Discover more from Letters from an American
May 5, 2023
Today’s job numbers came in higher than expected, with the U.S. adding 253,000 nonfarm jobs in April. Unemployment fell yet again, to 3.4%, matching a rate not seen since 1969. Black unemployment is at an all-time low of 4.7%. For Hispanics it’s 4.4%, and for Asian Americans, 2.8%. The rate for adult women is 3.1%. Average hourly wages rose 0.5%.
This good economic news didn’t come from nowhere. The Biden administration has focused on building infrastructure, bringing supply chains home, and bolstering new manufacturing. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act have invested in workers.
At the same time, the administration has taken measures to claw back some of the power the country has ceded to business leaders over the past decades. It has taken steps to promote competition, including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s negotiation of a global minimum corporate tax to stop nations from racing to attract investment by cutting taxes, and the Justice Department’s enforcement of antitrust laws, which has led to a number of directors resigning from interlocking boards.
The Federal Trade Commission has proposed a ban on noncompete agreements, which prevent people from moving from job to job. The FTC estimates that getting rid of the agreements would increase wages by nearly $300 billion per year and enable about 30 million Americans to move to better jobs.
Biden’s approach to governance is not just a change in policy from the past forty years. It is a demonstration of the tedious, hard, incremental work of moving the ball forward in a modern democracy.
The extraordinary work that goes into governance showed last night in a keynote address National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan gave on the administration's approach to Middle East affairs at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Moving away from the nation's previous tight focus on terrorism, Sullivan emphasized a theme that the Biden administration has highlighted since the president took office: “the integration of foreign policy and domestic policy.”
Sullivan emphasized that the administration's template for foreign affairs is “realistic and pragmatic” but also “ambitious and optimistic about [what] the United States and our allies can achieve together over time.” The administration's new framework for U.S. engagement in the Middle East, he said, “is built on five basic elements: partnerships, deterrence, diplomacy and de-escalation, integration, and values.”
Over the past two years, the U.S. has strengthened partnerships in the Middle East with “strategic dialogues, high-level visits—including two presidential visits—exchanges, and over 200 military exercises,” and it continues to strengthen ties between allies. It has deterred violence through counterstrikes but prefers to rely on diplomacy and de-escalation of tensions. “[E]very day, we are plugging away at proactive and creative diplomacy across the Middle East region,” Sullivan said.
Most notably, the administration helped to end the war in Yemen by setting the terms for a truce mediated by the United Nations. That truce has held—so far—for fourteen months. “Humanitarian aid and fuel are flowing through Yemen’s ports, the civilian airport in Sanaa has reopened, and the parties are actively in discussions on a roadmap to ultimately bring this war to an end.”
Sullivan said that the administration is working to help countries in the Middle East integrate into an interconnected region, and finally, he talked about values. “Just as we always strive to perfect our own democracy at home, we will always raise concerns regarding human rights and fundamental freedoms in our engagements around the world, including in the Middle East,” he said.
Sullivan noted that U.S. values include women's rights and the ability to criticize leaders without fear. Enabling populations to unleash their full potential means religious tolerance and protection of minorities. It means pressure on other countries to acknowledge freedom, and it means remaining a key source of humanitarian aid.
As if in illustration of regional partnerships, today Saudi Arabia and the United States issued a joint statement on the start of talks between the warring parties in Sudan. The statement emphasized regional alliances, noting: “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States…would like to stress the efforts of the countries and organizations which supported these talks, including Quad countries (The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, The United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States), the League of Arab States, and partners from the Trilateral Mechanism (UNITAMS [U.N. Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan], the African Union, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development).”
The careful cultivation of allies and complicated pressures enabled Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to pull together an international coalition to stand against Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine. The pressure of that coalition appears to be helping Ukrainian forces undermine Russia: today, in one of a series of videos, the leader of the mercenary Wagner Group that has been fighting for Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin, expressed fury at the Kremlin for leaving his men without supplies and vowed to leave the key city of Bakhmut on May 10. Standing surrounded by corpses, he raged: “Those are soldiers we lost today. Their blood is still fresh…. They were someone’s sons or fathers. You, f*ckers, who don’t give us ammo, will burn in hell.”
Prigozhin could simply be jockeying for power, but a less ambiguous sign that Russia is in trouble is that Belarus has set up new border controls for Russians trying to enter their borders.
The slow, careful work of governance undertaken by the Biden administration is a very different thing than what is offered by members of a party whose goal for forty years was to slash government and to use the military to make the world conform to U.S. goals, and whose goal now seems to be to ram through minority rule without bothering to follow the laws.
When asked about Iran’s attempt to develop a nuclear weapon, Sullivan implicitly criticized the impulsivity of the previous president, who abruptly pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear capabilities. “[T]he best way to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon is an effective agreement that stops them from getting a nuclear weapon,” he said. He continued: “I regard the decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA, without anything to replace it or any strategy to deal with it other than the imposition of sanctions—which we have continued and added to actually,” with concern.
Today, Mississippi governor Tate Reeves illustrated the Republicans’ simplistic approach to governance when he announced his reelection campaign with a 12-second campaign video of his face superimposed on cowboy actor Clint Eastwood, shooting at Mexican “bandits.” The imagery tied directly into the history of the modern-day Republican Party, which rose on the image of the cowboy who would cut through the “socialism” of a government that used tax money to keep the playing field level and restore individual men to power.
But that was always just an image, and now, shown up against the reality of the complicated and hard work of governance, it has become cartoonish.