The Conversation

Readers respond to our July/August 2017 cover story and more.

Neutralizing North Korea

In the July/August cover story, Mark Bowden examined the United States’ choices for dealing with “The Worst Problem on Earth”—a nuclear-armed North Korea. He laid out four options: a full-scale military strike, a limited strike, removal of Kim Jong Un from power, and “acceptance.”

Mark Bowden’s thoughtful article presents four equally ill-fated postures the U.S. might adopt toward North Korea, but fails to consider a fifth possibility: removing the thorn.
The Kim dynasty has justified its insane military escalation by convincing the people of North Korea that the U.S. is determined to invade. And we provide all the evidence he requires: For decades, the U.S. has supplied the bulk of non-Korean United Nations forces on the peninsula. About 30,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors, and airmen are on constant alert; we garrison countless anti-aircraft batteries; we operate massive Air Force bases just dozens of miles from the border. In short, we validate the “looming threat” that Kim Jong Un warns his people about.
When the Korean War broke out, in 1950, South Korea was an impoverished nation reeling from the ravages of World War II. Sixty-seven years later, South Korea boasts a thriving economy and can easily afford a robust military. Yet U.S. taxpayers still bankroll 60 percent of the cost of the Pentagon’s 1950 scenario: thousands of steely-eyed GIs poised to repel the relentless horde of bayonet-wielding North Koreans swarming across the DMZ. But as Bowden chillingly describes, the reality of renewed aggression would be vastly different.
The U.S. military would have us believe that our troops are essential to preventing Kim from invading. But to Kim, our very presence on the peninsula represents the tip of a spear pointed directly at him.
So if our presence in South Korea is the thorn in North Korea’s side, let’s pull it out. Let South Korea man the trenches. The looming threat would no longer exist. Then we should encourage North Korea to curtail its (no longer necessary) weapons program and open a dialogue with its neighbor to the south.
We would still respect our UN obligation, but from a distance—making it clear that our response to aggression against South Korea would be immediate, nuclear, and final.
Continuing to invest American blood and treasure in a never-ending stalemate is not in our national interests.
Charles Bednar
Oakhurst, Calif.

Somehow all the experts Mark Bowden consulted missed the fifth and best alternative: withdrawal and disengagement.
We should immediately announce our withdrawal from the mutual-defense treaty with South Korea and remove our troops. We should also commit ourselves to the eventual peaceful reunification of the peninsula and sign an agreement that the Korean War is indeed over. This would immediately de-escalate the conflict, discombobulate the North Koreans, and remove the issue from our problem list. It may still be a problem for the South Koreans, but they’ve clearly indicated that they’d rather handle it themselves via negotiations and dialogue.
Our troop presence inflames the conflict and gives the North Koreans a plausible reason in their minds to prepare for war with us. Since Bowden claims that the South Koreans could beat the North in a lopsided conventional war, why keep the troops there? To protect the South Koreans from the Chinese and the Russians, who would join in the North’s invasion?
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The key to the withdrawal-and-disengagement policy is the recognition that after 64 years—surprise—the environment has changed. If the U.S. hadn’t been the South’s military guarantor in the 1950s and ’60s, the North very well may have invaded, imposed Communism on the South, and won the war. However, the South Koreans have won the peace. Do Bowden and his experts really think that the North would initiate a war, win it, and then dominate the South, which has twice the population, 20 times the GDP per capita, an obviously more sophisticated society, and visible physical size differences?
Bowden somehow thinks even acceptance would be a bad option, as he describes the horrible specter of Kim potentially negotiating from strength and forcing a confederation with the South that would remove U.S. troops. But given that South Korean President Moon Jae-in wants something similar and that there is no sign of panic in Seoul, why is this a problem at all? The fact that our “experts” don’t put walking away as an option in the top four but do include decapitation strikes and military/rebuilding efforts with the same scope as the original Korean War is alarming.
Jim Hemenway
Niwot, Colo.

This article illustrates beautifully the foolish, narcissistic nature of U.S. foreign policy and the neocon thinking that underlies it. Writing from the safety and comfort of the United States, a country responsible for untold misery in Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, and various other countries, the author is spectacularly oblivious to the chaos we have wrought. Can North Korea be stopped? Who, please explain, have the North Koreans bombed, invaded, or otherwise injured? What has North Korea done other than ignore the increasingly shrill and hysterical demands of the United States that it disarm unilaterally? The arrogance and sheer self-righteousness of our interventionist foreign policy are on stunning display.
If any nation today needs stopping, it is the United States. People all over the world will breathe a sigh of relief if and when the United States behaves as it expects others to behave.
Jonathan Moses
Oregon City, Ore.

Mark Bowden replies:

I would place the approaches suggested by Charles Bednar, Jim Hemenway, and Jonathan Moses in the broad category of “acceptance,” which was presented as the least bad of four bad options. All three readers suggest we accept the fact that North Korea will, without radically changing direction, soon be armed with nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. In response to Moses’s question, “Who … have the North Koreans bombed, invaded, or otherwise injured?,” the answer is South Korea, which they invaded in 1950 and bombed in 2010 (Yeonpyeong Island). They also sank the South Korean warship Cheonan with a torpedo in 2010, killing 46 crew members.

The Democrats’ Immigration Policy

In the July/August issue, Peter Beinart advised the Democratic Party to stop emphasizing diversity over national unity (“The Democrats’ Immigration Mistake”).
Lincoln Agnew

Peter Beinart suggests that we need to coddle native-born Americans who fear diversity. By saying that immigrants need to assimilate further and learn English more quickly, Beinart implies that we should concede to the anxieties that native-born folks have about people who “don’t look or talk like them.” He does not explore the reasons immigrants are acquiring English at slower rates. Work hours are changing and becoming increasingly difficult to predict for low-wage earners. How could one possibly enroll in a class if one’s schedule is constantly in flux? And that is just one possibility for why people are acquiring English at slower rates. If native-born folks feel no affinity toward people who do not look or speak like them, they are less likely to want to live near them, making it less necessary for immigrants to master the language.
If greater diversity makes Americans less charitable, then the problem is not immigration but the xenophobia embedded in the American psyche. This article is an excuse for those unwilling to cope with unfamiliarity.
Gloribel Rivas
Boston, Mass.

Excellent article. I’d say it’s also worth noting that Democrats may have made a tactical error in how the debate was even framed. In the previous election cycle, an attempt was made to call out any reticence toward blanket amnesty as the equivalent of racism. The logic was that anti-illegal-immigration sentiment is the same as being anti-immigrant, which in turn is covert xenophobia. Unfortunately, that argument doesn’t hold water with Trump supporters.
Many conservatives disagree that people here without permission possess an unalienable right to reside in the country. Conservatives see the current situation as being a result of personal—and ostensibly preventable—actions and choices. The prospective immigrant (outside of asylum seekers) chooses whether or not to break the law, they argue. As such, any consequences resulting from said action are due to poor decision making rather than the racism of U.S. citizens.
Progressives might be better served by addressing that viewpoint head on and eschewing clarion calls of xenophobia in favor of a frank and honest debate on how an immigration system ought to work. Whom should it benefit? How should prospective immigrants be selected? What effective enforcement measures are appropriate?
Gbadebo A.
(Residence withheld by request)

Beinart’s policy argument is that liberals have given short shrift to the costs of immigration, especially the economic ramifications. He’s mistaken. If anything, Democrats are too hesitant about noting the enormous economic benefits immigration brings to most Americans, and certainly to immigrants themselves …
But Beinart’s political argument is disconnected from this narrative of immigration battering the working classes. He doesn’t argue that Democrats should turn against immigration because doing so helps native workers. He instead claims that they “must take seriously Americans’ yearning for social cohesion” and “[dust] off a concept many on the left currently hate: assimilation.”
The idea that the U.S. has gotten worse at assimilating new immigrants, though, is unfounded …
Beinart’s concern about public opinion more generally is also odd, given that Americans have become more pro-immigration, not less, in recent decades.
Let’s suppose for a second that Beinart is right, and this pro-immigration American public would nonetheless like Democrats to be less pro-immigration. For one thing, maybe this is a sincere desire of white voters without college degrees in states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, who Democrats likely need to win over to retake the Senate and who remain important in the electoral college.
What policies should Democrats then champion? Here’s Beinart’s proposed agenda: a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants; no guest-worker programs; promoting English learning among immigrants; tough enforcement of companies that hire undocumented immigrants.
The first item is smart, and promoting English is benign enough, I suppose …
But the other two provisos are just code words for limiting immigration, period.
Calling for enforcement that punishes companies that hire undocumented immigrants, rather than the immigrants themselves, is a cruel sleight of hand. If you’re an undocumented immigrant working in a good job—maybe as a domestic-care worker in a welcoming household, or for a compassionate boss at a restaurant—and your job gets taken away due to the enforcement of this provision, are you really being held harmless? Or is the government denying you your livelihood in service of upholding a manifestly unjust law?

Almost 63 million people voted freely for a presidential candidate who openly bragged about committing sexual assault, mocked a disabled reporter, incited violence at his rallies, and supported the creation of a Muslim registry (among other racist, sexist, and cultural offenses too numerous to list here). I find it very hard to believe Peter Beinart’s suggestion that a mere alteration to Hillary Clinton’s stance on immigration would have put her in the White House. The United States is more racist, sexist, and isolationist than most liberals could have imagined, and to lay the blame on individual campaign issues is to put your fingers in your ears and block out reality.
Deepti Limaye
Toronto, Ontario

Can the Democrats Win Again?

Yes, says Franklin Foer—by learning how to appeal to the white working class (“What’s Wrong With the Democrats?,” July/August).
Jamie Chung

Franklin Foer is very insightful about why the Democratic Party is still wandering in the wilderness. But when he pivots to possible solutions, Foer, like almost every other commentator and Democratic official, focuses on what messages will help Democrats win the next election cycle. How about actually solving the problem that led to Trump’s victory—the long-term structural shift in our economy that has now reached a tipping point?
For most of a century, a strong manufacturing sector made it possible for anyone with good hands and a decent work ethic to live with dignity—own a home, send their kids to college, and hold their heads high as productive citizens. For too many Americans, this is no longer true. To succeed in today’s knowledge and innovation economy, you need a college degree (or more) and a willingness to migrate to the mostly coastal cities where the new economy is blossoming. Those left behind—a big chunk of the electorate—are so angry and disaffected that they’re willing to blow up the entire system until something changes.
Trump is all about messaging. He dominates every news cycle but has no real solutions, so he’s left the field open to Democrats to sow the seeds of a more inclusive economy. What are the most promising new employment sectors up and down the income scale, and how can we prepare people for them? There are no easy answers, but if Democrats figure this out, they’ll win the future.
Matthew Kiefer
Boston, Mass.

Franklin Foer falls into the same trap as the Democrats, all while failing to name the problem: a myopic view centered entirely on the executive branch. The idea of midterm elections and congressional races is hardly mentioned at all. If the Democrats want to return to power and, more important, see their policies enacted, they need to make inroads in more than just one branch of government.
Travis Bott
Chicago, Ill.

I grew up in a working-class, union home and eventually graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Today I am a married family man in my 50s, a middle manager for a Fortune 500 company. For many years I was a die-hard, dedicated Democratic Party activist. Indeed, I was a candidate for the Wisconsin State Assembly as a Democrat twice, an executive-board member and membership director for the local county party, and a delegate to the Democratic Party’s state convention on several occasions. I have volunteered for many state and national campaigns, doing everything from knocking on doors to putting together voter-file lists to creating direct-mail pieces. I know how it all works on the ground. Needless to say, I have also attended countless fund-raisers for Democratic candidates. I now consider myself a political independent, however. In fact, the only campaign cash I sent anyone last year was for a Republican, John Kasich.
The reason I left the party is largely because the leadership has abandoned the working class. They are concerned about issues like bathroom equity, the rights of illegal immigrants, and blaming working people for not adapting to globalization by going back to school (largely a false hope). If blue-collar workers were an endangered species of animal, they would have more influence in the party as presently configured.
In Wisconsin, the Democrats have lost all there is to lose: the state Senate, the assembly, and the governorship; in 2016, for the first time since 1984, Wisconsin voted for a GOP candidate for president. The story is largely the same around the country.
Whatever the cause of this drift into obscurity, the Democrats are in trouble, and will continue to be in trouble despite their delusions of being saved by demographic changes in the future. I know firsthand that as people mature, their views shift. Most of my working-class friends are now voting Republican. Their political thinking can be summed up as follows: The GOP stinks, its trickle-down theory of economics is a proven 40-year-old lie … but at least I might get a tax cut; the Democrats have nothing to offer me.
There is hope. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have tried hard to turn things around. If Democratic candidates would relentlessly advocate for a public option for health care, and for a government-subsidized livable wage for small-business workers, average Americans would again look twice at a candidate with a D after their name. Until that day, Democrats will wander in the wilderness and our country will suffer.
Donald Scott Waller
Cambridge, Wis.

On Corporations and Conservation

In the May issue, two law professors, Frank Partnoy and Steven Davidoff Solomon, described their “Excellent Corporate-Raiding Adventure”: Mimicking activist hedge funds, they had invested in a small, languishing public company and tried to shake it up.

“Frank and Steven’s Excellent Corporate-Raiding Adventure” was really misguided. The best corporate raiders push companies to do good in addition to doing well, and certainly the best professors teach their students to value social goals as well as return on investment. The lack of any moral center by the authors is remarkable. This land is not “deserted” and “of little value to anyone else”—it is land that in its current state is of great value to the species who inhabit it, to the people who recreate on it, and to the overall ecosystem of the two national parks that it links. Ecologies are not infinitely malleable; Tejon Ranch is unbuilt largely because it is dry, and if the “raiders” cannot understand that, then they are not very savvy. Building gasoline-fueled exurbs that consign people to hours-long commutes and eat up land is not only socially and ecologically impoverishing; it is a bad business investment, as the latest recession showed: Exurban developments lost value and never recovered, while urban housing and commercial property maintained value. As a regional-planning professor who also worked in commercial real estate, I strongly believe it is the responsibility of business faculty and investors to demonstrate to students and the wider community core morals beyond just a commitment to short-term personal gain at any social cost.

Elisabeth M. Hamin, Ph.D.
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Amherst, Mass.

I enjoyed “Frank and Steven's Excellent Corporate-Raiding Adventure” until I got to the end, when the authors exclaimed that unless Tejon Ranch was fully developed with homes and tech companies’ offices, it was worth nothing.

This is one of the major ethical issues we face now in this country: Wilderness has no political status or value. Tejon Ranch is one of the remaining pristine landscapes in this crowded, water-hungry state of nearly 40 million people, and it is home to spectacular mountains, canyons, oak trees, and a large variety of flora and fauna, including the California condor. Almost 90 percent of it is supposed to be committed to a trust for conservation.

What were these guys thinking? I tremble to imagine what they teach their students: lessons in how to exploit California's fragile wilderness. Please go somewhere else to transform corporate America.

Barbara Siry
Laguna Woods, Calif.

I hoped against hope, as I read this enjoyable and educational article, that the authors' study of Tejon Ranch in "granular" detail would open their eyes to the extraordinary environmental value of this 270,000-acre swath of open land "wedged between two national forests."

But nary a mention of the fact that almost 90 percent of the land has been set aside under the Tejon Ranch Conservancy for its significance as a wildlife corridor and home to "more than 60 at-risk plant and animal species," according to the conservancy's website.

The authors briefly touch on the "regulatory and environmental hurdles" faced by the management in developing the remainder of the property, but see nothing of value in this "deserted" land, and only lament that it is not being rapidly monetized to their benefit.

Perhaps the managers of Tejon Ranch are being overpaid for wasting this opportunity to enrich investors, but I finished the article grateful for the estimated 25-year development timeline the authors cited. It's good to know that someone is still taking the long view.

Kate Connors
San Carlos, Calif.

Frank Partnoy and Steven Davidoff Solomon reply:

Several readers criticized us for not focusing on the environmental risks and costs associated with developing Tejon Ranch. As we teach in our classes, and address in our research, one fundamental question that arises in every corporation is this: For whose benefit should the corporation be run? One strategy that activists employ is splitting apart companies when answering this question is difficult, as it is at Tejon Ranch Company. Tejon Ranch already has signed an agreement to place the vast majority of its land—240,000 acres—in the Tejon Ranch Conservancy. This is an admirable sign of cooperation, and of the multiple goals and interests that corporations can pursue. With respect to the remaining land, there certainly is a debate to be had, just as there is an ongoing debate about development in California more generally and its relation to stratospheric housing costs. We have no clear position with respect to this problem, except to say that there should be a balance among the interests of current California residents and future generations with respect to both the environment and development. We should have highlighted the environmental questions more in our piece, and we thank our readers for raising the issue.

Advice and Consent

In the July/August issue, Jerry Useem examined how power may cause leaders to lose mental capacities.

As active researchers in the area of power, we take issue with the scientific accuracy of the article “Power Causes Brain Damage.” First, the headline, although attention-grabbing, does not correspond to the current scientific evidence: There is no scientifically established causal relationship between possessing power and brain damage. Second, the article covers only a small subset of studies examining the effects of power on the capacity to read other people—the main focus of Mr. Useem’s article. In fact, several other papers reported different effects, and a meta-analysis of 67 studies (conducted by two of the authors of this letter) showed that, in general, high-power people are not more or less apt at reading others; they do, however, tend to be better at remembering details about low-power individuals.

Marianne Schmid Mast, Ph.D.
University of Lausanne
Lausanne, Switzerland

Ioana Latu, Ph.D.
Queen’s University
Belfast, Northern Ireland

Petra Schmid, Ph.D.
ETH Zürich
Zurich, Switzerland

Consider the Stethoscope

A reader adds context to a reply to the July/August Big Question, “What is the most underappreciated medical invention in history?

Graham Roumieu

It is especially ironic that Dr. Jack Ende’s reason for nominating the stethoscope as the most underappreciated medical invention is that it “connects doctors to patients” and counters the erosion of the doctor-patient relationship. Dr. René Laënnec invented the device in 1816 specifically to distance himself from patients, against whose breasts he would otherwise have been expected to press his ear. Over the past two centuries, progressively longer tubing has been incorporated into stethoscopes, resulting in even greater distancing, both literal and metaphorical.

David L. Lerner, M.D.
Silver Spring, MD.

The Big Question: What was the most important letter in history?

(On, readers answered September’s Big Question and voted on one another’s responses. Here are the top vote-getters.)

5. In effect, the Declaration of Independence was an open letter to King George III in which the ragtag American colonists enunciated the basis of human rights—that all people are created equal and deserving of unalienable rights—and created a model for untold rebellions. the Declaration of Independence

David DeMarkey

4. Without Martin Luther’s 95 theses starting the discussion that led to the Reformation, all Western Christians might still be Catholics today.

Marguerite Katchen

3. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Writing from his cell after his arrest for demonstrating in Alabama, King eloquently explained the importance of staying committed to the ideals of nonviolent resistance in the face of segregation.

Mark Price

2. In August 1939, Albert Einstein sent a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt suggesting that an atomic bomb was possible and that Germany might be trying to build one. This was the first step in moving nuclear energy from esoteric science to the front of public consciousness.

Michael Peskin

1. In 1215, the Magna Carta, which originated as a missive to King John from his barons and liege lords, established a precedent of limits on monarchical authority.

Leonard Klepner

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