Mitchell’s Musings 8-21-2017: Miscellaneous Thoughts on the Past Week

18 Aug 2017 9:26 AM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 8-21-2017: Miscellaneous Thoughts on the Past Week

Daniel J.B. Mitchell

The past week was a mix of crises with first a conflict with North Korea that was overshadowed by violent demonstrations by neo (and not-so-neo) Nazis and others of that ilk in Charlottesville, VA and the president’s reaction. The first crisis involved negotiations – a topic of great interest to LERA, the organization that sponsors the EPRN website on which this blog appears. LERA members are particularly focused on collective bargaining, a form of negotiations. And the second crisis involves demographics, broadly defined, another LERA topic.

The Madman Theory of Negotiations

Let’s start with negotiations and North Korea, where a war of words (“words” is the important element here) was triggered by North Korea missile tests, and by concerns that North Korea might be able (now or soon) to put its nuclear weapons on its missiles and hit the U.S. mainland. (No one seems to notices that these weapons could, right now, and without further development of technology, be put on a ship and sailed near Hawaii or the West Coast.) The president, in response to the missile tests, issued a statement that was widely viewed as off-the-cuff, but appeared (to me) to be scripted, and from a script that implied a nuclear response from the U.S.:



An op ed in the Los Angeles Times by UCLA Law Professor Russell Korobkin (and therefore a faculty colleague of mine) made an argument that the threatening language from the president might have a better effect than more measured statements by previous administrations.[1] In effect, his argument was a variant of the “madman” theory that was said to be applied by President Nixon during the Vietnam War. Act irrationally, according to the theory, and you will scare your opponent with the idea that you might do something unthinkable. As the op ed put it:

As I tell students in my negotiation class, in hard-nosed, brass-knuckles bargaining, the crazy person wins because he can force a rational counterpart to make concessions in order to avoid mutual disaster. And no one does crazy like Trump.

…(T)he obvious danger of Trump facing off with Kim is precisely why rational Chinese leaders might reassess their nation’s long-standing approach and intervene more decisively. [Underline added]

Of course, anything “might” happen. But as fellow LERA members – who have a special interest in collective bargaining - will know, there is a credibility element to negotiations. When Nixon made threats, he was in the middle of a hot war (Vietnam) and in fact could and did order bombings, etc. In contrast, the Trump rhetorical threats were made without any tangible actions that would suggest preparations for military action. Troops were not called up. Ships were not moved. Dependents weren’t evacuated.

Moreover, the North Koreans and the Chinese, both of whom are said to be the target audience, are surely aware of low approval ratings for the president and of his inability to get major bills through Congress. Chinese President Xi Jinping has experience with Trump. He met with Trump and told him that China was no longer manipulating its currency – and Trump then declared it to be true, despite his earlier contrary campaign assertions. So the Chinese and the North Koreans may well read Trump as weak in tangible actions but blustery in words.

Further, at least in collective bargaining, the parties typically have decided on their key objectives before negotiations begin. They may incrementally change those goals as the process unfolds. But in the Trump case, his advisors at least seem not to be in agreement on where they are trying to go or how to get there. And these disagreements are being displayed in public.[2]

So there are many reasons to think that there is a missing element in the madman approach – and that is credibility. North Korea and China have good reason to believe that the verbal threats are not real and that what the president wants is to be praised within the U.S. for being tough and not made to look bad. In short, to use the madman approach, you have to show signs of really being a madman in action and not just rhetorically erratic.

All that seemed to result from the president’s rhetoric at this writing is that the North Koreans first added a new threat to Guam, and then said they would wait. And the president followed by saying the North Korean leader was “wise.” Is this back-and-forth really likely to change anyone’s fundamental behavior in North Korea or China? You can say it “might,” as the op ed does. But what are the probabilities? So far, they seem slight.

North Korea in fact has operated on the madman theory for years, both saying crazy things and doing crazy things. If North Korea and China judge Trump to be rhetorically a madman, but not tangibly a madman, and if he turns out to be both, the possibility of stumbling into a conflict will rise. In short, everything we know about negotiations suggests you should be nervous.


Firing At-Will Employees

Now let’s turn to Charlottesville and its aftermath. In a recent post on this blog, I discussed the termination of a Google employee who circulated a memo within the firm questioning its policies regarding diversity. He was fired when the memo became public. The theme of that post was that most private-sector employees are “at will,” and are not protected by union contracts or individual contracts that would require just cause for dismissal.[3]

One byproduct of the Charlottesville event was that, using photos available on the web, various folks tried to identify participants and “out” their identities. An employee of a hot-dog chain in the San Francisco area was so-identified and was then fired by his employer. Moreover, the employer posted signs about its action at its branches. You can be sure that an employee of a fast-food operation had no employment contract and wasn’t unionized. So the employer could have fired him for any reason or no reason. Even if there was doubt about the identification, he could have been fired. But posting public signs about an individual, particularly someone who was not otherwise a public figure, gets us into the realm of libel if the allegation proves not to be true.

As it turned out, the allegation on the hot-dog stand employee apparently was true. But there was another case in which someone was “identified” from a web photo as participating in the Nazi march, but the identification proved to be false. The individual in the meantime received threats, demands that he be fired, etc.[4] In short, employers would be well advised to be careful in responding to such cases, even for at-will employees, and should certainly not publicly endorse web-based allegations without assurance that they are true. Indeed, saying as little as possible would be appropriate: “An individual who has been linked on the web to [name the activity] is in fact not employed here.” There is no need to say more.


Hidden History Lessons

Another byproduct of the events at Charlottesville was the discovery and widespread circulation of a film originally made in 1943 by the War Department (and re-released in 1947 with footage of the defeat of Germany) titled “Don’t Be a Sucker.”[5] After showing a couple of unrelated scams victimizing unsuspecting “suckers,” the film turns to a fascist-type street-corner speaker in the U.S. who is condemning Negroes, foreigners, Catholics, and freemasons. One man on the street is at first taken in by the speaker until he mentions masons – because the listener is a mason. At that point, a Hungarian immigrant – now a U.S. citizen – sits down with the mason, and narrates a history of what happened in Germany.

While it’s interesting to look at the film’s message – and note its relevance for today – there is a bit of hidden history in the film that today’s viewers may not perceive. Although anti-Semitism in Germany is depicted in the film, it is shown as just one form of Nazi discrimination. And the street-corner speaker in the U.S. doesn’t mention it. Why is it downplayed?

Whoever made the film for the War Department was surely aware that prior to Pearl Harbor, there was a prominent charge being made by “America First” supporters who wanted to stay out of the war that Jews were dragging the U.S. into it. Perhaps the most prominent proponent of this view was aviator Charles Lindbergh. Three months before Pearl Harbor, he gave his famous speech in Des Moines, Iowa before a raucous crowd which, in the context of the War Department’s film, is worth listening to:

By the way, despite the film’s theme that we’re all Americans, you won’t find any reference to segregation in it (including segregation in the military). You won’t find any reference to the internment of West Coast Japanese-origin citizens and residents. Sometimes what is not said in a film is as significant as what is said.


Identity Politics

White House advisor Steve Bannon, in the wake of Charlottesville, called a reporter and gave a lengthy interview in which he derided white separatists as “losers,” and then gave his version of political strategy:

“The Democrats,” he said, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”[6]

You can disagree with his view. But now you know at least one influential opinion within the upper echelon of the administration. You might even note that encouraging the “losers” to demonstrate tends to lead opponents to “talk about racism every day.” Enough said.


Let’s hope next week, even with the eclipse on August 21, is less interesting.









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