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Trump Is No Longer Trump

2016 December 13
by Ian Welsh
Donald Trump

Stop thinking of Trump as Trump alone. He was never entirely that, and he’s definitely not that any more.

Trump is now Team Trump. The two most influential people in his court appear to be his son-in-law, Kushner, a fellow real-estate developer (and the guy who made the key strategic decisions which lead to Trump’s victor), and Bannon. Bannon is an economic nationalist with white nationalist leanings, who identifies with the working class and wants to bring manufacturing back to America. He’s quite willing to have a trade war to do it.

Priebus, the chief of staff, is also influential, but seems to be a bit of a drone. Trump’s children are influential, and it appears that Ivanka, his daughter, is the most influential of the three. She’s probably the most liberal person in the administration (even if she, strictly speaking, isn’t in the administration).

Trump has loaded up successful oligarchs and generals.

Steve Bannon

Steve Bannon

So, for example, his shift on China policy is in alignment with a lot of generals’ thinking (China is the real threat) and with what Bannon thinks (manufacturing jobs, economic nationalism).

His economic and labor policy will seek to both undermine labor rights and to spike the economy, which is essentially what authoritarians tend to do.

But the important point is that Trump, because he has only a few fixed ideas, even more than most Presidents, will be defined by the agendas of his closest advisers. To understand Trump’s moves, you need to understand his court.


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The Trump China Showdown Aligns with Reality

2016 December 12
by Ian Welsh
Chinese and American flags flying together

Trump received a phone call from the Taiwanese president. That was a violation of the One China policy, where in order to have diplomatic relations with China, one cannot have formal relations with China.

It is quite clear that Trump did this deliberately, it was not a gaffe, but planned.

China stated this was unacceptable, but was willing to pretend it was a gaffe.

Trump doubled down, accusing China of currency manipulation hurting the US (not true right now, but massive in the past), of not helping enough with North Korea, and of unacceptable behaviour in the South China Sea, where it has been building islands in order to seize control of the sea. He said he sees no reason to abide by One China if the US isn’t getting something in return.

China’s official response is that there will be no negotiations over anything without One China first.

A Chinese tabloid which is party associated said that if the US rescinded One China, China should invade Taiwan and arm American enemies.

And here we are.

Some basics. One power maximum; the potential power, of a modern state, is equal to its industrial power. Many nations may not have as much power as their industry allows, but this is the limiter.

China is now the world’s largest manufacturer. It is the world’s potentially most powerful nation. However, China’s policy has been (quite sensibly) to gain the base first, then arm, for classic guns or butter reasons.

China did manipulate its currency to gain their manufacturing base, but the US and other Western elites were entirely complicit. China offered large profits to individuals and corporations, and they took that money. It’s that simple.

China’s ascension did not just hurt the US, it hurt Japan, who is probably America’s most loyal ally (with the possible exception of the UK or Canada).

The manufacturing jobs performed in China would have been, in an alternate universe, done by the people who elected Trump in the Rust Belt.

Trump and his advisors do not believe that China and the US’s interests are aligned; they see China as the rising power, who is rising at the expense of the US.

This is not insane. In fact, it is accurate. It is possible to imagine a world in which that rise led to shared prosperity, but no one is offering such policies and no one ever has.

Now, I want you to turn your attention to Russia. Yes, Russia.

See, the problem with NATO expansion, the overthrow of the Ukrainian government, the color revolutions, and sanctions against Russia, and all that stuff, is that it was forcing Russia into China’s camp.

Russia does not want to be China’s ally. Russians (at least in the past, not so sure any more) would far rather have allied with Europe and the US, but Europe and the US would simply not allow it. Running on crazed fumes from the Cold War, the US and Europe feared Russia, who is no longer a threat to take first sport, rather than China, who is.

Note that Trump has also expressed great skepticism about NATO. He puts it in money terms: “Why should we pay for Europe’s defense?” But the end is the same, a NATO pointed at Russia doesn’t make sense to Trump or his advisors.

And Trump’s plans for the US involve a change in trade, anyway. People are scared of a trade war, and they should be.  Right now, what Trump is saying is at a meta-level which most people are too stupid to get: China is going to have to make a deal which helps American manufacturing, and everything is on the table in order to negotiate that. Everything.

Because Trump owes his election to the Rust Belt. He must deliver for them, in four years, or he will not be re-elected. His people, at least, will understand this. The election was too close. Trump must deliver.

And if China won’t cut a deal? Fine, slap tariffs on them. America is still America; American consumers can still consume, and if it turns into a trade war, manufacturing jobs may well come back to the US.

This is high stakes poker. It could cause a serious war, or it could send the world economy into a serious tailspin.

It is also a realignment moment. The US is pivoting from treating Russia as a big enemy, to treating China as the big threat. This is, whether you like it or not, rational: China is the actual threat to American hegemony.

I assume Trump thinks there is a deal to be made–perhaps he even thinks there is a way to make the deal into a win/win. We will see.

But do not think this is pure insanity, or that it is not well thought out. This is based on a world model in better accord with actual world conditions–more so than the world model under which Obama was operating.

If the status quo continues, the US will be superseded by China. At that point, if China and Russia are allies, options for the US are extremely limited. China is the rising power, Russia is a great power, but won’t a threat at the “super power” level again in the immediate future.

I will remind readers, once again, to stop assuming that Trump and his team are idiots just because they are doing things in new ways. I do not know if this pivot will work, and it could blow up spectacularly, but it is not prima facie stupid.

In fact, politicians who actually put the US’s real interests first would have never allowed China into the WTO, and certainly would have gone out of their way to make sure that China’s ascendence was a win/win, rather than a win/lose OR (if they were ruthless and slightly less smart) they would have done everything they could to prevent it. (I would not have favored that, to be clear).

Certainly, the US should have pivoted East years ago. This is a move which is made much more dangerous and problematic than it could have been by the fact that it wasn’t done when it should have been, enabled by an absolutely deranged policy towards Russia, which schizophrenically treated Russia as if it were both powerless and a huge threat.*

The world is getting a lot more dangerous, fast. But it was going to anyway. This may not be the best China policy possible, but it at least acknowledges reality.

(*I understand the impulse to prevent Russia from turning back into a huge threat, but that could have been managed with far less difficulty and in ways that wouldn’t have estranged Russia.)


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Russian Hacking of the US Election and Faithless Electors

2016 December 11
Vladimir Putin Official Portrait

Alrighty, I had hoped to avoid this topic, because it’s stupid, but here we are: The Left can talk about nothing else.

The argument is that Russia interfered in the US election, and that this interference threw the election to Trump. Therefore, electors pledged to Trump should switch their vote to Clinton.

I’m tempted to just say, “This is insanity,” but let’s go through it step by step.

The CIA apparently believes that the Russians (GRU) hacked both the DNC and the RNC, along with Podesta and didn’t release the RNC emails. This is the basis for their argument that Russia was push the election away from Clinton.

Emptywheel has the best summary of this. She notes that:

First, hackers presumed to be GRU did hack and release emails from Colin Powell and an Republican-related server. The Powell emails (including some that weren’t picked up in the press), in particular, were detrimental to both candidates. The Republican ones were, like a great deal of the Democratic ones, utterly meaningless from a news standpoint.

So, weak on its point. Also, while there are reasons to believe Russia was involved in the various hacks, there is no smoking gun that makes it certain, especially not that it was Russian STATE-sponsored actors.

But let’s assume it’s true: Russians hacked and made sure that certain information wound up public.

So far, I am unaware of a single email which has been found to have been fabricated or doctored. Not one. All the released information appears to have been true. The information was germane to the election; there was simple more truth available about Clinton than Trump.

(There have also been allegations of hacking voting machines. This may be, but there is no proof. I’ll wait for that, as well as proof that the interference was from outside the US.)

So, there are some reasons to believe Russia may have tried to influence the election by releasing true–and damaging–information about Clinton, but they also appear to have released info against the Republicans too. So…what?

More to the point, none of this is ironclad. Contrary to the wailing I see from many, the idea that intelligence agency assessments are always correct is laughable, as anyone who was alive for Iraq knows. Intelligence agencies not only get things wrong, they have axes to grind and slant intelligence to suit both their own ends and the ends of their masters (still Obama).

If I were a Trump voter, and a bunch of electors were to give the election to Clinton, based on evidence that is this uncertain and which–even if it is true–amounts to “telling the truth about Hillary and Democrats,” I would be furious, and I would consider it a violation of democratic norms: An overturning of a valid election result because elites didn’t like the result.

And while I’m not saying that they should, or that I would (nor that I wouldn’t), many will feel that violence is the only solution if the ballot box is not respected.

If faithless electors give the election to Clinton, there will be a LOT of violence as a result, and there might even be a civil war.

If you’re pushing for this, understand what you are pushing for. One reason we have democratic elections and referendums (Hello, People Who Want to Overturn Brexit!), is so that we don’t settle such things by violent means.

Trump won the election, and unless you have ironclad proof of real election tampering that had impact enough to throw the election (a.k.a. voting fraud, in auditable form), you should probably just live with it. Unless you really think he’s Hitler and going to set up concentration camps, in which case I can see no argument against using force yourself.

This is where Nazi/Fascist/Hitler/Camps rhetoric leaves you. Nothing is off the table.

Either decide you mean it, or calm down and take shit off the table that is going to get a lot of people dead or hurt unless you pull it off.

(Oh yes, and, as a number of wags have noted, the idea of the CIA in specific, or the US in general, whining about foreign influence leading to a right-wing government is hilarious on its face.)

Update: The article has the worst case scenario for Russian hacks (minus machines) that can be even slightly suggested by the evidence IN ORDER to show that overturning an election result still isn’t justified. This doesn’t include whether the Russian state was directly behind any or all information releases. Only hardcore proof of machine hacking could justify the above outlined.


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Why I Write

2016 December 10
by Ian Welsh
Clio, the Muse of History

Once upon a time, I wrote for very political reasons. Bush had invaded Iraq, I was upset about it, and I saw that if the US and the world in general did not change the path they were on, we were going to wind up in an era of war and revolution. Combined with climate and other environmental issues like aquifer depletion and ecosystem collapse, we were going to have a huge human die-off and massive suffering.

At first, I went all wonky. I assumed people couldn’t possibly want such a catastrophe, so I explained why it was likely to happen and I explained how to stop it in terms of plans. I used to do VERY detailed policy posts.

That didn’t work. Didn’t get any significant traction at all.

I examined the situation, and realized that people couldn’t reason morally and ethically. A few incidents convinced me that people didn’t understand really basic things like: “Killing civilians is worse than killing military,” and “Killing more people is worse than killing less people.”

So I spent a couple years trying to explain basic morals and ethics to people.

That didn’t work. They either already understood, or they were incapable of learning, no matter how simply I put the propositions. Oh, they might agree with no context (although often not even then), but the moment their tribe was involved, they became evil again.

So, I looked at that feedback, and realized that most people can’t reason, can’t separate morals from their own interests, can’t separate ethics from identity, and so on. Worse, many couldn’t even separate their own interests in terms of health, money, and staying alive from their tribal identity.

To put it simply, they were living in completely delusional fantasy worlds, so separate from any even vaguely objective reality that they might as well be living in a TV show (and, in effect, many are).

Yes, they were incapable of basic ethical and moral reasoning. Yes, many were incapable of thinking a few years into the future, or evaluating opportunity cost (look it up). Yes, if they identified with a politician or a group, they were largely incapable of applying ethical rules or even assessing their own self interest in relation to the actions of that politician.

I then moved onto issues of ideology and identity (though I’ve written less about the second), trying to dig into why people are how they are, how and when that changes, and so on.

Short answer: They have to die. The generations who are that afflicted cannot be taught, they simply have to age out of power and shuffle off the mortal coil. At a very fundamental level, they never intend to do the right thing if it conflicts with anything else of importance to them. And if that means a billion or two billion people die with whom they are not personally identified, and/or there is a great-die-off of non-human life, they’re fundamentally okay with that.

They can’t even understand “kill less people.” It is genuinely beyond them in practice. The majority will certainly never vote for a genuinely good candidate, and those candidates have been offered to Democrats during their primaries regularly.

They don’t want to do the right thing. (Yes, not everyone in those generations is so afflicted, there are large minorities who aren’t. They are minorities.)

So, I do not write, any more, to convince people to do the right thing. I know that doing so is beyond most people, certainly most Americans over the age of 30. And that is not about Trump, or Clinton: A population who wanted to do the right thing would not have had an election between two such monstrous individuals.

I write, today, to tell truths which are I believe are ignored by many people–especially on the center-left (the right-wing does not read me). Truths such as: Clinton’s hatred of Russia was extremely dangerous; Trump is not incompetent by any useful definition of the word; racism grows stronger when times are bad; under the EU, some people in England have been plunged into hopelessnes, and; while it may not be the EU’s fault, they are the status quo and will be blamed (though it isn’t not their fault).

This is shit people don’t want to hear.

As such, I suppose, I shouldn’t complain when people scream because I’ve hit a pain point. After all, by telling them truths that are not generally accepted in their group, I’m aiming for pain points.

Yet, I still am flabbergasted by the inability of people to understand simple points like “good and competent are not the same thing,” or “don’t underestimate your enemy.”

So, I write here to explore subjects which interest me, and, quite often, to tell truths that are not widely accepted.  I see little point in writing articles which simply parrot views you can already read in the NYTimes or hear on CNN.

As such, I am likely to say things which challenge your world view. Things which, yes, may hurt.

But the reason the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and the reason we are actively riding that handbasket all the way down, is that we were given warnings that we were in the hand basket and we ignored them for decades. Trump isn’t the cause, he is the symptom. And frankly, though most can’t understand it, so were Clinton and Obama (who, if you want to blame someone, is the man most proximately responsible for Trump’s victory, but most people can’t admit that, either).

People wanted to live in fantasyland, and so we are going deeper and deeper into hell.

And so I will speak the truth, as I understand it (I may be wrong, though if you think I am mostly wrong, you should not read me). That is, more than any other reason, why I write.

We are here because people wanted to both believe and act on lies, because they could not stand to live in the real world, fantasyland being much more congenial to their self-image (based on their group-based identity), and to what they perceived (often–but not always–incorrectly) as their self-interest.

The problem does not lie at not being able to fix the problem. Leaving aside the whole “it’s too late now” argument, we have no significant problems we couldn’t start fixing or substantially mitigating tomorrow if we so desired. We could easily have avoided the worst of climate change, ecological collapse, and the rise of racism/stagnant economies if we had acted decisively 20 years ago.

The problem lies with people not wanting to do the right thing, and with them willfully living in a world that contains no more than a remote resemblance to the real world.

People who cannot understand simple things like “kill less people,” or “don’t underestimate your enemies,” have problems that are far deeper than whether Trump or Clinton rules them, but many who read this won’t even understand that.

The truth won’t set you free by itself, but lies will keep you in hell more surely than chains made of iron ever could.


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Basic Reasoning and Reading

2016 December 9
by Ian Welsh
Image by Admit One

Competent and good are not synonyms.

Smart and good are not synonyms.

Evil and competent are not synonyms.

Virtues are not all moral virtues.

Bravery is a morally neutral virtue. It makes bad people worse, and good people better, and without it all virtues and vices are nearly meaningless.

Competence is morally neutral. It is how you use your competence that matters.

Next: Human Nature.

It is possible for people to be both good and bad. A politician may do something good, and then do something bad. It is even possible for a person who is evil overall (George Bush, Obama, Putin) to do the right thing, for the right reason. People can murder others one day, and rescue babies the next and rescue those babies out of the milk of human kindness.

If you do not understand any of the above, if you are not capable of disentangling your emotions or your tribal identities enough to reason like this, then you are incapable of rational thought when it matters.

Finally, if you do not like my writing, if it bothers you that I say that Trump is competent, or that Genghis Khan, though evil, was a great man, you do not have to read it. If someone is threatening you to force you read my stuff, please call the police.

Many people do not seem to know how to unsubscribe from the email list. The unsubscribe link is at the bottom of the email.
While, on occasion, I write to comfort people, I do not write to pander to people’s prejudices or tribal identities.


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The Insanity of India and the Future of Humanity

2016 December 9
by Ian Welsh
Globe on Fire

You’ve probably all heard that Indian Prime Minister Modi ordered two of the most common high denomination bills (500 and 1,000 rupee) out of circulation and that they would no longer be legal tender after only a few days.

India’s economy is, well, not modern. Most people do not have or use credit cards. Only 53 percent have a bank account, and cash is still preferred for transactions. 43 percent of those who have a bank hadn’t used their bank account in the last year.

India also has a vast corruption problem and huge black and grey markets. The corruption makes it very difficult to fix problems, whether they be removing pollution from the Ganges, building enough toilets so people stop shitting in the streets, or anything else.

The black money (money never taxed or declared) market is supposed to comprise about 23 to 26 percent of the Indian economy. I don’t know if that’s a low estimate (I doubt it’s high).

Black money and corruption go hand-in-hand, for obvious reasons: You can’t declare the bribes you receive or gave, at least not with some way of laundering them first.

So cleaning up black money should help clean up corruption.

But many Indians live in the black money economy. It’s just that simple. Someone gives them money, they spend it, no one is declaring it.

De-monetization isn’t just about a couple of bills, it’s about pushing people towards electronic money, which can be easily tracked. There have even been suggestions of forcing beggars to use electronic money.

I regard this push to de-monetization as fundamentally insane in an economy like India’s, and it screams rentism. Yeah, black money can’t be taxed, but it also isn’t “bank-fee’d” away. When everything is electronic through banks (this isn’t bitcoin), then transaction fees and so on eat away at it. Every hand it goes through can make a little stick, and only very strict law can make it not happen.

It’s free money from the point of intermediaries; they have to do very little to get it once the system is set up.

It’s leeching. Nearly pure rentism.

I do not support universal e-cash for this reason. It is to easy to do rentism, and rentism (transaction taxes and fees) kills monetary velocity and kills economies. The move to transaction taxes (GST) is one of the things that took the oomph out of Western economies, and it was designed to do so, to reduce inflation by reducing spending.

Despite our era’s absolutely crazed fixation with inflation, there is NO evidence that inflation from about 10 percent a year on down does ANY harm to the economy in and of itself and there is plenty of evidence that moderate levels of inflation have a myriad of good effects on the economy.

Yes, people who earned their money in the past hate inflation. Too bad, past contributions should be discounted, and proper government policy can easily ensure that people are still taken care of and have enough. Crippling the economy so that people who earned their money years and years ago retain power long past their period of productive contribution is economic malpractice.

Give people who can’t/shouldn’t/don’t work a decent income through a pension/welfare plan or even a basic income system and get rid of all transaction taxes except for those where you deliberately want to slow down a particular type of economic activity, rather than all activity altogether. If it’s carbon you don’t want to see too much of, tax it. If oil inflation is the problem, figure out how to tax that, and so on.

Demonetization without very strict anti-rentism is a bad idea. India is a shitty country to try to demonetize due to its lack of technological infrastructure. It’s also not ideal, ironically, because of it is weak rule of law, vast corruption and huge inequality in both money and power.

India, in general, is far more of a clusterfuck than most understand, including many middle class Indians. Calories per capita are lower than they were 30  years ago, and most people are worse off than they were before neoliberal dogma took over.

Meanwhile, much Indian agriculture runs off of aquifers, and they are being depleted, leading to farmer suicides. Climate change is making the monsoons erratic, and it is causing problems with runoff from the Himalayas, which is to say, where northern India gets most of its water. Earlier this year, one of the source rivers for the Ganges was dry for weeks.

India is going to go pear-shaped. The question is when, but when it does, I expect hundreds of millions to die. The issue will be water, pure and simple, but India’s inability to deal with even basic problems like open defecation and pollution of the Ganges, means it literally cannot deal with longer term issues.

Reforms, which have, yes, created a robust middle class, have not improved the situation of most Indians. Yes, many stats say they have, but when I find out that calories/capita is down, I start thinking that GDP/capita is not measuring real welfare. It’s not like Indians were overfed 30 years ago.

I simply DO NOT believe many of the Panglossian statistics that people are using to say the world is the greatest ever. In many cases, I can’t prove it (and no, unless you have a 100k you want to give me, I’m not going to prove it), but I know, for example, that proverty stats in America are absolute bullshit: The poverty level has not kept up with increases in cost of living, especially in food, rent, and medicine. Not even close–and that’s using formal inflation statistics, which systematically understate price rises in various categories.

So, when the US stats are shit, and knowing what I know about how places like India and most sub-Saharan African countries run, and how incentives to show progress work for the people who measure this shit, I just do not believe a lot of the stats.

I think the world is in worse condition than many make out. I know India is. I’m now receiving information that China is as well (more on that at a later date, maybe).

So, shit is going to hit the fan, we are in worse shape than we think we are, we are strangling all growth rather than merely counterproductive growth, and we are lying to ourselves about the real shape of our countries and our world, and when we’re not lying about it, we’re ignoring it.

This is going to get ugly. Hundreds of millions in India. And the same in many other places.


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The Genius of Genghis Khan

2016 December 8
by Ian Welsh
Genghis Khan, Photo by Francois Phillipe

So, he comes out of nowhere, and he and his heirs create the largest land empire in history.

It was not inevitable; horse nomads didn’t always win, they usually lost. At one point Temujin (his name, Genghis Khan is a title) chose not to attack the Chinese capital because he just didn’t have the forces.

Temujin was exceptional in many ways, and his life, especially his early life, reads like an adventure novel: He was exiled from his original tribe when his father died, killed his own older brother (ostensibly for hoarding food when the family was hungry), was captured by his enemies and escaped, rescued his kidnapped wife and refused to disavow the child she bore that may not have been his, and rather more. It’s worth reading.

Genghis Khan turned the Mongols into probably the most dominant military in history. They basically didn’t lose battles or wars during his life, and they weren’t defeated straight up until the Mamluks in Egypt, long after his death. The Mamluks did it by copying the Mongols, but it wouldn’t have worked against Temujin’s Mongols (I’ll explain why below).

The Nazis developed blitzkrieg, in part, by examining Mongol campaigns and strategy. The Mongols, in an era with no communication faster than a messenger, were able to coordinate multiple armies advancing hundreds of miles apart, so that they would meet at an agreed place on the same day. Temujin and his generals coordinated armies in a way contemporaries couldn’t. They were also startlingly fast: Mongol armies performed marches in the Russian winter which moved faster than WWII panzer armies over the same terrain.

The Mongols treated war and mass hunts the same: They couldn’t give a damn about glory or honor; they were there to defeat the enemy with the least losses possible, so they would regularly feint, withdraw before attacks while punishing them with bow fire, and so on. They gutted Eastern Europe’s chivalry just this way, and those who think that Europe could have stood up against the Mongols if they hadn’t withdrawn due the Great Khan’s death are simply fooling themselves. They defeated far more unified and dangerous opponents over as bad or worse terrain multiple times; the only terrain that ever stopped the Mongols was the Ocean (although it took them some time to conquer southern China due to terrain.)

Genghis Khan was ruthless. Because the Mongols were few in number, he would either recruit enemies into his ranks, or slaughter them outright. In cities that resisted, all men of fighting age would be rounded up, taken to the next city assault and forced to attack the walls. This is pitiless, to be sure, but the Mongols could not afford to leave populations capable and willing to rise up behind their lines.

When attacking a city, the Mongols generally offered quite generous terms–if the city didn’t resist. If it did, they would often destroy the city entirely. Part of this is because, especially at the beginning, they had almost no siege capability. Sieges took years the Mongols couldn’t afford, so they made surrender very tempting and the cost of resistance terrible.

Resistance in Afghanistan basically ended the Hellenic culture there. (But then, the Afghans killed Temujin’s emissaries when he asked for peaceful trade. Whoops.)

Khan was particularly good at espionage. He protected merchants, made friends with them, and used them as spies. When the Mongols invaded they would know their enemy’s weaknesses, including any vassals who were willing to rebel, any conquered and resentful minorities, and so on, and they used that information, often inspiring uprisings at the same time as their attacks.

All of this is very nice, and important, but the greatest aids to Temujin’s success were two things most people don’t concentrate on amidst all the slaughter, glory and rapine.

Genghis Khan was absolutely brilliant at sizing people up, and he was brilliant at inspiring loyalty.

Khan regularly took people who had been his enemies and made them his most important generals and administrators. None of them betrayed him.

One of the main causes of the Mongols’ later defeats is that after Khan and those who he had directly picked to administer and lead died, the genius was gone. The last truly great general, for example, was Subotai, who (as best I recall) never lost a battle (Subotai lead the attack on Europe).

Khan had genius subordinates, as competent as him or moreso at warfare and far better than him at administrating non-nomads. And they were loyal.

Khan certainly favored his family, but he didn’t do so to the extent of freezing out the truly talented. Competence and success were rewarded, in anyone, including, in notable occasions, in women. Relatedly, Khan, quite unusually for the time, enforced religious equality in his empire.

Once a population was conquered, they were taxed lightly, and the rule of law was enforced. One may quip the Mongols made a desert and called it peace, as with Augustus, but the Pax Mongolica was very real, and allowed travel from Europe all the way to China. The line is that, on Mongol patrolled routes, a virgin with a pot of gold was completely safe–including from the Mongols. You certainly couldn’t say the same virtually anywhere in Europe at the time (probably anywhere, but perhaps there were some small areas which were exceptions).

I bring all this up because Khan, of course, also killed millions and wiped entire cities from the map. The Mongols broke the flower of Muslim civilization, ending their Golden Age. (Anecdote: Upon conquering,  I believe, Baghdad, the Mongols, who had a taboo on spilling royal blood, locked the Caliph in his treasury with his gold to starve, commenting that he should have spent it on armies and defenses. They were not without a rough sense of humor.)

The historians I have read on the period often note that Mongol atrocities weren’t worse than most of the people they fought. Instead, the Mongols were just far more successful (but that doesn’t change the sheer scale of them).

So, why do I bring all this up?

Because Genghis Khan is far removed from our time. We have very few real emotional feelings about him (unless you’re Mongol, and some Chinese are still angry).

Genghis Khan was a great man. I don’t think there’s any reasonable definition of great that doesn’t conflate great with good, a criteria which he does not meet. He was extraordinarily competent, one of the most competent figures we know of in history. He was honorable, keeping his deals. He loved his wife greatly, there is no question of it; the romance and love of Borte and Temujin is one of the great historical romances. He was religiously tolerant in an age of violent religious bigotry.

He also killed millions. Effectively destroyed civilizations. He was evil by any useful definition of evil. He was a great man, an evil man, an honorable man, a man who inspired great dedication and loyalty. He committed fratricide, something his own mother never forgave him for.

Bad man. Competent man. Honorable man. Great leader. Great general (though not the best Mongol general; note that Genghis Khan could secure the loyalty of men who were more competent than him).

I’m going to return to this theme at least one more time. In the meantime, Genghis Khan, great man, world’s greatest conqueror (you can quibble about Alexander, but I give it to Temujin), evil, genocidal bastard. Romantic.

All at the same time.

In the meantime, reading up on the Mongols and Khan is fascinating, can teach you a great deal due to distance, and can be disturbing as well.


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Italy’s Constitutional Referendum Fails, Europe Shudders

2016 December 5
by Ian Welsh
Matteo Renzi, ex-Italian PM

The changes were meant to make pushing through austerity and bank rescue measures simpler.* Italy’s constitution almost certainly needs changes, but it probably didn’t need these changes.

This is another rebuke to the Eurocrats and the European Union project. The populist right is rejoicing.

Jeremy Corbyn recently noted that the right is taking real grievances and offering solutions which will, at best, only paper over wounds. The left has superior solutions, but has bound itself to a dying world order because of love for internationalism. (By the left, I don’t mean most left-wing parties, like France’s socialists or England’s Labour ex-Corbyn).

Because neo-liberalism has failed, and is finally seen, clearly, to have failed, there are now only three options:

  1. Right-Wing Populism
  2. Left-Wing Populism
  3. Police State Extension of the Current Order

That’s it. Choose your sides. Neoliberalism will only be viable if you’re willing to go full surveillance and police state.

If Trump goes in the direction Bannon desires, and which Trump has been talking up recently when he trashed China, then the neoliberal world order will be over within a year or two.

It should have ended quite some time ago, but it didn’t, and now its dismantling is going to be handled by some very unpleasant people, who, while not incompetent, do not have an ideology and policy set which can actually be expected to work out well for most people in anything more than the short run.

It is as it is.

(*As usual, the best solution would be to let the banks go under and let various people take their losses, bailing out ordinary Italians to some limited extent. Dead banks are dead banks. Let their shareholders and bondholders eat the losses.)


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Trump’s Not-So-Crazed Speech in Ohio

2016 December 4
by Ian Welsh


I took the time to read the transcript of Trump’s speech, the entire transcript. It has three parts to it. First, he talks about what he’s going to do in very general terms (“Ra ra, we can fix America”). Then, he takes a victory lap and exorciates the press, and then he talks more about what he’s going to do.

According to this:

  • Cut taxes so that companies stay in the US.
  • Reduce regulations so corporations can produce in the US.
  • Renegotiate or leave NAFTA.
  • Consider leaving other trade deals seems implicit.
  • Repeal Obamacare.
  • Do something so people have healthcare.
  • Stop immigration from certain (a.k.a., Muslim countries) and stop taking refugees.
  • Massive infrastructure projects, including in the inner cities and rural America.
  • For those infrastructure programs, buy American and hire American.
  • Specifically bring manufacturing back to the rust belt.
  • He’s hired some billionaires, etc…that’s because he wants nasty winners on his team.
  • Executive branch employees can’t lobby for five years after working, can never lobby for foreign governments.
  • Affordable child support for all.
  • Increased pay and opportunities for women.
  • Partner with any nation to kill ISIS.
  • But other than that, no more wars.
  • More money for cops.
  • Great Wall
  • Work with other nations for win-win deals.
  • Repeal environmental restrictions on petroleum industries.

This is populist, little America-ism. Isolationism, bilateral trade deals, mind-our-own-business, combined with standard Republican tax cut and regulation policy.

Let me be clear, I think parts of this program are idiocy: American companies often pay no tax already, and taxes aren’t the primary issue in production. That doesn’t mean companies don’t use tricks to avoid paying American taxes, but there are ways to make them pay them. While there are certainly regulations which can be done away with, in general, regulations aren’t the issue either.

Climate change is real, so gutting enviro protections is insane, and coal jobs aren’t coming back–no matter what. Immigrants aren’t a significant problem, etc. Crime isn’t up, it’s down.

(He also inflated the trade deficit by about 300 billion, but it’s still too large.)

That said, this ain’t crazy stuff overall. What it is is a change from the current consensus on some important issues, especially American foreign and trade policy. The tax cuts are just more of the same.

I have doubts that Trump will be able to deliver on all of this, and he’s going to need to find some big pots of money to even try, especially given his ideas about tax cuts. His cabinet, while made up of rich people, does not engender confidence that he means what he says about corruption.

All that said, it’s NOT a crazy speech.

Now, if you read it below, you’ll also notice a very long and extended attack on the Press. It’s quite clear that Trump, personally, despises the press. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t also good strategy, much of the press, while they’ll cover him to inches, is going to work to de-legitimize him, so he needs to de-legitimize them.

I’m also tired of cherry picking. Trump wants to do some things that I truly despise. But, for example, killing the TPP was a really good thing. If he actually does follow through on his foreign policy promise of not attacking any more countries, that’d be a really good thing. Not everything Trump wants to do is bad, just as not everything he wants to do is good.

It should also be noted that Trump goes out of his way in this speech, as he has done in many others, to declare his love for African-Americans and Hispanics, and to say he intends to help them. Will he? Well, not with police violence, but, otherwise, we’ll see.

Trump, very clearly, wants to be loved and adored. That is his primary goal here. Trump would love nothing more than, in seven years, to be able to go to a rally with primarily Blacks or Hispanics and be cheered. So, while I don’t think he’ll deliver for them, I do think he wants to.

I’ve put the transcript below. I’ve taken out most of the (Applause) and (Booing) lines.  Original transcript is from C-span.


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Transcript

For too long, Washington has tried to put us in boxes. They separate us by race, by age, by income, by geography, by place of birth. We spend too much time focusing on what divides us. Now is the time to embrace the one thing that truly unites us. You know what that is? America, America. It’s America.

You hear a lot of talk about how we’re becoming a globalized world, but the relationships people value in this country are local — family, city, state,

There is no global anthem, no global currency, no certificate of global citizenship. We pledge allegiance to one flag, and that flag is the American

From now on, it’s going to be America first, OK? America first.

We’re gonna put ourselves first. We seek peace and harmony with the nations of the world, but that means recognizing the right of every country including our own to look after its citizens. We would put other countries first. We had people running our country that truly didn’t know what the hell they we’re doing. OK? read more…

Review of Justice, by Michael Sandel

2016 December 2
by Ian Welsh
Drone

This is the best single book I’ve ever read on morality: About how we should treat each other, especially at the social level. It’s not a good book because Sandel, himself, has much that’s worth saying (though he tries at the end), it is a great book because Sandel is a great teacher of other people’s ideas, able to break them down cleanly, show the logic, and make clear both their problems and their virtues.

Sandel breaks the world’s ethical traditions down into welfare maximization, freedom, and virtue maximization, with a section trailing afterwards dealing with questions of loyalty and particularity. As with all the books I review, I can’t do this full justice, and I urge you to read it yourself, but I’ll sketch out the basics.

Sandel starts with Utilitarianism: This is the principle of the most good for the most people. Utilitarianism is a pared down system: Pleasure is good, pain is bad. We should maximize pleasure, and minimize pain, and nobody’s pain or pleasure is worth more than anyone else’s.

The obvious problem with Utilitarianism is that, in its pure form, it suggests that if a minority needs to suffer so that a majority may know pleasure, that’s acceptable. The most good for the most people even demands it. If I have to kill Fred, even if Fred is innocent, to save two other people’s lives, I do it. If I have to sacrifice an old man’s life to save a young man’s life, I do so. I do so even if they don’t consent.

Utilitarianism shares a problem with the freedom traditions, as well, in that maximization of pleasure doesn’t necessarily discriminate between pleasures. We want to be able to say that taking pleasure from the pain of others is bad: Sandel uses the example of a football player who kept dogs and made them fight himself. The football player took pleasure in this, as a society we certainly allow animals to be mistreated (no, no, don’t pretend), so what, exactly is the problem?

We simply don’t all agree on what is good: We don’t even agree that all pleasure is good. Most people would say sadism is bad; others would say it’s ok if the victim consents; and others would say that self-harm is bad and should be discouraged or forbidden. Even if that includes drinking a lot of pop (definitely self-harm, if not as immediate as suicide).

This leads to Libertarianism, which Sandel uses as his overaching term for the idea that individual freedom is what matters most. So long as what someone is doing harms only them, it is no one else’s business AND society has no business choosing between people. If making ten people better off requires hurting one person, we have no right to do that if that person isn’t actively harming them.

This isn’t an abstract question, it goes to the heart of things like taxation. It asks the question: If a bunch of people are starving, do we have the right to take extra food away from people who aren’t starving–if they don’t consent? It is at the heart of all the libertarians who scream “Taxation is theft!”

There’s a deep vein of truth to liberty, “Mind your own business!” that cannot be denied. The idea that no matter how much someone else thinks they know best, damn it, they should bugger off and leave us alone.  Liberty is the wellspring of individual rights, of minority rights, of “just because the majority or the stronger wants it and thinks it is good, doesn’t mean it’s right.”

But, humans do not live alone, they live in societies, and what they do affects each other. In fact, the reason you happen to have extra food may be the precise reason why those starving people do not have enough (in every famine, there has been enough food if there had been no hoarding). That the law benefits the rich far more than it does the poor may well be why the rich tend to stay rich and the poor tend to stay poor. The rules of the game, which let you keep your stuff stuff, may not be fair. If they are not fair, what right do you have to say “Fuck you Jack, this is mine?”

Even more, your health and your happiness effects everyone else. If you get sick, unless society is willing to let you suffer, everyone pays for it. (This is at the heart of Libertarian objections to universal health care: You can do whatever you want, but no one else should be forced to fix your problems.) If you have a disease, you may spread it. If you are unhappy, you will make those around you unhappy. And while society could just let people suffer, not only is their misery often not their fault, it feels wrong to most humans.

Which brings us to Kant, who rested his defense of human rights not in the idea that we own ourselves, and no one has a right to do anything to us, but in the idea that humans are rational beings worthy of being treated with dignity.

Kant doesn’t like the idea that everything is worthy. A libertarian, similar to a utiltarian, will say that what one person likes is their business. Kant doesn’t see it that way. If you are not acting in a way that everyone could act without negative consequences, and if you are not acting in a way that is rational, then you are not acting morally.

Your personal preferences are a mess: They are contingent on your specific body, your specific culture, your specific time. They cannot be universal, and they cannot be rational except in ends-means terms (if you want A, do B to get it). They can only be worthy of respect if they are universal, that is, usable by everyone in all times and places without negative effects.

Furthermore, to act on your contingent wants and desires is to be a slave to them, not to be free. You love America because you were born in America: That’s not rational. You follow a religion because your parents did, that’s not rational. You love sugar because your body craves it, even though it’s bad for you. That’s not rational. It’s also not freedom.

For Kant, to be free and to be just, one must act in a way that if everyone acting in accordance with your morals, the world would work well. If your actions cannot scale to everyone without bad consequences, they are not moral.

This is a hard, hard philosophy to follow, demanding a great deal of the practitioner. Even less helpfully, Kant never drills down to describe what the rules of his morality would be, giving nothing beyond a couple of suggestions like, “Don’t lie.”

Which leads us to John Rawls. Rawls’ famous thought experiment was as follows: Imagine you are creating the rules of a society without knowing your place in it.

This is reason shorn of interest. You don’t know if you’ll be male or female, black or white, born in Africa or America, in a strong body or weak, smart or stupid, and so on.

Rawls believes that not knowing where you’ll be in society, or even what body you’ll have, and with how well you’ll do being determined, in essence, entirely by genetics and position (a.k.a. who your parents are and the genetic roulette of their DNA), most people will choose a society where those who don’t do well are well taken care of, one with some inequality, but not a great deal. Inequality will be justified only as it makes everyone better off: that is, if it is necessary to pay people more or treat them better to have enough doctors, do so, but otherwise, don’t.

Better treatment for Rawls, is only justified if it makes everyone better off. This is similar to the justification for inequality in libertarianism, but not identical. Libertarians believe that “value creators” deserve all of the value they create. Rawls thinks they should only get enough to be willing to do what they do.

Rawls expects that his contract will include rights, as well, because you don’t know if you might wind up as a minority. For sure, women will be treated equally, because hey, that’s 50 percent of the population and your odds of being one are high. So again, we’d include equality, or at least a guarantee of rights, because you don’t want to take a chance on grabbing the shitty end of the stick.

Rawls’ contract thus comes out to “utility maximazation, with inequality allowed only to the extent that it increases overall utility, and with everyone taken care of to a minimum acceptable standard with basic rights for everyone, including minorities.”

Rawls concludes that his contract comes out to be a basically social liberal democratic state of the post-WWII era (or the current Norwegian kind), or perhaps to some sort of benevolent autocracy which can be challenged. Critics find this “convenient,” I leave it up to you to decide if, behind the veil of ignorance, it’s the society you would choose.

Having discussed Rawls, Sandel then turns to the specific issue of affirmative action. (Hey, he’s an academic at Harvard.) To summarize, the issue comes down to, “What is the mission of the university?” If the mission is social (“to create a better society”), which is, in fact, what the charters of many universities say, then affirmative action makes sense. If it is to create better people through education, then exposure to people who aren’t like you is probably valuable and that argument can be made to justify affirmative action. If the mission is, on the other hand, to further educate the brightest, if it is a competition for limited spaces, then affirmative action is not justified. (Again, more subtleties in the book, read it if this gets you hot and bothered).

And semi-finally, we come to virtue ethics, which Sandel identifies with Aristotle.

People should get what they deserve and society should be run to create virtuous people.

This is most visible in competitions and in war: A medal for bravery should go only to those who have shown bravery. The gold medal should go the person who ran the fastest. The job should go to the person who can do it best.

People should get what they deserve, and by making sure that this is so, we encourage people to do what is required to deserve the rewards of virtue.

This isn’t the same as libertarianism’s “kill what you eat” ethos. Virtues include charity and kindness and so on. Virtue ethics came out of the polis: the city state. Citizens were expected to act in the interests of the city as a whole, as well as their own interests. People wanted to live with other good people: kind, just, charitable, brave, and so on. Virtue ethics says that it is not good to take pleasure in bad things.  If you like lying, treachery, cowardice, the pain of others, and so on, you’re a bad person, and we don’t want a society made up of bad people.

Thus, a well-run society is one that encourages virtue–not just by rewarding it, but by fostering it through laws and education. Good people make good societies, and contra Kant, there are few rules that cover all circumstances. People will have to make judgments throughout their lives regarding the “right thing to do,” and our best chance that they will make the right choices is if they decide as virtuous people.

This, of course, means that we should choose virtuous people as our leaders. (Note that virtue, in this case, includes qualities we would say make one capable, such as being energetic and brave.) But virtuous leaders, alone, are not enough; the mass of the citizenry must be virtuous as well, or the leaders cannot succeed (and won’t be chosen in the first place).

This line of thinking has echoes in Machiavelli, who believed that Republics could only be created and maintained with a virtuous public, and in America’s founders, who believed that eventually Americans would become so lacking in virtue that only an autocrat could rule them.

(I myself would say that virtuous men and women should work for the maximum good, while encouraging virtue and safeguarding individual liberty.)

Having run through these ethical systems, Sandel now comes to his own ideas, which, to my mind the weakest part of the book. He notes our very human desire for particularity–for putting ourselves, our friends, our communities, and our countries first, and he believes that many of these systems do not deal adequately with these needs. Parents do have a duty to put their children first, yes?

I am reminded of a book I read a long time ago, in which an admiral, on finding out his son was in a city he felt he should bomb, bombed it anyway. “I should be a monster indeed if I were willing to kill the loved ones of others, but not my own.”

I think, perhaps, Sandel would have done well to read more Confucian ethics, which deals with the question of family vs. society in some detail. Almost all of us want particularity, we certainly act on it, but our propensity for particularity, in caring for ourselves first, our families second, our friends third, our countries fourth, and everyone else last (and hey, forget animals), is at the heart of many of our problems.

Judge an ethical system by its fruits, insomuch as it is actually followed. We are very aware of the evils of totalizing ideologies, but particularity, with the indifference and tribal warfare it creates, almost certainly has the award for a higher toll of death and suffering.

And yet, you do have to care for your children first.

But, perhaps, not at any cost.

I strongly recommend this book. It will make you think, hard. And that’s the highest recommendation there is.


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