To put it simply, Assad is most likely going to win this. Hizbollah has clearly turned the facts on the ground for him, and Syrian public opinion appears to have decisively turned against the rebels. 10% support is too low, it can keep them going low-grade, but it’s not sufficient to win it. This is why you hear calls for a no-fly zone, and for bombing (not because of the very dubious chemical weapon use claim.)
At this point, if the West wants the rebels to win, it’s going to have to use direct military force.
Hizbollah may, today, on a man for man basis, have the best soldiers in the world. They don’t have as much heavy equipment as many militaries, but they are skilled, seasoned and they have very high morale. They believe in what they’re doing in a way that virtually no other military does.
I don’t have a lot to say about Prism, it’s nothing that I find surprising at all. I would have been surprised if they weren’t doing this. That does not, of course, mean that they should be doing it. Basically, assume you’re being watched at all times. That does not mean a human being is watching you, but assume that an algorithim is watching your behaviour, and will flag you if your pattern of contacts seems suspicious. Once you are tagged, assume that everything you’ve done online, and most of what you’ve done in the real world if you’re in most major metropolitan centers, can be back traced. As pattern recognition becomes better, this will become even easier to do, and, indeed, automatic. The online and the offline will be linked together.
Again, this is nothing I didn’t believe was already happening, which isn’t to say that proof isn’t a nice thing to have, for all the dullards with their heads in the sand, who refuse to believe the obvious till it becomes as obvious as a boot stomping their face, over and over again.
This feeds directly in to the nature of our society, both domestically in Western countries and internationally. Our society is fundamentally unjust, as the charts in the Failure of Liberalism post make clear. It is fundamentally unfair internationally, and much of the so-called progress of the last few decades has been a mirage (for example, Indians now live on less calories a day than they did 40 years ago.) The women being raped, and the men and women being butchered in the Congo are killed because of how we structure the international economy, and the people who die in factory fires, likewise.
Surveillance states aren’t uncommon at all. Chinese and Japanese history are full of curfews, and people having to carry papers at all times, and restrictions on travel, and so on. The late Roman empire was, in certain respects, a surveillance state. Of course the USSR was, East Germany was, and indeed, many European countries, even today, require citizens to carry and show papers.
The problem with surveillance states, and with oppression in general, is the cost. This cost is both direct, in the resources that are required, and indirect in the lost productivity and creativity caused by constant surveillance. Surveillance states, oppressive states, are not creative places, they are not fecund economically. They can be efficient and productive, for as long as they last, which is until the system of control is subverted, as it was in the USSR. We forget, in light of the late USSR’s problems, that it did create an economic miracle in the early years, and tremendously boost production. Mancur Olson’s “Power and Prosperity” gives a good account of why it worked, and why it stopped working.
Liberalism, in its classic form, is, among other things, the proposition that you get more out of people if you treat them well. Conservatism is the proposition that you get more out of people if you treat them badly.
Post war Liberalism was a giant experiment in “treat people well”. The Reagan/Thatcher counter-revolution was a giant experiment in “treat people worse”. The empirical result is this: the rich are richer and more powerful in a society that treats people like shit, but a society which treats people well has a stronger economy, all other things being equal, than one that treats them badly. This was, also, the result of the USSR/West competition. (Treating people well or badly isn’t just about equality.)
Liberalism, classic and modern, believes that a properly functioning “freer” society is a more powerful society, all other things being equal. This was, explicitly, Adam Smith’s argument. Build a strong peacetime economy, and in wartime you will crush despotic nations into the dirt.
If you want despotism, as elites, if you want to treat everyone badly, so you personally become more powerful and rich, then, you’ve got two problems: an internal one (revolt) and an external one: war and being outcompeted by other nations elites, who will come and take away your power, one way or the other (this isn’t always violently, though it can be.)
The solution is a transnational elite, in broad agreement on the issues, who do not believe in nationalism, and who play by the same rules and ideology. If you’re all the same, if nations are just flags, if you feel more kinship for your fellow oligarchs, well then, you’re safe. There’s still competition, to be sure, but as a class, you’re secure.
That leaves the internal problem, of revolt. The worse you treat people, the more you’re scared of them. The more you clamp down. This is really, really expensive and it breaks down over generations, causing internal rot, till you can’t get the system to do anything, no matter how many levers you push.
What is being run right now is a vast experiment to see if modern technology has fixed these problems with surveillance and oppressive states. Is it cheap enough to go full Stasi, and with that level of surveillance can you keep control over the economy, keep the levers working, make people do what you want, and not all slack off and resist passively, by only going through the motions?
The oligarchs are betting that the technology has made that change. With the end of serious war between primary nations (enforced by nukes, among other things), with the creation of a transnational ruling class, and with the ability to scale surveillance, it may be possible to take and keep control indefinitely, and bypass the well understood problems of oligarchy and police and surveillance states.
In the early days of the political blogosphere, we said fuck rather a lot. We were making a point: that rudeness is not as great a sin as many others. It is not so great a sin as lying. It is not so great a sin as killing people in the Iraq war. And today, it is not so great a sin as denying people their rights.
To step back to Michele Obama, and her being heckled by an activist. Mrs. Obama was raising money for the Democratic party. She has her profile because of her husband, whose adjunct she was acting as. The idea that you shouldn’t be rude to her because she’s the “first lady” is ludicrous: she’s not some nice, uninvolved lady, she is a participant in the political process, and one who will be very rich for the rest of her life because she married Barack Obama.
I believe that politeness is a good thing, but on the list of virtues it is ranks up there with flossing regularly. Give me a rude motherfucking asshole president, and his wife who is just as rude, if that President doesn’t spy on everyone, kill people without due process and deny people their rights.
And understand this, Michele Obama is NOT a bystander. She does not get a free pass when she actively works on behalf of her husband, and actively benefits from his actions.
Modern elites, as a group, and Obama is a member, respond only to incentives: pain and gain. That is how they have been trained. The LGBT lobby has gotten what it got from Obama because of pressure.
Thinking that being rude to Mrs. Obama is ethically equivalent to Barack Obama denying people his rights is ethically abominable.
on edit: let me be more explicit. If Mrs. Obama knows she can’t fundraise without being heckled, that costs Obama and the Democratic party money, and is unpleasant. That’s something they’re willing to pay (legislatively or administratively) to make go away.
Maybe the backwards data shows rapists getting longer sentences than hackers, but I doubt that’ll be the case in 10 years, just as for a long time we thought America had the most social mobility in the West, when that hasn’t been true for a couple decades, at least.
This is your justice system. This is what they think of women. Remember, Prosecutors have discretion, even in the face of bad laws. Let’s see what this prosecutor does. Lostutter is the hacker who outed the Steubenville rapists.
If convicted of hacking-related crimes, Lostutter could face up to 10 years behind bars—far more than the one- and two-year sentences doled out to the Steubenville rapists.
Yes, yes it is. You get things from our elites by making their personal lives miserable. Hammer them everywhere they go. This has been particularly true of gay protestors, who have received support from Obama, to the extent they have, by cutting donations till they got it, and by heckling him.
Why should Obama, or any politician, or any oligarch, give you anything if you can’t hurt them, or help them, and won’t make not hurting them, or helping them, conditional on them doing what you want? You think you can reason ethically with them?
Amazing, just amazing.
In the Anglo-US world post-War liberalism has been on the defensive since the 70s. This is normally shown through various wage or wealth graphs, but I’m going to show two different ones. The first, to the right, is the number of strikes involving more than 1K workers. Fascinating, eh?
The second, below and to your left, is the incarceration rate. It isn’t adjusted for population increases, but even if it was, the picture wouldn’t change significantly.
This is the change in America caused by the Reagan revolution, which, as most revolutions do, started before him.
I was born in 1968. I remember the 70s, albeit from a child’s perspective. They were very different than today. My overwhelming impression is that people were more relaxed, and having a lot more fun. They were also far more open. The omnipresent security personnel, the constant ID checks, and so forth, did not exist. Those came in to force, in Canada, in the early 90s. As a bike courier in Ottawa I would regularly walk around government offices to deliver packages. A few, like the Department of National Defense and Foreign Affairs would make us call up or make us deliver to the mail room, but in most cases I’d just go up to the office of whoever I was delivering too. Virtually all corporate offices were open, gated only by a receptionist.
Even the higher security places were freer. I used to walk through Defense headquarters virtually every day, as they connected two bridges with a heated pedestrian walkway. That walkway closed in the Gulf War, and has never, so far as I know, re-opened.
I also walked freely through Parliament Hill, unescorted, with no ID check to get in.
This may seem like a sidelight, but it isn’t. The post-war liberal state was fundamentally different from the one we have today. It was open. The bureaucrats and the politicians and even the important private citizens were not nearly as cut off from ordinary people as they are today. As a bike courier I interrupted senior meetings of Assistant Deputy Ministers with deliveries. I walked right in. (They were very gracious in every case.)
The post-war liberal state involved multiple sectors, in conflict, but in agreement about that conflict. Strikes were allowed, they were expected, and unions were considered to have their part to play. It was understood that workers had a right to fight for their part of the pie. Capitalism, liberal capitalism, meant collective action because only groups of ordinary workers can win their share of productivity increases.
Which leads us to our next chart. The moment you lock up everyone who causes trouble (usually non-violent non-compliance with drug laws), the moment you crack down on strikes, ordinary people don’t get their share of productivity increases. It’s really just that simple.
This is all of a piece. The closing of politicians and bureaucrats from public contact, the soaring CEO and executive salaries which allow them to live without seeing anyone who isn’t part of their class or a servitor, the locking up of people who don’t obey laws that make no sense (and drug laws are almost always stupid laws), the crushing of unions, which are a way to give unfettered feedback to politicians and our corporate masters, are all about allowing them to take the lion’s share of the meat of economic gains, and leave the scraps for everyone else.
But why did the liberal state fail? Why did this come about? Let’s highlight three reasons: the rise of the disconnected technocrat, the failure to handle the oil crisis, and the aging of the liberal generations.
The rise of the disconnected technocrat has been discussed often, generally with respect to the Vietnam war. The “best and the brightest” had all the numbers, managed the war, and lost it. They did so because they mistook the numbers for reality, and lost control. The numbers they had were managed up, by the people on the ground. They were fake. The kill counts coming out of Vietnam were completely fake and inflated, for example. Having never worked on the ground, having not “worked their way up from the mail room”, having not served in the military themselves, disconnected technocrats didn’t realize how badly they were being played. They could not call bullshit. This is a version of the same problem with saw the Soviet Politburo lose control over the production in the USSR.
The second, specific failure, was the inability to manage the oil shocks and the rise of OPEC. As a child in the 70s I saw the price of chocolate bars go from .25c to a dollar in a few years. The same thing happened to comic books. The same thing happened to everything. The postwar liberal state was built on cheap oil, and the loss of it cascaded through the economy. This is related to the Vietnam war. As with the Iraq war in the 2000s there was an opportunity cost to war. Attention was on an essentially meaningless war in SE Asia while the important events were occurring in the Middle East. The cost, the financial cost of the war, should have been spent instead on transitioning the economy to a more efficient one, to a “super-analog” world. All the techs were not in place, but enough were there, that with temporizing and research, starting in the late 60s, the transition could have been made.
Instead the attempt was left too late, till the liberal state had lost most of its legitimacy. Carter tried, but was a bad politician, and not trusted sufficiently. Nor did he truly believe in, or understand liberalism, which is why Kennedy ran against him in 1980.
But Kennedy didn’t win, and neither did Carter, and Reagan did. And what Reagan bet was that new oil resources would come on-line soon enough to bail him out. He was right, they did, and the moment faded. Paul Volcker, as Fed Chairman, appointed by Carter, crushed inflation by crushing wages, but once inflation was crushed and he wanted to give workers their share of the new economy, he was gotten rid of, and “the Maestro” Alan Greenspan was put in charge. Under Greenspan the Fed treated so-called wage push inflation as the most important form of inflation.
Greenspan’s tenure as Fed chairman can be summed up as follows: crush wage gains that are faster than inflation and make sure the stock market keeps rising no matter what (the Greenspan Put). Any time the market would falter, Greenspan would be there with cheap money. Any time workers looked like they might get their share of productivity gains, Greenspan would crush the economy. This wasn’t just so the rich could get richer, it was to keep commodity inflation under control, since workers would spend their wages on activities and items which increased oil consumption.
The third reason for the failure of liberalism was the aging of the liberal generation. Last year I read Chief Justice Robert Jackson’s brief biography of FDR (which you should read). At the end of the book are brief biographies main New Deal figures other than Roosevelt. Reading them, I was struck by how many were dying in the 70s. The great lions who created modern liberalism, who created the New Deal, who understood the moving parts were dead or old. They had not created successors who understood their system, who understood how the economy and the politics of the economy worked, or even who understood how to do rationing properly during a changeover to the new economy.
The hard-core of the liberal coalition, the people who were adults in the Great Depression, who felt in their bones that you had to be fair to the poor, because without the grace of God there go you, were old and dying. The suburban part of the GI Generation was willing to betray liberalism to keep suburbia, which was their version of the good life, for which everything else must be sacrificed. And sacrificed it was, and has been, because suburbia, as it is currently constituted, cannot survive high oil prices without draining the rest of society dry.
Reagan offered a way out, a way that didn’t involve obvious sacrifice. He attacked a liberal establishment which had not handled high oil prices, which had lost the Vietnam war and which had alienated its core southern supporters by giving Blacks rights.
And he delivered, after a fashion. The economy did improve, and many people did well, and inflation was brought under control (granted, it would have been if Carter had his second term, but people don’t think like that.) The people who already had good jobs were generally ok, especially if they were older. If you were in your 40s or 50s when Reagan took charge in 1980, it was a good bet that you’d be dead before the bill really came due. You would win the death bet.
Liberalism failed because it couldn’t handle the war and crisis of the late 60s and 70s. The people who could have, were dead or too old, they had not properly trained successors, those successors were paying attention to the wrong problem and had become disconnected from reality on the ground. And the New Deal coalition was fracturing, more interested in hating blacks or keeping the “good” suburban lifestyle than in making sure that a rising tide lifted all boats (a prescriptive, not descriptive, statement.)
There are those who say liberalism is dying now. That’s true, sort of, in Europe ex-Britain. The social-democratic European state is being dismantled. The EU is turning frankly tyrannical, and the Euro is being used as a tool to extract value from peripheral nations by the core nations. But in the Angl0-American world liberalism was already dead, with the few great spars like Glass-Steagall, defined benefit pensions, SS, Medicare, Welfare and so on, under constant assault.
Europe was cushioned from what happened to the US by high density and a different political culture. The oil shocks hit them hard, but without significant suburbia, without sprawl, tolerably. They were able to maintain the social-democratic state. They are now losing it, not because they must, but because their elites want to. Every part of the social-democratic state is something which could be privatized and make money for your lords and masters, or could be gotten rid off if no money can be made from it, and the money once spent on that, spent on their priorities.
Liberalism died and is dying because liberals aren’t, and when they are, can’t.
None of this means that modern conservatism (which is far different from the conservatism of my childhood) is a success if one cares about mass well-being. It isn’t. But it is a success in the sense that it has done what its lords and masters wanted—it has transferred wealth, income and power to them. It is self-sustaining, in the sense that it transfers power to those who want it to continue. It builds and strengthens its own coalition.
Any political coalition, any ideology behind a political coalition, must do this: it must build and strengthen support. It must have people who know that if it continues they will do well, and that if it doesn’t, they won’t. Liberalism failed to make that case to Southerners, who doubled down on cheap factory jobs and racism, and to suburbanite GI Generation types, who wanted to keep the value of their homes, and knew they couldn’t if oil prices and inflation weren’t controlled. Their self-perceived interests no longer aligned with liberalism, and so they left the coalition.
We can have a new form of liberalism (or whatever we wish to call it), when we understand why the old form failed, and what the conditions for success are. Maybe more on that another time.
(A version of this history will appear in my upcoming Book.)
I’m getting more and more questions, and Stirling was a public figure, albeit a minor one, so here is the basic news.
Stirling had a stroke a little over two weeks ago. It was very severe. As of the latest news he cannot talk, cannot walk, etc… He was in a coma for quite some time after surgery to relieve the pressure.
It is unlikely he will ever fully recovery. If you believe in prayer and feel so inclined, including him in your prayers couldn’t hurt.
I haven’t written much about this because I don’t know enough. I think it’s worth noting, at this point, that the full commitment of Hezbollah seems to have swung the war in Assad’s favor. I am not surprised by Hezbollah’s involvement. Had the rebels won, Hezbollah’s supply lines to Iran would have been cut. Russia seems to agree that Assad now has the upper hand.
Assad’s not a good man, he routinely engages in very nasty torture, and I have no mandate for him or his regime. But those opposing him seem to be a very dodgy bunch as well.
What is happening in Syria is another cost of Mubarak. Assad cannot step down, he knows he will not be allowed to go into exile in the South of France, but will be tried. So he fights, as did Qaddafi. Unlike Qaddafi, I suspect he’s going to “win”.
Realpolitik at its worst. There are only interests.
The best short definition I’ve heard, courtesy of my friend Stirling, is that morals are how you treat people you know. Ethics are how you treat people you don’t know.
Your morality is what makes you a good wife or husband, dad or mother. A good daughter or son. A good friend. Even a good employee or boss to the people you know personally in the company.
Your ethics is what makes you a good politicians. It is what makes you a statesman. It is also what makes you a good, humane CEO of any large company (and yes, you can make money and pay your employees well as Costco proves.)
When you’re a politicians or a CEO, most of what you do will effect people you don’t know, people you can’t know, people who are just statistics to you. You have no personal connection to them, and you never will. This is at the heart of Stalin’s comment that “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic.” Change the welfare rules, people will live or die, suffer or prosper. Change the tax structure, healthcare mandates, trade laws, transit spending—virtually everything you do means someone will will, and someone will lose. Sometimes fatally.
Ethics is more important than morality in creating a functioning society. This comes back to what I was discussing earlier, that it is worse to kill or harm more people than to kill or harm fewer people.
Morality dictates that you take care of your family, friends and even acquaintances first. It is at the heart of the common admonition to “put your family first.” Whenever I hear a politician say “I put my family first” I think “then you shouldn’t be in public office.”
We call the family the building block of society, but this is nonsense except in the broadest sense. The structure of the family is entirely socially based, generally on how we make our living. A hundred years ago in America and Canada the extended family was the norm, today the nuclear family is, with single parent families coming on strong. In China this transition, from extended to nuclear family, took place in living memory, many adults still in their prime can remember extended families, and were raised in them. The wealthy often have their children raised by servants (I was for my first five years), tribal societies often put all male children in to the same tent or tents at puberty, and so on. A hundred and fifty years ago children were taught at home, by the extended family, and not by professional teachers. They spent much more time with family until they were apprenticed out, if they were.
To be sure, children must be born and raised for society to continue, men and women must come together to get that done, but there are many ways to do it, and God did not come down and mandate the nuclear family.
This may seem like an aside from the main point, but it is not. Family is not fundamental, it is not first. Society is first, and family is shaped by the needs and ideology of the society.
For a large society, a society where you can’t know everyone, to work ethics must come before morality, or ethics and morality must have a great deal of overlaps. By acting morally, you must be able to act ethically.
Our current ethical system requires politicians to act unethically, to do great harm to people they don’t know, while protecting those they do. This can hardly be denied, and was on display in the 2007/8 financial collapse and the bailout after. The millions of homeowners and employees politicians and central bankers did not know were not helped, and and the people the politicians and central bankers and treasury officials did know, were bailed out. Austerity, likewise, has hurt people politicians don’t know, while enriching the corporate officers and rich they do know.
The structure of our economy is designed to impoverish people we don’t know. For developed nations citizens this means people in undeveloped nations. For the rich this means cutting the wages of the middle class. For the middle class it means screwing over the poor (yes, the middle class does the day to day enforcement, don’t pretend otherwise.) We are obsessed with “lowering costs” and making loans, and both of those are meant to extract maximum value from people while giving them as little as they can in return.
We likewise ignore the future, refusing to build or repair infrastructure, to invest properly in basic science, and refusing to deal with global warming. These decisions will overwhelmingly effect people we don’t know: any individual infrastructure collapse won’t hit us, odds are, and global warming will kill most of its victims in the future. The rich and powerful, in particular, believe that they will avoid the consequences of these things. It will effect people other than them.
To put the needs of the few before the needs of the many, in public life, is to be a monster. But even in private life if we all act selfishly, as our reigning ideology indicates we should, we destroy ourselves. If we all put only ourselves and those we love first, and damn the cost to everyone else, our societies cannot and will not be prosperous, safe, or kind.
The war of all against all is just as nasty when it is waged by small kin groups as when it is waged by individuals.
Since we’re on basic ethics, let’s take another basic ethical principle. It is impossible to have a good society if you do not punish and reward people for the forseeable consequences of their actions.
Let us take the most simple: in a war people die, they are injured, many rapes are committed. Disease runs rampant, infrastructure is destroyed and people die to to the loss of that infrastructure, such as having sewage mixed in to their drinking water. If we put sanctions on a country, people will die as a result of the lack of medicines, or food, or jobs. Even without actual death, people will suffer who would not have suffered otherwise.
These consequences are forseeable. When we implement the policy, we KNOW people will die. We are responsible for those deaths. That does not meant that war is never the right thing to do, nor sanctions, but it does mean that the bar is high. This is why the Allies hung Nazis at Nuremburg, because they started a war from which all the other deaths and rapes and hunger and so on flowed. Those deaths, that suffering, was the foreseeable consequence of their actions.
The idea of forseeable consequences is fundamental to reasoning about ethics and morality. It is especially important in reasoning about public policy.
It also applies to things like the subprime real-estate bubble, the use of derviatives, the piling on of leverage, the policies of neo-liberalizing money-flows first, trade second and immigration third. All of these things have, and had, forseeable consequences. People have died, lost their jobs, lost their houses, been beaten by their spouses, gone without meals, had their countries erupt in revolution because of the financial fraud and manipulation engaged in by bankers, brokers, central bankers and politicians in the run-up to the financial crisis on 2007/8. The consequences were forseeable, they were forseen by many people (I did, and am on the record as having done so), and the actions taken by bankers and their compatriots were fraudulent on the face.
Entire countries have gone in to permanent depression as a result of the forseeable consequences of their actions. Then various countries, especially in Europe, doubled down on austerity. Austerity has never worked to bring an economy out of a financial crisis or depression, and it never will. It does not work, and this is well known. Engaging in austerity has forseeable consequences of impoverishing the country, reducing the size of the middle class and grinding the poor even further into misery. It also has the forseeable consequence of making it possible to privatize parts of the economy the oligarchs want to buy.
It is done, it has been done and it will be done because of those forseeable consequences. They are all either desirable to your masters or, if not desirable, irrelevant compared to the advantages austerity offers them.
These are, if not criminal acts, then unjust and evil acts, done to enrich a few at the expense of the many, with disregard for the consequences to the many, including death, hunger and violence.
One of the reasons I write so little these days, is that there is so little point. Basic ethical principles are routinely ignored even on the so-called left. Basic principles of causation are ignored. Basic economic reality is ignored. And virtually everyone in the so-called democracies is scrambling to pretend that they have no responsibility for anything that has happened.
If someone does something with forseeable consequences they are responsible for those forseeable consequences. Just because an act has bad forseeable consequences doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taken, the alternatives may be worse, but whether the action should be taken or not, the decision has consequences.
I will, if I continue being irritated, deal at some point with the idea of alternate scenarios. Too often we pretend that there are only two options, say “bailing out bankers” or “doing nothing” and ignore that there were other possibilities, like “forcing bondholders and shareholders to take their losses, nationalizing the banks and breaking them up.”
As a society we have in the last few decades and are today making decisions with entirely forseeable consequences (as with climate change) that will kill a few hundred million people to well over a billion people. We know it will happen, and we’re doing it.
We are monsters. And we tolerate monsters. And we get worked up over exactly the wrong things, “ooh a single soldier was killed”, rather than what is going to kill the children we care about, like global warming, or the people who have or will kill hundreds of thousands, like George W Bush, or Putin or people who are engaging in ongoing serial murdering like Barack Obama. We ignore financial fraud, we ignore… well, why go on, the list is endless.
Forseeable consequences. We’re awash in them, and we don’t care.