• Woman receives a delivery from Meals on Wheels

    A Budget is a Moral Document: Picks of the Week

    Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Katrina Heikkinen


    American First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again | Executive Office of the President of the United States

    What Trump cut in his budget | The Washington Post

    The U.S. foreign aid budget, visualized | The Washington Post

    A budget is a moral document. It communicates in very real terms the values of the organization or individual who creates the budget. For a country, it reflects what’s valued and what’s not.

    The budget proposal presented by President Donald Trump for fiscal year 2018 is inhumane.  It cuts funding for those most in need, for the protection of the environment, for science, the arts, and the humanities.  The budget increases funding for defense, homeland security, and to build a wall on America’s southern border.  This is not a budget to “make America great again,” as the budget document proclaims, but a budget to isolate and diminish the United States internationally and the federal government at home.  Its adoption would run counter to the interests of the United States of America.

    A quick look at the things President Trump proposes cutting highlights an indifference to the most vulnerable among us and those on whom we should be betting the future.  It would end government support for Meals on Wheels, a program that provides both food and human contact to 2.4 million American senior citizens—including 500,000 veterans—every year who are threatened by hunger.  It would reduce funding for nutrition assistance to women, infants, and children.  It would reduce aid to first generation college students and federal work-study grants.

    At the same time, the president’s budget proposal dismisses the value of science in American public life.  It cuts $900 million from the Department of Energy Office of Science and eliminates the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency.  At the same time, President Trump would cut by 19% funding for the National Institutes of Health and eliminate a center dedicated to international collaboration in medical research.  Perhaps most startling, the budget would gut the Environmental Protection Agency, reducing funding by 31% and ceasing U.S. effort to fight climate change.

    Finally, the president’s budget would undermine American security by cutting the State Department by 29%.  These cuts would target U.S. effort to combat climate change, reduce U.S. support for UN peacekeeping operations, and reduce most foreign exchange programs.  While most Americans believe the United States spends 26% of the federal budget on foreign assistance, the reality is that the number is actually about 1%.

    The results of this budget are not difficult to imagine.  The United States will be poorer.  Our most vulnerable will be hungry.  Our young will have less opportunity to break out of poverty through education.  We will be more isolated in the world, an outlier in the face of global responses to global challenges like disease, climate change, and yes, Islamic extremism.  The likelihood of armed conflict will grow.

    The administration’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, describes the budget as “Consistent with the President’s principles and priorities.”  When pressed by the media about the impact of these cuts on American citizen, Mulvaney responded, “You’re only focusing on half of the equation, right? You’re focusing on the recipients of the money. We’re trying to focus on both the recipients of the money and the folks who give us the money in the first place.  And I think it’s fairly compassionate to go to them and say, ‘Look, we’re not gonna ask you for your hard-earned money, anymore, single mother of two in Detroit … unless we can guarantee to you that that money is actually being used in a proper function.’”

    There’s the rub.  President Trump does not believe that feeding the hungry, providing opportunities for our young, investing in science, responding to the crisis in the environment, or building America’s relationships abroad is part of the “proper function” of government.  Instead, this is the beginning of the “deconstruction” of government promised by the president’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon.

    Multiple reports indicate that the president’s budget is DOA on Capitol Hill.  While that is some reason for relief, the alarm lingers in that any President of the United States would propose a budget so extreme in its neglect of America’s most vulnerable, and so cavalier in its understanding of the challenges of the world. – Executive Director Jim Ludes

  • A depiction of the 1933 Reichstag Fire

    Fear is Corrosive to Freedom: Picks of the Week

    Trump invites victims of illegal immigrant crime as guests for speech to Congress | Washington Times

    The real goal of Trump’s executive orders: Reduce the number of immigrants in the U.S. | Los Angeles Times

    Bannon’s reckless pursuit of ethno-nationalist greatness | Washington Post

    This week’s Picks-of-the-Week are co-authored by two historians, Pell Center Executive Director Jim Ludes and Salve Regina University Provost Scott Zeman.

    In the November 2016 election, voters chose reform and ethics over business as usual.  In a stunning result of 52 percent to 48, the people of South Dakota passed a ballot question to provide public financing for elections, establish a state ethics commission, and limit lobbying.  On February 2, 2017, South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard invoked provisions of the referendum to declare an emergency and unilaterally repeal the measure, thwarting the majority will of the people of South Dakota.  It’s a tactic we’ve seen before in history.  Democracies have been undermined on more than one occasion by the declaration of “emergency.”  In fact, it’s a tried and true approach for aspiring authoritarians everywhere.

    Perhaps the best known example of this tactic is associated with one of the darkest times in world-history.  On February 27, 1933, an arsonist set fire to the German Reichstag building in Berlin. The man accused of the crime was sentenced and executed. The Nazi Party seized on the incident as proof of a Communist conspiracy against the government and declared a national emergency, suspended citizens’ rights, and conducted large scale arrests of suspected – and real – Communists. The liquidation of the political opposition allowed the Nazis to gain enough parliamentary power to assure Hitler’s ascendency. The Reichstag Fire created the pretext for Nazis to seize authoritarian control of Germany.

    Even politicians not bent on world-domination can be seduced by the pliability of an electorate in the face of a national emergency.  In the aftermath of 9/11, the administration of George W. Bush famously seized on the justifiable fear of the American public to bolster the standing of the president.  The first Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, confirmed in his 2009 memoir that he had been pressured to raise the terror alert level during the 2004 campaign to help the reelection efforts of President Bush.  Others have noted the intriguing correlation between bad political news and elevations of the national threat level in the first Bush administration.

    The key take-away from this admittedly brief history is that political leaders from the most well-intentioned to the monsters of the Nazi party have found it beneficial to use fear and “emergency” to advance their political agendas.

    Enter President Donald Trump.

    Just six weeks into his presidency, Donald Trump and his administration seem intent on using fear to advance his agenda.  Look at the way the administration has talked about the terrorist threat and its relationship to the botched (and potentially unconstitutional) ban on immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries.  Immediate implementation of the ban caused widespread chaos at airports around the world, the detention of numerous refuge seekers, and triggered protests at the U.S. airports and in major cities, from Los Angeles to Boston. The American Civil Liberties Union sought and gained injunctions against the action, but chaos had been sewn and the ban floundered.  In explaining the seemingly rushed nature of the executive order, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer asked, “What happened if we didn’t act and somebody was killed?”

    Even the President himself is stoking fear.  On February 3, after a suspected terrorist attacked police in Paris, the President took to Twitter to say:

    Donald Trump Tweet from Feb 3 2017

    Then, after a federal judge issued a nationwide injunction suspending his executive order on immigration, Trump tweeted:

    Donald Trump Tweets After Judge Rules

    One day later, the president upped the ante:

    Trump Tweet 5 Feb 2017

    From a historian’s perspective, the conditions are now ripe for a “national emergency.”  Having tried to act to save the United States from a terrorist attack, only to be undermined by the courts, the president can now claim any future attack justifies even more draconian measures: a complete ban on Muslim immigration; a registry of Muslims in the United States; an armed deportation force—all proposals he floated in the course of the 2016 campaign.  He may even simply alert the American people to “credible” evidence of an impending large-scale terrorist attack on American soil. In either case, civil liberties and our democratic checks on executive power will be under immediate and direct threat; indeed, our democracy may be profoundly imperiled.

    Fear is corrosive to freedom.  Great American presidents have known that and acted accordingly.  Five days after the Reichstag fire, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated President of the United States of America.  In his inaugural address, he warned, amid economic depression and faltering democracies in Europe, that the only thing the United States had to fear, “was fear itself.”

    In 2017, the American public faces a world that is demonstrably more safe than the world Roosevelt confronted.  It’s not that there are no threats; because there are.  But the danger these foreign threats pose to the security of our republic today is nothing compared to the damage we could do to ourselves if we let the president lead us to fear.

  • Black and white photo of FDR and Winston Churchill at the Atlantic Conference

    Present at the Destruction: Picks of the Week

    Donald Trump’s Inaugural Address, Annotated | The New York Times

    Joe Biden is Worried Donald Trump Might Destroy Western Civilization | Vanity Fair

    “Europe’s fate is in our hands”: Angela Merkel’s defiant reply to Trump | The Guardian

    In August of 1941, in Placienta Bay, Newfoundland, Canada, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met and agreed to The Atlantic Charter.  While the United States was not formally in the war, yet—Pearl Harbor was still four months away—the Atlantic Charter set out war aims to guide the allies as they thought about the outcome of a fight that had yet to be fully joined.

    The Atlantic Charter is a foundational document of the post-World War II international order.  Churchill and Roosevelt had pledged their nations to fight for a rules-based international order and free trade—and they stated it unequivocally.  Neither the United States nor the United Kingdom sought new territories from the war.  They endorsed self-determination and popular sovereignty.  They imagined an era of peace, free from “fear and want.”  They embraced freedom of the seas, disarmament, free trade, and economic globalization.  Specifically, they pledged to:

    endeavor, with due respect for their existing obligations, to further the enjoyment by all States, great or small, victor or vanquished, of access on equal terms, to the trade and to the raw materials of the world which are needed for their economic prosperity.

    In addition, the charter promised that the leaders

    desire to bring about the fullest collaboration between all nations in the economic field with the object of securing, for all, improved labor standards, economic advancement, and social security.

    Four years later, peacemakers built an international system in line with the vision painted by Roosevelt and Churchill.  It was not done out of deference to the two statesmen who led the West through the crucible of battle.  Instead, it was done out of calculated self-interest.

    In the course of a generation, World War I and World War II had claimed somewhere between about 70 million and 100 million dead.  Millions upon millions more were wounded, displaced, or left to starve.  Aerial bombardment and urban warfare combined to leave the industrial hearts of Europe and Asia little more than rubble.  In looking back at the era, statesmen set out to create an international system that would avoid a third world war—something unthinkable in the atomic age.  They sought to understand how the first half of the twentieth century had produced such catastrophic death and destruction, and then, armed with judgments about the causes, built an international system to make it less likely.

    The institutions they built—imperfect though they were—enshrined a rules-based international system.  The United Nations provided a forum for dispute resolution short of war because failure to provide an effective mechanism meant that the world’s only recourse to dispute was the ancient adage that might makes right.  The UN’s different bureaus took on issues that threatened human development, like poverty and hunger, because they could threaten the peace and stability of nations.  The World Bank and International Monetary Fund helped rebuild economies shattered by war because the failure to rebuild Europe’s economy after World War I was recognized as one of the causes of World War II.  The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) reduced taxes on trade around the world because tariffs in the interwar years were seen to have contributed to heightened tensions between the great powers.

    In one final post-war innovation, the United States finally broke free of its nearly two centuries of determined isolation from the world and committed itself to global leadership.  As the world’s most powerful state at the time, and for the next four years the world’s only nuclear power, American leaders in both parties—Roosevelt, Truman, Marshall, and Eisenhower—saw that the United States had to play a steadying hand in Europe and Asia.  The ideology of “America First,” an inter-war movement intended to sustain American isolation from the problems of the world, was destroyed in the carnage of World War II.  Now, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the United States built formal alliances all over the world—perhaps most famously in Europe, where members of the new North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) pledged that an attack on one member was an attack on them all.

    A political settlement with an enduring commitment to norms of behavior and international law; an economic settlement founded on free trade and enabling globalization; and an iron clad American commitment to security and stability, especially in Europe, were the key features of this new world.  So new and substantial was this approach that Secretary of State Dean Acheson titled his autobiographical account of these events as Present at the Creation.

    This week, the United States of America, joining a growing global trend of retrenchment and neo-nationalism, inaugurated Donald J. Trump as its 45th president.  As a candidate, and as president-elect, Trump has questioned the fundamental underpinnings of the international system created by the peacemakers of 1945, even resuscitating “America First.”

    As a candidate, he asserted a pre-World War I view of national sovereignty:

    We will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism. The nation-state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony. I am skeptical of international unions that tie us up and bring America down and will never enter . . . America into any agreement that reduces our ability to control our own affairs.

    Of the United Nations, President Trump has described it as “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.”

    Of NATO, Trump as a candidate openly questioned America’s commitment to live up to its obligations for collective defense.

    Of the European Union, long a mainstay of U.S. policy towards the continent, Trump supported Brexit and more recently predicted the EU would break-up.

    Of free trade, candidate Trump vowed to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, renegotiate NAFTA, and impose tariffs on goods imported into the United States.

    Of globalization, candidate Trump has dismissed the process as a fleecing of the working class that only benefits “the financial elite who donate to politicians.”  There is open and cavalier talk of a trade war with China.

    It’s as if all the bloody and awful lessons of the first half of the twentieth century expired, vanished in a flash of white phosphorous.

    I sincerely hope that our new president succeeds in leading America forward into an era of sustained peace and prosperity.  But the historian and student of international security and globalization in me is fearful.  If Acheson was present at the creation, I fear we will be present at the destruction of the international system that has protected peace, security, freedom, and prosperity for so much of the world since 1945.  I hope I’m wrong. – Executive Director Jim Ludes

  • US Pentagon building as seen through target scope

    This is War: Picks of the Week

    The Perfect Weapon: How Russian Cyberpower Invaded the U.S. | The New York Times

    Trump Falsely Says U.S. Claim of Russian Hacking Came After Election | The New York Times

    What you need to know about Trump and Russia | Politico

    The United States has been attacked.  The integrity of our electoral system has been assaulted by a Russian influence operation that, according to media reports of classified briefings, was intended to benefit the candidacy of Donald Trump.  The short hand in the media is that the United States was “hacked.”  Such short hand understates the enormity of what has taken place.

    In fact, Russia is conducting political warfare against the western world, not just the United States.  War, Clausewitz told us, is the continuation of politics by other means.  Political warfare relies on political means—information operations and manipulation—to achieve political objectives.  In recent cases, that has meant fake news; paid internet trolls and botnets shaping what’s trending online; the electronic theft and release of damaging emails; and the rise of English-language Russian propaganda outlets that target the United States and, now, its allies in Europe.

    Consider these examples:

    • Alex Younger, the head of Britain’s fabled foreign intelligence service, MI6, warned recently of “cyber-attacks, propaganda or subversion of democratic process.” He noted, “The risks at stake are profound and represent a fundamental threat to our sovereignty; they should be a concern to all those who share democratic values.”
    • Bruno Kahl, the head of Germany’s foreign intelligence service, has said “We have evidence that cyber-attacks are taking place that have no purpose other than to elicit political uncertainty. . . . The perpetrators are interested in delegitimising the democratic process as such, regardless of who that ends up helping. We have indications that [the attacks] come from the Russian region” [sic].
    • In France, the National Front—a hard-right, anti immigrant, anti-EU political party, is financed by Russian banks.
    • In Hungary, evidence has emerged that far-right wing militias have “openly trained with Russian diplomats and men dressed in Russian military intelligence uniforms.”

    In fact, Russia is systematically trying to undermine the western liberal order, as the researchers at the Atlantic Council have documented in a remarkable study, “The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses.”  According to the report’s authors, Russia “seeks to turn Western liberal virtues–free media, plurality of opinion, and openness–into vulnerabilities to be exploited. “

    So disabuse yourself of the idea this is just Democratic sour grapes because Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election. Russia is at war with the West’s freedoms and we need to recognize that threat for what it is.  News that the Obama administration chose not to confront Russia over its meddling in the American election out of concern it would provoke a cyber-war between the United States and Russia misses one critical point: the Russians are already waging war.

    The Russian offensive is breathtaking for its ambition.  In addition to the manipulation of the American election, as well as the threat to Europe’s unity and electoral integrity, Moscow is also providing support and advice to American secessionists in states like California and Texas.

    There is only one example in history of which I am aware when political warfare was unleashed with such abandon and effect.  In 1917, Imperial Germany permitted Vladimir Lenin, an exiled Russian revolutionary, to transit Germany from Switzerland in the belief that his return to Russia would unleash an uprising that would take Russia from the battlefield.  His return did just as the Germans hoped.

    This is the stark reality the West faces today: we are at war.

  • Stack of newspapers in print

    Truth is the First Casualty: Picks of the Week

    Facebook fake-news writer: ‘I think Donald Trump is in the White House because of me’ | The Washington Post

    Trump takes credit for saving Ford factory that was not closing | The Guardian

    Megyn Kelly tells ‘The View” how she felt when Trump was elected president | The Daily Beast

    Feelings are the hobgoblins of American politics.  Voters “feel” like one candidate will do a better job than another.  Voters “feel” like the economy isn’t producing for them.  Voters “feel” like others are taking opportunity away from them.  But those feelings are bunk and undermine important things like facts and the truth.

    The assault on truth is an epidemic and a danger to the republic.  The examples are legion.  Consider the tale of Paul Horner, the “fake-news” writer who tried to troll the Trump campaign, but instead helped reinforce its narrative.  He makes $10,000 per month writing fake-news stories and posting them on Facebook.  One of his stories alleged protesters were being paid $3500 to oppose Donald Trump’s campaign—a story, by his own admission, that was fabricated out of thin air but was shared on social media by Trump’s campaign manager.

    The president-elect is no stranger to claims devoid of truth.  During the campaign, Donald Trump alleged that NATO adopted a counter-terrorism mission because he had criticized them on the issue.  For the record, NATO had adopted the plan before Trump ever discussed it.  Similarly, Trump this week took credit for saving a Ford manufacturing plant in Kentucky even though Ford never had any plans to shutter it.

    Not so long ago, we expected the aggregators of information in our world—news outlets, newspapers, and public officials—to curate valid information for us.  In that time, a name like Cronkite or Brinkley or Chancellor immediately conveyed authority and buoyed public confidence.  Today, in contrast, media moguls gush that a Trump presidency “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” as CBS Chairman Les Moonves put it in February.  Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, herself a victim of Trump’s bullying, relishes his win because of the impact on ratings.  “Honestly,” she told the hosts of The View, “as a reporter, I was like, this is going to be so much more interesting.”

    The key take away for the citizen is that we must all become savvy consumers of information.  For decades, educators have lamented the challenge of teaching critical thinking.  In an information-rich environment where truth and false-hoods compete with the same inherent authority, citizens have to ask hard questions, we have to fact-check, we have to hold people to account.  We must master critical thinking as a society, or else we risk major policy and political changes guided only by feelings and hunches. – Executive Director Jim Ludes


  • A Republic, If You’ll Keep It: Picks of the Week

    How Russia Pulled Off the Biggest Election Hack in U.S. History | Esquire

    Steve Bannon’s Vision for the Trump Coalition After Election Day | The New Yorker

    Donald Trump’s Contempt for Democracy | The New York Times

    Hackers Used New Weapons to Disrupt Major Websites Across U.S. | The New York Times

    The United States is currently the target of a Russian information operation—of this there is no doubt.  From Russian artifacts found in stolen emails, to the clear linkages between the organs of Russian propaganda and Wikileaks, the hand of Russia in the American election is obvious—so much so that by the time the United States government stated that fact unequivocally, the reaction was muted because it wasn’t news; it was confirmation.

    While the Clinton campaign has argued that Russia wants Donald Trump to win because he’ll be softer on Russia and give Russia a free hand in Eastern Europe, in Syria, and elsewhere, the evidence is less clear.  More likely, Russia simply wants to discredit American democracy and western liberalism more broadly.  Russia can do so simply by shining a light on some of the worst elements of American political life and the underbelly of our society.

    The 2016 campaign has reached new lows, rhetorically—of course—but also in the coarsening of our national debate.  From the threats to ban an entire religion from the United States, to the characterization of Mexicans as rapists and criminals, and the threat of one candidate to jail his political opponent, the tone and tenor of the 2016 campaign has shocked historians and political scientists.  In the process, Donald Trump has attracted an amalgam of white nationalists who believe that America is in peril because of immigration and the gradual darkening of our nation’s complexion.  Tropes and memes once considered taboo are now slung across social media in a dizzying, sickening manner.  Images threatening violence, telling reporters with Jewish sounding names that they’ll be “first for the ovens,” or promising to “resist” after the election—as one tweeter did over an image of a man clutching a modern assault rifle in front a Nazi flag—are legion.

    Of course, in the stolen emails from the DNC, we also saw clear evidence that the Democratic National Committee favored Secretary Clinton over the candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders.  We also caught a glimpse of the power of money in Washington to gain access—or at least to give people a sense of bought access.  To many, these revelations—all gleaned by the success of a hack directed by Russian intelligence—seem confirmation of rot and “rigging” within the American political system.

    The Soviet Union, and now Russia, have long celebrated the “Great Patriotic War”—the fight against Nazi Germany that nearly bled Russia white.  That is one reason why I am convinced that the Russian government does not care who wins the American election.  No matter what happens, Russia will be able to point out that somewhere around 40% of the American public supported a candidate widely and publicly embraced by white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

    The Russian information operation is not targeting America, per se—it’s targeting America’s reputation, our support of democracy around the world, and our credibility as a bastion in the western, liberal order.  That’s the real prize, because it’s western liberalism that most threatens Putin’s regime. – Executive Director Jim Ludes


  • The Unmet Threat to the American Election: Picks of the Week

    AP-NORC Poll: Half of Trump backers don’t trust vote count | Associated Press

    How Russia Wants to Undermine the U.S. Election | Time

    FBI director: Hackers ‘poking around’ voter systems | CNN

    The evidence of Russia’s efforts to intervene in the American election of 2016 is only mounting.  Members of the U.S. House and Senate have raised the alarm publicly while the Obama administration hedges its bets that the American electoral system is resilient enough to weather any disruptions.  The Obama administration is playing a very dangerous game.

    Putin seeks to undermine the credibility of western liberalism.  The values of free elections, free speech, and rule of law are all under assault in Putin’s Russia, and Putin resents America’s bipartisan tradition of global evangelization of western values.  He’s adopted a political warfare strategy to undermine global confidence in Western democracy, just as he has in elections close to Russia.

    The danger in the American system is compounded by one candidate who has repeatedly asserted, without evidence, that the only way he will lose is if there is cheating.  That message, not surprisingly, is sticking.  A new poll shows that nearly half of Republican voters have concerns that their votes will not count on Election Day.  Donald Trump is playing into Russia’s hands, undermining not just American confidence but global confidence in the legitimacy of American democracy.

    The Obama administration must do  more than offer private warnings to the Russian government.  It’s time to name and shame Russia for its efforts to undermine confidence in the American electoral system.  Failure to do so will have a long-lasting negative impact on the public’s trust in the legitimacy of our electoral system—dangerous stuff for any republic such as ours and for all who value legitimate, free elections around the world.

  • A robotic man facing right and gesturing with his hand

    Advice to the Class of 2020: Picks of the Week


    The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation | Oxford University

    Self-Driving Cars Endanger Millions of American Jobs (And That’s Okay) | Make Use Of


    This week, I delivered keynote remarks at Salve Regina University’s academic convocation. An abridged version appears below.

    Sister Jane, Dr. O’Reilly, members of the board of trustees, University colleagues, distinguished guests, friends and especially members of the class of 2020: thank you for this great honor.

    At one point over the weekend, there was some concern that this convocation would have to be cancelled because of the storm swirling offshore in the Atlantic.  And as I sat down on Saturday to put my finishing touches on these remarks, I faced the same question faced by every student who’s ever had an assignment due on the same day as a forecasted snowstorm: do I do my homework?

    Here’s a pro-tip: get done the things you have to get done.

    * * * * *

    When Sister Jane asked me to give this convocation address, she encouraged me to talk about what’s happening in the world—but to not make it depressing.

    Easier said than done.

    It’s tempting in this kind of talk to read a roll-call of horrors:

    • 400,000 people dead in the Syrian civil war;
    • generations of progress toward political integration in Europe cast aside under pressure from extremists and migrants fleeing extremism;
    • the reemergence of military competition in Eastern Europe between the United States and Russia;
    • an assertive, nationalist China literally building islands on the sea floor to change the facts on the ground in a strategically significant patch of sea; and
    • a North Korea desperately trying to develop nuclear warheads that it can deliver by missile to American targets.

    Don’t even get me started on climate change.  Fifteen of the 16 hottest years on record, globally, have all occurred since 2001.  It’s 2016.  You do the math.  And 2016 is on path to be the hottest, still.

    But I don’t want to leave you simply with a list of reasons to be depressed.  Instead, I want you to help our society meet another looming challenge.

    The truth is we’re on the cusp of a technological revolution that is going to change our economy, what people do with their lives, and, eventually, our system of government.  Let me lay this out.

    In his classic study, The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith argued that a nation’s worth is not established by the amount of gold or silver it possesses, but rather in the productivity of its economy.  In other words, if a country has little silver or gold, but whose factories and workers are highly productive, that country would be said to have great wealth.  The source of wealth, according to Smith, was not some natural resource, but a human resource and the product of human labor.

    Smith himself was an early proponent of freedom: free labor—meaning no slavery—and free markets—meaning no government interference in the economy.  Freedom, it was argued, was the best way for markets to mature, for people to achieve their full potential, and for civilization to advance.

    And for several centuries, governments and societies have been driven forward by the idea that we need to create an educated workforce to enable our economies.  In the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, revolutionaries and reformers from the Middle East to the Americas talked about reforming society based on education and industrialization.  By the start of the 20th century, these ideas had taken root in Asia, too.  Today, these views are largely global and serve to justify the link between America’s schools and efforts to keep the American economy globally competitive.

    The centrality of labor in Smith’s view of economics—of people who work for a living, who earn a decent wage, and spend money on goods to further drive the economy—has had tremendous political implications, as well.  Think of the shopkeepers and farmers in Massachusetts who resented the taxes of the British monarch; or the bourgeoisie in Paris in 1789, who believed that the people should be able to decide on what the government spends money.  In fact, much of the global history over the 240 years since the American Declaration of Independence has been a history of the relationship between labor and governments.  It’s not surprising that so many political parties around the world have included terms like “workers” or “labour” in their names.  Until the middle of the 20th century, autocrats and monarchies typically feared the masses—what Marx called the “proletariat.”  For Pete’s-sake, yesterday was Labor Day!  That wasn’t simply a kind gesture to add one more long-weekend at the end of summer.

    But according to a growing body of evidence, the reality of “labor” is about to change.  Scholars at Oxford University believe that 47% of U.S. jobs may cease to exist in coming decades because of advances in computers and automation.

    Take, as one example, the disruptive potential of self-driving vehicles.  We know Tesla, and Google, and maybe Apple are all developing them.  And when they arrive, they will put 1.6 million American long-haul truck drivers out of business; along with 800,000 delivery truck operators; 180,000 taxi drivers; 160,000 Uber drivers; 500,000 school bus drivers; and 160,000 transit bus drivers.

    If as early data suggests, autonomous vehicles are safer than our current human-driven cars and trucks, then things will get tight for the 445,000 people who work in auto-body repair shops.  Anyone, anyone at all, who does anything with cars—whether they’re a parking lot attendant or a meter-maid—is going to feel the ground shift beneath them as our motor vehicles transition to a high tech future.

    All told, in the driving economy alone, some estimates suggest that we’re looking at the disruption of 4 million American jobs.

    This revolution in automation and artificial intelligence won’t be an American revolution.  It will be a global revolution and the society that best figures out how to reconcile this new technology with its people will emerge as the dominant political and economic power of the 21st century.

    Of course, that’s not what we’re talking about in the election of 2016.  Instead, we’re mired in a ridiculous debate about email servers and stupid walls.  The magnitude of the folly of these debates and the coverage they have received is, I’m just going to say it: HUGE.

    * * * * *

    I began these remarks talking about that storm out in the Atlantic.  We didn’t know for certain where it was headed, but we knew it was there.  The storm in our economy is coming too—and so we had better do our homework—so that we’re ready—and we had better get involved.

    Your job, right now, at the start of your university career, is to give a damn, to learn, to take every opportunity to educate yourself about the world around you.  Yes, go to class, work hard, do well—but learn, too, from your classmates and your professors, from the people who work in the dining hall, from your coaches, from people you meet at internships or even that person you always see at the grocery store.  They all have a truth to tell.  Read.  Don’t assume truth can be captured in a Snapchat or 140 characters on Twitter.

    But above all—and I mean this sincerely: you need to make your voices heard.  You need to demand political leaders focus on real issues, on difficult issues, on issues that will determine whether we are competitive in the global economy, secure, and free.

    When I worked in Washington, I came to believe that politics is a noble profession and politicians are necessary for our society to function.  I know, today, these aren’t popular sentiments.  But politics—for all the potential for corruption and undue influence—is far superior to the alternative: that’s autocracy; might makes right; the strong rule the weak; dictatorship.  Politics is essential to freedom.  It’s how societies balance the views of multiple groups.  It’s how we resolve difficult issues without resorting to violence and war.

    Decades ago, the historian Michael Holt traced the origins of the American Civil War to the Compromise of 1850—a political deal that was supposed to take the heated issue of slavery out of the American political process so that American politics wouldn’t be dominated by it anymore.  And in some respects, it worked.  Except for the fact that it didn’t resolve the issue of slavery itself; it didn’t resolve the violence and the abuse inherent in servitude.  And so, left with no political means to resolve the dispute, the United States entered into a civil war that took 625,000 American lives—approximately 2% of the population at the time.  Perhaps 2% doesn’t seem like that many people.  Today, a similar casualty rate would produce about 6 million dead.  That’s a very high price to pay for getting rid of politics around a difficult issue.

    Politics requires you to be involved.  It’s actually an obligation of citizenship in a republic such as ours.  If you have strong views on an issue: speak out.  If you don’t like what your elected officials are doing: hold them accountable.  You can write letters to the newspaper, organize protests, letter writing campaigns, social media actions.  You can even vote them out of office.  And if you don’t like the candidates you have to choose from?  That one is easy: you need to run for office.

    Listen to me clearly.  If you believe that you have a contribution to make, if you believe that your views are not represented, if you can see injustice that no one else sees, then your country needs you to run.  If no one speaks for you, then I guarantee you the country needs you to speak for others.

    The most important actor in the American republic is the citizen armed with a vote, educated, informed, and involved.

    To that end, we’ve arranged today to have a voter registration table set up at the barbecue that follows convocation.  If you need to register to vote in your home state, there will be people there to help you do just that.  If you need help getting an absentee ballot, there will be information there too.  And if you don’t do it tonight, the reference staff at the library is ready at any time to help you register, request an absentee ballot, and learn more about the issues.  (Just don’t wait too long.  There are deadlines and they are different in every state.)

    * * * * *

    The truth in life is that there is always a storm swirling just off the coast.  We might be blissfully—or willfully—unaware of the gathering clouds or we might see them building.  And when the storm comes, we will all decide if we’re in it for ourselves or if we are part of something bigger.

    I urge you to believe in our collective power to change the world for the better—if we are wise and if we make our voices heard.  See in the coming economy not just threat, but an opportunity to lift millions out of poverty.  See in the faces of refugees not menace, but hope.  Believe in the power of education and empathy to guide the way we approach public issues.  And find in each of our hearts a wellspring of Mercy that, above all, empowers.

    Thank you, and congratulations again to the class of 2020.

    – Executive Director Jim Ludes

  • Photo of Donald Trump speaking animatedly to the crowd at a campaign rally in St. Louis, Missouri

    Politics vs. Cynicism: Picks of the Week

    Old Trump: Mexicans Are ‘Rapists.’ New Trump: They’re ‘Great People!’ | The Daily Beast

    Trump Flip Flops on Immigration Again | Outside the Beltway

    First Read: Trump’s Stunning Flip-Flop on Immigration | NBC News

    I admire politicians—and that’s not a particularly popular point of view.  Still, I admire politicians, because the best among them understand how to move society forward.  They recognize that working together is essential to solving common problems.  They are open minded, flexible—meaning the opposite of doctrinaire—they are pragmatic, and solution oriented.

    I value politics—this is the thing practiced by politicians.  It is the art of the possible, of balancing competing interests, of compromise, of finding a way to cobble together support for ideas that move society in a certain direction.  Politics are essential to getting anything done in a community, especially those that are diverse, whether in terms of racial composition, income stratification, or gender, sexuality, or any other kind of identity.

    Well-functioning political systems are essential to the stability of a state.  Historian Michael Holt long ago argued that the American Civil War was the direct result of the Great Compromise of 1850 that took politics out of the issue of slavery.  Once the issue of slavery could no longer be addressed through political means, war was inevitable.  It’s a theory not without its flaws, but it is consistent with Clausewitz’s insight that war is the continuation of politics by other means.

    In recent years, American political parties on both sides have found energy not in the pragmatic politics of compromise but in the unflinching orthodoxy of the left and the right: think of the Sanders campaign and the Tea Party, respectively.  Politicians have been punished for seeking compromise, for working across the aisle.  They’ve faced primary challenges and fundraising difficulties.  Activists who see themselves as the purest of the pure, not surprisingly, want to enforce orthodoxy.

    Against this backdrop, this week, Donald Trump offered a new approach to immigration that betrayed literally everything he’s campaigned on for over a year.  In appearing to embrace so-called “amnesty,” he adopted an approach to immigration from Central and South America that was advocated by some of his Republican rivals, notably Jeb Bush, in the Republican primary and who were savaged for it by Trump.

    But unlike the idealized examples of politicians and politics discussed above, it is not clear that Trump is simply exercising a politician’s prerogative to change his mind.  Instead, it seems a craven attempt to make his candidacy more palatable to a wider cross-section of Americans.  That’s something politicians of all stripes do—but in Trump’s case, it further muddies the waters.  The American public simply doesn’t know what he stands for, what he’ll fight for, and what he’ll compromise about.  That’s problematic in a candidate for president.

    The ideal—my ideal—is the principled pragmatist.  Someone who has core values—among them inclusiveness and decency—but not pre-defined policy preferences.  The world is a complicated place and issues evolve as facts become known and understanding deepens.  A politician changing her mind because of new evidence isn’t a flawed candidate, but one who adjusts his preferred policies for cynical political gain is.


  • Flyer of what appear to be JFK's mug shots above text that reads "wanted for treason"

    Stochastic Terrorism: Picks of the Week


    Unfiltered: Voices from Trump’s Crowds | The New York Times

    Donald Trump Calls Obama ‘Founder of ISIS’ and Says it Honors Him | The New York Times

    Trump’s Assassination Dog Whistle Was Even Scarier Than You Think | Rolling Stone


    Someone is going to get killed.

    That’s the thought that went through my head in bucolic Vermont this week as I looked out over the mountains at twilight and thought about the Republican candidate’s latest train wreck.  On Tuesday, Trump went after his rival, Hillary Clinton, and said, ““If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks.  Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”  The candidate said he was joking, but a lot of people thought he wasn’t.

    The reality is that Trump’s stated intention—accurate or not—is irrelevant.  The danger is that someone not in on the “joke” could hear it as a call to action.  It’s been well documented that Trump rallies often feature shouts from the crowd of “kill her.”

    I didn’t want to spend another week contemplating this scenario, because I’ve done so already.  Once, here on the Pell Center blog.  And last week in an interview with the Newport Daily News.

    But we have to stay on this issue, because the Republican candidate won’t stop.  One day later he told a campaign rally that ISIS was founded by President Barack Obama.  Read that again.  The Republican nominee for President of the United States accused the current president of creating a terrorist organization that has killed Americans, targets our European allies, and is under constant bombardment by the U.S. military.

    The claim is so shocking that Hugh Hewitt, a darling of the right on talk radio, tried to help Trump clean it up on Thursday morning. Trump and Hewitt

    The name for this is “stochastic terrorism.”  It’s been defined as inciting “. . . random actors to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.”  This isn’t some dystopian nightmare on Netflix.  It’s what led to the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Israel in 1996.  In the days before his death, the political rallies of Rabin’s rivals featured calls for Rabin’s death and saw posters in the crowd of Rabin dressed as a Nazi.  Stochastic terrorism inspired the murder of three people and the wounding of nine others at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs in November 2015.  The threat and reality of violence against abortion clinics is well documented.  And it spurred the assassination of British politician Jo Cox by a white supremacist in the closing days of the BREXIT vote to determine whether the United Kingdom would remain part of the European Union—and its immigration policies—as Cox advocated, or not.

    In simpler terms, Donald Trump is inciting violence.  He isn’t directing it, but through his words, his lies, and his half-truths—as well as those of his supporters—he is supercharging an already-overheated environment.  Every time someone calls candidate Clinton “the devil,” or shouts “kill her” or says she should be “shot for treason” or makes even a veiled reference to violence as a legitimate part of our election, the likelihood of some delusional person acting grows.

    Someone is going to get hurt.

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