American Evolutions, Part 3 of 3: Beyond Democrats and Republicans

See Part 1: From Sears to Google and Part 2: From Order to Disorder… in America.

So here’s where I get a bit nervous. One of the great truths in geopolitics between 1950 and 2015 is that American domestic politics barely mattered at all. Support for the global Order was strongly bipartisan and it was considered treasonous for any politician to seek foreign support against a domestic opponent. Republicans may have not cared for JFK, but they certainly didn’t try to reach out to the Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis to undermine him. Democrats might demonize Nixon, but they never considered collaboration with the North Vietnamese to score political points at home. (Jane Fonda doesn’t count.) Even in periods of America’s most intense infighting, the strategy was the same: the Soviets were the bad guys, and global leadership via the Order was the way to fight them.

As such I get to dive into the political guts of every country in the world with regularity, but I don’t have to dissect the internal politics of my home country. That’s awesome! Americans are really touchy about their ideologies; the bipartisan nature of American Cold War foreign policy enabled geopolitical strategists like me to take a pass on all things political.

Well, so much for that.

With American foreign policy in a state of collapse right along with America’s party structures, I now need to apply the tools I use daily on the United Kingdom and Germany and Russia and Brazil and China and Vietnam and India and Iran to the United States.

Everybody buckle up.

Take a look at this matrix. It breaks out the various voting blocks in the United States on ideology as well as old-style party affiliation. The closer to the top, the more you feel the government should stay out of your personal life. The closer to the right, the more you believe the government has no business in your economic life. If you hug the left, you feel the government must take an active role in managing the economy. If you’re near the bottom, you want the government to not simply respect but actively protect traditional societal norms. If you’re near a corner, you have hybrid views. For example, if you find yourself at the intersection of economic and social conservatism (the bottom right), you believe the government has no role in helping poor people get food, and the stress of poverty will actually do them spiritual good. If you’re completely opposite where economic and social liberalism meet (the top left) you look forward to the day that we all sing kumbaya dressed in government issued gunny-sacks paid for by the confiscation of the assets of anyone who owns their own home.

Factions are color-coded by political affiliation: blue for Democrats, red for Republicans, green for swing voters.

While you’re digesting that, a couple caveats followed by a simple observation:

Caveat #1: These are broad, poorly-defined groups because that’s how coalitions (and graphic making) work.

Caveat #2: Predicting the tactical shifts in American politics is tricky. Americans tend to be a bit moody. What follows is less a hard forecast and instead a probable outcome based on what we know today. It’s an example of the sort of work that’s consuming bigger and bigger slices of my time.

The observation: There are a lot of American factions in the bottom-left quadrant. Folks who are socially conservative on cultural issues, but also feel the government should play a role in ironing out economic inequalities – or at least personally give them more stuff.

That concentration is where Donald Trump is focusing his attention. The oval is the cluster of factions Trump is fashioning into a new coalition. Those bottom three categories (populists, evangelicals and pro-lifers) are his core. But that trio is not far off from the ideological mix that tends to drive unions, Catholics and Hispanics. I’m not asserting here that Trump has these groups in the bag. That’d be hilarious. I’m simply noting the ideologies of Trump’s core groups are not all that far off from these other groups, and that voting patterns among these factions in the 2016 election indicated a sharp break with what we thought we knew about who votes blue versus red.

Most union members, for example, are conservative on social issues and most of Trump’s core is left-of-center on economic issues. All tend to be somewhat distrustful of globalism. Despite all the rhetoric on all sides, the Hispanic vote isn’t locked into the Democratic coalition. Most voting Hispanics are social conservatives who are broadly against large-scale immigration unless it deals with family reunification issues. If Trump’s core coalition could find a way to massage the race issue, there’s a distinct and mind-bending possibility that not only could the – let’s call them Trumplicans – capture a large chunk of the Hispanic vote, but a sizable piece of the ideologically-similar African-American vote as well. That would easily give the Trumplican coalition an outright majority of American voters.

Noticeably absent from the Trumplican coalition are a pair of factions core to the traditional Republican identity: fiscal conservatives and the business community. Both are dismissed by Trump’s core as either irrelevant or an enemy, and both hold – at best – a very weak hand in the Trump administration at present. Their core ideological issue is that math matters – let’s call them Mathocrats – and they strongly favor a right-leaning tax policy that minimizes the role of government. Since the Trumplicans are somewhat left on economics, particularly when it comes to government spending, this pair of formerly Republican factions are likely to from the nucleus of opposition to the Trumplicans.

So who are the Mathocrats’ potential allies? Greens, Socialists and youth voters are probably out of the question as rebelling against basic mathematics is sorta their thing. That leaves a trio of more economically moderate groups near the top-center of the ideological matrix: pro-Choice voters, single women and gays. Women and gays are concerned with political rights, something that modern business thinks is broadly peachy. Women and gays want to protect their own property and financial assets – you haven’t seen a hissy fit until you tell a 35-year-old gay man that his partner can’t be listed on a lending agreement. (I sure know threw one.) Such economic concerns are near and dear to the hearts of both fiscal conservatives and the business community. The only tension in such an alliance is getting over inertial expectations – and since issues of race are not in play, a Mathocrat coalition would have a far easier time of putting the past to bed than a Trumplican coalition.

Now think about this in terms of foreign policy.

Under the Order, the all-or-nothing nature of the Cold War dictated that foreign policy had to be bipartisan. It was not overly shaped by either party, nor did it much vary from administration to administration regardless. But now there is no unifying threat or need or theme. Each new party can have a foreign policy that makes sense to its constituents as things evolve. American foreign policy is likely to oscillate not only between administrations, but within them.

That is likely to be far more erratic than it sounds. Think of what has happened in the past two years. The Americans have abandoned many of their alliances and geopolitical agreements and yet taken minimal hits – NAFTANATO, the WTO, deals with Cuba and Iran and Turkey and both Koreas. It is all falling apart, yet the U.S. economy is growing quickly. Instead of being abuzz with talk of the world burning these past two weeks, Americans instead obsessed about how a would-be Supreme Court justice acted in high school. Foreign policy – at best – demands third-tier attention in the American mind, and typically then only when it is mated to a domestic issue they care more about.

But look who is missing from both potential coalitions: national security voters. Folks who care about national security are the ultimate agnostics. They don’t care about social mores or the culture war or tax rates or development policy or the balance of power between the federal center and the states. So long as the military is capable and politically protected, they’re good. American isolation from the world will make American foreign policy a part-time issue. America’s likely future political parties will make American foreign policy inconsistent. And with America’s military supporters being the ultimate swing voters, American foreign policy will be intensely kinetic.

Yes, the Americans are taking a break from the world and that is problematic, but it is nothing compared to what is coming. In about a decade, instead of living in a world where the Americans are the most powerful force for global stability, they are likely to be the most powerful force for global instability.

American Evolutions, Part 2 of 3: From Order to Disorder… In America

See Part 1: From Sears to Google and Part 3: Beyond Democrats and Republicans.

The American political system is in breakdown.

It isn’t a bad thing. It is perfectly normal. Healthy even. Let’s lay it out:

The United States has a first-past-the-post electoral structure based on single-member districts. When you go to the polls, you are being asked to vote for the specific person who will represent the specific geographic area in which you live. In most cases the winner will be the sole representative for said area in whatever representative body is in play. To win that specific seat, the would-be representative does not need a majority of votes, but “only” needs to get one more vote than whoever comes in second.

Applied across a large population and territory, such a system forces a two-party political structure. A party that attempts to cater to a narrow slice of the electorate would never be able to get more than a few percent of the vote, and therefore never gain a majority for any meaningful amount of time. The diversity of the American political and economic base further weakens would-be small parties: voters that make their living on the coal production of Illinois have different interests from those who work in the medical centers of Boston, the data centers of the arid West, the whiskey producers of Kentucky, the aeronautical center of Seattle, the chemicals producers of the Texas shore, the agricultural plains of the Midwest, and the techies of Silicon Valley, just to name a few.

So the question becomes, how do you become a big party that appeals to a lot of voters?

The solution is to put up a big-tent. To form a coalition of different factions that collectively appeal to more people. The trick is to form a coalition wide enough to attract lots of votes, but narrow enough so the factions under your tent don’t fight.

Between 1940 and 2015 the Democrats were pretty good at the first bit. Their coalition combined minorities, unions, Greens, socialists, youth and pro-choice voters. Collectively such groups make an easy majority of the American electorate. But there are many issues that spawn internal conflict. For example, “minorities” includes African-American, Hispanics, gays, and single women – all have radically different concerns, many of which conflict. When the Democrats play the culture war card, their entire coalition tends to implode: the economic concerns of African-Americans differ from the immigration concerns of Hispanics differ from the political concerns of gays differ from the reproductive rights issues of single women.

The Republicans, in contrast, have proven better at the second part of the electoral math: building a cohesive alliance. The Republican coalition comprises evangelical Christians, pro-life voters, national security and fiscal conservatives, business owners, and populists. With the notable exception of the populists, these factions’ core issues do not conflict, and since the populists in many ways define themselves as the anti-Democrats it has proven fairly easy for the rest of the Republican alliance to count upon the populists as a vote bank, without giving them much influence over the Republican electoral platform.

It all went to hell in 2016.

The implosion of the Democratic alliance has been most spectacular. An alliance of white, young, urban liberals and card-carrying socialists who make up (at most) one-fifth of the Democratic voting base threw a social media rebellion. They collectively seized control of the media during the primary process and made a bid to dislodge the Democrats’ mainstream candidate (aka Hillary Clinton) with one of their own (aka Bernie Sanders). As damaging as the fight was for Democratic unity, it was only one piece of the puzzle. African-Americans experienced a sharp breach with the Democratic National Committee over police brutality issues. Jill Stein successfully courted many Green voters to her splinter party.

And of course the Democratic strategic platform has some perennial problems that led to periodic vote collapses. Democrats see themselves as the voice of youth and immigrants. Unfortunately for the Democrats, the most liberal of the youth are too young to vote and as Americans age they become more conservative. Similarly, undocumented immigrants are the most pro-Democrat, but since undocumented immigrants are not citizens they cannot vote. Additionally, second- and third- generation Hispanics are very conservative economically and politically. In essence, the Democrats’ strategy mobilizes non-voters in the current election, who then go on to be the conservative voters of the next election. Perhaps not the best plan.

The Republicans are in a similar state of disarray. There were many things that went wrong for the Republicans in the campaign: campaign finance reform muted the business community, Hillary Clinton was actually somewhat attractive to national security voters, no one running seemed to care about government budget deficits, Trump was kind of a dick, etc.

But it all comes down to the role of the populists. Populists on the right are a mixed bag of folks that in general are very unhappy with some state of affairs. Their issues shift and manifest differently, but ultimately it can be summed up that they believe someone is screwing them and/or the country and they want it to stopNOW! That typically makes them prickly on issues cherished on the Left – race, changing cultural norms, immigration, government intervention in their economic lives. But it also makes them prickly on issues traditionally owned by the Right – big business, banking, a government that does too little. The rise of social media didn’t simply allow the Bernie Sanders crowd to make an over-sized splash in the political pool, it also enabled the populists of the right to seize control of the Republican primary system and put their man on the ticket.

Trump’s rise to prominence was only possible because of the populist rise, and the populists broadly distrust not just the Left, but other portions of the Republican alliance. The populists’ reliable outrage combined with Trump’s trademark political-wind-detection and volatile personality has largely ejected the fiscal, national security and business factions from the Republican coalition – not to mention the Trump White House. All that is left are the populists and the narrow-issue categories of pro-lifers and Evangelicals.

Trump has figured out that the American political landscape is now so fractured – Democrats, Republicans and centrists all – that this narrow base is sufficient to sustain him in a first-past-the-post system in the short term. While many find Trump’s tweeting and shouting and rambling press conferences shocking and offensive and bewildering, he is not speaking to the “many.” He is speaking to this base, and so long as he keeps speaking to them they will stick with him to Armageddon.

This is obviously not sustainable in the long run, but that doesn’t mean it is not normal. The coalitions that make up the two American parties are not carved in stone. A quick read of American political history indicates this is the fifth time the two parties have broken down. Each time they reform with a different mix of factions. Keep in mind that before these seismic, party-smashing upheavals went down last time in the 1930s and 1940s, the African-Americans were Republicans while business leaders were Democrats. Times change. The parties change with them. But such change hardly happens overnight. Historically speaking, these political interregnums last about a decade. We are barely in year three.

Combine this with other things going on in geopolitical space. The entire basis of America’s Cold War strategy was to induce cooperation among a broad, global alliance of countries to hem in, beat back and in time strangle the life out of the Soviet Union. The Americans did this not simply by providing physical security for their allies, but indirectly subsidizing them with a network of global trade expressly designed to maximize the allies’ advantage to the determent of American economic interests. Faced with such an existential threat, American foreign policy during the Cold War was thoroughly bipartisan. Both parties supported the creation and maintenance of the global Order.

It all worked great and the Americans were able to win the conflict without a war. In the nuclear age that was no small achievement.

But it also means the entirety of what makes the modern world work – global supply chains for shipping, manufactures, finance, agriculture, energy and other raw materials – is an unintended side effect of a security strategy that achieved its goal back in 1989. And since the Americans are the only country capable of maintaining the military and economic structures the global system needs to survive – and because the Americans do not necessarily need those structures themselves – the whole thing is falling into Disorder.

American foreign policy today is mismatched by any possible definition. The global Order has run its course and the Americans have no replacement, leading to strategic drift.

That’s before the breakdown of the bipartisan consensus of American foreign policy.

That’s before the breakdown of both American political parties prevented the Americans from even having a conversation about how they might theoretically move on beyond the Order.

That’s before the rise of the American populists of the Trump coalition accelerated the abandonment of the old Order.

That’s before the factions most interested in the minutiae of foreign affairs – the business and national security conservatives – found themselves both without a party and ejected from being able to influence the White House.

A decade with the Americans out of the picture is ample time for the world to go completely to shit. Much of my work these past few years has been about just that devolution: what a world without America looks like.

But the Americans’ internal political discombobulation will end in time. Their parties will reform. They will have a foreign policy again. In fact, at least one of those parties may already be taking form – raising some possibilities both for the future of American politics and America’s place in the world.

American Evolutions, Part 1 of 3: From Sears to Google

See Part 2: From Order to Disorder… in America and Part 3: Beyond Democrats and Republicans.

Today’s story begins with the once-behemoth that is the American retail firm, Sears. In the last week of September Sears’ stock dipped below $1 a share, reducing the company’s market value below $100 million. Sears may still linger on a bit, but when a big firm falls into penny-stock territory, its outright liquidation is a foregone conclusion.

Sears (originally Sears, Roebuck and Company) is the iconic store of the American modernization experience. As a relative latecomer to the world stage, Americans got in on the industrial revolution significantly after most Western European nations. The vast majority of Americans lived on farms until late in the 19th century. Urban Americans had access to manufactured goods, but in rural regions most people made their own clothes and tools – or tapped the expertise of craftsmen in local towns. Most of these in-town purchases were managed via general stores where managers, knowing farmers had no alternatives, gouged on pricing, credit terms and selection.

Enter Sears.

Sears sourced manufactured goods from American cities (and abroad) and built a distribution network deep into every nook and cranny of the American territories. Starting with luxury goods in 1886 and rapidly moving into everyday products, by turn-of-the-century Sears’ 500+ page mail order catalogues had become ubiquitous not just in cities, but in farmhouses. It was Walmart and Amazon all in one. Sears completely overhauled what Americans considered to be centuries-old economic norms and pushed cheap, high quality manufactured goods into every single home. Sears quickly became America’s largest firm and largest employer. Quite unwittingly, Sears started the United States on the long path to urbanization, the industrial age, and the destruction of the local retail store.

(Incidentally, when the British Empire brought its manufactures to German lands, the economic dislocation helped start a German civil war. So anytime you think Americans can’t handle transformative economic stress, please try to keep it in perspective.)

Sears’ near-death today is part of a similar economic transformation. Just as Sears was a physical manifestation of the Industrial Revolution, Sears’ end is part of the Digital Revolution. Gathering, processing and distributing information has been the bugaboo of corporate systems as long as there have been firms with a reach further than they could see. The steamship and telegraph obviously helped, but managing anything big first and foremost requires an information system.

The Digital Revolution thus far has reduced the cost of storing information to nearly zero. In the early 1980s storing a gigabyte of data cost roughly $500,000 and I think that’s without accounting for inflation (economists and techies don’t always have the best relationships when it comes to data comparisons). Today storing that same volume of data costs roughly three cents. Information transfer costs follow a similar path (part of why all publicly available email clients are available at no-cost).

With information now being in effect free, the biggest restraint on industrial expansion became… humans. Someone still needs to analyze and distribute the data, and then check up on the results. Humans in the data chain have become the general store managers of our time, gatekeepers to the consumer that escalate prices. Enter algorithms, designed from day1 to remove humans from the data management equation. With the elimination of those pesky human barriers, the Digital Revolution reached out into the real world of sales and distribution and killed the job-destroying monster that preceded it. That’s remade how we design, order, manufacture, transport and warehouse goods. It allows us to instantly transmit architectural plans, military orders, payroll, and cat videos as well as get two-day (or less) deliveries for free.

The problem with algorithms is twofold. First, we have yet to figure out how to program in value judgements and ethics. Second, anything that introduces a hiccup into the information flow – say, fact-checking – increases the cost to something above zero. Just as Sears’ systematically cut out costs, algorithms and the human decision-makers who design and manage them see the human element as a block on progress. Something to be ruthlessly excised.

That has set up Silicon Valley for the mother of all government smack-downs.

Let’s divide the American political spectrum into four rough blocks: the center-left, center-right, populist-right, and populist-left – and then look at how their view of Silicon Valley has radically shifted during the past three years.

America’s center-left originally adored Silicon Valley because they were corporate titans with social agendas that matched the center-left’s general political views – particularly when it came to social policies on issues such as education, gay rights, and multiculturalism. The center-left – epitomized by politicians such as Chuck Schumer and Diane Feinstein – saw Silicon Valley as remaking corporate America from within.

But as information transmission became free, this happy marriage collapsed. Silicon Valley resisted anything that might infringe upon information flow, including flows that harmed issues the center-left valued. For example, Russian attempts to spawn race riots or shift the direction of a presidential campaign, or the ISIS live-streaming of executions, or disinformation campaigns blaming train derailments on Hilary Clinton after she lost the election. Consequently, the center-left hasn’t simply dropped its support for the Valley, it now sees the valley as a threat to democracy itself. The Valley’s chronic misogyny in the age of MeToo doesn’t help the Valley’s case with the center-left either.

America’s center-right – represented in Washington by folks such as Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnel – similarly were wedded to Silicon Valley’s aura. In the Valley the center-right saw a heavenly manifestation of what could be achieved with American know-how and new technology and a spirit of entrepreneurship in a low-regulatory environment.

This happy marriage has also ended. At first it was about politics: Valley CEOs started to get a bit too public with their enthusiasm for left-leaning issues, and charges erupted that some in the Valley were censoring right-leaning political viewpoints on platforms they controlled. But the center-right’s concerns soon deepened to something much more fundamental: much of the Valley committed to never working for the American government – most notably the intelligence community and the Defense Department. But Valley services remained fully available for sale so their work could benefit other government’s programs.

The idea that the political liberalism of Silicon Valley is better served by allying with Xi Jinping’s dissident eradication systems or Vladimir Putin’s systematic repression than the U.S. military requires mental contortions the center-right considers unfathomable. The center-right now doesn’t merely question the Valley’s ideology or even its patriotism, but its sanity. The most pro-business part of the American political spectrum is now firmly anti­-Silicon Valley. Concerns about cybersecurity and the regulations those concerns will likely spawn is only the icing on the cake.

But as much credence as there is to the points of America’s centrist politicians, the concerns of the American populists are actually more valid.

The populist right started out furious with Silicon Valley. Whether the politician is Ted Cruz or Donald Trump, the Main Street verses Wall Street discourse is not only a powerful one, it is broadly accurate. The current manifestation of Silicon Valley is fundamentally designed to remove as much human labor from the economy as possible. It – statistically – is the greatest job-destroying machine in American history.

The populist left is, if anything, even more angry at the Valley. Algorithms and robots don’t pay taxes, but their profitable outputs still accrue. This concentrates the income of what used to benefit human laborers to the operators and designers back in San Jose. Politicians like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are fundamentally correct when they assert this is a leading reason for America’s deepening economic inequality.

All four factions are correct. All four factions are edging towards policies that would revoke the Valley’s unlimited license via some sort of constraining regulation.

Tesla is probably in the greatest danger. Technically, Tesla is a car firm, but its valuation and finance-raising systems mirror Silicon Valley rather than Detroit. That gives it access to ridonkulous amounts of cash – something necessary to pioneer fundamentally new technologies – but lands it with the metrics of a conventional automotive firm. Therein lies the rub.

When it comes to evolving ethics in a dynamic regulatory environment, most investors go with what they know. They know Tesla is a badly-run company that has yet to figure out how to move metal around its own factory floor. They know Tesla has almost never met a production goal. They know Tesla cannot break into the mass market (the cheapest available Model3 is at fifty grand, with the subsidy). They know Tesla’s technology and materials science is insufficient to its goals. They know Tesla faces stiff, rising competition from more experienced market players.

They know Tesla is led by a CEO whose social media strategies mirror a broadly-disliked president. They know Tesla’s CEO has bet the firm’s future on a political ideology that provides subsidies that will not last. They know Tesla’s CEO sees no problem cross-subsidizing the firms of family members. And they know Tesla’s CEO has settled with the SEC on charges of stock manipulation which cost the firm that has never made a profit $20 million. There is no shortage of preexisting business norms and regulations that could bring Tesla down. Should the investment community ever believe Washington is coming for Silicon Valley, they will ditch the weak players first. It doesn’t get weaker than Tesla – ergo why the short-selling of Tesla is already so intense.

Facebook comes in second, and not simply for the role they’ve played in Russiagate. The firms’ unfettered and enthusiastic raping and selling of customer data has not simply shown no ethical constraints, but we now know Facebook actively markets its user data to scammers. Not via the web – dark or otherwise – but by sending sales reps to scammers’ convention and closing deals in person. The public trust has been lost. The question in my mind isn’t will Facebook be eclipsed and displaced by a rival, but will there be prison time for some of its executives?

Twitter may have a brighter future. Unlike Facebook, TeamTwitter admitted the role it played in Russiagate fairly early on and has taken steps to roll back the damage. Such public admissions combined with a sense of genuine regret – or at least a reasonable digital facsimile of regret – stand in stark contrast to Facebook whose grudging, plodding steps have the feel of a six-year-old who thinks moving a single pair of underwear to the hamper has cleaned up his room and thus should be allowed to go back outside to play. Are Twitter’s actions and contrition deep and fast enough? That’s a political question, but I give points for effort.

One likely path forward in regulation is the modification of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. To make a very long and technical legal explanation short, Section 230 stipulates information technology platforms are not publishers, and so are not responsible for any content they pass along. Without 230 we’d not have an Internet economy since all our infotech platforms would be liable for the accuracy of everything in every webpage, blog post, pop-up ad and email.

To date, there have only been three carveouts: copyright infringement, child pornography and sex trafficking. Silicon Valley fought those carveouts tooth and nail, asserting first-amendment rights issues, but mostly being concerned about costs. The hilarity of deliberate inaccuracies currently punctuating American political information systems – Russiagate being the prime example – are pushing many political factions to consider a fourth carveout for foreign election interference. And while with some very skilled coding an algorithm can be taught to look for prostitutes, I’m guessing that determining whether an ad that slams or celebrates Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is accurate will require the sort of judgement call only a human can make. And humans don’t work for free.

Amazon probably faces less pressure, and probably has more time. Yes, AmazonPrime and related subsidiaries are a very visible part and parcel of the whole job-destroying ethos that motivates Silicon Valley. But three issues pop up:

First, the damage to American retail is largely done. A stiff roll-back at this point would probably be counterproductive. And this is hardly the first American retail revolution: general stores to Sears to Walmart to Amazon. At each step the process is more capital intensive but less labor intensive with slimmer margins. Where do you draw the line? Do you draw a line? (A change to how Amazon is taxed, however, is an excellent idea).

Second, Amazon would operate in the red if not for a single unit that has nothing to do with getting a hairdryer to you: Amazon Web Services. AWS is the data management portion of Amazon which is wrapped up in nearly every dataflow for every business in the country. It is well-run, faces competition, and has next to nothing to do with the retail arm. Splitting the two so that the wildly-profitable AWS cannot cross-subsidize the barely profitable (and until recently, unprofitable) Amazon Retail makes a wildly great deal of sense for all players. It would certainly preserve the value-added portion of Amazon that generates lots of new sources of economic activity rather than gutting old sources.

Third, Amazon is everywhere. I don’t say this to imply U.S. government entities cannot bring it down, but instead that Amazon’s retail activities are in every American county, complete with dozens of distribution centers and tax relationships. Should the regulatory floodgates open the result will be a thick, self-ambulatory tangle of regulations at the city, country, state and national level. It will be a rancid mess that Amazon leadership will be able to exploit to buy time and – most importantly – to shape in a way to mitigate end-impacts upon the firm.

Of the big boy digital firms, that leaves Google, whose recent actions put it into a category all its own:

Recent defections from Google’s development teams have exposed the firm’s work on a project they call Dragonfly, a search engine product for the Chinese market. Allegedly, Dragonfly tags certain search terms the Chinese government chooses that it thinks might indicate dissident behavior such as “how do I get a Canadian visa?” or “what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989?” or “what is Falun Gong?” It then packages the request with other search data on the person in question, complete with IP and physical addresses and phone numbers and forwards the information on to the Chinese state. It’s a degree of privacy violation and government monitoring of civilians that would have disgusted Orwell.

If – and I emphasize the word “if” because I do not have a Dragonfly-style program covering Google HQ – Dragonfly is real, Google is in serious trouble. Collaborating with a dictatorship that is sliding into a cult of personality so complete Hitler would have salivated over the program violates every ethical and political norm of every political faction in the United States. Anything that puts Elizabeth Warren and Ted Cruz on the same side during Senate hearings should get everyone’s attention. And Google’s executives’ refusals to confirm or deny Dragonfly’s existence while under oath before Congress tends to shift my thinking that this is less bureaucratic bungling and more greed so all-consuming it constitutes treasonous behavior. It is exactly the sort of massive corporate miscalculation that has triggered catastrophic government crackdowns on major American firms in the past. The breakups of Standard Oil and Bell come to mind.

And it would happen under President Donald Trump. Make no mistake. Trump is no longer part of the party of the businessperson. Things in America have changed in politics too…

Trade Talk, Part 2 of 2: For Whom the Trump Toll

On Oct 1 the American, Canadian and Mexican governments announced their mutual agreement to a revised treaty text for the North American Free Trade Agreement. As it was at formation, NAFTA remains the most valuable trade block in the world. Donald Trump insists the new deal will be called “the United States – Mexico – Canada Agreement” or USMCA. As something very close to that acronym has already been taken by an organization that excels in high-kinetic situations and getting American citizens abroad out of trouble, I’m still going to call the trade deal “NAFTA.”

Trump got a rough start. He came in with zero experience and a cabinet that was, in a word, messy. Organizationally he spent his first two years dealing with (causing?) personality and organizational conflicts, and during the past year he has fired nearly everyone in his cabinet with expertise.

But in the background this entire time, Trump’s trade team has continued hacking away at rewriting the United States’ entire trade position. During the decades of the global Order, the United States was all about granting the world deference on economic and trade issues so the Americans could gain the allegiance of most of the world on security issues. That’s how the Americans built and maintained their alliance against the Soviets. That Order is now collapsing, and that necessitates a different approach to both security and trade.

Meaningful adjustments to how the Americans treat the world are, generally, broad-scale disasters for most countries. The ability to trade security deference for economic dynamism in a world of global security was a great exchange for most. Under Trump the two issues are now divorced. You want a security deal with the Americans? You need to offer them something security-related. You want a trade deal with the Americans? You need to offer them something trade-related. No more cross-swaps unless you are willing to be embarrassingly deferential. At first everyone resisted. In part because they had a great deal going in – with the Cold War long gone they hadn’t needed to give the Americans much – in part because no one wanted worse terms.

But since the Americans control global finance and the global currency and global trade flows and the global ocean and global energy and the world’s largest market, the White House holds all the cards. Once it became clear Trump’s position wasn’t rhetoric, everyone knew they’d have to find a way to make a deal.

South Korea – fearing the need to stand alone against North Korea and China and Japan – went first, largely giving in to Trump on economic issues in the hope that when the time comes the Americans will be there on security issues. It is unclear if that will work for Seoul, but it was very clear the Koreans didn’t have a choice.

Next came Mexico, a country whose entire meaningful trade portfolio – and its recent rise from mass poverty – is wrapped up in NAFTA. A country whose seen its position in the U.S. market slashed by China. A country who knows it cannot attach itself to any other market.

Trump’s trade team used its agreement with Mexico to force Canada’s hand. And just like that, America’s economic position in the world is guaranteed. NAFTA alone accounts for roughly one-third of America’s entire global trade position. With that secure, the Americans can now get down to some serious bullying with everyone else.

Next up is Japan. Now sandwiched between a South Korea who already has a deal and a slightly redesigned NAFTA, the only markets that really matter to Tokyo are already locked into Trump’s new system. Trump wants a bilateral or nothing at all. And so this week Japan relented and opened negotiations. I doubt they’ll take long to conclude.

Even easier to negotiate will be a pending bilateral with the United Kingdom. In 2019 the Brits will be leaving the European Union without a deal. The pending hard Brexit will trigger a depression in the United Kingdom, forcing London to accept whatever trade terms the Trump administration sets.

Of America’s largest trading partners that only leaves two on the outside.

The first is Germany. There will be no deal here. There are two obstacles. First, Germany is within the European Union, and EU trade deals are negotiated and administered by bureaucrats in Brussels the Germans do not fully control. Those eurocrats tend to be pretty huffy about how special the EU is and – by design – do not factor in geopolitical issues. Even easy deals typically take a decade to negotiate and it is my opinion the EU doesn’t have that much runway left.

Second is the issue of France. If Paris and Berlin were to combine forces to pressure the EU secretariat to cut a quick deal with Trump, it might happen. But the French and German economies are structured differently and interact with the Americans differently. In absolute terms the French export less than one-third as much to the United States as Germany, to say nothing for the thin French industrial position within the United States itself. That leaves the eurocrats to do what they do best – and that doesn’t include a quick deal.

Hong Kong, China

That just leaves China, a country that is loosely tied for first place in the American trade volumes pecking order with the Canadians and Mexicans. With every country that gives in to Donald Trump, the maneuvering room of those on the outside shrinks. With Korea and Mexico and Canada and Japan and the United Kingdom locked in, already representing 40% of all US trade, China has everything moving against it. We’re now beyond the simple issues of the Americans controlling the global system but not needing it, or the Chinese needing the global system but being unable to maintain it, or the Chinese needing the American market far more than the reverse is true. We’ve even moved past the unavoidable fact that the two people most responsible for Trump’s foreign economic and security policies – Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and National Security Advisor John Bolton, respectively – have taking China down a few dozen pegs as their top goal.

The new bit of info is that America’s entire trade policy is now designed to break China. The Americans wrote into the new NAFTA treaty that if a signatory signs a trade deal with any non-market-based economy (read: China) then the Americans will up and leave. Expect such language to be appended to every deal the Trump administration writes. For all the talk of China stepping into America’s free-trade shoes (which I always found rather silly) everyone now knows exactly the cost of picking what the Americans feel to be the wrong side.

We might even know the date. As part of their efforts to box in Iran, the Americans are prepping secondary sanctions against any entity that continues importing Iranian crude after November 4. Nearly all international trade is not settled directly, but indirectly via the dollar. For example, if Vietnam sells shoes to South Africa, South Africa pays rand to an intermediary which converts them to dollars, and then converts the dollars into dong which are paid to Vietnam (because no one in Vietnam has or wants rand, and no one in South Africa has or wants dong).

Since the U.S. dollar is the intermediary that makes it all work, Washington holds the option of saying “no,” especially if those transactions are routed either through U.S. banks or banks that value their business with U.S. institutions… like the Federal Reserve. Apply that to all transactions of a given entity and the effect is a complete shut-out from not just the American market, but all global trade.

As present, China is the only country that hasn’t at least hinted at cooperation with the United States’ anti-Iranian efforts. That raises the tantalizing, terrifying possibility of a trade-cum-security-cum-finance throwdown between the Chinese and Americans as soon as November 5 that is less the Chinese bringing a knife to a gun fight and more the Chinese bringing a knife to an artillery exchange.

For those thinking that Trump is a spent force because he’s about to face a mid-term wipe out, think again. Even in the event of a Democratic wave that turns the Congress blue, nothing changes. The U.S. Constitution clearly grants the presidency preeminence and autonomy in foreign affairs. When domestic politics hobbled Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama, all three put more of their hours into international politics. At its fundamentals, trade policy is part and parcel of such foreign affairs issues. Congress might be required to stamp approval on new deals, but Congress plays no role if the executive wants to scrap old deals. Trump can even choose to cease executive workings for preexisting deals he might legally need Congressional approval to scrap. (You can thank George W Bush and Barack Obama for setting that particular precedent – they are the ones who decided to not enforce laws they disagreed with.)

The fact is that the United States has leverage to spare in every sphere of global significance, and Trump is racking up some significant successes in converting that leverage into real – if fairly minor thus far – changes. Whether or not you care for the Cold War Order or trade deals like NAFTA or more direct action against traditional trouble states, change is less in the wind than barreling down the tracks towards us all. And with each of the old-style allies that finds itself lined up in the new Trump-style system, the speed of onrushing change will only increase.

Now if we only knew something about the destination.

Trade Talk, Part I of II: Oh Canada, What the Hell is Going On?

In the late hours of September 30 a small bevy of leaks indicated Canada and the United States agreed to terms that will allow Canada to remain in the newest iteration of both countries’ premier trade relationship: the North American Free Trade Agreement. In the wee hours of October 1, said rumors were confirmed and fleshed out by both governments.

It has been a long road. Ronald Reagan initiated the process, George HW Bush finished the negotiations, Bill Clinton got the deal ratified, and George W Bush bridged the NAFTA relationship to North American security issues. Donald Trump has railed against NAFTA since the very beginning, and three decades later he made the abandonment and/or forcible renegotiation of every trade deal on the books a key piece of his presidential campaign.

The part of the American business community that depends upon international manufactures trade is hugely relieved – Canada and Mexico comprise about one-third of the total American trade portfolio. Simply walking away from NAFTA, as Trump often threatened, would have at a minimum triggered a Texas-centric American recession. Now businesses can look forward to revised rules-of-origin, agricultural access and dispute-resolution systems expressly modified to benefit American entities.

Overall changes to the trade pact are on the minor side: tweaks to dispute resolution mechanisms, increased requirements for local content in automobiles, improved access for digital firms both in the cloud and on the ground, minimum wage levels for some manufactured goods, greater access for U.S. agricultural products, and improved protection for intellectual property – particularly for pharmaceuticals. Overall, it’s a change in less than 5% of the original deal with most of the changes simply being updates to reflect the fact that it isn’t the 1980’s anymore.

Of course, this is not over. Completing the negotiations is a required step of critical importance, but now we get to deal with the fun and games of a trinational political ratification. In the United States, Trump will need to get the new NAFTA through the post-midterms Senate. In Mexico, outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto will sign the deal on his last day in office, but it will be up to populist greenhorn Andres Manuel Lopez Obradorto get the text ratified and operationalized. Any number of things in either in-flux country and with either moody leader could still go horribly, terribly typical and wreck the whole thing.

But the most interesting developments might well be up in the Great White North.

First, the backstory of how Canada fits in to American-led trade deals.

The core of the American grand strategy during the Cold war was very butter-for-guns. The Americans would create a global Order to indirectly subsidize everyone’s economies, and in exchange the allies would grant the Americans broad control of their security policies so the Americans could fight the Cold War without having to refer everything to committee. That’s the core tenant of the American relationship with everyone from London to Paris to Berlin to Rome to Tokyo to Seoul to Canberra (and even Beijing).

But not for Ottawa.

That’s because the Canadian educational system is sufficiently strong that Canadians can read a map. They know that no matter what the Americans do to defend themselves, there is no version of American security so limp that it does not also require the defense of Canada. Add in a cultural, economic and political understanding of Americans matched by no one else on Earth, and throughout the Cold War and post-Cold War periods Ottawa has always been able to turn an inch into a yard when dealing with Washington. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is Chapter 19 of the NAFTA accords which established tribunals for arbitrating trade disputes between American and Canadian firms. This chapter was negotiated by Reagan – hardly a president noted for the willy-nilly waiving away of American sovereignty or autonomy.

Québec City, Québec, Canada

Ok, with that set up, let’s now dive into the Game-of-Thrones-with-a-Smile-eh world of internal Canadian politics. Folks, stick with me here. Canada is a bit bizarre.

There are three types of democratic political systems. The first is unitary where the capital city is large and in charge: France, the Netherlands, Argentina, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Sweden. The second is federal. The powers of governance are balanced among local, regional and national authorities: the United States, Germany, Australia, Mexico, India.

The third is confederal: where the provinces have far more power than the national authorities on most issues. Confederal systems are of sort messed up because on most issues the individual provinces hold veto power over most issues. In confederal systems, change comes veeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeery slooooooooooooooowly: Switzerland (which only granted women the vote at the national level in 1991) and Canada (which only signed a comprehensive internal free trade agreement in 2017).

That’s strange even before you mate it to the Canadian ethnic divide.

Way back when, both Canada and the United States used to be British colonial possessions. But other European powers held North American colonies as well, and in 1754 British-French tensions boiled up into a decade long conflict we know as the French and Indian War. In that conflict the French were roundly defeated by a combined force of British Redcoats, Canadian colonists, the Iroquois Confederation and Yankee Doodles led by one George Washington.

The terms of the post-war settlement handed control over several French possessions – what we know today as Quebec – to the British. Because the British decided they didn’t want to kill the French who were already there or fight a war of occupation, they granted the French colonials broad economic, cultural and linguistic autonomy: the Quebecois were born. About a century later when the British started incrementally granting their Canadian colonies independence, Quebec was tossed in with the Anglo provinces – British-granted autonomy and all.

Bam! Canada is a bi-lingual, bi-national confederation.

One of many outcomes of this is the Quebecois have the ability to veto all kinds of things at the national level. It also means that what seem to be irrelevant, even petty, topics at the provincial level tend to shape Canada’s national and even international policies. Policies like trade. For example, Quebec maintains one of the most inefficient, coddled, expensive, low-quality dairy industries in the world – and Quebec’s ability to shape national policy has enabled it to shape trade policy with the United States to protect Quebecois dairy.

The new NAFTA text takes direct aim at that industry, hardwiring in a tripling of U.S. dairy access to the Canadian market as well as changing protein standards for dairy products, a technical tweak highly likely to increase American access even further. Quebecois farmers are, unshockingly, apoplectic and are threatening political consequences.

It isn’t an empty threat.

Canada’s Liberal Party thinks of itself as the “natural” ruling party of Canada. It is in some serious trouble. Let’s start with its leader.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau still may be a cool-sock-wearing liberal heartthrob on the global stage, but the shine has most certainly come off back at home. No one ever thought Trudeau was very bright. A cadre of liberal technocrats maneuvered him into power largely to ride the name recognition. I don’t mean this as a condemnation. The technocrats are doing a better job than their equivalents in most other Western countries, and if in a confederal system all you need a prime minister for is to kiss some babies, flash some smiles and cut some ribbons, the younger Trudeau is a fine choice. But his lack of foresight, political skills and leadership has costs, and technocratic cabinets aren’t that great in times of extreme change.

Consider a person for whom I hold immense respect: Chrystia Freeland. She took over Canada’s foreign ministry ten days before Donald Trump became the U.S. president. She inherited the old Canadian foreign policy rulebook that detailed how to best exploit Canada’s position as a free-rider in the American-led global Order. She quickly discovered Donald Trump was not only serious about ending the Order and re-negotiating NAFTA, but that the American president thinks of Canada as a normal country that warrants no exceptions whatsoever on economic and security policy.

Freeland has spent most of the past two years trying to protect the old arrangements, to no avail. Because Canada is confederal, her hands were tied. She couldn’t offer concessions. And because Trudeau is a (fantastically well-coiffed) bobble-head, there was no leadership from the top as to how to deal with such radically changed circumstances. When Trump initialed a bilateral deal back in September with Mexico to proceed with NAFTA2 withoutCanada, Freeland realized she had to take drastic action for the good of the country. The result? Last week Freeland dropped her hardline stance, caved a bit, and got the best deal she thought she could.

So now we have several things moving at the same time.

First, the Liberal party is getting gutted politically. Earlier this year the Liberals were ejected from power in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province. On October 2 the Liberals of Quebec – the second-largest province – weren’t simply defeated, but gutted by Coalition Avenir Québec (Coalition for the Future of Quebec), a center-right party so new as to be wet behind the ears. In May 2019 Trudeau’s semi-ideological allies in Alberta, Canada’s richest province, are likely to be eradicated by a conservative/separatist alliance. It would be challenging for a strong leader to turn these sorts of defeats around for national elections in 2020. Justin Trudeau is not such a leader.

Second, Trudeau faces a more personal challenge. He is Quebecois ethnically, but he was raised in Ottawa. English is his first language. His French is comme ci comme ça. The Quebecois like having one of “their own” in charge, but only if he can deliver. The new NAFTA’s dairy rule combined with the fresh winds in provincial rulership have just denied him what gravitas he held in his “home” province.

Third, the Americans will not let up. Trump’s negotiating team – lead by one very wiley Robert Lighthizer – refused to lift America’s aluminum and steel tariffs in the rubric of the NAFTA re-negotiation. And they won’t until such time as the Canadians ratify the new treaty text.

Fourth, don’t forget Foreign Minister Freeland. Her personality is the work of the same character artisans which brought us Hillary Clinton and John Bolton. Professional, direct, competent, a bit schemy, and if you cross her she will cut you. But she’s still Canadian so most people think of her as mostly nice most of the time.

Freeland has just been forced by circumstance to take a strong leadership role and execute some seriously decisive actions – something her boss is broadly incapable of. If she wasn’t already thinking that perhaps her party needs a new leader and her country a new prime minister, she probably is now. And since she clawed her way from opposition backbencher to foreign minister in less than fifteen months, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess she has an idea of who might be right for the job.