Archive for July, 2019

A fresh look at the ‘alternative right’

July 29, 2019

Matthew N. Lyons is author of INSURGENT SUPREMACISTS: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire and principal author of CRTL-ALT-DELETE: An Antifascist Report on the Alternative Right.

His two books give me a framework for understanding the “alternative right” movement.  What makes the movement “alternative”, according to Lyons, is that, unlike right-wing movements of the past, its leaders are revolutionaries.

The right-wing extremists of the past, such as the Klan, used extreme and sometimes violent movements to suppress threats to the status quo, such as labor unions or black people who wanted voting rights.  The alternative right is not a defender of the existing system.  They want to repeal and replace it.

While they are small in numbers, the nomination and election of Donald Trump is an indication that many people are fed up with the existing governmental and corporate system, including the leadership of both political parties.

The “alternative right” movement is diverse.  It is not led by any particular individual or organization, and there are exceptions to almost any general statement one could make about it.  Lyons sees three main strains:

  • White nationalists.   Nowadays they tend more to white separatism than to old-time white supremacy.  They are anti-semitic, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim as well as anti-black.  They include long-time racist organizations such as the Klan, neo-Nazis and Aryan Nations, but the highest-profile leader is Richard Spencer, founder of the National Policy Institute.
  • Theocrats.  Their aim is to enact their idea of Christian doctrine and morality into law.  They oppose feminism, abortion, gay rights and separation of religion and government.  One of the driving forces is the Christian Reconstructionist movement, which advocates a theocracy based on Old Testament law in order to hasten the Second Coming of Christ.
  • The ‘Patriot’ movement.  Their aim is to arm themselves to prepare for a breakdown in social  order or a totalitarian government takeover.  They believe they have a right to resist illegitimate federal authority with armed force, but also to enforce order when the authorities fail to do so.  Examples are the Posse Comitatus and Oath Keepers movements.

One common theme uniting all the groups is an ideal of masculinity and warrior brotherhood.  Woman are honored mainly for their role as wives and mothers, although women do exercise leadership roles in some alt-right organizations.

White people and Christians are declining as a percentage of the population, so white nationalists and Christian theocrats think it’s important for whites and Christians to reproduce.

Lyons thinks the alt-right, the radical left and the corporate and governmental elite are engaged in a three-way fight that only one of them can win.

There is overlap between the alt-right and the radical left.  Both oppose globalization, both regard the corporate elite as enemies and both think the Republican and Democratic parties are corrupt, all of which I agree with.

The alt-right, like the radical left, is anti-imperialist.  Alt-rightists oppose military intervention in foreign wars, and want to wind down the existing wars, as do I.  Many admire Vladimir Putin and other authoritarian foreign leaders as examples of masculine strength and conservative nationalist values.

Lyons argued that the alt-right is not fascist.  Rather than trying to set up a totalitarian police state modeled in Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy, they seek to decentralize power.

In the United States, right-wing whites and Christians have never needed a central authority to enforce racial or religious domination.  In fact, the federal government has sometimes been a liberator, as during the Civil War and the civil rights era.

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Kurt Vonnegut on the shapes of stories

July 27, 2019

Double click to enlarge.

Kurt Vonnegut Diagrams the Shape of All Stories in a Master’s Thesis Rejected by the University of Chicago by Open Culture.  Hat tip to Lambert Strether.

What Hillary Clinton actually said

July 26, 2019

These are remarks that Hillary Clinton made at an LGBT fund-raising event in New York City on Sept. 9, 2016

You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. (Laughter/applause) Right?  (Laughter/applause) They’re racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic – Islamophobic – you name it.

Hillary Clinton

And unfortunately, there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.  He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people – now have 11 million.  He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric.  Now, some of those folks – they are irredeemable, but thankfully, they are not America.

But the “other” basket – the other basket – and I know because I look at this crowd I see friends from all over America here: I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas and — as well as, you know, New York and California — but that “other” basket of people are people who feel the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures; and they’re just desperate for change.  It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from.

They don’t buy everything he says, but — he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end.  Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.

— Hillary Clinton, CBS News[9]

Source: Basket of deplorables – Wikipedia

Was she wrong?

Hat tip to Bill Elwell.

Sanders victory would spark a political crisis

July 25, 2019

Bernie Sanders

If Bernie Sanders actually were elected President in 2020, it would ignite a major and continuing political crisis.

Neither the Wall Street financial establishment nor the pro-war intelligence establishment (aka the “deep state”) would accept his victory as legitimate.

The Washington press corps would be against him.  Nor could he count on the support of leaders of his own party.  He threatens their sources of wealth and power by showing it is possible to be elected without big donations from rich and powerful interests.

We saw a taste of what could happen with the election of Donald Trump in 2016.  Democrats and liberals refused to accept his victory as legitimate.  A few of them proposed a silly plan to have the Electoral College disregard the instructions of voters.  I think we could expect a revival of this idea, this time on a bipartisan basis.

Then Democratic leaders and their sympathizers in the CIA put forth the idea that Trump’s victory was due to Russian agents hacking the Democratic National Committee and manipulating the voters via the Internet—the so-called Russiagate conspiracy.  Democrats still haven’t given up on using this to drive Trump from office.

(I think Donald Trump is a bad president, but I think he should be attacked for the things he actually did and I don’t think it is possible to undo the 2016 election.)

Some Russiagaters said the Russians also backed Bernie Sanders.  We’ll hear a lot more of this if Sanders ia nominated, and we’d probably get a new Russiagate investigation if he ia elected.

The Wall Street banking establishment has their own method of dealing with populist presidents.  It is to “lose confidence” in the administration, which pushes up bond interest rates, which in turn pushes the federal government budget out of balance.

Bill Clinton complained about being subject to the will of bond traders.  His friend and adviser, James Carville, said that if he died, he would like to be reincarnated as the bond market, because he would be all powerful.

Going further back in American history, Nicholas Biddle, president of the then Bank of the United States, deliberately induced a financial crisis by tightening credit in order to discredit his enemy, President Andrew Jackson.

Barack Obama was thwarted in enacting his very moderate political program by the intransigent opposition of Republicans in Congress.  In a Sanders presidency, we could expect the same thing not only from Republicans, but also from pro-corporate Democrats.

Maybe you think I’m alarmist.  I hope I am.  But I’m not predicting anything that hasn’t happened before.

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Elizabeth Warren on the next recession

July 23, 2019

Elizabeth Warren wrote a good article about how another recession is on the way, and it will be as bad as the previous one because U.S. policymakers didn’t learn the lessons of 2008.

The economic cycle of growth and recession seems to be inherent in a capitalist economy that uses financial markets.  There are many theories as to why this should be so.

Elizabeth Warren

But the 2008 recession was much worse than the ones that came before because the economic expansion was based on debt that could not be repaid.  I give myself credit for foreseeing this.

My foresight, however, was of little value because I could not foresee when the crash would come.   When it happened, it was as big a surprise to me as it was to everybody else I knew.

The problem of debt overhang has not been fixed.  Nobody has really tried—neither Presidents Obama and Trump, the Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress or the supposedly nonpartisan Federal Reserve Board.

Instead public policy has been concentrating on propping up the financial markets, mainly by holding down interest rates.  People with savings are forced into the risky financial markets if they want to keep their savings from being eroded by inflation.

Everything that made the 2008 recession so bad has been left in place

Now there is an inverted yield curve—that is, interest rates on short-term debt are higher than for long-term debt.

Usually rates on long-term debt are higher because of greater risk.  An invested yield curve is almost always a sign that investors think a recession is coming soon.

We need public policy of debt forgiveness for individuals, limits on corporate debt to what’s repayable and investment in the real economy, especially manufacturing.

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Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren?

July 22, 2019

I respect both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.  They are the only two current Presidential candidates, except maybe Tulsi Gabbard, that I’d vote for.  Unfortunately I can’t vote for both.

Warren has a better and deeper understanding of policy.  Sanders’ ideas (for example, the Walmart tax) are sometimes half-baked.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Via Vox

But Sanders has a better and deeper understanding of public opinion and political power.  When he started campaigning for a $15 an hour minimum wage and Medicare for all, these ideas were regarded as crackpot.  He understands that public opinion is not a given.  It can be changed.

He also understands that it is not enough to have correct ideas or even to have popular ideas.  You have to have a political force behind you that is powerful enough to push these ideas through.

That is why he gives so much support to striking workers and protest demonstrations.  They represent a potential counterforce to the power of big money.

He regards billionaires and CEOs of big corporations as his enemies, and his aim is a political revolution that takes away their power.

Warren’s aim, on the other hand, is to make the system work the way it should.  That’s why Wall Street regards her as the lesser evil.

So even though many of her specific proposals are similar to Sanders’ proposals, the two represent different philosophies.

Warren wants to win an argument.  Sanders wants to win a battle.

My main reservation about the two is that neither Warren nor Sanders are full-fledged peace candidates—although Sanders is closer to being one than Warren is

If both are on the ballot in next year’s New York Democratic primary, I would vote for Sanders.

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American exceptionalism in medical care

July 22, 2019

Click to enlarge.

I’ve often run versions of this chart on my web log.  It shows that we Americans pay more for medical care than do people of other rich countries, and yet our health is worse, and many of our citizens lack good medical year.  Yet a lot of us are afraid to change.

As a writer for The Economist said:

Republican reluctance to embrace health care, despite the president’s best efforts, is understandable.

On the one hand, America’s health-care system is woefully dysfunctional: the country spends about twice as much on health care as other rich countries but has the highest infant-mortality rate and the lowest life expectancy.  Some 30m people, including 6m non-citizens, remain uninsured.

And yet, though costs remain a major concern—out-of-pocket spending on insurance continues to rise—Americans say they are generally satisfied with their own health care. Eight in ten rate the quality of their care as “good” or “excellent”.  Few are in favour of dramatic reform.

Source: Health spending and life expectancy – The Big Picture

I think many Americans are in the same situation I am.  I have medical insurance that I can afford, providing by a company that I don’t think is going to cheat me.  I don’t know what I’d do if I had to pay my medical bills out of pocket—partly because the insurance company can negotiate lower rates than I would have to pay as an individual.

So it is natural to fear any change, and to be skeptical of anybody who promises to take away what I’ve got and replace it with something else that supposedly is just as good.

So these fears lock me into a system in which I’m at the mercy for for-profit insurance companies whose profitability is based on maximizing what they take in as premiums and minimizing what they pay back as benefits.

In the best of cases, the insurer’s need for profit is added to the medical bill.

T.R. Reid, in The Healing of Americawritten 10 years ago, said one of the reasons why American pay more for medical care and get less than people of other rich countries is the for-profit insurance system.  At the time he wrote, only Switzerland had for-profit insurance companies.

The other reason is that the other countries negotiate drug prices on a national basis, which the U.S. government is forbidden by law to do, and that medical professionals in the U.S. get more than in other countries.  I don’t have any reason to think any of these things has changed in 10 years.

The justification for the high fees of American physicians is that they have to pay off their medical school debt.  Medical education in other advanced countries is free or affordable.  If Americans ever wanted to cap physicians’ fees, we should combine that with some kind of medical debt forgiveness.

Reid said that there are three alternatives to the U.S. system: (1) the Canadian Medicare model, in which health insurance is nationalized, (2) the British National Health model, in which medical care is nationalized and (3) the system in Germany and Japan, in which non-profit organizations, accountable to patients, provide health insurance.

I don’t think it is feasible to create a patient-run cooperative insurance system for scratch, and I don’t think we Americans have the administrative capability of duplicating Britain’s National Health, even if we wanted to.

So that leaves Medicare for All as the path forward.  And it’s not Medicare for All unless we get rid of private insurance and regulate drug prices.

LINKS

Why a “Public Option” Isn’t Enough by Benjamin Studebaker and Nathan J. Robinson for Current Affairs. The two writers conflate Britain’s National Health with Medicare for All, which is based on the Canadian system, but otherwise an excellent article.

“Medicare for All” vs “Public Option”: the 2020 Field Is Split, Our Survey Shows by Abby Goodnough and Trip Gabriel for The New York Times.  Where the Democratic Presidential candidates stand.

Sixteen levels of complexity in ‘Happy Birthday’

July 20, 2019

This is from Jason Kottke’s blog.

Watch, listen, and learn as pianist and composer Nahre Sol plays what you might think of as a very simple song, Happy Birthday, in 16 increasing levels of complexity.  She starts out using a single finger and ends by playing an original composition that seemingly requires 12 or 13 fingers to play. This gave me, a musical dunce, a tiny glimpse into what a composer does.

Source: A Demonstration of 16 Levels of Piano Playing Complexity

Wanted: an immigration policy

July 18, 2019

Donald Trump’s immigration policy is to discourage crossings of the southern border by means of deliberate cruelty.

But it is not enough for liberals and progressives to protest President Trump.  They need to come up with a policy of their own.  This they have not done.  Until they do, the present situation will continue, which will be to Trump’s political advantage.

The policy of cruelty did not originate with Trump.  Under the Clinton administration, the U.S. government built walls at key border crossings, so that unauthorized immigrants would be forced into the desert and risk death by thirst.  Under the Obama administration, conditions were terrible in detention centers.

The Trump administration doubled down on all these policies.  And a cynic could make the argument (although I don’t) that control by cruelty is working.  It probably has a deterrent effect, while sufficient unauthorized immigrants make their way into the U.S. to supply employers’ need for low-paid labor.

But what is the alternative?  Is it open borders—no controls on immigration at all?  I know of nobody who has made that argument.  I know of no government that has such a policy.

Julian Castro, Elizabeth Warren and others have proposed repealing a 1929 law that makes it a crime to cross into the United States without authorization.  That wouldn’t be the same as open borders.  Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents could still turn you back.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and others propose abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which is responsible for enforcing immigration laws in the interior of the United States.

This would not necessarily affect the sister Customs and Border Protection agency, which is responsible for controlling entry into the United States.  But AOC and Omar also oppose any additional funding for detention centers or deportations.  Some immigrant rights groups oppose all funding for detention centers or deportations.

In practice, all this means no limit on immigration at all—open borders in all but same.  The alternative to control by cruelty is no control at all.

AOC, Omar and others also call for a “Marshall Plan” to promote economic development in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, the three main countries that asylum-seekers are fleeing.  But the original Marshall Plan was to rebuild democratic nations of western Europe after World War Two, not dictatorship like these three countries.

There is no point in aiding oppressive governments that are creating the problem in the first place.  Far better to aid the democratic governments of Costa Rica, Belize and Panama and the semi-democratic government of Nicaragua, and cut off support for the dictatorships.

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Why ‘the squad’ are under attack

July 17, 2019

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Aylessa Presley are not under attack because they are women of color.

Although they have been attacked on the basis of their ethnicity, that is not the reason why they were attacked.

Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley (AP)

They are under attack because they threaten the system by which corporate and wealthy donors dominate the legislative process.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed a Green New Deal.  Ilhan Omar questioned the power of the Israel lobby.  All four traveled to the border and exposed the cruelty of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to asylum seekers.

If they’d just kept quiet, nobody would care that Ilhan Omar is an immigrant from Somalia, that Rashida Tlaib is the daughter of Palestinian Arab immigrants, that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is of Puerto Rican heritage or that Ayanna Pressley is African-American.

Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer are fond of pointing out that there are only four of them.  But if they are so few and unimportant, why the fuss?

Some time ago Ocasio-Cortez said that the reason she as a freshman representative has been able to make an impact is that she has time to do her job.

And the reason she has time to do her job is that she does not follow the guideline of spending three hours a day on the phone to raise money.

That was a powerful statement.  It was threatening to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats and Republicans.  Their power depends on fund-raising from powerful interests.

If a congresswoman or a Bernie Sanders shows you can win power in defiance of those interests, this threatens the careers and even the livelihoods of those who depend on the donor class.

It is to Donald Trump’s interest to highlight this division within the Democratic Party, although he and the Republicans, if anything, are worse in this respect.

Top leaders of both political parties must be hoping for Ocasio-Cortez’s defeat.  The same is true of the other three.  I hope they all provide good constituent service.

LINKS

Nancy Pelosi Has Lost Control by Zach Carter for Huffington Post.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the 2020 Presidential Race and Trump’s Crisis at the Border, an interview for the New Yorker magazine

Rashida Tlaib Wants to Tax the Rich, Save Detroit and Free Palestine, an interview for Jacobin magazine..

Once again Trump commands the headlines

July 17, 2019

Donald Trump has a superpower—the ability to keep the attention of the public and the press on himself and his tweets rather than on issues he doesn’t want discussed.

He manifested this superpower in his tweet about whether certain Democratic congresswomen shouldn’t just “go back and fix the crime infested places from which they came.”

Last week Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Presley traveled to the southern border and exposed the terrible conditions under which asylum seekers were forced to live—children forced to sleep on concrete floors under bright lights, ICE staff joking about women having to drink out of toilets.

Press coverage was about these bad conditions, and whether they should be called “concentration camps” or not.

AOC and Trump. CNNNews

All this was wiped off the blackboard.  Now press coverage is once again focused on President Trump’s tweets and whether they are acceptable or not.

Trump wins again, despite the House of Representatives vote condemning him.  He has kept the focus on himself and diverted attention from what is going on in the world.

The kryptonite for Trump’s superpower is for the press and the opposition to not take it more seriously than it deserves.  Respond to tweets with other tweets – not with press conferences and congressional resolutions.

Ocasio-Cortez  and her three friends are not under attack because they are women of color.  This is a red herring.

They are under attack because they threaten the system by which corporate and wealthy donors dominate the legislative process.

Some time ago Ocasio-Cortez said that the reason she as a freshman representative has been able to make an impact is that she has time to do her job because she does not follow the guideline of spending three hours a day on the phone to raise money.

That was a powerful statement.  It was threatening to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats and Republicans.  Their power depends on fund-raising from powerful interests.

If an Ocasio-Cortez or a Bernie Sanders shows you can win power in defiance of those interests, this threatens the careers and even the livelihoods of those who depend on the donor class.

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Light shining through hummingbird wings

July 13, 2019

Photographer Christian Spencer shot these pictures of jacobin hummingbirds from his verandah in Rio de Janeiro.  The translucent wings act as a kind of prism that turns each bird into a tiny rainbow.

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Hitler lost WW2 because he ran out of gas

July 12, 2019

I came across an interesting history video that explains how access to oil was Adolf Hitler’s main goal in World War Two, how it determined his strategy and why his failure to achieve that goal doomed Nazi Germany to defeat.

It provides good food for thought, both about history and today’s geopolitics.  Here is an outline of what it said.

Adolf Hitler believed that Germany could not be a powerful or even an independent nation so long as it depended on imports for food and energy.  His long-range goal was to acquire the farmland of Ukraine and the oil of the Caucasus for Germany.

Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 was a step toward that goal.  If Britain hadn’t declared war on Germany in 1939 or had agreed to a truce in 1940 or 1941, he might have succeeded.

The United States during that period produced 70 percent of the world’s oil.  Most of the rest came from the USSR and Venezuela.  Even after Germany conquered most of Europe, including the oil fields of Rumania, the British blockade remained in place.  Germany was cut off from the oil of the USA and Venezuela and the USSR did not supply enough to meet its requirements.

Germany’s blitzkrieg strategy depended on tanks and other motorized vehicles operating on a broad front.  But Germany lacked enough oil of its own to conduct long campaigns.

The German army “demotorized” in order to provide enough fuel for the tanks.  It used horse-drawn vehicles to move supplies.  Messengers rode bicycles rather than motorcycles.  It also used an expensive process to synthesize oil from coal, even though coal supplies also were limited.

This meant Germany had a limited time in which to invade Soviet Russia and obtain the oil it needed.   Otherwise it would run short of the fuel needed to power its tanks and trucks.

That is why Hitler did not plan for a long campaign, and why he wanted his generals to concentrate on the Caucasus rather than Leningrad and Moscow.

The 1941 invasion failed.  After that Germany had one last chance of victory—by using what fuel reserves it had in 1942 to make one last stab at Maikup and Grozny in the Caucasus while conquering Stalingrad so the Soviets could not transport oil up the Volga River from refineries in Baku.

Lack of fuel was why Hitler ordered troops to stand fast and hold the line at all costs rather than allowing his generals to engage in a war of maneuver.

If the Nazis had succeeded, Russia would have been cut off from both the oil of the Caucasus and the Ukraine breadbasket.  Soviet forces would have been hard put to find the means to keep on fighting in 1943 and 1944.

But the Nazis failed.  From then on, Germany’s only goal in fighting was to prolong the war in hope of a negotiated peace.

All this shows that while Hitler was evil, he was not a madman—at least not where military strategy was concerned.  He understood strategy better than his generals.

It also shows the British blockade and American oil were as important to victory as the actual fighting by the Red Army.  If Winston Churchill had not become Prime Minister in 1940, Britain might have made a separate peace with Germany, and the German army would have had the fuel it needed to blitzkrieg Russia.

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How to undo legislative gerrymandering?

July 9, 2019

Click to enlarge.

It’s not an accident that Democrats won a majority of votes for state assemblies in Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin, but Republicans won a majority of the legislative seats.

It’s because legislative districts were intentionally drawn by Republican state legislatures to give Republicans an advantage.  You can comply with the Supreme Court’s “one man, one vote” ruling and create legislative districts with equal population, and still draw the lines so as to give one party an advantage.

Click to enlarge

Both parties have done this through American history.  The word “gerrymander” comes from Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, whose party, the Democratic-Republicans (forerunner of today’s Democrats), drew up a strangely-shaped state senate district in 1812 to dilute the voters of the rival Federalists.

But Republicans during the last round of redistricting after the 2010 census used big data and computer analysis to lock in their control of legislatures in key states.  Democrats would have to do much more than win a majority of the votes to take back control.

They complained to the Supreme Court, but the Supreme Court turned them down, in a 5-4 decision.  Chief Justice John Roberts said the court can’t take up the burden of drawing legislative district boundaries for the states.

But Justice Elena Kagan pointed out that there is an accepted procedure for doing just this.  It consists of having a computer process draw up many different maps of legislative districts of equal population that are geographically compact and respectful of existing boundaries, and then allowing the state legislature to choose one of them.

If the state and federal courts do not do something about gerrymandering, who will?  State legislatures elected in gerrymandered district are unlikely to change the system that put them in power.  Congress? State legislatures draw congressional district boundaries, too.

But the fact is that the Supreme Court is not going to change its decision until and unless a new justice is appointed and maybe not even then.

What remains for Democrats is to try to get a large enough vote to offset a rigged system.  Or propose amendments to state constitutions to set up a fair process for drawing legislative districts.

LINK

Chief Justice Roberts OKs Minority Rule by Doug Muder for The Weekly Sift.  Hat tip to him for the chart.

Capitalism without a working class

July 9, 2019

Karl Marx and other socialists believed that capitalism depended on exploitation of workers, and that workers could liberate themselves by taking control of the means of production.

But the driving force in capitalism today is to eliminate workers as much as possible.  Manufacturing jobs are being eliminated through automation.  Now service jobs are being eliminated through use of artificial intelligence.

The end result would be a capitalism without workers—just investment in capital goods such as robots and AIs.

I don’t say this would ever happen completely, and it wouldn’t happen any time soon, but this is the direction we’re heading.

Treating people as unnecessary, and telling them that they are unnecessary, is wrong and very dangerous.

Almost everyone has it in them to do something that is useful and beneficial to others.  An economic system should be set up to honor and encourage this.  Investing in machines rather than investing in people is a choice, not a law of nature.

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When is it okay to beat up journalists?

July 8, 2019

Civilization is not so stable that it cannot be broken up; and a condition of lawless violence is not one out of which any good thing is likely to emerge.  For this reason, if for no other, revolutionary violence in a democracy is infinitely dangerous.

==Bertrand Russell in 1920

Andy Ngo is a photojournalist in Portland, Oregon, who tries to document the claim that the “anti-fa” left engages in unprovoked violence.

The “anti-fa” movement had responded to his charges by breaking his equipment and beating him up, the last time seriously enough to send him a hospital emergency room.

The background is political demonstrations organized by two far-right groups, the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer, known for engaging in street fighting and trying to provoke retaliation by leftists.  The response by liberals and progressives in the Portland area was to organize much larger counter-demonstrations in reply, which is an effective response.

Andy Ngo after beating

The “anti-fa” movement goes further.  They say it is necessary to meet street violence with violence.  They also say that any fascist – they get to decide who is a fascist – is a legitimate target.

A certain number of self-identified liberals and progressives have written excuses and justifications for “anti-fa” and Ngo’s beating, which is what moves me to write about it.  Otherwise I might have thought of all this as an isolated incident.

Here are some of the arguments:

  • Andy Ngo was looking for trouble and wanted to portray himself as a victim of violence.  If that is so, why give him what he wanted?
  • The reports of Ngo’s beating diverts attention from the real issue, which is that right-wing violence is a worse threat than left-wing violence.  Why can’t you be against both?
  • The “anti-fa” movement hasn’t actually murdered anyone yet.  Good thing Andy Ngo didn’t die of his injuries, then.  The “anti-fa” movement might have been justly criticized.
  • Nobody knows for sure who beat up Andy Ngo.  Supposedly it could have been anyone.  Would that argument be made if some left-wing photojournalist was beaten up after filming right-wing street fighters?

In an earlier era, there were street fighters who called themselves the “black bloc” who’d join peaceful demonstrations and then start breaking windows, overturning cars and so. Like the “anti-fa’ fighters, they wore black clothing and black hooded masks.

They called this as “diversity of tactics.”  The idea is that you do your thing (peaceful protest) and they’ll do their thing (vandalism and street fighting).  The problem with that is that if there is a political demonstration in which the vast majority are peaceful and law-abiding and a few break window or throw bricks at police, it is the window-breakers and brick-throwers that will be remembered, not the majority.

This is very different from the miners’ strikes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where gun-carrying union members fought virtual wars with corporate mercenaries, National Guard troops and sometimes federal troops.  The right to self-defense is a fundamental right.

The “anti-fa” fighters could provide a valuable service if they acted as a security service for peaceful leftists, as they did during the Unite the Right protests in  Charlottesville., Va., in 2017.

That’s different from denying that there are certain rights, such as freedom of speech, that apply equally to all—the basic principles of liberalism.

If the self-identified left fights the self-identified right with physical force and violence, it will lose.  In the United States today, it is the self-identified right that is better armed, is more willing and able to use lethal force and has more sympathizers in the police and military.

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The Mueller Report is full of holes

July 6, 2019

Robert Mueller

Aaron Maté pointed out yesterday that the Mueller Report doesn’t actually present evidence that the Russian government hacked the Democratic National Committee’s e-mails or that it furnished them to WikiLeaks.

He is a journalist who has done some of the best reporting on the Russiagate investigation, simply by reading all the material and separating what’s been proved from what’s merely been alleged.

Democrats are making a mistake if they count on Russiagate as the key to victory in 2020.  It’s likely to blow up in their faces if they do

Maté noted that:

  • The report uses qualified and vague language to describe key events, indicating that Mueller and his investigators do not actually know for certain whether Russian intelligence officers stole Democratic Party emails, or how those emails were transferred to WikiLeaks.
  • The report’s timeline of events appears to defy logic.  According to its narrative, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange announced the publication of Democratic Party emails not only before he received the documents but before he even communicated with the source that [supposedly] provided them.
  • There is strong reason to doubt Mueller’s suggestion that an alleged Russian cutout called Guccifer 2.0 supplied the stolen emails to Assange.  Mueller’s decision not to interview Assange – a central figure who claims Russia was not behind the hack – suggests an unwillingness to explore avenues of evidence on fundamental questions.
  • U.S. intelligence officials cannot make definitive conclusions about the hacking of the Democratic National Committee computer servers because they did not analyze those servers themselves. Instead, they relied on the forensics of CrowdStrike, a private contractor for the DNC that was not a neutral party, much as “Russian dossier” compiler Christopher Steele, also a DNC contractor, was not a neutral party.  
  • This puts two Democrat-hired contractors squarely behind underlying allegations in the affair – a key circumstance that Mueller ignores.
  • Further, the government allowed CrowdStrike and the Democratic Party’s legal counsel to submit redacted records, meaning CrowdStrike and not the government decided what could be revealed or not regarding evidence of hacking. Mueller’s report conspicuously does not allege that the Russian government carried out the social media campaign. Instead it blames, as Mueller said in his closing remarks, “a private Russian entity” known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA).
  • Mueller also falls far short of proving that the Russian social campaign was sophisticated, or even more than minimally related to the 2016 election.  As with the collusion and Russian hacking allegations, Democratic officials had a central and overlooked hand in generating the alarm about Russian social media activity.
  • John Brennan, then director of the CIA, played a seminal and overlooked role in all facets of what became Mueller’s investigation: the suspicions that triggered the initial collusion probe; the allegations of Russian interference; and the intelligence assessment that purported to validate the interference allegations that Brennan himself helped generate.  Yet Brennan has since revealed himself to be, like CrowdStrike and Steele, hardly a neutral party — in fact a partisan with a deep animus toward Trump.

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How many times can you fold a piece of paper?

July 6, 2019

Hat tip to kottke.org.

It’s said that you can’t fold a piece of paper in half more than eight times.

High school student Britney Gallivan proved this wrong back in 2002.

To see how remarkable her achievement was, take a look at a brute-force approach to the problem below.

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How George Washington crossed the Delaware

July 4, 2019

If General George Washington had not led American troops across the Delaware River on Christmas, 1776, and defeated Hessian troops in Trenton, American secession from the British Empire probably would have failed, and the United States would not have become an independent nation when and how it did.

I recently finished reading Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer, which tells the story of that victory— how it was achieved, what came after and why it mattered.

By describing events in fine-grained detail, drawing in letter, diaries and reminiscences of many individuals on both sides, he drew a vivid picture of what it was like to fight in that era, and also showed how differently the two sides viewed the war.

Fischer’s history begins with the British driving the Continental Army out of New York City in the summer of 1776, and then winning victory after victory until they occupied all of New jersey.  He ends with the turning of the tide in a way that showed how Americans would win ultimate victory.

In grade school, I was taught to think of the British redcoats as fools, who marched in formation while Virginia and Pennsylvania riflemen picked them off from behind trees and stone walls.

The fact was that the British troops who occupied New York City in the summer of 1776 were veterans of regiments who, a short time before, had won battles in every continent in the Seven Years War against the French Empire.  They were backed up by the British fleet , which commanded not only the high seas, but the waters around Manhattan island.

They out-fought and out-maneuvered the inexperienced American troops, driving Washington’s troops out of New York and south through New Jersey.

By Christmas, the British and their Hessian allies had every reason to think they had all but won.   Washington’s desperate plan to attack across the Delaware River involved coordinated crossings at three different locations.   Two of the crossings failed.  Washington failed to make his crossing on schedule or as planned, but he pressed on to the attack anyway.

He pressed on and won.  As a schoolboy, I also was taught that he caught the Hessian garrison hung over from a drunken Christmas Eve party the night before.  Not so!  The Hessians were tough and well-disciplined troops who put up a brave fight, but were defeated in the end.

Fischer gives a powerful account of what it was like fight in those days, marching and pushing wagons through knee-deep mud and freezing rain, and fighting on despite hunger, exhaustion and lack of adequate shoes or clothing.  I can’t even imagine what it would be like to march through mud that was literally knee-deep or worse.

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The painting of Washington crossing the Delaware

July 4, 2019

Washington crossing the Delaware.  Please click to enlarge.

A German-American painter named Emanuel Leutze made his famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware in 1850 to encourage freedom-loving Germans after the defeat of democratic revolutions in 1848.

The original remained in Germany and did not survive World War Two, but Leutze made a copy that survives today in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Although the accuracy of some details has been question, historian David Hackett Fischer, in his book, Washington’s Crossing, gives Leutze credit for showing what a great feat it was to cross the Delaware River on Christmas Day, 1776.

The crossing succeeded partly for the same reason that General MacArthur’s Inchon landing succeeded during the Korean Conflict.  It was so difficult a feat that the enemy didn’t consider it as a possibility.

Fischer also gave Leutze credit for recognizing the diversity and individuality of the American troops.  Here is Fischer’s description.

Washington’s small boat is crowded with thirteen men …

One man wears the short tarpaulin jacket of a New England seaman; we look again and discover that he is of African descent.  

Another is a recent Scottish immigrant, still wearing his Balmoral bonnet.  

A third is an androgynous figure in a loose red shirt, maybe a woman in man’s clothing, pulling at an oar.

At the bow and stern are hard-faced western riflemen in hunting shirts and deerskin leggings.  

Huddled beneath the thwarts are farmers from Pennsylvania and New Jersey in blanket coats and broad-brimmed hats.  One carries a countryman’s double-barreled shotgun.  The other looks very ill and his head in swathed in a bandage.

A solider beside them is in full uniform, a rarity in this army; he wears the blue coat and red facings of Haslet’s Delaware Regiment.

Another figure bears a boat cloak and an oiled hat that a prosperous Baltimore merchant might have used on a West Indian voyage; his sleeve reveals the facings of Smallwood’s silk-stocking Maryland Regiment.

Hidden behind them is a mysterious thirteenth man.  Only his weapon is visible; one wonders who he might have been.

The dominant figures in the painting are two gentlemen of Virginia who stand tall above the rest.  

One of them is Lieutenant James Monroe, holding a big American flag upright against the storm.  

The other is Washington in his Continental uniform of buff and blue.  He holds a brass telescope and wears a heavy saber, symbolic of a statesman’s vision and a soldier’s strength.

The artist intends us to see each of these soldiers as an individual, but he also reminds us that they are all in the same boat, working desperately together against the wind and the current.

The greatness of George Washington was that he could forge an Army out of such diverse origins, and defeat the hardened British and Hessian professional soldiers.  The greatness of Americans in that era was that we could bury our differences and unite in a common cause.

Americans today are even more diverse that we were then.  But we’re still all in the same boat.

How to de-partisanize the Supreme Court

July 3, 2019

Nowadays appointments to the Supreme Court are a continuation of partisan politics by other means.

The major political issues of our time are fought out in lawsuits as much as they are in legislative debates or elections.   Maybe this was always true, but it seems to me that stacking the court is being done with much more awareness nowadays than in recent memory.

Self-described liberals do it.  Self-described conservatives do it.  Partisan judicial appointments have several bad effects.

It often happens that several Supreme Court justices reach retirement age during one Presidential term.  It means that President has a greater power than others to stamp his political ideas on the judicial system.

It gives a President an incentive to appoint relatively younger and less experienced judges to the Supreme Court because they will serve longer.  It gives aging and infirm justices an incentive to keep themselves on the bench until a President of their own political faction is appointed.

I propose the following Constitutional amendment to achieve a better political balance on the court.

Each President would have the power to make one, but no more than one, Supreme Court appointment during each two-year term of Congress, with the consent of the Senate.

The new Justice would be sworn in at the end of that term of Congress.

If there were no vacancies on the court, the sitting Justice who’d served the longest would retire.  

If there were more than one vacancy, the additional vacancies would be filled during the next term or terms of Congress.

What this would mean that each President and each Congress would have equal power to make a Supreme Court appointment once every two years.

This would not mean an end of partisanship, but it would mean a better balance.  It would mean that change in the makeup of the Supreme Court would take place over a long period of time and not all at once.

A Mitch McConnell might be able to stymie Supreme Court appointments during one term, but would not get power to make extra appointments during the next term.

The normal term of office of a Supreme Court justice would be 18 years.  That’s a reasonable length of time, but most Justices would be able to retire while in good mental and physical condition.

The fact that vacancies on the court would not always be filled promptly would be inconvenient. but the court has sat with fewer than nine Justices inn the past.

I don’t think there is any chance of such a proposal being adopted at the present time.  But if and when the two parties decide to call a truce, this would be a way to implement it.