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Some Interesting Things About the Russian Coalition’s Syrian Campaign

2015 October 16
by Ian Welsh

Notice that one of their major initial objectives is to seal the border with Turkey.

This is because Turkey is the major supply route for the various factions in Syria (and Iraq). And that is Turkish policy.

Note, also, just how effective Russian air support, backed by coalition ground forces, has been. Air power without decent boots is great for destruction and not much else, but it really is a force multiplier if you have the troops to exploit it. This is Russia giving its ally an air force, in the same way the US has so often done.

Finally, note that Russia has just given itself a major presence in the Middle East by becoming a strong ally of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and (downstream) Hezbollah. Don’t think they’ll forget who bailed them out on this.

I’ll have a longer guest post up on Russian strategy in historical context posted soon, I hope.

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In France, There Is a Cost to Executives for Laying People Off

2015 October 11
by Ian Welsh

This is mild compared to what happened to managers in the early twentieth century, mind you:

Union activists protesting nearly 3,000 proposed layoffs at Air France stormed the headquarters during a meeting Monday, zeroing in on two managers who had their shirts torn from their bodies, scaled a fence and fled under police protection.

There are two great problems with our attitude towards violence today. The first is that we condemn it as “bad,” but permit it for people who abuse it. What we really mean is that violence by the state is ok, but violence by anyone else isn’t. You can justify that when the state doesn’t abuse its monopoly on violence (much), but that’s hard to do for most states.

The second is that we fail to recognize non-violent actions that have horrid consequences as serious. Laying off thousands of people has serious consequences for those people–consequences that are much more serious than having some clothes shredded.

We lock up “violent criminals,” but we hardly even bother to lock up most white collar criminals and, when we do, they get off lightly, as a rule. No one went to jail for the financial crisis, despite the fact that the fallout from that is far worse than a hundred serial killers each killing ten people.

I don’t like violence. But neither do I like going hungry. I don’t like homelessness. I don’t like millions of people in refugee camps. I don’t like—well, add to the list as you please.

Corporations are given a very valuable set of privileges by the government, including protection of their owners and officers from a wide range of normal liability for financial losses, negligence, and, indeed, in effect, criminal actions. Effective immortality and a wide range of tax advantages allow corporations to do things no actual person can do.

These privileges are granted because it is presumed that corporations are in the interest of society.

When a corporation does not act in the interest of society, the law allows it for it to be dissolved. This is done routinely to small corporations, but almost never to large corporations.

Corporations have multiple responsibilities: to shareholders, to employees, to customers, and to society as a whole. Officers and managers in corporations receive extra compensation (a lot of extra compensation, though less in France than in the US) in exchange for, presumably, taking on extra responsibility and being more skilled (or something, I’m often unsure what) than line employees.

I don’t know the specifics of Air France’s situation. Perhaps the layoffs truly are required.

If so, whose responsibility is that?

Barring an Act of God it is hard to make the case that it isn’t the responsibility of management. No? They are paid to be responsible, after all, and they are supposed to be competent.

The buck stops somewhere. If it doesn’t stop with a company’s management and officers, it stops nowhere.

Equally important is the fact that we keep precisely, and only, the rights (which includes property and jobs) that we are able and willing to fight for. Any other rights we have in excess will eventually be taken away from, awaiting only someone with enough power to gain the opportunity and motive to do so.

This is the real law of the jungle. Nothing. You have no rights, no possessions. Nothing. Everything you “have” is because it was at one point in the interest of others that you have it. Once it is no longer in their interest, watch out.

Union negotiating, in whatever form, is about making sure that management, officers, and society understand that taking what union members have incurs a cost. Air France may continue with layoffs, but be sure that a message has been received, and will be taken into account.

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The Political Consequences of Mental Models

2015 October 8
by Ian Welsh

Sense is sense, no matter who says it:

Asked by NBC’s Chuck Todd if the Middle East would be more stable with Gaddafi and Saddam in power, Trump replied, “Of course it would be.”’

There comes a point where one must ask—ok, well, this point has come again and again, but really: Are the West’s leaders destabilizing the Middle East deliberately?

Q. “Stupid or evil?”

A. “Both.”

I know someone who worked with Cheney and believes that Cheney honestly thought that removing Saddam would make the world a better place. Also (and the person I know is a smart, capable person) that Cheney was very smart.

But smart in IQ terms (which Cheney probably was) isn’t the same as having a sane mental map of the world. Being brilliant means being able to be brilliantly wrong and holding to it no matter what. Genius can rationalize anything.

Human thought is mostly an unconscious and uncontrolled process. What comes up is what went in, filtered through conditioning. We are so conditioned and the inputs are so out of our control during most of our lives (and certainly during our childhood) that our actual, operational margin of free will is far smaller than most believe.

We interpret what we know through the mental (and emotional) models we already have. Thoughts are weighted with emotion, recognized and unrecognized, connotations far more than denotations.

Machiavelli made the observation that people don’t change, they instead react to situations with the same character and tone of action even when a different action would work better.

This doesn’t mean one cannot undergo ideological changes, it means character changes only very slowly, and that we have virtually no conscious ability to change our thinking, actions, or characters on the fly.

This is true for both the brilliant and the stupid, though the tenor of challenges for both is different.

You see much of this in Hilary Clinton’s vast hatred and enmity towards Russia. She is a child of the Cold War.

You see it in the repeated use of force in situations where force has failed to work over and over again.

You see it in the inability to tolerate democratic governments of opposing ideologies despite the fact that destroying them, after a period of autocracy, generally leads to worse outcomes than simply working with them. (See Iran for a textbook case.)

And you see it in the belief that the US needs to run the world in tedious detail, that regular coups, invasions, garrisons, and so on are necessary—along with the endless, sovereignty-reducing treaties described in “free trade deals.”

These policies are insane, if one assumes a minimum of public spiritedness. They have not worked. They will not work.

But they do work in the social sense: They create successful lives for the people who devise and implement them. They are rewarded with money and social approval, they receive feedback which screams, “Continue!”

Over fifteen years ago Stirling Newberry told me, “Insiders understand possibility, outsiders understand consequences”.

Insiders are rewarded for acting in accordance with elite consensus, and very little else.

Outsiders, not being part of that personal risk/reward cycle are able to say, “Yeah, that’s not going to work”.

They are both right and wrong.

The science of conditioning, which was strong from the late 19th century through to the 60s, has faded out of the intellectual limelight. But viewed through the lens of conditioning, much that makes no sense makes perfect sense.

We are ruled by people who are what they have been conditioned to be, and we are what we have been conditioned to be: We are passive consumers who shut up and do what they are told by their teachers or bosses.

Conditioning extends well beyond observable behavior and into thought, and the structure of knowledge. Intellectual structures are felt, and each node and connection has emotional freight. This is true even in the purer sciences, and it is frighteningly true in anything related to how we interact with other humans and what our self-image is.

It is in this sense that the disinterested, the outsider, those who receive few rewards for acquiescence, are virtually always superior in understanding to those within the system. Outsiders may not understand what it “feels” like, but the outsider understands what the consequences are.

This is true far beyond politics, but it is in politics where the unexamined life, the unexamined belief structure, and the unexamined conditioning, are amplified by long levers to brutalize the world.


This Is Why I Always Give the Benefit of the Doubt to Left-wing Opponents of the Regime

2015 October 6

Sure, sure, they did that terrible thing.

I mean, they may have.  But this is how the NSA discredits people like hacktivists.  This is their training:

NSA slide on how to discredit troublemakers

NSA slide on how to discredit troublemakers


And this is how they discredit a company:

How the NSA discredits a company

How the NSA discredits a company

Punishment without trial. Note that altering photos and faking emails is fraud.

Though this article doesn’t go into it, I also strongly presume that they have uploaded kiddie-porn onto victims’ computers. The malware, key loggers, and backdoors to which the NSA has access often make it possible for them to not only to see what’s on your computer, but to take control of it.

The hidden state, not to put too fine a point on it, is at war with a good chunk of society. Greenwald, being practically a hacktivist himself, is concerned with their war on hacktivists, but they also go after a wide variety of targets, including war protesters, environmentalists, unions, and left-wingers in general.

Though not new, this does seem to have become worse in the last 25 years or so. It is of a piece with no-fly lists and treasury designations of criminal or terrorist individuals and organizations, which is to say, it is administrative punishment without appeal or transparency. You often don’t know who’s doing it to you, why they are doing it to you, or how to get it to stop; and you certainly were never accused of a crime and given your day in court.

These sorts of actions destroy lives. The people who perpetrate them cause poverty, unemployment, failed businesses, and, ultimately, in the fallout from these, violence, illness and death (as all follow from lack of money and social isolation).

In other words, all of these actions should be considered criminal acts. Some of them probably still are, by the strict letter of the law.

Next time some radical hero is accused of being nasty, consider carefully how credible it really is. Perhaps apply to life that general principle of benefit of the doubt.

The left, in particular, is always easy to split along markers of social identity, and don’t think the NSA and other similar agencies don’t know that, and use it.

Read the entirety of Greenwald’s post. It is important.

Free Trade Is Elites Betraying Their Own Populations

2015 October 5
by Ian Welsh

The odd thing about free trade is that it is both meaningless and vastly important. Comparative advantage, which is supposed to be a straight win for both trading partners, is a rounding error even when it works–if you don’t have full employment; it’s essentially meaningless. However, the ways in which free trade (and the free capital flows that are part of what we call “free” trade) is used to systematically undercut wages and working conditions and destroy environmental safeguards, make trade, as we practice it, vastly important.

(In light of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Deal, I have put this back to the top–originally published Nov. 23, 2013.)

The classic case for trade is comparative advantage: You do what you’re best at, I do what I’m best at, we trade, and we both wind up with more stuff. The math on this is impeccable, but it works in the real world only under very specific conditions. The most important part is this: If I have the extra resources (both material and labor), I’m better off producing the goods myself, rather than trading with you–even if my production methods are less efficient than yours. I’ll still wind up with more stuff. In short, if I don’t have full employment, then free trade is a rounding error.

This is related to Ricardo’s Caveat, where the economist noted that, in his time, capital was not mobile. If it was not being used to do one thing in Britain or France, it would be redeployed to do something else in its own country. It would not be used to create  jobs in another country. In our system, with mobile capital, there is no reason to employ either capital or people in the country of origin if higher profits can be made elsewhere. In this case, free trade can lead to an actual loss of jobs.

One standard argument made for free trade is that it produces cheaper consumer goods, and that makes people in a country better off, even if jobs are being off-shored. This  is only marginally true. Most of the reduced cost of foreign goods is taken as profits, not passed on to consumers. The loss of jobs means that some people lose outright and completely: those who can’t find jobs or can only find low-paying, service jobs. But even those who keep their jobs are disadvantaged if trade means the labor market is not tight, because if the labor market is not tight, labor has no pricing power and gets almost no raises (this is why there have been no significant median wage raises since the mid-70s or so.)

The renunciation of tariffs and trade controls is a form of betrayal by in-country elites who have capital to deploy outside the country against everyone else in the country. If a foreign country has lower wages, worse environmental standards, horribly unsafe or coerced labor conditions, this is a comparative advantage. It is a comparative advantage even within countries, mind you.

If I pay less, or I work my workers like dogs, or I dump effluent into rivers, or I don’t bother to pay for fire escapes and sprinklers, I have an advantage over anyone who does these things. The standard solution to this is to legally mandate that I must pay a decent wage, not dump effluent, and pay for a safe work space. If everyone is forced to do so, no one is at a disadvantage.

This can only be done if there is a legal mandate over a territory and an enforcement mechanism. That means, usually, it can only be done within a single country.

Anyone outside the country can betray and can do any of these noxious things which increase their productivity at the cost of the environment or the people.

The standard response to this is to say: “Sure, you can do that, but if you do, we’ll just add it to the price of any goods you sell to us.”

Free trade agreements take the ability to do that off the table and force roundabout methods (like currency manipulation) which don’t work as well and instead of earning a government income, cost the government money. Alternatively, though it costs money, one can subsidize one’s own industry, but most free trade agreements make that illegal as well.

Free trade is harmful to the economy of nations. It is also not necessary for industrialization–rather, the reverse is true. Every nation larger than a city-state, other than Russia, has industrialized behind trade barriers of some kind and that includes the United States, Japan, Britain, and China. (There is an argument that mercantilism requires one party to have trade barriers and another party to have no barriers. However, a country with full employment can allow free trade for things it doesn’t produce itself, thus allowing foreign mercantilism.)

As long as the capital of a country is deployed within that country and the country has some access to markets, protected trade works. Sub-Saharan African countries had higher GDP growth in the 50s and 60s, under managed trade, than they did when their markets were forced open.

Often, the practical effect of free trade and free capital flows is to allow foreigners to buy out large parts of a nation’s economy, as when NAFTA was used to buy out Mexico’s major food producers. Foreign goods from other countries flood into whatever country is forced to, or agrees to, open its borders, destroying the local economy. This is most dangerous when food is involved. In Mexico, millions of farmers were forced off the land because of US subsidized agricultural products, post-NAFTA. African and Latin American countries forced their own farmers off the land so they could agglomerate agricultural land for cash crops, leading to food insufficiency, and because everyone was selling the same cash crops, they didn’t even get very much hard currency for it.

Once your country can’t feed itself, you are at the complete mercy of other countries and you have lost significant sovereignty–especially if you don’t generate sufficient hard currency to pay those who are selling you food (see Greece or Egypt).

Internal elites are often happy to sign destructive trade agreements because they win, even if their country loses. They get to skim off money from the loans, they are the ones who run the cash-crop farms, they are the ones who are able to sell whatever it is that foreigners want to buy, in exchange for hard currency.

If you want a country that’s self-sufficient and which is also heading towards economic prosperity, you must have elites and a population which do not want foreign luxuries, or who are at least willing to forgo them. When Korea was modernizing, foreign cigarettes, for example, were demonized. Every bit of foreign exchange was used not for luxuries, but to buy capital goods which could be bought only with hard currency. If your elites want a Mercedes-Benz, a vacation on the Riviera, a flat in London, to see shows on Broadway–if they want things which can only be bought in hard currency, they will sell you out and you will not industrialize or modernize. The tastes of the elites and the population must be for whatever your country produces or whatever can be bought in your currency from partners with whom you do not have a significant trade deficit.

None of this is to say that trade is always bad, it is important and necessary. But trade must always be managed. Just as you don’t want resource prices to increase your currency to the point where your manufactured products are uncompetitive (thus destroying your manufacturing base), you don’t want trade to destroy your sufficiency in food or to lock you into a low tier of production forever. Comparative advantage screams, “Do what you’re good at,” but if what you’re good at is growing soybeans, you may not want to do that for eternity. You may want to do what you’re not good at and get better at it. If Korea or Japan had taken Western economists’ advice, as Ha-Joon Chang has pointed out, they’d still be growing silk and rice, which is where they had an advantage, instead of making some of the best cars in the world, which is where the US had a comparative advantage.

No country can do everything and every country will need to trade for the resources it cannot obtain otherwise, but trade should be rationally managed so that a country has a manufacturing sector and enough self-sufficiency that it doesn’t absolutely require another country’s goods, if that can at all be avoided. (It can’t always, we don’t all have oil.) At the very least, a country should be as close to able to feed itself as possible, something which was long understood by statesmen as an absolute priority.

Internally, free trade is used to create betrayals. Trade deals do not allow environmental protections, do not allow high wages, and do not allow fair treatment of workers. Otherwise, you aren’t competitive and the usual remedies, like tariffs and subsidies, are not allowed by those same trade deals. This allows oligarchs in every country involved in the deal to put downward pressure on wages, regulations, benefits, and even standards of humane treatment, in the name of “competitiveness.”

A wise society, including a global society, takes certain types of behavior “off the table,” by just forbidding them. Absent that, they make it so that those who do such things are not rewarded. Fail to do either of these things and you find yourself in a race to the bottom.

Note, again, that this is in oligarchs’ best interest EVEN if their country loses. Greek oligarchs, post-crash, are doing just fine. African potentates walk away with multi-million dollar bank accounts even as their own citizens starve to death. Business owners want to push down wages and costs, no matter where they are. This devastates countries and even the citizenry of many of the winning countries (like the US), but it benefits the few a great deal in relative terms. They’d be better off, as a class, in absolute terms if they took this behaviour off the table, but they wouldn’t be as rich relative to everyone else, or as powerful, and they value that relative wealth and power more than absolute wealth and power. It isn’t enough that they win, their own populations must be poor and weak, too.

Free trade is a bad idea. Free capital flows are a worse idea. Managed trade is a good idea and slow capital flows are a better idea (there is no evidence that foreign capital develops countries, as an aside, see Ha-Joon Chang on that).

Free trade, as we practice it, is about our country’s elites betraying their own populations.

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2015 October 3
by Ian Welsh

When I was a young man, I spent a lot of time really sick, and in a pile of pain. It’s not an exaggeration to say I’ve spent days screaming. It’s one of the reasons I have so little tolerance for anyone who excuses torture, or for anyone who stands in the way of effective healthcare, including effective pain medication. This last week, I’ve had an outer ear infection, the first in my life, which, as it turns out, is remarkably painful. Not in the top five of my personal severe pain experiences, but definitely in the top ten.

(This is a re-publish of an article from June 2, 2011. Though I did spend much of the last 24 hours in pain. I am fine now. – Ian)

Of course, the walk-in clinic I went to today had a “even-if-you-are-on-the floor-screaming-covered-with-80-percent-burns-we-will-not-prescribe-so-much-as-a-Tylenol-2” policy. I didn’t even bother to ask. Fortunately, Canada allows some very mild OTC codeine (8 mg, combined with aspirin or acetaminophen, so the addicts can ignore those ingredients, and destroy their livers), so I have a bit of pain medication to take the very worst edge off.

Pain is one of the reasons I believe there is no such thing as a personally-interested, omnipotent benevolent God, because what I know about pain is this: You can experience titanic levels of pain for far longer than you can experience the same level of pleasures. The idea that pain is entirely adaptive is laughable, because pain very quickly gets to the point of incapacitation, and someone who’s incapacitated can’t help themselves.

Anyway, when I was around 25 or so, I wrote down the following aphorisms about pain:

No matter how much pain you are in it can always get worse.

Pain comes in infinite varieties; each type is different.

All other things being equal, mental pain is worse than physical.

The human capacity for pain is infinitely greater than the human capacity for pleasure.

Despite having spent days screaming, I have to say that it’s true that mental pain is worse. At a couple points I was on medicinal steroids, and for me, at least, medicinal steroids are the devil, as they cause brief bouts of insanity. I remember understanding the nature of infinity, in a very Cthuloid fashion (we aren’t just small, we are meaningless) and  knowing that it was literally knowledge I couldn’t live with. Existing with that knowledge was impossible. I would have to kill myself. Strangely enough, I “knew” that my understanding of infinity was caused by the drugs I was on, so I very sincerely promised that if I still remembered my understanding in 12 hours, I’d go get a knife.

Needless to say I don’t still understand infinity, and I avoid medicinal steroids whenever possible.

Then there’s the “pain can always get worse.” This isn’t, I think, actually true. There were a couple points where pain became it’s own anaesthetic. Of course, those levels of pain were at the point where IV morphine was having zero effect, so I guess it’s good.

Pain is also about caring. If you don’t care, pain doesn’t bother you. This is the pain/suffering divide, where you see folks hanging from hooks during religious ceremonies having a great old time. Wheeee! Narcotic pain meds work a bit like this.

Roughly narcotics work at three levels. At the first level you just don’t feel the pain. Maybe a bit of pressure or the occasional ticklishness, but no pain. At the next level, you’re in pain, but you don’t care. The level after that, you’re saying, “You sure you gave me morphine!?”

My most memorable occasion of “in pain but don’t care” was when I started getting muscle spasms. I had a staph infection in my sacroiliac joint (the hospital did not know this yet) and every time my muscles would spasm it’d hit the joint, and I’d scream. The spasms were maybe 5 minutes apart, so objectively, most of the time, I wasn’t in much pain.

The problem, of course, is that I spent the five minutes between spasms worrying about the next spasm, which was totally wrecking me. At the time, my father was visiting me, and watching me coming apart was wrecking him, too. I’d been in the hospital long enough that my stiff upper lip was looking pretty quivery. So he ran around trying to find someone to give me a shot of morphine or demerol. Nurses aren’t supposed to do that without a doctor’s order, and no doctors were available (strangely enough, in hospital wards, doctors are often very hard to find). Eventually he talked a nurse into doing it (and I am grateful to her to this day, since I know she had to justify it later) and I got the shot.

Didn’t make any difference to the actual pain. Every five minutes, bang, the muscle would spasm and I’d scream. But in the time between, I didn’t worry about the pain that was coming up; instead, I was chatting and joking with my dad. Pain and suffering, not the same thing, and I can say that my Dad was suffering a lot less too.

Infinite varieties of pain: Yup. The pain of muscle spasms on a joint inflated with infected fluid is entirely different from the pain of your own body eating the large intestine from the inside out, which is entirely different from the feeling of the small intestine being infected and swelling up so that every time you breath it hurts and you get a wave of nausea.

Oh, and nausea? Worse than pain, in general. Short of knocking you out, there are no good cures for nausea. There came a point in that hospital (and I was there three months) at which my liver decided that everything was an evil foreign object.  Everything. So every four hours, when they’d give me my antibiotics, about ten minutes later, I’d get to dry heave for five to ten minutes. Every four hours, for a couple weeks. Fun.

But I can’t really write this essay without coming to the real problem with pain management. You see, I went in with ulcerative colitis, a disease where your immune system decides that the large intestine is the enemy and needs to be destroyed with extreme prejudice. This involves a lot of bloody diarrhea and a lot of pain–but on the plus side, makes you look positively tuburcular. First time in my life, women were flocking around me. Too bad agony makes one uninterested.

So anyway, I went in and I kept getting worse. A week into my stay, my Gastro (Dr. Kempston) went on holiday. A week after that, I wouldn’t let the nurses so much as touch me. This caused one of the nurses to think, “This may be bad,” and she called in the doctors around midnight on Sunday. They cut me open and discovered out I had late stage appendicitis (as in a couple days from bursting), as well as ulcerative colitis.  So they took that out, along with my large intestine.

Leaving aside certain logistical issues, this is all good. My large intestine hadn’t been doing much for me that didn’t involve, oh, agony, for a couple years. I wound up back in a ward, and my recovery was on.

But there were a couple complicating factors: (1) During those two weeks, I got an infected IV site; (2) I’d been on hard-core immune suppressants for about a month, so it’s safe to say that I didn’t have an immune system. Plus, I’ve had this pain in my sacreal illeac joint (it’s in the lower back). Apparently that’s kind of normal, but what’s wasn’t normal is that the pain I was getting from it was absolutely crippling.  As in, “I can’t even push myself up in bed” crippling, as in, “Every time I am moved, I scream, a lot.” Crippling.

The surgeon then decided, in his infinite wisdom, that because he’d never heard of such a thing in all his years, that I must have been lying in order to get pain meds.

My back doctor didn’t agree. I had no family doctor. What ended up happening was that, every night around 8pm, the surgeon would swing by and say, “You’re a malingering little shit who should be outside running around,” and took me off morphine and onto some oral codeine. Around 8am in the morning, my back doctor would swing by and say, “Now, I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but I’m pretty sure you’re not faking, so I’ll put you back on.” Which meant that I spent half the day without pain meds, and the other half of the day dreading being cut off.

Fun.  Fun.  Fun.

This went on for some time (I’m a bit hazy, but I think it was a little over a week). I was nauseous, in pain, losing weight and muscle tone, and they couldn’t figure out what was wrong. The surgeon kept saying, “That’s because nothing’s wrong. He’s a little drug addict who is faking it! Hell, we should kick him out the door!” The nurses on the ward were divided into two groups, depending on whether they believed me and the back doctor, or if they believed the surgeon (who is apparently a great surgeon who has invented procedures!).

Finally, Dr. Kempston walked in, just swinging by, completely unaware of what was going on. He asked me how I was doing. It still embarasses me to this day, but I broke down. Much weeping ensued, along with the relating story.

Dr. Kempston went to the nurse’s station, and wrote in my file, “I will be acting as Ian’s family doctor. If his pain meds are changed, any time of day or night, I am to be called, and I will change them back.”

You could hear the gauntlet falling all the way down  in the basement. Because if Kempston were wrong, if I was playing him, if I was just trying to get morphine, well, he was about to lose a ton of face. This was what the back doctor wasn’t willing to do, take on the famous surgeon, publicly.

I’d die for Kempston. I mean that totally seriously. If somebody was about to shoot the man, I’d step in front of the bullet without any hesitation and count my life well spent. Hell, I’d be grateful for the opportunity.

Anyway, they figured out what was wrong: a staph infection in my sacroiliac joint. That didn’t bring an end to the surgeon’s suspicions, so later we had a case where every time I breathed in, I felt pain and nausea on my left side. Kempston kicked the pain meds back up. Everyone on the floor knew that if they didn’t find what it was, Kempston would be in a world of hurt.

A couple days later, the test results came in. I had an infection right where it would have to be to cause the symptoms I described. The surgeon crawled in, said some weak stuff about me getting some more surgery in a year, and I didn’t see him again, except in passing.

I spent three months in that hospital.  At one point, I was using a walker (my father and I had lots to joke about when he started suffering from the effects of old age). When I left the hospital, I was about 90lbs. I had a huge bushy beard.  I looked like Jesus come in from the desert. I took myself to a hotel, of course they are freaked out, and I had to put down a $1K depsosit on $50 room, and room service demanded cash up front. (That ended the second my father rolled back into town. The staff then tiptoed around me for the next two days, scared not that I was made of glass, but that they were.) It took me years to recover, though, really, I never have. The easy good health and athleticism I had before is gone and gone forever.

But what I remember is not just that surgeon denying me pain meds due to paranoia and megalomania (he is a great surgeon, so I should have been cured and out of the hospital already and my not being so was an insult to him), and all the other people who didn’t stand up to him, who didn’t stop him, but the one man who did.

And so I’ve always known, since then, that some good people exist. There aren’t  very many of them, most people are chickenshit–too weak to be good or even truly bad, but they do exist. And I know the price that one good man paid; I heard him talk about his daughter, who he hardly ever saw, because he put his patients first, and I saw the regret he had.  And that he understood that when someone was screaming in pain, crying brokenheartedly, or puking up blood, you know what? They come first. And no, you can’t just assume someone else will do it if you won’t, because most people are weak, and most people won’t do it, when push comes to shove.

So when I think about pain, I think about Kempston. I don’t know if he’s the greatest man I ever met, probably not, but I am more grateful to him than anyone else who has ever come into my life.

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How Harper and the Conservatives Broke the Canadian Economy

2015 October 2
by Ian Welsh

The Canadian economy, since about 1890 or so, ran as follows.

  • When commodity prices were low, we sold manufactured goods to the rest of the world and subsidized commodity producers so they weren’t wiped out.
  • When commodity prices were high, we relied on selling them, and we subsidized manufacturers so they wouldn’t go out of business.

A manufacturer who responds to a lower Canadian dollar by increasing production increases their costs. That means that when the dollar rises, their cost structure is too high for them to survive if they are not subsidized.

There are lots of ways to subsidize manufacturers, including directly, through tariffs, currency manipulation, and so on.

Commodity production doesn’t require as much subsidy, with some exceptions. There are projects which cannot easily restart, and primary processing (canning, pulp and paper mills, lumber mills, refineries, etc.) can have significant start time requirements. This means you don’t want them to go out of business. Fewer employees, with the government supporting the out-of-work employees is fine. Actual loss of capacity is not.

Meanwhile, unemployment insurance (now called EI) is generous to whichever part of the country is in recession due to the commodity price cycle, so people don’t leave and go to the high cost area unless there are actually jobs, while the areas with lots of jobs are less generous so that people who aren’t employable there even in good times are encouraged to go to places with lower costs of living.

This is a fairly simple balancing act, though it can be complicated in detail. It has been made more complicated by restrictive “trade” deals which outlaw many types of subsidies, but it is essential to ANY country with a large resource sector which also wants to have a significant manufacturing sector.

Harper ended this. He did not properly subsidize manufacturing. Those manufacturers who, during the last period of a low Canadian dollar, expanded production, were wiped out. This is bad not just because they were wiped out, but because it means current manufacturers know they shouldn’t expand if it increases structural costs during this drop in the Canadian dollar, because if they do, when the dollar rises again (and it will), they too will be wiped out.

Harper has managed, thus, to eliminate much of the stimulative affect of a low Canadian dollar on manufacturing.  Genius.

Also, being, in ideological terms, an American-style “conservative,” he used their methods for artificially inflating an economy: He encouraged a housing and stock market boom. Canada’s housing bubble did not burst in 2007/8, due to concerted government action. (We basically guarantee almost all mortgages.)

Such financial games create fake growth–they are based on increasing asset prices un-anchored to actual productive increases or income increases, and transfer money from the young to the old and the poor to the rich.

They work for a time, much as stimulants work on the human body, then the user crashes. The longer one stays stimulated, the worse the damage, and long-term abuse can destroy a person or country.

I should point out (as MFI noted to me privately) that the Canadian Conservative party is actually a radical party of the right. Conservatives preserve the old; the mixed economy strategy was over one hundred years old, and had worked during that time to make and keep Canada one of the most prosperous countries in the world.

Only a moron, and a radical, ends a successful strategy that has not yet failed nor showed signs of failing.

This is the self-inflicted tragedy afflicting Canada today. Let us hope that the Conservatives are not re-elected (due to our first-past-the-post system).

We accept Democracy because it creates legitimacy. It is a way of saying, “That was fair, even if I don’t agree.” This does not meant that democratic methods always produce optimal or even good results. Canada, Britain, and Australia are all discovering this, as are many other countries.

There are many reasons for this, but in the next post, I will discuss is how constituencies for policies and parties really work.

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It’s Almost as if the Pope Is Catholic

2015 September 25

Yea, verily.

40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:

42 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:

43 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.

44 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?

45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

So. The Pope told Congress to welcome immigrants, house the homeless, feed the poor, and stop selling weapons to murderous regimes.

It is almost as if he is Catholic.

Now I’m not Catholic, or even Christian, but I had the standard Sunday school upbringing and I’ve read both the the New and Old Testament.

Reading both is a good way to leave yourself with a lot of sympathy for the Gnostic types who believed there was no way the God of the Old Testament (bash out their brains) could be the same guy that Jesus was talking about.

Because I don’t believe that God made sure the Bible is inerrant (I know just a little too much about early church politics), I tend to concentrate on the parts that seem closest to what Jesus actually said.

Perhaps, like many, I read in what I want to see. But I think it’s minimal, because I got imprinted young. It’s more likely that reading about Jesus as a child formed my opinions of right conduct than the other way around.

It seems to me that what Jesus was most concerned with, in terms of the way to treat other people, is summed up pretty well by the Sermon on the Mount, the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would they do unto you), and the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

It’s always seemed to me that it’s better to be a good Samaritan (a non-believer who is kind to those in need), than to be a Pharisee, obsessed with the rules, but not kind in action.

Francis isn’t a radical Pope. He hasn’t said abortion is ok, or even birth control, or homosexuality. He’s pretty doctrinaire.  What he has done is shift emphasis to the issues Jesus spent more time talking about, and extended those issues to modern concerns like climate change.

A good person, according to the Sermon of the Mount, can’t be a climate denialist, let alone be funding climate denialism.  The people who are going to suffer the most from the climate crisis are “the least of these.”

To put it crudely, if you make climate refugees homeless, you’re making Jesus homeless. Those who die, well, you just killed a lot of Jesus.

When you lock people up in solitary confinement, you are locking Jesus up in solitary confinement.

When you torture someone, you’re torturing Jesus.

When you rape someone, yup, Jesus.

But when you feed someone who would have gone hungry, yes, you’re feeding Jesus.

When you give a refugee a home, you’re giving Jesus a home.

This is a powerful, and simple message. Everyone was made in the image of God. Everyone is God’s child. What you do to them, you do to Jesus, God’s only begotten son.

The holy, sacralized life, is one where you see God in other people, in the environment, and so on. Everything you see is God’s work. To mistreat it is to disrespect God. To mistreat God’s children is to mistreat Jesus.

We have had a number of Popes who a harsh, judgmental man might consider virtual Pharisees themselves. Picking no bones with church doctrine (though I might another day), emphasis matters.

Benedict, as Ratzinger, oversaw the destruction of liberation theology. This is how he made his bones, taking hope away from those who needed it most in the Latin American world. Depriving them of much of the powerful ideological, theological, and practical support of the church.

As you do unto these, the least of my children…

I suspect a result of the dismantling of liberation theology and its practitioners has paved the way for Evangelicals to make vast inroads into parts of Latin America, while the church can’t fill its ranks.

Young idealistic men, the sort of people you want as priests, don’t seem to want to be in the church.

My approval is unimportant, but I do approve of this Pope, despite the fact that I certainly disagree with him on many issues. Kindness is always admirable. Forgiveness is at the heart of the Church, and Francis has moved towards that. Yes, the Church disapproves of abortion, divorce, and so on, but Francis, step-by-step, is turning those back into sins which are much more easily forgivable.

We all sin. We all do wrong. What sins the Church, as God’s voice on earth considers more serious, as cause for being cut off from the sacraments, tells you what the Church thinks is most important.

It is here that I suggest one watch Francis’s efforts most closely, because it is here that will tell you what he most believes.  He probably won’t change Church doctrine (some deny he can, that’s not an argument I care to get into today, especially as I’m hardly an expert on the Catholic church), but he can change its emphasis significantly.

Is abortion more important than war, homelessness, or the murder of the already born?

These issues, and how they are handled, will be the truest guide to Francis’s own soul, and for those who believe in the Catholic church and its version of God, they will matter greatly.

So, I pray for Francis. Under his care, may Catholicism come to treat Jesus far better than it often has in the past. And in so doing, may many lives be blessed with the kindness and love that should be at the heart of any religion’s teaching.

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David Cameron and a Dead Pig

2015 September 21
by Ian Welsh

The allegation has been made that British Prime Minister Cameron put his privates in the mouth of a dead pig. Given how strict British libel laws are, this may well be the case.

I don’t have much to say about the content of the accusation, but it’s a good opportunity to talk about PR and damage control.

Tory PR people and friendly media should do two things and two things only.

One: Put out two explanations, meant for friendlies. The first is the “youthful hijinks” line. The second is the “It didn’t really happen” routine—not credible.

Do this for two days maximum.

Then do the second thing: Shut up. This isn’t, as people say, a conversation you want to have. No fuel. No engagement. No comment.

And, well, maybe a third thing: Advance parties should be on the watch for protesters dressed as pigs, with pictures of pigs, etc. There’s nothing they’re going to be able to do about the odd pig squeal sound, I’m afraid, that’s just going to be part of Cameron’s life, for however long that life may be.

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Syriza Wins Re-election

2015 September 20
by Ian Welsh

Granted, there seems to have been a reduction in turnout and the Greek electoral system appears to vastly and disproportionately reward MPs to the largest party, I can only construe this result as Greeks saying that they are basically ok with how Syriza handled negotiations and with the current “reforms.”

Congratulations to Tsipras.

“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

– H.L. Mencken

(Update: It appears 780K people who voted in the last election did not vote in this electionThat is more voters than all but the first two parties receivedOnly the Centrist Union and PASOK did not lose votes this election compared to last.)