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The Golden Laws of Prosperity

2016 September 25
by Ian Welsh

Image by [rom]

Image by [rom]

Implement policy which is as good for as many people as possible.

Keep the rich poor.

Punish negative externalities, encourage positive externalities.

Tax economic rents punishingly.

Do not allow pipeline companies (app stores, telecom companies, railways, etc…) to extract monopoly profits.

Enforce the doctrine of first sale (if you buy it, it’s yours) and do not allow items to be turned into services.

Do not allow elites to opt out of the experience of ordinary citizens.

Allow no unregulated monopolies or oligopolies (and by regulated, I mean 5 percent + inflation profit, no more, no less and strict limits on executive compensation).

Keep so-called “intellectual property” to an absolute minimum.

Make it worth doing social work and do not allow the private sector to pillage the social sector (for example, parenting).

Never use widespread targeted incentives.

Do not allow the rich to grow rich any faster than the bottom or middle of society.

Do not allow fraudulent profits to drive out real profits.

Allow easy bankruptcy.

Do not allow usury.

Do not allow resource extraction profits to drive out profits in other sectors of the economy.

Keep the real rate of return low, except on genuinely risky entrepreneurial activities.

Do not reward people for winning lotteries (economic competitions someone was going to win, like Facebook winning the social site competition).

Do not allow the financial sector to be the tail that wags the dog.

Allow no financial instruments which are more complicated than the underlying asset or project.

Do not allow anyone to take future profits in the present.

Make sure that people cannot cash out of the system without taking a huge loss.

Ensure that no one can give themselves a payday by destroying real value (i.e., much private equity).

Do not allow the old to make deathbets.

Enforce accountability on decision-makers, especially corporate decision-makers.

Do not allow private money to buy elections (taxpayers should pay for their own elections and not expect donations to do so).

Do not allow lawmakers or public executives to ever make more money (adjusted for minimum wage increase, median wage increase, and CPI) than they did while in office.

Give lawmakers generous pensions that kick in after only a few years of service, so that they are not worried about their next job.

Pay lawmakers generously, but link pay to minimum wage, CPI, and median wages.

Recognize health externalities caused by urban and exurban planning, pollution, and additives.

Reduce barriers to entry in new industries, including outlawing non-compete agreements and restrictive patents.

Reward creatives not primarily by patent or copyright, but by levy and distribution. Corporations are not creatives.

Do not allow trade to be used to externalize negatives like pollution.

Restrict capital flows significantly.

Treat credit as a utility and regulate all credit grantors as utilities.

Credit rates should be based on the utility of the end use of credit.

All universal or near-universal insurance should be run by the government, as the government is always the insurer of last resort.

Do not have large standing armies.

Do not obsess over inflation targets. Moderate inflation, to as much as 10 percent, is not harmful and is less harmful than very low inflation.

Do not use monetary policy for fiscal policy or vice-versa.

Do not lock up a large part of your population.

Do not make reintegration of criminals who have served their time effectively impossible.

Make sure your population eats healthily. There is no such thing as cheap food. Cheap food is paid for by death, disease, and health care costs.

Do not allow educational advantage to be bought by high housing prices or by money in general.

Do not impoverish your cities by allowing politicians to use city money to buy rural and suburban votes.

Do not allow city folks’ mores to run the country, nor country mores to run the cities.

Do not allow unproductive suburbs which do not allow light businesses or have covenants.

Do not borrow significant amounts of money in anything but your own currency.

Do not allow people to make large amounts of unearned money (i.e., as when housing inflation is much faster than general inflation).

Do not allow the costs of your society to outrun real gains spread over the population (i.e., housing prices to rise faster than wages).

Make sure that the consumer economy has an alternative.

Understand what the government does well and what the public sector does well.

Use competition between the private and public sectors.

Do not allow your elites to enter into direct competition with foreigners running resource economies.

Do not allow your economy to be owned or run by foreigners.

Do great things, not because of the return, but because they are great.

Seek the health and happiness of your citizenry, not maximum income.

(First published Sept 7, 2011. This is old, but the only relatively comprehensive list I’ve written, so back to the top. My thought has evolved on a few issues, but it’s still a very good list. – Ian)

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War Criminals, I See War Criminals

2016 September 24
by Ian Welsh

So, Bush Jr., of Iraq and torture fame, will vote for Clinton. The Clinton team is pleased. Michelle Obama has a publicity photo with her embracing him.

Meanwhile, they are screaming at third-party voters, claiming they caused the Iraq War by not voting for Al Gore?

Bush is a war criminal. Nazis were hung at Nuremburg for the exact same crime he committed. Clinton voted for that war, though she tries to claim she didn’t think she was voting for it. Even if she wasn’t, Libya was another war crime of the same sort. What did Clinton say about Gaddafi? “We came, we saw, he died.”

Yup. He was sodomized with a bayonet, then killed.

Let us be clear: While Trump is a member of the establishment, he is not a member of the political establishment. Bush and Clinton and Obama are closing ranks against an upstart who threatens to change their world, to change how things are done.

You can’t make much of an argument from principle against Trump if you’re kissing up to George W. Bush.

I never believed Obama would have voted against Iraq if he’d been in the Senate, and I sure know he has no strong feelings about Bush. (No, no, his wife did not do a photo-op with Bush that Obama didn’t want done.)

This is a complete farce.

Make your lesser evil arguments. There is no candidate here with even a marginal case for being good.

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Jeremy Corbyn Re-elected as British Labour Leader

2016 September 24
by Ian Welsh

61.8 percent of the vote, after a massive voter purge.

Labour Purge Numbers by Eoin

Labour Purge Numbers by Eoin

Labour Purge #s by Eoin

Labour Purge #s by Eoin

This is a fairly remarkable set of numbers. Even if we take them to be on the high side, a concerted effort appears to have been made to deny people votes, and almost always, from the anecdotes of those purged, they were Corbyn supporters. What is amazing is that even with so many people denied a vote, Corbyn crushed Smith.

The National Executive Committee (NEC) is the body which has the power to execute the purges.

I will suggest, strongly, that with a new roster on the NEC, Corbyn’s allies should re-instate virtually all the purged members, and that they should then purge those who were behind the purges.

There have been calls from neo-liberal Labourite leaders, like Kinnock, for ex-members of Labour’s Shadow Cabinet who participated in the abortive coup to ask to be reinstated and for Corbyn to let them back. Beyond a small number, I do hope Corbyn does not. These are not honest actors who can be trusted to stay loyal to Corbyn, and having lost two elections in a row, even despite the massive purge, they have little mandate.

We will now see if there is a split–many Tories and Labour MPs feel there should be a neo-liberal party dedicated to remaining in the EU.

This is a good day and a good result. Let us see what an actual left-wing Labour party is able to do going forward. For the first time in years, one of the two major parties in a Westminister democracy is actually left-wing, not “center-left” Blairist and neo-liberal.

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The Wells Fargo Scandal Was by Design

2016 September 20
by Ian Welsh
American dollar toilet paper roll

American dollar toilet paper roll

Some years ago I worked for a mid-sized financial multinational. Towards the end of my tenure, my employer merged with another company, and the senior executives in my department were replaced with Americans. (It was the smallest department in the division, and they felt they should give the Americans something.)

There had been some… dubious… practices before, stuff that skirted the line, mostly related to moving near future earnings into the current month, quarter, or year end. Because I was involved in both operations and compliance, I had made my concerns known, but what was being done was legal–if marginally so.

When the new senior managers took over, they started to require certain “numbers” of lower management. These numbers were hard to reach, but we tried. One day, the dictum came down to reach a number which simply could not be met.  Fortunately, it wasn’t a number involving money.

Junior and middle management told the senior executives that the number was impossible; could not be done. The seniors insisted, the lower management resisted. The seniors said, “Do it, or else.”

They got their numbers. 100 percent on a specific metric. The reports all said so.

Problem was, getting 100 percent on that metric was legitimately impossible. The reports were now being changed.  Straight up lies were being reported to the executives. And that was only the beginning; having forced lower management to lie about one thing, there was no reason for them not to lie about other things.

To be clear, they did it to save their jobs. “Get these results or lose your jobs” will get you the results you ask for–especially if you dangle bonuses on the other side: “If you do, we’ll reward you.”

So I have no trouble understanding how Wells Fargo got 1.5 million bank accounts and 565,000 credit cards that customers didn’t want. No trouble at all. “If you fail to meet the numbers we’ll get rid of you. If you meet them, we’ll reward you.”

Of course, for this to happen with actual financials, not just operations, the compliance staff and most of management had to be onside. Any decent audit or internal controls will pick that up, any competent junior operations management will figure it out. It can be done by small groups, not by 5,300 employees.

This is confirmed by how the senior executive in charge was treated.

Carrie Tolstedt, the divisional senior vice president for community banking, was the person responsible for Wells’s 6,000 branches where the infractions took place. When she retired, quietly, in July, the bank knew that her operation had been under scrutiny for sales tactics for more than a year. Ms. Tolstedt spent 27 years at Wells Fargo, and was no doubt steeped in the bank’s culture. In the last three years, she was paid a total of $27 million. She remains employed at the bank until the end of the year. When she leaves, she will probably be able to take with her nearly $125 million in stock and options.

The NYTimes and most commenters are obtuse about this. Completely obtuse.

By Wall Street standards, the Wells Fargo fiasco is minor in terms of dollar amounts. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the employees opened something like 1.5 million unauthorized deposit accounts in the name of unsuspecting customers and made 565,000 unauthorized credit card applications, generating $2.6 million in fees and enabling the employees to qualify for bonuses. Wells agreed to pay $185 million to settle

This wasn’t about revenue. It was about being able to say, “We opened so many new accounts and credit cards” to Wall Street. Much of executive compensation is based on stock options and stock prices go up when you “beat expectations” and report good news. New accounts and credit cards aren’t expected to generate a lot of money immediately, but they are leading indicators of future earnings. By beating expectations on these numbers, Wells Fargo would have a higher stock price than if they didn’t, and everyone who was paid in stock options in the company (a.k.a. every executive, likely) would receive more money for those options.

Carrie Tolstedt is being treated well because she did what she was supposed to. The 185 million dollar settlement is worth more than the accounts were to Wells Fargo, BUT the executives running Wells Fargo got a lot of personal money out of it and were not punished. Some of them, those Tolstedt reported to, may well have “earned” promotions from it as well, based on meeting or exceeding sales goals.

Everyone who makes decisions at Wells Fargo, in other words, benefited from the scam. The only people punished were junior employees who, while complicit, I guarantee were doing what management wanted them to do, and who would have been fired before this if they hadn’t been willing to play along.

Financial fraud of this sort always follows this pattern: Executives get rich doing it, the company takes a hit–but not the executives–and the executives have no reason not to go on to their next fraud or even go back to what they were doing (sub-prime loans are a thing again, and we’ll find out many of them were based on fraud, again.)

The only way this sort of thing will stop is if we start charging senior management, the CEO, and their board members with crimes. Use RICO statutes to say it was organized crime (it was), and take their money. Assign them public defenders. Even if they don’t go to jail, they will lose a decade of their life defending the case, and it will serve as a genuine deterrent to other financial fraudsters. (If they do go to jail, it should be to nasty maximum security penitentiaries.)

Fines for the company are NOT a disincentive. In this case, the fine is more than the company made, while in other cases it has been much less, but it doesn’t matter: The executives got their money and they make the decisions. The company is a fictional person, not a real person; it does not make decisions.

This sort of thing will continue until we get serious about stopping it. People will probably only get serious when a financial and economic crisis occurs which is so severe that most everyone in power is swept out of power and not before. Criminal charges did not occur over the last financial crisis because no one in power, most especially Obama and his Justice department, did not want to insist upon them.

Bill Clinton had a hundred million not long after retiring as President. He pushed through massive financial deregulation. A few years after being President, Obama will be worth even more than Clinton. Financial executives may bitch about Frank-Dodd, but they know Obama saved them from long terms in prison and did not get in the way, and indeed abetted, trillions of dollars being funneled to save their companies and keep the game, and the frauds, going.

Those who “win” the capitalist game always immediately try to buy out the system, meaning buy the politicians and regulators, so that they can never truly lose their position of power and wealth.

And that, in the end, is what the Wells Fargo “scandal” (a good name, because scandals usually have no real consequences for anyone who matters) is about.

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The Philosophy of Decline and Collapse

2016 September 18
by Ian Welsh
By Zhang Bo

By Zhang Bo

For those who think ahead; for those who are empathic; for those who work for justice or kindness, the world can be a horrible place.

We look around and we see the decline of nations.  We see people dying, being tortured, being raped who need not die or suffer.  We look to the environment and we see that species are being killed so fast we’re in the middle of a great die-off; or we look to the biosphere and the oxygen cycle and we worry that we could see a collapse of both.

We know that much of the suffering the world is needless: that there is more than enough food to feed everyone; that many wars are wars of choice which hurt many to enrich a very few; and we know that many who brutalize others are receiving no security or even money in return.  We look at how prisoners are treated in jail; and we know that the primitive lust for vengeance is creating monsters for we understand the cycle of abuse: that those who are abused, become abusers.

We see the rise of a surveillance state that may eventually cause the Stasi to look like amateurs and which is already more sophisticated than anything Orwell imagined.  We see that the masses of the people in the developed world are being impoverished; generation after generation.   And worse, we see our own efforts at stopping all of this fail.  We worry that our efforts are not even slowing the worst of it.

And for many of us it hits home closer.  We or our loved ones are those suffering: losing their lives, homes, livelihoods or living lives of despair.

For years I lived in a state of rage.  Not even anger, but rage.  Rage at those like Bush and Blair who were mass murderers.  Rage at those who did not stop him who could have.  Rage at those who believed all the lies: whether about economics or war or crime.

I see many who come to my blog, a place where scenarios are explored which are both bleak, and often, very likely, giving into despair or rage themselves. The world is big, the powers that are leading it to ruin are overwhelming, and we look out on a future which seems to get worse and worse the further ahead of us it is.  Even countries now on the rise, like China, will suffer massively in the decades to come.

It is perfectly natural to be angry.  It is even useful to be angry.  Anger or rage are adrenaline shots to the system.  They push you to do what must be done; to tell the truth; to push ahead, to tackle the big enemies.

But they are toxic in the long run.  Like adrenaline they are useful for shots of energy, but if you are angry all the time at anything, it will hurt your body and eventually your mind.  You will burn out, and if you aren’t lucky you may burn out permanently or you may die.

Despair is also rational.  I am aware of studies which show that depression is about 10X more frequent today than it was about a century ago, based on methodology I find reasonable.  Life today sucks.  We are almost all close to powerless in our daily lives: we work for wages, without those wages we will suffer greatly, and to get those wages we must do what our bosses say, no matter how noxious what they demand is.  It takes two people to earn a living where it once took one, and wealth and income are collapsing in the first and most of the third world ex-China; while the Chinese are under the immense pressure that industrialization produces.

Anger gets us going, till we burn out.  Despair enervates us.  We turn often to drugs, whether pharmaceutical or more subtle opiates live television or computer games.  Too often we do not change our circumstances: we see no way out, and en masse we aren’t necessarily wrong.  Leave one job, and even if you find another it will be run by the same sort of people who run almost all of Western business outside of a few European countries.

All of this is understandable. In a certain sense it is even rational.

But a hot cup of chocolate on a frosty night is still sweet.

As bad as things are, so much of the world is as it always has been.  The still contentment of sitting with one you love, saying nothing is still available.  The sunset is still beautiful, and if there are fewer birds, their trills still delight.

The flowers are as beautiful, the russet and scarlet leaves of fall still adorn the trees, and a clean drink of water still refreshes.  Children playing still bring a smile to my face, and I still enjoy pulling a comforter up and cracking open a new book.  There are still beautiful women and handsome men, there is still kindness and charity in the world; there is still art to make and books to write and songs to sing.

In a myriad of ways there is still beauty and happiness to be found in the world.  We are not the first culture to face decline.  The Roman Empire went through multiple periods of decline and stoics and epicureans debated how to live the good life in an evil world.  The Chinese practically had dealing with declining and corrupt imperial eras and warring states periods down to an art: when no good could be done in the world, back to one’s private life to write poetry, drink wine and care for those close to one while refusing as much as possible to be complicit in the evil of the times.

Others strove still to be of public service: to hold off the rush of night for a few more years, or even a generation, knowing that what came after would be worse.

But I say to you now this: endless anger or despair; or a mixture of both do you no good, soon do your enemies no harm (and yes, they are enemies); and serve not whatever cause you’re interested in unless you’re willing to risk permanent burn-out.

And besides, where’s the fun in being miserable?  No matter how bad the times, there will always be good periods;  moments and beauty and happiness to delight in.  The wine is as sweet in evil times as good; love is perhaps even sweeter in times of despair; and beauty never dies and can always be found, if only, sometimes, in our own minds.

It’s banal to say we’re here for a short time, but it’s true.  Fight the good fight, to be sure, but then delight in the sensual pleasures and love this world offers.

And give yourself permission to quit.  There are 7 billion people in the world. It’s not on all on you.  The graveyards are full of essential men: the world will continue without you, and it’s not all on you.  Take the breaks you need, even quit if you must.  Above all, don’t let the bastards see you sweat, and don’t let them take away your enjoyment of the real pleasures that life offers.

(Originally published October 27, 2014. Republished.)

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Vancouver to Tax Those with Empty Properties

2016 September 15

I grew up in Vancouver more than any other city, but left in 1986. It’s one of the most beautiful large cities in the world, and was a lovely place to live. Recently, due in large part to the influx of foreign money and buyers, it’s become unaffordable, both for buying and renting. The provincial government just slapped a tax on foreign buyers, and now the mayor is going to add another tax.

Vancouver plans to tax its vacant homes by the end of the year, the city’s mayor said on Wednesday, announcing the second government move in as many months to address foreign investments that officials say have helped drive up home prices.

This combination of action is absolutely the right thing to do, especially a tax on vacant homes (I assume it will include apartments and condos.) This action should be copied by cities around the world who are experiencing similar foreign buyer driven booms: like Australia’s large cities, London, and Canada’s Toronto.

This is what I have been pushing for for some time. The issue is that the fee must be punitive, and I fear that Vancouver won’t set it high enough.

As I wrote in 2015 in reference to a similar New York city proposal.

People who can afford luxury apartments can afford that fee. Make it simple: Put in a residency requirement. Someone must live in the apartment six months to a year. If they don’t, the tax rate is 50 percent of the ostensible value of the apartment. If that doesn’t work (and it might not, given how rich they are), well, then just make it illegal to own apartments that aren’t used and have the government seize the apartment and use it for social housing, or sell it. And if the next owner doesn’t use it, seize it again.

The simplest way to stop stuff is to just forbid it. Foreigners don’t have any “right” to buy property in other countries. It’s a privilege. If they’re making life miserable for the permanent residents of a city, there’s no particular reason not to just stop them buying more residences. There will always be ways around such bans, of course, but it will still make such purchases far fewer.

It’s not reasonable for a city’s rent and/or cost of purchasing a house to rise much faster than its economy. It’s not fair to shove out residents and people with jobs so that foreigners can have vacation homes or homes to which they can escape with their corrupt wealth if things go bad in their home country.

If they want such a house, well, there are plenty of small municipalities who would be happy to sell to them, but turning one of the countriy’s main, economically viable cities into a place its actual residents can’t afford isn’t smart or fair. The same is true of Toronto, London, or Melbourne.

China throws off so much money and wealth that smaller nations (and Canada, Australia, or Britain are all smaller where it matters in population) can be swamped just by their overflow.

Don’t let that happen.

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That Great Census News

2016 September 13
by Ian Welsh

That metropolitan-area household incomes in 2015 are up five percent is, indeed, good news, but as Stoller points out, men’s income is up 1.5 percent and women’s is up 2.7 percent, so what it means is that more people per household are working.

Household income is still 1.7 percent below the 2007 level.

Income being up indicates that the Fed can now crush wages, however. Let’s see how long this runs, or how long they let it run.

Overall, however, the job market is still trash.

Employment / Population Ratio

Employment / Population Ratio

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The Consequences of 9/11

2016 September 11
by Ian Welsh

iraqi_girlOn September 11, 2001, I was at work. As the reports came in, the company set up a TV in a large room and work ground to a halt as people watched.

I turned to a friend and said, “I hope America doesn’t attack the wrong country in retaliation.”

He scoffed.

Assuming that Osama bin Laden was behind 9/11, it was a master stroke. Osama was the first great man of the 21st century, the man who changed the course of history in precisely the way he planned. (Remember, “great” and “good” are not synonyms. Plenty of great men and women have been monsters.)

Osama was a smart man and had spent a lot of time considering the Muslim world’s situation.

He believed that the regimes he wanted to overthrow, like Egypt, survived due to the support of an enemy much further away: the US. His thesis was that US support propped up enemy societies.

The usual rule in Islam is to fight the local tyrant, but OBL argued that the US must be fought first: Only once it was defeated, or at least severely weakened, could Islam win the more local battles. He also wanted to prove that US soldiers could be defeated.

What he wanted to do was to draw US soldiers into a killing field. He figured it would be Afghanistan, and America did oblige and attack, but Afghanistan wasn’t much of a quagmire in those first years.

Then, the US decided to attack Iraq, one of OBL’s enemies, as Iraq was run by a secular regime. And Iraq turned out to be a complete mess.

The US walked all over the conventional army of Iraq, then was fought to a bloody loss by irregulars (and it was a loss–US troops had to pay bribes in order to leave the country without being fired upon).

And Islamic groups and revolution spread, and if the US wasn’t defeated, well, all the money, men, and attention spent on Iraq did contribute to the great financial crisis, and Muslims learned that they could beat the US if they were willing to take enough pain doing it.

Osama won. He got much of what he wanted. He must have praised Allah mightily for making his enemies attack Iraq.

As for the US, the “state of emergency” declared after 9/11 is still in effect. The Patriot Act is still in effect. The Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) is still in effect. These are the Enabling Acts of Bush’s republic–and of Obama’s.

US citizens did, in fact, lose many of their freedoms and a great deal of their prosperity as a result of 9/11.

9/11 was a milder form of the Reichstag Fire. No, Bush wasn’t Hitler, but he did change the nature of the US significantly–enough so that it is a recognizably different country than it was before.

Americans ratified those changes by re-electing Bush in 2004, knowing fully that he was torturing and so on.  Then came Obama.

Obama is Bush’s heir. Anything one party does can be undone by the next, but Obama chose to roll back very little of Bush’s republic, and in fact, he extended many of Bush’s policies. He is worse on whistleblowers than Bush (far, far worse). He has performed far more drone assassinations. He has deported far more immigrants.  And he has kept all the enabling acts in place.

I make no claim that the US before 9/11 was “good,” but it was better than the US after 9/11, to the great harm of very many people all around the world–including Americans themselves.

But 9/11? 9/11 was a success. It got the man who planned it about three-quarters of what he wanted.

A very great success. Too bad the US handed that success to Osama. He couldn’t have made you do anything, he had to to take a gamble on you.

Osama understood the US well enough to get the US to do what he wanted. The US did not understand Osama well enough to avoid walking straight into his trap…or they had so much hubris they figured they could walk through it unharmed.

So many dead. So many maimed. So many refugees. So many economically destroyed. So many better roads not taken.

But Osama, Osama at least was happy with 9/11.

That was Bush, and the US’s greatest gift to Osama, which outweighs his death a 1000/1. Men like Osama are not scared of death.

So much stupid, so much evil. But Osama was just evil, not stupid.

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Terrible Human Political Judgment

2016 September 9
by Ian Welsh

Trudeau PandasOne of those amusing scientific studies runs as follows: Someone in a supermarket knocks over a large display of canned goods. They either:

  • Show no remorse, but put all the cans back in place.
  • Act very embarrassed and do nothing.

People like and trust the people who act embarrassed and do nothing. They don’t like people who put the cans back but show no remorse.

I was reminded of this study by this news piece:

In his first event at the G20 leaders’ summit, Justin Trudeau urged his peers Saturday to drive away the anti-globalization and protectionist attitudes that have been fuelling “divisive, fearful rhetoric” in different parts of the world.

This is why Trudeau will join the TTP and TTIP if he can. Trudeau is a neoliberal. He believes that “trade” deals which are primarily about reducing wages, increasing intellectual property, and removing corporations from government oversight are good things. He likes Canada losing sovereignty; he thinks it’s a good thing.

Justin Trudeau has abs. He is, well, beautiful. He has a great smile. He’s a neoliberal authoritarian who helped pass Bill-C51, a terrible bill which, among other things, makes large classes of speech criminal and allows national security to illegalize environmental protests–should the government desire it.

It’s not that Trudeau isn’t better than Canada’s previous PM Harper, it’s that that is a very low bar. Yes, he believes in multiculturalism, and in taking in refugees, and I’m glad he does, but that doesn’t offset the other ways in which he is terrible.

Trudeau’s just a prettier, slightly kinder face on standard neoliberal policies.

But, he’s pretty. And he says warm things about refugees. And he marches with gays. And he has amazing abs, and shows them off.

He parses as a really nice guy. The NDP leader, Mulcair, is fat, bearded, and can come across as intimidating. He’s more of a centrist than I like, but when Bill C51 was suggested, he immediately opposed it–even when the polls were in its favor. When there was a row about Niqabs in Quebec durign the election, Mulcair immediately supported the right to wear them. He spoke out against the effects of oil dependence on Canada’s economy when the price of oil was still high.

I won’t say Trudeau isn’t a man of principle, but I will say that his principles are neoliberal principles combined with cosmopolitanism.

But Mulcair, the fat man with the beard, has principles which include liberty and which he holds to even when they are unpopular.

More Canadians, of course, voted for Trudeau. The break point in the election, despite all the whining from lefties, was not Trudeau’s declared willingness to run deficits vs. Mulcair’s saying he wouldn’t. No, it was Niqabs. Quebec is a secular province, similar to France, in that secularism is its ideology, its religion.

Standing up for the right to wear Niqabs caused the NDP’s vote in Quebec to collapse. When it collapsed, national polls dropped the NDP below the Liberals and since soft-stupid left wingers were in “anyone but the Conservatives” mode they ran to the Liberal party.

And yeah, Trudeau is better than Harper, but he isn’t actually good on really important economic and liberty issues. Except when it comes to cosmopolitan issues like refugees and not being a dick about things like the census, his policies are not noticeably different from Harper’s. He does 80 percent of what Harper would have done, 80 percent of the harm, but without the added 20 percent of the gratuitous cruelty and stupidity.

Canadian left-wingers got suckered again. They could have had a flawed man who was genuinely anti-authoritarian, and whose economic policies, while flawed, would have included, oh, tax raises.

Instead they got Mr. Neoliberal Pretty Abs.

I’m not entirely upset by this. I think Mulcair triangulated too much on economic policy, or possibly genuinely believed in stuff like “no deficits.” Him running “center” and losing might not be the worst thing if people realize that as why he lost.

But it wasn’t his weaknesses that pushed Canadians over the edge, it was his integrity. And the love of Trudeau, even during the election, was based mostly on his status as son of a beloved past-leader and his prettiness and charisma.

Trudeau’s record was of supporting most of the worst things perpetrated by the Conservative party–the things people wanted to replace. Mulcair had a record of opposing those things.

This is similar to American leftists running to “the woman” as if Thatcher wasn’t a woman, or to “the black” as if Obama hadn’t been on his knees all election worshiping at the shrine of Reagan. Or, locally, of Liberals voting for a lesbian in Ontario, because, hey, lesbian, and waking up to find out that, on economic policy, she’s more right-wing than the last Conservative premier was. The left-wing white male candidates, like the guy who ran a food bank, well, fuck, they were straight. They couldn’t be as left-wing as a lesbian.

This inability to think, to judge actions over acting and rhetoric, and group identity markets is killing us. I mean that quite seriously. Policies are engaged in whose objective effect is to increase poverty and fuel the rise of the authoritarian right.

Our inability to overcome programming meant for living in bands of 60 people or so is killing us in a hundred ways, of which this is just one. Trudeau may be the guy you’d want to have at your house-warming party, like George W Bush was the guy you’d want a drink with, but both are bad leaders in ways that matter and that will harm many of the people who voted for them.

Democracy is swiftly moving from “the worst type of government other than all the others which have been tried” (Churchill) to “the government under which we made most of the decisions which destroyed half the world.”

Do not think those who pay the price for our failures will say, “Gee, the primary government form of the most important nations had nothing to do with it.” If you love Democracy, figuring out how to work it so it results in better decisions is mandatory, and that means figuring out how to elect better leaders.

Pretty or not.

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Some Fruits of Meditation

2016 September 6
Odin with the ravens Thought and Memory

Odin with the ravens Thought and Memory

As regular readers know, I’ve been meditating for some time, with some useful results.

A lot of modern meditation teaching and writing emphasizes meditation for benefits: be calmer, more loving, happier, be more effective. Heck, even “make money.” That’s all very nice, and I’ve certainly noticed benefits, but the original impetus for a lot of techniques was to learn something specific: What you really are.

A lot of what I do is “choiceless sitting.” I just sit there, and do nothing. Impulses come, thoughts come, feelings come, and I just let it all pass.

About a month ago, I woke up one morning with extraordinary clarity. I could feel each impulse to do something very clearly. Get up. Roll over. Scratch. Go check my email. Use the toilet.

Each one came very slowly and I watched it, and it subsided. And another, and another.

They were all, very clearly, external to me. I was watching them, and they were not me. The sensation was unpleasant; as though they were impositions, some outside force trying to make me do things.

This wasn’t a unique experience, but it was far clearer than during normal mediation, where the impulses felt much closer.

The Hindus sometimes say there are two paths: “not this, not that” and “this and that.”

On the first path, the one I’m on, you peel away everything that isn’t you until you realize that you are the witness, and everything you thought was you, like your body, your thoughts, your personality and so on, isn’t you.

This aligns very well with modern neuroscience, by the way, which finds that by the time the conscious mind is aware it has made a decision, the decision has already been made. You think you have free will, you think you make choices, but you don’t. You just rationalize choices your body has already made.

Ramakrishna put it, theistically, “You do nothing, God does everything.”

The result of this is a sense of freedom: Because you don’t actually make choices, you can stop worrying about them. You aren’t in control, it’s not your responsibility, so chill.

This idea is intensely alienated from the common understanding of the human condition, with all its emphasis on free will, and choice, and responsibility, and doing this, and doing that.

Meditation can also produce a very profound feeling that what you are never changes. Indeed, it can’t. This core “Ian” was the same when I was five years old, 25, and today. My body and personality have changed quite a bit from age five to 25, or even two years ago, but that core is the same.

More than that, that core is the same as everyone else’s core. My self has no features different from your self.

Again, this is very alienated from the common understanding that we’re all unique flowers, slightly different from each other.

We are, but only in the non-essentials, the stuff that isn’t the self, like personality, or body, or personal history.  The self, that never changes, seems to be the same for everyone.

(For the Buddhists who follow the canon that there is no self, I’ll note that I understand why Buddhists believe this. You look at everything you can sense and realize “I’m not that” and are left with nothing. I simply follow the Hindus, that nothing is something, at least, that’s my sense of it. Some Buddhists, for example many Chan Buddhists, agree.)

Because the self can’t change, it also can’t be hurt. If you identify as the self (or the nothing), there is a sense that you are impervious: Yes you can feel pain (and it sucks), and your body can be hurt, but that which is actually you remains as it always was.

This allows for a great relaxation: You don’t have to be scared and worry all the time. That relaxation has physical benefits; you wind up in parasympathetic mode far more often. You suffer far less stress, and you’re far happier and healthier as a result. The default “not doing anything” mode for humans is to think about the past and the future, but you start doing that far far less, which is good, because worrying and dwelling on the past makes people unhappy and imaginary threats make you stressed.

This also allows a great deal of happiness to arise. It’s not the “uncaused happiness” which comes later on the path (and which I have experienced only rarely), instead it is happiness that takes almost nothing.

“My goodness this food is wonderful. Isn’t that a beautiful bird? Isn’t it wonderful that we can make buildings which soar?”

My favorite experience was about five months ago. I was walking down the street and heard the distinctive sound of air brakes and the squeal of a bus and felt happy. Isn’t it wonderful that I don’t have to walk everywhere, and I also don’t have to own a car? (Not that cars aren’t wonderful.) I felt absurd that this made me happy. But hey, happiness.

The small things that are great (ahhhhh, this mattress is soft) you notice far more often and you receive far more pleasure from. A lot of people miss all of this: They walk in a world of wonders, and they gain no pleasure from it.

In the summer of 2015, readers may remember the Greek financial crisis: Syriza had been elected and was trying to avoid the worst of the terrible austerity the Troika had forced on them.

I was pretty chill about that until Syriza betrayed the Greeks by accepting a terrible deal. I was furious. I wrote an angry denunciation and went for a walk. An hour later, I was still angry, and I wasn’t enjoying being angry. It’s not a pleasant feeling when it drags on and on.

I thought, “This is ridiculous. Being angry doesn’t help the people on whose behalf I’m angry, and it hurts me.”

If you’re like I was, or most people are, you’ve had many such thoughts: “Don’t worry, be happy,” “Just relax,” “Dwelling on your mistakes doesn’t help.” They’re all versions of, “Being unhappy doesn’t help the situation.” You think the thought, and whatever emotion you’re stuck in, or problem your dwelling on, doesn’t go away.

But this time it did. Just disappeared. And I was happy.

A couple hours later, at home, I started dwelling on my personal financial situation. Not good. I was poor and if I didn’t get some money, I might even wind up on the street. I reviewed my plans, and what I was willing to do to avoid such a fate, and then I thought, “Dwelling on this further won’t help. I’ve made my plans, I’m doing what I’m willing to do, so there’s no point in making myself unhappy by dwelling on it.”

Again, I’m sure most people have such thoughts, and most of the time they don’t work. Maybe we stop for a few minutes, through willpower, but soon we’re back to it.

This time, however, I stopped, and I was happy and I didn’t go back to it. No point. When new facts come up about my finances, I revisit, decide what I’m willing to do and pack it away.

Life is often a shit show, but as Twain once wrote, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.

I didn’t change any of what I had planned to do about money, I didn’t worry, and so far (at least), I haven’t wound up on the street. Even if I had, I might as well enjoy the day. And for the day I have food, internet, books, and a place to sleep that is air conditioned and rather comfortable. Why should I be unhappy?

None of this means that bad stuff doesn’t happen or it doesn’t suck when it does. Many years ago I talked to someone who was probably enlightened and asked about enlightenment and suffering. They said, “There is no suffering when you’re enlightened, but it’s still better to have less pain.”

I didn’t understand that then, but I do now, even though I’m not enlightened. What you learn to do is not add anything to whatever pain you’re experiencing, to not care that you’re in pain. That reduces the effect of the pain significantly, but it doesn’t mean that pain doesn’t still suck. Enough pain and you’ll still be screaming with the worst of them.  Still, you know it doesn’t harm that which is truly you and you know that it will end.

It’s funny that I started this article by saying meditation is about finding out what you are, not about benefits, then turned to the benefits. But like a lot of things in life, if your primary concern is the benefits of the action, those benefits are often slower in coming. Most of the benefits of meditation come from not caring.

I often joke: “The whole of the path is not giving a fuck.”

It’s a joke. It’s also true. The first time I listened to this “guided meditation” I laughed myself sick, because it’s exactly right.

Happiness is not giving a shit. It is not worrying, not dwelling and moving on. It isn’t not planning or not trying to fix things, it’s not mindless. You do what you can, you make your plans, but you don’t dwell. Someone insults you, say, you may get angry, but you aren’t thinking about it three hours later. You experience pain, you don’t start down the self pity road and once it’s done, it’s done.

You don’t add.

I’m not perfect at this, oh no. I make no claims at enlightenment.  But I am far far better than I was two or three years ago.

Everything passes and most of the suffering of life comes from what you add to what actually happened.

And strangely, not caring, not clinging, leads to a lot more happiness.  Ordinary people think that if you’re happy you should grab on to it hard, but that kills the happiness. Be happy, let it pass, and something else will happen to make you happy.

These, then, are some of the fruits of meditation. Eat, and enjoy.

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