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What Can You Do In Troubled Times?

2017 January 17
by Ian Welsh

Most of what I write is analysis or sermon; when I write about what can be done, I usually write about what society can do and rarely what individuals can do.

However I’ve had a few requests for writing about what my readers can do, in the situation we now find ourselves and in the situation as it will unfold in the years to come.

Whatever happens, the future will be interesting: The certainties of the neoliberal era will be replaced by actual, rapid political, technological, and economic change. Combined with the oncoming shocks of environmental change, it’s going to be a fascinating time to live in.

And that’s the first thing I suggest readers do: Change the way they view what is coming. Much of it will be bad, yes, but it will also be a compelling time to live in. Perhaps when growing up you imagined what it would be like to live in times of crisis and hardship? They will soon be upon us, and while we might not have chosen that, we can only act as Gandalf told Frodo.

Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

Let us start, first, with death.

All of us were born to die. We have only a small amount of time on Earth. The question is not if we are going to die, but how we live. The simple practice to deal with this is to imagine your death. It sounds horrible, but in fact people who do it often find themselves happier afterwards. Get comfortable with what is inevitable, and much of the fear of it goes away. And when you no longer fear death, much of life’s remaining fear leaves.

At most, the onrushing crisis may have changed when and how you’ll die. It hasn’t changed the basic existential fact that all that exists, ends. In this knowledge, held deeply, there is freedom.

Having accepted your death, you can move on to the business of living, including, if you choose, not dying quite so soon. Life at all costs, in my opinion, isn’t worth it, but each of us must decide what price we will pay for another scrap of life, what we’re willing to do to breath another day. This may be hard labor, it may be moral compromise, it may just be cleverness and outwitting death.

Just as there is great comfort in acknowledging death, there is great comfort in knowing what we will and won’t do.  The lines we won’t cross define us more than perhaps anything else, whatever and wherever they are. And this is the second step: What will I do, what won’t I do?

The third psychological step I suggest is comfort with pain and loss; an acceptance of it. In preparing for death, we imagine our death; in preparing for pain and loss, we remember what we have lost and the pain we have experienced in the past.

Dwell in it for a bit, bring the memories up if you can bear them, then remember the other side.

You survived. You are still here. You are still you. You survived the loss of people or things you loved; you survived pain. You can take it, and still function.

A sense of relaxation towards pain and loss actually makes both hurt less. Suffering is what we add to misfortune, when we accept what is happening and has happened, we suffer less. This doesn’t mean not trying to avoid pain and loss when that makes sense, simply that it is not always unavoidable and that railing against inevitability is foolish and makes the event worse.

Having done these three things, turn your gaze outward, to the good things that remain in the world. What do you still love? What still gives you joy? Is it some people you love? Is it, perhaps, something as simple as the taste of the food; the wind on your face, the steering wheel under your hands? Find those things, dwell in what you love, and enjoy.

Having completed these four tasks (and it will take some time, done properly), you will find that you look to the past with far less regret, the future with far less fear, and the present with far more joy.

These steps may not seem “practical” but if your head and heart aren’t straight, nothing else will work well.

Future articles in this series will deal with “practical” issues as well as psychological, but the first step is to get loose and easy again, to believe you can handle what’s coming, and that it’s worth doing so. Perhaps you will even be able to look forward to the future as fun; a challenge worth meeting, in hard times.

Loss and pain will still find us, of course, but we can handle it. And nothing we lose was ours to keep forever anyway, because none of us, as humans at least, are eternal.

The times are changing, and they are going to be hard times for most. The good will still exist and these are the times that others will read of and imagine, “What would it have been like to live then? Could I have handled it?”

Those who live on are those doomed and honored to live in such times.


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Trump Says—

2017 January 16
by Ian Welsh

—that the Iraq war was a huge mistake.

Does Trump saying something make that something wrong?


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Trump on Health Insurance, NATO, and the EU

2017 January 15
tags:
by Ian Welsh

Well, Trump keeps saying stuff, and people keep freaking out. He said a number of interesting things this weekend, let’s run through them.

The U.K. is smart to leave the bloc because the EU “is basically a means to an end for Germany.”

Yeah. Not so clear. BUT, there’s an element of truth here. Among the major European powers, Germany is the one who has benefited most from the EU, or rather the Euro (which England was not a part of). The Euro is not worth nearly as much as a German mark would be, making German exports far more affordable than they would be otherwise. Meanwhile, Germany has pushed hard for austerity policies, on the crazed moral point that countries which don’t run trade surpluses shouldn’t have good things. At this point, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Greece would clearly all be better off outside the Euro–at the very least. Germany has acted monstrously over the past eight years, no more so than to Greece, but not only to them. About the only thing I agree with Merkel about was when she opened up Germany to immigrants (something Trump slams).

  • Trump said Bayerische Motoren Werke AG would face a 35 percent import duty for foreign-built BMW cars sold in the U.S. BMW should scrap plans to open a new plant in Mexico and build the factory in the U.S. instead, he was quoted as saying. BMW plans to start building 3 Series sedans at San Luis Potosí in 2019.

I have exactly zero problem with this. This is how much of the world economy was run prior to the rise of neoliberalism. If you wanted access to a market, you were expected to locate much of the production in the country, with foreign content rules in place. Often it was expected that, say, 60 percent of work and materials would be produced in the country to which you were selling.

  • NATO, he said, “has problems.” “It’s obsolete, first because it was designed many, many years ago,” Trump was quoted as saying about the trans-Atlantic military alliance. “Secondly, countries aren’t paying what they should” and NATO “didn’t deal with terrorism.”

I have believed, since the fall of the USSR and the release of the Warsaw Pact countries, that NATO should be dissolved. I have not changed my mind because Trump is now saying it. Let us be clear, the EU’s population is 508 million. When the UK leaves, it will be 447 million.

Russia’s population is 143 million.

The EU minus Britain has a GDP of 18.1 trillion (purchasing power parity), Russia has an economy of 3.5 trillion (ppp). Germany alone has a GDP (ppp) of four trillion.

Yeah, Europe can afford to pay for its own defense. It has a larger economy and a larger population than Russia. It isn’t even close. If Europe refuses to defend itself, I don’t see how that’s America’s problem, the only thing Europe really needs from America is a nuclear shield, and that need could easily be fulfilled another way (and France has nukes).

NATO is the main reason that Russia is a problem. The Russians were promised that NATO wouldn’t expand into the Warsaw Pact countries. That promise was broken, and when it became possible that the Ukraine would join NATO, Russia acted, because Russian generals believe that it is impossible to defend Moscow if troops start from the Ukraine.

  • On Russia, he suggested he might use economic sanctions imposed for Vladimir Putin’s encroachment on Ukraine as leverage in nuclear-arms reduction talks

This isn’t a bad thing. Good relations with the other massively nuclear armed state in the world are good, and America has zero interests of importance in the Ukraine. As for Europe, see above: They can defend themselves, and if they can’t be bothered, so be it.

Now, to be frank, I don’t believe it will be good insurance (I’ll be happy to be wrong), and I note that it is not healthcare for all, but insurance for all–insurance many may not be able to use. I also doubt it will be universal. But then Obamacare was insurance that many people can’t afford to use, so that alone doesn’t make it a worse plan than Obamacare was.

Still, the actual promise has potential to be better than Obamacare, because Obamacare was not actually insurance for everyone: Nine percent of Americas still lack insurance (this is down from about 14 percent before Obamacare).

If it’s better than Obamacare I will laugh like a hyena.

My read on Trump’s future is as follows: He either gets two terms, or he gets impeached in his first term. Most GOP Congress members would rather have Pence than Trump. BUT Trump’s followers are very faithful and as long as he remains popular, Congress would not dare to impeach him. They have to live in districts where he is popular, and not only their seats, but much more would be at risk if they were labelled traitors by Trump. Bear in mind that there’s no way Trump goes peacefully, or doesn’t call them out, he would fight to the end.

So Trump has to deliver to his base, or he’s done. Also, Trump wants to be adored. It is his deepest psychological need, as best I can see.

The risks with Trump remain high (especially in regards to his China policy); his tax cuts are deranged, the supreme court is going to be a disaster, but that doesn’t mean that his administration may not be successful enough for the people it needs to deliver for to get him his second term.

More than that, Trump is saying the things that no one else in power would say. I mean, he called out pharma as protected and said that’s over. He’s mostly right about NATO. He said in this interview that Iraq was the biggest foreign policy disaster in American history (that’s overstating it, but it’s the biggest since Vietnam).

It’s going to be an interesting few years. Strap in.


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I Can’t Imagine Why People Are Willing to Gamble On Change

2017 January 15
by Ian Welsh

They just don’t know all their self interest. If only they understood everything that has been done for them.

“Poor people in the U.S. may not be many times better off than people in Africa or in India,” said Deaton, who added: “Many areas of Appalachia and Mississippi Delta have lower life expectancy than Bangladesh.”

I, uh, have lived in Bangladesh, albeit a long time ago now. I understand things have improved, still, you have to work really hard to go lower than Bangladesh.

As I’ve said before, people in these communities (and others in decline) know what the status quo offers, and pegged Clinton as a status quo continuation. Thus, they were willing to take a chance on Trump.

That doesn’t mean he may not be bad for them, it means that their lives are already unbearable, their futures moreso, and they’re willing to take even bad gambles for a chance at improvement. (This is also why poor people often buy lottery tickets. The odds are terrible, they’re pissing away money, but they have not even a miniscule hope otherwise of a better life.)

Trump and the Republicans’ repeal of the ACA will kill a decent chunk of people due to the end of the pre-existing conditions clause (assuming that isn’t kept, which seems likely, though Trump has said he wanted to keep it). Tax cuts for the rich and corporations will be bad for the poor and the middle class. But Trump also promised to shake up other things, like trade and tariffs, which may benefit them.

In any case, sometimes a roll of the dice seems like the only option–especially when the option of keeping things as they are is unbearable.

*While the poor and working class did not make up the biggest chunk of Trump’s voters, the shift in their votes was part of what allowed Trump to win. In an election as close as the last one, a lot of things are “the cause.”


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Angry Interview on Trump, Dark Ages, and Despair

2017 January 13

I spent an hour and some talking on Virtually Speaking about Trump, Dark Ages, Jane Jacobs book on Dark Ages and about Despair.

This the angriest interview I’ve ever done, there’s some choppy editing (including a jump at 44 minutes where topic changes without warning), and there is a fair bit of me saying “umm” and so forth as I sort out my answers. I’m not recommending it to everyone, but it’s available if you want to listen. If you read my piece on Jacobs book, a fair bit will be repetitive for you.

Again, this is Angry. Don’t listen if you don’t want to listen to an hour of an angry guy.

If you want something short, smooth, and not angry on dealing with despair, this will work better.

 


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Trump Promises to Reduce Drug Prices

2017 January 12
by Ian Welsh

So, there was a lot of hoopla over Trump’s press conference, most of it concentrating on the release of the oppo research file on him, containing not one proven assertion.

I decided, once again, to read the actual transcript.  And found out that there was little coverage of something which should matter more to most Americans: Trump’s promise to lower Pharma prices.

We’ve got to get our drug industry back. Our drug industry has been disastrous. They’re leaving left and right. They supply our drugs, but they don’t make them here, to a large extent. And the other thing we have to do is create new bidding procedures for the drug industry because they’re getting away with murder.

Pharma has a lot of lobbies and a lot of lobbyists and a lot of power and there’s very little bidding on drugs. We’re the largest buyer of drugs in the world and yet we don’t bid properly and we’re going to start bidding and we’re going to save billions of dollars over a period of time.

The business press seem to be taking this seriously.

It is also, AGAIN, something which should have been tackled long ago. Obama deliberately refused to allow price negotiation with pharma and so did Bush. In both cases, they gave into the lobby. Insane.

Nor, as some say, will this mean that pharma prices will have to rise overseas. Pharma is a profitable industry which spends more on marketing and advertising than on drug research, which researches mostly the wrong drugs, and so on.  They can just make less money–high profits to Pharma are mis-allocated resources.

Next Trump talked about the F-35 (for those who don’t keep track, it basically can’t fly and is vastly over cost.)

And we’re going to do that with a lot of other industries. I’m very much involved with the generals and admirals on the airplane, the F-35, you’ve been reading about it. And it’s way, way behind schedule and many, many billions of dollars over budget. I don’t like that. And the admirals have been fantastic, the generals have been fantastic. I’ve really gotten to know them well. And we’re going to do some big things on the F-35 program…

AGAIN something which should have already been dealt with.

Trump thinks like a deal-maker and a business man, and what he sees is that the government is vastly over-paying for services and products, and he doesn’t like that. And what he sees is that Americans are overpaying as well, because the government refuses to act on their behalf.

I’m sorry, I’m very sorry. Trump will certainly do bad things, but if he follows through on these two things (especially pharma), he’ll be doing very good things that people like Obama would not do.

This is of a piece with Trump killing the Trans Pacific Partnership, while reports have regularly indicated that getting it passed was Obama’s most important legislative priority, likely for his entire Presidency.

Understand clearly that this is the sort of stuff that Trump was elected to do, along with bringing jobs back, curtailing immigration, and so on.

The next thing to watch will be what replaces the ACA (Obamacare). I am not optimistic, because health care accounts are a terrible idea.  But let’s see. (Or, alternatively, call your Congress critters and insist the ACA not be repealed. You might win.)

But right now, as I score it, Trump is more or less on track to do what he said he would do. I think his tax cuts will be disastrous, especially in the long run. I don’t like Obamacare, but I expect him to replace it with something worse. However, in a lot of areas, he’s talking about doing things that should have been done long ago.

When the people too many liberals think are “good” (like Obama), won’t do what everyone knows what must be done, they will eventually be done by people liberals consider “bad,” in ways liberals might not like.

There’s a lesson there.


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The Latest Dossier on Trump

2017 January 11

Buzzfeed published it. They start with this:

A dossier, compiled by a person who has claimed to be a former British intelligence official, alleges Russia has compromising information on Trump. The allegations are unverified, and the report contains errors.

“We can’t confirm any of it, and we know some of it is wrong, but we went with it anyway.”

Sigh.

On the face of it, I’m inclined to agree with Glenn Greenwald that it seems possible the Deep State is taking a shot at Trump. Because Trump has plans to reorganize the intelligence agencies, that’s not surprising.

Perhaps unrelated: Trump will be keeping his private security, and not relying entirely on the Secret Service.

Greenwald’s point that when much or all of this is proved false, it will immunize Trump from any true revelations in the future, is also worth pondering.

I’m not sure what to say beyond that, except that reading this Twitter stream from Matt Stoller is important. It starts as follows.

Yeah. It’s just possible that Democrats lost not because of a super evil Russian conspiracy, but because they didn’t do the very basic job of government. All the bullshit lists that have come out miss the simple point that, measured in terms of jobs as a percentage of the population, the economy hasn’t recovered.

As for Obamacare, insurance coverage is not health care. If it was, the mortality rate wouldn’t be going up. The transmission is not applying power to the ground.

Democrats lost to an extremely unpopular, very flawed person, because they ran the country badly for a lot of people, and those people are upset.


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The Continued Collision Between Trump and the Fed

2017 January 10
by Ian Welsh

As I noted before, the Fed and the Trump admin are on a collision course. More evidence:

The Fed’s argument is that the unemployment rate is low enough that it is at the natural rate of employment which doesn’t cause wage-push inflation. As of December, that was 4.7 percent. (There are tons of problems with this, but we’ll ignore most of them, what matters here is what the Fed thinks.)

I am old enough to remember when an unemployment rate of five percent was considered a scandal, but no matter.

The fact is that the people who elected Trump aren’t feeling good. To make them feel good, Trump is going to have get the official unemployment rate lower than it is now, at least under four percent, and hopefully to three percent or lower and hold it there for some time, at least two or three years.

This stuff takes time to ripple through the economy, and it takes time for a tight labor market to push employers to both raise wages and to hire people who they consider marginal.

If the Federal Reserve raises rates if/when Trump’s policies (“fiscal,” in the above) start to work, they will be making sure he can’t deliver to his constituency.

This is a direct collision course.

Now let me say something simple. The Federal Reserve, for over 30 years, has deliberately crushed wages. This was policy. Policy.

The idea that the Federal Reserve should be able to sandbag the policy (“fiscal”) of elected representatives has always been anti-democratic and bogus. They work fastidiously to make sure the rich get richer, to bail out banks, and ensure their profits. Despite “full employment” supposedly being part of their charter, they have defined full employment to mean “employment pressure which doesn’t lead to general increases in wages faster than inflation.”

That is, they have deliberately set out to create stagnation and decline of general wages, while deliberately also ensuring that the rich get richer.

That’s what the Federal Reserve does in practice, and has done since the early 80s.

And that’s why, as with many of Trump’s other targets, I have no intention of defending the Federal Reserve. Yes, Trump is bad, etc. But the Federal Reserve needs to be broken to the will of government, and thus to democracy.

Since none of the “non-bad” or “not so bad” presidents did it, it will fall to Trump to do it. This will probably be the worst way to do something necessary, but so be it; none of the so-called “reasonable” people will do it, so it will be done by someone unreasonable (if Trump does it, this is not a fait accompli.)

Along with breaking the intelligence community (which could lead the world into an even worse situation, but a task that also falls into “needs to be done” category), Trump may well wind up being the most transformative President since Reagan, or even FDR.

This is what happens when the necessary actions which are not taken by “reasonable” people. They wind up being done by unreasonable people, and those unreasonable people may not be “unreasonable” in the way you like.

Keep an eye on this: If the Fed doesn’t blink and Trump doesn’t break them, he’s probably a one-termer.


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