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Your Responsibility for the American Election

2016 November 6
by Ian Welsh
Image by [rom]

My friends, and the people who read me because they love to hate me:

There are a few hundred people in America who have noticeable individual influence over America’s elections and political system.

You aren’t one of them.

Responsibility is proportionate to power. As an individual American, your individual responsibility is miniscule.

It’s not your fault.

Now, as a group, Americans have great responsibility; Americans are responsible for America.

Americans are responsible, but most individuals have so little responsibility that they might as well have none.

I bring this up because I am seeing people in vast amounts of stress, guilt, anger, and fear over the election.


Also, even if you think that a particular result will be bad for you personally, the same rule applies: There is so little you can do about it, worrying about it is worrying about something over which you have no control.

This, my friends and haters, is a great way to be fantastically unhappy all the time.

Now, it’s easier said than done to stop a lifetime of worrying about stuff you can’t control, but the first step is understanding the pointlessness of it.

The food is still good, the world still holds plenty of beauty, and there is still happiness to be found.

But not if you are tying yourself in knots of guilt or worry over events over which you have no control.

Go do something nice for yourself, or someone else (doing something nice for someone else is one of the best things you can do for yourself), and let it all go.

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Before the Election

2016 November 5
by Ian Welsh

So, here we are again, the world’s hegemonic power is about to elect the most powerful person in the world.

All possibly good candidates having been eliminated (as usual) or having minuscule third-party support, we wait to see who will have the world’s best military blowing stuff up at their beck and call.

On the one hand, we have a man who’s personal and business practices have been dubious at best, vile at worst. On the other hand we have a woman who firmly agrees with elite consensus, and who sits firmly with the most violent of the hawks, believing it’s always better to do something, rather than not bomb people.

There’s no question Clinton is corrupt, and there’s no question that Trump has played the system in pretty vile ways, by not paying people who did work for him, and so on. I certainly believe him when he says he has bought politicians.

Neither of them is a prize. We know exactly what Clinton will be like, she confirmed in Libya that Iraq was 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?

The polls say Clinton, but the polls have been wrong before, especially when dealing with populist issues (a.k.a. Brexit), so I’m not going to make the mistake I made with Brexit and assume that she’s got it.

We’ll see. Whatever happens, it will be a show. An ugly tragic show, full of dismembered bodies and needless suffering, but that’s what Americans want: Both the primary voters of each party and American voters as a group.

The rest of the world, not yet having the power to stop American rampages, will do what the weak always do, which is suffer whatever the powerful want to do.

This show is coming to an end, for a variety of reasons, but it will be an election or two yet, before the full millenial “God, we’re broke and fucked” wave hits. Until then, grab some popcorn and whiskey, sit back, and hope that you and yours aren’t hit by the shrapnel.

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Saudi Arabian Debt Will Not Be Among Safest in World

2016 November 4
by Ian Welsh

Saudi Arabia is issuing 5, 10 and 30 year bonds.

The debt will be among the most secure in the world given the country’s strong balance sheet, net foreign assets, and ~$13 trillion worth of proven oil reserves.

On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia is set to issue its first wave of sovereign debt to foreign investors. The measure, first announced last November, is being offered in response to a historically severe compression and enduring slump in oil prices that has squeezed the nation’s fiscal budget. Accessing the debt markets can help mitigate short-term fiscal pressure and provide financing during a necessary bridge period to a more diversified economy.

Well, the five and ten years are safe enough.

Saudi Arabia’s problems are both inevitable, and caused by the new generation of leadership’s stupidity. Remember, Saudi Arabia, seeking to destroy the US fracking industry, is the one who broke the back of oil prices in the first place.

That said, the prices had nowhere to go but down anyway. The world is in a wave of austerity and options which avoid the use of oil are coming online. Somewhere in the early 2020s, electrical cars will be as cheap as gasoline cars.

Game over.

As for the bonds, Saudi Arabia isn’t going to “bridge to a more diversified economy.” Not going to happen. They simply import too much, and do not have enough domestic producers capable of replacing imports and creating new work. Nor are those conditions easy for them to create when their currency value is almost entirely based on vast volumes of resources, which means it isn’t providing the necessary feedback (low, low) to make production in the country viable.

Saudi Arabians have a joke: “My grandfather rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes. My grandson will ride a camel.”

Correct, in essence.

On the bright side, once they’re broke, the money flooding out to promote their particular take on Islam will subside to a dribble.

I expect economic collapse and civil war in Saudi Arabia. Within 20 years.

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Stopping Violent International Aggression

2016 November 2
by Ian Welsh

We need to clear up some fundamental thinking.

US politicians and foreign policy groupniks spew about how Putin is the next Hitler and must be stopped.

The implication here is that Putin will keep doing bad things if he isn’t forced to not do them.

What are the bad things that Putin’s Russia has done?

Put down an uprising in Chechnya, through mass killing, and with the justification of a likely false-flag attack. Note that Chechnya was, and is, part of Russia. This was a domestic operation.

Attacked Georgia over a couple of provinces which were majority ethnic Russian, and (sotto voce) because Georgia was talking about joining NATO.

Annexed Crimea, the majority of whose population wanted to join them. (There was a referendum in the 80s, which got the same results as the most recent referendum.)

Interfered in the Eastern Ukraine, which is majority ethnic Russian.

All of this happening after a coup, run by neo-Nazis and supported by the West, which would likely have (drumroll) lead to the Ukraine joining NATO.

Bombing the hell out of parts of Syria in rebellion against the Syrian government after being invited in by Syria. Russia has been Syria’s ally for decades and has interests there. Russia regrets allowing a no-fly zone over Libya after being assured by Clinton herself that it would not be used for regime change.

Now, what has the US done over the same span of time?

Invaded Afghanistan after the Taliban said they would turn over OBL if evidence was given to them that he was behind 9/11. You may not believe them, but the US did not even attempt to give that evidence. The US is still there, fifteen  years later, occupying a foreign country. (Yes, occupying, the Kabul government would fall if the US left, and we all know it.)

Invaded Iraq, which had done nothing to the US and was no threat to it, on the basis of lies (including that it was behind 9/11). Occupied it for years, and essentially destroyed it as a modern secular country (this after having subjected it to a bombing campaign in the 90s, which, among other things, targeted civilian sewer systems, then subjected it to punishing sanctions which restricted basic medicines and probably caused the deaths of half a million children, as well as many more deaths amongst adults).

Supported an attack on Libya which wound up destroying that country and leaving it in anarchy.

Supported the destruction of Syria, which has led to millions fleeing that country. The likely next US President wanted a no fly zone. This is, essentially, an explicit alliance with at least one al-Qaeda affiliate.

Meanwhile, the US runs a nearly worldwide drone assassination program which has killed thousands and regularly hits weddings and funerals. It is widely acknowledged that this program often kills civilians, often targets “the wrong” people based on an algorithmic “Well, he’s probably a terrorist” calculations, and has even been used to kill an American citizen without due process. This program, lacking all respect for sovereignty or due process, is clearly terrorism by any definition which doesn’t say “The US can’t engage in terrorism.”

So. Russia has acted to: (1) prevent nations on its borders, many of whom have been part of Russia for centuries, from joining NATO, which it considers an existential threat; (2) put down a rebellion in its own territory, and; (3) aid a multi-decade ally who is in danger due to a US- and US ally-supported uprising (these allies include Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States).

The US has attacked three countries, only one of whom may have attacked it, all of which are half the world away. Two of them were clearly no threat to the US, and the third threat was questionable (and there were plans on the shelf to just go in, and take out OBL without occupying Afghanistan). The US kills people with impunity throughout the world, with little regard for civilian casualties, in countries it is not even at war with.

Who is the rogue state? Who needs to be stopped before they kill, and kill again?

One can disagree with much of what Russia has done (the unfettered bombing of Aleppo and the atrocities of Chechnya inparticular) and still say that the US is clearly a rogue nation, and the greater threat to world peace.

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Transcript of Peter Thiel’s Speech On Trump

2016 November 1
by Ian Welsh

This isn’t a crazy speech.

To the people who are used to influencing our choice of leaders, to the wealthy people who give money and the commentators who give reasons why, it all seems like a bad dream. Donors don’t want to find out how and why we got here. They just want to move on. Come November 9th, they hope everyone else will go back to business as usual.

read more…

On Comey

2016 October 31
by Ian Welsh

If “She’s not being investigated/charged any more” was in the public interest, then “She’s being investigated again due to new information” is also in the public interest.

Either Comey should never have commented, or he should have commented both times.

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On Wikileaks’ Actions in this Election

2016 October 26
by Ian Welsh
Julian Assange

The last post, a guest post by Mandos, about Wikileaks’ releases concerning Clinton, has spawned a lot of controversy in the comments.

All of which we both expected.

So here’s my quick take on Wikileaks:

First, (Removed, as may be inaccurate) (Edit 3:06pm Oct 28th: it appears Wikileaks only linked to the Turkish database of women, and did not release that information itself.)

Second, the information Wikileaks has released on the US election is germane to the election. It is information which it is in the interests of the public to know. I believe that it should have been released. I do not know if it came from Russia, the evidence is circumstantial at best, but I don’t care if it did or not. The information is real, not fake, and that is what matters.

In 2004, the New York Times knew about widespread spying on ordinary people by the Bush administration. They chose not to release that information because they didn’t want to sway the election. That information might have been the difference between Kerry or Bush winning, the election was that close.

That was vast journalistic malpractice. Journalism is about the public’s right to know, and that information was clearly information the public should have known when making its decision who to vote for. It was germane.

That Clinton is a corporate hack who is essentially on the side of bankers (which is one thing the leaks clearly show) is germane to the election. It matters.

Most information held from public view should not be. We keep far too much stuff that the public should know, private. The public needed to know just how sympathetic to bankers Clinton was right after the financial collapse.

That is, actually, journalism.

So, I don’t agree with everything Wikileaks has done, but I support what it has done in relation to the US election. I also believe Assange when he says that if he had information on Trump he would release that as well. I don’t think the source of the information is particularly important, IF the information is real, which it appears to be.

That many people view this through partisan lenses is understandable and expected. Since the leaks have been Clinton leaks, suddenly the Right supports Wikileaks and “the Left” is against them.

I supported Wikileaks when they were goring Bush and Republicans with “Collateral Murder” and I support them now when they are goring Clinton, because I support Wikileaks on the basis of the public’s right to know; if any information can help the public judge whether they support the governments they have elected or those they may elect in the future.

This is not a partisan issue for me. It is an issue of principles. Information is either in the public interest, or it is not. If it is, and I believe, in this instance, it is, then I support its release.

As for the politics, if Trump loses, that will be on political and personal merits which have little to do with Wikileaks. In this I agree with Mandos; in a normal election, the information in the leaks might have sunk Clinton, but it is insufficient in the face of Trump’s problems.

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(Guest Post) WikiLeaks: An Own Goal

2016 October 25
by Mandos



Whatever you feel about WikiLeaks and Assange himself, you must at least agree that his apparent strategy of getting involved in the US elections against Hillary Clinton has been remarkably tone-deaf. (And no, I’m not going to argue that any of the leaks are false. Why does that even matter?) If Clinton had been running against a more boring, vaguely mainstream-acceptable candidate, like even Ted Cruz, the email-release strategy that WikiLeaks is running might have done the couple of percentage points of damage to Clinton needed to prevent her victory.

Instead, Assange has ended up painting himself in everyone’s mind, forever, as the little pipsqueak rapist abetting the Big Daddy Rapist. (Again, as I roll my eyes heavenward, whether the Swedish rape charges are true is totally irrelevant for this discussion or any discussion like it. Also, forget Bill Clinton, even if he actually does have something to do with Hillary. Just. Forget. Him. And pull yourself together. Geez.) Trump, alas, is not merely someone with a skeleton or three in the closet. He’s someone who has made that skeleton into his standard, his brand, and the prospect of his election to the presidency is now actively dangerous to segments of the US population, simply (and that is very much enough!) in the sense that it provides a notional victory to some of US society’s worst and most hateful elements.

If Assange wanted to drop-kick Hillary Clinton, or stick a finger in the eye of the Democratic Party policy establishment, he should have found way to help make sure Trump did not win the Republican Party nomination. Perhaps he didn’t have the means. Perhaps he didn’t have a hold of this information when it might have been possible to make Sanders the nominee. What he has done, however, is ruin WikiLeaks credibility forever — because it matters, you know, that the organization absolutely refused to consider that the AKP leaks might have not been such a good idea, if they didn’t want to get tarred with sense that they didn’t care about women.

But in some ways, this outcome was predetermined. It’s typical of what I’ve been calling guns-and-butterism around these parts. So determined are some people to ignore what they think are the “unreal,” ephemeral parts of American politics, that they simply cannot see where it has a material effect on the (to them) “real” parts. At this point, at least, Clinton is now very likely to go into the Oval Office–not with grudging support, but with the enthusiastic backing of people who might otherwise have taken a more withholding stance.

If you followed the very real, indispensible logic of identity politics in the US, and if you realized that the gender issue wasn’t merely just voting because of matching genitals, but because these labels and their validation or rejection has real, material effects on people and the political landscape in which they are really immersed, then you would have predicted this outcome. WikiLeaks and, most likely, Assange did not. And they’ll regret it. One way or another.

Book Review: Zero to One, by Peter Thiel

2016 October 22

peter_thiel_2014A few weeks ago, for work related reasons, I had to bone up on Venture Capital. One of the books I read was Thiel’s “Zero to One.”

Recently, Thiel has become even more famous for bankrolling the lawsuit that put Gawker out of business and for his support of Trump. He’s a libertarian gay man.

Before this, Thiel was most famous for being one of the founders of Paypal, of Palantir (the “information” company), and for being one of the early investors in Facebook, which made him about a billion dollars.

He’s also a very smart man, and his book, which is about startups, is worth reading, even if you don’t agree with all of his politics or ideas.

Zero to One is based on the idea that there is doing more of the same (normal business), and there is creating something new. When you create a new way of doing things, that’s going from zero to one. Doing more of the same is additive, new stuff is what really grows the economy.

(This is, interestingly, exactly the same beat that Jane Jacobs tackled in “The Economy of Cities”, which I’ll be reviewing soon. Her answer was more fundamental than Thiel’s, and more important, but Thiel says things worth reading.)

Thiel thinks the key to creating something new is knowing something is true that most people think is not true.

Having a secret. You can use that secret, whether it is a scientific fact or a social one, to do something other people aren’t doing. Elon Musk’s secret at Tesla was to start with luxury cars, and use the demand of wealthy people to drive down market.

But Thiel’s big secret is one that is known to a lot of successful business people, but denied piously by most.

If you want to get stinking rich, if you want to create an important company, it helps to be a monopolist (or oligopolist). In a lot of markets, there’s one or a few big winners, and they take all the money. Google in search (and thus online ads), Microsoft in OS’s back in the 90s, Paypal in sending money online, Steam in online game distribution.

Opolies (a new word I just made up) make money hand over fist.

Thiel goes on a bit of a run here, trying to justify monopolies and oligopolies as good for society, noting that only rich companies can treat their employees and customers well; everyone else cuts wages and costs into the ground.

According to Thiel, opolies are good if they can be superseded, and if they exist because their product is genuinely better.

He then uses the example of Microsoft, which undermines his entire argument. Microsoft’s first operating system that really did well, MS DOS, was not better than other operating systems at the time. It rode to success of the back of a previous monopoly, that of IBM. There used to be a saying in the IT business: “No matter how big and standardized a computer market is, IBM can change it.”

IBM could have written an OS as good and almost certainly better than MS DOS, and when they did a little later on it was better. But they were under a lot of consent orders due to anti-trust laws, so they bought the rights to use MS-DOS (which Gates bought from someone else).

This was a big mistake. Gates outplayed IBM. But MS-DOS didn’t win because it was better, and Windows and Windows 95 were inferior to Apple OS’s at the time as well.

Gates won because he understood positive externalities and did everything he could to get the OS on as many systems as possible and reaped the positive externalities of doing so (and because of Microsoft Office, which is another discussion).

Monopolists and oligopolists, in fact, treat suppliers and customers and employees no better than they feel they must. Amazon is a notably nasty place to work. Silicon Valley colluded for years to not compete for engineers on pay, and so on. Monopolies and oligopolies look good when you have a regulatory environment where everyone is allowed to treat workers and customers terrible (a.k.a. neo-liberalism) and some of them can look good in comparison to the blood washing in the Agean Stables outside.

But enough of sweeping the bad side of monopolies under the rug. Thiel is right: If you want to get filthy rich, you want to create a company which seizes a huge chunk of a market, and you don’t want to compete on commodities. This has been known for a long time, it is the ugly step-child of market theory. Fair and competitive markets drive profits into the ground; companies that want to be profitable, especially for long, need an unfair competitive advantage.

This leads to another of Thiel’s secrets: The power law. A very few companies make almost all of the actual profits. A venture capitalist makes money not because of how most of his investments perform, but because a few perform very well. So, Y-Combinator, which helps startups and takes a small share, has made almost all of its money off two out of hundreds: Dropbox and AirBnB. Everything else, in terms of returns, is a wash, even if it made ten times returns.

Startups are lottery tickets to investors. Most of them won’t pay back enough to matter, but a few will, and it is almost impossible to tell which ones in advance (if you think it’s easy, get moving, and when you make your first billion, I expect you to give me nothing).

Still, Thiel thinks they have the best chance when they are based on some principles:

  • A strong view of the future
  • A small group of founders (no more than three) who really get along
  • An understanding that you are aiming to be an oligopoly or monopoly and plan to get one
  • Knowledge of something (a secret) that most other people don’t have
  • Knowledge of how you’re going to distribute and sell (basic, but his advice is sound)

Thiel is especially strong on having a plan, a view. He divides world-views into four types: Definite and indefinite optimists and definite and indefinite pessimists.

Definite means “having strong views of the future and a plan.” Thiel puts China into definite pessimists: They have a plan, they’re working on it, and they expect the future to suck.

Why? Because they are copying the West, mostly, and they know that every Chinese can’t live the American dream: There aren’t enough resources in the world, or enough sink for greenhouse gasses. But they aren’t sitting around, they’re doing what they can.

Americans in the post-war liberal period were definite optimists. The future was going to be great, and they had a plan to build it!

Thiel puts modern Americans into the indefinite optimist category (I think Millenials aren’t, however). They think the future will be swell, and have no idea how to get there. (The results are that are mostly bad, in Thiel’s view. I agree.)

And the Europeans are indefinite pessimists. The best is behind, their plan kinda sucks, and they expect the future to be worse. I’m not sure I agree–Eurocrats have a pretty definite plan, but it may well be true of Europeans more generally, and the business community in particular.

Thiel is strong in encouraging people to have a plan, to not treat themselves as lottery tickets, even if that’s how VC’s view founders.  Know what you’re doing and why.

Thiel ends with a macro look at the future. The ancients saw the world as up and down. Civilization rises and falls. We tend to look at the future and see a plateau. He thinks these two are now unlikely, that we’re either going to get to real sustained exponential growth (the abundance society), breaking the bonds of limited resources through technology, or we’re going to pretty much wipe ourselves out.

I can recommend Thiel’s book. It’s pretty good on startups and venture capital, his philosophy is basic but generally not stupid, and it’s an easy read. Perhaps more importantly, Thiel’s thinking appears to be pretty widespread in Silicon Valley and amongst tech elites in general. That doesn’t mean they all agree with the politics which have recently bought him infamy on the Left, but that his general philosophy resonates with them, and how he does business makes sense to them.

Given that these people do drive some of the most important parts of the world economy, understanding how they think is important.

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Because You All Come Here for My Taste in Music (Part 2)

2016 October 19
by Ian Welsh

Ah, the 80s.

(Part 1: Fiddle Music!)