The Better Letter: Flip-Flopping

Shortly before Christmas, Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail) is seeing her small children’s bookstore, founded by her mother and passed on to her, being destroyed by a big box bookstore that sells “cheap books.” As snow gently falls outside, we hear Harry Nilsson’s haunting “Remember,” and Ryan decorates a Christmas tree in her shop window while watching people pass by with shopping bags brimming with presents purchased from her competitor.

“‘It's coming on Christmas, they're cutting down trees.’ Do you know that Joni Mitchell song? ‘I wish I had a river I could skate away on?’ It's such a sad song, and not really about Christmas at all, but I was thinking about it tonight as I was decorating my Christmas tree and unwrapping funky ornaments made of Popsicle sticks, and missing my mother so much I almost couldn't breathe.”

Advent (the weeks leading up to Christmas) is all about waiting in the dark – the darkness of the world and the darkness in our own hearts – longing for a river to skate away on. Towards home.

We want to skip over the waiting and the darkness to get straightaway to the glorious light. Fear is rampant and relentless. Yet the first words spoken by God in 400 years (Mark 1), to prepare the way of the Lord, were a wild man’s rantings about repentance. As my favorite preacher said this past Sunday, Christmas is joyous and beautiful, but it isn’t sentimental. 

On November 21, 1943, imprisoned for opposing Hitler, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned a letter from his cell. “A prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent,” he wrote. “One waits, hopes, does this or that – ultimately negligible things – the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside.” Perhaps oddly, that’s why the gospel is such good news. A weary world rejoices in a future hope that doesn’t depend upon our choices and our lives. It is based upon the promised grace of a risen King who neither falters nor fails.

The volatility of Advent is extreme, despite our best intentions. We sit in dimly lit churches as candlelight barely, just barely, holds back the darkness, our lives more anxious and troubled than we’re willing to let on. Meanwhile, our hopes – for just a bit of relief or for presents or even for peace on earth – are far too small. The hope of Advent is for Immanuel – God with us – to show up and be born in us.

When God shows up – in the Bible or in our lives – there is all sorts of crazy volatility. Things get messy. Stuff gets broken. Things happen. People are changed.

It’s a dangerous business. 

“‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’”

Even so, come.

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Two Cheers for Flip-Flopping

We’re all in sales.

The sales process isn’t necessarily concerned with transactions in goods for a fee or a commission. More broadly, it’s about convincing those you seek to convince and about gaining market share in your chosen endeavor. Writers try to sell readers. Lawyers try to sell clients, judges, and juries. Political candidates try to sell voters. 

Every political campaign, including the one recently ended, includes charges and counter-charges of “flip-flopping.” In essence, a flip-flopper is someone who doesn’t have solid convictions and thus changes positions to suit the politics of the moment.

Flip-flopping is generally seen as a very bad thing. We say we want our leaders to be tough, strong, and principled. We say we don’t want them to pander to us. But, even though we may admire a principled opponent, we aren’t likely to vote for one — which often leads to the temptation to engage in flip-flopping. 

We are generally “sold” on account of clarity — a position that is clearly stated and which seems to make sense — and conviction — the passionate confidence of the proponent. That’s good sales technique. Ask a question at a political “debate” and the responses (not answers) will generally be clear and passionate soundbites, perhaps tangentially related to the question.

On the other hand, we aren’t usually sold by humility and on positions that change based upon new evidence or better arguments, even though truth is very well served by them. For example, scientists and public health officials have often been criticized during the current pandemic for offering conflicting advice even though the virus is new, the information available is growing and changing rapidly, and treatment options and opportunities are being tried and adjusted all the time.

As per the scientific method, we should always hold our views of the truth lightly and tentatively, subject to more and better information and arguments. Flip-flopping for those reasons (as opposed to mere expediency) is a good, useful, and desirable thing. As Jeff Bezos of Amazon insightfully expressed it, people who are right a lot of the time are people who change their minds a lot.

Granted, political candidates aren’t generally known for their careful review of the facts and precedents. Neither are they often benefitted by changes in position, no matter how justified or nuanced (except for certain moves leftward, which don’t generally help conservatives at the ballot box but which may result in glowing profiles in The New York Times pontificating about how they have “grown”). But a flip-flop for good reasons should be applauded.

As Keynes rightly put it (maybe), “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”  So, here’s my (qualified) endorsement of flip-flopping. May we see more of it…for good and principled reasons.


I Changed My Mind

We are on the cusp of a remarkable medical, scientific, political, and logistical achievement. Earlier this week, a retired British shop clerk received the first injection of that country’s COVID-19 vaccination program, the start of an unprecedented global immunization effort that seems destined to provide a route out of a global pandemic that has killed 1.5 million people so far. Here in the USA, the Food and Drug Administration has confirmed the safety and efficacy of the same vaccine and given the green light for its use, with other treatments and vaccines available or on the horizon. Mass immunizations are set to begin here and around the world in the near future, bringing an end to the pandemic into view.

Despite increasing American opposition to the principle, from both sides of the political aisle, the apparent successes of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines that we expect to have injected in our arms shortly – from corporate leadership to investment to research and development to production and distribution – are a triumph of globalization

“Moderna vaccines rely less on a handful of government officials or any one nation than on the global flow of knowledge, capital, people, and goods — as well as the dense distribution networks and free-market policies facilitating those movements — that existed long before we’d ever heard of COVID-19.”

The data is/are clear. Globalization is a very good thing overall. It’s simple enough for a t-shirt. President Trump’s trade policies have been an economic failureFree trade works, which explains why the world as a whole keeps moving in that direction, the USA notwithstanding.

Globalization has political benefits, too. It can enhance global prosperity while reducing tension and conflict. It is absolutely the correct default approach and the right approach with the vast majority of the world. I used to think it was the best approach with China.

Not anymore. I believed, consistent with U.S. foreign policy pre-Trump, that with free trade, open markets, and a growing standard of living, China would inevitably, if slowly, become a freer and more pluralistic society. 

I was wrong.

There are plenty of moral reasons to question trade with or investing in China. The Chinese Communist Party has a long history of human rights violations including the quashing of dissent – now extended to Hong Kong, the persecution of Christians and other religious groups (most prominently the Uighurs), forced abortionsforced labor, a failure to honor cyber-espionage agreements, badly mishandling the coronavirus crisis, including badly misrepresenting the number of cases, and much more.

But these monumental failings, important though they are, were not needed to change my mind.

Our national security demands that we question continuing to trade so freely and so actively with China.

An important recent paper by the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff places the American rivalry with China and its belligerent nationalism at the center of American life and foreign policy. The CCP “primarily pursues the reconfiguration of world affairs” through its growing economic power. Notice what current Chinese leader Xi Jinping said in 2013. 

“Most importantly, we must concentrate our efforts on bettering our own affairs, continually broadening our comprehensive national power, improving the lives of our people, building a socialism that is superior to capitalism, and laying the foundation for a future where we will win the initiative and have the dominant position.”

The old way of looking at China — in which policymakers hoped that the CCP’s relative economic liberalization and the population’s increasing wealth would lead to political reform — is no longer tenable. There is overwhelming evidence of the CCP’s malevolent ambitions and actions, with no real evidence that the country, despite its growing economic clout, is on the verge of any sort of real political transformation. The CCP thinks virtues like constitutionalism and a free press are dangerous “viruses.”

China routinely takes extreme military actions in places like the South China Sea. It maintains access to the technology and information gathered by Chinese companies, which includes substantial information and data from American customers. The CCP has infiltrated American colleges and universities. For example, the chair of Harvard’s Chemistry Department was arrested earlier this year for aiding China. Earlier this week, Axios published a comprehensive investigation into a Chinese spy’s infiltration of California politicians from 2011 to 2015, most notably Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell, whose brief presidential bid last year went nowhere. That is surely anything but a one-off

China is the world's principal IP infringer and its intellectual property theft costs the U.S. economy as much as $500 billion per year. For example, in 2018, Chinese wind-turbine manufacturer Sinovel was found guilty of stealing trade secrets from American Superconductor and fined heavily, but the damage was done. The theft resulted in the U.S. company losing more than $1 billion in shareholder value and the loss of 700 jobs. Today, Sinovel sells wind turbines worldwide as if none of that had ever happened. 

The Trump administration, to its credit, recognized the reality and extent of the Chinese threat and, unlike previous administrations, has been willing to carry-out promised recriminations for Chinese malfeasance. To be clear, its policy responses were poorly considered and poorly implemented – the tariff policy was a disaster, for example – but at least it had the right idea.

Today, Europe, Australia, Japan, and India all recognize that China is a serious global threat striving for world dominance by illicit means. Reining China in will require a group effort and careful leadership. It will also come at a very significant cost – costs we have thus far been unwilling to pay. China provides both cheap goods and huge markets to American businesses. Despite a long list of dangerous actions and human rights abuses, the upside of engaging positively with China has been too powerful to overcome.

If global trade declines, everyone suffers, especially China. That is a cost we must be willing to pay if we’re going to have a chance at containing China’s longstanding efforts at world domination. If China is to be neutralized, we’re going to have to be willing to use everything at our disposal to do so, no matter how much we might dislike it. On China, I’m a flip-flopper.


Totally Worth It

It was the best thing I heard this week. Musicians from 50 countries affected by COVID-19 united to perform “Amazing Grace.” Singers from Wuhan, China, and Iran had their faces digitally obscured to protect them.

Here is the most important thing I read last week. The coolest thing. The most surreal. The most insightful. The most powerful. The most glorious. The most intriguing. The stupidest (although it was fixed and there was lots of stiff competition). The funniest. The coolest. The sweetest. The most selfless. The loveliest. The economics of living to 100. Christmas star. The most British thing ever. Senator Lamar Alexander playing Christmas carols in Russell HOB. “Everybody pitched in.”

Musicians from 55 countries combined to create a virtual “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”


Benediction

This week’s benediction is another song for Advent: “Hope Has a Name.”

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Issue 42 (December 11, 2020)