Category Archives: Social and Political Pieces

It would be nice if we could ignore the world around us. But we can’t.

The Perils of Repealing the Johnson Amendment

One of Donald Trump’s promises to the Evangelical community–and one which he’s gotten much enthusiasm about in return–is his promise to repeal the so-called “Johnson Amendment,” the provision in the tax code which prohibits 503(c)3 tax-exempt organisations–and that includes churches–from explicitly endorsing candidates for public office.  I say “explicitly” because churches on both sides of the political–and racial–spectrum have been implicitly doing this for a long time.  And the polarisation of our society has only made this easier.

It’s for that reason that I think the real impact of this will not be as widespread as people think.  Whether it is beneficial is another story.  One thing that this country has been “about” is that freedom is something to be used responsibly.  If and when this restriction comes out of the tax code, our ministers will have some serious choices to make.  Based on my experience with our ministers, this may not work out as anticipated.

Most ministers of the Gospel are called, trained and set forth to lead their congregations or, to use Our Lord’s pastoral analogy, feed the sheep.  The interests of the sheep are for the most part local: raising a family, doing the work to make a living, and being a part of their community.  The gifts and skills of the ministers, which admittedly vary, are geared towards that kind of life pursuit.  That’s especially true with Evangelical churches, with their focus on the salvation experience and (hopefully) the later spiritual growth.

To properly operate politically, however, requires a broader view of life.  That’s where the problem comes in.  Most of our ministers, by training and temperament, are unprepared to properly address the broader issues facing our society, and thus are unprepared to properly inform their congregations about how best to respond to those challenges.  As a result of this there are two mistakes our ministers make in addressing political issues that can significantly impact their congregations.

On the left, we have those who basically “flip” the message of the Gospel, putting the broader social issues ahead of the personal ones.  That’s a major reason left-wing churches are in decline: they’re political all right, but they don’t address people’s life issues in a meaningful way.

On the right, we have various forms of “prosperity teaching.”  At the core of prosperity teaching are two underlying assumptions.  The first is that Christianity is the “way up” in this world, and second that moving up is the principal goal of life.  Today we principally associate prosperity teaching with the likes of Paula White, who prayed at President Trump’s inauguration.  But we’ve had this before.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s the Episcopal Church experienced tremendous growth, basically by telling people that they had the nicest religion and that people could move up by becoming a part of it.  The taste of the two results is quite divergent, but the ultimate goal is the same.

The danger of the left-wing mistake is obvious: declining churches.  The danger of the right is the same as Harry Reid’s doing away with the super-majority filibuster for nominees: if the political wind reverses, you’ve given yourself the shaft.  In both cases the reality of the Gospel is obscured by our desires of the moment.

I think that political activity needs to be the province of the laity.  And I’ve heard Christian politicians show a stronger grasp on what the Gospel is all about than ministers about political issues.  To put our ministers in the “driver’s seat” of political activity is to cede yet another function of the laity, reducing the latter to passive consumers of the church’s product.  And we have enough of that unBiblical kind of thing going on as it is.

As I said at the start, freedom is something that needs to be used wisely.  If you get it, be careful: you may end up losing it all if you blow it.

Facing Our Past Folly in Iran

It’s next to impossible to get anyone in this country to face up to it, but Zero Hedge has done it:

As for Iran, the CIA admits that the U.S. overthrew the moderate, suit-and-tie-wearing, Democratically-elected prime minister of Iran in 1953. He was overthrown because he had nationalized Iran’s oil, which had previously been controlled by BP and other Western oil companies. As part of that action, the CIA admits that it hired Iranians to pose as Communists and stage bombings in Iran in order to turn the country against its prime minister. If the U.S. hadn’t overthrown the moderate Iranian government, the fundamentalist Mullahs would have never taken over.

They’re referring, of course, to Mohammad Mosaddegh, who was overthrown in 1953 by the CIA, egged on by the Brits.  He had nationalised BP as he felt (with good reason) that Iran wasn’t getting its fair share of oil revenues.  You get into a discussion with an Iranian about their history, and sooner or later his name will come up.

And for me, of course, my family business could have sold equipment to an Iranian oil company, just as it did with Aramco, National Petroleum of the UAE, PDVSA, CNOOC, ENAP, Petrobras…and I could have gotten to know then in Tehran and not they having to come to me.

Zero Hedge’s article on the subject of the ban deserves a full reading about all the other countries that were included–and those who weren’t.

We Won’t Let Them Vote At All

That’s what Snapchat’s offering to the world:

Investors are furious at Snap’s decision to deny them a say in running the company when the owner of message app Snapchat launches one of the US’s largest tech initial public offerings.

A dozen of the US’s biggest pension funds have sent a letter of objection to Snap, while one investment industry leader predicted its IPO could “open the floodgates” to similar governance arrangements at companies around the world.

I am sure that many in our political system, surveying the result of the last election, quietly rue the day they gave anyone the vote.  Snapchat’s founders, however, are working to make that a reality in the corporate world, something which they are legally in their rights to do.  Whether the financial industry, through its various market organisations, will let them get away with it is another matter altogether.

It’s fair to say that what voting “means” on a corporate level is different from what it is on a political one.  But having voting shares does have an impact on how publicly owned companies are run.  Usually removing voting rights from stock is compensated for by giving those stockholders “first dibs” on the success (and last dibs on the failure) of the company, as is the case with preferred stock.  (Bondholders are even above that if things go belly up.)

Snapchat’s founders, however, have decided to give their common stockholders the worst of both worlds: no voting rights and back of the line treatment in the event Snapchat snaps.

I still find it interesting that a social media company, which (along with its brethren such as Facebook and Twitter) have bred the “online trash fire” that social media has become with the last election, has decided to dispense with voting altogether.

And I am sure that my mother, who was obsessed with the existence (and voting potential) of a non-family minority block in the stock of our family business, is cheering this on.

The Oilman Becomes Secretary of State

The U.S. Senate, however, was unenthusiastic:

The votes against Mr. Tillerson’s confirmation were the most in Senate history for a secretary of state, a reflection of Democratic unease with President Trump’s early foreign policy pronouncements that threaten to upend a multilateral approach that has guided United States presidents since World War II.

I’ve said that you can be a great American and you can be good a foreign policy, but you can’t be both.  I think that Tillerson is the best shot we have at proving me wrong.  In addition to the left’s long-standing aversion to the oil industry, he breaks a lot of Cold War legacy conventional wisdom about many things, especially the Russians.

A bigger problem will be his relationship with the department he now heads.  The State Department and the oil industry represent two different approaches to interfacing with the world around us, and the two don’t exactly admire each other.  OTOH I think he will be a steadying influence on the President, who respects his negotiating skills.

One thing he will need to tackle is the vetting process for visas.  In addition to figuring out who is dangerous and who is not, it has been frightfully slow.  An Iranian friend of mine had his wife and newborn (American citizen) go back to Iran; it took eighteen months to get a return visa.  The intervention of our congressman and senator (Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee) were to no avail.  And this was  under the last administration.

The Similarity Between the Change of an American President and a Roman Emperor

In the midst of the current upheaval, an interesting observation from Peter Salway’s Roman Britain (Oxford History of England).  In his discussion of the relationship between the Roman Emperor and his provincial governors, he says the following:

It is easy to become so absorbed in the career of the hundreds of individuals whose appointments are known in great detail from the thousands of inscriptions surviving throughout the empire, that we assume ‘standard careers’ and forget that there was little to stop a capricious emperor from interfering with the system.  In some ways the death or fall of an emperor or his favourite adviser was not unlike a change of president in the United States, where vastly more appointments are a matter of party and indeed of one man and his personal advisers than in Britain today…Patronage ran through the Roman system from top to bottom, and Rome cannot be understood without grasping the fact.

The Founders’ debt to democracy and Greece is well understood; less understood is their debt to Rome, and especially Republican Rome, which the Empire followed.  OTOH, it has been the Progressive ideal from Woodrow Wilson onward to replace this reality with a more “professional” system, as many countries in Europe (and some working on getting out) have done.  To attempt to superimpose a rule by bureaucrats on a system such as ours is unworkable; not grasping this has been one of the left’s many weaknesses, one which they may rue before too long.

Happy New Year, Comrades, and Thinking About the Class Struggle

To the right is a Soviet New Year card; I’ve featured these before.  If they look suspiciously like Christmas cards, well, that’s just the genre…

As it happens, this New Year isn’t one our counterparts on the left have looked forward to ever since That Man With the Big Hair won a couple of months ago.  There have been many recriminations about this.  For some of us the question is this: how could you people, who have showered trillions on the population while taking complete credit for it, miss running the table at election time?  (Same question in 2000, and 2004…)  I think the answer to that question comes in part from the country that produced that New Year’s card.

The left has traditionally had three wedges to drive into Euro-Christian civilisation: sex, race and class.  A fourth one, the environment, is used to underpin the other three.  This combination is a metastable one; it can work for a while, but can be only maintained with a great deal of propaganda while relying on their opponents to help keep the rickety chandelier together.

One way to simplify things is to de-emphasise one or more of them and concentrate on the others.  American conservatives like to characterise their opponents as Marxists.  This is not entirely true: there are very few real Marxists on the American political scene, even in academia.  That’s because, while Marx focused on one of those wedges–class–American liberals concentrate on sex and race.  That was certainly in evidence this last election cycle.  Had the American left struck a better balance among the three, Donald Trump–or any other Republican for that matter–would have never stood a chance of winning the White House, and that defeat would have probably taken the Senate with it.

But they didn’t.  Instead they took their stand with the pro-choice and identity politics–the latter of which is, in a sense, trying to revive pre-Enlightenment ways of governing society–and ignored the fact that income inequality only worsened under Barack Obama.  Bernie Sanders attempted to shift this back to a more class-based dialectic, but his attempt wasn’t entirely successful.  And, as we all know, the Democrat party leadership was in no mood to nominate him anyway…

Marx’ obsession with class–and that of his disciples–has its shortcomings.  The racism embedded in Russian society never changed during Soviet times.  The move to women’s rights didn’t go very far either, even though they had very liberal abortion and divorce legislation.  Their environmental policies were a disaster they are still suffering from.  But they built a nation to be reckoned with and a great industrial power.

The American left, however, is still pursuing its (or its parents’) hippie dreams of a land with free love and no need to achieve.

I still think that the American left could finish the job (close the deal, perhaps?) To do that, however, will need a lot better leadership then has surfaced up to now.  I used to say they needed to find their inner Lenin; I’m not sure they’ve got anyone at this point up to Otto von Bismarck or even Léon Blum.

Which, I suppose, is the best insurance for happiness for the rest of us…Happy New Year, comrades.

Tillerson for Secretary of State? Of Course!

Donald Trump’s anticipated choice of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State already has people riled up.  What could a dirty oil man–especially one who has “relations” with the Russians–do for this country’s foreign affairs?

The first thing Donald Trump has doubtless found out is something this blog has said for a long time: you can be a great American or you can be good at foreign affairs, but you can’t be both.  We are simply too self-contained and provincial.  That’s one reason our foreign policy veers from cave to conquer, with disastrous results following.

But the oil industry provides an interesting exception to this.  As I pointed out a long time ago, from the perspective of a participant:

Liberal pseudo-sophisticates may sneer at the idea of “dirty” oil men (those of us in the business, like Barack Obama, do take regular baths in places where the plumbing permits) doing anything but going to Mickey Gilley’s after a day in the oil patch, but the truth is that the oil industry has been one of the most internationalised businesses out there, forwarding globalisation long before upstarts like computer technology related businesses were even in the game. Although most people think of the major oil companies in this effort—and they certainly took an interest in China when opportunity became apparent—another vanguard is the oilfield supply and service business. This includes everything from drill bits to disaster response such as Red Adair to construction services for platforms and refineries.

(The business about Barack Obama and baths comes from Joe Biden’s inept comment about him being a “clean” black guy; I am amazed that he ever became Vice President after that.)

Oil is a very international business.  It was made up of people from Third World countries long before the left thought to import them to change the electorate.  But oil is also the American left’s chief bête noire because oil brought prosperity, fuelled cars and made suburbia possible, and they’ve hated it ever since for that.  (That’s another reason they don’t like Ben Carson as HUD Secretary, but that’s another post…)

That hatred antedates the climate change debate.  They have used every environmental misstep the industry has done to attempt to drive it from our shores, as if such problems are better if they’re somewhere else.  (The oil industry, to its credit, has made many advances in “cleaning up its act.”)

That puts oil people in a unique position.  On the one hand, they’ve been dealing with different nations, cultures and religions (not the least of which is Islam) for many years.  On the other hand, they’ve done it “beyond the pale,” i.e., beyond the usual diplomatic circles, and often with people not formally trained in such things.  Thus they also have the natural enmity of the diplomatic corps.

That puts those of us who have participated in the industry in a unique spot.  That has miffed frequent commenters such as David Lloyd Jones, aware of my international experience, who then don’t understand my conservative politics.

When I went to China in 1981, I was well aware that the élite leftists didn’t like what I did because of what it was, i.e., furnishing equipment to the oil field.  I was also aware that the “cold warriors” of the day didn’t like the idea of us doing business with the Communist Chinese.  But we went anyway and helped the balance of payments–which badly needed some help–in the bargain.

As for the Russians, it was either them or the neocons.

I hope the Senate sees as much wisdom in this choice as I do.  My wish for Tillerson is that he puts the country he’s representing first priority.  But first we have to keep the team together in the Senate, and that may not be easy.

My Thoughts on Donald Trump and the Chinese

The incoming administration is doing many things that put their opponents–and some of their supporters–in a lather.  That’s not hard to do these days in the US, it seems that everyone pretty much lives that way.  One of those is with the Chinese–taking a call from Taiwan’s president, his threats regarding trade, etc.

I have a little commercial experience with the Chinese, albeit a long time ago.  Here are my thoughts on the subject:

Much of the Advice People Give on China is Rubbish

At the end of my series on the subject, I state the following:

One of the lessons we at Vulcan took from China is that “experts” seem to gravitate towards the country. We found these experts in the U.S., too. They’d appear at international trade events, going on at length about how to deal with this exotic Chinese culture and how different it was from ours, and how with their advice we would do business.

The problem with many of these people is that they’ve never “done the deal.” Many of them have never sold or leased anything to the Chinese or anyone else for that matter. We found that such advice not to be as helpful as it looked. However, the one thing that those of us who have done the deal must avoid is to represent our specific experience as the only way to do business in China, then or now. But there are some useful lessons that can be learned.

Anyone who speaks of “doing the deal” must have Donald Trump in the back of their minds, and I must confess I did when writing that back in 2007.  But a lot of the whining about how he’s about to ruin our relationship is rubbish.  It’s on par with those who never thought China would get anywhere without “democratic” institutions.  Many of those people are crying about the result of our own democratic institution, so they shouldn’t complain.  (If you don’t like our result, you should first consider this before you tout another “band-aid” solution.)

The Chinese are Superb Negotiators

Lu Xun, the famous Chinese author, makes an illustration of people in a dark room.  He says that, if you propose to cut some windows, you’ll get opposition, but if you propose to take the roof off, you’ll get agreement on a more sensible solution.

In the first contact with our Chinese representative, he advised the following:

The Chinese are not frivolous. They will not invite you unless they plan to buy…The Chinese are good bargainers. It is wise to add 5% to gracefully give away in contract discussions as a discount.

Many things Donald Trump says are characterised as “promises,” especially on immigration.  They are in fact first negotiating positions, and the Chinese will see them as such.  The fact that Americans don’t only shows what poor negotiators we are.  I wouldn’t panic about his initial statements about anything, and those about the Chinese are no exception.

He Needs to be Careful on Taiwan

I noted the following about Taiwan:

The Americans were in a more difficult situation, mostly because of the Cold War. In addition to the export restrictions and complete lack of government support, there was always the matter of Taiwan, which sticks in the Chinese government’s craw just about worse than anything else (although the commercial activities of “Overseas Chinese” such as those from Taiwan and elsewhere also helped to re-open China for business.)

It’s still true that Taiwan is a sore subject for those on the Mainland, because it goes to national identity.  Which China is the real one?  The Communist one on the Mainland or the Guomindang one on Taiwan?  Both our relationship and theirs with Taiwan is complex, because they are an important trading partner with the US, and in fact one for the Mainland as well.

It wasn’t a mistake for him to speak with Taiwan’s President.  For him, it’s part of the negotiating process.  But he needs to be careful on this issue.

The Chinese Can’t Afford to See Us Fold

One thing that people say is that the Chinese can punish us severely through cyber assault, calling debt, etc.  But as I pointed out here:

Let’s consider our situation with the Chinese.  Back in the last decade, when we were borrowing so much and importing the stuff they made, people would say that they’re going to “call the note” and take us over.  That idea was ridiculous because a) their trading partner would hit the wall, crashing their exports and b) it would take the main reserve currency with it.  Both of these would make repayment of the debt impossible.  Currently the Chinese are using their new-found financial power to expand themselves throughout the world.

But there’s another thing to consider, one that is more important now than before: if they do crash the place,  who’ll pick up the pieces?  The world has become a more prosperous place overall; our shrinking part of the world pie is not only because we are less prosperous, but because others are more.

China will take a greater place in world affairs as time progresses.  But in the meanwhile they cannot afford to see us fold.  Both sides have been dealt a hand; it is important that neither tries to overplay it.

Chinese Expansionism is Their Response to American Weakness

Many wonder “what will Trump do with the Chinese islands in the South China Sea.”  The answer is probably “not much.”  They have done this because they rightfully perceived American weakness, done by a President who basically felt that American power was injurious to the state of the world.  The first thing that Trump will find out, to expand the card analogy, is that the hand he’s been dealt is not as strong as his predecessors. Much of his task to “make America great again” is to first make America itself great and then let the rest of the world size itself up.  This is as opposed to the neocon approach of beating down any challenges that come along through military action.  If he sticks with this he will play to the traditional strengths of the country.

It’s All Risky

Donald Trump has frightened many.  But, like Barack Obama, electing him was a risk.  That reminds me of a rather humorous incident earlier this year:

One of the more amusing moments I’ve had here at UTC has been the visit of the new Dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science, Dr. Daniel Pack, to the SimCentre, where I just finished my PhD.  He wanted to meet with the students; it’s been a rough road for the program, and he wanted to “cast a vision” for the future.  Towards the end of his talk, he threw out the old B-school meme that, in Chinese, the character for “opportunity” is contained in the character for “crisis.”

However, as is the case with most gatherings of engineering students (and faculty) these days, the Chinese are well represented.  Once he said that he paused in puzzlement for a second, looked at the Chinese and asked, “Is that really true?”  The Chinese, after looking at each other, confirmed that it was true.  Needless to say, the Dean sighed with relief.

Liberals want a world which is free of uncertainty.  So does everyone else, but that isn’t what we have.  Letting things slide down has its own risks.

Recently I visited an art gallery where Jean-Paul Laurens’ portrait of the Roman Emperor Honorius was on display.

He became Emperor at the age of ten.  The portrait conveys the message that the job was too big for him.  The sword and orb certainly are, and his feet don’t reach the floor.  His growing up didn’t help; Honorius’ reign was a disaster.  He had his most capable general Stilicho executed, and it was downhill from there, starting with the first sack of Rome in 410.  With that Britain separated itself from Roman rule and the Western Empire began its march to the end.

The United States of American isn’t a perpetual motion machine.  The arc of history may be continuous but it is not everywhere smooth or differentiable.  To keep things up we need to take chances now and then.  When we sat down with the Chinese we didn’t know what the outcome would be, just as Richard Nixon didn’t know when he started his initiative.  But the results were and are beneficial.

Whether this chance will work with China or anywhere else remains to be seen, but it must be tried.

In Case of Flag Burning…

Four facts to consider:

  1. President-elect Trump wants to revoke citizenship for those who burn the flag.
  2. Many have promised to leave the U.S. if he becomes President (which he will, Deo volente.)
  3. Renunciation of U.S. citizenship is at a high level.
  4. Paperwork for same renunciation is slow.  Our State Department can work out a nuclear arms deal with Iran, but I know of one Iranian (with an American child) who took over a year to get her visa to come back to the U.S..  As my brother would say, like watching the grass grow

So this is my idea for those who want to skip the country and speed things up:

  1. Make sure you have dual citizenship (maybe more) somewhere you like, and make sure your affairs are in good shape.
  2. Burn flag in public place.
  3. Get arrested.
  4. Do not waive your right to a speedy trial.
  5. Get convicted, ask for revocation of citizenship in sentencing.
  6. Get citizenship revoked.
  7. Go to the place where you like.

In bureaucratic America, every cloud has a silver lining.  But my guess is that the State Department and the IRS would oppose such a thing, because it would risk their collection of all of those “exit fees” they have waiting those who leave.

They Called Me a “Faux News” Site Too

It’s all the rage these days, in the wake of Trump’s victory, to attack (generally conservative) “faux news” sites, even to the point of getting them blocked or banned altogether.

This rage (like every other rage) isn’t a new as people think: I was accused of this back in 2008, when I posted this piece on Barack Obama and pledging the flag.  A civics teacher from Southern California took me to task about this and rounded off his primal scream with this:

I found your site thanks to some of my students looking for credible information opposing Obama for a debate that they were preparing for class. I was able to show them the difference between an opinion site and a scholarly site due to this fact. Thanks for being out there. Have a nice day.

In my reposte to his comment I noted that I never claimed this site to be anything other than an opinion site.  (I would commend you to look at that reposte, and see how everything has turned out.)   Turning to David “Spengler” Goldman’s piece that launched mine, Asia Times Online is certainly a news site (especially when the late Allen Quicke was editor) but Spengler’s long-running “column” (to use an old print term) was an opinion column, albeit one of the best in the business, IMHO.

Both the civics teacher and the current “faux news” hounds are working from the same playbook: there are sites where “truth” is always found and those which are simply putting out opinion masquerading as news.  (The civics teacher adds the “scholarly” to that, but my PhD studies have taught me to look at the literature with a critical eye.)  It’s convenient that the former agree with their idea, and that’s where the problem is.  It’s Pilate’s question redux: what is truth?

To start with, it’s the American ideal that there is an “objective” press.  But it’s just that: an ideal.  Journalism’s drive to get at the facts has certainly gone down in recent years (Sharyl Attkisson is a notable exception) but across the pond people are more realistic.  The French, for example, have always known that different newspapers and magazines have different points of view and the audiences to go with them; in the UK, it’s not as fragmented but it’s there all the same.  What’s broken in this country is the basic consensus about what we’re all about, and a press that “everybody” can agree is fair has gone out the window with that.  (The Wikileaks revelations about the collusion between the press and Hillary Clinton’s campaign is another nail in the coffin to the concept of an objective press.)

Beyond that, I think it strange that a post-modern culture–and its acolytes–that proclaims there is no objective truth suddenly gets worked up about “faux news.”  You can’t have it both ways: if there is no objective truth, you can’t really say some news is true and some is false.  But that’s never been the object of the left; their idea has been to masquerade a new absolutism as relativism, and that stinks.

The civic teacher also thought me unAmerican and anti-American.  It used to be that, when a leftist told you that, you could take it as a compliment.  But that’s another one of those things that has changed.  Or has it? Today liberals love patriotism as long as they are running the show and hate the country when they don’t, but that’s another example of playing both sides of the street in American politics.