Despite admin pledge to reopen schools, nominee sides with unions to keep San Diego public schools closed
President Joe Biden’s pick to be deputy secretary of education is still fighting to keep students out of the classroom in San Diego, where she’s school superintendent.
Cindy Marten, the longtime superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, has been a vocal opponent of bringing back in-person instruction for public school students. The district had pledged to give a timeline for reopening on Jan. 13, but Marten failed to follow through, announcing after the deadline that no date for return will be set.
“Despite the progress that is being made and all of the best efforts of all of our employees, it’s important that we recognize that the virus continues to spread and it’s out of control in our communities,” Marten said. “This is not the time to let up on our efforts to defeat this deadly virus.”
Marten’s refusal to set a timeline for schools to reopen is in direct contradiction with Biden, who has vowed to have schools reopen within the first hundred days of his presidency. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, has said the government’s “default position” should be to get kids back in the classroom.
Recent peer-reviewed studies confirm that transmission of COVID-19 in schools is “extremely rare,” but teachers in some of the biggest districts in the country continue to resist going back to the classroom until there is mass vaccination of both teachers and students.
Former San Diego county supervisor Kristin Gaspar, a Republican who lost her district race in November, praised Marten’s “passion” for her work but said she has been hamstrung by her commitment to pleasing the unions.
“Superintendent Marten should be praised for her passion at the reins of San Diego schools,” Gaspar told the Washington Free Beacon. “Unfortunately, Marten has consistently favored the loudest voice at the decision-making table, and that is the teachers’ union. It’s alarming to us as parents to witness the strong influence of labor unions on the continued closure of public schools.”
As she works to keep public schools closed, Marten, who also serves on the board of the California Teachers Association benefits organization, continues to make over $300,000 in the taxpayer-funded role, between salary and benefits. While San Diego’s public schools continue their restrictions on in-person education, a majority of their private counterparts have opened their doors for in-person learning. A November survey found that 84 percent of San Diego students in private schools are attending in person to varying degrees, compared with only 32 percent of those in San Diego public schools.ADVERTISING
The actual curriculum of San Diego Unified School District’s classes may pose additional hurdles to Marten’s nomination. A report from the City Journal found that, amid a global pandemic, the district has prioritized abolishing deadlines for homework, mandating diversity trainings where teachers were told they are guilty of “spirit murdering” black children, and instituting an ethnic studies curriculum.
Five years into her tenure as superintendent, a Voice of San Diego report found that “gains have been incremental and difficult to measure” and that “the achievement gap Marten pledged to tackle at the outset has gone virtually unchanged.” Katrina Hasan Hamilton, the local NAACP education chair, criticized Marten’s “historical pattern of allowing the excessive suspension and expulsion of black students in San Diego.”
Marten has received support from her fellow California Democrats, including Tony Thurmond, California’s superintendent of public instruction, who has made institutionalizing sex education a priority from kindergarten onward.
Gaspar said she hopes Marten will reverse course if confirmed as deputy secretary of education and make the well-being of children her top priority.
“The inability to open our schools has led to severe increases in anxiety, depression, higher incidences of child abuse, doubling of child sex trafficking, and a rapidly growing socioeconomic divide,” she said. “As deputy secretary of education, may Cindy Marten find the strength and grace to first prioritize the well-being of students across this country that will be entrusted to her care.”
Marten’s confirmation hearing has not yet been scheduled. Neither Marten nor the White House returned requests for comment.
Last year, 621 people died of drug overdoses in San Francisco. To put this in perspective, 173 people died from COVID-19, which is identified as the primary public health crisis in the Bay Area.
For years, San Francisco has tacitly encouraged drug abuse with remarkably lenient policies, and those policies are now inadvertently killing hundreds of people annually. San Francisco uses a policy approach called “harm reduction,” which stresses “culturally competent, non-judgmental treatment that demonstrates respect and dignity for the individual.”
But this approach, as it is practiced within San Francisco, is inhumane and cruel. It is destroying the dignity of the lives that some could have with more sensible policies. In addition to overdose deaths skyrocketing, drug abuse has increased in San Francisco, and it is becoming more difficult for addicts to affect positive change.
If you spend much time in San Francisco, you know this, as several areas of the city have become de facto open-air drug bazaars, with drug abuse and drug sales taking place for all to see. Harm-reduction policies are expanding drug use among youths through the dispensation to homeless adolescents of “safe snorting kits” and “safe smoking kits” for crack use. As if any crack use could be considered “safe.”
There are an estimated 25,000 drug users in San Francisco, which if anything is too low of a count since that estimate is nearly two years old. This exceeds San Francisco’s high school population by more than 50 percent and works out to about 522 drug users per city block. Sadly, thousands of human tragedies unfold every day, eviscerating those who use drugs, and forever affecting the lives of those who see it daily, including many children.
Drug abuse is challenging to treat, but a recent handbook of best practices for substance abuse treatment by the Department of Health and Human Services shows that targeted treatment can be very effective, particularly when intervention occurs early.
But a drawback to San Francisco’s acceptance and facilitation of drug use is that it prevents early intervention. Unless San Francisco completely changes how it views drug abuse, these numbers will become even worse. The country’s most progressive city needs to understand that their policies are creating implicit death sentences for many who could be helped with a different policy approach.
Understanding this begins with the simple economics about drug use, which highlights why harm reduction has failed. On the demand side, drug users come to San Francisco from elsewhere because they know the city tolerates and facilitates drug use, which includes providing free hypodermic needles. While giving away nearly 5 million clean needles annually (which boils down to nearly 6 needles for every San Franciscan) admirably reduces communicable diseases, it has created a public health hazard, because about two million used needles are disposed of on city sidewalks. Over $30 million has been spent on dealing with drug abuse within the public transit system, but one could hardly tell this by viewing transit stations that anything has been done to deal with this issue.
On the supply side, selling drugs in San Francisco has become extremely profitable, given a demand side of 25,000 consumers and the city’s tolerant policies. In contrast to most other cities, the drug trade in San Francisco operates within what is almost a normal marketplace setting, where buyers and sellers can find each other easily, and with a relatively small chance of being arrested. Both of these factors promote relatively low prices, which stimulate demand, and high profits, which stimulate supply.
By normalizing drug abuse, San Francisco has created a perfect storm of a vibrant, well-functioning market of buyers and sellers who trade drugs much like a basket of fruit is traded at a farmer’s market. Unfortunately, the basket that is being traded in San Francisco’s drug bazaar is increasingly becoming the opioid Fentanyl, which can be 100 times more powerful than morphine.
Fentanyl is sufficiently strong that much less than one milligram is used as general anesthesia during major surgery. Just two milligrams—the equivalent of about 25 grains of sand—can be lethal. Emergency personnel responding to a Fentanyl overdose must take precautions so that they do not accidentally inhale Fentanyl. And yet Fentanyl is now being widely traded every day in San Francisco, driving up overdose deaths to about two daily.
What to do? Drug addiction can be treated medically and compassionately without viewing it as part of normal, everyday life, which is what is being practiced today in San Francisco. The city currently allocates over $5 billion to community health and human welfare.
Surely those budgets can be repurposed to treat drug abuse using best practices as outlined by the Department of Health and Human Services in conjunction with greater efforts to identify family members who can assist with treatment and support. At the same time, the city must reduce the amount of Fentanyl and other lethal drugs that are being sold routinely in open-air markets.
Many of San Francisco’s drug users have lost control over their lives. The last thing that drug addicts need is another drug pusher, but this is what San Francisco’s policies have created. Lives can be saved, but not unless policies are changed.
States should broaden policies to support the school choice parents are demanding.
Nothing in the historical record has disrupted American schools quite like COVID-19. Millions of students will lose more than a year of classroom instruction. Only the most hopeful think schools will return to normalcy before next September. An entire generation can expect a drop in lifetime earnings of 5% to 10%, economists tell us. Even worse, social and emotional development have been stunted. Schools no longer provide eye and ear exams, nurse office visits, and ready access to social services. Children from low-income backgrounds are suffering the most.
Parents desperately search for alternatives. In affluent communities, neighbors have formed learning pods, with tutors and fellow parents sharing the instructional burden. Home schooling is on the rise. Families are shifting their children to private and charter schools. Entrepreneurial high school seniors are taking dual enrollment courses, hoping to finish high school and begin college at the same time. But too many children are occupying their time in other ways, with ever more high school students simply dropping out. Enrollment at public schools is falling by 5% or more. The opportunity gap is almost certainly widening between rich and poor children.ADVERTISING
But what happens after the vaccine arrives and the virus has been cornered? Will parents return to the status quo? Or are they going to demand more choices and greater control over their child’s education? Before COVID-19, nearly a third of all students attended a school of choice, including district-operated magnet schools (7%) other district options such as vocational and exam schools (6%), charters (6%), home schooling (3%), and private schools (8% using family and other private funds and 1% with school vouchers or tax-credit scholarships).
If parents have any say, the demand for choice is almost certain to increase. During the pandemic itself, parents reported teachers at charter and private schools were more likely to provide direct instruction. Loss of learning occurred everywhere, but it was less, parents said, at these schools of choice.
What state policies should govern choice practices in the coming decade? How can states ensure that choice facilitates, not hinders, equal educational opportunities? There is no one answer, as every state has its own history and geography. But as the COVID storm has raged, researchers at Stanford’s Hoover Institution came up with a few principles and recommendations that might serve as a guide.
Most important, school choice should reduce the achievement inequalities the pandemic has aggravated. Traditionally, choice has been mainly available to those who could afford to rent or buy a home in a neighborhood that had good schools.
Magnet schools were the first to break this connection between school and residence. To foster school desegregation, they offered specialized programs — math and science, performing arts, bilingual instruction, career and technical training — to attract students from all ethnic groups from all parts of the school district. Most studies indicate that, on average, students are learning more at magnets than in other district schools. In many cities, including Miami, Denver and New York, the magnet concept is being broadened to encompass the entire district. Every school is a school of choice. The schools that go unchosen are earmarked for special attention or may be closed for lack of enough students. States should facilitate more of these districtwide choice programs.
Charter schools — publicly authorized schools that operate under private auspices — are also broadening family options. In 2018 Texas charters served more than 330,000 students at nearly 800 schools, about 6% of all public school students.
Initially, studies showed little difference between the performances of students at charters and district schools, either in Texas or elsewhere. But recent studies show that cohorts of students who attend charters in Texas and nationwide are improving at twice the rate of students at district schools. The biggest strides forward are among African American students.
To facilitate their expansion, states can authorize more schools, but limit fiscal harms to school districts. In Texas and most other states, funding follows the child when the student moves either to a charter school or from one district to another. Although the fiscal policy makes sense, districts that lose enrollment still bear legacy costs, most importantly, pensions and medical benefits for retired employees. States can mitigate the political controversies by absorbing more of these legacy costs.
Some worry that charters undermine district-operated public schools by attracting the most engaged families. Fortunately, that has not happened so far: Recent evidence shows gains in student performance at district schools when they are competing with charters.
School segregation is another concern. But even though racial isolation remains widespread in most metropolitan areas, a recent study by the liberal Urban Institute finds that choice has little effect on the racial composition of schools, one way or the other.
Still, there is much that state policymakers can do to make sure that school choice enhances equal opportunity. Charter schools can be placed in locations that foster integration. States can fund transportation costs for all students, no matter what school they attend. That is both efficient and equitable. And once legacy costs are protected, choice of school should not be skewed by favorable funding for one type of school rather than another.
Going forward, states should focus on middle and high schools. Research tells us that students in fourth grade public schools have been learning their letters and numbers as well or better than in the past. The challenge schools face comes with the onset of adolescence.
Achievement slippage is well underway by eighth grade, and it becomes increasingly severe as students proceed through high school. Rising high school graduation rates are mostly a function of easier grading practices and undemanding credit recovery courses, as shown by the astoundingly high dropout rates at community colleges. Half of all students just out of high school leave a two-year college within the first year.
Choice by itself will not solve the malaise that continues to plague too much of our educational system, especially in the middle and high school years. But if students are given a wide range of options, leading to multiple types of meaningful certificates, chances improve that young people will become more adequately prepared for what comes next. The COVID-19 crisis can become the equal opportunity moment.
By giving comfort to China's evil regime, the New York Times is showing its true colors.
The New York Times has a long, sordid history of being in bed with brutal authoritarian regimes. From Walter Duranty praising the goodness of the Soviet Union to the Times’ gentle treatment of Adolf Hitler, the paper of record is always on board with tyranny. The current generation of gatekeepers at the Gray Lady is no exception. In a shocking and sickening article this week, author Li Yuan celebrates Chinese “freedom.”
The article beams about how China has gotten its society back to normal after unleashing a deadly plague on the planet and lying about it. They eat in restaurants, they go to movies, and they are free from fear. They have the freedom to move around, the Times proclaims, assuring us this is the “most basic form of freedom.” Really? Do the 1 million Uighurs currently in concentration camps have “freedom of movement”? They must have been unavailable for comment, as they aren’t mentioned once in this advertisement for the Chinese Communist Party.
It would be one thing if the New York Times were dedicated to offering space for a wide range of opinions, even borderline evil ones such as this absurd article offers. But this is the same newspaper that took down a piece by Sen. Tom Cotton because it suggested using the National Guard to protect cities being burned and looted by leftist radicals. That opinion was a bridge too far, but shilling for a regime that does not allow free speech and forces sterilization is just asking questions.
Freedom from fear. My God. Is this what America has become? Are we ready to take the advice of our nation’s most powerful newspaper and throw away our right to speech, religion, democracy, and family in the sad search for some impossible form of perfect safety? The behavior of many Americans during the lockdowns suggests that some are. The rest of us, those who love liberty, must fight back.
It’s not just the New York Times; take a look at this gem from The Economist.
A “more Chinese-style global industry”? What does that mean? Slave labor? It’s efficient, it lowers prices, and the slaves might well be kept free from disease so they live long productive lives doing exactly what their government tells them to do. This is a warning. Those in power in the media, so wedded to big tech and multinational corporations, seem just fine with a world in which you have no freedom and they use your labor to make billions in the name of safety and freedom from fear.
This is America, God dammit, and the New York Times can go to hell. These people have lectured us for four years about Donald Trump supposedly trampling the norms of American democracy, and now they turn around and tell us we should be more like China? This is much more than a culture war at this point. This is a fight for the very soul of the greatest nation on earth — which, even though the Times doesn’t know it, is the United States, not the People’s Republic of China.
Useful idiocy is reaching new heights. China’s hooks are so deeply embedded in our media that it can’t even call out slavery and concentration camps. Meanwhile, in China, printing even a gentle gibe at Xi Jinping can get you killed. Is that the glorious new form of freedom that our betters want for us? Does the New York Times want the government to tell them what to publish? I honestly don’t know the answer to that at this point.
Let us be clear, the Chinese Communist Party is an evil, repressive, and murderous regime. It is not the future of freedom. It is not setting an example that free people should or will follow. And we won’t. Unlike in China, Americans have 400 million guns, and if our government tries to take the New Times’ advice and crush our freedoms, they will hear them roar. This is a time for choosing. This is a time to stand up and say that our rights come from God, not the government or the New York Times. Stand up, America, before it is too late.
How much is enough? It’s a question America is going to have to answer, and soon, lest the need for additional COVID relief packages overwhelm the nation’s ability to pay for them. The national debt, which was close to a single year’s gross domestic product when Donald J. Trump came into office four years ago, has more than doubled, thanks in no small part to efforts to alleviate the impact of the economic lockdown used to prevent the disease from spreading.
As the numbers show, it didn’t work. The states with some of the most severe restrictions on commercial activity, like California and New York, continue to lead the rest of the states in deaths per capita and new infections. It’s almost as if the wearing of masks, the requirements that people stay six feet apart from one another and not venture out into public and the closures of small businesses like restaurants and churches have done almost nothing to keep COVID-19 from spreading.
There are more than a few commentators who’ve been bold enough to suggest that outright. It’s going to take a lot more study of the data to determine if they’re right but what we now know is sufficient to suggest there’s more truth to these presumptions than many of the so-called experts driving the national dialogue are willing to entertain may be the case.
All that is for later. What matters now is whether the latest COVID-19 package is enough or, as President Donald J. Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer believe, if the American people need another round of so-called stimulus checks from Washington to make it though.
They don’t—and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was right when he stopped the bill to do just that from moving forward. If he erred, and it is not clear he did, it was in offering his own version of the bill that, along with the $2000 checks would eliminate a provision of federal telecommunications law that conservatives say allows major platforms like Twitter and Facebook to censor posts with impunity and establish a federal commission to make recommendations to combat voter fraud.
The Democrats could never vote for such a measure—big tech has invested too much in the party’s electoral success for them to sign on—so offering it as an alternative is a crafty way for McConnell to kill the so-called stimulus while making it look like the fault of Schumer and company, not the GOP. Some of his partisan colleagues up for reelection in 2022 may need the political cover his effort provides but, in all honesty, he should have stood his ground and just said “no.”
It’s not that the money would go to families that don’t need it. The economics of the distribution algorithm would allow families making several hundreds of thousands a year declared eligible to receive a check, perhaps for more than $2000 depending on marital status and number of dependents. They don’t need it but—as both Sen. Schumer and Speaker Pelosi have many constituents among the caviar-consuming, designer-ice-cream-eating, Louis Vuitton-carrying crowd who would qualify, it’s little surprise they’re on board. They probably also appreciate the optics associated with seeming like Santa Claus while McConnell comes across as Scrooge.
Except McConnell isn’t, at least not as far as the economics are concerned. A one-time payment of $2000 may help some families clear some debts but it won’t do anything to get the economy going. What we know from the available data is that the open states, most of them red states, are doing better than the mostly blue states where the lockdowns continue.
If the lockdowns aren’t doing much to mitigate the impact of COVID, if the disease is still mostly passed from person to person in home and family settings, and if most all the people who die from it would have shortly died from something else—all things much of the available data show are true—then the best stimulus the economy could have would be for the shuttered states to reopen so everyone could go back to work.
If stopping the checks means more people clamoring for a return to normalcy, then McConnell has done the nation a great service. Larry Summers, the liberal economist who served as Bill Clinton‘s treasury secretary and director of Barack Obama‘s National Economic Council has said: “There is no good economic argument” for universal checks. The economy is roaring back, in fits and starts, with third-quarter 2020 growth at a never-before-seen 33 percent, adjusted on an annualized basis. The checks Trump, Pelosi and Schumer want can’t improve on that. They can put our children and grandchildren deeper into debt than they already are.
McConnell should maintain his hard “no.” As Ronald Reagan said, “The best welfare program is a job” which, expanded out, means the best form of stimulus—and what we need right now—is to let the American people get back to work, not subsidize their continuing to stay home.
Last Sunday I plopped a steaming hashbrown casserole and a bowl of freshly sliced oranges down on one of a row of endless folding tables covered in those flimsy plastic tablecloths you get at the dollar store. The casseroles were outnumbered only by the pans of homemade cinnamon rolls, and the fruit section was meager: it was a good Southern Baptist potluck.
Church ladies buzzed around, removing tin foil from tin pans and putting serving spoons in each dish, while others flipped pancakes on a portable griddle. Rows of chairs and tables were set up under the oak trees and the typical Florida December weather made me regret wearing a sweater. I loaded my plate with food and it wasn’t until I sat down that I had an epiphany: I had missed potlucks. Thanks to coronavirus, I guess buffet-style anything has become terribly unstylish in some places.
Until recently, I’ve been at school in Loudoun County, Virginia, where Gov. Ralph Northam has been busy inflicting harsher shutdown orders. Masks are required almost everywhere up there, and big gatherings are out of the question. Multiple friends had to cancel their wedding receptions this month due to the new restrictions.
I got so used to wearing a mask that every time I watched a movie it seemed odd for the actors to be bare-faced. Leaving a store, sometimes I’d make it all the way to the car before even realizing I still had my mask on.
It wasn’t until I came home to Florida — where COVID-19 restrictions are much freer and usually left to local government — that I noticed how different life was. On my flight home, I reached from my seat by the window to hand my snack wrapper to the flight attendant. The older gentleman next to me took it from my hand to pass it along. It caught me off guard: this stranger was willing to touch something that I had eaten from? He wasn’t afraid of my germs?
Thoughtful gestures that had always been normal suddenly seemed surprising — which made me realize how many of those everyday connections we’ve lost this year. Since I’ve spent some time in Florida, life has felt incredibly normal. It’s also revealed how abnormal the lifestyle I followed in Virginia really was.
For one, I didn’t realize how much I was missing by not seeing people’s faces. I don’t object to people wearing masks if they feel safer; it’s their personal health decision. But when I arrived at the airport to see my family for the first time since August (mid-semester breaks were another COVID casualty), I could actually see their faces.
I went to a café to study the other day and walked past a young pregnant mother with her toddler in tow. None of us were masked, and the toddler and I got to smile and wave at each other as we passed.
Even things that used to annoy me reminded me of what I had missed. I had to slow down for a school zone the other day because kids were actually in school. I never knew I could feel so much joy at slowing down to 20 miles per hour. There were elementary school kids running around the playground for recess.
The downtown scene here is even further proof that people are living their normal lives, unobstructed by fear. My family went out to dinner the other night at a patio bar overlooking our downtown square, all lit up for Christmas. Families took Christmas photos in front of the lighted trees, and others caught rides in horse-drawn carriages circling the block. The patio was packed with guests from a wedding that had just taken place; it was a huge party, unlike the sweet but limited ceremonies my friends were forced to have in Virginia.
While the chain coffee shops like Starbucks and Dunkin’ are closed to indoor patrons, my favorite local coffeeshop is open and more popular than ever. (And why buy overpriced, mediocre chain coffee anyway?) Looking around, I only see one customer wearing a mask, and only one of the baristas.
There’s a sign taped to the door that says, “The city council feels it is at their best interset to infringe upon your personal constitutional right and feel they can manage your life better than you. We will not do this…we will not force you to wear a mask!”
“All are welcome and we appreciate your supporting local,” the sign adds. I went Saturday morning with my family and we had to wait for a table; we ran into an old friend while we were there. That same day, we went to the downtown farmers’ market. Vendors offered free samples and sold fresh produce, a live musician sang “Folsom Prison Blues,” and no one told me to wear a mask.
I’ve flown in and out of the Orlando airport all my life, and I’ve never seen it half as crowded as it was this month. I can only guess that people are coming down to Florida because it’s open here. People are taking precautions, sure, but they’re also continuing to live their lives.
We’re having friends over and going to church. We’re going out for dinner and drinks, and supporting local farmers and artisans. We’re celebrating marriages and smiling at strangers. And we’re eating a lot of hashbrown casserole.
Will China’s negligence unleashing the coronavirus and mendacity exploiting it catalyze a reckoning with the PRC, comparable in significance to the Czech Coup of 1948? And will it crystallize long-term American determination to contest China’s scheme to supplant the United States as the world’s preeminent power? Or will China ultimately emerge as the winner from the devastation it has wrought because of a deficit of strategic and moral clarity within the United States and among our allies?
The answer to these questions depends considerably on the policies adopted by the next president. Start with the good news. Negative views of China have soared to a record high of 73 percent of Americans, according to a Pew Foundation Poll released in late July 20201. Chinese behavior during and since the coronavirus also has elicited strong negative reactions across the Indo-Pacific, especially in Japan, India, and Australia, where views of China’s ambitions and behavior already trended strongly in a negative direction. Even in Western Europe, long committed to engaging and conciliating rather than confronting China, COVID-19 has generated an anti-China backlash, more muted on the continent but stronger in Britain where British Prime Minister Boris Johnson joined President Trump in imposing a complete ban on Chinese 5G vendor Huawei.
Even so, this contingent good news might prove ephemeral rather than enduring if the United States and our allies should waver in the reckoning with China that President Trump deserves credit for initiating. The reelection of President Trump would have offered the best practicable option for building and intensifying the Administration’s first term strategy of contesting China comprehensively and vigorously—a vital condition for bolstering deterrence, or defeating China at the lowest possible cost and risk should deterrence fail. Unlike his predecessor––who “welcomed China’s rise,” who significantly shrank American defense spending while China armed prodigiously, and whose national security statements of 2010 and 2015 omitted naming China or any other great power as an adversary––the Trump Administration designated China from the outset as our number one adversary. The President has not only increased the American defense budget substantially, but invested in threshold technologies such as strategic defense and created an independent Space Force. The President has pushed back hard against China’s implacable economic warfare against us on trade and intellectual property that his predecessors rationalized away. The President’s economic policies before COVID-19 intervened had generated prodigious economic growth on which American military preeminence depends. Trump began, too, the long overdue decoupling of the U.S. economy from China’s, the imperative of which our inordinate dependence on China for essentials such as antibiotics exposed in high relief during this pandemic. President Trump strengthened relationships with a decent democratic India and Japan, vital, value-based allies who share our strategic priorities and alarm about the trajectory of China’s policies at home and abroad—relationships his predecessor, with the support of Vice President Biden, allowed to languish while courting China and other adversaries.
Trump’s recalibration of our China policy that COVID-19 has broadened, deepened, and accelerated is a good start, but only the end of the beginning of what is necessary for the United States and our allies to prevail. For all the considerable merits of President Trump’s approach towards China, the President would enhance the effectiveness of his policies by doing some recalibrating as well. The President’s rhetoric has undervalued the importance of American ideals as well as self-interest in identifying friends, foes, threats, and opportunities. Many Americans who are increasingly alarmed by China rightly advocate calling out China with no pale pastels on human rights, stressing the tyrannical nature of the Chinese regime, while championing the importance of a value-based alliance system of fellow democracies in the Indo-Pacific, grounded firmly in geopolitics. The President’s spokesmen—particularly Secretary of State Pompeo and Vice President Pence—have done much better articulating this dimension of the contest with China than the President, whose actual policies on this and many other issues are often better than he makes them sound. A greater emphasis on human right also may elicit greater support for sterner policies towards China from our Western European allies, where resolve—especially in Germany—is fragile at best even now with disillusionment with China running much higher than usual.
A second term Trump presidency also would run the risk of undermining the significant progress the Administration achieved in the first term if the President decided to settle for a deal rather than staying the course. This temptation is not only organic to President Trump’s nature, but would loom large for whoever became president because of the huge budgetary deficits that COVID-19 has compounded. President Trump’s salutary hectoring our allies to do more—yielding impressive results in Europe his predecessor failed to match—also ran the risk of reaching a culminating point counterproductive to forging a muscular strategic consensus that actively counters China’s ambitions.
With President Trump’s defeat, the odds diminish that China loses more than it gains by unleashing and exploiting COVID-19. Granted, the most recent Pew Foundation Poll found that many Democrats as well as even more Republicans advocate tougher policies on toward China on human rights and trade. An increasing number of prominent Democrats have become rhetorically more willing to criticize rather than conciliate China. Even so, President-elect Biden has a long record of advocating engagement with China while downplaying the idea that the PRC has become a serious strategic rival. The leftward lurch of the current Democratic Party also does inspire confident that a Biden Administration will follow through on President Trump’s policy of robust resistance towards China’s predatory behavior. On the contrary, Senator Biden had moved steadily in a more dovish direction on national security even before becoming President Obama’s Vice President and cheerleading for Obama’s Dangerous Doctrine President Trump has repudiated in its entirety. Neither Biden nor his surrogates said much of anything about China at the Democratic convention despite the urgency of addressing the paramount national security threat of our time.
Will a Democratic Party reluctant to condemn the breakdown of law and order in a growing number of municipalities its leaders have governed for decades—a party seriously considering deep cuts in law enforcement amidst the mayhem—pursue the types of muscular national security strategies essential for credibly reassuring our terrified real and prospective allies in the Indo-Pacific that it is safer to stand up to China rather than to capitulate? Will a party committed to a vast expansion of government domestically—with deficits cascading, taxes poised steeply to increase if President Biden has his way—have the resources much less the inclination to spend enough on defense to counter China’s relentless military buildup aimed at driving the United States out of the Western Pacific? Will a Biden Administration also designate China’s grandiose ambitions and predatory behavior as danger number one? Or will the President-elect and his party revert instead to the default position of President Trump’s predecessor, who considered climate change the paramount gathering danger, envisaging China as a partner in fighting it?
Concluding with an optimistic plausible caveat about the consequences of a Biden victory for our struggle with China, history furnishes ample examples of policies confounding expectations. Recall the Truman Administration’s decision to resist North Korea’s June 1950 attack on South Korea just six months after Secretary of State Dean Acheson seemed to exclude South Korea as a vital interest in his speech to the Washington Press Club in January 1950. Recall, the strategic metamorphosis of heretofore isolationist Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan into a stalwart supporter of President Truman’s policy of vigilant containment. In the immortal words of the Beach Boys, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” if a Biden Presidency underwent a similar metamorphosis in this direction. It would be a triumph of hope over experience, however, to count on it. This version of the Democratic party has purged itself of all vestiges of the Truman/Scoop Jackson tradition of muscular Cold War liberalism congenial to the President’s hawkishness on China. The party’s political banishment of Former Senator Joseph Lieberman—the last of the Cold War Democrats—sadly attests to that.
May a Biden Presidency, too, be better than it sounds. Otherwise, the COVID-19 pandemic may turn out to be a strange and stinging defeat for the United States instead of a defeat for its perpetrator.
Despite the grim economic news, the V-shaped economic recovery President Donald Trump has talked about may soon be a reality.
The news that several novel coronavirus vaccines will soon be available may allow the lockdowns to end. If all goes as planned, Operation Warp Speed could lead to the nation recovering lost economic ground in months rather than years, even if the number of cases continues to rise.
Retailers across the country are contributing to Operation Warp Speed by ordering freezers, thermometers, and the additional medical gear needed to administer vaccines once they’re available. It makes sense. Since grocers and pharmacies offer flu shots, their support in delivering the vaccine is crucial given their thousands of locations in every city and county in the nation.
These public-private partnerships in Operation Warp Speed not only show we can beat this pandemic, but also highlight the benefits when America’s private sector steps up.
Over the last 10 months, retailers have taken the lead, offering “hero pay,” additional bonuses, and greater safety measures to keep their employees and customers safe. Their story is just one of many waiting to be told once all of this is behind us. But that’s not the only way this one segment of American business is stepping up to address the nation’s critical problems.
Employees from Albertsons, Kroger, and Ahold recently ratified agreements with 27 local unions to withdraw from a union multi-employer pension fund circling the drain and join the newly formed UFCW and Employer’s Variable Annuity Pension Plan. This change includes investments of nearly $2 billion from these companies that will improve the security and stability of future benefits for employees and modernize retirement benefits.
The issue of pension reform has been before Congress for some time, but it’s been stuck. If the nation’s pension plans fail in any significant way, with far too many of them currently underfunded, the required bailout that would follow would imperil any recovery, as well as long-term future prosperity.
What has just been accomplished is great news for all involved. Millions of workers in other pension plans may not be so lucky. Rather than bicker over the best way back to a pre-COVID economy, policymakers ought to be focusing on the pitfalls ahead. Many of them, like the need to reform the pension system, are not hard to spot.
Pension reform has long been an issue that elected officials on both sides of the aisle have recognized and have attempted to address but that never went far enough. For example, there are about 1,400 pension funds that are, according to the federal Pension Benefits Guaranty Corporation “collectively bargained plan(s) maintained by more than one employer, usually within the same or related industries, and a labor union” that are potentially in trouble.
Policymakers must take a balanced approached to the issue of troubled multi-employer pension funds that provide participants with the retirement income they depend on while not placing undue burdens on the employers who participate in them. A solution must be found soon to protect the 10 million or so workers millions enrolled in employed by manufacturers and retailers and mining and shipping concerns to prevent them from having their benefits reduced significantly or cut entirely.
The PBGC’s safety net for pension funds that default is shrinking. Insolvency may come as soon as 2025 as more and more multi-employer plans face financial challenges and member companies fail or enter bankruptcy. Many of these companies have been hit hard by the coronavirus lockdowns and been unable to keep up their contributions.
Companies like Albertsons, Kroger, and Ahold did not wait for government incentives to make the switch. They moved ahead because it’s the right thing for workers and that’s good for the corporate bottom line. Other companies and industries will hopefully follow suit because it’s good for workers, good for taxpayers, and great for America.
If Operation Warp Speed is to be deemed a success in the months ahead, it will be thanks not only to the pharmaceutical companies who created the vaccines but to the retailers who distributed and vaccinated Americans at record rates. Should our recovering economy continue its current trend, we will prevail because private companies invested their profits and resources to make it happen.
With safe and effective vaccines starting to be distributed, the public can see light at the end of the very long and dark COVID-19 tunnel. Not so fast, our moral betters are starting to say.
In recent days, as people start to benefit from the modern medical miracle of a vaccine developed within a year, so-called experts are lining up to warn people against thinking that they can begin to resume normal activity soon.
“Just because you get vaccinated with that second dose does not mean you should be participating in things like traveling in the middle of an out-of-control pandemic or that you’re liberated from masks,” Vin Gupta, an assistant professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, said on MSNBC. “Everything still applies until all of us hit the two-dose regimen, and we don’t think that’s going to happen until June/July.”
Similar warnings are starting to proliferate in the scaremongering news media.
Even now, many of the restrictions on activity are arbitrary, and often, the most sanctimonious leaders are the ones caught abusing their own draconian measures. Schools remain closed in much of the country despite a mountain of evidence showing that children have low odds of getting seriously ill or widely spreading the virus, and that remote learning is having a devastating impact on educational and emotional development, particularly among the least privileged.
To be clear, there is no doubt that we are now in a difficult stage of the pandemic, with outbreaks throughout the nation and a daily death toll of around 3,000 people. It is conceivable that we’ll end up with a half-million COVID-19 deaths by the time vaccination has become widespread.
But we will be in a much different place a few months from now. Based on the commitments already made and the expected speed of distribution, it is anticipated that roughly 100 million members of the public will be able to be vaccinated in this country by the end of March. That should be more than enough to offer protection to the populations most vulnerable to COVID-19.
There are about 50 million people aged 65 years and older, and that group has accounted for about 80% of coronavirus deaths. So, not only should there be enough doses to vaccinate everybody in this group as well as medical workers in the coming months, but there will still be tens of millions of more doses available to administer to those under 65 who have some sort of health condition that leaves them more vulnerable to the disease.
On top of that, there are tens of millions of people who have already had COVID-19, and over a million a week are getting it. That means in addition to the 100 million vaccinated by spring, there will be millions of others who have developed antibodies from having survived the virus.
By the end of March, the worst of winter will be over, and most parts of the country will start to see warmer weather.
None of this means COVID-19 will be eradicated or that we will have achieved herd immunity. But it does mean that, barring any setbacks in vaccination, the virus should cease by April to be the danger it was when the whole country was shut down.
If we flashback to March, the original justification for draconian lockdown orders was that it was necessary to flatten the infection curve so there wasn’t a huge spike at any given time sufficient to overwhelm the medical system. Severe restrictions persisted well beyond that, and the justification was that the disease still posed too much risk to older and vulnerable populations.
If the older and vulnerable are vaccinated by the spring, however, there is absolutely zero reason to justify maintaining public restrictions until everybody gets vaccinated, a process that could spill into the fall or later.
If you take 100 million of the most vulnerable people out of the equation, the fatality rate will plunge, and the virus will start to resemble the seasonal flu in its effects, which we endure without shutdowns.
Political leaders keep shifting the goal posts on COVID-19. It was about flattening the curve. It was about slowing the spread. It was about protecting the most vulnerable. Now that we have a vaccine that carries the promise of protecting the most vulnerable within months, the goal post must not be allowed to shift again to universal vaccination.
As of Sunday, most Californians are under strict stay-at-home orders. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D) lockdown shutters businesses, bars and cultural centers; makes restaurants takeout-only; and sends religious services outdoors. Gatherings with people in other households are banned — through Christmas.
That’s a lot for authorities to ask — especially when they appear so out of touch with the people they’re trying to govern.
Many residents are furious over being asked to make sacrifices that state and local officials themselves won’t. Newsom is by now notorious for his minimum $350-a-plate meal at the ultra-elite French Laundry in violation of his own guidance to Californians, exacerbated by his lieclaiming the meal followed outdoor distancing policies.
The mayor of San Francisco, London Breed, had her own coronavirus-noncompliant dinner at the same tony venue. Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl was spotted dining alfresco at an Italian restaurant in Santa Monica not long after voting to ban outdoor dining for her 12 million fellow Angelenos. San Jose’s mayor had to apologize after traveling to his parents’ house for a Thanksgiving dinner in violation of state requirements. When five state lawmakers were busteddining out in Sacramento this week by a reporter, one asked, “Can we not have dinner?” before pulling his mask out of his pocket.
Why are these officials so flagrantly violating rules they expect their own voters to follow? Is it arrogance? Delusion? Indifference? All of the above?
Perhaps. But I have another theory: The tone-deafness is what comes from living in a bubble where political competition is scant. In California, Democratic voters outnumber Republicans nearly 2-1. Only two Republicans have won statewide office since 2000. Newsom, Breed and Kuehl received 62 percent, 71 percent and 76 percent of the vote, respectively, in their last races.
In other words, it is precisely because California is so heavily Democratic that Democratic officials don’t feel the need to be responsive to their constituents. But there is mounting evidence that even in this one-party state, voters are no longer unquestioningly swallowing what their leadership is feeding them.
In the case of the pandemic crackdown, residents are mounting resistance to lawmakers’ hypocrisy. One county plans to challenge Newsom’s covid-19 policies in court. Cities are exploring forming their own public health departments to avoid county-level restrictions. Sheriffs are refusing to enforce state curfews. Business owners are planning open rebellion.
This year’s ballot initiatives, too, should raise alarms, as measures that Democratic tail winds should ordinarily have swept to victory instead went down to surprising defeat. One was Proposition 15, which sought to hike commercial property taxes, ostensibly to fund public schools (the state’s teachers’ union spent $20 million trying to push the measure through). Proposition 16, meanwhile, would have reinstated the use of affirmative action in California public university admissions and public sector hiring.
Both measures enjoyed overwhelming support from progressive activists, state Democratic elected officials and Newsom. And both should have benefited from anti-Trump turnout. But Prop. 15 received nearly 2.9 million fewer votes statewide than President-elect Joe Biden did. Prop. 16 trailed Biden by almost 3.9 million votes.
Newsom and state Democratic leaders were also embarrassed by Proposition 22. In September 2019, Assembly Bill 5 — a law mandating that companies treat “gig workers,” such as Uber and Lyft drivers, like full-time employees — passed easily in the overwhelmingly Democratic state legislature, with a 29-11 vote in the state Senate and a 61-16 vote in the Assembly. The measure was eagerly signed into law by Newsom. Then Prop. 22 took the matter to voters, who decisively rejected their Democratic overlords — 59 percent to 41 percent.
These measures failed, in part, because their Democratic champions were clueless about where voters actually were on the issues. Prop. 15, for example, rested its hopes on an ambitious media blitz featuring teachers railing against corporate loopholes that allegedly deny schools deserved money. But at a time when shuttered schools and substandard virtual learning are shortchanging millions of California kids, was a plea for sympathy for teachers’ unions a wise tactic?
These rebukes point to an unsettling phenomenon. Because relatively little is demanded of them, California’s elected leaders have an easy time getting elected, but haven’t yet mastered the part that comes after — leading.
Newsom, for example, was nurtured, educated and sent up the political ladder in a deep-blue range from Marin County to the southern end of Silicon Valley — coasting from one Democratic-friendly post to another, never having to develop shrewd professional and personal judgment. He and his fellow state and local lawmakers apparently still need to master the arts of convincing and persuading, of finding the right policies that appeal to broad coalitions, of being the role models they expect voters to follow.
In a few months, the embarrassments of failed ballot propositions will probably have faded. But in the case of the covid-19 resistance, Democratic officials’ alienation from their voters could prove deadly. If there’s a silver lining to the crisis, maybe it will be that it finally prompts complacent politicians such as Newsom to look beyond their own whims to what their voters actually want and need.
Considering the Supreme Court’s rejection of New York state’s restrictions on religious gatherings during the pandemic . . .
. . . and California governor Gavin Newsom’s dinner at The French Laundry, and the mayor of San Francisco dining in the very same restaurant the following night, and the Los Angeles County supervisor dining in a restaurant after voting to ban outdoor dining as well as indoor dining, and the mayor of Denver flying off to see family after telling residents to avoid unnecessary travel, andNancy Pelosi visiting a hair salon in violation of local restrictions, and the mayor of San Jose breaking his own restrictions by attending a big Thanksgiving dinner with multiple households present, and the mayor of Washington, D.C., attending a Biden victory party in Delaware after barring all nonessential interstate travel, and [insert all subsequent examples of politicians violating their own quarantine restrictions here] . . .
. . . maybe it’s time for governors and mayors to get out of the lockdown-by-decree business and get back into the recommendation business. Americans have been through a terrible ordeal of a year, and they’re not going to just stay home behind closed doors with Christmas and Hanukkah and New Year’s coming up. Clearly, these sweeping restrictions are far too strict, because otherwise elected officials wouldn’t be breaking their own rules all over the place.
The first vaccinations in the U.S. will start in about two weeks. Until the vaccine is widely available, we’ve got another month or two (or three?) of frequent handwashing, social distancing, avoiding crowds, wearing masks when indoors, and maybe throw in taking some Vitamin D or other vitamins and supplements to keep our immune systems at tip-top shape. Americans aren’t going to stay away from restaurants or religious services entirely, so tell them to space the customers or worshippers out as much as they can and keep hand sanitizer plentiful and ubiquitous. Americans aren’t going to stay away from their elderly relatives entirely, so tell them to get tested before and try to minimize exposure until the gathering. Take the precautions that you can, where you can, when you can. This is not a perfect or risk-free system; perfect and risk-free systems don’t exist. As the Christmas carol goes:
Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow,
Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow,
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
In short, mayors and governors, don’t ask your citizens to make any sacrifice that you’re not willing to make yourself.
Because if another bunch of fat-cat politicians try to decree that no one should get together for Christmas, and that everyone should stay out of restaurants and church and so on, the reaction from much of the public will be a metaphorical middle finger, and that reaction will be entirely deserved. Elected officials didn’t start this pandemic with a ton of trust and respect for their authority, and the worst among them have destroyed what was left in the past few weeks.
After seven months, California’s one-hundred-plus-member economic recovery task force has finished its recovery recommendation report. What could have been a game-changing opportunity to reduce the state’s high cost of living, increase efficiency in bureaucracies, and reform tax and regulatory policies never got off the ground.
Just 23 pages long, you will be hard-pressed to find substantive economic recommendations, much less any major new ideas, in a report that somehow took seven months to write. The COVID recovery task force was ingenious political theater to show that the state’s major business leaders, including Apple CEO Tim Cook and Disney CEO Bob Iger, were professing buy-in to Governor Gavin Newsom’s economic shutdown. This was never about reforming state economic policies that are among the worst in the country. It was about providing broad-based political cover.
With more than one hundred members appointed by Newsom, you knew that nothing important would ever be accomplished. Granted, the unique problems of COVID meant the task force would include representation from several economic sectors, but creating a committee of over one hundred could have been straight out of the CIA’s 1944 “Simple Sabotage Field Manual,”which recommends creating as large of a committee as possible to ensure that nothing happens.
Labor unions garnered the most task force representation, with 14 members, including two from the politically important Service Employees International Union. And even though the pandemic is a public health problem, the task force included only a handful of members from the health care industry, broadly defined.
The report opens with a discussion of the importance of viral testing and the state’s new, expensive purchases of protective equipment and medical supplies. I wonder how task force member Arnold Schwarzenegger felt, as the substantial investments he made in these important supplies several years ago when he was governor—for just such a pandemic—were given away by the state because they were considered to be too expensive to maintain. Oh well.
After reading the report, you get the uneasy feeling that you were indeed snookered. It reads like a “what I did this summer” back-to-school report. There was much listening to others. Hand-wringing about the impact of COVID, but not too much, lest there be any hint that the report is at all critical of state policies. There are roughly 30 references to diversity, equity, and racism in the report, but only one reference to efficiency. There is much admiration for the governor’s leadership, and considerable self-congratulation, including advocating for the use of electronic signatures on government documents and refurbishing used school computers. Tim Cook and Bob Iger were needed for this?
Not surprisingly, you get the feeling that the task force members ultimately hit their breaking points as they tried to navigate what amounted to a ship without a sail. With California COVID cases rising rapidly, it is strange the task force would disband now, when presumably their input is more important than ever. But after seven months of accomplishing little, task force members probably were done in. Iger resigned even earlier, when the state would not come up with a plan for theme park reopenings.
If something important were to have been accomplished, then problems would first have to be identified and prioritized. But this was never going to happen, because Newsom appointed his chief of staff, Ann O’Leary, as one co-chair, who could be the de facto gatekeeper. The other co-chair was Tom Steyer, the former Democratic presidential candidate who spent $250 million to run for president earlier this year, and who failed to receive any delegates.
Steyer previously made a fortune investing in coal, one of the dirtiest of energy sources. Now a born-again activist for climate and progressive causes, Steyer is willing to spend his and other people’s money to create a carbon-free California as soon as possible, even if the most optimistic assessments of its benefits do not come close to offsetting the costs.
Newsom got what he wanted in Steyer as a well-heeled partner who would support all climate initiatives, including Newsom’s executive order banning the sale of gasoline-powered cars by 2035. Because California accounts for less than one percent of global carbon emissions, the state could probably move the climate needle more by paying China to stop using soft coal than by mandating that all new California homes require solar panels, extra insulation, and highly energy-efficient windows and appliances, all of which increase new home construction costs by $30,000 or more.
The O’Leary-Steyer task force report is about as different as it possibly could be from a recovery task force report written in 1992 for then governor Pete Wilson. Chaired by Peter Uberroth, a 17-person committee took just four months to write “California’s Jobs and Future.” This was produced when the California economy had lost 500,000 jobs, about four percent of the state’s employment.
The Uberroth report pulled no punches in identifying the state’s key economic policy shortcomings. In 128 densely written pages, the report described a “government that is no longer working” and a state on “its way to fiscal disaster.” The report describes unaffordable housing. An underperforming school system. A shift to low-wage service-sector jobs. Losing businesses to states and countries with lower costs. Inadequate entrepreneurship. Environmental restrictions that do not pass a sensible cost-benefit assessment. All of this written in 1992.
The report provided plenty of sensible solutions, built around the ideas of redesigning government so that it was no longer in an adversarial position with businesses and taxpayers, an overhaul of the workers’ compensation system to root out widespread fraud, incentivizing school performance, and streamlining regulations and implementing tax incentives for business investment.
For schools, recommendations included stricter cost accountability; a statewide open-enrollment plan, meaning school choice; an extra hour per school day and a two-hundred-day school year; English comprehension requirements for third graders; and expanded career training for 11th and 12th graders. This would have made a significant difference in the effectiveness of California schools, but little was implemented, largely for political reasons.
Perhaps the most striking difference between the two reports, written nearly 30 years apart, is the tenor of the conclusions. Steyer stated, “We will come back stronger and better than we have ever been.” In sharp contrast, the Uberroth report warned that the state was risking bankruptcy if their policy recommendations were not implemented. For the most part, the recommendations weren’t adopted, and bankruptcy has been averted only by a series of large tax increases that place California among the highest-taxing states in the country.
Viewed over the last 28 years, the Uberroth report has been chillingly accurate. Sadly, its prescience will continue.
Life lessons from the dissident, politician, and activist
Natan Sharansky has been a computer scientist, a chess player, a refusenik, a dissident, a political prisoner, a party leader, a government minister, a nonprofit executive, and a bestselling author. He never expected to be a school counselor.
But the coronavirus dashes expectations. In early March, when the virus began to appear in Jewish communities outside New York City, Sharansky found himself online, in an unaccustomed position. He began to share with students and parents whose schools were closed how he had coped during years in confinement.
“At first, it seemed absurd, even obscene,” Sharansky writes in his latest book, Never Alone, coauthored with the historian Gil Troy. “How could my experience of playing chess in my head in my punishment cell compare to being cooped up in gadget-filled homes wired to the internet—with computer chess—especially because this isolation is imposed to protect people, not break them?”
What Sharansky realized is that the costs of lockdowns do not depend on the reasons behind them. The sudden and seemingly arbitrary interruption of individual plans, movements, and relationships causes psychological harm. Sharansky recorded a brief YouTube video for the Jewish Agency—you can watch it here—offering his five tips for quarantine. Recognize the importance of your choices and behavior, Sharansky advised. Understand that some things are beyond your control. Keep laughing. Enjoy your hobbies. Consider yourself part of a larger cause.
“Surprisingly,” Sharansky writes, “this short clip went viral, reaching so many people all over the world within a few days that it made me wonder why even bother writing this book.” His reaction was another example of his droll and often self-deprecating wit. The video, however helpful it may be, does not match the power and wisdom of Never Alone. Part autobiography, part meditation on Jewish community, the book ties together the themes of Sharansky’s earlier work, from his prison memoir, Fear No Evil (1988), to his defense of cultural particularity, Defending Identity (2008). It is a moving story of emancipation and connection, of freedom and meaning.
Sharansky was born in 1948 in the Ukrainian city of Stalino. His given name was Anatoly. His parents were educated professionals who downplayed their Jewish identity. They did not want to risk political and social reprisal. “The only real Jewish experience I had was facing anti-Semitism,” he writes. The precocious youth spent his early years playing chess. He learned to navigate a Soviet system that maintained its rule through fear. He became captive to doublethink. He repeated official lies and myths not because it was the right thing to do, but because it was the safe thing to do.
Sharansky enrolled in the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. “I dived into the republic of science,” he writes. “This world seemed insulated from the doublethink I had mastered at home.” Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War prompted him to discover his heritage. “Realizing how little I knew about this country that so many people were now asking about made me hungry to learn more.”
Sharansky studied representations of Biblical scenes hanging from the walls of Moscow’s galleries. He came across a samizdat copy of Leon Uris’s Exodus, a potboiler historical fiction that describes Israel’s founding. “It drew me into Jewish history, and Israel’s history, through my Russian roots. It helped me see myself as part of the story.”
The following year the Soviet nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov wrote his “Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom.” Sakharov argued for freedom of inquiry. He demanded the protection of human rights. “Sakharov was warning that life in a dictatorship offers two choices: either you overcome your fear and stand for truth, or you remain a slave to fear, no matter how fancy your titles, no matter how big your dacha,” Sharansky writes. “Ultimately, I couldn’t escape myself or my conscience.”
Inspired by Sakharov, Sharansky applied for a visa to immigrate to Israel in 1973. He was rejected. He was unable to leave the Soviet Union. That made him a refusenik. “My life as a doublethinker, which I had consciously begun at age five the day Stalin died, was over. The professional world I had built for myself, my castle of science, collapsed instantly. Now, I could say what I thought, do what I said, and say what I did.”
The twin concerns of Sharansky’s life—identity and freedom—became fused. “Democracy—a free life in a free society—is essential because it satisfies a human yearning to choose one’s path, to pursue one’s goals,” he wrote in Defending Identity. “It broadens possibilities and provides opportunity for self-advancement. Identity, a life of commitment, is essential because it satisfies a human longing to become part of something bigger than oneself. It adds layers of meaning to our lives and deepens the human experience.” Freedom offers choice. Identity provides direction.
It would be a while before Sharansky could enjoy his own freedom. By 1975, he was working with Sakharov. The next year he formed the Moscow Helsinki Group to pressure the Soviets to live up to the commitments they had made in basket three of the Helsinki Accords. The KGB arrested him in 1977. “I spent the next nine years in prison and labor camp,” he wrote in Fear No Evil, “mainly on a special disciplinary regime, including more than 400 days in punishment cells, and more than 200 days on hunger strikes.”
In prison he played chess games in his head. “I always won.” He would tease the guards with anti-Soviet jokes. He was not afraid. What could they do—put him in jail? He communicated with his fellow inmates through morse code. They would drain the toilets and speak to one another through pipes. He read Soviet propaganda esoterically, between the lines. He figured out what was actually going on by determining what the authorities had omitted.
Sharansky was in prison when he heard that President Ronald Reagan had called the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire.” The year was 1983. Reagan had uttered the famous—and controversial—words in a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals. “It was one of the most important, freedom-affirming declarations, and we all instantly knew it,” Sharansky said in a 2004 interview. “For us, that was the moment that really marked the end for them, and the beginning for us. The lie had been exposed and could never, ever be untold now. This was the end of Lenin’s ‘Great October Bolshevik Revolution’ and the beginning of a new revolution, a freedom revolution—Reagan’s Revolution.”
Sharansky and his wife Avital had been apart since her immigration to Israel the day after they married in 1974. Throughout his imprisonment she worked tirelessly on his behalf, and on behalf of other refuseniks and dissidents. She found an ally in Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Benjamin Netanyahu. She met with Reagan, who began asking Soviet leaders to release Sharansky. Gorbachev freed him on February 11, 1986. He was reunited with Avital in Frankfurt Airport. They flew to Israel. “‘It was just one long day,’ Avital sighed later that night, in our new home in Jerusalem. ‘I arrived in Israel in the morning. You arrived in the evening. It was just one very, very long day in between.’”
He became Natan. He entered Israeli politics. He helped resettle one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union. He opposed the Oslo peace accords. He resigned from Ariel Sharon’s government over the policy of unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. His work as an activist was devoted to building what Reagan had described as “the infrastructure of democracy.” Sharansky distinguished between free societies and fear societies. “The structural elements that enable democratic societies to respect human rights—independent courts, the rule of law, a free press, a freely elected government, meaningful opposition parties, not to mention human rights organizations—were all glaringly absent in fear societies,” he wrote in The Case for Democracy (2004).
Sharansky’s career resists summary. It offers lessons in courage, freedom, justice, belonging, and hope. What makes his example especially relevant is his insistence that freedom and identity, liberty and tribe, are not just compatible but codependent. “To have a full, interesting, meaningful life,” he writes in Never Alone, “you have to figure out how to be connected enough to defend your freedom and free enough to protect your identity.” The same puzzle confronts nations. “Benefiting from the best of liberalism and the best of nationalism, together we can champion the joint mission to belong and to be free as both central to human happiness.”
Governments establish the conditions of liberty. But identity must come from below. The most positive and enduring sources of identity are not found in politics. They are located in civil society. The institutions of family, faith, and community tell us who we are, what we want, where we should turn.
People are antecedent to government. And they must remain so, if democracy is to survive. This is the unforgettable teaching of Natan Sharansky, hero and champion of freedom.
The Democrats included huge cash handouts for wealthy constituents in predominantly liberal areas in their emergency response package.
At some point, when the election chaos is finally settled, Congress will likely turn to passing another COVID-19 stimulus/relief bill. (Despite the last one being plagued by rampant fraud and dysfunction). One starting point for negotiations will be the “HEROES Act,” a $2.2 trillion bill the House passed in October on a party-line vote by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats.
One of the most significant aspects of the HEROES Act is that it allocates nearly $700 billion in federal money for state, local, and tribal governments.
Proponents say this gives localities the funds they need to pay emergency responders and fund programs necessary to protect their communities. Critics point out that much of this money is used to “bail out” blue states that were already mismanaging their budgets and running up large unfunded pension programs before the pandemic.
Indeed, the left-leaning Brookings Institution has projected that “state and local government revenues will decline $155 billion in 2020, $167 billion in 2021, and $145 billion in 2022.” Simple math shows us that the CARES Act gives states and localities hundreds of billions more in federal money than they are actually projected to lose due to pandemic-related decreases in revenue.
This alone should be a red flag. Yet a new analysis also reveals that Pelosi and her fellow “progressives” snuck millions of dollars in cash for some of the nation’s wealthiest zip codes into their emergency COVID-19 package.
Watchdogs from OpenTheBooks.com inspected the fine print of the HEROES Act and found that it allocates $350 million to the 50 richest communities in America. The average annual income in these areas ranged from $262,988 to $525,324.
“It’s unclear why such wealthy neighborhoods need so much money to weather the storm,” Adam Andrzejewski of OpenTheBooks.com wrote.“Should American taxpayers from lower-income areas be subsidizing the lifestyles of the rich and famous?
Some might reasonably look at a figure like $350 million and conclude that, in the context of a $2.2 trillion bill, it is a relatively small amount of money. But we mustn’t forget that this figure is only looking at a tiny sample size. It is not all the money this bill allocates to wealthy zip codes, just a snapshot.
We can extrapolate from this figure that the HEROES Act would dole out many hundreds of millions if not billions more to other wealthy towns and cities.
It’s not even the only provision of the bill that can be fairly characterized as a handout for the rich. The package also includes items such as student debt relief, which further burdens cash-strapped taxpayers yet only helps a relatively well-educated and well-off subset of society.
But wait: Aren’t Democrats supposed to be the progressive party fighting for the working class? That’s certainly what their rhetoric would suggest. Yet the Democrats included cash handouts for wealthy constituents in predominantly liberal areas such as Wellesley, Mass., Malibu, California, and Old Greenwich, Conn. in their emergency response package nonetheless.
This offers another painful reminder that government officials—no matter their professed partisan or ideological principles—will always and inevitably end up wielding their power in a manner prone to favoritism and clientelism.
“There is no such thing as a just and fair method of exercising the tremendous power that interventionism puts into the hands of the legislature and the executive,” Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises wrote. “In many fields of the administration of interventionist measures, favoritism simply cannot be avoided.”
Humans are fallible beings—and power corrupts. This is why, from tax loopholes to crony regulations to spending bills, sweeping government interventions will always end up skewing in favor of powerful constituencies. However, when power is left to the individual level rather than government, that decentralization helps limit abuses.
It’s not a matter of electing the right people. Fundamentally, progressive and conservative government officials alike face the same incentive structures.
The only way to really prevent the abuse of government power and expenditure of taxpayer resources in favor of the well-off and well-connected is to limit the scope of the government itself.
Whether due to the COVID-19 pandemic that began in Wuhan, China, or thanks to Beijing’s increasingly intimidating, if not aggressive, behavior in recent years, one of the more dramatic shifts in global opinion has started a long-overdue reconsideration of the liberal world’s relationship to the People’s Republic of China. In addition to a raft of high-level policy statements from the Trump administration, including the 2017 National Security Strategy, the 2019 Department of Defense Indo-Pacific Strategy report, and the 2020 “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China,” a number of independent reports have been tracking Beijing’s predatory and threatening policies, whether in economics, security, or civil society. After decades of turning the other cheek to Beijing’s abuse of the free world’s open societies, all in order to maintain trade relations that themselves were turning increasingly one-sided, liberal states have begun the process of recalibrating their ties to China.
This is no easy task for America or other states, after nearly a half-century of engagement. How to reduce supply chain vulnerability without crashing current manufacturing models, how to support Taiwan and Hong Kong in the face of Beijing’s aggressive actions, whether to keep admitting hundreds of thousands of Chinese students to American universities, how to keep doing business with Chinese firms while defending rampant theft of intellectual property, the “to do” list goes on and on. The difficulty is a testament to just how thoroughly the post-Mao PRC intertwined itself with free economies and societies around the world, while at the same time resisting much, if not all, pressure to liberalize in turn. Despite decades of optimistic comments from Western leaders, including U.S. presidents, China under current Chinese Communist Party (CCP) general secretary Xi Jinping has become an even more repressive and insular state, committed to the Leninist control by the CCP, and steadfastly opposed to liberal notions of free speech and free association. The PRC’s techno-authoritarian surveillance state has taken the world’s leading technologies, many originated in Western research institutes and universities, and twisted them into a comprehensive network of social control. Western businesses, media, universities, and the like have all submitted to Beijing’s pressure, self-censuring and apologizing for remarks critical of the PRC.
The great question facing the free world is how to deal with the PRC in this new era of competition. One answer is provided in a new “handbook” for democracies, published this week by the Halifax International Security Forum (HFX) to coincide with its annual conference. The handbook, entitled “China Vs. Democracy: The Greatest Game,” is a primer on how the PRC threatens the open global society that is the source for most of its own wealth and power (full disclosure: I am the senior advisor for Asia at HFX, and was part of the team that produced the handbook). Divided into chapters that look at the CCP’s oppression inside China, influence campaigns against democracies, the battle over global economic domination, the race for technological supremacy, and the military competition that may determine war or peace, the handbook is one of the first comprehensive attempts to chart the broad China challenge.
As the handbook notes, this is not the competition, or tension, that the liberal world wanted or expected when it opened its doors to Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and his reform plans back in the 1970s. Betting on China made sense during the Cold War and in light of what appeared to be legitimate reform inside China. The failure of Washington and its allies to conduct due diligence over the succeeding decades, questioning whether Beijing was living up to its promises and was becoming a cooperative nation upholding international norms, gave the CCP a free hand to build up its global power while eliminating any threats to its continued control. By the end of the Obama administration, the severity of the challenge could no longer be ignored or explained away as the result of a China still attempting to find its way in the world.
Yet, it is in the hands of democracies to deal with the China challenge in a way that not only protects their interests, but also may one day help the people of China. As HFX president Peter Van Praagh, who initiated the project, notes in his introduction:
Working in concert, the world’s democracies have overwhelming advantages that China cannot meet. The challenge is no longer about trying to cooperate with a rising China governed by autocrats. The real China challenge for the world’s democracies is how to cooperate effectively with each other.
Indeed, that theme of the HFX China Handbook — democratic cooperation — is one increasingly echoed by other Western reports and studies on China. Despite the disruptions of 2020, from pandemic to elections, liberal societies and free states remain stronger and yes, more peaceful, than their authoritarian counterparts. Their politics may be messier and often inefficient, but they remain laboratories of innovation and magnets for those fleeing repressive systems. They remain more committed to equality and the long-term improvement of their governing mechanisms than states run by unelected oligarchs. More pertinently, democracies may find a renewed appreciation for the moral worth of their systems by working together to defend common interests, whether economic, social, or security, against a PRC that seeks to subvert liberal norms and make the world safe for autocracy.
Perhaps the most innovative part of the handbook is the “HFX China Principles,” a set of seven pledges to not be complicit in Beijing’s assault on democracy. The Principles include a pledge not to censor or self-censor criticism of China, not to punish those who critique the PRC, not to support Chinese businesses that participate in the oppression of the Chinese people, and not knowingly to patronize businesses that benefit from Chinese slave labor. Public pledges to adhere to the China Principles by governments, multinational corporations, universities, media companies, and ordinary citizens would be a beginning in right-sizing the world’s relations with the PRC, giving hope to those in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and bolstering democratic states in Asia, from the Philippines to Japan. As a form of thinking globally and acting locally, the Principles may give the free world the confidence to begin defending itself against the China challenge.