Archive for the ‘United States’ Category

Exit fascists stage left, pursued by lawyers

January 20, 2021

He’s gone. They’re gone.

They played My Way as Trump boarded Air Force 1 for the last time. But it wasn’t really his way. It was the way of a long list of tedious, criminal, populist, anti-democratic, deeply selfish characters in history. I’m not sure what Trump added to the recipe beyond Twitter and his ridiculous hair.

So sense has returned. Along with its good friend democracy. However, thinking about appropriate songs-of-the-day, I’d say that democracy should be Back in Black, the appropriate, sombre, funereal colour for four years that brought the United States uncomfortably close to catastrophe.

If old Joe Biden can remember every day that Trump and his crew were really just a symptom of very real problems in America, we may be in for a better future. As someone deeply pro-American, I do hope so.

California versus Beijing: inside the spook war

December 22, 2020

You cannot beat a great tale of spooks fighting a covert war and Foreign Policy has one. Kudos to the reporter. This is as good as anything about Sino-US relations that I have read in recent times. Here is the original piece, with graphics — as good an invitation to subscribe to the venerable FP as you will get. Parts 2 and 3 are pending in the next couple of days.

CHINA USED STOLEN DATA TO EXPOSE CIA OPERATIVES IN AFRICA AND EUROPE

The discovery of U.S. spy networks in China fueled a decadelong global war over data between Beijing and Washington.

BY ZACH DORFMANDECEMBER 21, 2020, 6:00 AM

Around 2013, U.S. intelligence began noticing an alarming pattern: Undercover CIA personnel, flying into countries in Africa and Europe for sensitive work, were being rapidly and successfully identified by Chinese intelligence, according to three former U.S. officials. The surveillance by Chinese operatives began in some cases as soon as the CIA officers had cleared passport control. Sometimes, the surveillance was so overt that U.S. intelligence officials speculated that the Chinese wanted the U.S. side to know they had identified the CIA operatives, disrupting their missions; other times, however, it was much more subtle and only detected through U.S. spy agencies’ own sophisticated technical countersurveillance capabilities.

The CIA had been taking advantage of China’s own growing presence overseas to meet or recruit sources, according to one of these former officials. “We can’t get to them in Beijing, but can in Djibouti. Heat map Belt and Road”—China’s trillion-dollar infrastructure and influence initiative—“and you’d see our activity happening. It’s where the targets are.” The CIA recruits “Russians and Chinese hard in Africa,” said a former agency official. “And they know that.” China’s new aggressive moves to track U.S. operatives were likely a response to these U.S. efforts.

This series, based on interviews with over three dozen current and former U.S. intelligence and national security officials, tells the story of China’s assault on U.S. personal data over the last decade—and its consequences.

Part 2: Beijing Ransacked Data as U.S. Sources Went Dark in China
Coming Tuesday, Dec. 22

Part 3: As Trump’s Trade War Raged, Chinese Spy Agencies Enlisted Private Firms 
Coming Wednesday, Dec. 23

At the CIA, these anomalies “alarmed chiefs of station and division leadership,” said the first former intelligence official. The Chinese “never should have known” who or where these undercover CIA personnel were. U.S. officials, lacking a smoking gun, puzzled over how China had managed to expose their spies. In a previous age, they might have begun a mole hunt, looking for a single traitor in a position to share this critical information with the other side, or perhaps scoured their records for a breach in a secret communications platform.

But instead, CIA officials believed the answer was likely data-driven—and related to a Chinese cyberespionage campaign devoted to stealing vast troves of sensitive personal private information, like travel and health data, as well as U.S. government personnel records. U.S. officials believed Chinese intelligence operatives had likely combed through and synthesized information from these massive, stolen caches to identify the undercover U.S. intelligence officials. It was very likely a “suave and professional utilization” of these datasets, said the same former intelligence official. This “was not random or generic,” this source said. “It’s a big-data problem.”

The battle over data—who controls it, who secures it, who can steal it, and how it can be used for economic and security objectives—is defining the global conflict between Washington and Beijing. Data has already critically shaped the course of Chinese politics, and it is altering the course of U.S. foreign policy and intelligence gathering around the globe. Just as China has sought to wield data as a sword and shield against the United States, America’s spy agencies have tried to penetrate Chinese data streams and to use their own big-data capabilities to try to pinpoint exactly what China knows about U.S. personnel and operations.

This series, based on extensive interviews with over three dozen current and former U.S. intelligence and national security officials, tells the story of that battle between the United States and China—a conflict in which many believe China possesses critical advantages, because of Beijing’s panopticon-like digital penetration of its own citizens and Chinese companies’ networks; its world-spanning cyberspying, which has included the successful theft of multiple huge U.S. datasets; and China’s ability to rapidly synthesize—and potentially weaponize—all this vast information from diverse sources.

China is “one of the leading collectors of bulk personal data around the globe, using both illegal and legal means,” William Evanina, the United States’ top counterintelligence official, told Foreign Policy. “Just through its cyberattacks alone, the PRC has vacuumed up the personal data of much of the American population, including data on our health, finances, travel and other sensitive information.”

This war over data has taken on particularly critical importance for the United States’—and China’s—spy agencies. In the intelligence world, “information is king, and the more information, the better,” said Steve Ryan, who served until 2016 as deputy director of the National Security Agency’s Threat Operations Center and is now the CEO of the cybersecurity service Trinity Cyber. In the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, intelligence largely came in piecemeal and partial form: an electronic intercept here, a report from a secret human source there. Today, the data-driven nature of everyday life creates vast clusters of information that can be snatched in a single move—and then potentially used by Beijing to fuel everything from targeting individual American intelligence officers to bolstering Chinese state-backed businesses.

Fundamentally, current and former U.S. officials say, China believes data provides security: It ensures regime stability in the face of internal and external threats to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It was a combination of those threats that created the impetus for China’s most aggressive counterintelligence campaign against the United States yet.

The CIA declined to comment for this story. The Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In 2010, a new decade was dawning, and Chinese officials were furious. The CIA, they had discovered, had systematically penetrated their government over the course of years, with U.S. assets embedded in the military, the CCP, the intelligence apparatus, and elsewhere. The anger radiated upward to “the highest levels of the Chinese government,” recalled a former senior counterintelligence executive.

Exploiting a flaw in the online system CIA operatives used to secretly communicate with their agents—a flaw first identified in Iran, which Tehran likely shared with Beijing—from 2010 to roughly 2012, Chinese intelligence officials ruthlessly uprooted the CIA’s human source network in China, imprisoning and killing dozens of people.

Within the CIA, China’s seething, retaliatory response wasn’t entirely surprising, said a former senior agency official. “We often had [a] conversation internally, on how U.S. policymakers would react to the degree of penetration CIA had of China”—that is, how angry U.S. officials would have been if they discovered, as the Chinese did, that a global adversary had so thoroughly infiltrated their ranks.

The anger in Beijing wasn’t just because of the penetration by the CIA but because of what it exposed about the degree of corruption in China. When the CIA recruits an asset, the further this asset rises within a county’s power structure, the better. During the Cold War it had been hard to guarantee the rise of the CIA’s Soviet agents; the very factors that made them vulnerable to recruitment—greed, ideology, blackmailable habits, and ego—often impeded their career prospects. And there was only so much that money could buy in the Soviet Union, especially with no sign of where it had come from.

But in the newly rich China of the 2000s, dirty money was flowing freely. The average income remained under 2,000 yuan a month (approximately $240 at contemporary exchange rates), but officials’ informal earnings vastly exceeded their formal salaries. An official who wasn’t participating in corruption was deemed a fool or a risk by his colleagues. Cash could buy anything, including careers, and the CIA had plenty of it.

At the time, CIA assets were often handsomely compensated. “In the 2000s, if you were a chief of station”—that is, the top spy in a foreign diplomatic facility—“for certain hard target services, you could make a million a year for working for us,” said a former agency official. (“Hard target services” generally refers to Chinese, Russia, Iranian, and North Korean intelligence agencies.)

Over the course of their investigation into the CIA’s China-based agent network, Chinese officials learned that the agency was secretly paying the “promotion fees” —in other words, the bribes—regularly required to rise up within the Chinese bureaucracy, according to four current and former officials. It was how the CIA got “disaffected people up in the ranks. But this was not done once, and wasn’t done just in the [Chinese military],” recalled a current Capitol Hill staffer. “Paying their bribes was an example of long-term thinking that was extraordinary for us,” said a former senior counterintelligence official. “Recruiting foreign military officers is nearly impossible. It was a way to exploit the corruption to our advantage.” At the time, “promotion fees” sometimes ran into the millions of dollars, according to a former senior CIA official: “It was quite amazing the level of corruption that was going on.” The compensation sometimes included paying tuition and board for children studying at expensive foreign universities, according to another CIA officer.

Chinese officials took notice. “They were forced to see their problems, and our mistakes helped them see what their problems were,” recalled a former CIA executive. “We helped bring to fruition what they theoretically were scared of,” said the Capitol Hill staffer. “We scared the shit out of them.” Corruption was increasingly seen as the chief threat to the regime at home; as then-Party Secretary Hu Jintao told the Party Congress in 2012, “If we fail to handle this issue well, it could … even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state,” he said. Even in China’s heavily controlled media environment, corruption scandals were breaking daily, tainting the image of the CCP among the Chinese people. Party corruption was becoming a public problem, acknowledged by the CCP leadership itself.

But privately, U.S. officials believe, Chinese leaders also feared the degree to which corruption had allowed the CIA to penetrate its inner circles. The CIA’s incredible recruiting successes “showed the institutional rot of the party,” said the former senior CIA official. “They ought to [have been] upset.” The leadership realized that unchecked corruption wasn’t just an existential threat for the party at home; it was also a major counterintelligence threat, providing a window for enemy intelligence services like the CIA to crawl through.

This was a global problem for the CCP. Corrupt officials, even if they hadn’t been recruited by the CIA while in office, also often sought refuge overseas—where they could then be tapped for information by enterprising spy services. In late 2012, party head Xi Jinping announced a new anti-corruption campaign that would lead to the prosecution of hundreds of thousands of Chinese officials. Thousands were subject to extreme coercive pressure, bordering on kidnapping, to return from living abroad. “The anti-corruption drive was about consolidating power—but also about how Americans could take advantage of [the corruption]. And that had to do with the bribe and promotion process,” said the former senior counterintelligence official.

The 2013 leaks from Edward Snowden, which revealed the NSA’s deep penetration of the telecommunications company Huawei’s China-based servers, also jarred Chinese officials, according to a former senior intelligence analyst. “Chinese officials were just beginning to learn how the internet and technology has been so thoroughly used against them, in ways they didn’t conceptualize until then,” the former analyst said. “At the intelligence level, it was driven by this fundamental [revelation] that, ‘This is what we’ve been missing: This internet system we didn’t create is being weaponized against us.’”

There were other ripple effects. By the late 2000s, U.S. intelligence officials had observed a notable professionalizing of the Ministry of State Security, China’s main civilian intelligence agency. Before Xi’s purges, petty corruption within the agency was ubiquitous, former U.S. intelligence officials say, with China’s spies sometimes funneling money from operations into their own “nest eggs”; Chinese government-affiliated hackers operating under the protection of the Ministry of State Security would also sometimes moonlight as cybercriminals, passing a cut of their work to their bosses at the intelligence agency.

Under Xi’s crackdown, these activities became increasingly untenable. But the discovery of the CIA networks in China helped supercharge this process, said current and former officials—and caused China to place a greater focus on external counterespionage work. “As they learned these things,” the Chinese realized they “needed to start defending themselves,” said the former CIA executive.

By about 2010, two former CIA officials recalled, the Chinese security services had instituted a sophisticated travel intelligence program, developing databases that tracked flights and passenger lists for espionage purposes. “We looked at it very carefully,” said the former senior CIA official. China’s spies “were actively using that for counterintelligence and offensive intelligence. The capability was there and was being utilized.” China had also stepped up its hacking efforts targeting biometric and passenger data from transit hubs, former intelligence officials say—including a successful hack by Chinese intelligence of biometric data from Bangkok’s international airport.

To be sure, China had stolen plenty of data before discovering how deeply infiltrated it was by U.S. intelligence agencies. However, the shake-up between 2010 and 2012 gave Beijing an impetus not only to go after bigger, riskier targets, but also to put together the infrastructure needed to process the purloined information. It was around this time, said a former senior NSA official, that Chinese intelligence agencies transitioned from merely being able to steal large datasets en masse to actually rapidly sifting through information from within them for use. U.S. officials also began to observe that intelligence facilities within China were being physically co-located near language and data processing centers, said this person.

For U.S. intelligence personnel, these new capabilities made China’s successful hack of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) that much more chilling. During the OPM breach, Chinese hackers stole detailed, often highly sensitive personnel data from 21.5 million current and former U.S. officials, their spouses, and job applicants, including health, residency, employment, fingerprint, and financial data. In some cases, details from background investigations tied to the granting of security clearances—investigations that can delve deeply into individuals’ mental health records, their sexual histories and proclivities, and whether a person’s relatives abroad may be subject to government blackmail—were stolen as well. Though the United States did not disclose the breach until 2015, U.S. intelligence officials became aware of the initial OPM hack in 2012, said the former counterintelligence executive. (It’s not clear precisely when the compromise actually happened.)

When paired with travel details and other purloined data, information from the OPM breach likely provided Chinese intelligence potent clues about unusual behavior patterns, biographical information, or career milestones that marked individuals as likely U.S. spies, officials say. Now, these officials feared, China could search for when suspected U.S. spies were in certain locations—and potentially also meeting secretly with their Chinese sources. China “collects bulk personal data to help it track dissidents or other perceived enemies of China around the world,” Evanina, the top U.S. counterintelligence official, said.

Many felt the ground give way immediately. For some at the CIA, recalled Gail Helt, a former CIA China analyst, the reaction to the OPM breach was, “Oh my God, what is this going to mean for everybody who had ever traveled to China? But also what is it going to mean for people who we had formally recruited, people who might be suspected of talking to us, people who had family members there? And what will this mean for agency efforts to recruit people in the future? It was terrifying. Absolutely terrifying.” Many feared the aftershocks would be widespread. “The concern just wasn’t that [the OPM hack] would curtail info inside China,” said a former senior national security official. “The U.S. and China bump up against each other around the world. It opened up a global Pandora’s box of problems.”

Others were more resigned, if no less disturbed. “You operate under the assumption that good tradecraft”—and not the secrecy provided, in theory, by cover—“will protect your assets and operations,” said Duyane Norman, a former senior CIA official. “So OPM wasn’t some kind of eye-opener. It was confirmation of new threats we already knew existed.”

There were other bad omens. During this same period, U.S. officials concluded that Russian intelligence officials, likely exploiting a difference in payroll payments between real State Department employees and undercover CIA officers, had identified some of the CIA personnel working at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Officials thought that this insight may have come from data derived from the OPM hack, provided by the Chinese to their Russian counterparts. U.S. officials also wondered whether the OPM hack could be related to an uptick in attempted recruitments by Chinese intelligence of Chinese American translators working for U.S. intelligence agencies when they visited family in China. “We also thought they were trying to get Mandarin speakers to apply for jobs as translators” within the U.S. intelligence community, recalled the former senior counterintelligence official. U.S. officials believed that Chinese intelligence was giving their agents “instructions on how to pass a polygraph.”

But after the OPM breach, anomalies began to multiply. In 2012, senior U.S. spy hunters began to puzzle over some “head-scratchers”: In a few cases, spouses of U.S. officials whose sensitive work should have been difficult to discern were being approached by Chinese and Russian intelligence operatives abroad, according to the former counterintelligence executive. In one case, Chinese operatives tried to harass and entrap a U.S. official’s wife while she accompanied her children on a school field trip to China. “The MO is that, usually at the end of the trip, the lightbulb goes on [and the foreign intelligence service identifies potential persons of interest]. But these were from day one, from the airport onward,” the former official said.

Worries about what the Chinese now knew precipitated an intelligence community-wide damage assessment surrounding the OPM and other hacks, recalled Douglas Wise, a former senior CIA official who served deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2014 to 2016. Some worried that China might have purposefully secretly altered data in individuals’ OPM files to later use as leverage in recruitment attempts. Officials also believed that the Chinese might sift through the OPM data to try and craft the most ideal profiles for Chinese intelligence assets seeking to infiltrate the U.S. government—since they now had granular knowledge of what the U.S. government looked for, and what it didn’t, while considering applicants for sensitive positions. U.S. intelligence agencies altered their screening procedures to anticipate new, more finely tuned Chinese attempts at human spying, Wise said.

The Chinese now had unprecedented insight into the workings of the U.S. system. The United States, meanwhile, was flying with one eye closed when dealing with China. With the CIA’s carefully built network of Chinese agents utterly destroyed, the debate over how to handle China would become increasingly contentious—even as China’s ambitions grew.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series. The second part, to be published Dec. 22, covers how U.S. intelligence under Barack Obama struggled as Xi Jinping consolidated his power. The third part, to be published on Dec. 23, covers the Donald Trump era and the growing cooperation between Chinese intelligence and tech giants. Zach Dorfman is a senior staff writer on national security and cybersecurity for Aspen Digital, a program of the Aspen Institute, and a senior fellow at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. Twitter: @zachsdorfman

Vogel passes, leaving lessons for us all

December 21, 2020

Ezra Vogel, a remarkable East Asia scholar, author of the best biography of Deng Xiaoping, and all round generous, decent man, has passed away. Below is an obituary posted by his son. If you work on developing countries, the takeaway for me is the breadth of intellectual tools that Ezra Vogel applied during his life to produce outstanding scholarship. This was no one-trick pony.

Ezra F. Vogel, 90, one of the country’s leading experts on East Asia through a career that spanned six decades, passed away in Cambridge, MA, December 20 due to complications from surgery.

Vogel studied an extraordinary range of substantive topics in multiple countries from the perspectives of various academic disciplines, retooling himself as a scholar many times over in his academic career.  He was originally trained as a sociologist studying the family in the United States.  He devoted two years to language study and field research in Japan in 1958-60, emerging as a specialist on Japanese society.  He then embarked on Chinese-language study in the 1960s, before it was possible to travel to mainland China, and became an accomplished scholar of Chinese society as well.  His scholarship spanned from family issues, to social welfare, industrial policy, international relations, and history.  He served as the National Intelligence Officer for East Asia with the National Intelligence Council from 1993 to 1995, and maintained a strong interest in U.S. foreign and security policy in Asia from that time.  He turned to history in his later years, producing magisterial works on Deng Xiaoping and Sino-Japanese relations. 

Vogel’s scholarship was not restricted to any single methodology, but rather reflected his drive to get the story right through whatever means necessary.  For his research on the Japanese family, he engaged in intensive ethnographic research with his first wife, Suzanne Hall Vogel, interviewing six families about once a week for a year.  He kept up with some of the families over the years, and the family friendships now span three generations.  For his first book on China, he relied primarily on interviews in Hong Kong with refugees who had escaped from the Guangzhou region.  He was a passionate life-long student of language, and he mastered both Japanese and Chinese.  He took pride in his ability to conduct research and give public lectures in both languages.

Vogel will be most remembered for his boundless good cheer and boyish enthusiasm.  He grew up in the small town of Delaware, Ohio, the son of Jewish immigrants, Joe and Edith Vogel.  His father ran a men’s and boys’ clothing store in the center of town, the People’s Store, and he often helped out.  He managed to transfer the effusive friendliness of a small-town shoe salesman to the unlikely corridors of Harvard University and Washington D.C.  He had an irrepressible ability to see the good in every person and every nation, while recognizing nonetheless that many of us fall short of our ideals.  He sustained a network of Japanese graduate students and young scholars at Harvard, the “juku” (study group), which met regularly at his home in Cambridge until the Coronovirus pandemic intervened.  He hosted smaller groups of students working on China as well.  He participated in a reunion of former students, colleagues, and “juku” members almost every summer in Tokyo.

Vogel was a devoted husband and father, who hosted a celebration for his extended family at his home every holiday season for the past 25 years.  The 2020 reunion was to be via Zoom on the day he passed away.  He loved keeping up with friends, family and colleagues.  Undeterred by COVID-19, he raved about his ability to talk to family and colleagues in Japan, China, and other parts of the world with Zoom.  He and his wife Charlotte were supportive companions.  Among other activities, they enjoyed running daily for twenty years.  When his knees began to falter, they turned to biking for the last twenty years.  He even biked four miles one day shortly before he died.  He maintained long-term friendships, regularly going back for high school and college reunions in his hometown.  He made a major gift to his hometown alma mater, Ohio Wesleyan, of the entire royalties from the mainland Chinese edition of his biography of Deng Xiaoping.

Vogel was the Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences Emeritus at Harvard.  After graduating from Ohio Wesleyan in 1950 and serving two years in the U.S. Army, he studied sociology in the Department of Social Relations at Harvard, receiving his Ph.D. in 1958.  In 1960-1961 he was assistant professor at Yale University and from 1961-1964 a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard, studying Chinese language and history.  He remained at Harvard, becoming a lecturer in 1964 and a professor in 1967.  He retired from teaching in 2000.

Vogel was also an institution builder at Harvard.  He succeeded John Fairbank to become the second Director (1972-1977) of Harvard’s East Asian Research Center and Chairman of the Council for East Asian Studies (1977-1980).  He co-founded the Program on U.S.-Japan Relations at the Center for International Affairs and served as its first Director (1980-1987) and as Honorary Director ever since.  He was Chairman of the undergraduate concentration in East Asian Studies from its inception in 1972 until 1991.  He was Director of the Fairbank Center (1995-1999) and the first Director of the Asia Center (1997-1999).  He was Chairman of the Harvard Committee to Welcome President Jiang Zemin (1998).  He also served as Co-Director of the Asia Foundation Task Force on East Asian Policy Recommendations for the New Administration (2001).

Drawing on his original field work in Japan, he wrote Japan’s New Middle Class (1963).  A book based on several years of interviewing and reading materials from China, Canton Under Communism (1969), won the Harvard University Press faculty book of the year award.  The Japanese edition of his book Japan as Number One: Lessons for America (1979) was a breakaway best-seller in Japan.  In Comeback (1988), he suggested things America might do to respond to the Japanese challenge.  He spent eight months in 1987, at the invitation of the Guangdong Provincial Government, studying the economic and social progress of the province since it took the lead in pioneering economic reform in 1978.  The results are reported in One Step Ahead in China: Guangdong Under Reform (1989).  His Reischauer Lectures were published as The Four Little Dragons: The Spread of Industrialization in East Asia (1991).  He visited East Asia every year after 1958 and spent a total of over six years in the region.  He returned from his most recent trip to China in January, just as word was first coming out about the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the age of 81, Vogel published the definitive biography of Deng Xiaoping, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China (2011).  The book won: the 2012 Lionel Gelber Prize, Lionel Gelber Foundation, Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto; Honorable Mention 2012 for the Bernard Schwartz Book Award, Asia Society; Finalist 2011 for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography; a Bloomberg News Favorite Book of 2014; and Esquire China Book of the Year 2012; a Gates Notes Top Read of 2012; an Economist Best Book of 2011; a Financial Times Best Book of 2011; a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice 2011; a Wall Street Journal Book of the Year 2011, and a Washington Post Best Book of 2011.  The book became a bestseller in China.

At the age of 89, he published China and Japan: Facing History (2019), which reviews the history of political and cultural ties between the two nations over 1500 years.  Vogel hoped that the book would offer an accurate portrayal of how the two countries learned from each other over the centuries, but also serve to encourage the Chinese and Japanese leaders to forge a more constructive relationship going forward.  Vogel was also concerned about the state of U.S.-China relations

Vogel received honorary degrees from Kwansei Gakuin (Japan), the Monterrey Institute, the Universities of Maryland, Massachusetts (Lowell), Wittenberg, Bowling Green, Albion, Ohio Wesleyan, Chinese University (Hong Kong) and Yamaguchi University (Japan).  He received the Japan Foundation Prize in 1996 and the Japan Society Prize in 1998.

Vogel is survived by his wife of 41 years, Charlotte Ikels; son David Vogel of Cambridge, MA; son Steven Vogel of Berkeley, CA; daughter Eve Vogel of Amherst, MA; sister Fay Bussgang of Dedham, MA; and five grandchildren. 

Resource links

Scholar profile here.

Harvard Fairbank Center profile here.

Wikipedia page here.

Amazon book page here.

YouTube videos here.

New York Times interviews here.

NYT headline just about captures it

November 8, 2020

The curiosity for me is that with all Trump’s antics, in recent days, and ongoing, and indeed in the context of the death of George Perry Floyd Jr. six months ago, no one that I have seen in the media has mentioned Joseph McCarthy, US Senator for George Floyd’s state from 1947-57.

I remember the subject of McCarthyism coming up in a conversation with a clever American when I was in China and him saying: ‘Yeah, that was our Cultural Revolution.’ Well, America may just have avoided another Cultural Revolution. So here’s something uplifting from the estimable Chuck D.

Followed by Obama springing a Presidential Medal with Distinction on Joseph Biden. Biden couldn’t stop crying…

Giving the Democrats just one more chance…

November 4, 2020

The last 24 hours have taken about two years off my life. A long walk this morning trying to understand how, after four years of watching Trump, more people would vote for him than in 2016. Piketty was a name that came to mind as I ruminated.

In the end, it seems that, like the Blues Brothers, Joe Biden has charmed just about enough north-eastern white Boomer males to keep the tour on the road.

In the morning, if we are lucky, we will find that the proto-fascists are once again in the river.

Can’t say it more eloquently than Cohen

November 3, 2020

Welcome to Tuesday 3 November 2020.

The Economist at its best

October 30, 2020

I’d forgotten why I ever wanted so much to work for the Economist Group, different bits of which I toiled for for years. This week I was reminded. What a great Leader the below is. Fair but satisfyingly hard:

The Economist

October 29

THE COUNTRY that elected Donald Trump in 2016 was unhappy and divided. The country he is asking to re-elect him is more unhappy and more divided. After almost four years of his leadership, politics is even angrier than it was and partisanship even less constrained. Daily life is consumed by a pandemic that has registered almost 230,000 deaths amid bickering, buck-passing and lies. Much of that is Mr Trump’s doing, and his victory on November 3rd would endorse it all.

Joe Biden is not a miracle cure for what ails America. But he is a good man who would restore steadiness and civility to the White House. He is equipped to begin the long, difficult task of putting a fractured country back together again. That is why, if we had a vote, it would go to Joe.

King Donald
Mr Trump has fallen short less in his role as the head of America’s government than as the head of state. He and his administration can claim their share of political wins and losses, just like administrations before them. But as the guardian of America’s values, the conscience of the nation and America’s voice in the world, he has dismally failed to measure up to the task.

Without covid-19, Mr Trump’s policies could well have won him a second term (see first Briefing). His record at home includes tax cuts, deregulation and the appointment of benchloads of conservative judges. Before the pandemic, wages among the poorest quarter of workers were growing by 4.7% a year. Small-business confidence was near a 30-year peak. By restricting immigration, he gave his voters what they wanted. Abroad, his disruptive approach has brought some welcome change (see second Briefing). America has hammered Islamic State and brokered peace deals between Israel and a trio of Muslim countries. Some allies in NATO are at last spending more on defence. China’s government knows that the White House now recognises it as a formidable adversary.

This tally contains plenty to object to. The tax cuts were regressive. Some of the deregulation was harmful, especially to the environment. The attempt at health-care reform has been a debacle. Immigration officials cruelly separated migrant children from their parents and limits on new entrants will drain America’s vitality. On the hard problems—on North Korea and Iran, and on bringing peace to the Middle East—Mr Trump has fared no better than the Washington establishment he loves to ridicule.

However, our bigger dispute with Mr Trump is over something more fundamental. In the past four years he has repeatedly desecrated the values, principles and practices that made America a haven for its own people and a beacon to the world. Those who accuse Mr Biden of the same or worse should stop and think. Those who breezily dismiss Mr Trump’s bullying and lies as so much tweeting are ignoring the harm he has wrought.

It starts with America’s democratic culture. Tribal politics predated Mr Trump. The host of “The Apprentice” exploited it to take himself from the green room to the White House. Yet, whereas most recent presidents have seen toxic partisanship as bad for America, Mr Trump made it central to his office. He has never sought to represent the majority of Americans who did not vote for him. Faced by an outpouring of peaceful protest after the killing of George Floyd, his instinct was not to heal, but to depict it as an orgy of looting and left-wing violence—part of a pattern of stoking racial tension. Today, 40% of the electorate believes the other side is not just misguided, but evil.

The most head-spinning feature of the Trump presidency is his contempt for the truth. All politicians prevaricate, but his administration has given America “alternative facts”. Nothing Mr Trump says can be believed—including his claims that Mr Biden is corrupt. His cheerleaders in the Republican Party feel obliged to defend him regardless, as they did in an impeachment that, bar one vote, went along party lines.

Partisanship and lying undermine norms and institutions. That may sound fussy—Trump voters, after all, like his willingness to offend. But America’s system of checks and balances suffers. This president calls for his opponents to be locked up; he uses the Department of Justice to conduct vendettas; he commutes the sentences of supporters convicted of serious crimes; he gives his family plum jobs in the White House; and he offers foreign governments protection in exchange for dirt on a rival. When a president casts doubt on the integrity of an election just because it might help him win, he undermines the democracy he has sworn to defend.

Partisanship and lying also undermine policy. Look at covid-19. Mr Trump had a chance to unite his country around a well organised response—and win re-election on the back of it, as other leaders have. Instead he saw Democratic governors as rivals or scapegoats. He muzzled and belittled America’s world-class institutions, such as the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. As so often, he sneered at science, including over masks. And, unable to see beyond his own re-election, he has continued to misrepresent the evident truth about the epidemic and its consequences. America has many of the world’s best scientists. It also has one of world’s highest covid-19 fatality rates.

Mr Trump has treated America’s allies with the same small-mindedness. Alliances magnify America’s influence in the world. The closest ones were forged during wars and, once unmade, cannot easily be put back together in peacetime. When countries that have fought alongside America look on his leadership, they struggle to recognise the place they admire.

That matters. Americans are liable both to over- and to underestimate the influence they have in the world. American military power alone cannot transform foreign countries, as the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq proved. Yet American ideals really do serve as an example to other democracies, and to people who live in states that persecute their citizens. Mr Trump thinks ideals are for suckers. The governments of China and Russia have always seen American rhetoric about freedom as cynical cover for the belief that might is right. Tragically, under Mr Trump their suspicions have been confirmed.

Four more years of a historically bad president like Mr Trump would deepen all these harms—and more. In 2016 American voters did not know whom they were getting. Now they do. They would be voting for division and lying. They would be endorsing the trampling of norms and the shrinking of national institutions into personal fiefs. They would be ushering in climate change that threatens not only distant lands but Florida, California and America’s heartlands. They would be signalling that the champion of freedom and democracy for all should be just another big country throwing its weight around. Re-election would put a democratic seal on all the harm Mr Trump has done.

President Joe
The bar to Mr Biden being an improvement is therefore not high. He clears it easily. Much of what the left wing of the Democratic Party disliked about him in the primaries—that he is a centrist, an institutionalist, a consensus-builder—makes him an anti-Trump well-suited to repair some of the damage of the past four years. Mr Biden will not be able to end the bitter animosity that has been mounting for decades in America. But he could begin to lay down a path towards reconciliation.

Although his policies are to the left of previous administrations’, he is no revolutionary. His pledge to “build back better” would be worth $2trn-3trn, part of a boost to annual spending of about 3% of GDP. His tax rises on firms and the wealthy would be significant, but not punitive. He would seek to rebuild America’s decrepit infrastructure, give more to health and education and allow more immigration. His climate-change policy would invest in research and job-boosting technology. He is a competent administrator and a believer in process. He listens to expert advice, even when it is inconvenient. He is a multilateralist: less confrontational than Mr Trump, but more purposeful.

Wavering Republicans worry that Mr Biden, old and weak, would be a Trojan horse for the hard left. It is true that his party’s radical wing is stirring, but he and Kamala Harris, his vice-presidential pick, have both shown in the campaign that they can keep it in check. Ordinarily, voters might be advised to constrain the left by ensuring that the Senate remained in Republican hands. Not this time. A big win for the Democrats there would add to the preponderance of moderate centrists over radicals in Congress by bringing in senators like Steve Bullock in Montana or Barbara Bollier in Kansas. You would not see a lurch to the left from either of them.

A resounding Democratic victory would also benefit the Republicans. That is because a close contest would tempt them into divisive, racially polarising tactics, a dead end in a country that is growing more diverse. As anti-Trump Republicans argue, Trumpism is morally bankrupt (see Lexington). Their party needs a renaissance. Mr Trump must be soundly rejected.

In this election America faces a fateful choice. At stake is the nature of its democracy. One path leads to a fractious, personalised rule, dominated by a head of state who scorns decency and truth. The other leads to something better—something truer to what this newspaper sees as the values that originally made America an inspiration around the world.

In his first term, Mr Trump has been a destructive president. He would start his second affirmed in all his worst instincts. Mr Biden is his antithesis. Were he to be elected, success would not be guaranteed—how could it be? But he would enter the White House with the promise of the most precious gift that democracies can bestow: renewal.

Institutional racism in America

August 31, 2020

Here is an interesting article about the role that the Senate plays in institutionalising racism in the United States.

There is also growing controversy about the role of the second chamber in the UK. However, the UK’s House of Lords has little real power and the reason to object to it is that it is stuffed with people who are being rewarded for financial contributions to political parties and other shenanigans that add no value to our society. The US Senate, by contrast, is an active enforcer of racism.

By Jonathan Chait.

In a time when institutions across the country have undergone a searching self-examination, the reckoning has only begun for the most powerful source of institutional racism in American life: the United States Senate. It is not merely a problem of legacy and culture — though the Senate’s traditions are deeply interwoven with white supremacy, as Joe Biden inadvertently confessed when he touted his cooperation with segregationists — but of very-much-ongoing discrimination. Quite simply, achieving anything like functional racial equality without substantially reforming the Senate will be impossible.

The Senate’s pro-white bias is a problem the political system is only beginning to absorb. When Barack Obama urged his party to honor John Lewis’s civil-rights legacy by passing a bill to guarantee democratic reforms like voting rights, statehood for Puerto Rico and D.C., and an end to the filibuster, which he called a “relic of Jim Crow,” the mere suggestion was met with a scorching response from the right. “The door to radicalism is getting busted wide open,” warned a Wall Street Journal editorial. John Podhoretz described Obama’s plan as “a degree of norm-shattering in service of the partisan interests of the Democrats that will, quite simply, tear this country asunder.”

Measured against the backdrop of modern Washington tradition, Obama’s proposal would indeed constitute a radical break with long-standing norms. But measured against the standard of simple political equality, his notion is quite modest. It would leave standing, albeit in altered and less distorted form, an institution that stands as a rebuke to democracy. The Senate is a bulwark of white power.

The Senate was not designed to benefit white voters — almost all voters were white when the Constitution went into effect — but it has had that effect. The reason is simple: Residents of small states have proportionally more representation, and small states tend to have fewer minority voters. Therefore, the Senate gives more voting power to white America, and less to everybody else. The roughly 2.7 million people living in Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, and North Dakota, who are overwhelmingly white, have the same number of Senators representing them as the 110 million or so people living in California, Texas, Florida, and New York, who are quite diverse. The overall disparity is fairly big. As David Leonhardt calculated, whites have 0.35 Senators per million people, while Blacks have 0.26, Asian-Americans 0.25, and Latinos just 0.19.

The Senate is affirmative action for white people. If we had to design political institutions from scratch, nobody — not even Republicans — would be able to defend a system that massively overrepresented whites. And yet, while we are yanking old 30 Rock episodes and holding White Fragility struggle sessions in boardrooms, a massive source of institutionalized racial bias is sitting in plain sight.

The Senate’s existence is not the product of divine inspiration by the Founders, as schoolchildren have been taught for generations, but the ungainly result of hardheaded political compromise between people who believed in some version of what we’d call “democracy” and people who didn’t. The Founders mostly hated the idea of a one-state, one-vote chamber. They grudgingly accepted it as (in James Madison’s formulation) a “lesser evil,” needed to buy off small states like Delaware.

Obviously, the Constitution contained lots of political compromises. In most cases, the system has evolved toward the principle of one-person, one-vote: The Electoral College has transformed from a group of elites using independent judgment to pick a president to a pass-through entity; the vote was extended to non-landholders, women, and black people (first in theory, and only a century later, in practice).

The Senate has oddly evolved in the opposite direction. The disparity in size between states has exploded. When the Constitution was written, the largest state had less than 13 times as many people as the smallest. Today, the largest state has nearly 70 times as many people as the smallest. As absurd as the likes of Madison and Hamilton considered a legislative chamber equalizing a 13-to-1 disparity, the absurdity is now fivefold. And it continues to grow.

The Senate has also evolved a routine supermajority requirement, which the Founders did not contemplate. The Constitution requires a supermajority in a handful of expressly defined circumstances, like treaties and removing a president from office. The filibuster evolved in the 19th century, first requiring unanimous agreement, then was reduced first to two-thirds in 1917, and then three-fifths in 1975. Custom used to dictate that filibusters were rarely used tools to register unusually strong disagreement (most frequently by southerners, against civil-rights legislation). Its evolution into a routine supermajority requirement is recent.

And so the Senate now has the function of allowing the minority of the country to thwart the majority, to a degree even its critics never imagined. Arguing against the Senate, Hamilton warned, “It may happen that this majority of States is a small minority of the people of America; and two thirds of the people of America could not long be persuaded, upon the credit of artificial distinctions and syllogistic subtleties, to submit their interests to the management and disposal of one third.” The filibuster, combined with the disproportionate growth of the largest states, allows a far more dire tyranny of the minority than this. A filibuster could be maintained by senators representing a mere 11 percent of the public.

In reality, it’s impractical to line up every small state on the same side. (Democrats do have small states.) But in the current Senate, Republicans who represent just a quarter of the population would have enough votes to sustain a filibuster. Even if Democrats win a landslide election in 2020, following another landslide win two years before, Republicans will easily be able to maintain a filibuster against any bill subject to one.

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Since the Senate is inscribed into the Constitution, measures to curtail its distorting effect have centered on abolishing the filibuster and admitting Puerto Rico and D.C. (stripped of the federal areas, which would remain the District of Columbia, and its residential areas constituted as a new state, perhaps called “Douglass Commonwealth.”) The process for admitting new states is just like passing laws.

The addition of D.C. and Puerto Rico, with four new senators between them, would partially offset the Senate’s massive overrepresentation of whites and Republicans. It would not, however, eliminate that advantage completely — or even come all that close to doing so. A Data for Progress analysis found, a 52-state Senate would still give whites decided overrepresentation, but it would ameliorate the injustice.

Podhoretz complains that admitting Puerto and D.C. would “violate democratic norms,” because “the last grants of statehood,” Alaska and Hawaii, did not alter the Senate’s partisan balance. He is implying, without saying outright, that states have always been admitted in Democrat-Republican pairs.

But this is not remotely true. In the 19th century, statehood was a partisan weapon, used mostly by Republicans, who admitted states not on the basis of population but in an open attempt to “stack the Senate.” After they added Montana, Washington, and split Dakota territory into two states (adding another pair of senators) in 1889, “President Harrison’s son crowed that the Republicans would win all the new states and gain eight more senators,” according to historian Heather Cox Boushey.

Alas, it is not just conservatives who believe that states must always be admitted in partisan pairs. Two years ago, Rhode Island senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat, confessed not to care at all about D.C. statehood: “I don’t have a particular interest in that issue. If we got one one-hundredth in Rhode Island of what D.C. gets in federal jobs and activity, I’d be thrilled.” And,he said,while he sympathized with Puerto Rico’s case, he opposed it because it would help his party. “Puerto Rico is actually a better case because they have a big population that qualifies as U.S. and they are not, as D.C. is, an enclave designed to support the federal government,” Whitehouse said. “The problem of Puerto Rico is it does throw off the balance so you get concerns like, who do [Republicans] find, where they can get an offsetting addition to the states.”

Offsetting? Who says it has to be offsetting? If Democrats refuse as a general principle to alter a “balance” that massively overrepresents white and Republican voters, they are consigning themselves to permanent minority status in the chamber.

The catch in admitting states is that Republicans could filibuster a statehood bill. But Republicans would filibuster any measure, however watered down, that increases Democratic voting power. (Mitch McConnell has even denounced a bill making Election Day a national holiday as a sinister “power grab.”)

In practice, therefore, any bill to admit new states would require eliminating the filibuster as well, which is why Obama took care to add that his party should change the rules to accomplish it. If Democrats gain 50 senators and the presidency, they would have it within their means to eliminate the filibuster and pass a bill expanding voting protections and admitting D.C. and Puerto Rico as states.

And it is the filibuster that poses the most formidable obstacle to passing any democratic reform. The Senate is shot through with institutionalists, who cling tightly to its traditions and relish the special status the chamber confers on its members. The objective of eliminating the legislative filibuster has gained adherents, but many of the chamber’s older Democrats remain stubbornly attached to it.

Democrats who support the filibuster make two arguments: one self-interested, the other principled. The self-interested argument concedes that yes, it would be helpful for Democrats to pass laws with a majority, but what happens when Republicans have a majority? “I think it would be a short-term advantage and a long term difficulty,” frets Maine senator Angus King. “You know, what concerns me is that this place changes.” Joe Biden, who has hedged on his previous pledges to maintain the filibuster forever, has said, “The filibuster has also saved a lot of bad things from happening too.”

It’s true that the filibuster sometimes stops conservative laws. Over the long run, however, liberals enact more changes than conservatives. This is almost definitional. Looking back over the last 20, 50, or 100 years, most major legislative changes have a progressive cast rather than a reactionary one. What makes the case for reform even stronger is that Republicans can already accomplish most of their goals without overcoming a filibuster. Senate rules allow the confirmation of judges and changing levels of taxation and spending with just a majority. Trump passed his tax cuts with 50 votes, and nearly passed his Obamacare repeal with 50 votes. (King’s warning, “If we didn’t have the 60-vote rule today, the ACA would be gone,” is flatly false.) The filibuster has played hardly any role at all in limiting his agenda.

What’s left of the filibuster primarily inhibits Democrat proposals. Given that the chamber’s one-state, one-vote makeup already favors Republicans, it is bizarre that Democrats would accept a handicap atop another handicap.

Even if none of this were true, and the filibuster thwarted both parties in equal measure, it is difficult to understand why it would be necessary. Many political systems allow a single national vote to constitute a working majority: The Parliamentary majority elects its leader and enacts the agenda it ran on, and if voters don’t like it, they elect a new government. The American system already requires controlling three separately elected bodies — House, Senate, and president — to enact any new law. Why does the system need yet another obstacle to change?

Here is where the principled invocation of the filibuster comes into play. The filibuster forces the two parties to work together. “The whole intention of Congress is basically to have a little bit of compromise with the other side,” argues Joe Manchin, expressing his fervent opposition to eliminating the legislative filibuster. “Our job is to find common and cooling ground, if you will, to make something work that makes sense.”

The simplest rebuttal to this claim is look around you. Do you see a lot of legislative compromise? How many reforms of any importance have amassed 60 Senate votes over the past 30 years? It is odd that senators can still wax idealistic about the filibuster promoting good old-fashioned bipartisanship when its absence is so obvious. Indeed, the same senators who most loudly decry the decline of bipartisanship are also the most convinced that the filibuster enables bipartisanship. Manchin himself has loudly grumbled about his disdain for the chamber, decried its uselessness, and threatened to quit repeatedly. Maybe he should consider the possibility that the rules he seems so attached to aren’t working.

It seems much more likely that the filibuster’s impact on moderation is just the opposite. The Senate’s arcane anti-democratic character enables extremism. By thwarting sensible liberal reforms, it emboldens left-wing radicals who paint the party as hopelessly inept, unable to deliver its promises, and unequal to the challenges of American life. If Biden’s Senate allies allow Republicans to thwart his promises, the left’s takeover of the party will accelerate.

More important, it has enabled the Republican Party’s long rightward lurch. Why should conservatives compromise their principles when they can use their counter-majoritarian power to block change? The Republican Party’s strategic response to a country that is moving demographically against it is not to adapt to the electorate but instead to thwart its will.

The defenses of the filibuster offered by the Senate’s traditionalists have a creepily familiar tone. Here are old, white, comfortable men, hesitant to make a (very small) amount of space in their elite institution for minorities. Whatever wan arguments they can offer for the status quo reek of the musty scent of clubbiness and nostalgia. They can hardly make the case that the system works, but it surely works for them.

Several years of heavy use have dulled the sharp edge of the word “reckoning.” But if there is any institution in American life that needs a reckoning, it is the U.S. Senate.

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The original article is here.

Essential viewing for Johnson, Hancock and Trump

August 19, 2020

Just in case the leaders of Britain and the United States want to know what competent management of Covid looks like, Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang explains how the island identified the Covid threat early and used, built and modified technical systems to deal with it effectively.

The leaders of Britain and the United States are warned that the content is a bit ‘sciency’ and ‘experty’ and they may find it harder to follow than Love Island. However, it is well worth watching.

Ms Tang’s explication begins at 12 minutes.

She explains the advantages of attentive research and using your brain after minute 14.

She explains the advantages of trusting your population around minute 16.

She explains the advantages of being honest, open and transparent about levels of PPE supply after minute 17.

She explains how to counter idiotic misinformation and establish facts after minute 23.

She talks about data privacy and quarantine monitoring after minute 26. And again at minute 39.

She explains why masks are important and offers to share the technology to make millions of them every day after minute 49. After minute 56 she again stresses the point that masks stop you touching your mouth and nose with potentially infected hands.

She makes several points about false dilemmas that may be presented in relation to Covid after minute 58.

She notes that mainland Chinese whistleblower Li Wenliang likely saved the lives of many people in Taiwan (because Taiwan was paying attention) and reminds us that what is most different about Covid-19 is asymptomatic transmission, after minute 63.

As of today, Taiwan has had just 486 recorded cases of Covid and seven deaths. Here are ongoing data.

Unfortunately Ms Tang’s slides do not appear on the video below.

Good luck Boris, Matt and Donald!

Happy New Year from America: Mike Pence’s gateway

January 1, 2018

As hung on the Aspen gatepost of Vice-President Mike Pence’s home. The word on the yellow strip, which is not easy to read, is ‘America’.

The local sheriff has not, as I understand it, seen any reason to remove the banner.

A happy new year to everyone, including Mike.

MakeAmericaGayAgain 1217


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