The best way to retaliate against Russia

July 16, 2018

Robert Mueller’s latest indictment charges Russian covert agents with conspiring to reveal e-mails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair John Podesta.

These e-mails reveal embarrassing truthful information about Hillary Clinton’s ties to Wall Street and manipulation of the Democratic Party to thwart the candidacy of Bernie Sanders.

An appropriate way to retaliate is for the U.S. government and the American press to reveal embarrassing true information about Vladimir Putin and his government’s corruption and human rights violations.  It is certainly more focused and less dangerous than economic warfare or escalating a nuclear arms race.

The video above and links below indicate some things Putin doesn’t want discussed.  The video is from 2012.

I don’t think U.S. sanctions and the U.S.-backed military buildup on Russia’s borders will improve anything in Russia.  Rather they will make Russians think they need to rally behind their strong leader.

And if Putin were somehow to be struck by lightning, I don’t think his successor would be any better, either from the standpoint of honest government and human rights or from the standpoint of U.S. interests.

One of my mother’s favorite sayings was, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”   The crimes of other countries’ leaders are not a justification for U.S. militarism and war.  I focus on my own country partly because the United States has more impact on the world, at least for now, than any other country, but mainly because the U.S. government is the one that I as an American citizen am responsible for.

LINKS

Vladimir Putin and Russian Human Rights Violations by David Satter for National Review.

Here are 10 critics of Vladimir Putin who died violently or in suspicious ways by David Filipov for The Washington Post.

Alexander Litvinenko: the man who solved his own murder by Luke Harding for The Guardian.

Who Killed Boris Nemtsov? by David Satter for National Review.

Putin and the Panama Papers, an interview with Alexey Navalny for Süddeustsche Zeitung.  An example of leaked information embarrassing to Vladimir Putin.

Central Asian migrants describe injustice, racism in Russia by Arman Kaliyev for Caravanserai

The Unsolved Mystery Behind the Apartment House Bombings That Brought Putin to Power by David Satter for National Review.

Finally We Know About the Moscow Bombings by Amy Knight for the New York Review of Books.

Has the U.S. interfered with Russia? Yes

July 15, 2018

The U.S. government engages in regime change, which is much more than simply interfere in foreign elections.   Just in the past 20 years, it has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, funded foreign fighters to attack governments of Libya and Syria, and supported military coups in Honduras, Ukraine and Venezuela.  The coup in Venezuela failed, so the U.S. government uses economic warfare instead.

In 1996, the U.S. State Department engineered the election of the unpopular Boris Yeltsin.  He disbanded the Russian parliament, took over Russian TV and used all the techniques later used by Vladimir Putin to stack elections in his favor.   Time magazine actually ran a cover story hailing the U.S. success.

The results were that he crashed the Russian economy for the benefit of a few corrupt insiders, and destroyed the possibility of U.S.-Russian friendship for a generation, maybe longer.

Yanks to the rescue, a PDF of the Time cover article for July 15,1996

“Yanks to the rescue”: Time’s not-so-secret story of how Americans helped Yeltsin win 1996 presidential election from OffGuardian.

Currently many foreign-backed NGOs operate in Russia.  Their stated purpose is to promote democracy and freedom.  Many get funds from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, which is funded by the U.S. State Department and private philanthropists.  Some are supported by billionaire George Soros.

It is possible that most of them or maybe all of them, are doing things that I, as a believer in democracy, would approve of.  If so, I can understand why Vladimir Putin might not think so.

I have no way of knowing what, if anything, the CIA is covertly doing to spread information or disinformation in Russia.

Russia Expels USAID over ‘political meddling’ by Deutsche Welle.

The Mueller indictments have convinced me that Russian intelligence services probably did disseminate confidential e-mails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, that certain Russians used social media to comment on the election and that Russian intelligence agencies tried to gain access to voter registration rolls.

I think there are a lot of other things that had much more influence on the election that this.  The question is: What happens if and when the Russian covert agencies try again?

I don’t believe in “moral equivalence,” if the meaning is that, just because the U.S. government has done bad things to other nations, we Americans should sit back and let them do bad things to us in return.

Neither do I believe that we get very far by saying “you are bad, we are good, so you should stop doing certain things while we keep on doing them ourselves.”   It would be very interesting to see if U.S. intelligence agencies would be willing to sacrifice their manipulations of foreign politics if that would safeguard the integrity of our own.

Americans can spot election meddling because they’ve been doing it for years by Owen Jones for The Guardian.

Russia Isn’t the Only One Meddling in Elections | We Do It, Too by Scott Shane for The New York Times.

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Putin, Trump and a hypothetical question

July 15, 2018

Suppose Donald Trump, as many Americans urge, demands that the Russian government cease all interference in American politics.

Suppose Vladimir Putin says he’ll agree, provided that the American government ceases all “regime change” activities against Russia and other countries.

What should President Trump’s response be?

LINKS

Russia Indictment  2.0: What to Make of Mueller’s Hacking Indictment on Lawfare.

The Mueller Indictment by Ian Welsh.

Has Mueller Caught the Hackers? an interview of Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News on the Real News Network.  [Added 7/16/2018]   A reminder that “it isn’t over until it’s over.”

Trump, Russia and the NATO alliance

July 13, 2018

President Donald Trump wants to (1) force European allies to commit to more than double their military spending to meet the Russian threat and (2) engage in peace negotiations with Vladimir Putin without consulting European allies.

On the one hand, Russia is a menace that the NATO allies must unite against.  On the other hand, Russia is a normal country with which normal negotiations are possible.  And, by the way, U.S. dealings with Russia are no business of our European allies.  So which is it?

Donald Trump

President Trump presents himself as a master negotiator, but he weakened his negotiating position by advertising and widening the divisions in the Western alliance.   I can’t tell what his objectives are, or even if he has specific objectives.

My best guess is that the Putin-Trump talks, like the Trump-Kim Jong-un talks, will end in vague generalities that each side will interpret differently.  Trump’s erratic behavior frightened the South Korean government into talking with North Korea on its own.  Maybe his current behavior will be to frighten the European nations into making their own agreement with Russia.

That’s not to say that a summit meeting with President Putin is a bad idea.  It is just that Trump by his actions has shown that he can’t conduct normal diplomacy.

So what should U.S. policy toward Russia be?  The most important fact about Russia is that it is the only nation with enough nuclear weapons and missiles to destroy the United States.  To be sure, this would involve the destruction of Russia itself.

So American leaders should avoid backing Russia leaders into a position where they might think they have nothing to lose, or in which a nuclear war could be triggered accidentally.

The missile defense systems put in place by the U.S. in Poland and Romania, and the deployment of nuclear missiles to the borders of Russia, gave the Russian leaders reason to think that the U.S. was planning a nuclear first strike.  Their response has been to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons with which they could strike the United States.

The aim of negotiations should be to reduce the nuclear threat on both sides.  I don’t think President Trump understands this issue, and he has surrounded himself with war hawks such as John Bolton who see no point in negotiation.  This is dangerous for both sides.  We need new negotiations to wind down the nuclear threat.

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Seymour Hersh: a reporter of the old school

July 11, 2018

Seymour Hersh is the outstanding investigative reporter of his generation.  From the My Lai massacre to the Abu Ghraib torture center , he made a career of exposing things that the U.S. military and intelligence agencies didn’t want the American people to know.

His new memoir makes me feel I wasted my 40 years working on newspapers.  I never really got below the surface of things.  The world was a very different place than I thought it was.

He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for his reporting of the My Lai massacre.  All he had to go on was a tip that a soldier at Fort Benning had been court-martialed for massacring Vietnamese civilians.  He systematically scanned microfilm records of the New York Times and found a short item inside the newspaper about a Lt. William Calley being court-martialed for the death of an unspecified number of Vietnamese civilians.

Later he was told the last name of Calley’s lawyer—Latimer.  With that to go on, he was able to locate George Latimer, a returned judge on the Military Court of Appeals now practicing law in Salt Lake City.   Latimer confirmed that he was defending Calley, but refused to help Hersh locate him.  He finally did by driving into Fort Benning and finding Calley for himself.

What Calley told Hersh was far worse than he suspected at the time, and far worse than I remember it.   The massacre was not something that happened in the heat of battle.   It was a systematic killing for more than 700 people, including women (after being raped) and babies.

In a follow-up, Hersh learned there was a soldier named Paul Meadlo in Calley’s unit who’d lost a foot to a land mine.  He told Calley that God had punished him for what he did, and would punish Calley, too.  All Hersh knew was the Meadlo lived somewhere in Indiana.  He called telephone information operators in Indiana until he found his man.

His first book, Chemical and Biological Warfare: America’s Hidden Arsenal, was published in 1968,   He reported that, among other things, there were some 3,300 accidents at Fort Detrick, Maryland, involving biological warfare research, resulting in the infection of more than 500 men and three known deaths, two from anthrax.

Fort Detrick’s experiments resulted in the deaths in experiments each year of 700,000 laboratory animals, ranging from guinea pigs to monkeys.

The Seventh Day Adventist Church supplied 1,400 conscientious objectors to Fort Detrick to do alternative service in the form of being exposed to airborne tularemia and other infectious diseases.  Hersh said that at least some of them had no idea what they had volunteered for or been exposed to.

I mention this because at the time, I was a reporter for the Hagerstown (Md.) Daily Mail, and Fort Detrick was within our circulation area.  I had no idea that any of this was going on, and I probably wouldn’t have believed it if I had been told.

Hersh uncovered the facts by first obtaining a Science magazine article that listed all of the U.S. military’s chemical-biological warfare centers in the United States, then obtaining the in-house newspapers for these centers.  The newspapers listed retirement parties for officers leaving the service, and Hersh sought them out to interview.   Enough of them were bothered by what they had seen to provide the information for Hersh’s articles and book.

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Douglas Rushkoff on survival of the richest

July 9, 2018

Douglas Rushkoff

Futurist Douglas Rushkoff was offered half a year’s salary to give a talk on the future of technology.  To his surprise, he found his audience consisted of five persons from “the upper echelon of the hedge fund world.”  Their real interest was in Rushkoff’s thoughts on how to survive the coming collapse of civilization.

The CEO of a brokerage house explained that he had nearly completed building his own underground bunker system and asked, “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?”

For all their wealth and power, they don’t believe they can affect the future. The Event.  That was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack that takes everything down.

This single question occupied us for the rest of the hour. They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader?

The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew.  Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival.  Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers — if that technology could be developed in time.

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John Lanchester on the financial crisis

July 7, 2018

John Lanchester

The financial crash of 2008 was worldwide, and the failure of governments to address the causes of the crash also was worldwide.  Because the same thing happened in different countries under different leaders, the reasons for failure are systemic, not just the personal failings of particular leaders.  The solution must be systemic.  A mere change in leaders is not enough.

John Lanchester, writing in the London Review of Books, wrote an excellent article about the crash and its aftermath.  I hoped to call attention to it in my previous post, but, as of this writing, there has been only one click on the link.

I know people are busy and have many claims on their attention.  If you don’t want to bother reading the full LRB article, here are some highlights.  If you’re an American, bear in mind that, even though so much of what he wrote applies to the USA,  his focus is on British policy.

The immediate economic consequence was the bailout of the banks.  I’m not sure if it’s philosophically possible for an action to be both necessary and a disaster, but that in essence is what the bailouts were. 

They were necessary, I thought at the time and still think, because this really was a moment of existential crisis for the financial system, and we don’t know what the consequences would have been for our societies if everything had imploded.  But they turned into a disaster we are still living through.

The first and probably most consequential result of the bailouts was that governments across the developed world decided for political reasons that the only way to restore order to their finances was to resort to austerity measures.  The financial crisis led to a contraction of credit, which in turn led to economic shrinkage, which in turn led to declining tax receipts for governments, which were suddenly looking at sharply increasing annual deficits and dramatically increasing levels of overall government debt.

So now we had austerity, which meant that life got harder for a lot of people, but – this is where the negative consequences of the bailout start to be really apparent – life did not get harder for banks and for the financial system. In the popular imagination, the people who caused the crisis got away with it scot-free, and, as what scientists call a first-order approximation, that’s about right.

In addition, there were no successful prosecutions of anyone at the higher levels of the financial system.  Contrast that with the savings and loan scandal of the 1980s, basically a gigantic bust of the US equivalent of mortgage companies, in which 1100 executives were prosecuted.  What had changed since then was the increasing hegemony of finance in the political system, which brought the ability quite simply to rewrite the rules of what is and isn’t legal.

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Ten years after the financial crisis

July 6, 2018

Canary Wharf financial district in London. Source: Quartz.

Ten years after the financial crisis of 2008, the U.S. government has failed to do anything necessary to avoid a new crisis.   I just read an article in the London Review of Books that says that the U.K. government’s policies are just as bad.

Like the U.S.-based banks, the British banks engaged in financial engineering that was supposed to create high profit on completely safe investments—which, as experience proved, couldn’t be done.

The British government had to bail out the banking system in order to save the economy.  There probably was no alternative to that.  But it then proceeded to put things back just the way they were before.

John Lanchester, the LRB writer, said there was no attempt at “ring fencing”—what we Americans call firewalls—to split up investment banks, which speculated on the financial markets, and retail banks, which granted small business loans, home mortgages and other services to the real economy.

The UK, like the US, engaged in “quantitative easing”—injection of money into the banking system through buying bonds.  The basic idea was that if banks and corporations had more money to invest, they would invest more, and the economy would grow.

This didn’t happen.  Instead banks and corporations bid up the prices of existing financial assets and real estate, which added to the wealth of the already rich.

Ordinary Britons faced austerity.  Their government cut back on the social safety net and public services.  British life expectancy, like American life expectancy, has actually fallen.

The British, like us Americans, had 10 years to fix their financial system.  Like us, they wasted the opportunity.  Now it may be too late to avert the next crash—even if the UK and US governments wanted to act.

LINK

After the Fall: Ten Years After the Crash by John Lanchester for the London Review of Books.  Well worth reading in detail.  Hat tip to Steve B.

Trump’s Fed protects banks from stress tests

July 6, 2018

Bill Black, an expert on banking and white-collar crime, described how Donald Trump’s appointees to the Federal Reserve Board are revising “stress tests” to free Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley from a requirement to prove they are solvent enough to weather the next recession.

To pass the “stress test,” they’d have to put a larger fraction of their profits into capital reserves.   Black said they could easily do this, but it would cut into bonuses and dividends.

He also noted that Germany’s Deutsche Bank in Germany can’t even pass the easier stress test.  Deutsche Bank is Germany’s largest bank and, according to Black, the only large bank willing to lend to Donald Trump’s businesses.

LINK

Fed Lets Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley Off Hook, Investors Profit Billions, a transcript of an interview of Bill Black for the Real News Network.

Paul Revere and American independence

July 4, 2018

Paul Revere was much more than the man who rode to warn the troops at Lexington and Concord that the British were on their way.

He was a true revolutionary whose methods in some ways resemble revolutionaries and insurgents of todays.  He was one of the most important leaders in a network of revolutionary organizations that engaged in propaganda, espionage and preparation for armed revolt.

He helped bring Britain’s Massachusetts colony to the tipping point of armed revolt, the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, and make that revolt successful.

PAUL REVERE’S RIDE by David Hackett Fischer (1994) tells the true story of Paul Revere as part of a detailed account of the events leading up to Lexington and Concord and an hour-by-hour account of what happened on that fateful day.

In giving a granular factual account of what happened on a particular day, Fischer threw light on many things—including manners, morals and day-to-day life in 1775 Massachusetts, how American and British political and social values differed, and how this was reflected in their respective military tactics.

In 1774-1775 Britain, you could be an artisan or mechanic who worked with his hands, a merchant who handled money or a gentleman who owned land and had a title of nobility, but you couldn’t combine these roles.

Paul Revere was all three.  He was a silversmith who worked with his hands, and whose work is still prized today.  He was a respected merchant.  And he claimed and was given the status of gentleman.

Revere’s opposite number was General Thomas Gage, commander of British forces in North American and royal governor of Massachusetts.  Gage believed his power derived from the King who ruled by divine right, but subject to British laws.  The British believed they were a free people because of the principle of the rule of law.

A contrary principle had grown in up colonial New England.  The Puritan churches, both in England and New England, were governed by their congregations.  The New England townships were governed by town meetings.  The principle was that authority in government came from the bottom up, not the top down.

General Gage’s mission was to make the people of New England submit to the authority of the British crown in some way, however minor or symbolic.  At least seven organizations sprung up to resist this.  There was no overall leader and nobody who belonged to all seven.  Paul Revere and another leader, Dr. Joseph Warren, belonged to five.

Out in the countryside, each town had is own well-ordered militia, based on the right and duty of the citizen to keep and bear arms.  Some towns provided weapons for the indigent.

There was no overall organization, only a communication network.  Paul Revere organized teams of riders who kept the nearby towns informed of British plans.  He made many rides himself.

Gage never ordered the arrests of Paul Revere, Dr. Joseph Warren, Sam Adams, John Hancock or any of the other revolutionary organizers, because they had not broken any specific law.  He was later criticized for this.

Because of the broad-based nature of the organizations, any leaders would have been quickly replaced.  Would new leaders have been as effective as the old?  Would this have mattered?  There is no way to know.

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Why Trump may win again

July 3, 2018

I underestimated Donald Trump.  I didn’t think he would be elected.  Although I knew the figures that showed declining support for Democrats, I thought they had enough residual strength to elect a President one last time.

I thought that his election might be a blessing in disguise from the standpoint of progressives.  Trump rather than Hillary Clinton would get the blame for failure to deal with the coming economic crash and ongoing quagmire wars.

I didn’t think that Trump could govern effectively because he was ignorant.  I forget how progressives ridiculed Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush for their supposed ignorance, and yet Reagan and Bush were transformational presidents while Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were not.  Trump is on track to be a transformational president, and not in a good way.

President Trump is transforming the Supreme Court so as to reverse all the pro-labor and pro-civil liberties decisions of the past 40 or 50 years.  The religious right was disappointed that Ronald Reagan and the two George Bushes never advanced their goals.  But I don’t think Trump will have any qualms about giving them what they want.

Trump is crippling the ability of the federal government to perform its lawful duties to regulate and provide public services.  He has raised corruption to a new level, which, strangely, works to his advantage because there is so much of it that I can’t keep track of it.

Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and other top Democratic leaders are not an effective opposition.  They are too wedded to pleasing their wealthy donors and to a pro-military foreign policy and pro-corporate economic policy.

What I hear from liberal Democrats are (1) a claim that Donald Trump is a puppet of Vladimir Putin and (2) outrage at the latest comment that Trump has made on Twitter.

They let Trump set the agenda.  They have no program of their own.  So even though an overwhelming majority of Americans disapprove of Donald Trump, that will not in itself bring victory.

Increasing numbers of Americans decline to vote in national elections.  They don’t think the leaders of either the Republican or Democratic party represent them.

A certain number vote for Trump not because they expect him to keep his promises, but to “send them a message.”

When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, it seemed to me that, since the Republicans had become an ideological party of the right, the Democrats would become an ideological party of the left.  The result, I thought, would be a real political debate based on issues.

This didn’t happen.  Instead the Democratic leaders became more pro-corporate and pro-military.

Now, nearly 40 years later, a true left-wing movement is emerging in America.  Politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez even call themselves socialists.

I see that emerging movement as Americans’ only hope because the alternatives are the status quo, which does not work for most Americans, and Donald Trump’s blood-and-soil nationalism, which also will not work.

LINKS

Why Trump country is unfazed by the child separation crisis by Matthew Walther for The Week.

This Political Theorist Predicted the Rise of Trumpism | His Name Was Hunter S. Thompson by Susan McWilliams for The Nation.

Fun with street art

June 30, 2018

Time for something a little lighter.

.

A street artist who calls himself Tom Bob has fun with everyday objects.

Click on the links below for more of Tom Bob’s art.

There’s a Genius Street Artist Running Loose in New York City and Let’s Hope Nobody Catches Him by Monika for Bored Panda.

There’s a Genius Street Artist Running Loose in the Streets and Let’s Hope Nobody Catches Him (30+ New Pics) by Ilona for Bored Panda.

How social media try to manipulate your mind

June 28, 2018

Click to enlarge

Any time you log on to Google, Facebook, Twitter or other “free” social media, information on every keystroke is being fed into powerful computers somewhere.

Algorithms in these computers correlate this data.  They compare you with other people with similar profiles,  The algorithms—”intelligent,” but blind—experiment with ways to use this information to modify your behavior so you will do what they want.

What they usually want is for you to respond for an ad for a particular product or service.  But they can be trying to influence you to vote—or not to vote.

Jaron Lanier, a scientist and entrepreneur who pioneered virtual reality, wrote about this in his new book, TEN ARGUMENTS FOR DELETING YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA ACCOUNTS RIGHT NOW (2018)

He thinks this is sinister.  Your social media may not be influencing you a lot, but it is almost certain to have some influence, and that influence is operating on you below your level of awareness.

Social media feeds you stuff that is intended to stimulate your emotion, and it is easier to stimulate feelings of anger, fear and resentment than it is feelings of joy, affection and security.

I know this from my newspaper experience.  Back in the 1990s, my old newspaper made a big effort to discover what kind of news our readers wanted.  In surveys and focus groups, they said that wanted positive news—articles about people accomplishing good things.  But the article they remember the best was a horrible story about a dead baby being found in a Dumpster.

The people who answered the survey weren’t hypocrites.  Not at all.  It is just that we human beings react in ways we don’t choose, and this leaves us open to manipulation.

Another effect of feedback from social media is to reinforce whatever it is you happen to be—liberal, conservative, pro-gun, anti-war—and to diminish you ability to understand people who think differently from you.

I was shocked when I read about Cambridge Analytica, the campaign consultant that worked for the Trump presidential campaign, and its claim that it could manipulate voter behavior on an individual basis.  But I later came to realize that this was the standard Facebook service, and could have been available to the Clinton campaign.

Lanier takes the charges of Vladimir Putin’s interference in the campaign more seriously than I did.  The Russian ads seemed amateurish to me (unless they were decoys to divert attention from the real influence campaign) and most of them were posted after election day.

But effectiveness of the 2016 ads is beside the point.  If the combination of Big Data, artificial intelligence and behavior modification algorithms can influence voting behavior, Putin is sure to use it, and he doesn’t, some other foreign government or institution will.  Not to mention our own NSA and CIA.

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Thomas Frank on why Trump won

June 27, 2018

Thomas Frank has a new book out, an essay collection called Rendezvous With Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society.  The videos above and below consist of interviews he gave about it.  Here’s how he introduced it.

The essays collected here scan over many diverse aspects of American life, but they all aim to tell one essential story: This is what a society looks like when the glue that holds it together starts to dissolve.  This is the way ordinary citizens react when they learn the structure beneath them is crumbling.  This is the thrill that pulses through the veins of the well-to-do when they discover there is no longer any limit on their power to accumulate.

In headline terms, these essays cover the years of the Barack Obama presidency and the populist explosion that marked its end.  It was a time when liberal hopes were sinking and the newly invigorated right was proceeding from triumph to triumph.  When I wrote the earliest installment in the collection, Democrats still technically controlled both houses of Congress in addition to the presidency; when I finished these essays, Donald Trump sat in the Oval Office and Republicans had assumed a position of almost unprecedented power over the nation’s political system.

For a few, these were times of great personal satisfaction.  The effects of what was called the Great Recession were receding, and affluence had returned to smile once again on the tasteful and the fortunate.  The lucky ones resumed their fascinating inquiries into the art of the cocktail and the science of the grandiose suburban home. For them, things transpired reassuringly as before.

But for the many, this was a period when reassurance was in short supply.  Ordinary Americans began to understand that, recovery or not, things would probably never be the same in their town or neighborhood.  For them, this was a time of cascading collapse, with one trusted institution after another visibly deteriorating.

It was a golden age of corruption.  By this I do not mean that our top political leaders were on the take—they weren’t—but rather that America’s guardian class had been subverted or put to sleep.  Human intellect no longer served the interests of the public; it served money—or else it ceased to serve at all.  That was the theme of the era, whether the locale was Washington, D.C., or the college your kids attended, or the city desk of your rapidly shrinking local newspaper.  No one was watching out for the interests of the people, and increasingly the people could see that this was the case.

Source: Thomas Frank | American Empire Project

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What’s missing from Draut’s Better Deal?

June 26, 2018

Tamara Draut, at the conclusion of Sleeping Giant, her book about the new American working class, offered a list of proposals that she called A Better Deal.

THE BLUEPRINT FOR A BETTER DEAL

A Better Deal for Workers
Modernize out labor protections by fighting the definition of “independent contractor,” creating new rules for stable scheduling practices and ensuring that the growing “on-demand” workforce is protected by labor laws and has rights to basic worker benefits.  Expand federal enforcement capacity and increase the fines and penalties for companies that break the rules.
• Guarantee paid sick days and paid parental leave as universal benefits for all workers.
• Raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2021 and eliminate the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers.
• Reform labor laws to ensure the ability of workers to join a union, including prohibiting so-called right-to-work laws and establishing majority sign-up as the authorization required for establishing a union.

A Better Deal for Families
Develop a system to guarantee access to affordable and high-quality child care for infants and toddlers for all working- and middle-class families and high-quality jobs for child-care workers.
• Reinvest in state public higher education to achieve debt-free public college for all working- and middle-class students.

A Better Deal for Society
Revitalize our nation’s infrastructure, including addressing climate change, to ensure full employment
• Establish a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Racial Healing to provide full accounting of our nation’s violent racial history and to address its legacy in residential segregation, occupational segregation, the racial wealth gap and oppressive criminal justice and policing practices.
• Develop comprehensive immigration reform to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers.

A Better Deal for Democracy
Reform election procedures and practices, including establishing automatic voter registration to ensure all citizens are registered and widespread adoption of same-day registration, early voting and restoration of voting rights to formerly incarcerated citizens; restore the Voting Rights Act to provide voter protections for African Americans
• Establish a system of public financing at the federal, state and local levels, to reduce the role of corporate money and private wealth in funding elections and allow more racially diverse and working-class people to run for office.
• Amend the Constitution and transform the Supreme Court’s approach to money in politics to establish that money is not free speech and that corporations are not people.

What is missing from this list?

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Jordan Peterson on the totalitarian temptation

June 25, 2018

One of Jordan Peterson’s core ideas is the human capacity for evil, and his great examples are the crimes of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Communist China.

What’s notable about all three, he wrote, is not just the atrocities committed by the ruling party, but that the regimes were sustained by the consent of ordinary people.

Under certain circumstances, Peterson believes, almost all of us are potential secret police informers and concentration camp guards.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

His heroes are people such as Viktor Frankl, the Viennese psychiatrist who found a meaning in life to sustain him in a Nazi death camp; Vaclav Havel, who lived in truth despite his frequent imprisonments in Communist Czechoslovakia; and, above all, the great Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, who survived Soviet forced-labor camps and found a way to tell the world about them.

Havel condemned those who went along with the regime, such as the greengrocer who put up a sign saying “workers of the world, unite” because doing so is a path of least resistance.  Solzhenitsyn went so far as to blame himself for helping make the Gulag possible by failing to contract the Soviet regime’s lying propaganda.

So the choice is stark.  Either be willing to say “no,” no matter what the cost, or be a potential cog in a killing machine.

What is it today to which we need to say “no”?

It is whether to go along with unprovoked military aggression, assassinations, preventive detention, torture of suspects, warrantless surveillance and all the other practices of police states—all of which have come to be accepted as normal.

Ordinary Americans let themselves be led, step-by-step, to committing atrocities such as the My Lai massacre or the Abu Ghraib tortures.  Until more of us learn to say “no”, we will be just like ordinary Germans in the book Peterson discusses in the video above.

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The world’s tallest bonfire

June 23, 2018

Time for a little relief from politics.

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The prototype action-adventure story

June 22, 2018

THE THREE MUSKETEERS by Alexandre Dumas (1844) is probably the first modern action-adventure story and the prototype of action-adventure novels and movies to come.

I’ve seen at least three movies versions during my life and I dimly remember reading the original a number of years ago.  I recently finished re-reading it, with great pleasure, as part of a reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.

What sets The Three Musketeers apart from earlier stories of heroes and derring-do is its wit, its good humor and its quirky and amusing characters.

They aren’t solemn and serious, like, say, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.  They’re having a good time.  I enjoy their repartee and byplay as much as their adventures, which they seem to be enjoying as much as the reader.

There really was a KIng’s Musketeer corps, personal troops of King Louis XIII, who spent a lot of time loafing around Paris, drinking, gambling, womanizing and getting into fights with members of Cardinal Richelieu’s rival corps of musketeers.

This is an ideal life for a certain type of young man, and D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis are all young.  D’Artagnan is 20 years old when the novel begins, and Athos, who is old enough to have a tragic and secret past, is only 25.

They are classic examples of the aristocratic warrior ethic.  They are fearless.  They are unconditionally loyal to their king, their patron and each other.  And they never back away from any challenge, danger or fight.  They remind me of the pilots described by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff.

On the other hand, they are not much for sobriety, self-restraint, deferred gratification, long-range planning, big-picture thinking or respect for the sanctity of private property or the virtue of women.

Each of them has a lackey, a totally loyal personal servant who attends to their every need, which also makes their lives more pleasant.

As the novel develops, it seems that the ruthless and devious Cardinal Richelieu and his evil secret agent, Milady de Winter, are acting more in the interest of France than the shallow and self-indulgent King Louis III and the faithless Queen Anne.  No matter!  Our heroes have chosen their side as, as men of honor, they stick to it, no matter what.

We had three men and four women in our reading group.  I would have thought that some of the women would have been bothered by the musketeers’ cavalier attitude toward women.  Cavalier!  There’s an interesting adjective.  It is probably based on the behavior of the actual Cavaliers, who is real life were warrior aristocrats with more of a sense of honor than a sense of virtue.

One thing that bothered me about the musketeers’ story is that they didn’t spend any time drilling with muskets.  A musket is a complicated weapon to load and fire, especially under battlefield conditions, and that is why troops were given musket drills so that behavior become automatic.

But not Athos, Porthos and Aramis.  They spent all their time in swordplay.  The same is true of D’Artagnan, who is only a would-be musketeer until the end of the novel.

The time comes when they are called upon to fight with muskets, and they do so, expertly.  Their lackeys load muskets for them, and they are all deadly marksmen, even though they have not spent any time practicing and the musket is not a particularly accurate weapon.

When I read the novel, I was swept along by the action and didn’t stop to think about such things until after I put it down.  I enjoyed it.  If you like swashbuckling adventure stories, you might enjoy it, too.

The new face of the U.S. working class

June 20, 2018

What should be most important to progressives?  The fights by women, African-Americans and Latinos against oppression based on gender and sex?  Or the fight by wage-earners against exploitation by a tiny minority of corporate executives and wealthy investors?

I recently finished reading SLEEPING GIANT: The Untapped Potential and Political Power of America’s New Working Class by Tamara Draut (2016, 2018), in which she argues these fights are the same fight, on behalf of largely the same people.

Wage-earners today, she said, are disproportionately female and people of color.  Some of the fastest-growing job categories are in food service, health care, education and personal service—jobs historically held by women and people of color.

Many of them, maybe for this reason, are historically low paid and outside the protection of labor laws.

The only way today’s workers can defend their rights is by means of solidarity across racial and gender lines, which means fighting against racial discrimination and sexual harassment as strongly as fighting for a higher minimum wage or universal health care.

Tamara Draut, vice president of policy and research at Demos, a pro-labor think tank, is the daughter of a steel worker.

Her dad did hard manual labor under unhealthy conditions, which caused him to die of lung disease.  But he earned a union wage that enabled his family to live in their own house, take vacation trips and send Tamara to  college.

Working people still do hard manual labor under unhealthy conditions, but fewer and fewer of them earn a union wage.

In fact, the percentage of American workers represented by unions is lower than it was right before enactment of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935.  The law is less and less favorable to unions.

Large companies increasingly operate through chains of franchises and subcontractors, under restrictive agreements that do not allow leeway to increase pay or provide benefits.

Nine out of 10 food service workers tell pollsters they’re subect to wage theft—being short-changed on wages or being forced to work off the clock. One in five don’t work regular shifts; they don’t know from week to week when they will work.

One of the workers Draut interviewed for the book was “Damon,” a 32-year-old African-American man who was out on disability from his job in a Coca-Cola warehouse.

He was a “puller,” which meant that he put together orders for delivery on trucks by manually stacking cases of Coca-Cola on pallets.  He was paid by the number of cases he moved each shift, at the rate of 8.4 cents per case.

On each shift, the pullers are given a quota, the number of cases they must move each shift, and they are not allowed to leave the warehouse until they make their quota.

“Because we get paid on commission, I go out hard,” he said.  “I put my body on the line.  In order to make a good living pulling cases, you got to be fast.”  He told Draut he typically finishes his shift in six to seven hours. but most of his co-workers take eleven to twelve hours.  One died of a heart attack while pulling cases.

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Reasons to be hopeful

June 16, 2018

I often feel discouraged about the state of the world.  But a lot of things seem to be improving behind my back.

This set of charts was created by the late Hans Rosling for his newly-published book, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—And Why Things Are Better Than You Think, and are taken from Amazon’s listing for the book.

Rosling contended that people in Western Europe and North America underestimate the progress being made.  In his opinion, this was based partly on an underestimation of the capabilities of people in Third World countries.  He thought that the harmful effect of this mistaken pessimism is that it discourages continued efforts to make progress.

He created Gapminder software as a means of graphically illustrating progress over time.

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Ted Forth and the IRS scammer

June 16, 2018

Time for something a little lighter.

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Source: Ted Forth and the IRS Scammer on Medium Large.

U.S. neocons ok with unending, unwinnable wars

June 15, 2018

Colonel Andrew Bacevich, in a recent article for TomDispatch, said the U.S. military is committed to a never-ending war whose aim is no longer victory, but to avoid admitting defeat.

Some generals have even stated publicly that they don’t foresee a time when the “war on terror” will ever come to an end.

That’s not their fault, Bacevich wrote.  Everything humanly possible to achieve victory in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria short of genocide has been tried by the U.S. military and failed.  But so long as American forces remain in those countries, American neoconservatives can say the United States has not been defeated.

Bacevich pointed to the First World War, when it soon should have become obvious that continuing the war was more harmful to all participants than any gain that any of them could have hoped to achieve through victory.  Yet no head of state except Lenin in Russia could think of anything to do except fight on until the end.

This was the great nightmare of H.G. Wells, in The War in the Air and The Shape of Things to Come—that a future world war would be impossible to stop until there was a complete breakdown of governmental authority and social order.

We in the USA are a long way from that.  The only consequences of “defeat” would be giving up the false dream of world empire.

But there may come a time when the nations our government is trying to conquer and dominate will combine and give us Americans a taste of our own medicine.  If and when that happens, all our choices will be bad.

LINK

Infinite War | The gravy train rolls on by Andrew Bacevich for TomDispatch.

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Witch hunting then and now

June 14, 2018

Puritans in 17th century New England believed that Satan was real and ever present.  To doubt that the devil was a clear and present danger was an indication that you yourself were under the influence of the devil.

In 1692, in and around Salem, Massachusetts, many people, mostly women, were accused of being witches.  Nineteen were executed and six more died awaiting trial.

If you were accused of being a witch, the way to save your life was to confess your sin and accuse other people of being witches.

The great playwright, Arthur Miller, saw a parallel with the search for hidden Communists in his own time, and wrote The Curcible, which was staged in 1953, in order to bring this out.   I read this play as part of a monthly play-reading group hosted by my friend Walter Uhrman.

The events of the play did not follow the exact historical record, but Miller did a good job of depicting the Puritan culture and attitudes, especially its pervasive sense of sin and guilt.

Possibly the central character, John Procter, like the Thomas More character in A Man for All Seasons, was more concerned with his individual integrity, like a 20th century person, and less with salvation a 17th century Puritan would have been.

Miller did not explicitly draw a parallel with events of his own time, but the parallel was there to see.  Intellectuals and other public figures accused of being Communists or former Communists were blacklisted if they refused to confess or name others, just like accused witches in 1692 Salem.

His play drew the ire of the government.  He was denied a passport to view the opening of the play in London in 1954.  When he applied for a passport renewal in 1956, he was subpoened to testify before the House un-American Activities Committee.  He readily told about his own past political activities, but refused to testify about anybody else.

He was charged with contempt of Congress, and a federal judge sentenced him to a fine and prison term, but his conviction was overturned on appeal in 1958.

The same syndrome of accusation, confession and new accusations, but on a larger and more lethal scale, operated in the Soviet purge trials in the 1930s and in the Spanish Inquisition.  There were many witch trials.  An estimated 40,000 to 60,000 people were executed for witchcraft from the 14th through the 18th centuries.

In the 1990s, many Americans were caught up in a literal witch hunt.  Satanic cults were thought to be a real menace, and innocent people went to prison on false charges of abusing children in Satanic rituals.

Today the threat to basic civil liberties in the United States is greater than it was in the 1950s, although it doesn’t involve rituals of confession and naming names as in the Salem witch trials or the Congressional investigations of the 1950s.  In that sense, The Crucible is yesterday’s news.

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Maybe Kim really would give up nuclear weapons

June 13, 2018

I’ve never believed that Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un would give up North Korea’s nuclear weapons, mainly because, if I were him, I would regard nuclear weapons as the only way to deter an attack by the United States.

But Joel S. Wit, a former American diplomat who participated in negotiations with North Korea in the 1990s and again in informal talks in 2013, said he believes Kim really would be willing to give up nuclear weapons in return for cessation of hostilities by the United States.

Kim wants diplomatic recognition by the United States, a peace treaty formally ending the Korean Conflict and an end to trade restrictions and economic sanctions, Wit said.  In return, KIm would freeze nuclear weapons development and, step by step in return for U.S. actions, to dismantle nuclear and missile test sites.

This would not be the same thing as giving up nuclear weapons entirely, but it would be a sign that Kim wants peace, and a first step to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.  There is nothing that the United States is doing to North Korea that is of any direct benefit to the American people.

These objectives weren’t achieved at the Kim-Trump summit, and maybe the negotiations will ultimately fail, but the door is still open.

The biggest reason for hope is the desire of President Moon Jei-in of South Korea to make peace with North Korea.   As long as the governments of the two parts of Korea were enemies, peace was impossible.  If they are no longer enemies, peace is achievable.

President Moon’s accomplishment is like West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, which resulted in the signing of a treaty in 1972 between the West and East German governments recognizing each other’s right to exist.  This didn’t end the Cold War, let alone end the East Germany Communist dictatorship, but it helped make possible.

I don’t see any path to democracy in North Korea, but bringing the North Korean people into contact with the outside world would be a good thing, not a bad thing.

LINKS

North Korea’s Denuclearization and the ‘Libya model’ by Joel S. Wit for The Atlantic.

How Corporate Media Got the Kim-Trump Summit All Wrong by Gareth Porter for Truthdig.  Hat tip to Bill Harvey.

How Moon Jai-in Brought North Korea to Negotiate by S. Nathan Park for The Atlantic.

Singapore agreement will end the cold war, South Korea’s President Moon Jie-in says by the South China Morning Post.

The key word in the Trump-Kim show by Pepe Escobar for Asia Times.

The North Korean summit and deal by Tyler Cowen for Marginal Revolution.

Are management consultants of any use?

June 13, 2018

Recently I read and enjoyed THE MYTH OF MANAGEMENT: Why the Experts Keep Getting it Wrong by Matthew Stewart (2009).

Stewart told two stories in alternating chapters.  One is a history of theories of management, which is the topic of my previous post.  The other is Stewart’s personal experience of BS jobs in management consulting.

In 1988, Stewart, at age 26, found himself with a philosophy doctorate from Oxford and no job,  On a whim, he sent his CV to some management consulting firms.  By chance, he got a job from a firm looking for “non-traditional” hires—that is, people without MBA degrees.

Matthew Stewart

He soon found himself going to distant countries and convincing executives twice his age that he understood their businesses better than they did.   His tools were a set of algorithms developed by his firm, and his ability to play the role of an expert.

The main algorithm, as described in his book, was a system for estimating the cumulative cost, revenue and profit for serving each of a business’s clients.

What the system almost always produced was a graph, which looked like a whale, that showed that 20 percent of a firm’s clients produced more than 100 percent of its profits, 70 percent added virtually nothing and 10 percent cost the firm money.

Of course the question is how to disentangle the high-value, little-value and negative-value clients.  If you follow the Pareto 80/20 rule, then 20 percent of a public library’s books can be expected to represent 80 percent of its circulation, and the remaining 80 percent of the books only 20 percent of the circulation.  But you wouldn’t want a library to dump 80 percent of its books.

Companies that stop making low added-value products, as Eastman Kodak did with cameras and Xerox did with small copiers in the 1980s, find that ceding these markets empowers potential competitors.

That’s not to say that the quantitative analyses done by Stewart and his colleagues were worthless.  Understanding numerical data is useful.  But nobody ever checked whether Stewart’s firm’s interpretation of the data was helpful or even correct.  The consultants never suffered any consequences for being wrong.

Stewart did risk analysis—he had no training in risk analysis—for a Mexican bank in the eve of the collapse of the Mexican peso and the Mexican banking crisis.  Neither he nor his client had any notion that the crisis would be upon them, and his firm walked away with millions of dollars in fees.

He quit his firm for a while, then was enticed to join with some breakaway employees to form a new firm.  He invested all of his savings in the new firm.  After a time some the partners started to squeeze out Stewart and other partners.  They stopped his pay without telling him and refused to let him withdraw his stake.

But he successfully sued, got what was owed him and sold his shares in the company at the height of the dot-com stock market bubble.  He then began his new career as an author.

His whole saga reads like a satirical novel.  Indeed, since he doesn’t mention the name of his firm, his clients or his co-workers, it could just as easily have been fleshed out and published in the form of a satirical novel.

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