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Steve Bannon In (and Out?) of Donald Trump’s Imperial Court

2017 April 14
by Ian Welsh

Steve Bannon

When I wrote about the Trump administration before it existed, I noted that the Trump administration would be an Emperor’s Court. Because Trump has few firm ideas of his own and is extremely easily influenced, the best courtiers would rule the roost and determine policy.

Steve Bannon, by current reports, is out of favor and may well be on his way out.

Coincidentally, Trump has missiled a Syrian airbase and dropped “the mother of all bombs.” Coincidentally, word is coming out of the White House that, hey, maybe NAFTA isn’t so bad. Coincidentally, China is no longer considered a currency manipulator.

When people started mocking Trump by calling Bannon president, I noted that it was an attack which might work, and word has also come out that Trump hated that.

Trump is defined by little more than vanity, and he puts family first.

And so Kushner and Ivanka, backed by the deep state and more traditional Republicans (of the “tax cuts and bomb foreigners” variety), have the upper hand.

There is no question that Bannon is a piece of work, but him losing so much influence is not an unmitigated good.  Bannon is a nativist.

He was the guy, along with Trump on the campaign trail, who wanted the Muslim ban, aye. But he also favored rewriting trade deals, hitting China on manufacturing (it is true that China no longer keeps its currency low, but they did for ages and it gutted US manufacturing), bringing those jobs back to America, improving relations with Russia, and, oh yeah, not getting involved in stupid Middle Eastern wars (aside from fighting ISIS).

The comment section of Breitbart, when Trump hit the Syrian airfield was nearly 100 percent dismayed–as much as the most fiercely anti-war leftists.

The practical result of Bannon’s disempowerment is that brown Americans and visitors would be treated better, and that’s good, but most of what Trump wanted to do that wasn’t Republican standard, for the good as well as bad, goes out with Bannon.

Trump is being trained, well. Firing missiles and dropping bombs has gotten him the best media coverage of his presidency so far.  The “serious people” love killing (the right) foreigners, and the foreign policy elite which was threatened by Trump/Bannon nativism is rushing to praise Donald.

Not coincidentally, I think that Trump and Republicans will suffer for it electorally.

This version of Trump might be as bad as Hillary on foreign affairs (remembers she called for the missile attack, and watch North Korea), and while he lacks her saving graces on social affairs, as Kushner and Ivanka gain influence, they may make Trump a lot better on social civil liberties.

Though very competent in his way, Bannon was never quite a Svengali (as with his fumbling of the immigration order), but he is the only person in the administration genuinely angry about what happened to the working and middle class in America, and how the financial crisis was handled by bailing out banks and fucking ordinary people.

If Bannon loses this fight completely, Trump will be little more than an overly capricious, yet standard, Republican President.

And, folks, Trump was never going to be Hitler and not improving relations with Russia is a disaster, whatever the propaganda machine may tell you. (And that Syria attack would not have happened if improving relations with Russia were still important.)

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Quick Hit: France Is Just a Giant Greece

2017 April 13
by Mandos


If you thought that France could elect a right- or left-wing populist and then dictate more favorable Eurozone terms in a manner qualitatively different from Greece, you should maybe hold off on making that judgement. Size ain’t everything: It’s the relative size of your interdependency that matters. And France is, to put it mildly, rather interdependent.

Seeing the rapid rise in popularity of a more left-wing alternative in the French presidential elections, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Olivier Blanchard (yes, that Olivier Blanchard) just published a fictional scenario of the first 100 days of a Mélenchon presidency. It’s in French in Le Nouvel Observateur, but there’s no need for me to translate it for you: It’s the summary of the instruction manual for Syrizifying France. It’s totally believable, starting with an absolute German rejection of Eurozone reform demands from Mélenchon, the intentional and perfectly designed Chinese finger trap of deliberate fiscal crisis will ensue. As the French are still not ready to accept mass immediate suffering for departing the Eurozone, Mélenchon will end up inevitably, not merely like Hollande, but like Tsipras. What Blanchard is telling you is that they’ve already charted out, in great detail, what to do to bring an anti-austerity French leader into line.

The heart of this problem resides in German politics. The German public was promised and continues to be promised that the goal of the Eurozone is to make orderly, competitive export-manufacturing economies out of Southern European Urlaubsländer (vacation countries), with the salutary side effect of costing the German taxpayer nothing (they think). A grand favour that can, in fact, only work if Germany pays (appears to pay) nothing for it.  Paying no transfer payments is the virtue, the moral soul, the charity in this deal. German politicians have invested too much in this illusion.

Or Blanchard could be wrong, and the French public is willing to endure the Chinese finger-trap. Merkel and Schäuble could have a change of heart? Again, my willingness to give the benefit of the doubt may be excessive.

(Scorn) So You Read It In the Newspaper

2017 April 11
by Ian Welsh
Picture of Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn

Commenter Mark From Ireland once relayed that, for an older generation, the idea that newspapers or the media were honest was greeted with scorn.

A study from last year found that in only 11 percent of newspaper articles were Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s views presented without alteration.

I hope you’re shocked by that number. It means that newspapers were lying about Corbyn’s views almost 90 percent of the time.

Cases like this are common, though rarely this extreme. When people talk about how the Fourth Estate is essential to the functioning of democracy, I laugh. A media which lies 89 percent of the time is worse than no media at all.

72 percent of Americans didn’t wind up thinking Iraq was behind 9/11 in the run up to the Iraq war because the media called out the Bush administration’s misleading statements, but because they amplified them.

The media has its own agenda. If it agrees with a politician, it will amplify his voice; if not it will attack savagely.  You can see this with Trump, in highlight. The media savaged Trump for his Muslim ban, but they cheered on his missile attack on a Syrian airbase.

Someone like Corbyn is far more of a threat to the powers that be than Trump could ever be. Corbyn wants to re-nationalize vast chunks of the British economy. Trains are a good example, and before you get on your privatization high-horse, the facts are simple: Privatized trains cost more, have higher debts, still require government subsidies and have worse service. They are more expensive and worse on all significant metrics.

Much like privatized medicine, which, by the way, has been proceeding under the Tories per the usual plan: De-fund public healthcare and invite in “private partners” to help. Richard Branson, for example, who bought and fucked up British trains, is involved in health care in the UK.

Corbyn also, as Mandos pointed out, doesn’t believe in bombing people.

Horrors, he is against using nuclear weapons and has said he would never do so.

This man is a serious goddamn threat to how things are done. My God! He wants to build huge amounts of council housing, so that ordinary people don’t have to pay usurious prices and service mortgages.

What would the UK economy be without peons servicing overpriced mortgages?

A UK economy with a lot less fat bankers, anyway.

So, if it is necessary to lie about Corbyn 89 percent of the time, well, that’s what the media will do. They are owned by a very few people, and they do what they’re told; and heck, at this point, most of them even believe in it.

As for Trump, I disagree with a great deal of his platform, but notice that he is being rewarded when he sticks to the Washington consensus (massively favorable media coverage for going after Assad) and gets negative coverage when he acts against it.

You may think that the Washington consensus is better than Trump on some things, and worse on others, and still notice what is happening and judge it to be a negative that the media and deep state (who are together on this) are working so hard to stop a President doing what he was elected to do.

The media campaign against Corbyn has worked. I judge this not by the poll numbers, though they are bad, but by the fact that “casual left wingers” think he’s a dud. Whenever I interrogate them, their reasons are weak, even wrong, but for a normal consumer of news who isn’t digging, who assumes that the news is essentially correct, the impression is terrible. It’s one fuck up after another.

For example, a little while ago Corbyn released his taxes and the coverage was that he had cheated.

He hadn’t. Some outlets corrected those stories (which no one sees) and most didn’t, and the damage was done.

Lie. Lie. Lie.

And so a man whose policies would cost billionaires massively, who would fund health care, and give wheelchairs back to cripples, is unpopular in the face of someone as monumentally as incompetent and vile as May.

Break them up. Shatter them into a thousand pieces. Enforce ownership rules. Make many of them into cooperatives. And drive their owners into the ocean, wailing in terror. It is what they have earned.

And it will be nearly impossible to have a good society so long as they retain their power.

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Syria and the Cult of the Tough Decision

2017 April 8
by Mandos


The chances were always high that regardless of who was elected, Trump or Clinton, there would be some kind of American attack in Syria.  However, the chances were always higher with Trump than Clinton. Yes, you read that right: It was always a lot more likely that Trump would attack Syria than Clinton would. The reason for this is that Clinton took a more hawkish position on Syria before the election. Trump took a right-populist position of focusing on domestic politics and telegraphed a Russia-friendlier course. This more or less convinced me that he was going to attack Syria at some point. Likely, Clinton would have too — but with Trump it was basically inevitable.

Running a complex industrial and military power requires a highly technical bureaucracy. That bureaucracy therefore has an ultimate veto on what is possible to accomplish that is necessarily beyond democracy. That bureaucracy has made it clear that it won’t implement policies by people it doesn’t consider to be “serious.”  The hallmark of seriousness is the ability to make the Tough Decision.


The complaint by the technocratic class against what it denigrates as “populism” is — among other things — that populism is ultimately the rejection of the Tough Decision. Left-wing populism holds that there are a lot of win-win situations where the benefits to (most) stakeholders far outweigh the costs of participation. Right-wing populism does not believe in win-win propositions, but rather that in a win-lose situation it is effortless to identify who should be on the losing side of the equation and to practically shove the loss onto them. Either way, left- and right-wing populism deny the centrality of the Tough Decision in leadership.

Clinton ran as the anti-populist candidate, presenting herself as the one who would preserve an already-great America through her ability to make Tough Decisions that distributed costs in a way that her supporters wouldn’t always like. Trump ran as a right-wing populist, explicitly riding on the feeling that there were designated “winners” who weren’t winning and designated “losers” who weren’t losing, and proposing solutions whereby this state of affairs could be effortlessly corrected. Insofar as he has attempted to make good on this aspect of this program in a public way, the system has acted against him, because all of the other entities, and that includes the House “Freedom” Caucus, believes in the Tough Decision.

Foreign policy is always the domain in which the right-wing populist can most easily exercise the Tough Decision and win back some loyalty from the managerial class. That is because, in the short run, breaking a promise on a foreign policy or military point is often the one that is lowest-cost to his principal support base. By attacking Syria, Trump proves that he can make a Tough Decision and that he can be “brought to reason” by the policy elite. Clinton would not have had to do this so soon, at least, and would thus have had the confidence of the policy elite that she would “push the button” but would merely be holding off until a strategically more optimal moment. The policy elite seems to have been afraid that Trump would never push the button. That concern has been proven unjust.

The cult of the Tough Decision is killing the world. It is not merely a fetish of a generation of technocrats but deeply engrained into the psychological structure of our society. It stems from a couple of inoffensive common-sense pillars:

  1. There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch
  2. You Can’t Have Your Cake and Eat It Too

Both of these are narrowly true. Every “free” lunch requires at least some effort to go and obtain it. (1) is merely a recognition that all things have an up-front energy cost. (2) is merely a recognition that once you’ve made a choice, the world changes such that the very same choice is not available a second time in its exact original form. In present-day psychology, we exaggerate these to mean that not merely is there an up-front cost to everything, but it is highly likely that most up-front costs outweigh the benefits — and that there are no win-win situations, because the up-front cost of most choices must result in a major stakeholder losing out.

This exaggeration of common-sense wisdom has come in its most exaggerated form of the fetishization of abstract intellectual exercises from economics and game theory. These exercises are concentrated in the political and managerial elite, but they are constantly reflected in popular discourse and media culture. It is propagated by often very well-intentioned people who would like to make the world better.

Its results are particularly damaging to left-wing populism, because left-wing populism is founded on the existence of low-cost, self-replenishing free lunches — repeated win-win situations. (As opposed to, as I said, right-wing populism, which rejects either the low-cost or the self-replenishing part.) The existence of these free lunches probably sounds like an absurdity even to readers here. Admittedly, they seem to be vanishing quickly, but they are not all gone. Single-payer universal health care in a developed country is one of these free lunches, where the principal payers of the monopsony cost (medical services providers of various sorts, including large organizations) can afford the cost without true suffering.

In a twist of fate, Trump was one of the popular purveyors of the Cult of the Tough Decision in his reality show career. Reality TV, of the “voting off the island” genre, is all about making someone cry in public as a designated loser, and then self-back-patting that it was a responsible or necessary or realistic choice. It is a genre that is emblematic of our era. So it should surprise no one that Trump returns to the ontology of public action that worked out so well for him.

Trump Fires Missiles on Syrian Airbase

2017 April 7
by Ian Welsh

Sigh. This is not smart. Let us hope it does not escalate. The administration has said it is a “one-off,” but if any allegation of chemical attacks can cause the US to strike, there will be more chemical attacks.

Of course, many people usually critical of Trump are now “rallying around.” Nothing like blood to get Americans to support a President.

Syria is not a good place to be playing games, given that Russia is already there. (An agreement on coordinating flights between the US and Russia has been cancelled by the Russians.)

That Trump is getting really good media on this, especially on TV, is particularly bad. Trump craves approval, and he is being trained, right now, to be violent. The consequences of this are potentially catastrophic.

Update: No, this is not about Trump being worse than Clinton on this issue.

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Does Everyone Always Act in Their Self-Interest?

2017 April 5
by Ian Welsh

The statement that people always act in their self interest is one of the two main axioms at the heart of the modern democratic-capitalist order.

Let’s take a pure form denial by counter-example.

Kamikazee pilots. They volunteer to die for their country by crashing their planes into ships, then do so.

Death is rarely in someone’s interest unless life is worse. This appears to be altruism, or loyalty, or honor or something other than self-interest.

The counter-argument is, “If they do such a thing, it has to be in their perceived self-interest; that Kamikazee pilot couldn’t prefer to die than not be a Kamikazee pilot, therefore it was in his self-interest to die.” Various special explanations may be given, such as social coercion, benefit to his family, identification with Japan so extreme that he made Japan’s self interest his own self-interest, but they all boil down to

“If you do it, you must perceive it as being in your self-interest, and if you perceive it as being in your self-interest, it is.”

Self-interest, so defined, means that you can do something which makes you poorer, less healthy, less happy, and less wealthy–something which makes you worse off in every way, and say, in your defense: “But it was in my self-interest.”

Have you ever done something without thinking, then realized, “Oh shit”?

Have you ever done something you knew would get you in trouble, but you felt it was moral?

Have you ever done something to help someone else at cost to yourself, and told neither them, nor anyone else?

Have you ever… but why bother. In each case, the counter-argument will be something like, “But you did it because you wanted to! You feel you’re a better person now! That’s your reward and your self-interest!”

But it explains nothing.

It means “People don’t do things without a reason,” but even that is only true in the sense that all “events have a cause.” We often do things by habit. We often do things that–even as we do them–we know we will regret, because we cannot control ourselves. We often do things under coercion or fear, and only a fool pretends these are choices in any sense that matters (“Well, I can be beaten or tortured or raped, or do as the big man with a gun says).”

I mean, yes, it’s in your self-interest to do what the gangsters tell you to do.

Sort of. And it’s in your interest to have a shitty job at less-than-minimum wage when the other option is starvation.

But are these most usefully explained as actions in self-interest? Does self-interest mean anything when it explains everything? I think it’s a rare person who refuses to admit to having done things against their own self-interest, and even to having known it as they were doing it.

People have many reasons for doing what they do. Self-interest, if it is so nebulous a concept as to mean “whatever you do is in your self-interest” is actually so nebulous as to have no explanatory power.

If you want to get people to do something due to fear, say so: “We’ll scare them into doing it.”

If you want them to do it due to patriotism, say that. If you intend to coerce them, say that: “If they don’t, we’ll throw them in jail.” If you want them to do it because it’s the kind thing to do, say “We’ll appeal to their kindness.”

Now it’s true that there are lots of category errors. You can think you’re appealing to kindness and really be appealing to self-image, or to social ties (“People will despise me if I don’t and like me if I do,” etc.). You can appeal to reciprocity. You can even appeal to pure altruism or pure tribalism.

And you can admit that there may be a mix of motives, including self-interest, without boiling everything down to self-interest.

The writer Robert A. Heinlein was much affected by the following scene: A woman became trapped in train tracks as a train was barreling down on her. Her husband stayed to help, but a bum also rushed forward to try to help. Neither man fled, and the train killed all three of them.

Only the most specious of explanations can state that the bum was acting in self-interest. He gave up everything for a woman he did not know. Only the happenstance that a future famous author was watching means his sacrifice is remembered, and even so, his name was not known.

Our concepts of human nature predict our policies. Self-interest as a foundation stone of human nature means that we create our societies around self-interest. And that does not work. Doctors who are not paid based on how many tests or procedures they order, order less tests and procedures and that amounts to better care as tests and procedures (especially surgical procedures) are not risk-free–and because cheaper alternatives often give better results.

When you engineer society to emphasize one thing, when you say it is how everyone acts, people hear, “This is how we should act.”

“Greed is good.”

“There is no such thing as society.”

And self-interest is a human motivation. It’s not the only one, but it is powerful. Make it so that treating patients badly will make doctors richer and many of them will do so. This is why, for most of history, it was regarded as scandalous for doctors to have financial interests in, say, how many surgeries their patients had. The Romans and Greeks forbade payment entirely (gifts were given at Saturnalia, in Rome, but that was well-separated from the actual service).

Absent self-interest, people act on other motives and those other motives often get them to do more of the right thing. This is true, by the way, in almost every field.

Assume everyone is motivated by self-interest, and you will work, hard, to make it so, as well as give social allowance for greed and selfishness, two traits almost every society in history has understood as bad ones.

We all need some self-interest, and in moderation it is not a vice. Raising it to the ur-human motivations, the source of all other motivations, however, and it becomes monstrous.

It’s also bullshit.

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Democratic Filibuster of Gorsuch, Trump’s Supreme Court Nominee

2017 April 3

So, the Democrats now have 41 votes against, meaning Gorsuch can’t pass without changing the Senate rules to allow majority votes (a.k.a. to remove the filibuster on supreme court nominees, the “nuclear option.”) The Democrats removed the filibuster on non-supreme court nominees some years back, and came to regret not removing it all on nominees when the Republicans refused to pass anyone nominated by Obama, denying Democrats a majority on the Supreme Court.

“The next President should decide.”

Republican leadership has said that they will, in fact use the nuclear option.

I’m ok with this. The filibuster is anti-democratic. The Founders put in checks and balances, but they didn’t intend that if one party had control of all branches of government they couldn’t do what they wanted, subject to the Constitution.

(Related: The two-term limit on Presidential terms is a vastly bad idea and anti-democratic as well.)

Republicans want an excuse not to pass some of the crap that the House passes on to them, so they are talking about not removing the filibuster for legislation, however. (Yes, this is dodging responsibility.)

Subject to the constitution, written and unwritten, people should get who and what they voted for, and if politicians betray voters, their responsibility for doing so should be clear.

So, yeah, losing the filibuster will make Americans worse off. So be it. Democracy without responsibility is not democracy and the filibuster has just as often been used to stop good things and people as bad.

(Also, if the nuclear option is not used, Democrats should filibuster every Trump nominee, saying “the next President should decide.”)

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Punishing People in Pain

2017 March 30
by Ian Welsh

So, now reliable pain relief is only available from illegal sources?

The Ohio governor unveiled a plan Thursday that targets the place where experts say many opioid addictions begin — the doctor’s office.

Gov. John Kasich’s order limits the amount of opiates primary care physicians and dentists can prescribe to no more than seven days for adults and five days for minors…

…The new limits, which have gotten the blessing of the Ohio Board of Pharmacy, the State Medical Board, and the state’s dental and nursing boards, do not apply to patients who take prescription painkillers for cancer treatment or to dying patients who are already receiving hospice care, Kasich said.

There are plenty of reasons other than cancer and hospice care. It’s a little unclear how strict this will be,

“Health care providers can prescribe opiates in excess of the new limits only if they provide a specific reason in the patient’s medical record,” the state said in a statement.

Nonetheless, I find this crazy and punitive to people who actually need pain medication. Many doctors are already reluctant to prescribe painkillers due to crackdowns, and this will drive people even further towards buying illegal drugs. You certainly want people on codeine or morphine in preference to various synthetic opioids, which can be far more dangerous.

Ohio doesn’t have an opioid addiction problem because of availability; it has one because of deep socioeconomic problems which manifest as personal despair and breakdown. Some people will always use drugs, but “epidemics” of drug use happen when people don’t have better options.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.