Archive for February, 2018

War in the heart of America

February 28, 2018

During my lifetime, I’ve read a fair amount about the Civil War, but two books that I read during the past few weeks bring home its reality in a new way.

They show how different the war was to people at the time than it seems in the light of history, and how events could have turned out differently from the way they did.

It was not inevitable that the war would last as long as it did, that the North would win or that slavery would have been abolished even if the North had won.

The two books are IN THE PRESENCE OF MINE ENEMIES: War in the Heart of America (2003) and THE THIN LIGHT OF FREEDOM: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America (2017) both by Edward L. Ayers.

His window into the war is a collection of source material—letters, dairies, newspaper accounts and the like from two communities— Franklin County, Pa., and Augusta County, Va.—collected over a period of decades as part of a special project of the University of Virginia.

The two counties are at opposite ends of the Great Valley running north and south between the Blue Ridge and the Appalachians, which was a major battleground of the war.

They were more alike than they were different.   Both consisted of prosperous small farms and small towns.  Augusta was different from the plantation South; Franklin was more typical of the North.

Ayers began with accounts of the 1859 celebration of the Fourth of July in the two counties.   The white people of both considered themselves loyal to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.   Both wanted to preserve the Union.  Neither wanted to abolish slavery.

Yet within a few years they were at war and hated each other.   Reading these books helps me understand places such as Bosnia and Lebanon, which differing peoples can live together in peace for generations, yet, in a short period of time, be brought to the point of killing each other.

In the 1860 election, Augusta County supported the Constitutional Union party, which was pro-slavery, but anti-secession.  Franklin County supported the Republican Party, which was anti-slavery on only one point—that slavery should be barred from United States territories, in order to protect Northern white workers from competition with slave labor.

Slaveowners in the Deep South saw this as an ultimate threat, because no new slave states would have been admitted to the Union, which in the long run would have made slaveowners a politically powerless minority.

In Virginia, delegates from Augusta County voted against secession.  But as secession proceeded, the question changed from favoring the Union vs. secession to favoring the North vs. the South.  Once the decision was made, the anti-secession delegates fought bravely the Confederate Army or otherwise supported the war wholeheartedly.

The white people of Augusta County were willing to break up the Union in order to preserve slavery.  The white people of Franklin County became willing to abolish slavery in order to preserve the Union.   Black people in both counties had their own w

None foresaw how long the war would last, how many lives would be lost nor what the result would be.

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‘Remind me why socialism is so great again’

February 22, 2018

Economist Mark J. Perry, who posted this chart on the American Enterprise Institute’s Ideas blog, argued that prices are highest in the economic sectors that are most heavily regulated.

Said he:  “Remind me of why socialism is so great again.”

One possible explanation is Baumol’s Cost Disease, the tendency of the cost of human services to rise relative to the cost of manufactured goods.  That’s not the whole story.

The fact is that European countries that most Americans would consider socialist have free or affordable medical care and free or affordable higher education.   And it is not a case of costs being shifted from patients and students onto taxpayers.

Overall costs of health care and higher education are less in so-called socialist European countries (I write “so-called” because most of them have self-described conservative governments).

The reasons why health care costs less in those European countries than in the USA is that there are no for-profit insurance companies standing between the patient and the physician, that European countries control prescription drug prices and that the incomes of physicians and other health care providers are less.

My guess is that European universities provide a no-frills education without spending huge sums on sports stadiums and student amenities.  My other guess is that their hospitals and univerities are not so top-heavy with highly-paid administrators.

In and of itself, government regulation is neither good nor bad.  It depends on what is being regulated, how it is being regulated and in whose interest it is being regulated.

LINKS

Chart of the day (century?): Price changes 1997 to 2017 by Mark J. Perry for AEI Ideas.

Mark Perry Has Never Heard of William Baumol by ProGrowth Liberal for Angry Bear.

The revolt of the ‘places that don’t matter’

February 21, 2018

The basic political split, not just in the USA but across the Western world, is between the regions that are thriving under globalization and those that aren’t, according to a new a study.

The thriving areas embrace what I call neoliberalism.  The left-behind areas embrace what Andrés Rodríguez-Pose, the author of the study, calls populism.

In his view, the split between rich regions and poor regions is more politically significant that the differences between rich and poor individuals within these regions.

The split is cultural as well as economic.  The rich regions reflect the culture of what Chris Arnade calls “the front-row kids,” who value education, cosmopolitanism and upward mobility, and the “back-row kids,” who put greater value on family, religion and community.

Rodríguez-Pose uses the word populism to mean any kind of revolt against the economic and political elite, whether in the form of right-wing nationalism or left-wing radicalism.   From his standpoint, they’re both bad.   His solution is wiser economic policies by the political and economic elite.

A populist is one who is on the side of the people against the elite, or claims to be.  The all-important question is how you define “the people”.   Right-wing populists define “the people” in terms of race, ethnicity and heritage.  Left-wing populists define “the people” as the working people.   I think that, in the long run, the only alternative to right-wing populism will be left-wing populism.

LINKS

How the ‘Places That Don’t Matter’ Fueled Populism by Leonid Bershidsky for Bloomberg.

The revenge of the places that don’t matter, but Andrés Rodríguez-Pose for VoxEU, the policy portal of the Centre for Economic Policy Research.

Suicide Rate Highest in Decades, but Highest in Rural America by Mark Maciag for Governing.

Diversity is not a substitute for justice

February 20, 2018

Racial and cultural diversity is a good thing.

Adolph Reed Jr.

I, a straight white male, benefited from diversity during my college days in two ways.

I won a college scholarship because I was the only applicant from a small town below the Mason-Dixon line, and because I was one of the few applicants for this particular scholarship who took tests in the humanities rather than the sciences.

The other way I benefited was in meeting a more diverse group of people than I had known before.  I never had a meaningful conversation with anyone who was not white or Christian until I went to college (in the 1950s) and meeting people of different backgrounds was an important part of my education.

But diversity is not a substitute for social justice.  Diversity will not, in and of itself, end plutocracy or war or police brutality or unemployment or divisiveness.

The reason so many powerful people and institutions embrace diversity and reject social justice is that diversity leaves the existing structure of political and economic power intact.   Diversity is a good thing.  But it’s not enough.

LINKS

Diversity: A Managerial Ideology by Darel E. Paul for Quillette.  Hat tip to Alex Small.

Black Politics After 2016 by Adolph Reed Jr. for Nonsite.org (Emory College).  This is long, but well worth reading.

The Political Economy of Anti-Racism by Walter Benn Michaels for  Nonsite.org (Emory College).  A companion piece to Reed’s article, it also is well worth reading.

Maybe ‘Russian influence’ ads were just clickbait

February 19, 2018

A blogger called Moon of Alabama argued, plausibly, that the so-called “Russian influence” campaign was just individual Russians posting clickbait on the Internet to generate ad revenue.

His argument is consistent with the facts, as outlined in the indictment.   The only way to settle it would be if one of the 13 Russians charged by Special Prosecutor Robert S. Mueller would volunteer to come to the United States and stand trial, which is highly unlikely.

A lot of false news originates this way.  Somebody makes up something striking and posts it hoping to get a lot of views.

When I first read about Mueller’s charges, I thought that I had some more-or-less solid facts.   But, no.  I still can’t say I know what basis there is for the Russiagate charges, or if there is any basis at all.  It’s still the same wilderness of mirrors.   I feel I’m back where I started.

∞∞∞

Later [2/20/2018]  Re-reading the indictment, I am reminded that, if the allegations are true, this was a highly organized effort, much more than the typical individual Internet troll’s attempt to generate clickbait.   Most Russians in 2016 feared Hillary Clinton and were sympathetic to Donald Trump, so the effort could have had a dual purpose—to make money and undermine Clinton.

If I had it to do over, I would have pondered the indictment a little more and Internet commentary a little less, and written one post and not four.

Later [2/21/2018]  Well, maybe not so highly organized.  The more analysis I read, the less certain I feel of the basis for the Mueller indictments or anyting else.

LINKS

Text of the Grand Jury indictments.

Mueller Indictment – The “Russian Influence” Is a Commercial Marketing Scheme by Moon of Alabama.

Robert Mueller’s America—A Farce Wrapped in Hypocrisy by Publius Tacitus for Sic Semper Tyrannis.  [Added 2/21/2018]

A Lesson in Political Sociology for Robert Mueller, a Lesson in Warfare for Dimitry Peskov by John Helmer for Dances With Bears. [Added 2/21/2018]

The Fundamental Uncertainty of Mueller’s Russia Indictments by Masha Gessen for The New Yorker.  [Added 2/21/2018]

Russiagate and the lost hope for peace

February 19, 2018

Prior to the 2016 election, Vladimir Putin said he would welcome the election of Donald Trump because Trump advocated better relations with Russia.

But, as Robert W. Merry of The American Conservative pointed out, any faint hope of that happening was snuffed out by the exposure of Russian attempts to influence the election by means of fake posts on social media.   The Russians shot themselves in the foot.

Most of us Americans have no perspective on this because we don’t know, or choose to ignore, the extent of our own government’s meddling in foreign countries.

U.S. meddling not only includes propaganda, open and covert, but taking sides in civil wars and outright invasions of foreign countries whose leaders oppose U.S. policy.

I don’t argue the U.S. government should tolerate violations of American election law by foreigners in order to atone for American sins abroad.  I do say this should not be used as an excuse for risking war or suppressing dissent.

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How much impact did Russian media ads have?

February 18, 2018

Double click to enlarge

I have to admit that the extent of Russian propaganda on U.S. social media was more than I assumed.  Maybe I shouldn’t have been, given that I’d once posted links about the extent of the Russian propaganda effort.

I don’t use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or other social media myself.

I’m curious to know how far these ads reached and how much impact they had.

I’d like to ask American viewers of this blog to comment on the following questions—

  • Have you ever seen any of the ads above or below before?
  • Have you ever received anything from american veterans, Army of Jesus, Being Patriotic, Blacktivist, Born Liberal, LGBT United, Secured Borders or Stop AI (all invaders)?
  • If you did receive anything like this, what did you think of it?  Do you think it would influence people you know?

Of course, from the legal standpoint, it doesn’t matter whether these ads had a big impact or a small impact.   All that matters is whether certain individuals broke American law.

Click to enlarge

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Russiagate and the Mueller indictments

February 17, 2018

Friday’s Grand Jury indictments of 13 Russians and three Russian organizations indicate that Russian meddling in the 2016 elections went far beyond mere Russian propaganda on social media.

But there were no charges of knowing collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian agents.

Russians allegedly entered the United States under false identities, impersonated Americans on social media and organized political rallies on behalf of fake organizations—all to promote the candidacy of Donald Trump or discredit his opponents.

They are charged with violating American laws on campaign financing, registration of foreign agents, identity theft and fraud.

All this is within Special Prosecutor Robert S. Mueller’s mandate to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election.  He is not like a Kenneth Starr in the Whitewater investigation, fishing for anything that can be used against the President.

There’s no question that Vladimir Putin welcomed the candidacy of Donald Trump.   He promised to improve relations with Russia, and, as Putin said, why wouldn’t the Russian government welcome that?   That’s not evidence of a Trump-Putin plot to rig  the 2016 elections

If there really was such a plot, this would be grounds for an impeachment.   But this is so improbable as to be virtually impossible.

All the information that has come out about Trump campaign officials trying to set up meetings with Russians is, to me, evidence against collusion.   If the fix were really in, Trump would have ordered his underlings to stay as far away as possible from Russians.

The real problem is the way the Russiagate issue is being exploited politically.

It is being used as a justification for military confrontation with Russia in Ukraine, Syria and other countries.   A confrontation at worst risks an accidental nuclear war and at best creates a useless conflict which brings no benefit to Americans.

It is being used as a justification for censorship of Americans, particularly leftists, whose views supposedly serve the interests of Russia.  I suppose this would include me, as a blogger who voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary and the Green Party in the general election.  I think about the 1950s and 1960s, when progressives who supported civil rights or labor rights were accused of following the Communist Party line.

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Learning to be happy while living within limits

February 12, 2018

Back in the 1990s, when I was still working as a newspaper reporter, I was assigned to write a feature article on people who had embraced “voluntary simplicity” as a way of life.

I thought that, given the state of the local economy then, there might be larger numbers of people who were experiencing involuntary simplicity.

I had the same thought when I listened to an excellent talk by Emrys Westacott last November as part of the annual UNESCO World Philosophy Day lectures at St. John Fisher College here in Rochester, N.Y., and later read his book, THE WISDOM OF FRUGALITY: Why Less Is More—More or Less  (2016).

He pointed out that the great majority of philosophers in both the Western and Eastern traditions endorse frugality as a way of life.

Be content with what you have, they say; don’t expect happiness from material goods. Instead you should seek simplicity, or self-sufficiency, or purity, or closeness to nature.

There’s a difference between a frugal person, and a poor person.  Frugal people live the way they do out of choice.  Poor people may or may not be have a worse material standard of living than frugal people, but they are worse off in either case because they are forced to make sacrifices they didn’t choose.

Philosophers have had different reasons for advocating frugality, not all of them compatible with each other.

Benjamin Franklin said thrift is necessary to get ahead in life.  Henry Thoreau said caring about stuff separates you from nature.  Epicurus said that the less you think you need, the happier you can be.  The ancient Spartans said needing a lot of stuff makes you weak.   Jesus of Nazareth said you should not seek riches, but rather the Kingdom of Heaven. The Buddha said something similar.

Westacott, with great clarity, examined these arguments, and more, and also the counter-arguments.

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All the movies that won special effects Oscars

February 10, 2018

How to tell the ‘flu from a cold

February 9, 2018

This doctor’s hilarious chart reveals the very simple way to tell if you’ve got the ‘flu or just a cold by Tom Michael for The Sun.  (Hat tip to naked capitalism)

What is influenza, how contagious is it, what are the symptoms, how can you avoid it, and has anybody died from the ‘flu in the UK? by Lauren Windle and Emma Lake for The Sun.

Cold versus flu, explained by Julia Belluz for Vox.  [Added 2/10/2018]  (Hat tip to Mike the Mad Biologist.)

Why does hawkish Trump object to sanctions?

February 8, 2018

President Donald Trump is resisting congressional mandates to punish Russian individuals through economic sanctions.

At the same time he is going along with sending advanced weapons to the Ukrainian government to use against Russia, and with keeping American troops in Syria where they may come in conflict with Russian troops.

And he acts as if he was getting ready for war with North Korea and Iran.

So why is he digging in his heels over this one thing?

I don’t see any fundamental conflicts of interest between Russia and the United states, except maybe in the Arctic, and none that are worth the risk of nuclear war.

Vladimir Putin is authoritarian and ruthless, but no more so than many other world leaders, including Boris Yeltsin, with whom the U.S. government got along and gets along with just fine.

The problem with economic sanctions directed against whole countries is that they harm the common people of a country without touching the leaders.  If American leaders want to use U.S. economic power to reward and punish, economic sanctions aimed at individuals are probably the least harmful and most effective of doing it.

But overuse of economic sanctions of all kinds will be harmful to the United States in the long run because foreign countries will protect themselves by disconnecting from U.S. banks and the U.S. dollar.

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‘Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia’

February 6, 2018

          Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia.  But there was merely a piece of furtive knowledge which he happened to possess because his memory was not sufficiently under control.
          Officially the change of partners had never happened.  Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.  The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.
                          ==George Orwell, 1984

During the 2012 Presidential campaign, Gov. Mitt Romney was criticized and even ridiculed for calling Russia “our No. 1 geopolitical foe.”   President Obama said, “The 1980s are calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for years.”

But now we’re told that Russia is waging war against the United States and always has been.   It’s a funny kind of war, though—more like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” than “Red Dawn.”

No Russian troops are massing on U.S. borders.   The Russian government makes no threat against the United States.

The claim is that the Russians—either the Russian government or certain individual Russians—are exercising a kind of mind control over Americans.   Russian agents allegedly denied Hillary Clinton her due share of the 2016 President vote and allegedly manipulated President Trump into being less anti-Russian than he should be.

But even if all the Russiagate charges are true, which I doubt, what the Russians have done is no different from what the old Soviet Union did, and what the United States continues to do down to this day.  During the time Vladimir Putin has been in office, it is the United States, not Russia, that has announced policies of “regime change” against countries that never threatened Americans.

It’s interesting that congressional Democrats, who say that President Trump is an insane clown, an ignoramus, a would-be fascist and a puppet of Vladimir Putin, have no interest in restricting presidential powers to wage war or bypass due process of law.   The only limit they’ve imposed is limitation of his authority to lift economic sanctions against Russia.

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A day in the life of the world

February 4, 2018

Life in a Day is a documentary film consisting of YouTube videos from all around the world, all shot on July 24, 2010, which was a Saturday and a day of a full moon.   The video above is the trailer and the one below is the full 95-minute film.   It’s been around a long time, but I only just now came across it.   That’s true of a lot of my posts.

It’s consists of clips taken from 81,000 videos shot by volunteers in 192 countries, adding up to 4,500 hours of footage.

There are some remarkable episodes—a Slovak filmmaker in Kathmandu, Nepal, interviewing a Korean man who is bicycling around the world; a Peruvian shoeshine boy hustling to make a living, and confessing the thing he likes best is his laptop; an acrobatic Russian making Moscow his playground.

But most of it is people in different places living their everyday lives and answering one of three questions:  What do you love?  What do you fear?  What’s in your pockets?   The filmmaker doesn’t make any overall sociological or political point, except the diversity and unity of the human race.  It’s a joyful movie.  The musical score adds a lot to it.

Ninety-five minutes is a long time to watch a movie on a computer screen, but you don’t have to watch it all at one.  It took me about five or ten minutes to get into the film, but, when I did, I watched through till the end.

Part of the purpose of making the film was to celebrate the fifth anniversary of YouTube.   It was released on YouTube and, so far as I know, has never been shown in theaters.

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The curse of Amazon

February 2, 2018

When I moved to Rochester, N.Y., in 1974, one of the attractions was the number of excellent individually-owned bookstores.   Later on the Borders bookstore chain opened a store here, and I was delighted at their huge selection of books.   The smaller new-book stores went out of business, one by one, but I accepted that s the price of progress.

Click to enlarge.

Borders was pushed aside by Barnes & Noble.   Now Barnes & Noble is losing sales and operating at a loss.  Unless something changes, local bookstores will be replaced by Amazon.

What’s wrong with that? you may ask.  Amazon provides low prices and excellent customer service.  What difference does the lack of a physical store make?

What’s wrong is that Amazon treats its employees like work animals or like machines.   I read an article today about how Amazon has patented wristbands for tracking what employees do with their hands, presumably so they don’t put something in the wrong bin or pause to scratch their noses.

Amazon hasn’t said when, whether or how the new system will be implemented, but employees already are subjected to an inhuman work pace that is determined and monitored by computer.

I don’t want to buy the lowest possible price if it comes at the price of human misery.   I’d hate to see a new Amazon facility in western New York.

Sometimes I give in and buy through Amazon.   This is wrong of me, because I’m helping to make its monopoly power more complete.   But in the total scheme of things, my decisions as a consumer make little difference.  It is the government’s responsibility, not mine, to enforce the anti-trust laws, and make and enforce decent labor standards.

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