Legal injustice: Goliath stomps David

February 24, 2020

How the Environmental Lawyer Who Won a Massive Judgment Against Chevron Lost Everything by Sharon Lerner for The Intercept.

He Sued Chevon and Won – Now He’s Under House Arrest by Christine MacDonald for In These Times.

Trump escalates U.S.-Russia nuclear arms race

February 23, 2020

Source: The Gray Zone.

Far from being an appeaser of Russia, President Trump is ramping up a U.S.-Russian nuclear arms race and greatly increasing a real danger of nuclear war.

How to wash your hands

February 22, 2020

 

The most important thing you can do to prevent the spread of infectious disease to yourself and others is to wash your hands frequently.

Disease germs are spread when multiple people touch doorknobs, elevator buttons, currency and coins or the like.

I wouldn’t have thought I didn’t know how to do a simple thing like hand washing properly, but i learn from a post on kottke.org that evidently I don’t.  Here are directions from the Centers for Disease Control.

  1. Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
  2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap.
  3. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  4. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
  5. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  6. Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

LINKS

Map of Areas Most Often Missed During Hand Washing by Jason Kottke for kottke.org.

When and How to Wash Your Hands by the Centers for Disease Control.

The fading American dream

February 21, 2020

A team of researchers at Stanford University, led by an economist named Raj Chetty, took advantage of newly accessible data from the Internal Revenue Service and studied the ebb and flow of American wealth and income across the generations.

They concluded that 90 percent of children born in 1940 went on to earn more than their parents, but only 50 percent of children born in the 1980s did so.

That’s not because the U.S. economy stopped growing, although growth did slow, they wrote.   It is because more and more gains were captured by the ultra-rich.

Read the rest of this entry »

The true cost of living

February 20, 2020

An economist named Oren Cass has written an argument for something I’ve long suspected—that inflation is not measured correctly, and that statistics that show average income keeping up with inflation are bogus.

The chart above shows that a median male wage-earner in 1985 could pay for four basic family needs—housing, medical insurance, transportation and education—in 30 weeks of earnings.  By 2018, those expenses would take up 53 weeks of that family’s earnings.

Which, as Cass pointed out, is a problem, since there are only 52 weeks in a year.

But most published economic statistics indicate that typical workers’ inflation-adjusted earnings are increasing.

Case said that is because of how inflation is now calculated.

For example, he said, inflation-adjusted data says that the price of automobiles has not increased since the 1990s.   Obviously that isn’t true.  But the argument is that today’s cars have so many features that cards didn’t have 15 or 20 years ago that the higher price isn’t inflation—it’s the cost of quality.

It’s true that the 2018 Grand Caravan (price $26,300) has many features that the 1996 Grand Caravan ($17,900) did not have.  The problem, as Cass pointed out, is that if you don’t have that extra $8,400, you can’t go back to 1996 and buy the older model.

The same problem exists in housing and medical insurance.

It’s true that most families have two income earners, not just one.  But there was a time when one American breadwinner could bring in enough to support a family.

Read the rest of this entry »

China bids for world leadership

February 19, 2020

China has the world’s largest or second largest economy, depending on how it is measured.  It is world’s leading manufacturer and exporter.  It has nuclear weapons and the world’s largest standing army.

Its leader, Xi Jinping, has a plan to connect the interior of Eurasia an integrated whole, through construction of railroads and oil and gas pipelines.

This Belt and Roads Initiative, together with China’s informal military alliance with Russia, would make the interior of Eurasia an economic zone dominated by China and largely invulnerable to U.S. sea and air power.

It would mean world leadership for a nation whose leaders explicitly reject such ideas as universal values, intrinsic human rights, freedom of the press and an independent judiciary—ideas that we Americans consider foundations of Western civilization.

How likely is it that China’s leaders can realize these ambitions?  A scholar named Elizabeth C. Economy took a calm and skeptical look at China in a 2018 book entitled THE THIRD REVOLUTION: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State.

The first revolution, in her view, was Mao Zedong’s victory over Chiang Kaishek in 1949.

Mao made China a unified nation free of foreign influence, and started China on the road to industrialization.  But his utopian dreams and totalitarian government brought China to the brink of collapse.

Hundreds of thousands and maybe millions of Chinese were killed in purges.  Millions and maybe tens of millions starved to death because nobody dared tell the truth about his failed agricultural policies.  Mao’s Cultural Revolution, intended to break up a new emerging social hierarchy, reduced the whole country to chaos.

The second revolution, in her view, was the emergence of Deng Xiaoping.  He accomplished what few leaders in history have been able to do—reform an authoritarian government.   Typically reformers fail to change the system, like Khrushchev, or undermine the stability of what they are trying to reform, like Gorbachev.

Deng loosened the authority of the Communist Party and relaxed economic controls just enough to allow for individual initiative, while keeping control.   He set up a system of collective leadership with an orderly succession.

Unlike Mao, he kept in the background and exercised power from behind the scenes,  On the world scene, his policy was to quietly make China stronger without alarming the existing great powers.

His policies, and not Mao’s, produced a great leap forward in economic development.  China’s rise from the wreckage of the Cultural Revolution was as great an economic miracle as the rise of Germany and Japan from the ashes of World War Two.  Dang was one of the great statesmen of the 20th century.

Many Western observers thought that as China became integrated into the world economy, it would adopt liberal and democratic values.  Xi Jinping’s third revolution is intended to prevent this from happening.

Xi has eliminated tern limits.  He evidently intends to serve for life, which could mean a succession struggle like the one that followed the death of Mao.  He has reaffirmed Communist Party control of the economy, and insists on ideological orthodoxy.

But what is the meaning of Communist ideology in a country with a stock exchange, giant profit-seeking corporations and 485 billionaires?  Under Xi, Communism is reduced to Chinese nationalism and obedience to authority..

One reason for the downfall of the Soviet Union was that people stopped believing in Marxism-Leninism as an ideal.   How long can the Chinese believe in a “socialism with Chinese characteristics” that is indistinguishable from capitalism?

Read the rest of this entry »

Going beyond the American political binary

February 15, 2020

The fundamental fallacy … committed by almost everyone is this: “A and B hate each other, therefore one is good and the other is bad.”  [Bertrand Russell]

When people hear a story, they ask: Is it really true?  When people hear two stories, they ask: Which one is true? [Author unknown]

The smart way to keep people obedient and passive is to strictly limit the spectrum of debate, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.  [Noam Chomsky]

In the USA, political partisanship can be bitter nowadays.  Pew Research reported that nearly one in two Americans have stopped talking politics with someone because of something they said.  Among liberal Democrats, the figure is six in 10.

The most obvious explanation for this is polarization on certain issues—abortion rights, gun control, gay marriage or affirmative action, for example.   The alignment of the two parties is clear, and I don’t talk to many individuals who mix and match issues.

But studies show that many Democrats and Republicans decide on issues based on party, affiliation rather than choosing their party based on issues.  Pollsters find that they get different answers to their questions when they say where Obama or Trump stands on a certain question than when they just state the question.

What all this hides is the fundamental agreement of top Democratic and Republican leaders on fundamental questions of peace and war, and of economic and political power.

Democratic and Republican administrations of the past 20 years have agreed to a state of war waged by invasions, bombings, assassinations and economic blockade with no expectation or even definition of victory.

In the name of war, they have normalized universal warrantless surveillance, detention without trial and torture, and have prosecuted whistleblowers who reveal the government’s crimes.

Democratic and Republican administrations of the past 30 years have given free rein to financial speculators who have crashed the economy and enriched themselves.  Neither party when in power has prosecuted financial fraud.  Neither has enforced the anti-trust laws.  Neither has stood up for the right of workers to organize.

I’m not saying there is absolutely no difference between the two parties’ leaderships.  I’m saying that neither party’s leadership has strayed from what is acceptable to Wall Street, Silicon Valley or the military-industrial complex.

Nor am I criticizing you if you think abortion rights or gun ownership is more important to you than any of the issues I’ve mentioned.  I just say the public deserves a chance to vote for advocates of peace and economic justice

A lot has been written by Jonathan Haidt and others about fundamental value differences between progressives and conservatives.  But what set of progressive or conservative values justifies financial fraud?  Or waging war against countries that do not threaten us?   Or an economic system in which income is continually redistributed upward into the pockets of the superrich?

Read the rest of this entry »

The USA has a bad bipartisan foreign policy

February 15, 2020

The so-called War on Terror is bipartisan.

George W. Bush ran in 2000 on a promise to adopt a more “humble” foreign policy.  He said the United States should stop dictating to the rest of the world.

But following the 9/11 attacks, he not only got authorization for an invasion of Afghanistan, whose government had given refuge to Osama bin Laden, the planner of the attacks.

He obtained authorization for an invasion of Iraq, which had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, based on false claims that its ruler, Saddam Hussein, was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.

General Wesley Clark, the former commander of NATO, said he was shown a plan by the Secretary of Defense shortly after 9/11 that called for invasion of seven countries in five years—Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Iran.

Barack Obama voted against the authorization to invade Iraq.  But during his administration, the US continued the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and financed radical Al Qaeda-like militias to overthrow the governments of Libya and Syria.  The U.S. also bombed Somalia and stationed troops in Sudan, among many other countries.

In fact, nobody knows how many countries U.S. forces have bombed or how many they are bombing right now.

Obama did try to ease hostilities with Iran.  He negotiated an end to international economic sanctions on Iran in return for the Iranians renouncing a nuclear weapons development program that never existed in the first place.

Donald Trump is continuing all the wars of the Bush and Obama years, including the ones in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, while working up to a possible new war with Iran.

He also is doubling down on the use of economic sanctions, which is a form of war.  The use of U.S. financial power to try to cut off Venezuela and Iran from world trade is the same as surrounding these two countries with ships and troops to prevent trade from getting in.  It creates just as much suffering as other forms of war.

Read the rest of this entry »

The bipartisan, dysfunctional US economic policy

February 15, 2020

The USA has had a bipartisan economic policy for 20 or 30 years now.  It’s what some people call “neoliberalism.”

The basic idea is that prosperity depends on rich people investing in the economy, so that the key to prosperity is to allow rich people to accumulate money.

It is reducing upper-bracket tax rates, reducing government regulation and reducing government spending except on the military and police.

It is allowing manufacturing companies to become competitive by shifting production to low-wage countries, holding prices down by allowing cheap imports, and shrinking the social safety net to encourage people to take low-wage jobs.

It is giving financial institutions free rein to make risky investments, because free markets are important, and bailing them out when they fail, because large-scale financial failure would destabilize the economy.

It is not enforcing the antitrust laws because business consolidation supposedly promotes economic efficiency.

It is now than then enacting some benefit for working people, but never anything that threatens the incomes of the wealthy or the power of big corporations.

§§§

The North American Free Trade Agreement is an example of neoliberal bipartisanship.  The idea for NAFTA originated in the Ronald Reagan administration, the George H.W. Bush administration negotiated it, but it took the Bill Clinton administration to get it approved.

NAFTA shifted the balance of power against organized labor.  Employers could credibly threaten to pick up and relocate in Mexico if workers didn’t give them what they wanted.

Another joker in NAFTA was the investor-state dispute resolution provision.  It gave foreign companies the right to ask for damages if a local, state or national government passed some law or regulation that reduced their profits.  The theory was that this was a trade barrier, the same as a tariff.  Investor-state disputes are decided not by courts, but by arbitrators.

The investor-state dispute resolution provision was a main reason why Congress declined to endorse President Obama’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.  President Trump deserves credit for dropping the TPP.

The new U.S.-Canada-Mexico Agreement contains an investor-state dispute resolution provision.  However, unlike NAFTA,  it also contains labor and environmental standards and not just protections for companies.  If these turn out to be meaningful, President Trump and the present Congress will deserve a certain amount of credit.

§§§

Bill Clinton was a good friend of the banking industry.  Early in his administration, Congress passed the Siegle-Neal Act, which eliminated restrictions on interstate banking.  Bank mergers followed in rapid succession.

He twice reappointed Alan Greenspan, advocate of banking deregulation, as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.  He proposed and got repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial banks, whose deposits were insured by the federal government, from investment banks, whose deposits could be risked in potentially high-profit investments.

His administration explicitly forbid regulation of derivatives, which are investments not backed by any tangible asset—essentially a form of gambling on the economy.  All these decisions set the stage for the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

Read the rest of this entry »

Concerto for mandolin and two violins

February 14, 2020

Edgar Allen Poe on procrastination

February 12, 2020

You can find more cartoons like this by clicking on Zen Pencils.

Coyote and badger hunt as a team

February 8, 2020

Coyotes and badgers sometimes hunt together as a team.

When the coyote chases a ground squirrel, the squirrel will take refuge in a burrow.  When the badger digs a ground squirrel out of a burrow, the squirrel will emerge from a different hole and run away.

Teaming up, the coyote and badger catch more prey than they could hunting apart.

The Hopi and Navajo have stories about the tricky coyote and stolid badger working together.  I myself never knew about this until I saw these videos on kottke.org.

Michael Bloomberg as a presidential candidate

February 7, 2020

Michael Bloomberg

Michael Bloomberg’s emergence as a major Democratic presidential candidate reminds me of a saying attributed to Harry Truman.

If you run a Republican against a Republican, the [real] Republican will win every time.

LINKS

Michael Bloomberg Wikipedia page.

A Republican Plutocrat Tries to Buy the Democratic Nomination by Nathan J. Robinson for Current Affairs [Added 2/9/2020]  This says it all.

Michael Bloomberg’s Right-Wing Views on Foreign Policy by Mehdi Hasan for The Intercept.

Mike Bloomberg’s $ymbiotic Relationship With NY’s GOP: ‘We Agreed With Him on So Many Issues’ by Ross Barkan for Gothamist.

Bloomberg Has a History of Donating to Republicans—Including in 2018 by Bobby Cuza for Spectrum News NY1

Iowa caucus mess: maybe it’s more than stupidity

February 6, 2020

The Myth of Incompetence: DNC Scandals Are a Feature, Not a Bug by Caitlin Johnstone.

Are Clinton and Obama to blame for Trump?

February 5, 2020

Secretary of Labor Robert Reich

Robert Reich, who was Secretary of Labor during the Bill Clinton administration, is an honest man whom I respect.

When he left public service, he went back to his old job as a college professor and author.  He didn’t become a millionaire by joining corporate boards of directors or collecting consultants’ fees.

I also respect Reich, who is 4 feet 11 inches tall, for making his way in a world in which most people unconsciously take tall people more seriously than they take short people.  This is a form of prejudice I seldom think about.

He wrote an interesting article in The Guardian about how working people no longer feel represented by either the Democratic or Republican parties.

In 2015, he interviewed working people for a new book he was working on.  He’d talked to many whom he’d met 20 years before when he was in government, and many of their grown children.

Almost all of them were disillusioned with the “rigged system,” which they thought Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush represented.  The only presidential candidates they were interested in were Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.  Reich thinks they had a point.

Democrats had occupied the White House for 16 of the 24 years before Trump’s election, and in that time scored some important victories for working families: the Affordable Care Act, an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit and the Family and Medical Leave Act, for example.  I take pride in being part of a Democratic administration during that time.

But Democrats did nothing to change the vicious cycle of wealth and power that had rigged the economy for the benefit of those at the top and undermined the working class.

As Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg concluded after the 2016 election, “Democrats don’t have a ‘white working-class’ problem.  They have a ‘working class problem’ which progressives have been reluctant to address honestly or boldly.  

“The fact is that Democrats have lost support with all working-class voters across the electorate.”

In the first two years of the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama administrations, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.  Yet both Clinton and Obama advocated free trade agreements without providing millions of blue-collar workers who consequently lost their jobs any means of getting new ones that paid at least as well.  

Clinton pushed for NAFTA and for China joining the World Trade Organization, and Obama sought to restore the “confidence” of Wall Street instead of completely overhauling the banking system.

Both stood by as corporations hammered trade unions, the backbone of the white working class. They failed to reform labor laws to allow workers to form unions with a simple up-or-down majority vote, or even to impose meaningful penalties on companies that violated labor protections.

Clinton deregulated Wall Street before the crash; Obama allowed the Street to water down attempts to re-regulate it after the crash. Obama protected Wall Street from the consequences of its gambling addiction through a giant taxpayer-funded bailout, but allowed millions of underwater homeowners to drown.

Both Clinton and Obama turned their backs on campaign finance reform. In 2008, Obama was the first presidential nominee since Richard Nixon to reject public financing in his primary and general election campaigns, and he never followed up on his re-election promise to pursue a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United vs FEC, the 2010 supreme court opinion opening wider the floodgates to big money in politics.

Although Clinton and Obama faced increasingly hostile Republican congresses, they could have rallied the working class and built a coalition to grab back power from the emerging oligarchy. Yet they chose not to. Why?

Source: The Guardian

Before I respond to Reich’s question, I want to take him to task for saying unions are the backbone of the “white working class.”  All workers, regardless of race, ethnicity or, for that matter, gender, need the protection of labor unions.

Black and Hispanic Americans are a larger percentage of union members than they are of the U.S. population as a whole.  When you use the expression “white working class,” you ignore the existence of a huge number of American wage-earners.

I don’t think Reich had bad intent, but one of the Democratic Party’s big problems is the successful Republican effort to drive a wedge between native-born white Anglo working people and black, Hispanic and immigrant working people.  It’s a mistake to use language that plays into that.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Iowa vote count mess

February 4, 2020

The late Robert A. Heinlein, a great SF writer, once said you should never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity.

Iowa, Democrats and Elite Incompetence by Yves Smith for Naked Capitalism.

Iowa Caucuses, the Blob and the Democratic Party Cartel by Matt Stoller.

Of course malice and stupidity are not mutually exclusive.

What the impeachment report really said

February 3, 2020

U.S. Senate holds impeachment trial

Michael Tracey of Real Clear Politics is probably one of the few people who read the House Judiciary Committee’s 658-page impeachment report.

The basis of the report is not just that President Trump abused the power of his office to harm his political rival, Joe Biden.  It is that his pause of military aid to Ukraine was actually a “betrayal of the nation” because it helped Russia.

The rhetoric reminds me of Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s and his “twenty years of treason.”  McCarthy said U.S. foreign policy toward the Soviet Union was not only wrong, but a conscious betrayal by Communist sympathizers, up to and included General George C. Marshall.

The impeachment report contains the same rhetoric.  According to Tracey, the report uses the phrase “impeachable treason” and states, “At the very heart of ‘Treason’ is deliberate betrayal of the nation and its security.”

“Such betrayal would not only be unforgivable,” the report’s explication of treason reads, “but would also confirm that the President remains a threat if allowed to remain in office. A President who has knowingly betrayed national security is a President who will do so again. He endangers our lives and those of our allies.”

This language is then imported into the impeachment articles almost verbatim: “Wherefore President Trump, by such conduct, has demonstrated that he will remain a threat to national security and the Constitution if allowed to remain in office.”

The report mostly uses the word “betrayal” rather than “treason” because treason has a specific Constitutional definition.  Treason consists of fighting for an enemy in time of war or giving “aid and comfort” to the enemy in time of war.  Conviction of treason requires confession by the accused or testimony of two independent witnesses of the treasonous act.

Although the Constitution gives the President the authority to determine foreign policy, subject to the advice and consent of the Senate on treaties and major appointments, the report does not recognize that authority.  It accuses Trump of going against the official “national security policy” of the United States.

This is consistent, it says, with Trump requesting help from Russians in the 2016 election.  So the Russiagate accusations are folded into the new accusations.

Democrats who voted for these impeachment articles voted not simply to punish Trump for soliciting an investigation of Biden. Rather, they also voted to impeach him for committing treason at the behest of Russia.

And in turn, they ratified a number of extremely fraught New Cold War assumptions that have now been embedded into the fabric of U.S. governance, regardless of what the Senate concludes.

It’s crucial to emphasize that this is the first impeachment in American history where foreign policy has played a central role.

As such, we now have codified by way of these impeachment articles a host of impossibly dangerous precedents, namely:

1) The U.S. is in a state of war with Russia, a nuclear armed power;

2) the sitting president committed treason on behalf of this country with which the U.S. is in a state of war;

3) the president lacks a democratic mandate to conduct foreign policy over the objections of unelected national security state bureaucrats.

So the articles of impeachment are not just an indictment of President Trump.  They are an attempt to define objection to U.S. war policy as treasonous and not subject to debate.

Read the rest of this entry »

Should Sanders reject Joe Rogan’s support?

February 2, 2020

Bernie Sanders is running a campaign ad based on a (sort-of) endorsement by Joe Rogan, the popular podcaster.

He’s getting flak from critics who say Rogan has said at lot of racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic stuff—most recently criticizing a trans-woman who engaged in mixed martial arts fighting with a biological woman—and therefore Sanders should reject his support.

Below is Joe Rogan’s own reaction, from a podcast with stand-up comedian Mark Normand.

I don’t have any problem with Joe Rogan, but here are some links to articles by writers who think differently.

LINKS

Bernie Sanders draws criticism for touting Joe Rogan endorsement by Gregory Krieg for CNN.

Bernie Sanders’ Joe Rogan experience by Zach Beauchamp for Vox.

It’s Good That Joe Rogan Endorsed Bernie by Michael Brooks and Ben Burgis for Jacobin magazine.

Identity, politics by Mandos for Ian Welsh’s blog.

Read the rest of this entry »

Remind me: What is an impeachable offense?

February 2, 2020

“Lambert Strether,” a writer and editor for the Naked Capitalism web log, had this to say about impeachment.

Working on the assumption that acts, once not impeached, are no longer not in scope for future impeachment, Pelosi, in 2006, did not impeach Bush for taking the country to war in Iraq, for his warrantless surveillance program (multiple felonies; destruction of the Fourth Amendment), or for torture (prohibited by international treaties, hence the law of the land).

The Republicans did not impeach Obama for whacking a US cititzen with a drone strike and no due process.

After 2016, the Democrats focused, laser-like, even before the inaugural, on impeaching Trump over an ever-shifting, never-proven Russia-adjacent “collusion” narrative driven by anonymous leaks from the intelligence community, which we were constantly assured would bring about Trump’s impeachment, or even his imprisonment.

When that Democrat effort ignominiously collapsed with Hero Of The Resistance™ Mueller’s damp squib of Congressional testimony, the new Ukraine narrative miraculously appeared, articles of impeachment were instantly prepared, followed by several weeks of delay in delivering them to the Senate, followed by complaints that the Republicans would not call the witnesses that the Democrats themselves should have called.

(Comic interlude: The uncalled Bolton boosting his pre-sales at Amazon.)

Utterly predictably, given both their credibility and Republican venality, the Democrats than lost the impeachment vote in the Senate, thereby cementing Trump’s “abuse of power” into precedent.

(To be fair, the Democrats may make a few 2020 Senate races more difficult for the Republicans than before.)

So, let’s review: From 2006, due primarily to sins of omission or commission by Democrats, Presidents are not accountable for: (1) fake intelligence leading to war, (2) felonies, (3) war crimes, (4) assassinating US citizens (this is down to the Republicans) and (5) abuse of power.

Oh, and (6) epic levels of personal corruption, since Democrats did not impeach Trump over the emoluments clause, setting another precedent.

Source: naked capitalism

My sentiments exactly.

Blue Train performed by John Coltrane

February 1, 2020

I plucked this video from Decker’s Dispatches from the Asylum blog, which has an excellent music video at the end of very post.

The new Chinese surveillance state

January 29, 2020

Shoshana Zuboff warned us of the perils of American surveillance capitalism, and Edward Snowden of the American surveillance state.  But China’s ruler, Xi Jinping, is creating a surveillance system that leaves anything else far behind.

I recently read WE HAVE BEEN HARMONIZED: Life in China’s Surveillance State, by a German journalist named Kai Strittmatter, about how the components of the new system are now being put into place in different parts of China.

The components are:

A unified Internet service that combines the functions of a smart phone and a credit card, and allows for tracking of all electronic communication and all financial transactions.

A video surveillance system using facial recognition software that allows for tracking of all public behavior.

An artificial intelligence system capable of integrating all this information.

Algorithms that give people a “credit score” based on the government’s approval or disapproval of their behavior.

This is something like the two-way television sets in George Orwell’s 1984 and something like the East German Stasi’s real-life eavesdropping and surveillance system.

Both the fictional and the real system were limited by the human inability to keep track of everything all of the time.  The Chinese government’s hope is that advanced computer technology can overcome these limits.

At the same time, China is still an old-fashioned Soviet-style police state.  Dissidents are treated the same as in the Soviet Union in the 1970s.  The new controls do not replace the old.  Instead they are layered on top of them.

China, according to Strittmatter, is a virtually cashless society.  Payments are made through the WeChat app on the TenCent smartphone service or the Alipay app on the Alibaba service.  All transactions and all calls are monitored.

Certain words and phrases are forbidden in electronic communication. including “I do not agree,” “my emperor,” “Animal Farm” and “Winnie the Pooh”—the latter a nickname for the tall, stout, benign-looking  General Secretary Xi.

A law imposes three years in prison for anyone who posts a harmful rumor on the Internet, if it is shared 500 times or viewed 5,000 times.  There was a wave of arrests in 2013 for spreading false rumors.

Strittmatter saw a video surveillance system at an intersection that showed the faces of jaywalks on a huge screen, together with their names, home addresses and ID numbers.  These systems do not exist everywhere in China, but they are examples of what might be.

He saw a video surveillance system in a collage classroom that monitored whether students were paying attention.  It also recorded their facial expressions, which were fed into a system that supposedly could evaluate their feelings and emotions.

Robin Li, CEO of Baidu, a leading Chinese search engine company, told Strittmatter that his goal was to insert artificial intelligence into every aspect of human life.

The Chinese government plans to use this data to set up a “social credit” system which will give each Chinese person a score for “social truthworthiness.”  Strittmatter saw such a system being tested in the small city of Rongcheng.

Read the rest of this entry »

Impeachment and the undeclared war with Russia

January 28, 2020

Historian Stephen F. Cohen pointed out in an interview how Rep. Adam Schiff frames the Trump impeachment in terms of the undeclared war with Russia in Ukraine.

President Trump is accused of pausing military aid to Ukraine for personal, political reasons.  Schiff said that undermines the necessary war against Russia “over there” so “we won’t have to fight them over here.”

In fact, what’s going on in Ukraine is a civil war.  An anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalist government, with Nazis in the governing coalition, came to power in a U.S.-backed coup.

Vladimir Putin seized control of Crimea, location of Russia’s main naval base in the region.  Russian-speaking areas in western Ukraine attempted to secede, provoking a civil war.  Putin has helped his fellow Russians defend themselves, but not march on Kiev.

The best solution would be some sort of compromise that would allow residents of the Donblass and Luhansk regions the minimum amount of autonomy and security they need to feel safe.

The best contribution the U.S. government could make is to join with Germany and France to help mediate between Russia and Ukraine.  But I know of no Republican or Democratic leader who supports this.

Of all possible criticisms of Donald Trump, the idea that he is insufficiently warlike makes the least sense.

Trump has canceled an important nuclear arms treaty with Russia, and seems ready to cancel the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (StART) when it come up for renewal in 2021.  This increases the danger of a possible nuclear war with Russia, a much more real possibility than “having to fight them over here.”

The main differences between the Democratic and Republican leaderships is that the one prioritizes military confrontation with Russia and the other prioritizes military confrontation with Iran.

I recommend watching the interview of Prof. Cohen by Aaron Maté on the video above.

Ten years a blogger

January 25, 2020

As of today, I’ve been blogging for 10 years.

Blogging satisfies my creative need to write, and my ego need to have someone read what I write.  I’ve become acquainted with interesting people, including some who live in foreign countries and some whose views are very different from my own.

I’m an 83-year-old retired newspaper reporter, living in Rochester, N.Y., with time on my hands and no reason to fear economic consequences of displeasing anybody with what I write.  I’m content with my fortunate and pleasant life while pessimistic about the fate of my nation and the world in general.

I hadn’t realized, until my friend David Damico alerted me to the possibility, that web hosting for blogs was free (although I now pay WordPress a fee for premium service) and that blogging does not require any special knowledge of computer technology

Phil Ebersole

From Jan. 25, 2010 on, I have made 5,014 posts, consisting of about 2 million words.  The posts have drawn more than 1.7 million views in slightly over 1 million individual daily visits.  They’ve received 4,650 comments and 9,405 “likes.”

My blog has 1,320 followers, who are notified every time I post something, although the average number of daily visits is far less.  There are 252 individual posts with comment followers, who are notified every time there is a comment on that particular post.

My previous retirement creative outlet was sending out book reviews by e-mail.  I started my book notes in 2004 by sending a friend brief notes on books I’d read during the previous month.  Over time my notes expanded to lengthy review-essays, and my e-mail list to more than 100 recipients.  I now post all my book notes on my blog while continuing to distribute them by e-mail.

My great fault as a blogger was the same as my fault as a newspaper reporter.  I have been too prolific.  I have written many forgettable things and some that I am embarrassed to remember.  The writings I am proud of are submerged in a vast sea of mediocrity.

On breaking news, I often made a post based on incomplete knowledge, and I had to keep making additional posts to clarify, supplement or correct what I’d written originally.

The posts that I think have lasting value are all about more general topics, some political, some not.  Of course blog posts are impermanent by their very nature, so maybe I shouldn’t worry about lasting value.

As I said, I’m 83.   I’m slowing down mentally as well as physically.  My memory is worsening, and so is my “executive function”—the ability to keep a number of different things in mind at the same time.  I spent too much time with the computer screen and my books and not enough with the practical issues of life.

My short-term goal is fewer but better posts.  I’ll try to post something worth reading every Wednesday.  If I can’t write something, I try to find an interesting video or chart, or a worthwhile link.  This isn’t a commitment—just how I see things now.

I don’t expect to be able to continue posting 10 more years, but who knows?  I’ve already lived longer than I expected.

If you find my posts of interest, I am pleased.  The best way to show your appreciation is to share your own thoughts, especially if you see things differently from me.  Or comment on this post about what you like or don’t like about my approach to blogging overall.

Why does Clinton hate Sanders so much?

January 24, 2020

Hillary Clinton & Bernie Sanders.  Source: Associated Press

Why is Hillary Clinton still so angry at Bernie Sanders?

I think it is because his criticisms, and his possible victory, call in question the meaning of her career.

She has spent her whole political life ingratiating herself with the rich and powerful.  Her justification is that this is the price of getting into a position in which it is possible to do good—the limited good that is politically possible.

Clinton has a record of supporting regime change wars, pro-corporate trade treaties and bank bailouts, for which she has been richly rewarded in campaign contributions and six-figure speaking fees.

When I bring this up, her supporters say she “had to” do these things.  Otherwise, they say, she would have been shut off from political power, and she would not have been able to be a champion for children and working mothers.

But if Sanders wins, it will show that you don’t “have to” have the patronage of the rich and powerful in order to win.

Clinton has been the subject of scurrilous and false attacks all her political life—mostly depicting her as some sort of dangerous or extreme radical, which is the opposite of the truth.  But Sanders’ criticisms are the ones that sting, because they are based on fact.

A Sanders victory would not break Clinton’s rice bowl.  She will continue to be a rich celebrity until her dying day.  All it would do is show that she was on the wrong side of history.

LINKS

Hillary Clinton in Full: A Fiery New Documentary, Trump Regrets and Harsh Words for Bernie by Lacey Rose for Hollywood Reporter.

We Regret to Inform You That Hillary Clinton Is at It Again by Luke Savage for Jacobin magazine.

Why They Hate Bernie’s Supporters by Carl Bejier [Added 1/25/2020]

The corruption case against Joe Biden

January 22, 2020

Zephyr Teachout, a supporter of Bernie Sanders, wrote an article accusing Joe Biden of corruption.  Sanders disavowed it and apologized. Biden accepted Sanders’ apology.

But I think Teachout was right. She pointed to three things—

Joe Biden

First, Biden’s support for finance over working-class Americans.  His career was bankrolled by the credit card industry. He delivered for it by spearheading a bankruptcy bill that made it harder for Americans to reduce their debts and helped cause the financial crisis.  He not only authored and voted for that bill, he split with Barack Obama and led the battle to vote down Democratic amendments.

His explanations for carrying water for the credit card industry have changed over time.  They have never rung true.

The simplest explanation is the most likely: he did it for his donors.  At a fundraiser last year, Biden promised his Wall Street donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” for them if he became president.  Now the financial world is raising huge money for his campaign.  It clearly thinks he’s going to be its friend if elected.  Most Americans, who get ripped off by the financial sector on a daily basis, aren’t looking for a candidate who has made their life harder.

Second, healthcare. On 25 April, the day he announced his campaign, Biden went straight to a fundraiser co-hosted by the chief executive of a major health insurance corporation.  He refuses to sign a pledge to reject money from insurance and pharma execs and continues to raise money from healthcare industry donors.  His campaign is being bankrolled by a super PAC run by healthcare lobbyists.

What did all these donors get?  A healthcare proposal that preserves the power of the insurance industry and leaves 10 million Americans uninsured.

Third, climate change. Biden signed a pledge not to take money from the fossil fuel industry, then broke his promise. Right after a CNN town hall on climate change, he held a fundraiser hosted by the founder of a fossil fuel conglomerate. He is pushing climate policy that has gotten dismal reviews from several leading environmental groups.

There are plenty of other examples that raise questions, like housing and social security. Big real estate moguls are playing a major role in Biden’s campaign. Unlike his rivals, he has no comprehensive housing plan. When he pushed for cuts to Social Security, was he serving donors or his constituents?

But then President Donald Trump is 100 times worse.  Trump’s whole administration is one giant conflict of interest.  Call this the “lesser evil” defense.

A Biden defender could point out that there’s no reason to think that Biden has broken any laws. And a defender could argue that there’s also no reason to think Biden is any more dependent on corporate interests than the average Senator.  Call this the “average evil” defense.

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