Archive for the ‘The New Normal’ Category

What the Geneva summit revealed about Biden

June 23, 2021

Joe Biden arrives in Geneva June 15. (AP)

During the 2020 Democratic presidential primary campaign, a number of observers expressed concern about Joe Biden’s cognitive abilities.

Foreign corespondent Patrick Lawrence wrote that President Biden’s performance at the Geneva summit meeting last week bears this out.

Geneva requires us to face a fact most of us have either flinched from, buried altogether, or noted in an offhand manner not devoid of mockery. 

The fact is this: We have a president who suffers some measure of senility and is in consequence incapable of fully executing his duties.  Geneva brought this home in the starkest of circumstances.

[snip]

Flubs in press conferences, more malapropisms than you’ve had hot dinners, Biden’s failure to remember what the Declaration of Independence is called—“the, you know, you know, the thing”—are small stuff in the end, the stuff of the jokes.

An inability to conduct the affairs of state with a major world power is quite another. No room for ridicule or YouTube segments here. The matter is simply too grave.

Two highly consequential treaties—Open Skies and New START—tensions NATO provokes on Russia’s western flank, the Syria mess, the Ukraine mess, Russia’s hypersonic weaponry, Israel’s apparent intent to go for broke this time with the Palestinians, all the cyberbusiness—little to nothing got done in Geneva on any of these questions.

Given how thoroughly Biden’s people scripted his appearance, I am convinced this was intentional. Get out there and posture for the “folks” back home, Mr. Prez. We’ll take care of the substantive stuff later.

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Seeing the USA as others see us

March 9, 2021

Hat tip to Steve Hsu.

I just got finished watching this video of a panel discussion on the American future hosted by Dr. Mohammad Marandi, a professor of English Literature and Orientalism at the University of Tehran. 

It is an uncomfortable reminder that the rest of the world is watching us Americans, and they don’t see us as we’d like to see ourselves.

It is more than two hours long, which I realize is a long time to watch something on a small screen.  But I want to take note of a couple of the observations by Max Blumenthal, a foreign correspondent and editor-in-chief of The Greyzone.

Blumenthal said most Americans have no idea what “domestic terrorism” really is.  He recalled being in Nicaragua during the runup to an election when rebels were regularly murdering government officials and Sandinista politicians, and attacking police stations.

He said that when reporting from Syria, he sometimes saw poor people scavenging through garbage outside U.S. military installations.  In January, he saw the same kind of scene in Washington, D.C.

We Americans need to recognize that the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily look to us for leadership, or regard our form of liberal democracy as a role model.  And that our nation is being bled dry by our leaders’ efforts to dominate the world through financial and military power.

Insurrection hysteria and civil liberties

March 5, 2021

As the Insurrection Narrative Crumbles, Democrats Cling to It More Desperately Than Ever by Glenn Greenwald.  “If the threat of ‘armed insurrectionists’ and ‘domestic terrorists’ is as great as some claim, why do they have to keep lying and peddling crude media fictions about it?”

Department of Pre-Crime: Left-Wing Protester Arrested by FBI for Being on ‘a Path to Radicalization’ by Thomas Neuberger for God’s Spies.  “We’re on the road to the next 9/11, but not in the way you think.”

Matt Taibbi on the student loan trap

February 26, 2021

Student Loan Horror: When You Think You Quality for Debt Relief, Check Again – And Again by Matt Taibbi for TK News. “A pair of science teachers were sure they qualified for student debt forgiveness. They discovered what many borrowers learned in the 2010s: not qualifying for aid is the norm.”

Journalists who are enemies of free speech

February 8, 2021

The Journalistic Tattletale and Censorship Industry Suffers Several Well-Deserved Blows by Glenn Greenwald on Substack.  “The NYT’s Taylor Lorenz falsely accuses a tech investor of using a slur after spending several months trying to infiltrate and monitor a new app that allows free conversation.”

Militarism, censorship in the name of freedom

January 27, 2021

It does not make sense to destroy freedom and democracy in order to defend it.

Reflecting the Authoritarian Climate, Washington Will Remain Militarized Until At Least March by Glenn Greenwald.  “The idea of troops in U.S. streets for an extended period of time—an extreme measure even when temporary—has now become close to a sacred consensus.”

Meet the Censored: Status Coup by Matt Taibbi for TK News.  “Silicon Valley Is shutting down speech loopholes.  The latest target: live content.”

Is this the year of the jackpot?

October 29, 2020

Living through the year 2020 reminded me of a science-fiction story by the late Robert A. Heinlein called “Year of the Jackpot.”

The viewpoint character was a mild-manner statistician named Potiphar Breen. He followed trends and cycles, and had come to the conclusion that all of the cycles he followed—social, political, economic, the weather, sports scores—were due to peak at the same time.

He headed for the hills with his girlfriend and was able to wait out the economic and political collapse and the Soviet invasion. But sunspots, too, come in cycles, and so the story ends with the two of them watching the sun go nova.

I feel as if I’m living in that story.  Each month something unexpected happens, something I never would have been able to predict the month before, but which, as I think about it, is the result of things that have been building up for years.

Climate scientists for years have been predicting an upswing in weather-related disasters as a result of global warming and, guess what, they’re already here.  I read an article about this year’s catastrophe’s in Scientific American on-line, which was by a reporter whose beat consists of writing about catastrophes.

Epidemiologists for years have been predicting a global pandemic, and now one is here.  Recessions keep getting worse.  Riots and protests, many seemingly without any clear object, sweep the world.

The thing that worries me is the thought that people 10 or 15 years from now will look back on this year, not as the year everything went to hell, but as one of the last good years.

LINKS

The Year of the Jackpot by Robert A. Heinlein in Galaxy Science Fiction (March 1952)

A Running List of Record-Breaking Natural DIsasters in 2020 by Andrea Thompson for Scientific American.

Historically dark mood clouds 2020 election by Marc Fisher for The Washington Post.

Why Is the World Going to Hell? by Jonathan Cook for Counterpunch.

Is 2020 the worst year of your life? Many Canadians, Americans say ‘yes’ by John Ackerman and Curtis Doering for News 1130 in Vancouver.

Here’s a Recap of 2020 So Far and It’s Painful to Read by Liucija Adomaite and Denis Tymulis for Bored Panda.  Painful and somewhat unfair, but funny.

Suppose Trump wins. What then?

September 24, 2020

Biden ahead, but Trump within reach. Source: 270towin.com

A lot is being written about what happens if President Trump loses the election and refuses to concede defeat.  But there is an equal and opposite problem outcome.

What if Trump wins by fair means or foul?  Can the Democrats accept the legitimacy of a second Trump term?

I can’t predict the outcome of the election, but here’s one outcome that’s highly possible.  Joe Biden, like Hillary Clinton, wins the popular vote, but Donald Trump wins the electoral vote, based on narrow margins in key states.

Very likely there will be disputes as to which ballots shall be counted–for example, if large numbers of mail-in ballots arrive after election day or not all the ballots are counted when thr Electoral College meets.

Disputes would be resolved by a vote in thr House of Representatives, on a one-state, one-vote basis, or by the Supreme Court.  Republicans have a majority in 28 state delegations, versus 22 for Democrats.  Republican appointees also are in a majority on the Supreme Court, and it favored the Republicans in Bush v. Gore.

Many Democrats refused to accept the legitimacy of Trump’s 2016 win.  They influenced electors to violate their pledges and then mounted failed two impeachment campaigns.

If Trump wins again, the opposition will not be limited to political maneuvering.  It will take place in the streets.  And this will be during a time of massive unemployment, bankruptcies  and already-existing civil unrest.

Back in June, a group of former government officials, campaign leaders and other notables conducted a role-playing political war game under different scenarios.

They pointed out that (1) the winner probably won’t be known on Election Night, (2) there will be plenty of opportunities for both sides to dispute the results and (3) the transition process will like be disrupted.

They played out four scenarios–an ambiguous result, a clear Biden victory, a clear Trump win and a narrow Biden win.  The most interesting part to me is the lengths to which these experienced campaigners and officials thought the Democrats would go to prevent Trump from takibg office even if he has a clear win.

In the war game, Team Biden asks for a recount in key states.  By a roll of the dice, this results in Democratic governors in two states certifying a different slate of electors than those certified by the state legislators.

Then we get to the wild stuff.  The governments of California, Oregon and Washington threaten to secede from the Union unless Congress agrees to give statehood to Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., subdivide California into five states with their own Senators, require Supreme Court justices to retire at age 70 and abolish the Electoral College.  I don’t know whether the game-players were aware that the last two would require Constitutional amendments.

It’s hard to believe such things could actually happen.  But it is striking that so many top-level people entertain these possibilities.

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The test of reality

June 23, 2020

For decades, the USA and other rich nations have had the luxury of dealing with self-created problems.’

Some were self-created (deregulation of finance, foreign intervention), some symbolic (the border wall, Confederate statues) and some imaginary (the Russiagate plot).

Now, however, we’re up against real things.  Pandemics don’t care about public opinion polls.  Climate change doesn’t care about the limits of the politically possible.

Some nations are demonstrating the resiliency needed to rise to these challenges.  Some aren’t.  In a few years, we’ll have the results of real-life experiments as to what works and what doesn’t.

My hope is that we Americans will learn from experience.  My fear is that we will be unable to endure the pain of facing reality and the consequences of what we have allowed our rulers to do.

COVID-19 is the quiz, climate change is the final exam by Jeff Masters for Yale Climate Connections.

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What’s the world coming to? A rant

May 20, 2020

Things are getting worse faster.  Some French movie director once said: Have the courage to believe what you know.  I keep hoping that what I know—what I think I know—won’t prove to be the case.

U.S. domestic policy is steered by a selfish financial oligarchy, which we can call the neoliberals.

U.S. foreign policy is steered by a murderous national security establishment, which we can call the neoconservatives.

Civilization faces two threats, nuclear war and global climate change.

Neoliberals and neoconservatives are making both worse.  Because of them, the U.S. has restarted the nuclear arms race and is stepping up fossil fuel production.

They also are soaking up resources needed to provide basic public services, maintain infrastructure and provide a social safety net.  Manufacturing capability and governmental capability are being hollowed out because of failures to invest.

The neoliberal and neoconservative elite maintain their power by corrupting the democratic process.  One way is by creating a dependence on big donors to conduct political campaigns.  Another is through gerrymandering, voter registration purges, creating artificial difficulties in voting and using hackable electronic voting machines.

This year the USA faces a near-perfect storm— (1) a pandemic that nobody really understands, (2) unemployment exceeding Great Depression levels and (3) the likelihood of more floods, storms, fires and other weather- and climate-related disasters.

The powers that be give us only two choices – (1) shut everything down and deprive millions of people of their livelihoods or (2) open everything up knowing that hundreds of thousands of people may die.

It’s possible that the coronavirus pandemic will ease off sooner than predicted, but it won’t be the last pandemic and may not be the worst.

We’re headed toward an election in which, as in 1876, there may be a dispute as to who really won.  I don’t expect a new civil war, but then the historic Civil War came as a surprise.

The Bernie Sanders campaign showed the near-impossibility of bringing about meaningful political change within an existing political party.

The Greens, Libertarians and other small parties have virtually no chance of coming to power, and probably wouldn’t know what to do with power if they got it.

Maybe a national reform movement can be created through grass-roots organizing, but this could take decades—barring a societal collapse, which is more likely to bring to power demagogues and dictators than new FDRs.

I’ve pushed back against those who say Donald Trump is a new Hitler.  It is not just that he doesn’t have the political acumen or sense of purpose of a Hitler.  The Trump-as-Hitler meme ignores the degree to which the USA of 2016 had already adopted Nazi-like practices—unprovoked military aggression, contempt for international law, assassinations, torture, detention without trial.

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Is this our situation?

May 18, 2020

My old friend in south Texas e-mailed this.  I added an illustration.

My smart friends: Is THIS our situation?

1.) Nobody REALLY understands the coronavirus, although everyone agrees that things are going to be bad, and some quite knowledgeable people (as they seem to be) argue that things are going to be MUCH worse than official sources claim.

2.) Nobody REALLY understands the coming economic effects of the pandemic, although everyone agrees that things are going to be bad, and some quite knowledgeable people (as they seem to be) argue that things are going to be MUCH worse than official sources claim.

3.) Nobody REALLY understands accelerating climate change, although everyone agrees that things are going to be bad, and some quite knowledgeable people (as they seem to be) argue that things are going to be MUCH worse than official sources claim.

4.) Nobody REALLY understands the murky 2020 US presidential campaign, although everyone agrees that things are going to be bad, and some quite knowledgeable people (as they seem to be) argue that things are going to be MUCH worse than official sources claim.

It’s dismaying to think I could go on here.

5.) Nobody REALLY understands the current confusing international situation, although everyone agrees that things are going to be bad, and some quite knowledgeable people (as they seem to be) argue that things are going to be MUCH worse than official sources claim.

6.) Nobody REALLY understands what’s up with American education (student debt, testing mania, online education, privatizers, shut schools) although everyone agrees that things are going to be bad, and some quite knowledgeable people (as they seem to be) argue that things are going to be MUCH worse than official sources claim.

Surely I MUST be missing some blue sky somewhere, right?  Let me know.

The irrelevance of old-time Keynesianism

May 12, 2020

John Maynard Keynes was one of the great economists of the 20th century,  Maybe he was the greatest.  He is the father of the idea of economic stimulus.

His insight was that, in a capitalist free-enterprise economy, economic growth depends on a growing mass consumer market, which depends on masses of the public having money in their pockets.

So when the economy stalls and people are out of work, the best way to stimulate the economy is to give the people more purchasing power.

J.M. Keynes

Once they started buying things, businesses would hire more people, and there would be a multiplier effect that spread through the entire economy.

The important thing, according to Keynes, was to get people back to work and earning money—no matter how.  He famously said that hiring workers to dig holes and fill them up again would be better than nothing.

In the pandemic lockdown, governments are doing exactly the opposite of what Keynes recommended.  The government is actively trying to prevent millions of Americans from going to work.  By staying at home, they help limit the spread of the virus.

Congress recently voted an economic bailout that was called a “stimulus” bill.   But economic stimulus was not, and is not, needed.  What is needed is an economic sedative, combined with an economic life support system.

We do not need employment for the sake of employment.  We need to have virtually necessary jobs get done, less necessary jobs put on hold and useless jobs not to be done at all.  We Americans as a nation have not yet figured out how to do this.

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The economic consequences of the lockdown

May 7, 2020

Adam Tooze is one of the world’s outstanding economic historians.  He is the author of The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of Global Order, 1916-1931; The Wages of Destruction: the Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economyand Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World.

In the interview above, he talks about the impact of the coronavirus on the global economy.  The actual interview begins about four minutes in.

He points out that ending the lockdowns won’t automatically restart the economy.  Ford and General Motors closed their plants without any lockdown order.

Labor unions that represented their workers protested working under unsafe conditions.  Suppliers were unable to provide necessary components on schedule.  And the automobile sales collapsed.  So what was the point of staying open?

Tooze also says that the talk of being in a war economy is wrong.  In a war economy, the objective is to mobilize everyone to produce war materials.  In a pandemic economy, the objective is to limit production to what is absolutely necessary. People should be paid to stay home to help limit the spread of the virus.

He doesn’t predict a second Great Depression, but neither does he rule it out.

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2020: An Isolation Odyssey

April 18, 2020

Hat tip to Atrios.

Opera North, a 40-year-old opera company based in Leeds, England, had to cancel concert performances of Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” because of the coronavirus pandemic.  But players from the orchestra decided that the show must go on – virtually.

Here are the first few minutes (most famously used in “2001: A Space Odyssey”) played by musicians from 40 different homes under the UK lockdown, conducted from Sweden by Tobias Ringborg.

Off-and-on lockdowns and a pandemic yo-yo

April 13, 2020

Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University, expects off-and-on lockdowns and no quick end to the coronavirus pandemic.  Here’s what he had to say—

I don’t view “optimal length of shutdown” arguments compelling, rather it is about how much pain the political process can stand. 

I expect partial reopenings by mid-May, sometimes driven by governors in the healthier states, even if that is sub-optimal for the nation as a whole. 

Besides you can’t have all the banks insolvent because of missed mortgage payments

But R0 won’t stay below 1 for long, even if it gets there at all. 

We will then have to shut down again within two months, but will then reopen again a bit after that. 

At each step along the way, we will self-deceive rather than confront the level of pain involved with our choices. 

We may lose a coherent national policy on the shutdown issue altogether, not that we have one now. 

The pandemic yo-yo will hold. 

At some point antivirals or antibodies will kick in (read Scott Gottlieb), or here: “There are perhaps 4-6 drugs that could be available by Fall and have robust enough treatment effect to impact risk of another epidemic or large outbreaks after current wave passes. We should be placing policy bets on these likeliest opportunities.” 

We will then continue the rinse and repeat of the yo-yo, but with the new drugs and treatments on-line with a death rate at maybe half current levels and typical hospital stays at three days rather than ten. 

It will seem more manageable, but how eager will consumers be to resume their old habits? 

Eventually a vaccine will be found, but getting it to everyone will be slower than expected. 

The lingering uncertainty and “value of waiting,” due to the risk of second and third waves, will badly damage economies along the way.

Source: Marginal REVOLUTION

I think he’s right.  But what does the need for this trade-off say about our economic system?

Here’s a quote from In These Times.

What would the federal government do to best mitigate the devastation that this pandemic will visit upon human beings?  It would, first of all, provide free healthcare to everyone. ..Imagine instead, if you had an entirely different goal: protecting capital.  What would you do then?  Well, you would prioritize the health of corporate balance sheets, rather than human bodies.  You would keep the healthcare industry, now booming, in private hands.

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What to do when the coronavirus comes

March 18, 2020

What we now expect in the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic:

  • More than half of us will be infected.
  • The vast majority of those infected will survive.
  • There won’t be room in hospitals to care for most of the infected.

So what do we do?  Olga Kagan, a registered nurse in New York, offered tips for treating yourself at home, which I have copied below.

What you need

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) in 325 mg tablets

Ibuprofen (Advil) in 200 mg tablets.  [Note: WHO recommends avoiding Ibuprofen for coronavirus.  See comment.]

Mucinex, Robitussin or DayQuil/NyQuil, whatever your cough medicine of choice is

TissuesHumidifier: If you don’t have a humidifier, you can also just turn the shower on hot and sit in the bathroom breathing in the steam.).

If you have a history of asthma and you have a prescription inhaler, make sure the one you have isn’t expired and refill it/get a new one if it is.

How to treat symptoms

For a fever over 101, alternate Tylenol and Advil so you’re taking a dose of one or the other every 3 hours. (Again, check with your doctor before taking Advil.) 

Use both cough suppressants and expectorants (most cough meds have both). 

Drink a ton.  Hydrate.  Hydrate.

Rest lots.

If you’re sick

If you’re sick, you should not be leaving your house except to go to the doctor.

You DO NOT NEED TO GO TO THE ER unless you are having trouble breathing or your fever is very high and un-managed with meds.  

We don’t want to clog the ERs unless you’re actually in distress. The hospital beds will be used for people who need oxygen/breathing treatments/IV fluids.

If you have a pre-existing lung condition (COPD, emphysema, lung cancer) or are on immunosuppressants, now is a great time to talk to your PCP or specialist about what they would like you to do if you get sick. They might have plans to get you admitted and bypass the ER entirely.

For parents.

One major relief to you parents is that kids do VERY well with coronavirus— they usually bounce back in a few days.

No one under 18 has died, and almost no kids have required hospitalization (unless they have a lung disease like CF). Just use pediatric dosing of the same meds mentioned above.

Additional advice If someone in your family has coronavirus, they should: Stay in a separate room, use a separate bathroom, if possible; use paper plates and plastic utensils or different dishes and flatware then everyone else.

Additional advice

If someone in your family has coronavirus, they should: Stay in a separate room, use a separate bathroom, if possible; use paper plates and plastic utensils or different dishes and flatware then everyone else.

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China bids for world leadership

February 19, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Going beyond the American political binary

February 15, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The USA has a bad bipartisan foreign policy

February 15, 2020

The so-called War on Terror is bipartisan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The bipartisan, dysfunctional US economic policy

February 15, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

§§§

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why the USA is in a spiral of decline

December 17, 2019

The USA by any measure is a rich country,  But Americans are not a rich people, compared to citizens of other industrial nations.  Life expectancy in the USA is falling and this is related to broader social problems.  Increasingly, we think of economic decline as normal and inevitable.

A writer named Umair Haque fears the USA is locked into a possibly irreversible spiral of decline

  1. People who are made to live right at the edge must battle each other for self-preservation. But such people have nothing left to give one another.  And that way, a society enters a death spiral of poverty — like ours have.
  2. People who can’t make ends meet can’t even invest in themselves — let alone anyone else.  Such a society has to eat through whatever public goods and social systems it has, just to survive.  It never develops or expands new ones.
  3. The result is that a whole society grows poorer and poorer.  Unable to invest in themselves or one another, people’s only real way out is to fight each other for self-preservation, by taking away their neighbor’s rights, privileges, and opportunities — instead of being able to give any new ones to anyone.  Why give everyone healthcare and education when you can’t even afford your own?  How are you supposed to?
  4. Society melts down into a spiral of extremism and fascism, as ever increasing poverty brings hate, violence, fear, and rage with it.  Trust erodes, democracy corrodes, social bonds are torn apart, and the only norms left are Darwinian-fascist ones: the strong survive, and the weak must perish.

Let me spend a second or two on that last point. As they become poorer, people begin to distrust each other — and then hate each other.  Why wouldn’t they?  After all, the grim reality is that they actually are fighting each other for existence, for the basic resources of life, like medicine, money, and food.

Source: Eudaimonia and Co

Our politics and journalism mostly ignore fundamental problems.  I don’t think this is happenstance.  I think the people at the highest levels of government, business and journalism benefit from the status quo, and feel threatened by anyone who challenges it.

The headline issues of today, including the impeachment drama, are wedge issues that keep the American body politick divided and distracted.

Many of us Americans think our neighbor who believes in gun rights or abortion rights is our enemy.  Those issues are important, of course, but we and our liberal or conservative neighbors are not enemies.

We need to realize we have more in common with each other than we do with those who benefit from our indebtedness and economic insecurity.

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The Plain of Snakes: Paul Theroux in Mexico

November 20, 2019

In 2017, the travel writer Paul Theroux, at the age of 76 set out in his car to drive through Mexico, disregarding well-founded warnings of danger. He wrote about his trip in his new book, On the Plain of Snakes: a Mexican Journey.

The Plain of Snakes is an actual place in Mexico, but Theroux wrote that for ordinary Mexican people, most of the country is like a plain of snakes.

There is no safe haven from the murderous criminals that run the drug cartels.  Nor do the corrupt police and military offer an protection.

Yet ordinary Mexicans, he found, are amazingly hospitable and helpful.  He saw a stark contrast between the integrity and courage of individual Mexicans he met, and the corruption and savagery of Mexican society.

The drug cartels demonstrate their power by dumping mutilated corpses in public places.  They kidnap powerful people and hold them for ransom.  They kidnap poor migrants and coerce them into being prostitutes or couriers.

More than 200,000 Mexicans have been killed since 2006 when the Mexican government, at the instigation of the United States, declared war on the cartels.

But the killings aren’t just due to the drug wars.  Many were in power struggles between cartels, or attacks on honest journalists, judges and police, or just demonstrations of raw power.

In many parts of Mexico, the narcos are more powerful than the government.  Recently there was confrontation between a cartel and the government, and the government backed down—which may have been justified under the circumstances, but does not bode well.

The Mexican military and police are almost as violent and abusive as the cartels, according to Theroux.  They are often interlocked with the cartels, while the gangs themselves recruit from elite Mexican and Central American military units.

Narco terrorism in Mexico is a more serious concern for the USA than ISIS terrorism in the Middle East, but of course any U.S. military intervention in Mexico would be a disaster..

There is a widespread cult in Mexico of an entity called Santa Muerte (Holy Death), who is cross between a Catholic saint (although her worship has been condemned by the Vatican) and an Indian spirit.  Theroux said she has an estimated 20 million worshipers, including members of the cartels but also many ordinary Mexicans.

The distinctive thing about Santa Muerte is that she supposedly offers unconditional help to those who worship her.  You don’t have to be in a state of grace or repent of your sins, just willing to venerate her.  I can see why this would be appealing to poor and desperate people.

One of the distinctive things about Mexican culture is acceptance and even embrace of the fact of death.  The Day of the Dead is an important Mexican holiday.  It is in some ways like an exaggerated version of U.S. Hallowe’en, but all skeletons and ghosts, and also a time for picnicking near the graves of loved ones.

With all these things bearing down on them, one might expect Mexicans to be callous and suspicious.  That’s how I would be in their circumstances.

But Theroux’s experience was just the opposite.  Except for his encounters with police, all his interactions with Mexicans were positive. HIs trip depended on the helpfulness of many people.

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Americans trust military, police the most

September 26, 2019

The most respected institution in the United States is the military.  Men, women, whites, blacks, Hispanics, Democrats, Republicans and independents all have confidence in the military.

The least respected institution in the United States is Congress, which was supposed to be the institution closest to the people.  Men, women, whites, blacks, Hispanics, Democrats, Republicans and independents all lack confidence in Congress.

A majority of Americans lack also lack confidence in the Presidency, and in TV news and newspapers.

What other institution do a majority of us have confidence in?  The police.

These are the results of an Economist / YouGov poll.  It does not bode well for the future of democracy.

If you don’t have confidence in the results of elections or of the legal system or of freedom of the press, why not a police state or military dictatorship?

Here’s a breakdown of what the poll shows about various U.S. institutions, going from most-trusted to least trusted.  I took these charts from a post on the Audacious Epigone web log.

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Congressional committee assignments are for sale

September 12, 2019

Big-money influence on Congress is nothing new.  It does back to the Gilded Age of the 19th century and before.  House Speaker New Gingrich took it a step further in the 1990s with his “pay to play” system.

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi actually has taken the process a step further.  Each Democratic congressional representative is expected to pay “dues” to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee by raising money from donors.  Each committee assignment has a specific posted price.

The political scientist Thomas Ferguson wrote about this eight years ago, and I posted about it then.  Recently Ryan Grim and Aïda Chavez of The Intercept obtained the latest posted prices.

The dues for the 2020 cycle, according to the DCCC dues document, range from $150,000 at the low level to $1,000,000 for the Speaker of the House.  The document lays out the price of particular committee assignments.

Leadership posts for the second-, third-, and fourth-ranking Democrats — currently Steny Hoyer, Jim Clyburn, and Ben Ray Luján — range from $900,000 down to $700,000.

The next tier of leadership, which includes Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, DCCC Chair Cheri Bustos, and others, costs just $575,000. Lower-ranking members of leadership owe between $400,000 and $500,000.

That’s less than the chairs of exclusive committees have to chip in. Those four — Richard Neal, chair of Ways and Means; Frank Pallone, chair of Energy and Commerce; Nita Lowey, chair of Appropriations; and Maxine Waters, chair of Financial Services — owe $600,000 each for their gavels. Neal has paid half of his dues, while Lowey and Pallone have paid just under $200,000. Waters hasn’t made any dues payments yet.

The document also lists a goal for money-raised, which it puts at $1.2 million for each of the four. The dues report claims Waters has raised just $40,500, compared to $3.3 million for Neal, $1.4 million for Pallone, and $160,400 from Lowey. (Neal, Pallone, and Lowey are facing primary challenges.)

On those so-called money committees, like Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce, even freshman members are asked to pay higher dues. That’s because those committees have jurisdiction over effectively every major industry, giving members a leg-up in demanding checks from corporations who need — or oppose — legislation before the panel. It is also valuable for industries to have committee members write letters to agencies they oversee.

Chairs of committees not lucky enough to oversee commercially prosperous industries owe just $300,000 in dues and have a listed goal of raising $300,000, compared to the money committees’ $1.2 million. Indeed, even vice chairs of money committees owe more than chairs of regular committees. Yvette Clarke, vice chair of Energy and Commerce, and Terri Sewell, vice chair of Ways and Means, owe $400,000 each. Subcommittee chairs on money panels owe as much as chairs of plebeian committees: $300,000.

An individual seat on a money committee, meanwhile, will run a member of Congress $250,000.  Sad sack rank-and-filers not privileged enough to sit on a money committee owe just $150,000.

Source: The Intercept

Democratic congressional representatives are expected do spend several hours a day on the phone, soliciting donations.  There also is a “points” system by which representatives can earn credit by supporting the party through action rather than money.

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Robotic jobs, robots and the future of work

September 9, 2019

A lot of corporate managers, especially in Silicon Valley, have a goal of replacing workers with automated machines.  The path to that goal is to make work as machine-like and automatic as possible..

I always used to feel sorry for telephone operators 25 years ago because very minute of their workday was monitored so that they always gave a specific automatic response.  Now this has become a pattern.

 Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs recently wrote about how this is becoming the new normal.

[A] feature in the Wall Street Journal … shows how new technologies are enabling employers to spy on a fictitious employee named Chet.

Chet’s boss knows what time he wakes up, because his phone detects changes in his physical activity.  

Chet’s whereabouts are tracked at all times, and his employer can watch him stop for coffee before work, and even knows what part of the building he is in and whether he has strayed into any “unauthorized areas.”

Image via Fast Company

The precise time he arrives at work will be logged, all of his emails will be read, and Chet’s work computer snaps a screenshot every 30 seconds so that the employer can verify that he is staying on task.  

His “phone conversations can be recorded, transcribed and monitored for rate of speech and tone,” his interactions with other employees are recorded and analyzed, and his company even tracks his fitness and can use it to adjust his benefits.

An accompanying Wall Street Journal article indicates that these kinds of employer surveillance techniques are increasingly common, and “there’s almost nothing you can do about it.”

And there are even more invasive possible techniques—I recently read an MIT Technology Review article called “This company embeds microchips in its employees, and they love it,” which I liked because nowhere in the body of the article itself is there any quote indicating that the employees do, indeed, “love it.”  

One of them says that you get used to it after a time, which I do not doubt.

Importantly, though, under the philosophy that Free Markets are fair, there is no actual language with which we can object to these things.  

Unless the employees are being kidnapped and enslaved, this is just “freedom of contract.”

If they didn’t want their employer screenshotting their workspace, or taking pictures of their penis in the company bathroom, they shouldn’t have signed a contract that allowed said employer “all possible latitude to do as they see fit to further the interests of the company.”  Sucks for you, Chet.

In the innocent-seeming paragraph about freedom above, then, we can see the seeds of something perverse and disturbing.

The belief that the state shouldn’t “interfere” in “voluntary transactions” actually means that your boss should get to do whatever they want, and there should be “nothing you can do about it.”  

We can see here exactly how workers can be talked into forging their own chains: A well-funded operation convinces them of the Philosophy Of Freedom, and then they find out too late that this just means they have no recourse when horrible invasive things are done to them at work, and every moment of their life is monitored by a powerful entity that does not care whether they live or die.

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