Politics, et Cetera

A publication from The Political Forum, LLC

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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

They Said It:

As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.

Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 1776.



Regular readers know that for most of the last several years, we have, for a variety of self-evident reasons, focused our attention on the things that are wrong with this country: the issues, policies, and relationships that are problematic and which bode ill for the future.

But the world is not all darkness and gloom.  Academic and social justice theories notwithstanding, the United States of America is still one of the most powerful engines of positive change, peace, and prosperity the world has ever known.  All the country needs to continue this noble task is for the government simply to get the hell out of the way and allow the forces that made this nation great to make it great again, to coin a phrase.

Let us explain.

Over the last few years, we have spent a great deal of time regurgitating for you the ideas of our old friend Angelo Codevilla.  Not only was Codevilla the first and the most effective essayist to explain the Tea Party movement in terms of the broader class war in this country, he also, more or less, foretold the rise of Donald Trump, the populist crusader who would take power by tapping into the Country Class’s detestation of their out-of-touch and self-absorbed Ruling Class.  For decades, Codevilla has been something of an anomaly among American liberal arts academics; a conservative and, moreover, one whose work addresses important real-world matters in the context of history, philosophy, and the eternal truths of the universe.

What you may not know about Codevilla is that he had an entire career – a successful and vital career – before becoming a permanent academic.  Among other things, he was an officer in the U.S. Navy, a recipient of the Joint Service Commendation Medal, a foreign service officer, a professional staff member of the Select Committee on Intelligence, and a key member of the Reagan transition team, specifically working on the transition efforts at the State Department and the CIA.  In this latter capacity, he worked closely with Dr. Richard Pipes, whom many of you may know was also the head of the celebrated “Team B,” the panel of outside experts who challenged the CIA’s conventional wisdom on the Soviet Union and prepared the strategic plan for dealing with the Soviets that formed the foundation of the Reagan Doctrine.

Of all the work that Codevilla did while serving in government, undoubtedly the most important is the work that he did for the Intelligence Committee (and his boss, Senator Malcom Wallop) and then for the Reagan transition team on the subject of missile defense.  Indeed, for everything else he has done, Angelo Codevilla’s greatest contribution to this country – and, frankly, to mankind more generally – was to help rescue the theory of missile defense from the dustbin of history and to push the models and policy proposals that would eventually form the foundation of President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

Now, we want to be careful here.  Codevilla was not alone in pushing anti-ballistic missile defense.  He was but one of a handful, including his Congressional patron, Senator Wallop.  Moreover, Codevilla was less than thrilled with the Reagan administration’s implementation of the SDI initiatives.  Indeed, he was highly critical of Reagan and his Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger, claiming that they chose political expediency over genuine national defense.  In his book on the subject (While Others Build: The Commonsense Approach to the Strategic Defense Initiative), Codevilla argued that the military establishment itself was largely responsible for convincing Reagan and his administration not to pursue SDI too aggressively.  The Pentagon refused to address either the strategic or the budgetary changes that true missile defense would necessitate, and so the program was allowed to suffer death by a thousand bureaucratic cuts.

All of that notwithstanding, we think that anti-ballistic missile defense technology provides a useful example, both of the power of government to stifle innovation and of technology’s capacity to overcome government smothering and to provide useful solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems.

Soon after Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative, the Democrat-media complex began tearing it apart, insisting that it was both unnecessary and, more to the point, unachievable.  They mocked the President as a foolish old man who had spent too much time in Hollywood and could no longer distinguish reality from cinematic fantasy.  Or, as Grove City College Professor Paul Kengor put it in 2012:

Immediately after Reagan’s announcement, Senator Ted Kennedy dashed to the Senate floor to mock the SDI speech as “misleading Red-scare tactics and reckless Star Wars schemes.”  The term quickly found itself typed into New York Times headlines that day.  Kennedy inspired other Democrats to follow suit.  Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) dismissed Reagan’s talk of “Buck Rogers” weapons.  Congresswoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA), today a U.S. senator from California, chuckled at the president’s “astrological dream.”  Boxer ridiculed Reagan’s vision of flying parking “’garages’ in orbit.”  The leftist scientist Carl Sagan, the face of Cosmos, a popular PBS series, joined the fun, howling at Reagan’s silly machine: “In the foreground comes a very attractive laser battle station,” guffawed Sagan, “which then makes a noise like bzzzt … bzzzt … bzzzt.”

Codevilla and Senator Wallop, by contrast, insisted that SDI was both essential and practical, that it could be implemented immediately using existing technologies, and that it could be upgraded, over time, when more effective technologies inevitably became feasible.  Where the Democrats and the left-leaning media saw implausibility and foolishness, Codevilla and Wallop saw necessity and eventually insurmountable strategic dominance and security.

We mention all of this today for a couple of reasons.  First, and most obviously, missiles are – or at least should be – on everyone’s mind these days, particularly if you live in Hawaii, Alaska, or the West Coast.  Over the last few weeks, the crazy little man who runs North Korea has been screaming like a three-year-old, demanding attention.  Just last Friday, for example, the North Korean regime launched another ballistic missile, this one likely with intercontinental capability.  “The missile North Korea just tested,” Congressman Brad Sherman (D, CA) tweeted, “probably put U.S. West Coast in range.”  This followed the July 4th test-launch of a presumed ICBM, which the North Koreans gleefully called an Independence Day “gift” to the United States.

Just yesterday morning, Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the United Nations declared that the United States will NOT call for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council; nor will it ask for further sanctions on the rogue North Korean regime.  To do so, Haley lamented, would be “worse than nothing because it sends the message to the North Korean dictator that the international community is unwilling to seriously challenge him.”  She added that as far as she and her boss, President Trump, are concerned, “The time for talk is over.”

On the one hand, this is pretty disconcerting and potentially destabilizing news.  If destroying the North Korean regime and/or its nuclear missile capability were easy, then presumably someone would have done so by now.  Instead, the American policy – from Clinton to Bush to Obama – has been to placate the fat little fella (and his fat little father before him) and to hope that someone, somewhere in his regime has the sense to stop the little nutcase from thinking the unthinkable.  If Haley and Trump are serious about changing American policy and about taking action, then they’re also serious about taking the United States into its third protracted war of the new millennium.

On the other hand, the United States does not necessarily have to go to war.  In fact, the United States has the capability to shoot down any North Korean missiles and could, at least in theory, shoot down one of Lil’ Kim’s test missiles with a test missile of its own.   Over the weekend, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency conduct a test of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD).  This was the 15th such test – and the 15th success.  Much to the late Ted Kennedy’s chagrin, the United States is indeed able to “hit a bullet with a bullet.”  And you don’t have to take our word for it.  The following comes from an April 29th interview with none other than Angelo Codevilla, published in the Asia Times:

[W]hat are the US’s military options in dealing with Pyongyang short of full-scale war?

Angelo Codevilla, a former top Senate Intelligence Committee official, says the main military option is downing a North Korean test missile soon after it leaves its launch pad.  He says this can be achieved with various anti-missile systems in the US arsenal. . . .

AT: Can the US successfully intercept North Korean missiles using anti-missile systems or other technology?

Codevilla: Right now, the answer is yes.  As a matter of fact, US anti-missile systems have been designed primarily to intercept North Korean missiles.  They really can’t do anything else. . . .

AT: What would be the military/political consequences with North Korea if the US starts intercepting North Korean missiles?

Codevilla: The military consequences would be practically nil.  Basically, we would have nothing to fear militarily from (retaliatory) North Korean missile strikes right now.  Politically, the consequences would be even less.  I would bet that North Korea would not do anything because while they may be crazy — they are not stupid.

Not only are their missiles likely to be shot down, but launching them could also cause troubles that they could not possibly remedy — such as embargoes of food and a naval blockade that would collapse the regime.

You will note here that Codevilla is pretty blasé about the American missile-defense system.  He laments that it is theater based and that it was designed specifically to shoot down the North Koreans’ missiles.  At the same time, the fact of the matter is that even he, a noted critic of the approach taken by the American military, acknowledges that the system works.  Moreover, if the government would simply get over its fears of protecting the American public from its enemies, then the technology exists that would make the current system infinitely more effective.

Here’s a question you probably haven’t thought much about:  Why do the South Koreans – who are the North Koreans’ likely first target – NOT want the American THAAD system deployed on their soil?  South Korea currently has two THAAD launchers, but has delayed deploying another four.  Moreover, the new South Korean President Moon Jae-in ran on a platform largely opposed to THAAD, promising to “review” the deployment of the full, six-launcher THAAD battery on his nation’s soil.  Given the protection offered by THAAD, why is that?

Well, as it turns out, THAAD really pisses off the Chinese, who constitute one of South Korea’s largest trading partners.  And why does THAAD – a system designed specifically to deal with North Korea – make China unhappy?  In the write-up of its interview with Codevilla, the Asia Times explained that:

[T]he real elephant in the room, according to Codevilla, is China.  He says China’s overriding concern in the crisis is a US Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea that’s been deployed to intercept incoming North Korean missiles.

He says China fiercely opposes the move because it fears Washington will eventually bolster anti-missile systems of this type with advanced space-based optical systems that can detect and destroy Chinese missiles on launch — regardless of where they’re fired from in China.

The former Reagan-era national security honcho says this would be a game changer.  It would give the US a huge edge in deploying anti-missile defenses that can also shield the US mainland against Chinese and Russian missiles.

The necessary technology, Codevilla states, has been “in mothballs” since 1972 but could be revived.  That, as Codevilla says, would indeed be a “game changer.”

But that’s not all . . .

Almost exactly a year ago, DefenseOne, a publication of the National Journal Group, ran a story on the nation’s rapidly developing laser-based missile defense capabilities.  In a piece dated August 16, 2016, Marcus Weisberger wrote:

The Pentagon is looking to lasers as a cheaper, more effective way to shoot down long-range missiles fired at the United States by North Korea and Iran.  After experimenting with the technology for more than a decade, U.S. military officials said “directed energy” is near the point where they could use it on the battlefield.  “It’s not a hope.  This is what we’re doing,” Vice Adm. James Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency, said Wednesday.  “I view this [as] highly important for the future.”

Syring and other military officials struck a common theme at this week’s annual Space and Missile Defense Symposium, arguing that lasers could ultimately augment existing missile interceptors.

Shooting down a missile requires more than the laser itself, it involves steering mirrors, adaptive optics and software that can track a target.  Both Lockheed and Boeing – which has built a high-power laser for the Army Stryker vehicles – showed off small drones with holes burned through them by low-power lasers.  To destroy a missile screaming toward outer space, a much more powerful, “couple hundred kilowatts” laser is needed, [Doug] Graham [vice president of missile systems and advanced programs for Lockheed Martin] said.

“We’re not there yet, but I think our view is within five years, we’re going to be there,” he said.  “We’ll be able to demonstrate . . . a lethality of the boost phase.”

Now we will admit that we’re not that great at math, even though one of us was a math major in college (back before Newton and Leibniz developed calculus). But if our calculations are correct, then this article, which was written a year ago, suggests that we’re maybe four years away from practical laser-based systems.  Or to put it another way, these systems could be available in the first year of the next presidential term, whether that term is Trump’s second or the next guy’s/gal’s first.  Again, much to the late Ted Kennedy’s chagrin, that’s nothing to laugh at.

There are lessons to be learned here.  For starters, when someone in government tells you that something is impossible, you should take that with any number of grains of salt.  It may be impossible now.  It may be impossible with existing technology.  It may even be impossible to conceive of it as a practicality using contemporary technology as a reference point.  But none of that means that it is impossible.  Government officials – be they elected, appointed, or career bureaucrats – all have agendas.  And very often those agendas blind them to potentialities that could change things, that could change everything.

A second, related lesson is that very often these government agendas are the problem, the very reasons why seemingly intractable issues remain seemingly intractable.  In the case of missile defense, several competing agendas prevented the development of the technology that we now know is not only feasible, but likely could have been several years ago.  The Pentagon, the Democrats, and even the Reagan administration all had agendas they sought to pursue, and, as a result, they all, in various ways, big and small, crippled the push to attain the necessary technology.  Or at least they tried.  In the end, though, the technology has prevailed, or at least it will prevail in the foreseeable future.

The good news is that missile defense is not the only policy arena in which this is the case.  Sometimes, the change can be dramatic and near instantaneous, as is and has been the case with energy.  Five years ago, when he was running for reelection, Barack Obama attacked Sarah Palin, telling her, more or less, that she was insane.  In response to Palin’s admonition that the country should “drill, baby, drill,” Obama responded by declaring, snarkily, as is his wont, that “you can’t drill your way to cheap gas prices.”  Republicans, the President mockingly declared, have a “three-point plan for $2 gas: Step one is drill, step two is drill, and step three is keeping drilling.”  Well . . . uh . . . yeah.  And last week, Royal Dutch Shell conceded that oil prices will, quite probably, be “lower forever.”

Last week, Ronald Bailey, the science correspondent for the libertarian Reason magazine, wrote a piece detailing just how extraordinary the turnaround in American oil production has been and just how many left-wing shibboleths have been crushed along the way.  He put it this way:

In 1956, geologist M. King Hubbert famously predicted, in a presentation to the American Petroleum Institute, that oil production in the U.S. would peak no later than 1970.  To make his estimates, Hubbert added up all the plausible extrapolations of domestic crude oil reserves.  His more conservative calculation assumed the ultimate production of 150 billion barrels, in which case production would peak in 1965.  But if ultimate production could rise to 200 billion barrels, the peak would be delayed until 1970.

Many people thought Hubbert’s predictions were vindicated when U.S. production began dropping from its 1970 peak.  In fact, domestic production of crude reached a nadir of 5 million barrels per day in 2008.  (Had Hubbert’s calculations been right, the U.S. would have been producing only about 2.5 million barrels a day that year.)  As global oil prices began rising toward their highest levels ever, peak oil doomsaying had its heyday . . . .

But a funny thing happened on the way to peak oil.  Human ingenuity and technology happened.  And they crushed Hubbert, much as they crushed Malthus before him.  The Energy Information Administration now predicts that American crude production will average 9.9 million barrels a day next year.  And as Bailey notes, “This would surpass the previous record of 9.6 million barrels per day, set in 1970,” which is to say that it would surpass Hubbert’s “peak” and render his theory completely and utterly ridiculous.

Please note here that this development – and the attendant demolition of the longstanding conventional wisdom – occurred IN SPITE of the GOVERNMENT.  Obama’s snide remarks were made in part because he believed Hubbert’s theory, but also because he was advocating a specific partisan position, one that sought to hamper the production and usage of fossil fuels.  And yet the great energy revolution took place, because the will, the ingenuity, and the technology trumped the nonsensical ideology.

And that brings us at long last to the second reason that we brought up the Codevilla-missile defense issue today, namely the interminable pressures that dominate our politics and unnecessarily a handful of issues that could – and will – be alleviated by something other than government.

If you’ve paid any attention to the news lately – which is to say over the course of the last several presidencies – you undoubtedly know that the people in our government are obsessed with “doing something,” about health care and about global climate change.  These two issues MUST be addressed, we are told, and they MUST be addressed by government, post haste.

Color us skeptical.

Several years ago, during the period after we were defenestrated by one now-defunct big brokerage house, but before we were hired by the second now-defunct big brokerage house, one of us worked as a contractor on a project for one of the Big Four accounting/consulting firms.  The subject of the project was health care and specifically the expected evolution of health care in the digital age.  Needless to say, the conclusion of the project was exceptionally optimistic.  Between the internet, gene sequencing, and countless other pending developments, the general expectation was that health care would evolve and evolve quickly – away from traditional office visits and generalized to medicine and toward individualized medicine and non-traditional contacts with trained medical personnel (via Skype, for example).

Obviously, this evolution has continues, but it has been anything but quick.  A big part of the reason why this is the case is the fact that government has spent much the last decade trying to figure out how to get its big, fat, grubby paws all over the health “care” issue.  But rather than debating actual health care, our elected officials have spent the last quarter century debating health insurance.  All of which is to say that government has been preoccupied with the perpetual treatment of illness rather than with the acquisition of health.  This has been counterproductive, to say the very least.  Almost by definition, government must obsess over matters such as coverage, cost, and access.  And that means, in turn, that it must also obsess over such matters as keeping prices down, buying services and products in bulk, encumbering profits, and in turn, stifling markets, creativity and innovation.

That’s not to say that innovation isn’t taking place.  It is.  Just as with energy, innovation is taking place IN SPITE of government’s best efforts.  As we said, human ingenuity and technology are powerful and persistent things, and even more so when they are coupled with markets.  If there are profits to made, then there will be funding to be had and innovations to be discovered.

But government is making this process slower – MUCH slower – than it needs to be.  We know that the question of innovation vs. regulation has a long history, especially where health care/insurance is concerned.  And we know that the political Left has long made the argument and produced models supporting their argument that government involvement doesn’t stifle anything and can actually increase innovation.  Whatever.  None of that changes the fact that government, by necessity, has screwed up priorities.  If the health of the American people were the real endgame here, then we, as a people, would be focused less on insurance coverage and more on health outcomes.  In general, the research shows that insurance coverage – especially government-provided coverage does not correlate especially well with better health outcomes.  Instead, better health outcomes are driven by innovation and technology.  And innovation and technology can be driven better, faster, and more effectively by markets than by government.  Markets care about performance much more than government does.

Last week, we read a piece Reuters’ Environment Correspondent Alister Doyle chronicling the innovations that some people – specifically scientists affiliated with a Swiss company called Climeworks – are developing in their struggle to stop global warming…and to make a buck along the way.  Doyle wrote:

Scientists are sucking carbon dioxide from the air with giant fans and preparing to release chemicals from a balloon to dim the sun’s rays as part of a climate engineering push to cool the planet.  Backers say the risky, often expensive projects are urgently needed to find ways of meeting the goals of the Paris climate deal to curb global warming that researchers blame for causing more heatwaves, downpours and rising sea levels . . .

In the countryside near Zurich, Swiss company Climeworks began to suck greenhouse gases from thin air in May with giant fans and filters in a $23 million project that it calls the world’s first “commercial carbon dioxide capture plant”.  Worldwide, “direct air capture” research by a handful of companies such as Climeworks has gained tens of millions of dollars in recent years from sources including governments, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and the European Space Agency.  If buried underground, vast amounts of greenhouse gases extracted from the air would help reduce global temperatures, a radical step beyond cuts in emissions that are the main focus of the Paris Agreement.

Climeworks reckons it now costs about $600 to extract a tonne of carbon dioxide from the air and the plant’s full capacity due by the end of 2017 is only 900 tonnes a year.  That’s equivalent to the annual emissions of only 45 Americans . . .

Jan Wurzbacher, director and founder of Climeworks, says the company has planet-altering ambitions by cutting costs to about $100 a tonne and capturing one percent of global man-made carbon emissions a year by 2025 . . . Other companies involved in direct air capture include Carbon Engineering in Canada, Global Thermostat in the United States and Skytree in the Netherlands, a spinoff of the European Space Agency originally set up to find ways to filter out carbon dioxide breathed out by astronauts in spacecrafts . . .

The article goes on (and on . . . and on) discussing carbon capture and other scientific prospects for halting global warming, insisting that this type of action and technology “is not science fiction.”  That’s great.  We approve.  And we note, rather self-contentedly, that all of this is taking place today, not thirty or forty or eighty years in the future when the truly dire effects of global climate change are supposed to take place.  One can only imagine how much more sophisticated and advanced the schemes will be in, say, 2030.

Of course, the one catch is keeping government – and its economy-killing plans to address global warming inadequately – OUT of the equation.  Let us say, just for the sake of argument, that we believe everything that the global warmists say, that we are at an inflection point and that we need to save the world from climate change.  What do we do?  Well, if we’re stupid we encourage the government to institute costly regulations that will slow the economy, hamper the production of energy, and decrease free capital for investment, all the while not really solving the problem.  If we’re smart, however, we encourage government to get out of the way and let the markets sort it out.  If the problems are as dire as we’ve been told, then there is a fortune to be made in solving them.  And if there is a fortune to be made, then someone, somewhere will solve the problems.  It’s simple human nature.

We know, obviously, that the parallels between the policy problems mentioned in this piece are not perfect.  Unlike energy, health care, and global warming, there is no “private” market for missile defense and so there was never any real chance for enormous profits to drive innovation.  Perhaps that’s why it took 34 years to get from Reagan’s SDI speech to THAAD and will take another five (or four!) to get to functional laser defenses.   Who knows?  What we do know, though, is that the United States, with its unusual governmental system, its unusual level of liberty, and its unusual glorification of economic success, has been a global leader in driving life-changing, world-altering innovation.  If the government can control itself, there is no major policy problem that cannot be solved.

The key, of course, is getting government to control itself.

Good luck with that, as the youth of America today are fond of saying.

Copyright 2017. The Political Forum. 3350 Longview Ct., Lincoln NE  68506, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.