On Ukraine

In a front page story titled “Weary Soldiers, Unreliable Munitions: Ukraine’s Many Challenges”,  the New York Times reports that the Ukraine war is essentially stalemated. That the war effort is turning into a quagmire should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. Neither side has shown itself to have the decisive advantage needed to end the conflict on its preferred terms. 

Despite, or maybe because of, occasional nuclear threats from the Kremlin, the state of affairs now resembles that of the trench warfare that was WWI. Which is to say that we now have a war of attrition on our hands. Why?

There are a number of plausible answers. Botched policy is one. After all, how is it that we are backing a significantly smaller Ukraine against Russia in a war of attrition? Ukraine’s population is only 37 million; Russia is almost 4 times as large at 144 million. Measured by purchasing power parity, Ukraine has a per capita  GDP of $12,500; Russia’s is $14,500.  Ukraine’s land mass is 600 thousand square kilometers; Russia at 17 million is 28 times the size of Ukraine. 

Ukraine, after all, is not officially a part of NATO, although arguendo,  Mr. Biden made it a de facto member. Moreover, Ukraine is famously corrupt. By itself, it does not hold strategic significance for the U.S. But the lion’s share of the aid is coming from the U.S. In fact, at $ 77 billion America has supplied 9 times as much aid as Great Britain, the next largest donor. So the question must be asked: What exactly is the U.S. getting for all the largess? Or more precisely, what does the U.S. intend to get from all this? 

Ideally, to the extent that U.S. is, or ought to be,  backing a combatant, the U.S. should have a clear sense of what its goals are.  And let’s keep in mind that Ukraine is not a member state of NATO so the U.S. has no obligation to defend her territorial integrity. So what exactly is the U.S. trying to accomplish, and why hasn’t it been articulated by the Commander-in-Chief, who after all committed us to a proxy war for “as long as it takes”. 

There are a couple of plausible explanations. The first is that President Biden is making policy on the fly as he goes along without any clear sense of goals or strategy for achieving them. This, unfortunately, seems like the most likely explanation. Recall that Mr Biden has spent a good deal of time explaining what he isn’t going to do (shortly before he ultimately does it) because he is afraid of escalation. Sounds a lot like Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam, one of the many wars we lost since WWII.  

A second possibility is that Mr Biden does have a strategy, but it is so cynical that he is hesitant to say it out loud. This second possibility is that he wants to weaken Russia by fighting a proxy war using Ukrainian troops financed by American dollars.  

However, aside from the dubious morality of this proposition, it presents a philosophical problem for  Mr Biden and his progressive friends. For one thing,  it requires envisioning the U.S. as a global hegemon, whose mission is the protection of a  Liberal world order. A world order backed by U.S. military, financial and political might.  A world order that embraces global free trade, the rule of law and recognizes the sovereign nation-state as the organizing unit of world politics. 

Those conditions are light-years away from what Mr Biden and progressives actually believe (or profess to believe). Take global free trade. Mr Biden, like his predecessor, thinks that trade is a zero-sum game in which the “winner” is a country that sells more stuff abroad than it buys. 

That, of course is just flat out wrong. As early as the first part of the 19th century David Ricardo had developed the theory of comparative advantage that posited that free trade was beneficial to all. Francis Edgeworth, the Anglo-Irish political economist and philosopher provided the mathematical proof in the late 1800s. 

Nevertheless, the untutored, like Messers Biden and Trump and a whole lot of progressives, insist on believing that they can “manage” trade with tariffs and barriers more efficiently than the market. They have no place for a free trade regime. Rather, they prefer industrial policy, which essentially means showering tax dollars on favored constituencies and hoping for the best. 

Similarly, as to the rule of law, it only applies to the laws they like. Mr Biden is routinely slapped down by the courts for his aggressive and unlawful use of executive power, at which point he resorts to  looking for another (unlawful) avenue to take. Like forgiving student loans for instance. And not to make too fine a point of it, Mr Trump has already been indicted twice, with at least a 3rd indictment probably right around the corner. 

(I know, I know that Trump has not been proven guilty, yet, in a court of law. So I’m supposed to say allegedly somewhere. But let’s get serious for just a minute. Trump is about as innocent of obstruction  of justice as OJ Simpson was of murder.) 

Returning to the substance: As a practical matter Mr Biden has resisted the substantial increase in military spending that is needed to counteract China and Russia. Moreover he keeps trying to find ways to throw money at Iran as part of resurrecting the Obama Administration’s nuclear arms deal with the mullahs.  But Mr Biden does not hesitate to toss trillions (yes trillions) of U.S. dollars around toward pet causes that substantially weaken U.S. public finances and thus U.S. political power abroad. 

And when it comes down to it, there is a philosophical problem. Progressives continually complain that the U.S. is systematically a white supremacist, racist and oppressive country. Why would they want the U.S. to be the global hegemon? 

Consider though one fact that puts the lie to the progressive line about systemic racism. The fact is that the vast majority of immigrants to the U.S. are both non-white and eager to become citizens in spite of the alleged white supremacy and racism; a detail that seems to have escaped the attention of the would be immigrants. 

So when all is said and done we are acting under the policy direction of a Commander-in-Chief who risks nuclear war but resolutely refuses to explain why or what the goal is. And terrible destruction continues in the heart of Europe on a daily basis and threatens to stalemate. 

The obvious solution, call it the JFK / Ronald Reagan solution, is for the U.S. to clearly articulate its policy goals and take the necessary steps to implement them. Kennedy said “wherever freedom is threatened we will defend it”. Reagan said “We win. They lose.” 

That sounds about right. 


The Supremes

For the progressive left, the last week in June was a tough one. Officially approved racism was thrown overboard; religious freedom and free speech were protected, and the separation of powers, inherent in the U.S, Constitutional structure, was reaffirmed. These results stem from three Supreme Court decisions that were announced last week.

Notably in Students for Fair Admission v. Harvard and Students for Fair Admission v. The University of North Carolina, the Court ruled that the use of racial discrimination in college admission decisions violated the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. In 303 Creative LLC Et Al. v. Elenis Et Al. the Court held that a web designer could not be forced by the state to design a website that violated her religious beliefs. 

Finally, in Biden, President of the United States, Et Al. v. Nebraska Et Al. the Court ruled that President Biden overstepped his authority when he decreed that the HEROES Act authorized him to cancel federal student loans up to $20,000.  Doing so would require explicit authorization by Congressional action, the Court held. 

None of these rulings were particularly surprising; the likely outcomes had been telegraphed for months. Nor should they have been all that controversial. It is, or should be, crystal clear that the U.S. Constitution forbids racial discrimination by the state. And no one disputes the contention that Asians are intentionally held to a much higher standard for admission to elite colleges for the express purpose of reducing the number of Asians at those institutions.

 No matter, a meltdown of the media-academic complex commenced almost immediately. Apparently the progressive left, along with the KKK, has decided that there is “good” racial discrimination and “bad” racial discrimination. The determinative factor, they claim, is purity of motive, namely the desire to achieve diversity. 

That rationale is simply nonsense, even if it were true. The real goal, however, is to achieve conformity, not diversity,  in what really matters, which is to say philosophical outlook. Hence the progressive thought police have taken to requiring academic job applicants to make DEI statements (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) when they apply for tenure track positions. Not to mention shouting down speakers who say things they don’t want to hear. Or the ongoing efforts to silence critics by cancellation. 

Which leads to the 303 Creative LLC Web Design case in which the Court held that the state of Colorado could not use its anti-discrimination laws to require an individual to promote a cause in which she did not believe. That would  amount to forced speech, the Court held, which is a clear violation of the First amendment. The Court also held that such a law would violate the religious freedom that is guaranteed by the First amendment.

Note that in each of these cases state institutions, or institutions financed by the state, used their powers to violate individual rights. In the affirmative action case, Asian Americans were denied equal protection of the laws; in the Web Site design case, the state of Colorado violated the plaintiff’s right to free speech and the right to freely practice her religion. Colorado did so by viewpoint discrimination. 

In both of these cases, the progressive left favored discrimination, either by race or viewpoint, to enforce conformity with the latest academic fads.  

In the case of student debt, the Supreme Court held that the Biden Administration had stepped over the line and violated the separation of powers by attempting to cancel student debt to the tune of some $400 odd billion. This clearly would have constituted spending which could only be authorized by Congress. 

In his attempt to cancel student debt, the President arrogated unto himself the power to spend freely without the assent of Congress. The power of the purse, critical to the working of the system, would have been nullified. All for the purpose of assuaging the desires of important Democratic constituencies, namely students and teachers unions. 

These decisions and the reaction to them are telling. First, these decisions (along with other recent rulings) reel in state power in a way that hasn’t happened in a very long time. All to the good. 

Second, based on polling, the results are generally in line with what large majorities of the population prefer. By overwhelming margins the populace is opposed to the use of racial criteria for college admissions. That holds for Democrats, Republicans and Independents; it also holds across virtually all racial groups. Similarly, a recent (June 14) poll conducted by the PEW Research Center found that about 60% of Americans believe that businesses should not have to provide services if doing so suggested support for beliefs  that they actually oppose. 

Finally, poll results about the student debt cancellation plan are a bit more nuanced. But not a lot. Some polls that oversampled students with outstanding debt found that opinion was about evenly split (in the mid 40 percents) on the merits of the plan. That is to be expected since something like 80% of students with outstanding debt were in favor of cancellation.  On the other hand, the CATO Institute published a poll in September of 2022 that claimed majorities opposed canceling student debt if doing so “…raise[d] their taxes, primarily benefit[ed] the wealthy, increase[d] college prices, or cause[d] more employers to require degrees.”

What is so fascinating about all this is that notwithstanding the predictable and inevitable doomsaying, the Supreme Court just went ahead and ruled on the legal merits.  That is what it is supposed to do. After all the Court is not a majoritarian institution; on the contrary, it is a brake on mob rule. 

That said, the public seems to favor the policies and values implied by the decisions. (The caveats have to do with how the questions are phrased—a not inconsiderable factor among many.) But it seems clear that progressives are on the wrong side of the policy debate, both with respect to the legal merits and how the politics will play out. 

All of which suggests that progressive interest groups have captured the Democratic Party and hold the whip hand—in the party—but not the electorate as a whole. Already the progressive bureaucracies of the universities, the government, and public sector labor unions are gearing up to resist the Court’s rulings. 

When he is not blathering on about democracy and the rule of law, President Biden, one of the more lawless Presidents we have had (let’s not leave out President Trump here) has already signaled that he intends to defy the Court. Why else would he attack the Court’s legitimacy by saying that this is “not a normal Court” while readying alternative (and equally lawless ways) of achieving progressive goals. 

Strap in. It isn’t over. This is not “the beginning of the end”, as Churchill put it. It is “the end of the beginning.”