Socialism? Seriously? I take my cue from my years in Vietnam.

I’m sorry, but I can’t take socialism seriously. Blame it on my ten years living in Vietnam when I received a first-hand lesson of what socialism really is and what it really does.

And what it doesn’t do.

The political left in America is giddy with idealistic hope that the dawn of the Democratic Socialist United States of America is right around the corner.

I have to laugh. Poor JFK must be doing some serious flips in his grave. Same with FDR. They might have to rename his hometown to Hide Park instead of Hyde Park by the fact he would hide in embarrassment from these people espousing the death of capitalism, mostly from his own party! It’s ironic that I point out FDR because he was the most socialist president – in terms of nationalizing the state’s economy – America ever had. But he was, thankfully, no Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Cortez, the new poster child for the Bernie Sander’s democratic socialist bandwagon, says that capitalism will not always exist.

Let’s hope that isn’t true.

Let me backpedal just a moment in case you think I’m trying to be political here. I am not. I have my personal political beliefs, of course, but I greatly respect other points of view. I am a strong proponent of rigorous debate between both sides of the political aisle. One of the greatest features of America is its pluralism, which pushes us to consider new ideas while defending our own points of view.  No one party has the exclusive claim on truth or good ideas. I hope any two Americans could easily agree with that statement.

Furthermore, every country uses socialism to one degree or another.  FDR, of course, introduced social security in the 1930s as a means of taking care of the nation’s elderly. It was the state mandating people to pay a portion of their earnings to the government so that the government would manage it and distribute it back to retirees. We don’t need to get into a debate about how well it works, but it has been functioning successfully for 80 years. My parents have been using social security benefits as a key means of income during their retirement. In addition, the U.S. has long used Public Utilities as a means to expand access to electricity and water systems throughout the US. Public Utilities continue to be a bedrock of American energy management.

Government control of certain parts of society is good. Needed. Even desirable at times. Governments, when well-managed, can achieve things that private citizens mainly cannot. (Now this wasn’t always the case. If you need a historical case study, look up J.P. Morgan or JD Rockefeller.) There’s a small community about 25 miles north of New York City where the local government decided to create a gorgeous park around a lake. It has a raised walking path which creates a stunning setting and a terrific place for the entire community to come together and enjoy the outdoors. This is an example of government at its best. Seeing a need and creating something for the community, through tax dollars, that gives citizens tangible benefits. Every government will take at least a part of the nation’s economy and manage it directly.  How much control should the government have? It’s clearly a debatable point.

I say all of this to clarify that I not hear to bash the need for a functioning government. We all need governance, but there should be a healthy, on-going debate about its role and how much of the economy, and what part of the economy, it should have control over.  After all, it will never be zero, nor should it be.

But what I’m hearing from the far-left is a departure of the America of the past. The death of capitalism? Really? You sure you want to go there? What would take its place? Government control over the entire economy? (As a side note, look into Elizabeth Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act. A proposal for the government to have direct input (control?) over companies worth over a billion dollars.)

And this brings me back to Vietnam.

I arrived in Vietnam to teach English in August of 1994, just a few months after the US lifted the trade embargo against Hanoi. That was 19 years after the fall of Saigon. Thirty years after LBJ ramped up US involvement in the Vietnam War. In 1994, Vietnam was dirt poor. A GDP of barely a $1000 per capita. I arrived in Haiphong, a city near the coast due east of the capital, and everyone I met worked hard to make ends meet. There were very few foreign products — no Coca-Cola besides an occasional flat bottle brought in from China. Westerners were still referred to as “Lien Xo” – Soviets, because since 1979 nearly any expat in the country was Russian. I was apprehensive about being there, not completely sure how a young American man would be viewed. But I can’t tell you how many times I saw the faces of the Vietnamese I met light up when they heard I was a “Nguoi My” – an American. They would smile from ear to ear and put their finger in the air and say “America number 1.” I was shocked, actually. And so very welcomed into their community.

Why was America number 1 in their eyes? I came from a country, after all, that spent billions of dollars and many years fighting against the communists in Vietnam. (And remember, I was living in the communist north – no sympathetic Saigonese there.) But America was number 1? Why?

Simple. An enviable economy. America had built themselves into a superpower through decades of innovation and economic achievement. That’s what the Vietnamese people I met those years wanted. They wanted opportunities to work for a better future. They wanted opportunities to have “luxury” items they could never afford. A bicycle. A washing machine. Dare they dream- a motorbike? A reliable food supply. Consumer products like toothpaste and soap and laundry detergent. In 1994, when I arrived, Vietnam was just beginning to awaken from nearly twenty years of a post war economy driven by what? Socialism.

If you visited Vietnam today, you’d hardly recognize it. The country is engulfed by commercialism, entrepreneurship, and dare I say it? Capitalism.

What happened?

Over the first several years of living in Vietnam, I came to learn a phrase which was frequently used, “thoi bao cap.” A literal translation is something like “the time period when the government supplied everything.” That sounds kind of frightening, doesn’t it? This phrase was always, and I mean always, followed by another phrase “ghe lam,” which means “truly miserable.”

As I lived there and delved into their history and listened to their stories, I began to understand how miserable that time really was. Here are a few examples:

  • During “thoi bao cap,” if you happened to be rich enough to own a bicycle, you might be stopped and harassed by the police. Why? Because they would want to know how you had enough money to own a bicycle.  It was that rare. Poverty was the expectation.
  • During “thoi bao cap,” Vietnam did not grow enough rice to feed its own people. There were bouts of famine in the countryside. The government imported low quality grain from eastern Europe to try and make up the difference. Can you imagine a Vietnamese meal without rice? My friends and neighbors didn’t have to imagine. They lived through it, telling me how truly insufferable this grain was. But they had no choice to eat it because there wasn’t enough rice. (My first thought was how in the world could there not be enough rice ? Have you been to Vietnam? Have you seen the expansive rice fields? Hello, what about the Mekong Delta? What’s going on?)
  • During “thoi bao cap” each family would line up and wait for hours to receive their monthly rations from the state run stores. It was referred to as “the brick years” named for the people who would write their names on a brick and place it on the ground to reserve their spot in line at the state stores so they wouldn’t have to stand for hours on end. Of course the stores had no supplies and the amount of food and goods received was extremely paltry. There were no other options. No corner stores. No “pho” stalls on the evening streets. No shops or markets. They lived on the basics of basics.
  • During “thoi bao cap: if a family was lucky enough to raise a few chickens, and if they were lucky enough to slaughter one in order to have a luxurious chicken dinner, they would shut their house up as tight as possible and eat in the back, hoping no one would smell it and then question where the meat came from.

There are many more examples, but I think this illustrates the point of how poor Vietnam was throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s.

What changed? Cause this is not the Vietnam you will experience today if you travel there. (And you should.)

The answer is simple. Vietnam slowly allowed elements of capitalism to creep into their economy. Once it starts, good luck stopping it.

Wait a minute. A communist government that allows capitalism? (Have you ever wondered what has made China rich today? It wasn’t their unyielding grasp on Maxist-Leninism.)

Famed North Vietnamese General Nguyen Vo Giap even said that a socialistic society needs capitalism (he said for a time) in order to build its economy. Hmmm, I wonder if the Vietnamese themselves have had enough time. It’s 2018 now. Are they ready to go back to “thoi bao cap?”

And here, to me, is the proof in the pudding. Or the water in the rice paddy.

Both Vietnam and China have followed the same model. Renovation. And when it came to economics, that meant giving the individual more control over their own personal economic activity. Allowing the citizens to innovate and create things which previously didn’t exist. It’s called capitalism, and it has pulled millions of people out of desperate poverty in a relatively short amount of time.

Remember the years when Vietnam couldn’t grow enough rice to feed its citizens? Well, in the 1980s, the government changed their policies. For the first time under their communist government, farmers could keep their own products once they had fulfilled their yearly government quotas. Well, can you guess what happened? The farmers suddenly had incentive to grow more rice and more vegetables and more everything. The surplus could be used to sell in the local markets, to feed local families, to help increase their monthly income. An increased income meant they had money to spend on consumer products which in turn created a market for yet more consumer products. This is capitalism 101. Even working under the strict economic constraints of a socialist government, capitalism proved to be an amazing force to combat poverty.

Capitalism isn’t a cure-all. It has its weaknesses. It has its excesses.  But of all economic systems and theories, what’s better at giving people freedom to achieve their goals and reach their potential? As Milton Friedman said long ago on the Phil Donahue Show:

” … the record of history is absolutely crystal clear, that there is no alternative way so far discovered of improving the lot of the ordinary people that can hold a candle to the productive activities that are unleashed by the free-enterprise system.”

So, I’m sorry. I can’t take this thought of “killing capitalism” seriously because the results would be catastrophic.

And that’s my opinion based on my years living in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

What are your thoughts?

 

 

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Did you know this? Happy Fourth of July

Independence day is one of America’s most celebrated and enjoyable days. From picnics to fire works to family fame, it’s hard to beat for summer fun. Here are a few fun facts which you may not have known about July 4.

Did you know?

Our Founding Fathers didn’t declare independence on July 4, 1776.  They declared independence on July 2, 1776.

Then what happened on July 4? The text of the declaration was finally approved by Congress that day.  It wasn’t actually signed until August 2, 1776.

Did you know?

Two of our founding father’s died exactly 50 years to the day of our first independence day – that being July 4, 1826. Do you know who they were? Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. I don’t know who planned that, but that’s pretty cool.

Did you know?

On September 2, 1945, when Ho Chi Minh read Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence from the French, he quoted Jefferson’s America’s declaration “all men are created equal endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights …” as a means of pleasing a group of American observers who were in the crowd that day in Hanoi. As a strange note in history, an American reconnaissance plane was flying over Hanoi during the declaration and swooped down to take a closer look at what was happening. Many in the crowd saw the American plane and cheered, taking it as a show of support for their independence. But no, it was just a coincidence, and after another week, American ships were ferrying French soldiers back into Indochina so they could retake their pre-WWII possessions. But that’s a story of independence for another day.

Did you know?

Thomas Jefferson did not write every single word of the declaration. Certain parts were slightly edited by other founders who wanted to tweak it this way or that. An example of this is the phrase “endowed by their Creator,” a phrase not in the original text but added anyways much to the chagrin of Jefferson.

Did you know?

The Statue of Liberty was gifted to the United States by France in 1876 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of our independence.

Have you read the declaration lately? You should. It’s a clear indication of what our Founding Father’s thought our new country should be all about.

Enjoy the freedom and independence we enjoy because these brave men and many other brave men and women through the years who fought to preserve it. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Reagan quotes:

“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”

Happy Independence Day everyone!

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Visiting Arlington Makes One Remember

Arlington National Cemetery is a solemn and sobering place. There are many picturesque sites, and I spent the morning yesterday wandering around on a terrifically sunny and blue-sky-day to enjoy the scenery. Enjoy, perhaps, isn’t the correct word. One can enjoy a walk in the sun, but how does one enjoy a walk through a cemetery like Arlington. So many thoughts, both past and present. So much gravitas.

Think about the number of prayers represented by the thousands of graves neatly aligned throughout the rolling hillside. How many women stood with their aprons on, washing dishing, looking out their kitchen windows, trying to get a mental glimpse of husbands and sons, neighbors and cousins, who were fighting over there. How many sleepless nights, how many wiped tears, how many mental breakdowns are represented by each of those white stone markers? The fortitude needed to carry-on on the homefront is represented well here. The amount is tremendous.

Most of the gravesites in Arlington are the same. This is a terrible injustice, not the commemoration, though, that is done well. It’s only an injustice because there simply was no tangible way to make the young men and women who sacrificed their lives or gave their time a monument to show their differences. You cannot clad a personality on a gravestone. Not in Arlington. And so in death, they rest peacefully in uniformity, and that is perhaps how they would most like it, buried with their comrades, shoulder to shoulder, bound together with a common purpose, a mutual goal, an understanding of what must take place to preserve the country back home they hold so dear.

Your sacrifices are not forgotten. This cemetery stands as a national remembrance of what it is that we collectively stand for. Each white-washed stone adds to the chorus of the past which pleads with us today to not forget the battles fought, the lessons learned, the courage expended, the freedom preserved. Each one beseeches the powers that be and the people on main street to look past what divides us and remember the heart of Arlington which unites us all. The commonality must be stronger than the division or we as a nation will waft in whatever prevailing political wind happens to be in town across the Potomac. We’ll be left adrift without a moral compass to guide us and not a soul to pity us.

Great Hanoi (& Haiphong) Rat Massacre

I ran across this fascinating article a while back which I wanted to share. It’s about the great Hanoi rat massacre during the time of French colonialism. I don’t want to spoil the entire article because it’s a great read, but the crux of it gets to the amazing entrepreneurial spirit of the Vietnamese people. The French colonial administration wanted to address the growing rat population within the underground sewer systems of Hanoi. The modern sewer system was meant to civilize things in the capital of Tonkin, their crown jewel of a colony. But the idea of increasing sanitation backfired when the rats soon discovered that the drains and sewers were perfect places to live, thrive, and have baby rats. The rat infestation became unbearable until the French administration came up with a brilliant idea: pay Hanoi residents for dead rats. This sent a rash of rat hunters into the sewers in search of the critters. They only had to turn in the rat tails. The French had no desire to have to deal with actual rat bodies. So each tail turned in would yield a monetary reward. But the clever Vietnamese saw an opportunity. Killing the rats would actually diminish their ability to make money off of killing rats. So what was the solution? Simple and brilliant. Cut off the tails, turn them in, but don’t kill the rats. Soon the city was infested with tail-less rats who could still reproduce to have more rats. This was French planning at its worse. Read the entire article at the link:

Great Hanoi Rat Massacre

I can’t think about rats in Vietnam without remembering what our team-teaching colleague did for us during our third year teaching in Haiphong in 1997. My second daughter was just born in a hospital in Thailand. We spent six weeks there preparing for the baby’s arrival. We lived in a small shared apartment at the Maritime University with our teammate, Joe. The living quarters were Spartan, to say the least. Actually, they were not very nice in accordance with western standards, but we did our best to make it a home for us. Joe also had been in Thailand for a conference, and he headed home first before our return with our newborn child. When he arrived and entered the kitchen, it was as if a war zone had manifested itself in our living space. Trash and chewed-up food stuff was scattered all over. Tupperware and storage containers had been chewed through. Rat poop was all over the place. The citadel had fallen. The rats had taken over.

But Joe, being the incredible guy that he was, wasn’t going to allow the place to be infested with rodents with our newborn baby on the way. He got to work. He set traps. He laid down poison. He physically beat rats, chasing them with a stick. All in all, he killed nine of them in our kitchen, if my memory serves me correctly. He threw out all infested items and bleached and cleaned the dingy tile until it was about as clean as it was ever going to get. We arrived home to a spic-n-span apartment. A sterile and safe place for our child. When he told the tale of what had happened, we knew that the great rat massacre of 1997 had occurred, and we were blessed to have such a caring teammate to live with.

Thank you, Joe. And thanks also for not saving the tails for me.

We Need More Booker T. Washington

As a history teacher, I made sure to excerpts from Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, “Up From Slavery,” into the curriculum. It is of course a fascinating and enlightening study of one boy’s rise out of slavery to become one of the foremost scholars and respected leaders in American history. Now his views did not come about without criticism. One must read W.E.B. Du Bois and his criticisms of Washington to get a well-rounded view that the black community of the turn of the 20th century was not a monolithic one. But nonetheless, Washington’s insight is unique and even timely in this day and age. Here is a public domain excerpt of chapter 6 of his autobiography. It’s a fascinating view of how blacks and native Americans mixed shortly after the end of the Civil War. Thoughts?

from chapter 6 “Up from Slavery” by Booker T. Washington:

On going to Hampton, I took up my residence in a building with about seventy-five Indian youths. I was the only person in the building who was not a member of their race. At first I had a good deal of doubt about my ability to succeed. I knew that the average Indian felt himself above the white man, and, of course, he felt himself far above the Negro, largely on account of the fact of the Negro having submitted to slavery – a thing which the Indian would never do. The Indians, in the Indian Territory, owned a large number of slaves during the days of slavery. Aside from this, there was a general feeling that the attempt to educate and civilize the red men at Hampton would be a failure. All this made me proceed very cautiously, for I felt keenly the great responsibility. But I was determined to succeed. It was not long before I had the complete confidence of the Indians, and not only this, but I think I am safe in saying that I had their love and respect. I found that they were about like any other human beings; that they responded to kind treatment and resented ill-treatment. They were continually planning to do something that would add to my happiness and comfort. The things that they disliked most, I think, were to have their long hair cut, to give up wearing their blankets, and to cease smoking; but no white American ever thinks that any other race is wholly civilized until he wears the white man’s clothes, eats the white man’s food, speaks the white man’s language, and professes the white man’s religion.

Facebook Fatigue

I used to love Facebook.

But as I’m sure you’ve noticed, its become toxic.

Why can’t we be friends without discussing politics? Please, add as many cat memes as possible, but is it really the place to be discussing immigration policy?

And yet, I find myself commenting on any number of threads. I cannot not comment. Especially after I sine the inane comments, the misinformation, the outright falsehoods, and the mystifying beliefs which are not based on any facts whatsoever.

Or at least that’s from my own point of view. And everyone else has their own point of view. A billion points of view which are based and shaped by those other billion people turn out to be not so helpful after all.

And so I wonder why I continue to be a Facebook warrior. Why can’t I let people wallow in their own incompetence. I’m sure they let me wallow in mine. Why can’t I let a snide comment go? Why do I have to add to the toxic environment? Why do I insist on mindlessly scrolling through everyone else’s political comments knowing I’ll simply think they are idiots. (as they think the same as me) Why? Why? Why?

The better question is: why don’t I quit Facebook?

I do wish someone would pay me to be a truth warrior on Facebook, countering every false meme and ridiculous comments with obnoxious statements based on fact and actual research. I could spend a year on my own newsfeed countering the misinformation. Anyone want to sponsor me? $50,000 should do it. I will make you proud. I’ll produce quotes, facts, laws, research, history, and common sense to defend those who blast against the decency of truth. I’ll do it. I have a computer and I’m willing to use it.

Facebook has put me on the edge. But I’m not likely to jump anytime soon. I’ll probably keep my scrolling habits in place. Unfortunately.

Facebook fatigue is a real thing. And I live there.

 

Trump’s Order on Immigration: Constitutional or Not?

Trump’s executive order on immigration has set the Internet afire in a dizzying array of memes and vitriolic rants about the president’s bold actions. Those who are dishonest will call it a “Muslim ban” predicated on religion. Of course, that’s absurd for those who actually read the executive order. On the other side,  Trump’s supporters defend all his actions in the name of national security. Well, I’m hoping I can cut through the emotion in this order and take a closer look to see if this executive action will pass the constitutional muster.

The order does several things, mainly suspending the refugee immigration program for 120 days and banning immigration from seven countries for 90 days until procedures and protocols for extreme vetting can be verified to the administration’s satisfaction. These are not unprecedented actions as other presidents have temporarily suspended immigration from certain  countries over the years. The New York Times has called the order unconstitutional on the grounds of a 1965 law which prohibits immigration discrimination from specific countries. But the NYT has not been known to look at nuances in regards to issues it doesn’t agree with, so take their view with a grain of salt.

Where this issue becomes interesting and problematic for Trump is in regards to the widely reported detention of certain immigrants or travelers, if you will, from the stated seven countries who had previously been granted visas. A federal judge in New York has ruled that their rights have possibly been violated. The judge may have a point, even a constitutional one. There’s one constitutional clause which prohibits Congress from enacting any law retroactively. That is, if it passes a new tax law today, they can’t say it’s effective starting January of 2016. That would be unconstitutional. Likewise, a logical argument could be made that executive orders are bound by the same principle, and therefore, by extension, anyone granted a visa prior to the issuing of the order would not be affected by the order.

However, this too is problematic, because the executive branch has been given a lot of leeway in regards to  national security.  It can terminate the visa of anyone at any moment if they feel that person poses a threat to security. So what’s not clear, and what the courts may have to sort out is at what point is a blanket order like this valid in regards to those previously given the green light into the country?

On Saturday night, a spokesperson from the Department of Homeland Security stated that green card holders from those seven countries were not being stopped by immigration. If that is indeed the case, that would be a smart move by the Trump administration. I do not know what rules the DHS were given in carrying out this order, but it does seem to be a little haphazard at this time, which is never a good thing in the age of Twitter. And when that happens, unfortunately, innocent people get caught in the middle.

I think it’s clear that Trump has the authority to block entry into the US based upon national security interests, even if it targets certain countries. It is also clear that the courts have leeway to curtail and adapt that order based upon legal precedent and constitutional law.

Of course, people have to make up their own mind whether or not they agree with the president’s actions. I think, however, we can all agree that Trump’s presidency is not lacking in the controversy category.