuesday, and despite the highly divided nature of our country at the moment perhaps one point of unity is that we can all agree that this has been a truly extraordinary in American politics.
By most policy metrics, President Trump’s first year in office has been an enormous success. The economy is roaring forward on all engines, with a booming stock market, two-decade low unemployment, and high consumer optimism.
On the military front, ISIS has been essentially completely wiped out in Iraq and Syria after years of their contagion seemingly difficult to stop.
In terms of other policies, America has seen the appointment of a slew of constitutionalist judges, the passage of a pro-growth tax reform package, regulatory reduction and streamlining, enforcement of our trade laws, and the re-assertion of a strong American foreign policy in the world.
Yet despite the tangible achievements in terms of governance, it seems that our discourse has become as corrupted and polarized as it has ever been. The hyper-partisan bickering that characterized the 2016 campaign and the immediate few months afterwards seems to be continuing just as fiercely.
We will be reminded of that again at Trump’s State of the Union - just as over 70 Democratic members of Congress boycotted Trump’s Inauguration last year, now many are also boycotting his State of the Union.
The Democratic response is expected to be given by Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA), one of Trump’s fiercest critics and who has repeatedly called for his impeachment over the past year. It is unlikely the remarks will bring our country together in any way.
It is worth remembering that this is not how our politics usually are. Normally in the immediate aftermath of a Presidential election the public interest fades to a large degree and the new set of policymakers in D.C. can get down to the law’s toilsome sausage-making process.
However this year it seems citizens are as engaged as ever, with Trump having become a ubiquitous node around which much of our culture itself is centered around. Nearly everything nowadays is seen as having some connection to Trump, leading to even the most devout or opposed to begin to feel a sense of fatigue.
Even if our public discourse seems as shattered as ever, it should be comforting at least that on the material fronts our country is at a time of extraordinary prosperity and strength.
Furthermore, it is clear that many of the fears that Trump’s fiercest opponents derided him for during the 2016 election have not come to pass. Trump has not taken authoritarian power, has not shattered our economy, has not caved in to Russia, and has not brought us into a devastating war.
On the contrary, the Trump Administration has done, by any objective measure, incredible good for our prosperity and security. The fact that the Dow is soaring past 26,000 and unemployment at a mere 4.1% say enough on their own.
It is unlikely Trump’s State of the Union on Tuesday will be able to appease his most ruthless opponents who have realized it is either good politics or good business to remain staunchly opposed to him.
Nonetheless, perhaps for some out there it will be a chance to listen to our President and to reflect on the real progress that has been made this past year for Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs.
The Office of the President deserves respect, whether it is Trump, Obama, Bush, Clinton, or otherwise. On Tuesday millions of Americans will be listening to our elected leader talk about the path our country has walked this past year and his vision going forward. No matter what, it is at least worth a listen.
Last Friday at midnight, the bank ran dry for the United States government.
It was not because of economic trends or foreign manipulation, but because of the current dysfunction characterizing Washington D.C.
By any objective analysis of the facts, it is clear that Congressional Democrats are the cause of the mess this time around. Congressional Democrats have been demanding a full DACA bill immediately despite the program still lasting until March and giving them extensive time to negotiate and reach a deal with Republicans.
Yet Congressional Democrats rejected Congressional Republicans’ multiple attempts at a deal, including a 30-day temporary stop-gap measure that would have also provided funding for state child insurance programs, also known as “CHIP,” for an additional six years. The CHIP program expires in just weeks and could leave over 1.7 million children without healthcare.
Despite the stop-gap bill passing the House, it requires 60 votes in the Senate due to Senate rules. With Republicans only having a 51-seat majority in the Senate, Senate Democrats blocked the stop-gap measure that resulted in the shutdown we saw Friday.
This is the second time this decade that our government has shutdown. Last time, in October 2013, was when Congressional Republicans attempted to force a defunding of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
The 2013 standoff eventually ended in defeat for Republicans, with a funding being passed after two weeks that gave Republicans very little if anything at all.
During that shutdown House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi decried the GOP as “legislative arsonists” for shutting down the government over seeking a policy objective passed.
Senator Chuck Schumer, now Senate Minority Leader and the one who essentially led this year’s shutdown, said in 2013 “The basic line is: No matter how strongly one feels about an issue, you shouldn’t hold millions of people hostage. That’s what the other side is doing. That’s wrong and we can’t give in to that.”
It is ironic that now Congressional Democrats are doing exactly what they viciously criticized the GOP for doing in 2013, namely forcing a government shutdown for a policy priority they want passed outside of regular legislative proceedings.
The actual economic and social effects of a government shutdown are complex. For most Americans, they see little beyond the closure of some facilities and being unable to reach certain government services.
The core of the federal government, termed “essential,” remains open, including, unlike last time, national parks.
One of the most iconic images of the 2013 government shutdown was when a group of veterans who had traveled from across the nation to D.C. were refused entrance to the World War II memorial due to the shutdown. In contrast, during this saga Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke was found to be giving tours of the memorial himself to tourists on the morning after the shutdown.
Nonetheless, many federal workers will be without work or pay for as long as the shutdown lasts. Many federal employees are left to mill about D.C., unable to take substantive vacations because they will be called back the next day when the shutdown ends.
Thankfully, D.C. has many “government shutdown” happy hour specials that keep business booming and the city lively during this time.
On a more serious note, even though Congress has always passed a bill afterwards authorizing back pay for federal employees that have been furloughed, nonetheless for those who live paycheck-to-paycheck the shutdown may cause significant cash flow problems and financial stress.
Furthermore, the back pay is in fact a cost passed onto the American taxpayer as they will be paying employees for essentially not having done work during that time. In 2013 this tab came to about $2 billion for the over 850,000 workers furloughed.
Of special disgrace as well is that our military will not be receiving any pay either.
During the 2013 shutdown Congress passed a special bill right before the shutdown that provided the military with pay during the shutdown. However this year no such bill has been passed.
Government shutdowns are a recent incarnation in our hyperpolarized time. They did not happen during the 2000’s, happened during a particularly concentrated time in the 1990’s, and in the 1980’s only lasted for days if not just hours rather than now in weeks.
This time around it is clearly Congressional Democrats who have forced this shutdown despite there still being months to negotiate DACA, a temporary funding bill on the table that supports children’s health, and the deep cost to our military due to the not being paid.
It remains worth seeing whether the American people will take note of the price they are paying and the damage that those who promote a shutdown are causing.
This past week has seen South Korea and North Korea engage in friendly overtures not seen in recent history, amid discussions over North Korea’s possible participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.
While that may seem a small or routine issue, it is nonetheless the first official dialogue the two countries have engaged in for over two years and comes amid what has been an extremely tense past few months with North Korea’s ballistic missile testing.
It even raises for a brief moment the long-pondered yet seemingly impossible prospect of a new status quo on the Korean peninsula, which has seen little movement or progress of any meaningful sort since the close of the Korean War’s open hostilities in 1953.
If history is any guide, it is unlikely anything will change. Every so often over the decades North Korea will engage in dialogue with South Korea or even America, but it is almost always with a material motive fundamentally in mind. These objectives range from gaining legitimacy internationally, seeking a reduction of sanctions, or food aid for its people as during the 1990’s horrific famine that came about as a result of state mismanagement.
The situation on the Korean peninsula has floated in and out of the news cycle these past few months amid the ballistic tests but also Tweets and “rocket man” UN speeches. Nonetheless, it remains a serious dilemma because there are no easy solutions or even meaningfully divergent options.
It’s almost like our Cold War with the Soviet Union, albeit of course on a much smaller scale. With the Soviet Union there was little we could do directly against them, as the principle of mutually assured destruction prevented overt action. Instead, proxy conflicts were waged in third party nations across the world.
Of course North Korea doesn’t have remotely the international tentacles or might the Soviet Union did, but nonetheless it is similar in that there is little direct action that can be done on the peninsula and which is why the situation has remained deadlocked for almost 70 years.
North Korea remains a highly militarized society with its artillery batteries all aimed at Seoul. Military analysts say that has been their biggest deterrent, as the civilian casualties from such an attack would be quick and horrifying.
Now that North Korea has increasingly developed its nuclear capabilities the worry is even greater, especially as their missiles slowly extend in range to even begin to touch the United States.
As President Trump has said, America can “totally destroy” North Korea, Of course, that is without question. North Korea remains an impoverished and small state where all activity is directed to supporting its overly large military. Nonetheless given their focus on military deterrence, the costs could be heavy, either for South Korea, Japan, or even America.
The only hoped-for solutions might be similar to how many other totalitarian regimes in the past half-century have fallen, which is through internal regime change. The nations of the Eastern bloc seemed like impenetrable Orwellian fortresses for decades until they seemingly collapsed from the wind overnight.
North Korea is however different than Warsaw Pact Communist states or the Soviet Union, as it has taken its totalitarian control to even greater extremes that prevent even the slightest air of dissent from gaining a critical mass to threaten to the regime.
Even those in the regime’s power structure are constantly kept on watch, recycled, or terminated by a tyranny that has seemingly stamped out every ounce of humanity in the name of keeping control.
President Trump has indicated he is continuing to try to seek solutions for the situation on the Korean peninsula and the South Korea-North Korea talks continue for the moment.
As always we can hope that some progress may be made in freeing the North Korean people. The past has shown that will be a tough task indeed, yet it is worth praying that the tide of history towards human freedom can even find cracks in the iron shell of North Korea.
On a nearly daily basis we hear about the newest Bitcoin millionaire or how another company has forgone a traditional debt or equity offering to instead raise money through an “ICO,” or initial coin offering.
As the retail public begins to become aware of the previously esoteric cryptocurrency market, I can’t help but think of how this compares to past asset rushes in American history as well as what it reflects on us at the moment.
The cryptocurrrency market is now in the hundreds of billions of dollars, with new coins being created on a near monthly basis. Almost each of these currencies is facing volatility that is simply unheard of for almost any asset.
Furthermore, with each increasingly harsh press release and statement warning about cryptocurrencies, it looks like soon enough the Securities and Exchange Commission itself may be finally edging close to reigning in the market, though to what degree remains unknown.
Cryptocurrency is the ultimate sleek asset for our modern technology boom. It is almost perfectly designed for our times – it combines some of the most modern developments in Internet services, software, and data science. It undoubtedly will have some potential use in the future, even if not the “currency ending” millennialism talk some of its evangelists tout.
However the way the public has begun pouring into it almost seems like a modern version of the gold rushes to the American West in the 1800’s. During that time, hundreds of thousands of Americans packed up their belongings and left their homes in search of fabled riches in the mines and rivers of California and other territories.
Many rushed in with little understanding of how to find gold, how much there might be, and the dangers involved in the blasting and mines. Many ended up with little to show for their efforts, while it was in fact those merchants who set up shop for services, housing, and supplies for the miners who in fact extracted the greatest profits.
The cryptocurrency craze today is indeed our modern gold rush. Too many are now rushing into cryptocurrencies without the slightest idea of the actual mechanics of the system.
We even hear stories of people mortgaging their houses to buy cryptocurrency, essentially risking everything in search of easy riches just like those who followed the gold rush to the frontier back centuries ago.
Just like with the gold rush of the 1800’s, some of those who are in fact profiting the most from the cryptocurrency are the middlemen. Those who are issuing the ICOs are raising untold sums of money with little liability. Cryptocurrency exchanges carve out extensive fees that make broker transaction costs for securities look nominal. Many evangelists tread the edge of legality, with some even outright engaging in pumping and dumping, taking advantage of this wild west environment.
Like with the gold rush, eventually this craze will end. Cryptocurrency won’t “run out” per say, as one aspect of cryptocurrency is that there are essentially an infinite number of potential cryptocurrencies. However undoubtedly regulators will someday soon tighten the market, dramatically crunch the volatility, and dissipate much of the investment demand currently fueling the price swings and consequent market interest in a vicious cycle.
How soon cryptocurrency becomes “boring” is uncertain. In the meantime, by looking at this current show in this online casino we learn a lot about the strange ways history repeats itself and about how human nature’s desire for easy riches and quick profits remains despite the past’s endless warnings.
Cryptocurrency is exciting. It’s flashy. It excites us with dreams of easy wealth, just like the thrill when we buy a Mega Millions or Powerball ticket. However at least the profits from the lottery system go to a beneficial cause, such as education.
Cryptocurrency has had and will continue to have its winners, but in many cases the real flow of money is going to those making a business off of the craze and hype. Caution, as always, is a prudent quality.
Virtue. Character. Integrity. Words that cultures around the world and through history have described as the aspirational qualities to earn and strive for in our lives.
2017 was as tumultuous a year as 2016, as the rocky social discourse we now live in seemingly continues to intensify. Yet to me, the most noticeable new development in that trend this year was how we gradually saw a rapider disintegration of public trust in politics, media, and our public square in general.
We saw General Michael Flynn, a respected General who served and protected our country honorably for decades, plead guilty to lying to the FBI.
We saw the #MeToo campaign, with many previously long-respected and admired figures in media, Hollywood, and politics revealed to be engaged in horrifying practices and abuses of power.
We saw the seriously disturbing allegations unveiled regarding Roy Moore, who had built his career on piety.
We witnessed a torrent of hyperbole come from leaders on both sides of the aisle.
On the left, for example, there was Kathy Griffin’s disgusting skit and fear mongering the GOP policy efforts on healthcare reform, taxes, and net neutrality, as literally causing people to die.
On the right, some conspiracy theories have developed a life of their own and collapsed into an incomprehensible singularity universe within themselves.
We saw even some of our nation’s most trusted institutions, ranging from the Department of Justice to our court system, from the national media to the FBI, all questioned.
The Founding Fathers created our form of government to structurally withstand what they believed to be humanity’s inherent evils, abuses, and ambition. Nonetheless, such a safety grid was not meant to allow us to become accustomed to an excess of moral corruption, thinking that our system would protect us from the societal consequences.
John Adams articulated this sentiment in 1798 to the Massachusetts Militia when he said “[o]ur Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
However character is also very difficult to accurately ascertain and this year we have seen enough “virtue-signaling,” likely a portion of it perhaps hypocritical, to make one shake their head as well.
While there are many cases where a person’s character at that time is relatively determinable, also in many situations the facts are unclear and stories only hearsay without evidence.
Furthermore, none of us is perfect and infallible despite the striving many of us make towards that goal.
Yet after this year it is undeniable that the state of character in the public square is in serious trouble and in need of a reawakening.
For much of American history, character was built through one’s family, community, and institutions.
In recent decades we’ve seen all three begin to unravel. Families are cracking apart. Communities are no longer as tight-knit as they used to be, with a decline in public festivals, rites, and bonding, and local organizations.
Our institutions have also changed dramatically, as previously essential character-refining groups such as churches, youth clubs, schools, and fraternal associations have all seen a remarkable waning.
Many of the institutions that do remain, such as schools and higher education, have also experienced a polarizing transformation in discourse that is an extraordinary complex issue within itself.
All this sounds tragic and terrible. Yet the fact that we also live in perhaps the most prosperous, peaceful, and technologically-advanced time in human history makes one also wonder what’s the point of character anyway?
The point of character is multifold. Beyond giving respect to our Creator, it helps us all live in a better society that is more fulfilling and individually wholesome.
When we can trust our institutions, trust our public figures, and trust one another in our communities, we prevent the inevitable regression from a vacuum of virtue as well as protect our progress.
The road up from our current state of affairs is complex and difficult. It is more than just a return to the way things were, as that may be impossible and even undesirable given how our society has been transformed by developments such as technology.
Policy proposals for reigniting character in the public square in the 21st century will undoubtedly come on the local, state, and federal levels as public clamor and outrage grows. In the meantime, perhaps the best that can be done is to take a moment to reflect on our own lives and the kind of approach we want to put forward in the world.
I’ve always been a history buff, not just of American history but world history. Recently I couldn’t help but reflect on the extraordinary time we live and many of the historic developments we’ve been able to witness firsthand the past few years.
Our forefathers could not have imagined some of the fascinating events we’ve recently seen on the social, political, and technological fronts. Yet it seems difficult to find the time and focus to reflect on what our forefathers might have thought in the midst of the 24-hour news cycle and lightning-speed social media focus on the immediate present.
History is complex and multifaceted, both in its timeline and in the narrative. The basic facts, such as dates of events or physical actions, exist as objective truth even if sometimes difficult to discern for certain. However any level of analysis or theory is filled to the brim with opinion, source problems, politics, a person’s own biases, and other confounding factors.
Nonetheless, the past’s potential benefits remain vast despite its inherent inability to be as certain as say aerodynamics equations or financial models, as well as being subjected to the present’s debates and agendas.
In our modern time, it seems we’ve lost an appreciation for history. In our focus on the nitty-gritty immediate issues and debates of the day, it is easy to forget the greater fabric that brought us to this point and that we are a part of.
After all, in a time in the future when everyone alive at this point in time has passed on, we too will become part of history. When we broaden our view from the few steps that are just in front of us to the broader picture, we gain a greater perspective that often lends informed insight to our actions, approaches, and decisions.
Furthermore, by understanding and appreciating the past we gain a greater peace and sense of purpose with our own existence. I know for me certainly in having studied history I have felt a greater sense of understanding.
As an example of this, imagine a smaller scale of history – one’s own family history. For those who are able to know their family’s history, whether a generation back, a few generations back, or even dozens of generations back, it gives a sense of being informed about how one came to be and also one’s place in the world.
On the broader scale of national, societal, and human history, the same principle applies. By understanding our country’s past, and humanity’s overall past, we gain an incredible level of understanding which otherwise leaves a piece missing.
Thankfully, we live in a free society where the reflection on and discussion of history remains generally an open endeavor. History has all too often been used as one of the prime tools of control for authoritarian or illiberal governments, as the narratives of the past provide justification for present conditions.
The scholar Francis Fukuyama discussed the “end of history” in the early-1990’s, theorizing that it seems that one of society’s key questions, regarding the form of government, had been permanently settled in favor of Western-style liberal democracy.
However few historical trends are ever settled permanently. We live in constant change and development in every sector, including in constant resurgences of history in modified configurations.
It seems even Fukuyama’s prediction regarding geopolitics has been disproved, as around the world many governments and societies remain deeply in flux, including being still held under the grip of various authoritarian governments that also are trying to spread their influences.
It is too easy to proclaim an “end of history” in any topic. Undoubtedly a British observer in the mid-1800’s may have thought the British empire would last forever, or a Holy Roman Empire observer in the 1500’s. After all, both had lasted centuries and there seemed little to immediately tear them apart.
We live in a time of extraordinary change, and undoubtedly far in the future our descendants will study the remainders of our time and reflect on how different our world was. We don’t know what kind of world they will live in, but if the past is any indicator, it is that it will be vastly different from ours.
So I say it is worth taking the time to watch a documentary, read a history book, or even a document from the past itself. It is a beneficial, and necessary, step in understanding our part in the human fabric.
Russian President Vladimir Putin recently held his annual marathon press conference, taking questions this year from the over 1,640 accredited journalists for almost four hours.
Amid questions on everything from geopolitics regarding Syria, Ukraine, and North Korea, to his own upcoming re-election campaign for President, the backdrop of Russia’s rapidly deteriorating international reputation was simply unavoidable.
With Russia being banned from the 2018 Winter Olympics for doping allegations, a severe move, its support of far-right European movements almost completely failing, increasingly painful sanctions, and in the United States growing bipartisan interest in and public awareness of Russian political interference efforts, it is undeniable Russia’s worldwide machinations have backfired greatly this year.
In contrast, ranging from the essentially nominal competitors lining up to challenge Putin in his bid for re-election to him even berating one journalist at the press conference by saying “[t]his is not a discussion. You ask a question, I answer,” it is clear that Putin’s domestic control of Russia remains for the moment strong and absolute.
Furthermore, Putin himself remains defiant and still opposed to the United States’ actions and efforts, ranging from spreading doubt about our nation’s global integrity to challenging our geopolitical efforts.
It was also recently revealed that Putin’s interference in the United States was fundamentally guided by the intent to divide Americans through fueling both the far-left and the far-right, polarizing and crippling our internal cohesion.
Undoubtedly the Russian interference investigation remains an important focal point for American domestic politics, yet alas one that also has become at great risk of polarization.
It is of the utmost national security concern to study the extent of Russia’s support of the far-right and far-left in our country. In our modern digital age, cyber efforts are both extraordinarily powerful and a particular weak point for our country right now, as evidenced by the frequent hackings by foreign actors as well as the systematic interference of Russia in our domestic politics.
However the essential goal of such an investigation should be to protect ourselves in the future, as well as bring to justice those who may have facilitated it, rather than misusing the investigation for political ends.
On a grander international scale, it is clear Russia still poses immense challenges to American interests, with hope of a “Russian reset” seemingly as impossible as ever. Russia at the moment appears intent on supporting a bloc against American interests rather than joining the community of nations as a beneficial participant.
Historically, America has always been a scapegoat for those ranging from strongmen to totalitarians that need to keep a modicum of consent among their ruled-over populations. Putin practices a form of this in demonizing the United States as an enemy of Russia and the Russian people, and thus bringing the Russian people into his cold embrace.
In the meantime, the few public dissenters in Russia find themselves consistently the target of harassment and even death. Many Russians may be generally content with their daily lives at the moment, but without true rule of law or individual liberty if problems arise they may find they have little redress or voice.
Russia’s economy has begun edging up lately as well, albeit with weak fundamentals, from its heavy downturn in recent years. This recent trend will likely boost Putin’s domestic support for the near-term, as in illiberal nations it is difficult to encourage change when the system appears to be functioning on a level sufficient for sustenance, even if still on an overall meager level.
It may be a very long time before we ever see a free and democratic Russia that is an open and positive participant in world affairs. The two major opportunities Russia had in recent times to liberalize, during the few months of the democratic provisional government under Kerensky in 1917 and in the immediate few years after the fall of the Soviet Union, were separated by almost a century.
Alas, hopefully it will not be another century before that chance emerges again.
President Trump last week declared that the United States embassy in Israel would be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, essentially officially recognizing Israel’s claim that Jerusalem is their capital.
The United States has already considered Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel, at least on paper, since Congress enacted the Jerusalem Embassy Act in 1995. However Presidential administrations have for decades used a mechanism in the bill to continually delay the embassy’s move, thus denying material recognition.
The administration’s move last week at last gives our previous political dance certainty and resolve as we show our support for a vital American ally, as well as harbinger of liberal democracy, in the Middle East.
Many made it seem like this move was more controversial than it actually was. Furthermore, the historical complexities of the issue are hopelessly deep-seeped in politics and for which mountains of books have been written to no avail.
Nonetheless, it is worthwhile at this stage to examine why Israel remains so important for America and our values historically, presently, and undoubtedly in the future.
Israel remains a key bulwark of liberal democracy in the Middle East. While most Middle Eastern nations embrace forms of government ranging from monarchy to Islamic Republics to strongman-rule, Israel remains a healthy Western-style republic in the region.
For many Americans, myself included, Israel also holds special religious significance. I still remember vividly the splendor of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth, and other Holy Sites during my church’s visit to Israel last year. To see sites that we had previously only had read about in the Bible gave a feeling of humility and wonder beyond description.
Furthermore, it is worth noting the incredible grit, strength, as well as restraint of the Israeli people. Here we have an entire population that is literally under siege around the clock from everything from rocket attacks to restaurant bombings to stabbings. Here we have a nation where essentially every citizen, male or female, is required to perform service in the Israeli Defense Forces.
During our visit last year in Israel, while we were in Jerusalem for a few days there were almost a half-dozen terror attacks in the city during just that time. It is difficult to imagine living a life perpetually under such threat, yet the Israeli people find joy, optimism, generosity, as well as restrained responses of military force, despite that perpetual setting.
Undoubtedly, we have many essential allies in the Arab world too and our alliances there remain essential for historical joint efforts in combating extremism as well as in ensuring regional and world stability and understanding.
The Jerusalem issue is an extraordinarily complex one with the Arab world, particularly in part due to the controversy over the religiously-significant Temple Mount, but as we have seen in the past week perhaps the embassy move itself was not as actually material to our Arab partners as some believed it was.
While we often have had delicate “frenemy” relationships with some of our Arab partners, it is worth remembering that Israel has always remained our steadfast friend and partner in a variety of geopolitical efforts.
Whenever the United States has supported a motion or action in the United Nations that faced some international backlash, Israel has always backed the United States almost every time.
During the Obama administration our relationship with Israel undoubtedly deteriorated due to measures such as the Iran Deal, censure votes at the United Nations, and various other diplomatic actions.
Our country has been deeply involved in the Middle East for several decades with our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as ubiquitous diplomatic interventions. Undoubtedly with geopolitical developments in Syria, Iran, Yemen, and Turkey all heating up, we shall continue to be quite involved for years to come.
In these upcoming conflicts and debates, it is worth remembering who has always had America’s back during these struggles and whose determination should be an inspiration to us all.
Peace in the Middle East is a lofty, difficult, and admirable goal, and to achieve it we need to remember to support those at the negotiating table who steadfastly stand with us.