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A Middle Class Which Aligns with the Rich Cuts Its Own Throat

2017 May 9
by Ian Welsh

This was explained to me by Stirling Newberry years ago.

The middle class, can, broadly speaking, align with the rich or with the poor.

If it aligns with the rich, the policies it favors benefit the rich exponentially more than they do the middle class. Tax cuts went primarily to the rich, by magnitudes, for example. Real estate prices rising faster than wages made some middle class families rich, but benefited the rich magnitudes more than the middle class.

Money translates almost directly to power in capitalist societies and even more directly in capitalist democracies without adequate corruption controls (which is almost all of them). The rich become powerful faster than the middle class and ultimately the policies they favor do not include keeping the middle class healthy: The rich want low wages, “flexible” labour laws, bankruptcy laws that favor their interests but not that of the middle class, plenty of financialized rent streams, and so on.

The first generation to make the devil’s bargain with the rich can benefit, maybe even some of the second, mind you. A lot of “Reagan Democrats” won–they sold their houses, and they retired to some place sunny with cheap brown labor to wipe their bums in their senesence. But their kids are saddled with huge debt, make less money than their parents at every stage of their lives, and can’t afford to buy houses or even pay rent anywhere decent.

If the middle class sides with the poor, on the other hand, almost everything they do also helps the middle class. Poor people with money spend that money, and wage increases are much more useful to the middle class than capital gains because they are durable. And policies which reduce the size of the working class and poor, make the middle class bigger and stronger. The working class, absent a huge swell in their numbers, are no threat to the middle class.

Ironically, the working class and poor are a threat to the middle class precisely when the middle class aligns themselves with the rich, because that swells the number of the poor and makes them desperate. It also knocks a lot of middle and upper class down (the upper class is not the rich, they are its direct servants, plus a few others), and those people are angry and know how the system works.

The middle class not only justifies its existence ethically by helping the poor, doing so safeguards its own existence.

The right thing to do, ethically, is almost always the right thing to do in policy terms. Those who believe otherwise almost always pay a frightful price for their attempt to be clever in service to their greed and selfishness.


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Macron Wins in France

2017 May 7
by Ian Welsh

Le Pen’s result is actually somewhat worse than the polling, at 35 percent.

I remain convinced that the real loser of this election is Britain, which is going to find it brutal to leave the EU without an ally–and Le Pen would have been an ally.

Macron, who ran Hollande’s disastrous economic policy, will be a Trudeau-style leader, very shiny and so on, good on talking about social issues, but his policies are standard neoliberal: Take away workers’ rights, and grind them down in the name of labor market flexibility. These policies won’t improve the economy.

Hopefully next time, the real left will be in the final round (it was close this time with Melenchon).

It remains a pity that we have to grind this out, in great misery, rather than simply leaping to candidates like Corbyn, Melenchon, or (to a lesser extent) Sanders, but the electorate is still not willing to actually embrace positive change. Even when they want change, they want it done by assholes (Cameron/May/Trump) or by people whose track records indicate servile subservience to neoliberal norms (Trudeau, Obama, Macron).

So be it. We will simply have to wait for death and the time to make changes. It will cost us much misery and many deaths, but it is unavoidable.


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Lying Liars, the Media, and Broken Democracies

2017 May 5
by Ian Welsh

I want to return, briefly, to something simple.

You can’t make good decisions if you have faulty information. If you are being fed lies, and you believe them, you’re sunk.

I want to emphasize two numbers:

  1. 70 percent of Americans thought that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11.
  2. 89 percent of stories about Jeremy Corbyn in newspapers during one period were found to misrepresent his positions.

As a result:

  1. Americans supported the Iraq War (at first, with notable exceptions).
  2. Brits do not support Labour, because they have been told a bunch of lies about its leaders.

In both cases, you are dealing with a media problem. In both cases, the media amplified and failed to correct various lies–or made them up wholesale.

The media likes to claim that they are the Fourth Estate and that they are required for a healthy democracy. But an unhealthy media, a dishonest media, makes things worse, not better.


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Getting Trump Right and Wrong

2017 May 5
by Ian Welsh

After the election, it seemed that I had gotten Trump more right than many others, and I had, but I had gotten two important things wrong, as well.

I assumed that because Trump was a competent campaigner, and had been willing to let competent people on his team run during the campaign, he would be a relatively competent as an bargainer about those things he cared about.

And I assumed that while he clearly didn’t have strong policy preferences about most things, that there was a good chance that his core program of hitting trade deals, the wall, immigration, and a replacement for Obamacare weren’t compete ass.

I wasn’t certain on this, because it was clear he was very non-ideological, but because it was in his self-interest in terms of being re-elected and being popular, both of which would be important to him (Trump hates losing and wants adulation), I thought a sincere effort was possible.

Certainly he wasn’t going to be a policy expert, but letting the right people run things and having a bottom line policy outcome seemed possible.

I was wrong.

Trump proves, mostly, to be far more weak than I expected. I wrote that I expected an imperial court with courtiers being important multiple times, but it has been worse than I expected.

None of this is to say that I discounted Trump breaking his core promises as a possibility, I said it could happen, but as with Obama he has been swifter and worse in this regard than I expected.

My final decision on Trump, in the campaign, was that he was beyond the pale, but that Clinton was more likely to start a serious war with Russia than he was. Trump’s actions in Syria haven’t exactly warmed the cockles of my heart, but I remain convinced that Clinton was an abomination in her foreign policy, and so far, despite saber rattling and hitting a Syrian airfield, I do not feel that he’s worse than Clinton would have been. (I would have expected a no fly zone in Syria already, if she were President and Trump has not bombed more than I think she would have–rather less, despite the howls.)

Because of this, I didn’t endorse either candidate, and I remain fine with that decision.

Neither of them is a prize. We know exactly what Clinton will be like, she confirmed in Libya that Iraq was not a misjudgment or mistake, by the way she thinks. As for Trump, well, the variance is high. He’s said all sorts of things, who the hell knows what he’ll do?

Or:

Now Trump has said all sorts of things at this point. Who knows what he’ll do? I get that, but here’s what I also get: We all know what Clinton will do.

Both are scum, Trump proves to be scum mostly in a very ordinary Republican way, rather than his own special type of scum, but he has done little that Republican Candidate X wouldn’t have done, other than his travel orders, which were struck down.

The sad part about Trump, to me, is that he’s a normal politician in the ways that matter, after all. It was clear  he wasn’t Hitler or Mussolini, but he isn’t even a right-wing populist in policy (as opposed to in rhetoric and campaign) terms. And, he hasn’t and isn’t going to keep his core promises, which will do more damage to American democracy than if he had stuck by them, like them or not.

I also feel, as I said multiple times during the election, that having Trump win 16 was dodging a bullet, because if he had lost, the next person to try the right wing populist playbook would have been far worse.

All that said, I clearly got stuff wrong about Trump, and stuff that matters, and I apologize to my readers.


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Sterile Elites and the French Election

2017 May 3
by Ian Welsh

France has an electoral run-off system. The top two candidates in the general poll go on to a face-to-face election. This year, that is Macron and Le Pen. Melenchon, the left-wing candidate came up just short.

What is happening was inevitable, and predicted. Europe had been sclerotic before 2008, but enough people were doing well. After 2008, Europe, more than perhaps any other areas in the world, doubled down on austerity and neoliberal policies like “labor flexibility” (code for “fire for any reason, reduced (ideally no) protection from bosses.)

And so we now have the neo-fascist (in a much more real way) vs. the neoliberal who ran Hollande’s vastly unpopular economic policy.

The French establishment has reacted predictably.

Elites simply can’t pivot. They don’t know how to do anything but keep doubling down on neoliberal austerity. It is their entire playbook, and this default strategy may wind up costing them everything.

Polls currently have Macron winning, and Le Pen has been softening her rhetoric on leaving the EU, though it’s primarily, “We can wait a bit and have a referendum.”

I consider that a mistake, not because of electoral considerations this time, but because of the electoral considerations next time. As sometime-poster Mandos has pointed out, the EU has set up both membership in the EU and the Euro so that leaving them frontloads the pain onto whoever leaves. If you’re leaving, you need to get it over with right at the start of your term so you have time to recover from the pain.

(Leaving the Euro is clearly correct on policy terms, though whether Le Pen and her team have the chops to manage it properly is another matter.)

The other consideration is that if Le Pen doesn’t win this time (and the polls are unreliable, given past performance around similar candidates and issues), she’ll be on the final ballot in the next round, because the policies Macron will pursue will make the French worse off–just as they did when he ran them from Hollande. They aren’t going to miraculously work now that Le Pen is even more of a threat, or because Mercury goes retrograde or something.

But then there’s a very real chance Melenchon will be on the last round ballot next time, too, and he’s been pulling no punches. He refused to endorse Macron (he did not play Bernie Sanders Nice) and unlike Sanders followers, who overwhelmingly voted for Clinton, about two-thirds of Melenchon supporters refuse to vote Macron.

A Melenchon deputy explained:

We don’t want to help Marine Le Pen, but we don’t want to endorse Mr. Macron,” he said.

“He’s the candidate of free trade,” Mr. Coquerel said. “He’s going to assist in the Uberization of society. Everything we are going to fight against in the coming months. There’s no possible rapprochement.”

This is correct behaviour, as far as I am concerned. Melenchon is not a colleague, he did not run under the same party, and he disagrees with almost all of Macron’s economic policies.

If Macron can’t win against Le Pen without the left’s support, he doesn’t deserve to win, because he isn’t a left-winger on non-social issues. And while social issues are important, so is whether or not you have a good job. Freedom in poverty, as those of us who have been poor know, isn’t really freedom.

Besides, Melenchon is in the same position as Le Pen. He’ll almost certainly be in the next “last round” if Macron wins, because, again, Macron is going to hurt a lot of French. It is inevitable, he cannot avoid doing so because he genuinely believes in neo-liberal austerity as the road forward.

There are a large contingent of people who are “just hanging on.” The status quo sort of works for them, but they can see the abyss, and they don’t want change, yet, even though they aren’t happy.

They will only want change if the game of economic Russian roulette that is austerity happens to take them out, and dump them into a slum. Their numbers decline every election, as some eat that austerity bullet and others die (since they tend to be older) and a very few can no longer stomach buying their present with their children’s future. (This is rare, most don’t care, and I base that on the cold hard numbers. If they cared, things would have changed long ago. Their children are expendable to them.)

So we play the game out. Time’s wheel must grind on, bodies caught in the gears, till the last neoliberal has failed, and we get either the populist right or the populist left.

Those are your choices: populist right, populist left, or continued decline into what will become an increasingly obvious dystopian surveillance state; something out of an 80s cyberpunk novel, but without the actual cool tech (as yet).

But there is no other choice that moves away from current trends except populist right or left. Those are the choices. Choose.

Update (how LePen will win, if she does):

A false story of “I will help fix your awful life” wins against a true story of “I’m going to hurt you, but the other person is lying about helping you and will hurt you even worse.”


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Trump Is Not Wrong to Be Willing to Talk to North Korea’s Leader

2017 May 2
by Ian Welsh

Oh my, the wringing of hands over Trump saying he’d be willing to talk to Kim Jong Un.

Let’s get the disclaimers for idiots out of the way: Kim Jon Un appears to be a very bad man and Trump often does bad things, or rather, tries to do bad things that are then blocked.

This is not one of those things–even after one stops laughing at people pretending that the White House hasn’t entertained plenty of dictators with blood soaked hands, just as bad as Kim.

For 60 years, the policy for dealing with North Korea has been to keep them in a cage, and it hasn’t worked.

North Korea wants a formal peace treaty, and feels that, absent nukes, they would be attacked.

Given what happened to Qaddafi (sodomized with a knife, then killed) after he gave up his nuclear program, there might be something to this–especially because the West keeps laughing at the idea of a formal peace treaty. If you think they aren’t going to attack, why not give them one? Or at least offer it as a prize for cooperation, along with reducing some of the frankly insane sanctions?

(This approach, by the way, is favored by most South Koreans, the people with the most to lose if the situation turns into war and Seoul gets flattened.)

Is Trump supposed to not meet with the King of Saudi Arabia? Do you know how he treats Shi’ites and women? Do you know what he is doing to Yemen right now? Is he not supposed to meet with George W. Bush, his predecessor, the butcher of Iraq?

Stop clutching pearls. Yeah, Trump is scum, but this is ridiculous. Diplomacy is about talking with your enemies, not just your friends; it is about talking with bad people (which is why everyone keeps talking to the US) when they have something you want.

Trump is right, in this case, and the squealing about it is not only pearl-clutching bullshit, it makes an actual war more likely, as did hitting Trump so hard on Russia that better relations with Russia (the only other country with enough nukes to destroy the world) seem to be off the table. Because God knows, we wouldn’t want good relations between the two nuclear super-powers, and Russia may not be a super power in another way, but it still has a ton of nukes.

A man may be a bad man, and your political opponent, without being wrong about everything, and acting as if he is could cost hundreds of millions of people their lives.

Stop.


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A Modest Proposal to Fix the World

2017 May 1
by Ian Welsh

Image by TW Collins

Fire every non-commission employee making more than seven times the median national income (all income included).

Put a 100 percent tax on all income over seven times the median, no exceptions for any type of income.

Put a 100 percent tax on on all inheritances over 50 times the median (that’s enough of a head-start on life for winning the lucky sperm contest).

Promote those who were earning less.

Secret: The people running the economy are not the best, and if they are brightest, we need stupider people. I base this on their results.

Going forward, the top income level will increase, as a percentage, equal to the average income of the bottom five percent and the median income.

This will sort out a lot of problems quickly.

First, it gets rid of the people running the economy today, who are obviously either hopeless fuck-ups or completely uninterested in results for anyone but themselves and a few cronies.

Second, it concentrates the minds of those at the top on the problems of those at the middle and bottom. They want that seven-times-the-median to be higher, so suddenly, they care about the poor and the middle class. A lot.

Third, it rather quickly deals with people with too much money now (yes, there is such a thing); if their seven-times the-median income doesn’t support their lifestyle, they will have to dip into their capital to pay for it. Because all capital gains will be treated as income, well, that should be fun.

Yes, there are all sorts of ways people can try to get around this. Plug them as fast as you find them and write the initial laws in very generous ways, like money-laundering laws. (Were you obviously trying to get around money laundering laws? If so, you’re probably going to jail. That’s how they’re written.)

Why seven times? Why not. It’s enough that no one can say they shouldn’t still feel very rich, and if they don’t, then something is deeply wrong with the median.

The general rule of policy is that policy which is good for the rich and the middle class is bad for the middle class because the rich get so much more from it. For instance, the housing bubble looked good for the middle class (and a few people won), but, really, it was so much better for the rich in that it gave them so much power along with other financial shenanigans, that they were able to gut the middle class.

Policy which is good for the middle class and the poor, or even just the poor, is good for the middle class. Poor people spend their money, and poor people who get better off become middle class people. A middle class which identifies with the poor and not the rich, will be secure, because they will support the wellspring of their own success.

There’s a bunch of moral and ethical arguments that should go into a piece like this, but it comes down to this: Every social welfare statistic worth mentioning tracks inequality, not absolute wealth, once you’re beyond the point of “enough so I’m not starving.” (See “The Spirit Level” for the nailed-down, stupidly overdetailed proving of the obvious.)

The rich are rich because society makes it possible, through aggressive enforcement of totally artificial property laws and massive infrastructure which benefits them far more than anyone else. The idea of ideas being property is completely artificial, contracts of adhesion that are standard in software are social bullshit, corporations are bundles of hugely valuable rights to avoid responsibility for losses, and all of that is before we even get to 20 trillion dollars (in the US alone) to bail out bankers who had genuinely lost everything, and that includes Goldman Sachs, because winning bets with counterparties who are bankrupt is worth ten cents on the dollar, and at that rate, Goldman is bankrupt too.

The people in charge have done a terrible job. It is a moral imperative to take that job from them and give it to people who will do it better than they do. (If they do it well, then the world and the economy won’t be so fucked.)

The people not in charge who are familiar with their jobs/businesses deserve a try.

There are bunch of things to add to this, but they all basically come down to two simple rules:

  1. Keep the rich poor.
  2. Never let money or power buy anything that matters.

A better education than normal, a jump in the healthcare queue line, avoiding airport security, flying on a private jet, avoiding traffic in a helicopter, not staying in the same hotels as anyone else. Nothing that matters. They can have nicer consumer goods, as long as they don’t matter, and that is all.

When the people running something are complete fuck-ups, you take away their power. That means their position, and as money is power, their obscene wealth. You replace them with someone else. It is that simple.

Eat the rich, or the rich will eat you.

And they have been dining well.


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Was All the “Trump is Hitler” Rhetoric Right?

2017 April 29
by Ian Welsh

On October 17th, I wrote that demonizing Trump as fascist had consequences.

To most Americans fascist = holocaust, Hitler, and World War II. To be a fascist is to be the worst thing possible.

Popular culture is full of references of going back and killing Hitler before he became powerful. We bewail that no one did anything. We blame Neville Chamberlain for responding to Hitler’s provocations by making concessions.

It is generally accepted that trying to make peace with a fascist is foolishness.

Donald Trump is a fascist, so are many of his followers, and those who follow him but who aren’t fascists are still working to try and get a fascist into power. They must be stopped, and our culture believes violence is justified in stopping fascists.

That is the logic of the rhetoric.

I think it is now pretty clear that Trump is not Hitler reborn. He is not even Mussolini reborn. He was, at most, a right-wing populist, but he’s not even that. He’s just another oligarch who flirted with populist-right ideas, but has mostly not even followed through on those.

He was never Hitler. I didn’t think he was during the campaign, and said so.

And now we have polarization: antifas and fascists. People who didn’t exist on the public stage before they were vaulted there, and with that polarization, we have violence.

I don’t have anything in particular against punching Nazis (though I do have something for free speech), but these people have been elevated from cranks no one knew about, to somebodies.

Only one prominent Trump advisor can credibly be called something of a fascist: Bannon, and he is outweighed by people who are just standard, out-of-the-can neoliberals, like Trump’s daughter, and son-in-law, and, well, almost everyone else. There are a few nasty racists, like Sessions, but they existed long before Trump. There are climate denialists, but that’s a Republican party thing, and so on.

Trump’s not Hitler. He never was. There is not going to be a Reichstag fire in which he seizes power.

The fascist line, like the Russian pawn line, were simply anti-Trump political lines. Extremely dangerous, and in the case of the Russian line xenophobic and dangerous, but just propaganda.

And millions have fallen for it, hook, line, and sinker and are now basing their lives and identities around it, on both sides. This hasn’t weakened the “alt-right,” it has strengthened it, and it sure as hell didn’t stop Trump from being elected.

Skipping a few half million dollar a plate dinners and campaigning in the rust-belt? That might have stopped it. Not opposing a $15/minimum wage, that might have stopped it. Not trying to get “moderate” Republicans to vote Democratic and ignoring traditional Democratic constituencies, that might have stopped it.

Not Hitler, and calling him Hitler didn’t work.

Genius.

I wonder if our next dynastic appointee, Chelsea Clinton, is even just a little more competent as a campaigner than her mother?


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