Saturday, March 25, 2017

I Think This Captures the Mood


 I was struggling to find words to describe the misery of the Republican party in the wake of yesterday's fiasco on health care reform. Then I twigged to something out of the past that fits like a glove:

Like a bear with a raw ass
in black fly season

I think that captures the moment. 

A House Divided



When House Speaker Paul Ryan pulled his American Health Care Act bill yesterday he revealed a deeply fractured Republican party. His Congressional Repugs are divided in three camps - moderate or establishment Republicans, Ryan's Ayn Rand Republicans, and even more radical hard right Republicans.

The moderate and the extreme factions wanted nothing to do with the AHCA. To the moderates it was too harsh and invited a voter backlash in the mid-term elections.

To the nihilistic, extreme right, it wasn't harsh enough. They wanted the bill stripped of everything but the title. No coverage for maternity care or emergency care or hospital stays - pretty much nothing except, of course, for the tax cuts for their patrons, the Koch brothers.

Ryan's legislation was not what Trump had repeatedly promised voters. Trump said his plan would cover everyone. Premiums would be a fraction of what they were paying under Obama's Affordable Care Act. Coverage would be much better. The bill placed before Congress was just the opposite in every respect. In fraud cases it's called "bait and switch."

With a majority of 247 Republicans to 191 Democrats, the bill should have passed easily.

After pulling the bill Ryan went on about how they were "close, very, very close." Maybe, maybe not. We'll never know and that's no accident.

Had the House voted on the bill there would be no hiding the truth about how deeply fractured Congressional Republicans have become. The full measure of the dissent by the extremists and the dissent from the moderates would have been laid bare like a raw, festering sore and it would have shown that Republicans have definitely not coalesced behind their new Republican president. Polling the Representatives would have been seen as a vote of confidence in Donald Trump and the outcome a huge defeat for the Cheeto Benito.

Abraham Lincoln drew from the Bible, Mark 3:25, when he said that "a house divided against itself cannot stand." Today's Republicans, an abomination of what Lincoln's Republicans stood for, failed to heed that. They also ignored another bit of Abe's sage advice: "You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time."

Now, let's get back to the Russia business.



UPDATE - the New York Times has a fascinating look at what was going on inside the Trump White House in the days leading up to Friday's fiasco.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Trump's Crazy Train Has Already Left the Platform


The Giant Orange Sphincter has spoken. Trump's long promised health care bill now litters the floor of the House of Representatives and Trump knows who to blame - the minority Democrats.  While his Republicans enjoy a hefty majority in the House, as Trump sees it the Democrats sabotaged his vaunted health care bill.

Of course the Repugs were careful to see that the American Health Care Act never came up for a vote lest the American public find out how unpopular it was with Trump's own representatives and it was plenty unpopular.

Trump didn't hesitate to twist Republican arms on the bill. At first he said hold outs would be in for a pounding when they next stood for re-election. Last night he upped the ante warning that, unless the bill passed, he would leave Obamacare, a.k.a. the Affordable Care Act, in effect. And so, it seems, he shall.

A bad day all round for the Oval Office. Trump shamelessly bullied Congressional Republicans and they responded by telling him to pound salt. That could be a bad omen for things to come, especially if the Trump/Russia investigation turns against the Cheeto Benito.

Got Half an Hour? Find Half an Hour.


Jeremy Scahill dissects his homeland's descent into fascism and doesn't spare Obama for his role in it either.

Four or five years ago this was a tough argument to swallow. Back then it was the sort of thing you would hear from Chris Hedges. Today it's a growing chorus of voices echoing Hedges' warning.

Watch Scahill's presentation. It's 26-minutes long but you can watch it in segments.




TrumpCare Gets the Hook


The writing was on the wall when Republican House leader Paul Ryan popped into the White House this morning. He was there to tell Trump that his healthcare bill was going to defeat if it was put to a vote as the Cheeto Benito angrily demanded last night.

Then, with the Capital building literally besieged by cameras and reporters Ryan somehow managed to sneak in undetected. Once he was safely in the House, the American Health Care Act was given the hook. There would be no vote.

What happens next? Anybody's guess. However it's a swift kick in the nuts for the Great Orange Bloat, one he'll have the weekend to fume over. No dumping Obamacare, no giant tax cut for the 0.01%.

Let the tweeting begin.

Henry Giroux Unpacks Trump's "Culture of Cruelty"



Henry Giroux looks beyond the callous brutality of the Republican's American Health Care Act to the larger culture of cruelty being inflicted on America's most vulnerable by Trump and his Congressional accomplices.

For the last 40 years, the United States has pursued a ruthless form of neoliberalism that has stripped economic activity from ethical considerations and social costs.  ...Under the Trump administration, the repressive state and market apparatuses that produced a culture of cruelty in the 19th century have returned with a vengeance, producing new levels of harsh aggression and extreme violence in US society. A culture of cruelty has become the mood of our times—a spectral lack of compassion that hovers over the ruins of democracy.

...The culture of cruelty has a long tradition in this country, mostly inhabiting a ghostly presence that is often denied or downplayed in historical accounts. What is new since the 1980s—and especially evident under Donald Trump’s presidency—is that the culture of cruelty has taken on a sharper edge as it has moved to the center of political power, adopting an unapologetic embrace of nativism, xenophobia and white nationalist ideology, as well as an in-your-face form of racist demagoguery. Evidence of such cruelty has long been visible in earlier calls by Republicans to force poor children who get free school lunches to work for their meals. Such policies are particularly cruel at a time when nearly “half of all children live near close to the poverty line.” Other instances include moving people from welfare to workfare without offering training programs or child care, and the cutting of children’s food stamp benefits for 16 million children in 2014. Another recent example of this culture of cruelty was Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) tweeting his support for Geert Wilders, a notorious white supremacist and Islamophobic Dutch politician.
...

The culture of cruelty has become a primary register of the loss of democracy in the United States. The disintegration of democratic commitments offers a perverse index of a country governed by the rich, big corporations and rapacious banks through a consolidating regime of punishment. It also reinforces the workings of a corporate-driven culture whose airwaves are filled with hate, endless spectacles of violence and an ongoing media assault on young people, the poor, Muslims and undocumented immigrants. Vast numbers of individuals are now considered disposable and are relegated to zones of social and moral abandonment.
...

Trump’s 2017 budgetary proposals, many of which were drafted by the hyperconservative Heritage Foundation, will create a degree of imposed hardship and misery that defies any sense of human decency and moral responsibility.

Public policy analyst Robert Reich argues that “the theme that unites all of Trump’s [budget] initiatives so far is their unnecessary cruelty.” Reich writes:

"His new budget comes down especially hard on the poor—imposing unprecedented cuts in low-income housing, job training, food assistance, legal services, help to distressed rural communities, nutrition for new mothers and their infants, funds to keep poor families warm, even “meals on wheels.” These cuts come at a time when more American families are in poverty than ever before, including 1 in 5 children. Why is Trump doing this? To pay for the biggest hike in military spending since the 1980s. Yet the U.S. already spends more on its military than the next 7 biggest military budgets put together. His plan to repeal and “replace” the Affordable Care Act will cause 14 million Americans to lose their health insurance next year, and 24 million by 2026. Why is Trump doing this? To bestow $600 billion in tax breaks over the decade to wealthy Americans. This windfall comes at a time when the rich have accumulated more wealth than at any time in the nation’s history."

This is a demolition budget that would inflict unprecedented cruelty, misery and hardship on millions of citizens and residents. Trump’s populist rhetoric collapses under the weight of his efforts to make life even worse for the rural poor, who would have $2.6 billion cut from infrastructure investments largely used for water and sewage improvements as well as federal funds used to provide assistance so they can heat their homes. Roughly $6 billion would be cut from a housing budget that benefits 4.5 million low-income households. Other programs on the cutting block include funds to support Habitat for Humanity, the homeless, energy assistance to the poor, legal aid and a number of antipoverty programs. Trump’s mode of governance is no longer modeled on “The Apprentice.” It now takes its cues from “The Walking Dead.”
...

The $54 billion that Trump seeks to remove from the budgets of 19 agencies designed to help the poor, students, public education, academic research and the arts would instead be used to increase the military budget and build a wall along the Mexican border. The culture of cruelty is on full display here as millions would suffer for the lack of loans, federal aid and basic resources. The winners would be the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, the private prison industry and the institutions and personnel needed to expand the police state. What Trump has provided in this budget proposal is a blueprint for eliminating the remnants of the welfare state while transforming American society into a “war-obsessed, survival-of-the fittest dystopia.”
...

The culture of hardness and cruelty is not new to American society, but the current administration aims to deploy it in ways that sap the strength of social relations, moral compassion and collective action, offering in their place a mode of governance that promotes a pageant of suffering and violence. There will, no doubt, be an acceleration of acts of violence under the Trump administration, and the conditions for eliminating this new stage of state violence will mean not only understanding the roots of neofascism in the United States, but also eliminating the economic, political and cultural forces that have produced it. Addressing those forces means more than getting rid of Trump. We must eliminate a more pervasive irrationality in which democracy is equated with unbridled capitalism—a system driven almost exclusively by financial interests and beholden to two political parties that are hardwired to produce and reproduce neoliberal violence.

Wrap Your Mind Around This Idea



We live in a world that's running out of stuff including the stuff that keeps you alive - clean air and fresh water for starters. There is not enough to meet our insatiable and persistently growing demand. The Global Footprint Network that studies these things has worked out that mankind now uses renewable resources (water, air, biomass) at 1.7 times the Earth's replenishment rate, its carrying capacity.

That means we're neck deep in a major resource deficit. The shortfall is visible, tangible, palpable and manifests in countless forms. It's evident in lakes that have dried out, rivers that no longer run to the sea, aquifers that have been rapaciously drained and now stand empty, vast and expanding tracts of deforestation, spreading desertification encroaching on once productive land, even cities. It's evident in increasing contamination and pollution of our waterways and coastlines observed in algae blooms and oceanic "dead zones." It's inescapable in the collapse of global fisheries as the industrial fleet chases species after species, "fishing down the food chain." It's evident in loss of natural habitat and biodiversity, the extinction of species terrestrial and aquatic. It's everywhere. You have to close your eyes not to see it.

Keep all of that in mind when you consider that a lot of what we're running out of is consumed, free of charge, by the same industrial sector that has given us so much crap that ends up obsolete or unworkable in such short order. In fact a recent study finds that none of the world's top industries would realize any profit if they had to pay for the resources they consume at no charge.

Coming from a civilization which, for most of its 12,000 year history, enjoyed a bountiful surplus of natural resources, we're not accustomed to seeing those resources in terms of ownership or value. We have to get our minds around the idea that assets are property and, if they don't belong to you personally, they very much belong to your society or, in the case of the atmosphere, to humankind in general. Then understand that your society, with the collusion of your political caste, is getting grievously shortchanged.

The notion of “externalities” has become familiar in environmental circles. It refers to costs imposed by businesses that are not paid for by those businesses. For instance, industrial processes can put pollutants in the air that increase public health costs, but the public, not the polluting businesses, picks up the tab. In this way, businesses privatize profits and publicize costs.
...

check out a recent report [PDF] done by environmental consultancy Trucost on behalf of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) program sponsored by United Nations Environmental Program. TEEB asked Trucost to tally up the total “unpriced natural capital” consumed by the world’s top industrial sectors. (“Natural capital” refers to ecological materials and services like, say, clean water or a stable atmosphere; “unpriced” means that businesses don’t pay to consume them.)
...

The majority of unpriced natural capital costs are from greenhouse gas emissions (38%), followed by water use (25%), land use (24%), air pollution (7%), land and water pollution (5%), and waste (1%).

So how much is that costing us? Trucost’s headline results are fairly stunning.

First, the total unpriced natural capital consumed by the more than 1,000 “global primary production and primary processing region-sectors” amounts to $7.3 trillion a year — 13 percent of 2009 global GDP.

...

Of the top 20 region-sectors ranked by environmental impacts, none would be profitable if environmental costs were fully integrated. Ponder that for a moment: None of the world’s top industrial sectors would be profitable if they were paying their full freight. Zero.

That amounts to an global industrial system built on sleight of hand. As Paul Hawken likes to put it, we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it GDP.

...

The distance between today’s industrial systems and truly sustainable industrial systems — systems that do not spend down stored natural capital but instead integrate into current energy and material flows — is not one of degree, but one of kind. What’s needed is not just better accounting but a new global industrial system, a new way of providing for human wellbeing, and fast. That means a revolution.

Of course the contrarians will say that, if we priced that natural capital and forced industry to pay, that would be passed along in ever higher prices. Not so fast. That overlooks what would happen to both production and consumption. 

Free resources are freely consumed, subject to availability, and freely squandered. They're free after all. When those resources are priced, when they come with a cost, the competitor that uses them most wisely, with the least waste, has a market advantage.  

Also, when the price increases, consumers will become less tolerant of shoddy manufacture, planned obsolescence and shortened lifespans, products that cannot be repaired or upgraded.  Imagine if your appliances, out of the box, were good for 25 to 30 years. I've been in my current house for about 15-years and I'm already on my third stove. When the first two failed I was outraged to be told that the essential parts needed to repair them were no longer available.

Pricing natural capital is an essential step in transitioning to a steady state economy. It's not a nice idea. It's not an option. If we don't take that leap we won't have an economy. 

If you're interested in this idea of pricing natural capital there are several good books you can find in your library. A good starting point is "Natural Capital and Human Economic Survival," a 1995 book edited by Thomas Prugh and containing essays by Robert Costanza, John Cumberland, Herman Daly, Robert Goodland and Richard Norgaard.  If nothing else you'll discover how we're all getting shortchanged by neoliberal governments. You'll also realize that continuing on with the status quo is not an option. If we don't change, and soon, we will be changed.




Our Last, Best Chance?


Canadians have all the proof they need in our own prime minister that the existing approach to slashing carbon emissions cannot work. Trudeau's hypocrisy is embedded in his drive to accelerate the export and production of the world's most carbon-intensive ersatz petroleum, bitumen, under the laughable premise that more carbon today is the key to a green future - eventually, sometime, maybe. That's sophistry on a scale to rival Trump.

Parents often try to impart to their children the wisdom of not putting off until tomorrow what they can do today. It's a valuable lesson that's immediately discarded as soon as those same kids reach high political office. Once securely installed every challenge becomes a can to be kicked down the road. That includes these lofty greenhouse gas emissions cuts so earnestly promised and then promptly shelved.

Leave it to grownup kids like Trudeau or the leaders of most other parties for that matter and our grandkids face the very real prospect of a living hell on earth.

But the Paris climate agreement reached in the heady closing months of 2015 was never going to be enough, was it? Not really. It was all voluntary, well-intentioned (sort of) pap. The jubilant international press was caught in the moment. Few even noticed the caution of Hans Joachim Schellnhuber that, to work, the deal required nothing less than an "induced implosion" of the global fossil fuel industry. An induced implosion as in effective government intervention to shut down Big Fossil. Sort of the exact opposite of what the Dauphin had in mind for Canadian bitumen.

Trudeau's commitment to the fight against climate change comes down to the induced expansion of bitumen production complete with expanded pipelines to get that civilization killing crap to "tidewater." I'm pretty sure that's not what Schellnhuber had in mind.

Canada's approach to climate change isn't well received abroad either. In fact it's been denounced as fatal to the Paris agreement. Let's be honest. We're going to put paid to any hope of not just Canada but all the signatories achieving the Paris objectives. Can't happen, ain't gonna happen.

All of which means a new idea, one that might truly avert runaway global warming, probably won't stand a chance.

On Thursday (23.03.17), researchers proposed an alternative: a "carbon law" obliging all people, cities, businesses and countries to halve their emissions every 10 years. The idea will be presented to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in New York on Friday.

"It's a much simpler and more ambitious framing, because you have huge emissions cuts in the first 10 years, and then it gets easier in the future to reach the targets," the report's co-author Owen Gaffney told DW.

"A lot of the framing around the carbon challenge right now says we need to get to zero emissions some time after 2050. It's hard to see how that will motivate the kind of action we need right now to decarbonize the global economy."
...

Gaffney says he and his colleagues got the idea for the alternative model in the summer of 2015 while chatting with Johan Falk, director of the Stockholm IOT ignition lab for computer processor maker Intel.

Falk had told them about "Moore's Law" in the IT industry, which accounts for how processors have been doubling their computing power every two years. Neither a natural nor statutory law, this simple rule of thumb has nonetheless been accepted by the industry for the past 50 years, driving disruptive innovation. Industry leaders believed in it - and it became a self-fulfilling prophesy.
...
Currently, no country has plans to halve emissions in the next 10 years - although some small countries plan to come close. The "nationally determined contributions" submitted to the UN by major emitters delay their most significant action until future decades.

Justifying the slow pace, politicians have cautioned that commitments need to be kept realistic, otherwise they are meaningless.

Great idea, truly inspirational, until you realize that we live in a Trump and Trudeau world. Ideas like this Moore's Law notion are and will probably remain non-starters. Saving the world? We're just not into that.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Trump Plays Hardball on RyanCare


Ever petulant Donaldo Trump has grabbed recalcitrant Congressional Republicans by the pussy.  Either pass the massive tax cut for the rich wrapped in the cadaver of a healthcare bill or he'll leave Obamacare, what literate Americans know as the Affordable Care Act, in place.

The Cheeto Benito is going to town on intransigent Republicans. He first tried to steal their lunch money, threatening to come after holdouts when they next sought re-election. That didn't work so now he's telling them it's his way or the highway.

An interesting situation. If Trump can get Congressional Republicans to knuckle under on a widely unpopular bill such as Paul Ryan's healthcare nightmare, he'll know what it takes to roll them over when and as he chooses.

This Shouldn't Be Your Daily Laugh, But...

This Hour Has 22 Minutes nails it

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Napolitano Loses FOX Gig


On FOX they call him "the judge" or at least they did. That's before Andy Napolitano planted in his president's addled mind the notion that Britain's CGHQ spy agency did Obama's bidding and spied on the Trump campaign. Now the judge has been given the hook.

A couple of weeks ago Napolitano said he had it from three sources that Obama went outside the "chain of command" and had the Brits eavesdrop on Trump and his aides during the campaign. The source turns out to be a discredited former CIA analyst who floated the idea on Russia's RT network.

After the story was refuted by the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, the British government and its intelligence agency, Trump went into overdrive to cover his lyin' ass:

The US president, when asked about the incident, said that “all we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television. I didn’t make an opinion on it. You shouldn’t be talking to me. You should be talking to Fox.”

Meanwhile former Clinton labour secretary, Robert Reich, reports on his latest visit to Washington where he took the pulse of the government.

1. Washington is more divided, angry, bewildered, and fearful – than I’ve ever seen it.

2. The angry divisions aren’t just Democrats versus Republicans. Rancor is also exploding inside the Republican Party.

3. Republicans (and their patrons in big business) no longer believe Trump will give them cover to do what they want to do. They’re becoming afraid Trump is genuinely nuts, and he’ll pull the party down with him.

4. Many Republicans are also angry at Paul Ryan, whose replacement bill for Obamacare is considered by almost everyone on Capitol Hill to be incredibly dumb.

5. I didn’t talk with anyone inside the White House, but several who have had dealings with it called it a cesspool of intrigue and fear. Apparently everyone working there hates and distrusts everyone else.

6. The Washington foreign policy establishment – both Republican and Democrat – is deeply worried about what’s happening to American foreign policy, and the worldwide perception of America being loony and rudderless. They think Trump is legitimizing far-right movements around the world.

7. Long-time civil servants are getting ready to bail. If they’re close to retirement they’re already halfway out the door. Many in their 30s and 40s are in panic mode.

8. Republican pundits think Bannon is even more unhinged than Trump, seeking to destroy democracy as we’ve known it.

9. Despite all this, no one I talked with thought a Trump impeachment likely, at least not any time soon – unless there’s a smoking gun showing Trump’s involvement in Russia’s intrusion into the election.

10. Many people asked, bewilderedly, “how did this [Trump] happen?” When I suggest it had a lot to do with the 35-year-long decline of incomes of the bottom 60 percent; the growing sense, ever since the Wall Street bailout, that the game is rigged; and the utter failure of both Republicans and Democrats to reverse these trends – they gave me blank stares.




Making Sense of Yesterday

Having endured the "Death by a Thousand Cuts" ordeal now known by the name "Watergate" I realize how difficult it can be to make sense of the significance and meaning of yesterday's testimony by FBI director, James Comey, and NSA chief, Admiral Mike Rogers.

This video helps to put those events in perspective.






Shine a Light



If he hasn't done anything else useful we can thank Donald Trump for finally shining a light on Russia's dirty money.

For years there have been stories about Cyprus and how the Russian oligarchs were using it as a conduit to transmit rubles to the West for laundering.  Still few eyebrows were raised when Trump chose the former vice-chairman of the Bank of Cyprus, Wilbur Ross, as his commerce secretary.

There have been reports about how a mountain of Russian dirty money made its way to giants of the European banking system, troubled Deutsche Bank in particular and Trump's extensive dealings with that bank are well known.

The Guardian reports that dirty money from Russia also flowed into British banks. A follow up piece in today's paper has the head of Britain's National Crime Agency money laundering unit, David Little, claiming that the Russians are not cooperating with their efforts to find out where that money is from.

In an interview with the Guardian, David Little said: “The amount of Russian money coming into the UK is a concern. “One, because of the volume. Two, we don’t know where it is coming from. We don’t have enough cooperation [from the Russian side] to establish that. They won’t tell us whether it comes from the proceeds of crime.”
...

Detectives have exposed a money laundering scheme, called the “Global Laundromat”, that was run by Russian criminals with links to their government and the former KGB.

...

Roman Borisovich, a former banker and anti-corruption campaigner, said the British government needed to do more to end offshore secrecy. It should identify the real owners of offshore companies doing business or owning assets in the UK.

“In Russia I have witnessed an entire shadow industry of money laundering engineered by professional financiers and operated by organised criminal groups under the Kremlin’s watchful eye,” he said.

According to the Central Bank of Russia, capital flight out of Russia during the Vladimir Putin years exceeded $1tn, he said. “We have no idea yet how the other $900m got across the Russian border – but rest assured they ended up in the same banks.”


If Trump is brought down, his reported dealings with Deutsche Bank and Russia's oligarchs could play a big role. Remember it was tax evasion that took down Capone.

UPDATE:

Another Guardian piece about the Global Laundromat, Deutsche Bank and Donald Trump.


The scheme, dubbed “the Global Laundromat”, ran from 2010 to 2014.

Law enforcement agencies are investigating how a group of politically well-connected Russians were able to use UK-registered companies to launder billions of dollars in cash. The companies made fictitious loans to each other, underwritten by Russian businesses.


The companies would default on these “debts”. Judges in Moldova then made court rulings enforcing judgments against the firms. This allowed Russian bank accounts to transfer huge sums to Moldova legally. From there, the money went to accounts in Latvia with Trasta Komercsbanka.

Deutsche, Germany’s biggest lender, acted as a “correspondent bank” for Trasta until 2015. This meant Deutsche provided dollar-dominated services to Trasta’s non-resident Russian clients. This service was used to move money from Latvia to banks across the world.


Monday, March 20, 2017

"Remarkable Changes... That Are Challenging the Limits of Our Understanding of the Climate"


The World Meteorological Organization admits that it's struggling to comprehend the nature and pace of climate change now upon us.

“Earth is a planet in upheaval due to human-caused changes in the atmosphere,” said Jeffrey Kargel, a glaciologist at the University of Arizona in the US. “In general, drastically changing conditions do not help civilisation, which thrives on stability.”

The WMO report was “startling”, said Prof David Reay, an emissions expert at the University of Edinburgh: “The need for concerted action on climate change has never been so stark nor the stakes so high.”

The new WMO assessment also prompted some scientists to criticise Donald Trump. “While the data show an ever increasing impact of human activities on the climate system, the Trump administration and senior Republicans in Congress continue to bury their heads in the sand,” said Prof Sir Robert Watson, a distinguished climate scientist at the UK’s University of East Anglia and a former head of the UN’s climate science panel.

Our children and grandchildren will look back on the climate deniers and ask how they could have sacrificed the planet for the sake of cheap fossil fuel energy, when the cost of inaction exceeds the cost of a transition to a low-carbon economy,” Watson said.

Ah, Justin, I think that last bit was maybe pointed at you as much as Trump.

What Happened Today in Washington


The House hearings went on for four hours. These two videos should suffice


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Thomas Homer-Dixon Looks at Trump - From Bones to Entrails

In today's Globe and Mail, author, historian and professor, Thomas Homer-Dixon tries his hand at vivisecting the Cheeto Benito, Donald Trump, to see what may lie in store for America and the world. Brace yourself.

The headline, "Crisis analysis: How much damage can Trump do? (A lot)" is a bit of a giveaway.

"Okay, here's what happened," wrote an American friend after the U.S. election. "Someone threw a switch, and now we're living in an alternative universe."

The big problem with alternative universes is that we don't know how they work. The assumptions, intuitions and rules of thumb we've previously used to anticipate events, and guide our navigation, suddenly don't apply. So we face an exploding range of possible futures, including many that once seemed crazy.

U.S. President Donald Trump's psychological characteristics make such uncertainty acute. It's clear, for instance, that Mr. Trump's lying is less a calculated political strategy than a reflection of his deep inability to distinguish fantasy from reality. He creates a make-believe world for himself and surrounds himself with people who, to advance their narrow ends, help him sustain that world. When Mr. Trump appears to be lying, he's simply reporting what he sees in his own alternative world, where fantasy and reality mush together.
...

Trump's Bill of Fare: Financial Crisis, Civil Violence, Authoritarianism and/or War.

"Moderate" authoritarianism could involve, for instance, use of federal resources to intimidate or constrain journalists and judges; substantially increased application of force to track, detain and deport immigrants; and criminalization of protest. Mr. Trump, or in the case of criminalization of protest, his acolytes at the state level are already checking some of these boxes, so I estimate the probability of this degree of authoritarianism in the administration's first year to be 70 per cent. "Severe" authoritarianism would involve actions like a declaration of a state of emergency, federalization of the National Guard, or suspension of key civil liberties. This outcome is much less likely; even after five years, I don't think it's higher than 30 per cent.

A "moderate" war crisis, by my definition, would include any regional conflict between the United States and an intermediate power like Iran, or a great power like China, say in the South China Sea. "Severe" war would involve use of massed military force against a great power like Russia. The category would also include any conflict, for instance, with North Korea, that carries a substantial risk of nuclear escalation. In part, because of Mr. Trump's expressed hostility towards Iran and China, and his tendency to see all international relations in zero-sum terms, I estimate the five-year probability of a "moderate" war crisis to be high, at 60 per cent.

The four crisis types are likely to be causally linked. In particular, civil violence or war could create conditions that Mr. Trump might use to justify an authoritarian crackdown. Financial crisis could also be a consequence of war. The administration's decision-making incompetence increases the risk of financial crisis, civil violence, and war. For instance, Mr. Trump's team of advisers contains little high-level economic expertise, so his administration could be out of its depth should serious trouble develop in financial systems overseas, say in China or Europe.
...

Yet the specific probabilities are less important than the overall analytical exercise of categorizing the types of crisis Mr. Trump might create and the causal pathways that might lead to them. It helps us see possible futures more clearly. In Mr. Trump's alternative universe, we need all the help we can get.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

"This Is What Empires Do When They're Getting Ready to Collapse."

You know it's happening. You see it, you feel it on a daily basis. It's inescapable. It's hard to grasp just what it really means or where the bottom is, assuming there is a bottom. Chaos is setting in across America.

US Army colonel and former chief of staff to state secretary, Colin Powell, Lawrence Wilkerson says America is a sinking ship. Wilkerson says it's going to take seismic upheaval to prevent that. "Does that mean revolution? It might."



Canadians need to keep a close eye on events south of the line for our economy is so tightly lashed to America's that we're along for their ride.

Trump May Be the Final Step in the Evolution of the Predator State


Something twigged when I heard Trump budget spokesman, Mick Mulvaney, announce that this supposed president wouldn't be wasting a dime funding climate change research.

I quickly went to Trump's decision to take American car giants off the hook for fuel economy requirements introduced by Obama.

Then there was the proposal to gut the Affordable Care Act and reformulate it as a giant tax cut for America's richest of the rich while stripping 24-million Americans from healthcare coverage.

This morning there are reports that Trump plans to rescind Obama's embargo on "conflict resources," gold, tin and rare earth minerals used by Third World warlords to fund their wars.

Eventually it dawned on me. I was thinking of a passage from James Galbraith's, "The Predator State" and the transition that began to sweep America from the early 80s.

"...as power ebbed from the corporation in the late 1970s an d 1980s and became vested, once again, in free-acting individuals, the basis for collaboration between comparitively progressive elements within business and a broadly progressive state tended to disappear. Instead business leadership saw the possibility of something far more satisfactory from their point of view; complete control of the apparatus of the state. In particular, reactionary business leadership, in those sectors most affected by public regulation, saw this possibility and directed their lobbies ...toward this goal. The Republican Party, notably in the House of Representatives under Newt Gingrich and later Tom DeLay, became the instrument of this form of corporate control. The administration, following the installation of George W. Bush, became little more than an alliance of representatives from the regulated sectors - mining, oil, media, pharmaceuticals, corporate agriculture - seeking to bring the regulatory system entirely to heel...

This is the Predator State. It is a coalition of relentless opponents of the regulatory framework on which public purpose depends, with enterprises whose major lines of business compete with or encroach on the principal public functions of the enduring New Deal. It is a coalition, in other words, that seeks to control the state partly in order to prevent the assertion of public purpose and partly to poach on the lines of activity that past public purpose has established. They are firms that have no intrinsic loyalty to any country. They operate as a rule on a transnational basis, and naturally come to view the goals and objectives of each society in which they work as just another set of business conditions, more or less inimical to the free pursuit of profit. ...in the Predator State the organization exists principally to master the state structure itself.

None of these enterprises has an interest in diminishing the size of the state, and this is what separates them from the principled conservatives. For without the state and its economic interventions, they would not themselves exist and could not enjoy the market power that they have come to wield. Their reason for being, rather, is to make money off the state - so long as they control it. And this requires the marriage of an economic and a political organization, which is what, in every single case, we actually observe.

Galbraith, son of Canadian-born John Kenneth Galbraith, is an economist who holds the chair in government/business relations at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas, Austin. Predator State was published in 2008 and a decade later as the world is roiled by the Trump regime and public purpose relentlessly subordinated to powerful corporate forces it seems more relevant than ever. It's a good read.



Oh Dear, Buyer's Remorse Already.



An article in The Guardian this morning about Trump voters who are coming to realize they were had. Like Jacques Parizeau's lobsters, today they find themselves in a hot pot with no way out. Hard to be sympathetic. They chose to suspend disbelief and put their faith in the most pathological liar in the history of American politics.

Trump promised them a new healthcare deal - universal coverage, lower premiums, better health services. Instead Trump is pimping a big tax cut for the richest of the rich wrapped in the mantle of reformed health care that will see 24-million Americans lose their coverage entirely.

That's Trump's unmentioned policy, the real one that reads, "you play ball with me and I'll stick the bat straight up your ass." Oh you silly Gullibillies.

Trump is on a rampage trying to delegitimize everyone and everything except Donald J. Trump. He's relentlessly undermining (and cowing) the media. He's attacking the judiciary. He's attacking Congress, even  his own Republicans. He's attacking the European Union and NATO. He's attacking America's intelligence and security agencies. He's attacking everything except himself and, coincidentally, the Russians.  It's perverted, it's nihilistic and that's just what Trump's puppeteer, Steve Bannon has declared he's after.

Reminds me of an Ottawa politician I knew many years ago. Back then he was the reeve of Gloucester township, "Doc" McQuarrie. One day Doc took me aside and said that the art of politics was in understanding the difference between scratching your ass and tearing it all apart.  Trump pretty plainly doesn't understand that.

So far Trump hasn't gotten around to droit de seigneur or jus primae noctis, the right of the lord to shag brides on their wedding night but that's probably just oversight. If it was good enough for Mobuto Sese Seko, it should be fitting for a sexual goat like Trump.

As Trump's degeneracy ramps up it will be interesting to keep an eye on some early players such as Britain's cadaverous prime minister, Theresa May, who jumped the gun to fly to Washington to give Trump a lap dance in the White House champagne room before inviting him back to London for a stay with the Queen. Now that he's smeared her intelligence centre, GCHQ, accusing the Brits of spying on Trump and the Trumpettes at the behest of Obama, P.M. Terry, the Right Honourable member for Maidenhead, on whose watch this must have happened has surely got her knickers in a bunch. Oh dear, this is one of those blunders that could cost her, especially when Angela gave Trump a couple of smacks upside the head on her visit yesterday.

This is a story that still has no conclusion. Trump's just getting started, not even two full months under his belt at this point. Something has to give. Something is going to break. But there's no guarantee that America won't be left like Humpty Dumpty.





The Glass Half Full


The good news. Global CO2 emissions remained stable last year for the third year in a row despite an overall increase in GDP. That means our increased production of stuff is being met with alternative, clean energy resources. Good news for renewables and all that jazz.

The other news. 1, 2, and 3. We're still growing, we're still making more stuff and we're still not slashing our greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the Cheeto Benito in the White House is intent on wrecking his nation's commitment, perhaps the world's, to the fight against climate change. To Drumpf it's just a "waste of money."

As I've preached here for years, you can't fight climate change unless you're also willing to tackle overpopulation and overconsumption of our world's oh so finite resources. It simply can't be done. And we're not even beginning to address those other two crises.

It's great that we've held the line on GHG emissions but that's less than what we should be doing. We should be making serious emissions cuts by now, not holding the line.

A lot of people will like the idea that the global economy grew by 3.1% last year but that means a commensurate increase in our already ravenous over consumption of the world's resources, renewables and non-renewables. The problem with non-renewables is obvious. When you're out, you're out. The really insidious part, however, is our over consumption of renewables, everything from freshwater to biomass. Last year mankind's ecological footprint was 1.75 times greater than the Earth's rate of resource renewal, also known as the environment's "carrying capacity." Since then, it seems, we added another 5% or so to that overload.

I'm focusing on over consumption because it reveals the core problem we're having with all these existential crises - equity, as in "fairness." When resources are inadequate you could say it's unfair for 5% of the population to consume 40% of the pie. That's like the two society matrons in the bow of the lifeboat gorging themselves on the emergency rations before tossing the scraps to the plebs manning the oars.

We of the Developed World, especially we Norte Americanos, have grown fat and sassy by consuming the lion's share of the world's fossil energy but, in the process, sharing with the entire world all of our carbon emissions. Doesn't sound very equitable, does it?

We could atone for our sins, at least a bit, but that would mean two things - one, that we decarbonize our economies first and very rapidly; and two, that we voluntarily accept a huge reduction in our per capita consumption, our Rich Man's World environmental footprint. And now Donald Trump has served notice, plain as day, that these sorts of fairness arguments are dead on arrival as far as the White House is concerned. Yet before we heap too much blame on Trump let's admit that damned few of us would accept this sort of sharing sacrifice either.

Canadians have no right to be smug either, not after the Dauphin has cleared the way for massive expansion of Tar Sands production. Sure the crud will be burned overseas but that'll be 100% Athabasca CO2 and plenty of it wafting into the atmosphere.

It's good news that we seem to have arrested growth in CO2 emissions, however temporarily. Good news, let's just take that for what it is.



Friday, March 17, 2017

Angry Old White Dude Travels Light, Runs Out of Steam


American secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, cut short his visit to South Korea, reportedly citing "fatigue." Tillerson is on a 3-nation Asia tour that started in Japan and is supposed to finish in China.

Unlike previous state secretaries, Tillerson is traveling light - packing along a press pool of just one, reporter Erik McPike of the far right Independent Journal Review.

Tillerson lasted long enough in South Korea to threaten North Korea with war.

“I think it’s important to recognize that the political and diplomatic efforts of the past 20 years to bring North Korea to the point of denuclearization have failed,” Tillerson said.

“Certainly we do not want for things to get to a military conflict. But obviously if North Korea takes actions that threaten the South Korean forces or our own forces then that would be met with an appropriate response,” adding, “If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe that requires action, that option is on the table.”


With that, Tillerson adjourned for a badly needed nap.


Did German Reporters School Their Cowed American Counterparts?


Trump probably won't be entertaining questions from the German press again anytime soon. Those attending the Merkel-Trump meeting didn't mince words when they got a chance to question the Cheeto Benito - and he didn't like it.

American journos later praised the German press for asking blunt questions they wouldn't dare raise.

It's too bad the American press is so gutless, especially when they've got this lunatic on a platter.

Like Shooting Fish In a Barrel - Apache Helicopter Gunship Attacks Refugee Boat



An Apache helicopter gunship has reportedly laid waste to a small boat packed with Somali refugees off the coast of Yemen. The U.N. Refugee Agency, UNHCR, reports that 42 of the 140 Somali migrants aboard the boat were killed.

The boat, filled with refugees attempting to flee war-torn Yemen including women and children, had made it about 30 miles offshore when a helicopter swooped in and opened fire. A local coast guard official from the Houthi-rebel controlled coast of Yemen told Reuters an Apache helicopter attacked the boat, though it remains unclear who is responsible for the attack.

Saudi Arabia, which leads an Arab air campaign against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, owns U.S.-made Apache helicopters. A spokesperson for the Saudi-led coalition said the coalition didn’t operate in the region of the attack Thursday.

All of the dead were reportedly carrying U.N. refugee identity papers.

What a Churlish Prick


The handshake photo-op is an obligatory part of a foreign leader's visit to the White House. The Cheeto Benito already has a well-earned reputation for the vigor of his hand clasp.

Which is why it was so awkward today when German chancellor Angela Merkel sat down with Trump for the standard photo-op. As photographers repeatedly called "handshake", the Great Orange Bloat ignored them - and the chancellor.



What a churlish prick although it was good to see how uncomfortable Donald Trump can plainly look in the presence of a powerful woman unwilling to put up with his bullshit.

Update: I spent a while looking at photos of Merkel shaking hands/greeting various prime ministers, presidents and such. There was something that really came through. She isn't afraid to show when she likes someone and she's even less able to conceal when she doesn't. Obama, big time. Bush Jr., yeah, him too. Trudeau, absolutely. Putin? An icy stare down. Berlusconi, ditto, Erdogan too. Now Trump.

"We're a Very Powerful Company"


That little Freudian slip from the lips of the Cheeto Benito at the Merkel-Trump press conference just minutes ago. Trump was responding to a German reporter's question - to Merkel - about American isolationist leanings. Instead, Trump replied and, of course, ensured he got out the "fake news" response.

A weird press conference. Trump opened by praising Germany's job training programmes without connecting them in any way to German-American relations. He then launched into the standard "countries must pay the U.S. what they owe" as he portrayed America as a land much abused by the rest of the world. From there he moved on to radical Islam, ISIS and linked both to immigration security.

Merkel's remarks were challenging. The White House feed left her mic on full which meant that Merkel's remarks, in German, and the translator's delivery were canceled each other out.

In one clear moment, the German chancellor seemed to take a dig at Trump when she said, "It's much better to talk to one another and not about one another," which seemed a response to repeated disparaging remarks about Merkel from the Great Orange Bloat.

Earlier today, Germany's economy minister took a more direct swipe at Trump over his threat to impose a 35% tariff on German cars.

"There are procedures laid out there because in the WTO agreements it is clearly laid out that you're not allowed to take more than 2.5% taxes on imports of cars," Ms Zypries told Deutschlandfunk radio - Mr Trump has suggested a 35% levy.

"It wouldn't be the first time that Mr Trump has lost in the courts," she added.


Merkel was also quick to point out that BMW's plant in the U.S. exported more cars to world markets than Ford and GM combined. Ouch, feel the burn Trumpy.

Another German reporter asked about Trump's allegation that the Brits spied on him on behalf of Obama. He didn't back down. More tellingly, he used it to salvage something he could say he had in common with Merkel.

America's Islamophobia Industry



Hmm, why does the name Kellie Leitch come to mind?

Islamophobia has become a hallmark of Amerika's ascendant radical right. 90 years ago in Europe, it was the Jews. In 21st century Amerika, it's Muslims that are the firewood to fuel the very worst varieties of nationalist populism. Foreign Policy calls it "Islamophobia Inc."

The subject of the article is Jonathon Brown, a convert to Islam and professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown.

Brown’s attempts to explain the faith have made him a hate figure for the American right. A flood of articles accuse him of being an apologist for slavery and rape. His family has received death and rape threats.

It all started with good intentions. Brown is one of the majority of Muslims around the world who believes the Islamic State practices a warped interpretation of Islamic thought that blesses slavery, rape, and other crimes. But Brown also knows that not all Muslims are so quick to dismiss the jihadi group’s theology. Certainly the hundreds of foreign fighters who have trickled into Syria and Iraq to join its ranks find its ideas seductive.

...


But Brown felt that he was called to try, hence his public lecture at the International Institute of Islamic Thought in Herndon, Virginia, on Feb. 7. In the first of what he intended as a three-part series, Brown addressed slavery in Islam, hoping to combat the idea that Islam could ever condone the subjugation and exploitation of human beings.

That was when he encountered a cacophony of a different sort — America’s far-right, anti-Muslim ecosystem that has adopted the same twisted interpretations of Islam that the Islamic State promotes. After the lecture, Brown endured a cascade of online attacks from conservative and alternative-right heavyweights such as Ann Coulter, Robert Spencer, and Milo Yiannopoulos, who claimed that he had actually condoned the acts he had set about to condemn. His university department was flooded with demands that he be fired.

Brown is the victim of an increasingly empowered industry of Islamophobia that constricts the space for balanced and open dialogue, sidelining the very Muslims who are doing the most to promote peaceful, orthodox interpretations of Islam. The United States has powerful protections for speech and religious liberty that have allowed faith traditions to hammer out their theological debates in a free and protected environment. But a targeted network now seeks to deny Muslims that freedom and to treat Islam as a dangerous political ideology rather than a religion — and, like the McCarthyites of the 1950s, to silence and discredit any Muslims who disagree.
...

The United States once battled its own militant pseudo-state that invoked religion to justify institutionalized slavery. “[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God,” said Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America. “It is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation … it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.”

The Gettysburg Museum of History in Pennsylvania describes the Civil War as a “theological crisis” in American Christianity. One exhibit features an 1857 pamphlet called “Slavery: Ordained of God,” written by the Rev. Fred A. Ross of Huntsville, Alabama. Nearby is a painting of John Brown, the famed Christian abolitionist, holding a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other.
...

What Brown was attempting to do was build a bridge for American Muslims between their sacred scripture and their human rights sensibilities, as many Christian thinkers before him have done. For his efforts, he attracted the attention of an Islamophobic ecosystem designed to marginalize any Muslim who speaks out. Brown’s straightforward academic lecture was quickly transformed into fodder for a flood of unscrupulous articles painting him as someone who “justifies slavery and the rape of female slaves,” leaving him with a horrific online footprint that is likely to trail him for decades.

In the years after 9/11, a small but powerful network of funders and ideological activists has waged a major misinformation campaign, seeking to cast Islam as a diabolical threat that must be eradicated. Their concerted efforts have resulted in an influential infrastructure of websites, activists, lawmakers, and grassroots organizations that hold sway in municipal councils and state legislatures — and now have the ear of the president of the United States.

Between 2001 and 2009, seven charitable foundations donated $42.6 million to think tanks that promoted anti-Muslim rhetoric, as a 2011 report by the Center for American Progress revealed. These organizations include Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy; Stop Islamization of America, founded by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer; the website Jihad Watch, directed by Spencer; and the David Horowitz Freedom Center, which hosts Jihad Watch. These organizations came up with several talking points about Islam that they promoted among lawmakers, grassroots networks, and the Christian right. Chiefly among these ideas was the belief that sharia, or Islamic law, is a totalitarian political ideology that presents the greatest domestic threat facing the United States today; that the Muslim Brotherhood, a loosely organized international Islamist movement, has infiltrated the U.S. government; and that Islam commands believers to lie about their motives. In other words, no Muslim can be trusted; you must infiltrate their private spaces to learn what they think.

This campaign has been wildly successful. Gaffney is now a senior advisor to the Donald Trump White House. Gaffney’s influence extends throughout the administration. Kellyanne Conway, who ran Trump’s campaign and now serves as counselor to the president, managed polling for the Center for Security Policy. Stephen Bannon, former head of the alt-right website Breitbart and now White House chief strategist, frequently invited Gaffney to appear on Breitbart’s radio show.

...

American Muslims are reacting to forces far beyond their control — a feverish paranoia that echoes the anti-Communist Red Scare in the decade after World War II. Virtually any Muslim who has chosen to speak out or to become active in politics has faced a torrent of similarly unscrupulous smearing.

Ideologues are seeking to marginalize Muslims by making their speech and their activism relating to their religion come at a very high price. They believe that Muslims are malevolent, duplicitous, and dangerous, and these Islamophobes will bend the truth to fit their claims. In the process, they are denying Islam the same functional rights that Christianity enjoys and silencing the very people best poised to reconcile Islam with modern American life.
Which may be the very point.

A Crime Against Humanity


Trump budget director, Mick Mulvaney, announces that the Trump regime will no longer fund action to thwart climate change. It's a "waste of money."



With Trump already having relieved the auto industry of Obama's targets for emissions reductions and his actions to accelerate the production of all fossil fuels, including coal, America has officially turned on humanity.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Trump's Lethal Budget



Anyone who has worked for a large organization has seen them. They're the old hands, the keepers of the keys, and you're likely to find them neither at the very top nor at the very bottom but dispersed throughout all the strata in between. They are the "institutional memory." Collectively they're the irreplaceable repository of  the facts, concepts, experiences and knowledge essential to the proper functioning of the organization. If all goes well they groom their successors, pass along their knowledge, so that there's a continuum. Yet, if they're taken down suddenly, it can create disorder, even chaos.

Donald Trump may be about to inflict chaos on the U.S. federal government. Today he'll send a "slash and burn" budget proposal to Congress that may inflict lasting damage on the functioning of the bureaucracy.

The budget would cut the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by 31 per cent, the State Department by 28 per cent and Health and Human Services by 17.9 per cent. Funding to several smaller government agencies that have long been targets of conservatives - like the Legal Services Corporation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts - would be axed entirely.

The most significant cuts would be at the EPA, which the Trump administration has accused of overreach. The president wants to trim $US2.6 billion from the agency's budget, in part by cutting about 3,200 positions, about a fifth of the department's work force.

If enacted, the proposal would cut the agency's budget to its lowest level in 40 years, adjusted for inflation. That would mean eliminating funding for climate change research, closing state environmental programs and ending regional projects like the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which has bipartisan support.

Mr Trump would also cut funding to the United Nations for its climate change efforts, and curb contributions to its peacekeeping efforts. Contributions to the World Bank would be cut by $US650 million, and economic and development assistance would be "refocused" to countries of greatest strategic interest to the United States.

The brunt of the cuts at the Department of Health and Human Services would be at the National Institutes of Health, the country's medical research hub. The $US403 million currently used for training nurses and other medical professionals would also be eliminated.

Mr Trump's team also proposed a wide array of cuts to public education, Amtrak and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, including eliminating the $US3 billion Community Development Block Grant program, which funds popular programs like Meals on Wheels, housing assistance and other community assistance efforts.

Guns, Not Butter.

Much of the money saved by these cuts would go to national security programs.

Besides the military, the Department of Homeland Security would also receive an infusion of cash. An additional $US2.8 billion would go largely to pay for a wall along the border with Mexico and the hiring of 500 Border Patrol Agents and 1,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers next year. The budget also calls for the hiring of 20 lawyers in the Justice Department who would work to obtain land along the border for the wall.


The Exodus is Already Well Underway

In several federal departments, the Old Hands have been taking their leave since Trump was inaugurated. The Washington Post reported on an exodus from the State Department just a week after Trump was sworn in.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s job running the State Department just got considerably more difficult. The entire senior level of management officials resigned Wednesday, part of an ongoing mass exodus of senior Foreign Service officers who don’t want to stick around for the Trump era.

A demoralized public service is not going to attract A-List talent. There's too much uncertainty, too much of a learning curve in a chaotic administration. When you see that the best and the brightest have bailed out en masse that's a pretty big disincentive. 


Wilders Fended Off (for now) But the Real Winner Is


Radical right wing populist Geert Wilder's PVV party failed to achieve the breakthrough win that many had feared. Yet, as he says, the genie is out of the bottle and he hopes they'll fare better in future elections.

Mark Rutte's liberal VVD party held on and now proceeds with the usual Dutch grind of forming a coalition.

While Dutch voters plugging the dyke to hold back radical, anti-Muslim populism is the big story, the big winner in yesterday's elections was the GreenLeft party that went from just 4 seats to 14. It's believed the GreenLeft, led by second runner-up in the Justin Trudeau lookalike contest, Jesse Klaver,  may now hold the balance of power in Rutte's coalition government.

Is Trump Helping European Voters to Come to Their Senses?

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, two months of Donald Trump in the White House may have dampened European enthusiasm for right wing populism.

"Trump's election victory was frenetically celebrated by Europe's radical right. Wilders himself tried to adapt the slogan 'Make America great again' for the Netherlands," said Alexander Haeusler, an analyst of the far-right at University of Applied Sciences in Dusseldorf. But the Dutch results, he said, showed how "walking in Trump's footsteps can potentially backfire."

It would be wrong, however, to dismiss the chances of major far right victories to come.

In France, Le Pen is still leading the pack ahead of the first round of voting on April 23. But polls have shown a narrowing in recent weeks between Le Pen and with her closest rival, the independent Macron. And even if she comes out on top at first, virtually all polls - although perhaps not as reliable as they once were in the light of Trump's win and vote in favour of Brexit - still show her being easily crushed in a second and decisive round on May 7.

In Germany, meanwhile, the once-surging Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has also stumbled in recent weeks. That may in part be a reflection on Trump - who polls show is as deeply unpopular in Germany as he is in France. But it also reflects a scandal involving a leading AfD politician who seemed to defend Adolf Hitler and stood accused of downplaying the Holocaust. One recent poll showed the AfD slipping to only eight percent support - its lowest level in 14 months.

Should such trends continue, it would reduce the party's chances of even playing a spoiler role in September's national elections.

Thanks, Donald. You had to be good for something.






Wednesday, March 15, 2017

It's Time We Started a Discussion on Artificial Intelligence and Our Kids' Future



Artificial intelligence, robots, automation together ensure that our kids and especially our grandkids will inhabit a world unlike any previously known to humankind.

The subject has recently come up in conjunction with Trump's boastful promise to repatriate all the once high-paid manufacturing jobs offshored to China and elsewhere over the past 30-years. Conventional wisdom holds that horse has left the barn and robotics and automation have left the barn door tightly shut and securely locked for good.

The jobs may come back but they won't come with paycheques. You don't pay robots. They're technological slave labour. America has seen this played out before. In Nancy Isenberg's book, "White Trash," there's a chapter that deals with pre-slavery America.

In 17th and 18th century America, manual labour was largely done by Isenberg's White Trash. Britain swept clean its streets and slums and sent the n'er do wells in ships holds to the New World where they were put to work in a system that eerily resembled Roman slavery. Cheap but not quite cheap enough which is why white labour found itself displaced with the arrival of black, slave labour. White Trash then struck out for the frontier and, in the process, expanded the United States ever westward.

This time, however, there doesn't seem to be any new frontier in which to seek refuge and opportunity in its abundance. We're in a bind and we're struggling for answers. The guy who owns all the robots is sitting pretty until he needs to find consumers to buy his output. They need purchasing power and that means paycheques. Even Henry Ford knew he needed to pay his assembly line workers a wage sufficient to enable them to buy cars.

Artificial intelligence, robotics and automation take this conundrum to new levels. You can't have a consumer economy without some form of wealth distribution. Back when we had a broad-based, robust and prosperous middle class it was anchored on wealth distribution. Despite all the talk about mandatory minimum incomes it's unclear how we can ever restore the postwar middle class.

BBC Future has a terrific essay by Oxford prof Viktor Mayer-Schonberger entitled, "The Last Things That Will Make Us Uniquely Human."  He begins with a report recently filed with the California DMV.

It details the efforts of Google (or more precisely its Waymo subsidiary) to make autonomous driving a reality. According to the report, in 2016 Google’s self-driving cars clocked 635,868 miles (1,023,330km), and required human intervention 124 times. That is one intervention about every 5,000 miles (8,047km) of autonomous driving. But even more impressive is the progress in just a single year: human interventions fell from 0.8 times per thousand miles to 0.2, which translates into a 400% improvement. With such progress, Google’s cars will easily surpass my own driving ability later this year.

Driving once seemed to be a very human skill. But we said that about chess, too. Then a computer beat the human world champion, repeatedly. The strategy board game Go took over from chess as the litmus test for human thinking; until 2016, when a computer bested one of the world’s leading professional Go players. IBM’s Watson aced Jeopardy – another supposedly human domain – in 2011, and is now dividing its time between identifying cancerous moles and cooking up creative recipes, among other things.

With computers conquering what used to be deeply human tasks – those that require knowledge, strategy, even creativity – what will it mean in the future to be human?

The good professor ponders what future awaits his six year old son.

Actually, it all comes down to a fairly simple question: What’s so special about us, and what’s our lasting value? It can’t be skills like arithmetic or typing, which machines already excel in. Nor can it be rationality, because with all our biases and emotions we humans are lacking.

So perhaps we might want to consider qualities at a different end of the spectrum: radical creativity, irrational originality, even a dose of plain illogical craziness, instead of hard-nosed logic. A bit of Kirk instead of Spock. So far, machines have a pretty hard time emulating these qualities: the crazy leaps of faith, arbitrary enough to not be predicted by a bot, and yet more than simple randomness. Their struggle is our opportunity.
...

If I am right, we should foster a creative spirit, irreverent takes, even irrational ideas as we educate our children. Not because irrationality is bliss, but because a dose of illogical creativity will complement the rationality of the machine. It’ll keep guaranteeing us a place on the table of evolution.

Unfortunately, however, our education system has not caught up to the impending reality of this Second Machine Age. Much like peasants stuck in preindustrial thinking, our schools and universities are structured to mould pupils to be mostly obedient servants of rationality, and to develop outdated skills in interacting with outdated machines.
...

But most of all we need to keep the long-term perspective in mind: that even if computers will outsmart us, we can still be the most creative act in town, if we embrace creativity as one of the defining values of humanness. Like funnily irrational ideas, or grand emotions.

Because if we don’t, we won’t be providing much value in the ecosystem of the future, and that may put in question the foundation for our existence.

We better start now. Because when the existence and purpose of humanity is at stake, focusing on partisan politics and the social media outpourings of the US president is little more than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Food for thought, to be sure. Yes, there'll always be a place for humans and their irrational creativity yet I know of far more humans who are not creatively gifted than those who are. We haven't had a lot of Michelangelo's. In fact we've done pretty well with just the one. We've had our Einstein's and Oppenheimer's and our Hawking's but, by and large, the top tier intellects have been a small minority of the overall populace which is why they're so celebrated. 

Besides, the world is bursting at the seams with humanity, now 7.5-billion strong heading, we're told, to 9-billion and quite possibly even more. To put that in perspective, when I was born humanity numbered roughly 2.5 billion, itself an all time record. In less than one lifetime our global population has swelled three fold.

Professor Schonenberger's solution is an answer, a partial solution but on a very small scale.  We'll have to come up with something much better than that. Inevitably we'll have to shrink the global population probably by half if not a little more. I hope that we can bring a little irrational creativity to the solution.


Monbiot Backs Scottish Independence


Guardian enviro-scribe, George Monbiot, writes that the U.K. government is "politically dead from neck down" and Scots would be smart to get out while they can.

Whenever I visit Scotland, I’m reminded that Britain is politically dead from the neck down. South of the border, we tolerate repeated assaults on the commonweal. As the self-hating state destroys its own power to distribute wealth, support public services and protect the NHS from ruin; as it rips up the rules protecting workers, the living world, our food, water and the very air we breathe; as disabled people are pushed off a cliff and poor people are evicted from their homes, we stand and stare. As the trade minister colludes with the dark money network on both sides of the Atlantic, threatening much that remains, we shake our heads then turn away.

Sure, there are some protests. There is plenty of dissent on social media; but our response is pathetic in comparison with the scale of what we face. The Labour opposition is divided, directionless and currently completely useless. But north of the border politics is everywhere, charged with hope, anger and a fierce desire for change. Again and again, this change is thwarted by the dead weight of Westminster. Who would remain tethered to this block, especially as the boat begins to list?

Scotland could wait to find out what happens after Brexit, though it is hard to see any likely outcome other than more of this and worse. Or it could cut the rope, pull itself back into the boat, and sail towards a hopeful if uncertain future. I know which option I would take.


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Who Says Progressive Values Defy Definition.? Oh Yeah, that Guy.


For a guy who doesn't hesitate to self-identify as a progressive, a certain outspoken Liberal doesn't seem to have a clue what that means. That much came through when, in a recent post, he wrote: 

"I was listening to a cabinet minister on the radio this morning. He was invoking the penultimate progressive political totemic, the vaunted “middle class.” (The ultimate progressive divinity being “progressive values,” which no progressive can define, and which therefore makes it the very problem it seeks to address.)"

Apparently this fellow finds progressivism undefinable which begs the question how he so boastfully wears the progressive mantle. What's clear is that he's made no effort to understand what the term means. Perhaps he's not familiar with "the Google" although, given his political posturing, I suspect he'd ditch the label if he understood its meaning.

Progressivism traces back to the heady days of America's Progressive movement in the early years of the 20th century. Progressive values go back even further, as far back as Abraham Lincoln.

So what are these progressive values that our Liberal friend finds so elusive? They are perhaps best restated in Theodore Roosevelt's "Square Deal" speech of 1910. It's not a difficult read and I'm sure our friend can manage it.

Progressive values are rooted in the notion of advancement of the individual and the public interest over special or private interests. It includes regulation of the struggle of labour and capital and the expulsion of corporate power from the realm of politics. It doesn't shy away from concepts such as income and wealth distribution to reflect the contribution of labour to the creation of that wealth. It's largely the opposite of the neoliberal order that prevails today.

Progressivism ought to be non-partisan, capable of being embraced across the political spectrum. That it has become associated with the left and centre-left is largely due to its rejection by the right,  a political choice that is manifest today in America's "bought and paid for" Congress and the suppression, if not outright abandonment of democracy. Left unchecked it results in what has befallen America today - first political capture, then regulatory capture and, now, the capture by special interests of the executive branch.

Progressivism sometimes overlaps with social democracy. Just today Ed Broadbent released a call to renew social democracy which had been largely driven out of his New Democratic Party by first Layton and then Mulcair (both of whom Broadbent supported).  That said, I wish Broadbent well in his quest.

Our friend's own Liberal Party jettisoned any progressive pretensions when it marched to the right under Ignatieff. Trudeau teased Canadians with his supposed progressive street cred only to reveal himself a devout neoliberal in his first few months in office.

So our Liberal friend need fear no longer that progressive values are too elusive that they defy definition. They're not elusive, not at all. They are as clear as they are compelling. You just gotta look.






Holy, Holy Shit.


You might find this a bit unsettling. The latest thing in nuclear war is cyber warfare, hacking an enemy's control systems to either disable his nuclear deterrent or, worse, launching his missiles.  From The New York Times:


In 2010, 50 nuclear-armed Minuteman missiles sitting in underground silos in Wyoming mysteriously disappeared from their launching crews’ monitors for nearly an hour. The crews could not have fired the missiles on presidential orders or discerned whether an enemy was trying to launch them. Was this a technical malfunction or was it something sinister? Had a hacker discovered an electronic back door to cut the links? For all the crews knew, someone had put all 50 missiles into countdown to launch. The missiles were designed to fire instantly as soon as they received a short stream of computer code, and they are indifferent about the code’s source.

It was a harrowing scene, and apprehension rippled all the way to the White House. Hackers were constantly bombarding our nuclear networks, and it was considered possible that they had breached the firewalls. The Air Force quickly determined that an improperly installed circuit card in an underground computer was responsible for the lockout, and the problem was fixed.

But President Obama was not satisfied and ordered investigators to continue to look for similar vulnerabilities. Sure enough, they turned up deficiencies, according to officials involved in the investigation.
...

Cyberwarfare raises a host of other fears. Could a foreign agent launch another country’s missiles against a third country? We don’t know. Could a launch be set off by false early warning data that had been corrupted by hackers? This is an especially grave concern because the president has only three to six minutes to decide how to respond to an apparent nuclear attack.

This is the stuff of nightmares, and there will always be some doubt about our vulnerability. We lack adequate control over the supply chain for nuclear components — from design to manufacture to maintenance. We get much of our hardware and software off-the-shelf from commercial sources that could be infected by malware. We nevertheless routinely use them in critical networks. This loose security invites an attempt at an attack with catastrophic consequences. The risk would grow exponentially if an insider, wittingly or not, shares passwords, inserts infected thumb drives or otherwise facilitates illicit access to critical computers.



Why Fareed Sees Putin, Not Trump, as the World's Most Powerful Man.



America's economy dwarfs Russia's. America's military might eclipses the Russians' except, perhaps, in nuclear warheads. Overall Russia can't hold a candle to the United States of America.

So why does Fareed Zakaria believe Putin, not Trump, is the world's most powerful man?

The power of a head of state is determined both by the country's strength and the capacity he or she has to exercise that power, unilaterally, unconstrained by other institutions, parties and political forces. And combining those two metrics, it's easy to see why Vladimir Putin rises to the top of list.

Putin has created what he calls a "vertical of power," something unlike any we see in other great nations. As the Russian chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov -- himself a harsh critic of Putin -- has noted, the entire structure of Russian political power rests on one man. When the czar died, you knew the structure that would endure and the process by which his successor, his son, would be elevated. When the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party died, the Standing Committee and the Politburo would select his successor. But when Putin dies -- I almost wrote if -- what will happen? No one knows.
...

Putin understands Russia. But he also understands the world. He is not foolish enough to make a frontal assault on America or Europe. Instead, he knows how to use power asymmetrically, with cyber tools and disinformation.

He also understands the vulnerabilities of free societies -- their internal divisions and discord, and their gaping openness. He understands the fragility of institutions like the European Union and ideas like integration and diversity.
In other words, Vladimir Putin understands us very well. But all that begs an important question: Do we -- and does Donald Trump -- really understand him?