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Trump Suggests Restructuring US Debt

2016 May 7
by Ian Welsh

And fools rush to say this is a stupid idea.

No. Or not necessarily.

While we are in a period where countries have been absolutely hammered for defaulting or restructuring on debt, the historical record is that countries often benefit from doing so. Germany, for example, very much benefited from it after World War II.

US law controls. If the US government changes US law, creditors can go pound sand trying to collect.

There is a constitutional issue, of course, and as such it may not be possible, but it is not, de-facto, a stupid idea.

And yes, people will still lend to the US after a restructure. There is far more money in the world than there are investment opportunities.

Trump often says stupid and/or objectionable things, but something is not stupid and/or objectionable just because Trump says it. In many cases, he is making common sense statements which no one else has the guts to say.

And please shut up about how the Bush’s and McCain and Romney and so on are not going to be at the convention. Who cares? Trump said that Bush Jr., for example, failed to protect the US from 9/11 and then invaded Iraq when he shouldn’t have and then fucked up the war. You expect Bush to go to the convention after Trump told the truth about him?

A truth, I might add, that any left-winger worth his or her salt agrees with and has said repeatedly? Not to mention that any decent left-winger should despise Bush Jr. His not endorsing Trump after Trump ripped him a new one is not an indictment of Trump.

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“Voltaire’s Bastards” by John Ralston Saul, Review May 29th

2016 May 7
by Ian Welsh

Sunday May 29th, I will be publishing a review of Saul’s book. Voltaire’s Bastards is about how reason has slain purpose, sense and effective democracy. It was first published in the early 90s, but the trends he was observing have only become worse–far worse–since then.

It’s an infuriating book in many ways, despite being well-written, precisely because the idiocy and corruption he documents continues apace, but it’s a book worth reading.

If you want to read it before the review comes out, you have till the 29th.

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The Labour Vote Is Up Four Percent

2016 May 6
by Ian Welsh
Picture of Jeremy Corbyn

Picture of Jeremy Corbyn

The media and anti-Corbyn MPs had made this a referendum on Corbyn’s leadership and predicted massive losses.


Because of geographic clustering, a few seats were lost, but the overall vote is up.

This is remarkable. Almost the entire media in Britain has been relentlessly anti-Corbyn. Half his own MPs are constantly sniping at him. There is a ginned-up anti-semitism “crisis” in the Labour Party (how dare members criticize Israel).

And the Labour party improves its vote.

This a sign that the elites in Britain, as elsewhere, are losing control of the narrative. Ordinary people do not believe their shit any more. And it’s really a sign, because the elites have been united in vituperative and never-ending opposition to Corbyn.

Let me give some advice to my British friends across the pond: You need to purge the disloyal MPs. Oh yes, there has been great talk about how one shouldn’t do that.

You are a fool if you listen. The MPs have been acting not just in opposition to Corbyn, but traitorously to the party. They have been deliberately trying to sabotage him.

This is up to rank-and-file Labour party members. Corbyn won’t put his fingerprints on this. But Labour still has nomination meetings.

Start now. Get control of the local ridings, and, when the time comes, get rid of them. Do not apologize for this: They refuse to represent the democratic will of the Labour party membership. If they want to run on neo-liberal Blairite policies, the Lib-Dems and Conservatives can have them.

And if Corbyn gets in power, he must then purge. Within the first 100 days, major figures in the BBC must be forced to step down, the civil service mandarinate must be broken and a media-breakup law instituted and carried through, while steps must be taken to break the power of the City.

This is because those sectors will oppose his plans relentlessly. They cannot be appeased, and a deal cannot be made with them.

This is the lesson, by the way, that people should be learning from what is happening in South America. Having been left with commanding control of the media and economy, the old forces of the right have been able to use that control to sabotage and destroy left-wing governments and they have done so in extraordinarily non-democratic ways and in Venezuela’s case, through clear-cut economic sabotage.

You cannot do business with these people. They are not trustworthy, and they will use every bit of power they have to destroy you.

Those who think this is not true in Britain but only in Third world countries are whistling in the dark.

And yes, the phone call came from inside the house.

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People Are Soooo Convinced Trump Can’t Win the Presidency

2016 May 5
by Ian Welsh

Just as people were soooo convinced that Trump couldn’t win the Republican nomination.

Let’s clear a couple things up.

  1. Trump is not stupid by any useful definition of stupid. He has spent his life getting what he wanted.
  2. Trump is not crazy, except in terms of being crazy like a fox. He knew what he was doing and it worked.

Trump has a basic critique:

Our elites are corrupt fuck-ups who work for rich people, screw over ordinary people, and couldn’t manage to a Taco Bell.

They have bungled the economy, they have lost multiple wars, and they allowed 9/11 to happen on their watch.

Trump, because he is rich and successful, is not politically corrupt; he does not need to take anyone else’s money. He owes no one anything.

Because he has played at the top of the game, he knows how politics and business works and because he needs nothing from anyone, he will use his skill and knowledge to help ordinary shmoes.

America’s economy will work under him. America will avoid stupid wars.

This is a strong critique, because it is true. America’s elites are corrupt incompetents whose only skill is funneling more money to rich people. They have lost multiple wars, bungled terrorism, and completely fucked up the economy for ordinary people.

Whether Trump is the right man to fix this is more questionable, but his critique works against Clinton. She was there for all of it and she was in favor of virtually all of it. Clinton is a corrupt, oligarchical tool who never saw a war she didn’t like, and whose reign as Secretary of State was an endless series of fuck-ups.

Maybe Trump isn’t all he says he is, but many Americans are very likely to be willing to take a flier on him, because his critique of Clinton will be right in the essence, even if it misses some of the details.

I shouldn’t have to point out, but apparently do, that Trump will now move to the center. He’s pandered to the right-wingers whom he needed to to win the nomination. Now, he’ll pander to the people he needs to win the presidency.

I do not know whether Trump will win. But I am quite certain he can win.

This is true, also, because Clinton is an incompetent executive and campaigner. She damn near lost the nomination to a socialist. She did lose in ’08 when she had everything going for her. She promotes cronyism, her entire campaign is, “No, we can’t, don’t be a child, you can’t have anything good,” and her instincts are terrible.

Clinton’s campaign premise will be, “I have ovaries and he’s crazy.”

That isn’t a good message against, “I’ll make America great again and give you a good job.”

Clinton’s entire hope comes down to Trump’s bigotry. She will rest heavily on the minority and female votes.  But if inroads are made there, she can easily lose. Women are not the monolith people act like they are: Married women often vote in their husband’s interests, seeing those interests as their own.

Also, it remains to be seen how much people will come out for Hillary. They won’t vote for Trump? Okay. But vote for Hillary? A different thing.

There’s plenty of time before the election, and Clinton does not seem to me to be a sure thing.

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Learning to Understand the World

2016 May 4
by Ian Welsh

I’m Canadian, but my father often worked overseas. My earliest memories are not of Vancouver, where I was born, but of Malaysia, where I spent my first five years. The person who took care of me then was not my mother, but Anna, the housekeeper.

She was a Chinese Malay and I spent most of my time with her. I ate the same food as her and thought that was great: The western fare my parents ate was not half so tasty as the fried noodles and soups that were her mainstay.

She had a son, maybe twenty or so, though it’s hard to say. He had a motorcycle and seemed to me the epitome of cool (though I didn’t know that word) and kindness. One of my clearest early memories is of him teaching me how to catch butterflies in the little net I had.

The secret is to not chase them, let them settle in the grass and put the net over them. It takes the challenge out of it, but it works.

My favorite person in the world was Dee, my father’s secretary, also Chinese Malay. She was wild, and young, and had a sports car and would seat me in her lap while she drove. When my grandmother came to visit, I steadfastly refused to call her Grandma or any such thing, until someone hit on the name of “Grand-Dee”. So she was ever after.

We moved back to Canada when I was six or so, after stays in Jakarta, Indonesia and in Singapore and I didn’t travel overseas again till I was twelve, when my father got a job running a project in Bangladesh.

We traveled extensively through the Indian subcontinent in those years: Kashmir before the troubles, Nepal before the troubles. Delhi. Calcutta where I had a great-aunt who had not left after partition.  Darjeeling, where my grandfather had been police chief under the Raj. Many other places. My mother, having spent much of her childhood in India, spoke fluent Hindi. This always surprised Indians, often to hilarious effect, as she would putter along like a typical white woman, letting them say whatever they wanted, then break into Hindi herself.

I remember someone cursing out our driver, and my Mother listening for quite some time before she leaned over, a round, little white matron and said, “That’s not very nice,” in Hindi.

The reaction was both funny and touching.

My father worked for Food and Agriculture, a United Nations organization. He often had guests over to the house, and if he went to someone else’s house, I usually went along. His compatriots were other aid workers: foresters, geologists, economists, agronomists, and so on. They’d sit and discuss trying to help the Third world; what worked and what didn’t.

The “what didn’t” list was a lot longer than the “what did,” but of more interest was why. Between them they had hundreds of years of experience.

I sat, listened, and learned.

Because I spent so much time around people with different beliefs, I became fascinated with how people could believe such different things. The Christians. The Hindus. The Moslems. The Secularists.

My father had a weird mix of white paternalism and deep respect for the locals and they generally seemed to like him. He was an asshole, but he was a fair asshole–and that was a vast improvement over the people they were used to working for and dealing with. He didn’t assume they didn’t know their own lives and he gave respect where respect was due.

I remember, back in Canada, being approached by Christian evangalists and my father telling them where to shove their beliefs. “You tell me that these good people I know who aren’t Christian are going to hell because they don’t follow Jesus?! Get off my property, or I’ll throw you off.”

He was a large, red-faced man who radiated anger and menace.

They got off his property.

People believe all sorts of weirdness. They believe contradictory weirdness, which doesn’t stop many of them from being good people, even though their beliefs are different.

It doesn’t stop them from being bad people, either.

Western scientific knowledge clearly mattered, but our ideological beliefs always struck me as as dubious as any theology. I remember, in grade eleven, reading an economics textbook which talked about rational man and utility optimization.

This was theology. Moral beliefs about how people should act and about how the universe must be, little different from Medieval Church scholasticism. Later I was to discover that the more a social “science” tried to pretend it was a science, the more dubious its insights, the greater the corruption, and the more massive the harm it did–and had done.

Economics, being the most “scientific” had done the most harm. Psychology was close behind.

I was a reader. From the time I was seven, until perhaps age thirty-two or so, I read more than a book a day on average. Often I would read as many as twenty in a week–two or three in a day.

Most of it was fiction, but amongst that was a fair bit of non-fiction. It’s not clear to me that I learned more from the non-fiction.

My main interests were in questions of knowledge: epistemology, cultural anthropology, comparative religion.  What did humans believe and why?

I didn’t really become interested in economics and political science (in the broadest sense) until the recession of the early 90s. It was so clear that those leading society, and most economists, had no idea what was going on that I turned my attention to learning how the economy worked.

They couldn’t fix it, so I’d see if I could figure out how.

I did not lack intellectual confidence.

And so I read the economists, trying to winnow some gems out of the trash and hoping to find the occasional economist who knew his (they were all men) discipline was an ideological garbage heap and thus was able to say something useful.

I went back to university, before illness and poverty drove me out, and while there I studied (and read) mostly philosophy, linguistics, and sociology. In sociology, I found a discipline which had a broad enough focus of view that amidst the crap (and there was plenty) were real insights into how society, power, and economics actually work.

This was because no one took sociology seriously and most had contempt for it. Freed from interest by those with wealth and power, some sociologists were actually able to do useful work.

Anthropology and cultural historians remained the best people to read to remind oneself that “It was not always thus,” “It is not always thus,” and, “People are really plastic and can believe all sorts of amazing stuff.”

Cultural anthropology remains the best antidote to the sort of fools who try and pronounce that everything a human does is because of selfishness, or utility, or any other one thing.

No one who is well read can believe such a thing without engaging in the sort of mental gymnastics which make a circus contortionist’s physical antics look like those of a gross amateur.

Sociology, anthropology, and the better parts of psychology and history are also excellent reminders that humans are only slightly rational, and that when they do manage to be more than slightly rational it is the irrational parts of their belief systems which determine whether or not the rationality will lead to anything good.

Any rationality which tries to rest itself entirely in rationality becomes monstrous, precisely because it fails to recognize its monstrous non-rational roots, or that rationality can never provide ethical ends, only means.

In the 2000s, I fell into the blog world. As I have said before, I started out writing about policy and war, often nerdy, weedy stuff. Twenty-seven mistakes made during the Iraq occupation (nine months in), and so on.

I should have remembered what Ian, at twenty-one, knew.

People can believe essentially anything. People are not rational. Knowledge systems are pre-rational, even if a huge mound of rationality has been piled up to bury the non-rational roots.

You can’t convince anybody of anything they don’t want to believe, and most people’s real need to believe is to believe in their tribe and the Gods of their tribe, whether those Gods are supernatural ones like YHVH and Zeus, or merely metaphysical entities like utility or pure reason shorn of ideology.

I came back, first, to try to explain the first principles of morality and ethics to people. Stuff like “killing less people is better than killing more people.”

That didn’t stick. Most people can’t get it. They believe what their tribe does is right and if a moral symbol has been violated, their anger and outrage is too high to do the math involved in “this ‘terrorist’ is far less of a criminal than George Bush or Barack Obama.”

Fine. Ethics and morality don’t work, shorn of tribalism.

This is where the great Axial reformers wound up, by the way. They tried to create universal religions which made everyone a brother (sadly leaving women largely out, with a few partial exceptions). They tried to extend the tribe to everyone.

Instead, they created super-tribes which spent the next 2,000 years fighting it out in bloody and spectacular fashion.

Then, we raised up national ideology as tribes and did the 19th and 20th centuries.

Because I promised in my fundraiser that I’d do twelve reviews of foundational books, I have spent the past three weeks re-reading some of them. To date, I have read mostly sociology, with a side of theories of justice and charisma.

I have been brought back to my early concerns with knowledge and belief: People can believe virtually anything, and they will do so well past the point where it kills them, or their entire society.

I have been hammering, for the last six months, the issue of the logic of capitalism: How it has destroyed the environment and will thus lead to the deaths of at least a billion people or more.

We knew it was doing so, and we kept on keeping on. We knew planned obsolesence was wasteful and we kept on keeping on. Lately, we’ve been engaged in economic austerity despite the fact is has worked for, maybe, one nation in the world (Germany).


We are barely sentient.

We live inside knowledge systems in which we have created the world as very concrete (often literally–buildings are instantiated ideas). We are so enmeshed in them we are barely able to question their assumptions or where they are leading us. We will not stop till they lead to catastrophe, and, often enough, not even then.

Forget the present day; go read how the Reformation and Counter-Reformation went down.

So, I find myself today sifting through the books I have read before; the thoughts I have thought before. I look back at different Ians and each of their understandings of the world.

These grains have fallen through my fingers before, and I have stared at the sand looking to weave a pattern that explains the order humans create.

Leaving aside natural processes we mostly don’t control, what changes the human world in the most far-reaching way are ideas. Those ideas may be technological ideas, or scientific, or ethical. They may be religions or ideologies (little difference, really). But the change comes from ideas.

So many, many ideas. So many we could not even ennumerate them, though the encyclopedists and editors of dictionaries have tried.

These ideas were all created by us. Some are very close to the natural world; some are far removed, but they are our ideas.

And they control us. The hand of dead philosophers, scientists, and technologists rules us.

We thought Reason would free us. The Enlightenment project was to dispel illusions and hobgoblins and myths. But reason has not freed us, and by giving us great power without giving us that cliched great wisdom, it has led to a great extinction that may even claim us.


I have a few. They seem to me inadequate against our vast will to believe in garbage and our unwillingness to admit that the garbage is all created by us, and corresponds little to effectiveness, let alone reality.

But I will write them. There will be the book reviews I promised. There will be the booklet on the Creation of Reality.

Perhaps we can point towards a way of becoming self-aware creators of our own reality. Because we already create our own reality, we simply do it like the blind men in the parable of the Elephant, save not describing what we feel but creating it with no mind to how it all fits together and what the consequences of adopting each idea will be.

Marx posited that we create our own chains, but denigrated the role of ideas. Nothing but our biology binds humans more than ideas, because, beyond the basics given us by nature, everything–including the power of the gun, comes from ideas.

Let us see whether my forty-eight-year journey has taught me anything useful about those ideas, and whether I can impart what I have learned to others.

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How the Rational Irrationality of Capitalism Is Destroying the World

2016 May 1
by Ian Welsh

Capitalism leads to actions only a self-destructive wastrel would want, but does so pure rationality.

Think of rationality as being of two types: Means-ends and internal-coherence.

Means-ends rationality says: “I want to get to Point A. How do I do that?” Or, “I want to grow a garden so I can eat food. What are the steps involved?”

Internal-coherence is related to a system. Perhaps I want to go to Heaven, and am a Catholic. I examine the Catholic system and decide that works of charity, baptism, and regular confession are the most important things to do.

If you are not a Christian, then these activities appear quite insane–as might the idea of “going to Heaven.”

“What’s ‘heaven,'” you might ask.

On the other hand, while one might quibble about someone’s garden (“Why not just buy the food” or, “You aren’t using enough fertilizer”), we all know that food is needed and that it makes sense to get food.

Meanwhile, the Christians have realized that eternal damnation, meaning eternal (what happens to those without Christ) is the worst thing that can ever happen. They have also discovered that burning someone alive will make sure that person doesn’t suffer eternal torment. So they start burning people alive, because no matter how much that hurts, it’s better than eternal torture.

This is entirely rational within a certain Christian world-view. Anything you do to stop someone from going to Hell is justified, because nothing that you can do to anyone is worse than what they will endure in Hell. War, conquest, forcible conversion—nothing is worse than eternal torture.

This is rational within certain Christian systems. To anyone outside the Christian system, it is insane.

Conquering people to impose democracy follows the essential same logic. It is only internally coherent and logical. Rational.

Let us examine the logic of capitalism.

In a market, if two people or groups agree to a trade, then that trade benefits both groups. If it did not benefit both groups, the agreement would not be made. If someone wants to buy something, (presumably) it has utility for them. Perhaps I like greasy hamburgers and sugary pop. Those things may make me sick, but I know that I get the most utility out of them, and it is not up to anyone else to say that their ill effect on my health outweighs the greasy deliciousness of the burger or the sugar high from the pop. An exchange, mutually agreed upon, is always more beneficial to the parties involved than no exchange; otherwise it would not happen.

Profit is how the capitalist system determines who is doing the most good. If people are willing to pay you more for you for goods than the your cost of production, then they place a value what you are doing. The more they are willing to pay, the more your work (or goods) is valued. The more profit you make, the more you should be doing whatever you are doing, because profit based on voluntary exchanges indicates the mutual benefit of  both parties involved. As long as you can make a profit, it indicates that scarce resources are being used well.

The product may be hamburgers. It may be firearms. In the purest form, it does not matter. Drugs, sex–anything to which both parties voluntarily agree.

So, if I’m involved in a voluntary exchange, and I’m making a profit, I should continue to do what I’m doing, and the more profit I make the more I should do of it. More profit gives me more control of resources, so I am able to do more, and I do.

This is the basic capitalist feedback system (in theory). Do more of whatever is profitable and consensual, and this will perpetuate itself automatically because those who make the most profit are doing the things people value the most compared to the cost of producing those things.

So why have we produced to so much carbon that we’re going to kill a billion people or more?

Because capitalist rationality is internal-coherence. It does not question ends. By definition, anything which makes profits and is consensual is good. (I’m leaving out questions of perfect consensuality, like power and so on, deliberately.)

Take planned obsolescence. Goods are designed so they will wear out and break down; they make them hard to repair when they do break, so people will buy new ones.

This was a big fight in the late 19th and early 20th century, by the way.  Engineers wanted to design goods which would last as long as possible, but managers didn’t: If you can sell a person whatever you make only once in their life, or twice, you make a lot less money than if it breaks down and has to be replaced every few years.

This means, of course, that you have to mine a lot more material. People have to work a lot more to make goods which would not be needed if they were designed to last as long as possible. This generate more carbon and other pollutants.

In every way this is bad: People have less free time, there is more pollution, and we use up more scarce resources. No one sane would create such a system from first principles.

But it makes sense within the Capitalist system. The exchanges are all voluntary, it leads to maximum profit, and profit indicates scarce resources are being turned into utility in the best way possible.

It is rational to destroy the planet’s life-bearing ability by over-using resources and spewing more pollution into it than necessary. It is rational to do more work than is necessary to produce the goods people need (or even want) so you can sell again and again, rather than just selling once.

This is internal-coherence rational, not means-ends rational. I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer to work less and have everything (or most everything) I need and want, while polluting less and using less resources. I will posit that the vast majority of human beings on Earth would agree.

Internal-coherence rationality is so close to always bad that you might as well just say that it is. Yes, one always has to ask, “Why do we want X?” when dealing with means-end rationality, but means-ends rationality has a tendency to cut out the shit. When we examine it carefully, most of us want enough stuff for the least possible work and want to be healthy, which means we don’t want a lot of pollution.

Capitalism is not means-end rational. The argument was made for a long time, “but it works.” By which it was meant, “it produces a lot of goods and money.” But it produced too many goods we didn’t need and money is only a means, for most people, to get the goods they need.

We will have to find a better way. The easy sneer that “Communism failed” is irrelevant. Capitalism is failing as well, and its failure will lead to a billion deaths or more because of climate change and other foreseeable failures (like over-use of resources.) We knew these were problems, but driven by the internal-coherence rationality of Capitalism, we kept doing what we knew would have unacceptable consequences.

When finding that better way, we must start by asking what the economy is supposed to do. I will suggest it doesn’t exist to make a profit, it exists to make sure people get what they need (and as much as possible what they want) in a fashion that is sustainable, doesn’t make us sick or unhappy, and doesn’t threaten the conditions necessary for sustaining life on Earth.

It is “rational” to destroy the Earth for profit. But only if you’re so wrapped in the logic of Capitalism that you’re no longer rational.

Or particularly sane.

(This is the 4th in a series on Capitalism.  Read “The Death of Capitalism”, “What Capitalism Is”, and “Did the Industrial Revolution Require Land Clearances, Slavery, Genocide, and Empire?”)

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Cries for Sanders to Be Conciliatory Miss the Point

2016 April 28
by Ian Welsh
Sanders-021507-18335- 0004

Sanders-021507-18335- 0004

So, Sanders has most likely lost. Last minute upsets are possible, but highly unlikely.

And now come the calls for Bernie to be conciliatory.

This misses the point.

Sanders doesn’t need anything Clinton can give.

Any promises she makes with respect to his priorities are not credible. He’s old and his career is all but over anyway, so there is little she can offer in terms of career “advancement.”

Why does he need to be conciliatory? Only “for the good of the party.”  But the party has not been good to Sanders–in fact, it has repeatedly put its hand on the scales to help Hillary.

Clinton’s policies are far enough from Sanders that the only argument for him to be “conciliatory” are based on Trump being even further from him. But on things like not attacking foreign countries, Trump is actually closer to Sanders.

From my POV, the onus is on Clinton to be credibly conciliatory to Bernie, and more importantly his supporters. If her entire argument is “I’m the lesser evil,” then she should expect little beyond the occasional symbolic olive branch from Sanders or his followers.

Of course, it’s hard to be conciliatory for Clinton. Her entire campaign has been based on “I deserve this,” which doesn’t leave a lot of room for saying to other people, “I see your side.” She’s already saying things like TPP only needs a few tweaks, etc.

She’s simply, and to the core, a right wing hawk who is fundamentally opposed to most left-wing policies and who only changes her mind once those policies are inevitable (as with gay marriage, which she supported very late in the game).

In emotive language, she’s evil. Bernie’s no wonder on a lot of issues, but he did actually oppose all the key wars, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, and so on. Clinton? On the wrong side of almost every issue which has mattered for her entire career and she’s not even believable where she’s better than Bernie, for instance on gun-control, about which she has attacked Obama as anti-guns, but then pandered in PA on gun-control.

So Clinton has to rely on Bernie being loyal to a party which has screwed him repeatedly in order to help her win the nomination, and she can’t credibly give him anything that matters because she’s not trustworthy on any issue that matters to Sanders or his followers.

Conciliatory? Ridiculous. She’s not credible, and he doesn’t need her. If she wants to be conciliated, she had best go first and find out how to make it credible.

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Why the Climate Change Numbers Say “Nuclear”

2016 April 26
by Ian Welsh

Lot of people won’t like this post, but some of the smartest people I know have been saying for decades that a solution to climate change means nuclear energy. The numbers cannot, and will not, work without it.

The below info-graphic shows why:

French v German carbon production

The problem with nuclear energy is the problem with everything in our society.

Running it requires competent, risk-adverse individuals who takes its dangers seriously. It’s not that these dangers can’t be managed, it is certainly not that we can’t design better and safer reactors than we have now, it is that our elites do not care about the future. They are rational, utility-maximizers in the short run, who believe that investing to prevent disaster or catastrophe is foolish. Any catastrophe can be managed or survived. Katrina happened, life went on. Indeed, Katrina was a brilliant opportunity to introduce charter schools to New Orleans.

The financial disaster happened, and the people who caused it came out richer and more powerful, as a group. Fukushima happened, and, well, we’re all alive, thanks.

The long lesson our elites have learned over the past 40 years is that nothing can go so wrong it can’t be recovered from and that most catastrophes and crises are just opportunities to make even more money. There is no reason to invest in preventing crises when higher returns await elsewhere and when catastrophes are beneficial to our leaders.

As such, we cannot, overall, be expected to run something like nuclear energy properly.

Or financial markets.

But, if we really wanted to mitigate climate change, what we would really need to do is figure out how to run nuclear energy safely–including handling shutting down plants, dealing with waste, and running them safely. That would mean a significant framework/infrastructure redesign.

But it would also mean a change in our culture and society, a change to a society capable of managing risk, and we would have to be given some reason to believe that change would be relatively long-lasting: At least as long as the life-cycle of the nuclear plants.

Nuclear energy would be used as a transition energy source, needed for a generation or two, as we move to better sources. But generational cycles, and our own recent history, indicate that expecting our social structure to stay sane for as long as the life-cycle of nuclear plants isn’t a safe bet.

As usual, technical problems are subordinate to cultural and social issues.

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How Terrible People Normalize Injustice

2016 April 25
by Ian Welsh

There is a proposal to raise jail times for web piracy from two to ten years in the UK.

The key phrase in the above piece is “…other serious offenses, including rape and rioting.”

So, the writer, Matt Burgess, is saying web piracy is a serious offense, akin to rape.

Do not pretend a professional writer (and his editor) don’t know what they’re doing. It leaped out at me immediately. It appears to condemn, but the language normalizes.

Though this line is buried in the text, it is the pull quote used on twitter.

Our media is, overall, a detriment to society. I mean this quite seriously.

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What the Infotech/Telecom Revolution Has Actually Done

2016 April 23

Globe on FireThere’s a great deal of talk about how wonderful modern technology is. The internet, cell phones, and computers are the stars of this firmament. I believe such talk is somewhat overblown; the latest tech revolution is not as significant as many that have come before.

At least not in terms of doing good.

Let us examine what all this infotech really has changed.

Control. Massive control. Surveillance.

Just in time inventory. Not possible 50 years ago.

Second to second tracking of workers without having to have a supervisor physically watching them. Amazon warehouse workers carry devices which allow their workflow to be tracked to the second. And if they aren’t making their seconds, the supervisor is right on them. This wasn’t possible 30 years ago. If you wanted to have that sort of control, you had to have a supervisor physically watching them, and the cost was prohibitive.

This sort of tracking is used for clerical workers as well.

Outsourcing work that had to be kept domestic before. The massive call centers in Delhi and Ireland were not possible even 30 years ago. The cost was simply prohibitive.

Offshoring work, like manufacturing, was difficult to offshore before. Without real-time, high-density communications, cutting edge manufacturing overseas was very difficult in the past. You could offshore some things, certainly, but those industries tended to be mature industries: shipbuilding, textiles, and so on. Cutting edge industries, no, they had to be located close to the boffins or they were offshored to another, essentially First World country–as when Britain offshored much of their production to the United States in the late 19th century.

Commercial surveillance. Everything you buy is cross referenced. When you buy something at a major retailers, the store takes a picture of you and matches it with your information. All online purchase information is stored and centralized in databases. This information is shared. This includes, but goes far beyond, internet surveillance; witness Google or Facebook serving you ads based on what you’ve read or searched. Add this data to credit reports, bank accounts, and so on, and it provides a remarkably complete picture of your life, because everything you buy with anything but cash (and even some of that) is tracked. Where you are when you buy it is also tracked.

Government surveillance. Millions of cameras in London and most other First World cities. Millions of cameras in Chinese cities. Some transit systems now have audio surveillance. Because the government can seize any private surveillance as well, you can assume you’re being tracked all day in most First World cities. Add this to the commercial surveillance system described above and the picture of your life is startlingly accurate.

As biometric recognition system comes online (face, gait, infrared, and more) this work will be done automatically.

What the telecom and infotech revolution has done is enable wide scale CONTROL and SURVEILLANCE.

These are two sides of the same coin, you can’t control people if you don’t what they’re doing.

This control is most dictatorial, amusingly, in the private sector. The worse a job is, the more this sort of control has been used for super-Taylorization, making humans into little more than remotely controlled flesh robots.

It has made control of international conglomerates far easier; control from the top to the periphery far easier. This is true in the government and the military as well, where central commanders often control details like when bombs drop, rather than leaving it to a plane’s crew.

This is a world where only a few people have practical power. It is a world, not of radical decentralization, but of radical centralization.

This is a vast experiment. In the past, there have been surveillance and control societies. But the math on them has always been suspect. Sometimes they work, and work brilliantly–like in Tokugawa Japan, certain periods of Confucian Chinese bureaucratic control, or ancient Egypt.

But often they have been defeated, and fairly easily, by societies which allowed more freedom; less control, less spying, and supervision. Societies which assumed people knew what to do on their own; or just societies that understood that the cost of close supervision and surveillance was too high to support.

The old East German Stasi model, with one-third of the population spying on the other two-thirds was the ludicrous extension of this.

What the telecom and infotech revolutions have actually enabled is a vast experiment in de-skilling, surveillance, and control–beyond the dreams even of the late 19th century Taylorist movement, with their stopwatches and assembly lines.  Nothing people do, from what they eat, to what entertainment they consume, to when and how well they sleep; let alone everything they do during their working day, is beyond reach.

This is not to say there are no good results from infotech and computers—there are plenty. But contrary to the idea that these technologies would increase freedom, they appear, on a daily basis, to have decreased freedom and privacy and promise to radically reduce them even more.

The second set of questions about any technology are how it can be used for violence, how it can be used for control, and how it can be used for ideological production.

(The first question, of course, is what is required to use it. More on that another time.)

Infotech may enable totalitarian societies which make those of the past look like kindergarten. We are already far past the technology used in the novel 1984 (Big Brother could not record, for example). That much of this surveillance is done by private actors as opposed to the government, does not reduce the loss of freedom, autonomy, and privacy.

Combined with making humans obsolete, infotech and the telecom revolution are as vastly important as their boosters say.

But, so far, not in a beneficial way. Yes, they could be used to make human lives better, it seems the real traction of the telecom and infotech revolutions remarkably began/coincided with neo-liberal policies which have hurt vast numbers of people in both the First and Third Worlds–precisely because they helped make those neo-liberal policies work.

Technologies are never neutral and there is no guarantee that “progress” will actually improve people’s lives. Even if a technology has the potential to improve people’s lives, potential is theoretical; i.e., not the same as practice.

Infotech and telecom tech are primarily control technologies, the same as writing was. They vastly increase the ability to centralize and to control a population’s behaviour.

(Read also: The Late Internet Revolution is Not So Big A Deal)

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