Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Carving Out a Post-Globalism World


Even though our government may still embrace it, globalism is a failed concept and those who cling to it are inviting some pretty nasty consequences. The consensus about globalism is extensive and broad. It spans leftist economists such as Yanis Varoufakis, intellectuals such as John Ralston Saul, more mainstream economists such as Nouriel Roubini, Thomas Piketty and Joe Stiglitz, and even conservative stalwarts such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and so many more.

Globalization and its companion political ideology, neoliberalism, are crap. They have failed and that's not going to change.  Our federal government is flogging a thoroughly dead horse.

Fortunately there are options for a new political-economic regime to replace globalism although there are none on the horizon in Canada and no reason to hope there will be any time soon either.

There's a grave risk of not addressing the failure of globalization. It often manifests in authoritarian populism and the decline of liberal democracy across Asia, Europe, even the United States. Could it happen here? Absolutely because, absent progressive vision leading to reform, extremist populism is the default option.

It's a conversation they're now having in Britain thanks, in part, to Jeremy Corbyn and the new Labour Party. Arguments for reform and how to go about it are being heard in the UK. Here are some examples from today's Guardian.

George Monbiot has a piece exposing the sham of what in Canada are called PPPs or public-private partnerships of the sort Trudeau champions to meet Canada's massive infrastructure challenge.

Monbiot addresses the parlour-trick of accounting used to frame PPPs as cost-effective alternatives to direct government action.



PFI [privately financed initiative] projects, Blair and Brown promised, would go ahead only if they proved to be cheaper than the “public sector comparator”.

But at the same time, the government told public bodies that state money was not an option: if they wanted new facilities, they would have to use the private finance initiative. In the words of the then health secretary, Alan Milburn: “It’s PFI or bust”. So, if you wanted a new hospital or bridge or classroom or army barracks, you had to demonstrate that PFI offered the best value for money. Otherwise, there would be no project. Public bodies immediately discovered a way to make the numbers add up: risk transfer.


... A study published in the British Medical Journal revealed that, before the risk was costed, every hospital scheme it investigated would have been built much more cheaply with public funds. But once the notional financial risks had been added, building them through PFI came out cheaper in every case, although sometimes by less than 0.1%.

Not only was this exercise (as some prominent civil servants warned) bogus, but the entire concept is negated by the fact that if collapse occurs, the risk ripples through the private sector and into the public. Companies like Carillion might not be too big to fail, but the services they deliver are. You cannot, in a nominal democracy, suddenly close a public hospital, let a bridge collapse, or fail to deliver school meals.

Partly for this reason, and partly because of the inordinate political power of corporations and the people who run them, governments seek to insulate these companies from the very risks they claim to have transferred to them.

Monbiot points out that when a PPP venture fails, the loss usually defaults to the government anyway. The risk factor is a scam.

A separate article explores the PPP scam in the context of the recent failure of Carillion which is expected to dump hundreds of millions of dollars of losses on our government also.

The collapse of Carillion, embarrassing for a government that had championed the company and awarded it contract after contract, represents another significant blow to the “private knows best” economic dogma.

Nothing has come to symbolise the worship of free-market solutions – often against all the evidence – more than the persistent belief that key public services would be better provided by profit-seeking companies. As the journalist Robert Peston put it, the collapse of Carillion represents the definitive end of a 25-year love affair with the private provision of public services.


Abi Wilkinson writes that government policy is forcing poor people into catastrophic debt.  Zero hour contracts, the gig economy, the trap of easy credit as a substitute for inadequate wage rates, job churn, all that stuff isn't unique to our side of the Atlantic.

Finally, John Harris asks "what happens when all the jobs dry up?" a look at the looming crisis of robotics and automation.  The writer exhorts the left to develop an answer.

Academics at Oxford University’s Martin School say that as automation gains pace, even work in retail – which is all many places currently have left – “is likely to vanish, as it has done in manufacturing, mining and agriculture”. The era of driverless transport will soon be here. Even for the labour market’s winners, a digitised economy’s quickfire cycles and ever-changing demands are steadily killing job security.

...

So what might the progressive politics of the 2020s and 2030s look like? Clearly, our most glaring inequalities call for action that only a powerful central state can carry out. We should start, at long last, to move tax policy towards concentrations of wealth and assets, not least land and property. The line should be redrawn between what ought to be considered public services and utilities, and things best left to the private sector, a point underlined by the nightmarish collapse of the outsourcing giant Carillion. Investment needs to be forcibly pushed into places long deprived of it.
...

Because work and so-called welfare increasingly fail to provide any kind of secure foundation for living, one basic principle should sit at the core of the left’s vision of the future: that of a universal basic income (UBI). Thanks to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, there is a rather quiet Labour “working group” apparently looking into this, with a view to reporting around the time of the next election, and chatter about UBI periodically flares up at party gatherings.

James Galbraith addresses this potentially calamitous threat in his book, "The Predator State." Here, here and here.  Like Varoufakis, Galbraith contends that  robotics will demand a very real form of wealth redistribution failing which society will collapse.







Why Is Canada the Country Insisting It Be Kept Intact? Just Who Is Our Government Protecting?



One of the truly perplexing aspects of the North American Free Trade Act, NAFTA, is the Ch. 11 investor dispute resolution section.

Trump wants it gone. Mexico doesn't seem to care. Canada insists it be retained. We want it. Why?

Canada gets sued by foreign companies under the ISDS provision more than the United States and Mexico combined. We get soaked.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives says the Trudeau government's position makes little sense.

Canada has been the target of more claims under Chapter 11 than its Mexican and American partners and the trend is getting worse as Canada has been sued over twice as many times as Mexico and the U.S. combined since 2010.

Canada is also far more likely to lose challenges — the CCPA says Canada has won nine and lost eight concluded cases so far while Mexico has won seven and lost five and the U.S. has won all 11 of its concluded cases.

It says Canada is currently facing eight active investor-state claims — including Omnitrax's recent NAFTA claim related to its broken rail line to Churchill, Man., and Lone Pine's challenge to Quebec's fracking moratorium — that combined seek more than $475 million in damages.


Lori Wallach of the progressive Washington-based group Public Citizen is also critical of Canada's defense of Chapter 11.

"This is the irony to it. Canada is No. 1 in the world of developed countries that has lost under investor-state," she said.

"Canada's paid out a ridiculous amount of money... Of any country Canada should say, 'That's it. I've had it with investor-state."'


So, if the Canadian people are getting hammered by the ISDS in NAFTA and yet the Trudeau government is insistent that it be retained, somebody must be benefiting. If would be nice if our government would tell us just who it's working for.

Yanis Takes His Scalpel and Dissects Globalism



It is not easy to get people to think about globalization, capitalism in the neoliberal era and what lies ahead, if anything.  To use Bill Maher's indelicate metaphor, it's like waking up in a seedy motel room with a blistering hangover to find yourself handcuffed to a dead hooker.

Our dead hooker is globalism. John Ralston Saul declared it dead in 2005. He was right then and, guess what? It's still dead. We've been dragging it around ever since. The current management, Justin, somehow thinks he can bring it back to life.

Which brings us to Yanis Varoufakis, and a very important essay on globalism he penned published over the weekend in The Globe and Mail.  An early driving force in the Greek political movement, Syriza, the British-educated economist resigned when in a referendum the Greek people agreed to capitulate to their nation's EU creditors' demands for brutal austerity.

Varoufakis' take is that globalization is indeed dead. You'll never breathe life back into that dead hooker. A new order will emerge whether our leaders like it or not. The important question is whether we will control our future or allow ourselves to be overtaken by events. I urge you to read the essay, linked above, in its entirety. In the meantime here are a few excerpts:


At the discursive level, neo-parochialism is now trumping globalization's oeuvre in the United States, in Brexit Britain and elsewhere. Labour-saving technological change, meanwhile, underpins jobless deglobalization everywhere. None of these developments augur well for those who once believed in a borderless commonwealth of working people.

Humanity has been globalizing since our ancestors left Africa, the earliest economic migrants on record. Moreover, capitalism has been operating for two centuries like "heavy artillery," in Marx and Engels' words, using the "cheap prices of commodities" to batter "down all Chinese walls," "constantly expanding market for its products" and replacing "the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency" with "intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations."

It wasn't until the 1990s, when we noticed the unleashing of momentous forces, that we required a new term to describe the emancipation of capital from all fetters, which led to a global economy whose growth and equilibrium relied on increasingly unbalanced trade and money movements. It is this relatively recent phenomenon – globalization, we called it – that is now in crisis and in retreat.
...

In 1944, the New Deal administration in Washington understood that the only way to avoid the Great Depression's return at war's end was to transfer America's surpluses to Europe (the Marshall Plan was but one example of this) and Japan, effectively recycling them to generate foreign demand for all the gleaming new products – washing machines, cars, television sets, passenger jets – that American industry would switch to from military hardware.

Thus began the project of dollarizing Europe, founding the European Union as a cartel of heavy industry, and building up Japan within the context of a global currency union based on the U.S. dollar. This would equilibrate a global system featuring fixed exchange rates, almost-constant interest rates and boring banks (operating under severe capital controls).

This dazzling design, also known as the Bretton Woods system, brought us a golden age of low unemployment and inflation, high growth and impressively diminished inequality.
...

When Nixon trashed Bretton Woods as its surplus capacity dwindled it embraced a new order of fiscal and trade deficits that saw its trading partners pour their surplus cash into Wall Street.


But for Wall Street to act as this magnet of other people's capital, there were two prerequisites. One was Wall Street's unshackling from New Deal-era regulations. Bank deregulation was central in this audacious reversal: From recycling Amercian surpluses, via transferring them to Europe and to Japan, the United States was now recycling the supluses of the rest of the world rushing into Wall Street, completing the loop necessary to pay for America's deficits and keep globalization in rude health.

The second condition was the cheapening of American labour and the substitution of growing wages with escalating credit, provided via Wall Street. This cheapening of American labour was essential to helping push Wall Street's capital returns above those of Frankfurt and Tokyo, where competitiveness was based instead on enhancements to productivity.

Through it all, neoliberalism emerged from the margins of political economics to dominate our discourse after the end of Bretton Woods. But it was nothing more than the sermon that steadied the hand of politicians repealing New Deal-era protections for workers and society at large from the motivated abuses of Wall Street bankers and predators such as Wal-Mart.

In summary, what we now call globalization was the result of a brave new financialized global recycling mechanism of immense energy and ever-increasing imbalances – with the rise of neoliberalism, wholesale bank deregulation and Wall Street's "greed is good" culture as its mere symptoms. 
...

"Speculators may do no harm," John Maynard Keynes once hypothesized, "as bubbles on a steady stream of enterprise. But the position is serious when enterprise becomes the bubble on a whirlpool of speculation." Which is precisely what had happened by 2007: Atop the tsunami of European and Asian profits rushing into Wall Street, bankers built oversized bubbles of exotic forms of private debt that, at some point, acquired the properties of private money.

When these bubbles burst in 2008, the recycling loop sustaining globalization was broken – despite energetic money printing by central banks and the Chinese government's breathtaking credit and investment spree. U.S. deficits, even after returning to their pre-2007 levels, could no longer stabilize globalization. The reason? Socialist largesse for the few – plus ruthless market forces for the many – damaged aggregate demand, repressed entrepreneurs' sales expectations, restricted investment in productive jobs, diminished earnings for the many and, presto, confirmed the entrepreneurs' pessimism. Adding more liquidity to such a mix makes not an iota of difference, as the problem is not a dearth of liquidity but a dearth of demand.

Wall Street, Wal-Mart and walled citizens – those were globalization's symbolic foundations. Today, all three have become a drag on it. Banks are failing to maintain the capital movements that globalization used to reply upon, as total financial movements across the globe are less than a fourth of what they were in early 2007. Wal-Mart, whose ideology of cheapness symbolized the devaluation of labour and the gutting of traditional local businesses, is itself being squeezed by the Amazon model, whose ultimate effect is a further shrinking of overall spending. And the walls that were the nasty underbelly of the "global village" are now a source of political discontent, exposing the absurdity of a system that promotes the free movement of money and trucks while people remain fenced in.

Looking at the world from an Archimedean distance, globalization has been caught in a steel trap of its own making. Its crisis is due to too much money in the wrong hands. Humanity's accumulated savings per capita are at the highest level in history. However, our investment levels (especially in the things humanity needs, such as green energy) are particularly low. In the United States, massive sums are accumulating in the accounts of companies and people with no use for them, while those without prospects or good jobs are immersed in mountains of debt. In China, savings approaching half of all income sit side by side with the largest credit bubble imaginable. Europe is even worse: There are countries with gigantic trade surpluses but nowhere to invest them domestically (Germany and the Netherlands), countries with deficits and no capacity to invest in badly needed labour and capital (Italy, Spain, Greece) and a euro zone unable to mediate between the two types of countries because it lacks the federal-like institutions that could do this.
...

The Case for a New Bretton Woods

Lest we forget, our problems are global. Like climate change, they demand local action but also a level of international co-operation not seen since Bretton Woods. Neither North America nor Europe nor China can solve them in isolation or even via trade deals. Nothing short of a new Bretton Woods system can deal with tax injustice, the dearth of good jobs, wage stagnation, public and personal debt, low investment in things we desperately need, too much spending on things that are bad for us, increasing depravity in a world awash with cash, robots that are marginalizing an increasing section of our work forces, prohibitively expensive education that the many need to compete with the robots, etc. National solutions, to be implemented under the deception of "getting our country back" and behind strengthened border fences, are bound to yield further discontent, as they enable our oligarchs-without-borders to strike trade agreements that condemn the many to a race to the bottom while securing their loot in offshore havens.
...

The Shape of an International New Deal

First, we need higher wages everywhere, supported by trade agreements and conditions that prevent the Uberization of waged labour domestically.

Tax havens are crying out for international harmonization, including a simple commitment to deny companies registered in offshore tax havens legal protection of their property rights.

We desperately need a green-energy union focusing on common environmental standards, with the active support of public investment and central banks.

We should create a New Bretton Woods system that recalibrates our financial infrastructure, with one umbrella digital currency in which all trade is denominated in a manner that curtails destabilizing trade surpluses and deficits.

And we need a universal basic dividend that would be administered by the New Bretton Woods institutions and funded by a percentage of big tech shares deposited in a world wealth fund.

The financial genie needs to be put back in its bottle, with capital controls domestically and globally to be imposed by co-ordinated action in the Americas, Europe and Asia. Money must be democratized and internationally managed in a manner that shrinks both trade deficits and surpluses. The robots must become humanity's slaves, a feat that requires common ownership, at least partly.





Friday, January 12, 2018

America's Ambassador to Panama Has Had His Fill of Presidente Shithole, Resigns.


56 year old John Feely, career diplomat and former Marine chopper pilot, serving as America's ambassador to Panama has resigned his post.


"As a junior foreign service officer, I signed an oath to serve faithfully the president and his administration in an apolitical fashion, even when I might not agree with certain policies," he wrote, in a letter obtained by Reuters.

"My instructors made clear that if I believed I could not do that, I would be honor bound to resign. That time has come."

Mr Feeley has worked at the state department for nearly 30 years.

He was nominated to the ambassadorship by President Barack Obama in July 2015 and was sworn in to the post on January 15, 2016.

Before becoming ambassador to Panama, Mr Feeley served as principal deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs from 2012 to 2015.

The ambassador is just one of many veteran diplomats and foreign service staffers who have voted with their feet, hollowing out the State Department, since Deplorable Donnie took power.  With them goes a lot of institutional memory - the people who knew how things worked, who knew the people to call in other countries' foreign service when a favour was needed or a deal had to be negotiated. These were people other countries had come to trust.

Der Spiegel Captures Trump Perfectly


The Spiegel cover says it all:



Meanwhile, the New York Daily News offered this take on Deplorable Donnie:


They're Not the "Party of Lincoln" Any More



Republicans like to praise themselves as the "party of Lincoln." Of course that was when the Republican Party was a party of the north. Back then the slave state South was Democrat. The parties switched polarity when Kennedy and Johnson brought in civil rights protections. Nixon took advantage of the southern discontent to pick up the low-hanging, often rotting fruit to win the presidency and the GOP has been the party of slack jawed, knuckle dragging racists ever since.

Today's Republicans are the party of shitholes, dutiful followers of the Shithole in Chief, the Mango Mussolini, Deplorable Donnie Trump himself.

Trump's "shithole" remarks yesterday (according to Dick Durban he used the word repeatedly) have emboldened America's cowed media to publish recaps of the litany of racist remarks that have come spewing from Trump's shithole, the one immediately beneath his nose, since he ran in the Republican primaries. Deplorable Donnie doesn't seem to miss a beat when it comes to disparaging certain groups. By 'certain' I mean people other than Cracker white.

While Trump has been practising his bigotry again and again, working out on black people and brown people, Muslims and even women, his courtiers in the House and Senate have been remarkably complacent. That's because, when it comes right down to it, they prefer to be shitholes too rather than stand up to this disgusting bully.

That goes for Trump's White House staff - in spades. When the "shithole" uproar broke yesterday, the White House did nothing to deny it. Instead they sent deputy press secretary, Raj Shah, to shovel out the stables. Even he wasn't going to deny the remark. Instead he responded: "Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people."  Good one, Raj, double down.




Now in fairness, president shithole did try to defuze the problem this morning in his tweet storm. How? He denied it. Never happened. Never used those words. See, he's a bully, a bigot, a moron and a coward. Oh, and Raj? You too.

Lincoln emancipated the slaves. Isn't it time America emancipated Lincoln from today's Republican Party?



Three things the world, including America's adversaries and its rivals (no, they're not the same thing) now must believe are that: 1. Trump is a bigot ready to exploit every base instinct that can be harnessed in the United States; 2) Trump is chronically, pathologically dishonest. He's a liar. Everyone knows that. 3) Trump is reaching a point of intellectual/emotional impairment that his continued presidency is a threat to the world and to the United States.

This is not  good place for the United States to find itself.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

President "Sh_thole" Afraid to Show His Face in London


The trip is off. The Brits have repelled Trump from visiting their fair land anytime soon. Among other things, protesters threatened to line the parade route and moon the bastard as he passed by, a scene that would have been aired endlessly on newscasts everywhere around the world that has television. The humiliation would have been more than the Mango Mussolini could bear.

As an alternative it had been thought Trump could stage a drive-by visit, possibly cutting the ribbon to open the new American embassy. Seems the protesters were also ready for that possibility.

So what to tell the Gullibillies, the racists and the fascists and the rest of the Deplorables? Trump knows he can feed those clowns almost any sort of crap and so he tweeted that the new embassy was beneath him.

Donald J. Trump(@realDonaldTrump)
Reason I canceled my trip to London is that I am not a big fan of the Obama Administration having sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London for “peanuts,” only to build a new one in an off location for 1.2 billion dollars. Bad deal. Wanted me to cut ribbon-NO!
January 12, 2018


Ann Coulter - Bannon Was Trump's Brain

Ann Coulter is unleashing her flying monkeys on her ex-fave, the Mango Mussolini, Donald J. Trump.

In case you've missed it, Donnie has been having a non-stop senior's moment lately on everything from domestic surveillance of Americans to immigration and the "shithole countries" these people are coming from. First he's for, then he's against, and soon he's for again. Maybe his prostate is acting up or, yes, he's really senile. Perhaps both.


In order to prove he doesn’t have dementia, as alleged in a recent book, President Trump called a meeting with congressional leaders on Tuesday — and requested that it be televised.

Ivanka: Show them at your best, Daddy!

He then proceeded to completely sell out the base and actually added to his problems by appearing senile.

In a half-dozen exchanges — which, again, he wanted televised — Trump responded to remarks as if he had no clue what the person was saying. One senator would talk — he’d agree. Someone else would say the exact opposite — he’d agree with that, too.

...

Trump was more than willing to sell out the base to solve a personal problem of his — the Michael Wolff book — but managed to not convince a single American that he’s articulate, bright or a good leader.

On MSNBC, the hosts didn’t say, “You know, we saw a new side of Trump today …” Instead, they could barely suppress their giggles over the great negotiator being rolled.

Oh well, Ann, think of better, happier days.




Could Hackers Launch a Nuclear Attack?



Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, has released a study of cyber security risks posed to US, British and other countries' nuclear arsenals.

The threat has received scant attention so far from those involved in nuclear military planning and the procurement of weapons, the report said.

It blames this partly on failure to keep up with fast-moving advances, lack of skilled staff and the slowness of institutional change.

“Nuclear weapons systems were developed before the advancement of computer technology and little consideration was given to potential cyber vulnerabilities. As a result, current nuclear strategy often overlooks the widespread use of digital technology in nuclear systems,” the authors of the study said.

Nuclear weapons systems are at threat from hostile states, criminal groups and terrorist organisations exploiting cyber vulnerabities.

“The likelihood of attempted cyber-attacks on nuclear weapons systems is relatively high and increasing from advanced persistent threats from states and non-state groups,” the report said.

It cited examples such as a report the US could have infiltrated the supply chain of North Korea’s missile system that contributed to a test failure in April last year. The silos of US nuclear-tipped Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles “are believed to be particularly vulnerable to cyber attacks”.

Here's the summary taken verbatim from the report:


Nuclear weapons systems were first developed at a time when computer capabilities were in their infancy and little consideration was given to potential malicious cyber vulnerabilities. Many of the assumptions on which current nuclear strategies are based pre-date the current widespread use of digital technology in nuclear command, control and communication systems.
There are a number of vulnerabilities and pathways through which a malicious actor may infiltrate a nuclear weapons system without a state’s knowledge. Human error, system failures, design vulnerabilities, and susceptibilities within the supply chain all represent common security issues in nuclear weapons systems. Cyberattack methods such as data manipulation, digital jamming and cyber spoofing could jeopardize the integrity of communication, leading to increased uncertainty in decision-making.
During peacetime, offensive cyber activities would create a dilemma for a state as it may not know whether its systems have been the subject of a cyberattack. This unknown could have implications for military decision-making, particularly for decisions affecting nuclear weapons deterrence policies.
At times of heightened tension, cyberattacks on nuclear weapons systems could cause an escalation, which results in their use. Inadvertent nuclear launches could stem from an unwitting reliance on false information and data. Moreover, a system that is compromised cannot be trusted in decision-making.
Possible cyber resilience measures include taking a holistic approach in creating trustworthy systems based on rigorous risk assessments. These should incorporate an analysis of a combination of threats, vulnerabilities and consequences.
It is the responsibility of nuclear weapons states to incorporate cyber risk reduction measures in nuclear command, control and communication systems. Although some information is publicly available on US weapons systems, there is very little information regarding other nuclear weapons states. Academia and civil society should be encouraged to bring this issue to the attention of their government.

As a confidence booster, the report features a photo of a threadworn control panel from a Minuteman missile silo.  Nice, eh?

Well, That's the Pot Calling the Kettle Black


Donald Trump doesn't like illegal immigrants and he doesn't like the countries those little brown buggers come from either.  The Cheeto Benito likes his immigrants white, preferably Nordic too.

President Donald Trump grew frustrated with lawmakers Thursday in the Oval Office when they floated restoring protections for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries as part of a bipartisan immigration deal, according to two people briefed on the meeting.

"Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?" Trump said, according to these people, referring to African countries and Haiti. He then suggested that the United States should instead bring more people from countries like Norway, whose prime minister he met yesterday.

The Assange Follies



Ecuador really wants Julian Assange out of its London embassy. It's been trying to work out some deal for the Brits to just let him go somewhere, perhaps to another country, but British authorities insist Assange must answer to their courts for breaching bail. They're looking to put Julian in HMP Greybar Hotel for a stretch, especially given that he's caused the Brits to rack up a police bill of some 18 million pounds to keep the scofflaw holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy.

The Ecuadoreans want him gone badly enough they granted Assange citizenship last week and then tried to get him accredited diplomatically but, again, the Brits said no deal. That's not the way diplomatic accreditation works.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A Eulogy for "The West." It Is No More and Will Be Missed.


Most of us were brought up seeing ourselves and our nation as members in good standing of this political, social, and economic entity we liked to call "the West." We formed the Western World.

It's over. We blew it.

Guardian columnist, Rafael Behr, writes that the West that won the cold war no longer exists.

The post-cold war realignment has now lasted almost as long as the confrontation itself. The Berlin Wall has now been down for longer than it was up. The period is politically definitive for those who grew up in it, and strangely remote to those who came after. The generation that occupies most positions of power in “western” countries has a crisp sense of what it means to be “the west”, but it is vaguer in their children and nebulous to their grandchildren.

The term can be very problematic. It is too often used to conflate democracy, civilisation and whiteness. But in the context of a strategic rivalry with Berlin as its epicentre, “the west” accurately described one side. So the label stuck.

Measuring political virtue by longitude has also been given fresh impetus by Vladimir Putin’s neo-Soviet statecraft and the emergence of populist governments in countries of the former Warsaw Pact. The power-hoarding habits of Poland’s Law and Justice party and Hungary’s nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orb├ín, give some coherence to the idea of a liberal “western style”. It means civil liberties upheld by independent courts, a free press, opposition parties unmolested by the state, and a credible prospect of incumbents losing power.

But the lines are blurred by Polish and Hungarian membership of the EU. Their accession in 2004 was supposed to require the highest standards of political pluralism. The deal was liberal reform in exchange for promotion to the economic premier league. Transition was meant to be a one-way street. More established EU states are alarmed by easterners’ sliding back to bad habits.
...

Austria avoids equivalent censure despite the far-right Freedom party joining its ruling coalition last month. When the same party, whose roots go back to the Nazi apparatus, joined the government in 2000, Vienna was ostracised by fellow EU members. The charge was legitimising extremism. The Freedom party was then beyond the pale. The pale has moved.

Heinz-Christian Strache, the party’s leader, now Austrian vice-chancellor, is not Eurosceptic in the style of Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage. He nonetheless leads a party with an aggressive fixation on Islam – but Austria is a “western” EU member, and that unofficial senior status seems to confer privileges in the club that survive having xenophobes in high office.

Which brings us to Donald Trump. The US president makes a parody of the idea of the west as a beacon of moral authority. It is true that his despotic urges are hemmed by law in a way that lesser countries might not manage. But it is some downgrade of the system to boast that it might withstand assault by a venal, nepotistic maniac. America used to aim higher than constitutional kleptocracy.

In such times it is easy to forget that the “western” model is still the best way to organise people into peaceful, prosperous societies. The benefits of liberal democracy are routinely taken for granted by people who live in one, but not by those who don’t. Millions vote with their feet, migrating across continents in search of a better life. That movement flatters the achievements of democratic societies, although our politics rarely casts it in those terms. It took a generation to get from the idealism of tearing down the wall to the backlash and pulling up the Brexit drawbridge.
...

Meanwhile, on both sides of the divide, the case for political liberalism cruised in the slipstream of market capitalism. Western intellectuals and eastern dissidents pleaded for democracy on principle for years before brute economics settled the matter. Worryingly, liberalism doesn’t have as good a record of winning by argument alone as its advocates like to imagine. Fascism, its deadliest enemy, wasn’t debated into submission or outrun in an economic race: it was beaten by military force in a fight to the death, started by the fascists.

Now, as illiberal forces arise in democracy’s heartlands, liberals find themselves frighteningly short of rhetorical tools to defend their cause. There is no eastern bloc peering enviously over our fences, testifying to the superiority of our methods. The fences are down, and those we once pitied are treated as interlopers, snaffling scarce resources. And while Britain, the US and western Europe are still among the richest places on Earth, millions who live there do not take it as a blessing. They feel insecure, disenfranchised, cheated.

We still produce the best TV and the softest toilet paper. But those weren’t ever irrefutable arguments for liberal democracy: they were advertisements for something called the west. And that product, sold on those terms, doesn’t exist any more.






Tuesday, January 09, 2018

El Presidente Strangelove




In 2016 then candidate Donald Trump was given a briefing on the vexing issue of nuclear weapons.  According to his then buddy and confidante, Joe Scarborough, three times Trump asked the briefer why America had nuclear weapons if it couldn't use them.

Well in Trumpland, America is getting closer to using nukes than it has been in decades. It's a two-pronged approach - lowering the threshold for the use of nukes and development of smaller, more "usable" nuclear devices.

Arms control advocates have voiced alarm at the new proposal to make smaller, more “usable” nuclear weapons, arguing it makes a nuclear war more likely, especially in view of what they see as Donald Trump’s volatility and readiness to brandish the US arsenal in showdowns with the nation’s adversaries.

The NPR also expands the circumstances in which the US might use its nuclear arsenal, to include a response to a non-nuclear attack that caused mass casualties, or was aimed at critical infrastructure or nuclear command and control sites.

The nuclear posture review (NPR), the first in eight years, is expected to be published after Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech at the end of January.

[Jon] Wolfsthal, who has reviewed what he understands to be the final draft of the review, said it states that the US will start work on reintroducing a sea-launched nuclear cruise missile, as a counter to a new ground-launched cruise missile the US has accused Russia of developing in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty.

Trump doesn't do "nuance" and there's no area as nuanced as nuclear weapons policy.



2018, the Year of America's Congressional Khmer Rouge



This could be a transformative year for the Republicans. Their tax deal passed, many Congressional Repugs are hitting the silk, bailing out, just as Joy Reid foretold before Christmas. As Reid said at the time, they've done their dirty work for the oligarchs and they're "cashing out."

NBC News' Howard Fineman says there's a Republican exodus underway that will usher in a new, more radical GOP.

In a city obsessed with "Fire and Fury" and Oprah Winfrey, Rep. Ed Royce, the 66-year-old Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, made no waves on Monday when he announced that he would not seek another term in his Southern California district after 25 years in office.

But in the real political world — the one that writes the nation's laws and has to work with the administration of President Donald Trump — Royce's decision was a potent sign of three crucial facts:
Republicans are increasingly worried that they could lose the House in the 2018 midterm elections and many think they are getting out while the getting is still good;
They have reason to worry, especially about the House, and especially since a series of prominent retirements can further hurt the party's chances in the fall and;
No matter what happens in November, a more militant rump parliament of younger Freedom Caucus radicals will have much more clout in what's left of the GOP ranks in the House.
...

Whether the GOP keeps the majority or loses it, the departure of this GOP chairman and others will leave a new brand of Republicans in the House: less traditional, more confrontational, less respectful of Washington and closer to the Tea Party of 2010.

"The House GOP leadership that is now in place is hardly a bunch of moderates," [Norm] Ornstein said. "But they tend to want to work within the rules and the institutions that exist. That is not going to be a true for those who succeed them after this year."






Steve Bannon - "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out"


He described himself as a Leninist. For a while he was Trump's Rasputin, the dark wizard devoted to bringing down the apparatus of the American state.

Then Trump's chief of staff, John Kelly, had enough of the Bannon insurgency and Stevie was shown the door, heading back to Breitbart from where he pledged to continue the alt.right revolution.

Well now Bannon has been turfed from Breitbart too.

According to The New York Times, “Mr. Bannon’s departure, which was forced by a onetime financial patron, Rebekah Mercer, comes as Mr. Bannon remained unable to quell the furor over remarks attributed to him in a new book in which he questions President Trump’s mental fitness and disparages his elder son, Donald Trump Jr.” Mercer rebuked Bannon last week following his public feud with Trump over the comments—a feud that resulted in the president publicly nicknaming his ex-strategist “Sloppy Steve.” In a statement, Bannon said he is “proud of what the Breitbart team has accomplished.”

Well, Steve, cheer up. Here's a parting gift from the legendary Alberta Hunter.




Monday, January 08, 2018

Hedges Hears America's Death Rattle


We're witnessing many things unfold this century that would have been unimagineable except to a small few just decades ago. Climate change, the contamination of our atmosphere, the incremental destruction of our oceans, the exhaustion of resources vital to our survival, the loss of all forms of life - terrestrial and aquatic. We have become acclimated to permawar - wars unwinnable from the outset fought, it seems, for little more than the sake of fighting. Now, according to some scientists - no, make that many scientists - we are embarked on a major mass extinction event, one of our own making. Is it beginning to feel just a little crazy in here, inside your mind? Are you beginning to feel the inescapable nature of what's happening, that feeling you get as you trip and stumble.

In his column this week, Chris Hedges writes of America's sounding death knell.

“In every civilization its most impressive period seems to precede death by only a moment,” the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote. “Like the woods of autumn, life defies death in a glorious pageantry of color. But the riot of this color has been distilled by an alchemy in which life has already been touched by death. Thus man claims immortality for his spiritual achievements just when their mortal fate becomes apparent; and death and mortality are strangely mixed into, and potent in, the very pretention of immortality.”

Our capitalist elites have used propaganda, money and the marginalizing of their critics to erase the first three of philosopher John Locke’s elements of the perfect state: liberty, equality and freedom. They exclusively empower the fourth, property. Liberty and freedom in the corporate state mean the liberty and freedom of corporations and the rich to exploit and pillage without government interference or regulatory oversight. And the single most important characteristic of government is its willingness to use force, at home and abroad, to protect the interests of the property classes. This abject surrender of the state to the rich is expressed at this moment in the United States in the new tax code and the dismantling of environmental regulations. This degradation of basic democratic ideals—evidenced when the Supreme Court refuses to curb wholesale government surveillance of the public or defines pouring unlimited dark money into political campaigns as a form of free speech and the right to petition the government—means the society defines itself by virtues that are dead. The longer this illusion is perpetuated, the more an enraged public turns to demagogues who promise a new utopia and then, once in power, accelerate the assault.

All of our institutions are corrupted by a neoliberal ideology. It has contaminated the press, the academy, the arts, the courts and religious institutions. Christian theology has ingested the toxic brew of American exceptionalism, the myth of American virtues and the conflation of freedom with unfettered capitalism. The liberal church, like the bankrupt liberal class, holds up multiculturalism and identity politics as an ethical imperative and ignores the primacy of economic justice. It tolerates the intolerant, giving credibility to those who peddle the heretical creed of the “prosperity gospel,” a creed that says God showers divine favors in the form of wealth and power on the Christian elect. This idea makes Trump one of God’s favorites. It is also an idea that is a complete inversion of the core message of the Christian Gospels.
...

The single-minded pursuit of happiness, with happiness equated with wealth and power, creates a population consumed by anxiety and self-loathing. Few achieve the imagined pinnacle of success, and those who do are often psychopaths. Building a society around these goals is masochistic. It shuts down any desire for self-knowledge because the truth of our lives is unpleasant. We fill the spiritual vacuum with endless activities, entertainment and nonstop electronic hallucinations. We flee from silence and contemplation. We are determined to avoid facing what we have become.

Is He Dumb, Stupid or Is It Cultivated Ignorance? Robert Reich Thinks It's All That - and More.



Robert Reich doesn't dispute that the 45th president of the United States is both stupid and ignorant. He's not as accomplished as he pretends. In fact, he would have done better clipping coupons.  Writing in TruthDig, Reich says Trump is really just an accomplished hustler, a con man.


He knows how to manipulate people. He has an uncanny ability to discover their emotional vulnerabilities – their fears, anxieties, prejudices, and darkest desires – and use them for his own purposes.

To put it another way, Trump is an extraordinarily talented conman.

He’s always been a conman. He conned hundreds of young people and their parents into paying to attend his near worthless Trump University. He conned banks into lending him more money even after he repeatedly failed to pay them. He conned contractors to work for them and then stiffed them.

Granted, during he hasn’t always been a great conman. Had he been, his cons would have paid off.

By his own account, in 1976, when Trump was starting his career, he was worth about $200 million, much of it from his father. Today he says he’s worth some $8 billion. If he’d just put the original $200 million into an index fund and reinvested the dividends, he’d be worth $12 billion today.

But he’s been a great political conman. He conned 62,979,879 Americans to vote for him in November 2016 by getting them to believe his lies about Mexicans, Muslims, African-Americans, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and all the “wonderful,” “beautiful” things he’d do for the people who’d support him.


Not for nothing did I coin the term "Gullibillies" to refer to Trump's then loyal and still loyal supporters. In its colloquialism it may sound pejorative but it's really quite accurate. It's an expression that reflects the combined destructive power of ignorance and naivete. It implies a wholesale abandonment of critical thought in favour of faith- or belief-based thinking sometimes magical thinking. And it is proving to be almost unshakable among Trump's true believers.

Studies show that the Trump legion is the most likely to be harmed by the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare. Likewise it is their children who'll be saddled with the 1.5 trillion dollar burden of tax breaks for the ultra-rich financed entirely on government borrowing. They're like the vivisectionist's dog lovingly licking the hand that wields the scalpel. It's stomach-churning to watch.

Reich concludes:

And he’s still conning most of them.
Political conning is Trump’s genius. It’s this genius – when combined with his utter stupidity in every other dimension of his being – that poses the greatest danger to America and the world.


Sunday, January 07, 2018

While All Eyes Have Been On That Idiot in the White House or Our Suffocating Oceans



One thing you have to say for Donald Trump. He manages to suck all the oxygen out of a room.

This post happens to be about oxygen and it isn't about Trump, not directly. It's a report that came out last week that, as these studies tend to do, is about to vanish down the memory hole. It's a horror story or it should be if we had our wits about us. We don't.

The report is about oxygen, specifically how it is disappearing from our oceans and creating dead zones.  The study finds that the number of these dead zones has quadrupled since 1950. These anoxic waters have expanded by millions of square miles in just our lifetimes.  But wait, there's more. Along our coasts these dead zones have increased ten times. Not four, ten.

"Oxygen is fundamental to life in the oceans," said Denise Breitburg, lead author and marine ecologist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. She's part of the GO2NE (Global Ocean Oxygen Network), which was founded in 2016 to tackle this problem.

"The decline in ocean oxygen ranks among the most serious effects of human activities on Earth's environment."

While scientists have long been aware of these dead zones, this is the first review paper to take such a broad, global view of the issue. And the results aren't pretty.

...

As Earth's climate continues to warm, the team predicts that the oceans will continue to lose oxygen at a rapid pace.

And, as the paper in the journal Science points out: "Major extinction events in Earth's history have been associated with warm climates and oxygen-deficient oceans."

So what's causing these dead zones?

Climate change is a huge part of the problem, especially for the open ocean. Because warm water holds less oxygen, as surface water temperatures warm up, it makes it harder for oxygen to get down into the depths of the ocean.

Closer to shore, nutrient pollution - such as the runoff from agricultural practises - is also playing a big role.

Nutrients like phosphorous from fertiliser can easily end up in rivers and estuaries, which creates algal blooms that drain oxygen from the water as they die and decompose.

It's no surprise then that scientists are worried about the algae bloom the size of Mexico in the Arabian Sea.

Unfortunately, as the oceans get warmer, marine life actually needs more oxygen to survive, not less. The result is huge patches of bleached coral and dead marine life.


Here's a chart depicting our suffocating oceans.
And what is our political response to this? Close to nil. The oceans, with their ability to suck vast quantities of heat and CO2 from the atmosphere and as the handy dumping ground for our waste, including agricultural chemical runoff, are a political "get out of jail free" card, for now.

Unfortunately, our oceans bat last. In recent decades prevailing wind patterns have caused the oceans to absorb enormous amounts of heat energy that has been carried into the depths. That's where the first law of thermodynamics comes into play, the one that tells us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, just converted from one form into another. So all that heat carried into the depths of the ocean, well it's coming back up and it will be returned to the atmosphere.

Climate change is like a prize fight. It's not how you take a punch but how you absorb a flurry of punches. The ocean is absorbing what we're dealing out - the extra heat, the acidification, the chemical contamination - but we are not prepared for its counter-punching. You can be hundreds, thousands of miles from the ocean, drylanders in Toronto or Winnipeg or Calgary. It makes no difference. The ocean will reach you.

Paleontologist Peter Ward of the University of Washington in his book, "Under a Green Sky," has a one-paragraph description of what happens when absorbed CO2  crosses the oceanic tipping point:

First, the world warms over short intervals of time because of a sudden increase of carbon dioxide and methane... The warmer world affects the ocean circulation systems and disrupts the position of the conveyor currents. Bottom waters begin to have warm, low-oxygen water dumped into them. Warming continues, and the decrease of equator-to-pole temperature differences reduces ocean winds and surface currents to a near standstill. Mixing of oxygenated surface waters with the deeper, and volumetrically increasing, low-oxygen bottom waters decreases, causing ever-shallower water to change from oxygenated to anoxic. Finally, the bottom water is at depths were light can penetrate, the combination of low oxygen and light allows green sulfur bacteria to expand in numbers and fill the low-oxygen shallows. They live amid other bacteria that produce toxic amounts of hydrogen sulfide, and the flux of this gas into the atmosphere is as much as 2,000 times what it is today. The gas rises into the high atmosphere, where it breaks down the ozone layer, and the subsequent increase in ultraviolet radiation from the sun kills much of the photosynthetic green plant phytoplankton. On its way up into the sky, the hydrogen sulfide also kills some plant and animal life, and the combination of high heat and hydrogen sulfide creates a mass extinction on land. These are the greenhouse extinctions.

Well, Jeebus, if we knew that we would deal with it, wouldn't we? Surely we would never let that happen, not if we knew better. It's time for that godawful reality check. We do know. We know better. It's all good, old-fashioned, evidence based, tested and verified science. It's all there at the fingertips of every government on Earth. And no, we aren't going to deal with it. We are letting it happen. We are unleashing this fate on future generations. 

Additional reading: