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Syria and the Cult of the Tough Decision

2017 April 8
by Mandos

(POST BY MANDOS!!!)

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

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

(DID I MENTION THAT THIS WAS A POST BY MANDOS? BEFORE YOU COMMENT…)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

130 Responses leave one →
  1. Willy permalink
    April 11, 2017

    “the Narcissism of Truth”

    People project their own reality onto the world, as if what’s works for them will automatically work for everybody else (am I projecting this projection? dunno, still working on that…).

    It could always be worse. My faves are the evangelical wingnuts. So fun and easy baking their noodles! I know I’ve done my job when I’m finally called their worst insult, the “f$%kin$ socialist”. The guys over at the skeptic sites have been amusing themselves with them for years. They claim that much of the nonsensical ‘wisdom’ found at Conservapedia is actually their own tomfoolery.

  2. Willy permalink
    April 11, 2017

    (Remove the italics on the last two paragraphs)

  3. different clue permalink
    April 11, 2017

    @Willy,

    Way above you asked what would be a good word for a public self-serving technocrat. I don’t know if the following will be a good word or not so I suggest it just in case.

    And the word is . . . technogarch.

  4. wendy davis permalink
    April 11, 2017

    zounds; y’all must have wore yerselves fairly to frazzles on this thread. wouldn’t it be a lovely thing if the world were built on cooperation, not competition, as many early societies did among local villages?

    “y’all grow the beans and squash, we’ll grow the corn and keep a few goats…and trade later on”.

    cooperation makes better music, too.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OAj5RrpAhM

  5. different clue permalink
    April 11, 2017

    @Mandos,

    I do apologize! A Thousand Pardons, o Good Sir! You are so exquisitely correct that you wrote Trump is more likely to do an attack “in” Syria. Which I read in this context as an attack “on” Syria. Meaning “on” the Legitimate Government and/or the Legitimate Armed Forces of the Syrian Arab Republic. THAT’S the attack which Trump in fact did and which Ian Welsh was so surprised by. And so was I and a lot of other people. Because “overthrowing Assad” which would require an attack “on” Syria was one of the things Trump ran against.

    Of COURSE Trump was going to order an attack “in” Syria. The ISIStas and the Cannibal Liver Eating Jihadis are waging their War of Islamification withIN Syria so to attack them would of course require an attack “in” Syria. Your own referencing of the Islamophobic Adviser to Trump would indicate that you expected a Trump attack to be against the same Islamists which that Islamophobic Adviser would be so against.

    But this Trump attack was not an “Islamophobic” attack. It was an IslamoPHILIC attack, designed to support the Cannibal Liver Eating Jihadis against the legitimate forces of the legitimate Secular Dictatorship government of Syria. So this attack was not the attack you expected and when you oh-so-exquisitely claim that it was just what you predicted, based on the clever weasel-word difference between “in” as against “on” Syria, I can’t prove that you don’t know exactly what kind of clever trick you are pulling. I can only say that I smell your intellectual bad faith right through the computer screen.

    So a Thousand Pardons once again. You have proven how slippery the brilliant innalekshul knows how to be. I won’t make the mistake of reading your pieces with any expection of basic mental honesty on your part ever again. In fact, if you remain courteous enough to say that you are the one who writes these pieces, I won’t make the mistake of reading them at all in the future.

    I’m sure you won’t miss me any more than I will miss you.

  6. April 12, 2017

    I do apologize! A Thousand Pardons, o Good Sir! You are so exquisitely correct that you wrote Trump is more likely to do an attack “in” Syria. Which I read in this context as an attack “on” Syria. Meaning “on” the Legitimate Government and/or the Legitimate Armed Forces of the Syrian Arab Republic. THAT’S the attack which Trump in fact did and which Ian Welsh was so surprised by. And so was I and a lot of other people. Because “overthrowing Assad” which would require an attack “on” Syria was one of the things Trump ran against.

    Astonishingly dishonest, disingenuous, fatuous, hypocritical. I never drew attention to the preposition nor was it the basis of my objection, and you know it. I objected to your attempt to stack the deck and reverse the burden of proof, and you proceed with a nitpick about the political use of prepositions.

    So a Thousand Pardons once again. You have proven how slippery the brilliant innalekshul knows how to be. I won’t make the mistake of reading your pieces with any expection of basic mental honesty on your part ever again. In fact, if you remain courteous enough to say that you are the one who writes these pieces, I won’t make the mistake of reading them at all in the future.

    I’m sure you won’t miss me any more than I will miss you.

    Oh is that so? The very degree of energy and, indeed, rage you and fellow travellers put into denunciations of me is kind of interesting.

  7. realitychecker permalink
    April 12, 2017

    @ Mandos

    “Oh is that so? The very degree of energy and, indeed, rage you and fellow travellers put into denunciations of me is kind of interesting.”

    Oh, Mandos, you so funny!

    Please don’t stop sharing your delusions of genius with us. We have so little to laugh at these days, that you must be considered a treasure of sorts.

    Don’t you love farce? 🙂

  8. Peter permalink
    April 12, 2017

    @RC

    I’ve steeled myself for the pictures of the shriveled remains of the victims of the Foreclosure War but all I’ve seen is a couple of women whining about mistreatment by Steve Mnuchin. Someday someone will uncover the mass graves from the beginning of the depressed wage growth era probably dressed in late ’70s disco dancing clothes but these atrocities will have to be blamed on the Japs who sold us cheap steel from the modern foundries we helped them build.

    The steel and the auto industries collapsed because of foreign competition long before outsourcing or NAFTA and those jobs that were replaced by the New Economy were much lower pay semi-skilled service sector positions that now dominate our economy. This is how overall wages stagnated while skilled high pay jobs still demanded and got some of their demands as the numbers decreased while low pay service jobs grew.

    People who suicide out of the struggles of life are making their own choice, exercising their liberty while most everyone else in their position choose to continue with the struggle which is life. A few carefully placed cruise missiles launched into certain windows on Wall Street might alter the nastier behavior of some MOTUs but maybe not.

  9. realitychecker permalink
    April 12, 2017

    @ Peter

    Well, the best response I can give to that is, “Thank Dog I will never have to worry about being the only one here who will dare to take a stab at defending the merits of capitalism” lol.

  10. Peter permalink
    April 12, 2017

    @RC

    I don’t intend to defend capitalism just actually understand it and not get caught up in the bible-thumping like harangues that attempt to oversimplify it along with much else today.

    I’ve become interested in the one world wide trend that might be capitalism’s undoing, The End of Growth. I’ve read some about this but few people seem capable of even addressing the idea because they have no answers or even good questions about something that could remove the driving force of capitalism, endless growth.

    I’ve read two recent articles from the oil patch showing that trends are pointing to a much more rapid approach of the collapse of energy demand growth than expected. It was just a few years ago that Peak Oil was the big worry for the energy sector but tight oil production has pushed that further into the future. Peak Demand may happen before Peak oil and they don’t have a clue about what they can do.

  11. realitychecker permalink
    April 12, 2017

    Well, I share your disdain for the bible-thumping anti-capitalistic rhetoric that usually comes from the left, but at the same time I think all participants to any bad situation must be ascribed their fair share of the blame. Basic relationship therapy axiom there lol.

    Btw, the other thing nobody seems to be thinking much about is the rapidly approaching Robot Revolution. Seems to me that deserves more attention than a lot of other things we are focusing on these days.

  12. different clue permalink
    April 12, 2017

    @Mandos,

    I know you are, but what am I?

    Strut yo’ induhlectual superiority stuff! Work it,baby, work it!

    Shake that thing.

  13. realitychecker permalink
    April 12, 2017

    @ DC

    Moar syllables!!! 🙂 (h/t/ Christopher Walken lol)

  14. Ben permalink
    April 12, 2017

    @Mandos

    “It’s a crowd that represents a constellation of political views that has less overall influence than either the Nazis that sometimes poke their heads out here or even graffiti-ing anarchists, but thinks they have lessons to teach anyone else on telling the truth or whatever.”

    If you’re referring to economic populists, need I remind you that your ‘superior’ platform just LOST AN ELECTION against DONALD FREAKING TRUMP? And it lost against a candidate that himself was running on an economic populist message, and after actively sabotaging a left-wing economic populist who they viewed as a threat because of the massive groundswell of support he was eliciting. Millions of people who previously voted for Obama didn’t even bother to show up for Clinton, because she wasn’t offering them anything that mattered to them.

    Let’s go with your logic for a minute. Economic justice is not a winning platform? Okay. But clearly neither are your ideas. In addition to losing the presidency to a human cheeto, the Democrats have spent the last eight years being wiped out at every level of government, leaving them weaker than at any point since 1928. So what’s the worst case scenario in your mind? That they run someone like Sanders and also lose? How would that be any different that what has actually happened? Again, your ideas just lost against a person who seems to be 100% human Id. You’re in no position to be lecturing anyone, much less belittling them as powerless.

  15. April 12, 2017

    If you’re referring to economic populists, need I remind you that your ‘superior’ platform just LOST AN ELECTION against DONALD FREAKING TRUMP? And it lost against a candidate that himself was running on an economic populist message, and after actively sabotaging a left-wing economic populist who they viewed as a threat because of the massive groundswell of support he was eliciting. Millions of people who previously voted for Obama didn’t even bother to show up for Clinton, because she wasn’t offering them anything that mattered to them.

    Whose “superior” platform? I never had a hand in making it, nor have I had the opportunity to vote for or against it! And I never said a thing about superiority here. You speak very tribally. But clearly, in any way that matters to the folks here, the mainstream (D) platform is pretty inferior.

    But.

    They lost in a way they could accept, with, in large part, intact careers. They either individually

    1. believe that your ideas cannot win in a way that can preserve their political careers.

    2. prefer to keep just this degree of losing rather than win on your preferred platform.

    3. genuinely believe your platform is worse for the country, even if it might be popular.

    I have observed examples of all three.

    Many also believe (possibly dangerously wrongly) that a bit of Trump punishment will lead the voters back into their arms. It’s kinda sorta working in Europe, for example.

    Let’s go with your logic for a minute. Economic justice is not a winning platform? Okay. But clearly neither are your ideas. In addition to losing the presidency to a human cheeto, the Democrats have spent the last eight years being wiped out at every level of government, leaving them weaker than at any point since 1928. So what’s the worst case scenario in your mind? That they run someone like Sanders and also lose? How would that be any different that what has actually happened? Again, your ideas just lost against a person who seems to be 100% human Id. You’re in no position to be lecturing anyone, much less belittling them as powerless.

    They lost a lot of legislative power, but still have a lot of political careers running, still get news time, etc, etc. You, on the other hand, have no power to make them choose otherwise, or to supplant them. That is the only power that matters: supplant them, or coerce them. As you correctly observe, they would rather accept a downwards electoral trajectory than give you any compromises. And why is that? Because, as I said, they don’t think you can offer them anything they value, and they know you have no power to supplant them, or you would have already!

    That’s the only power that matters here.

  16. S Brennan permalink
    April 12, 2017

    Mandos; Your post, with it’s attempts at a “lawyerly” defense, are thousands of meaningless words that are beyond pointless. We know you to be an out an out liar…you’re just wanking yourself in the front window of your courtyard building…put some clothes on for God’s sake, your pathetic body of words would scare your own mother.

  17. Hugh permalink
    April 12, 2017

    “People who suicide out of the struggles of life are making their own choice”

    This reminds me of the old Soviet joke about the Russian poet who committed suicide. Did he have any last words someone asks. Yes comes the reply: “Comrades, don’t shoot!”

  18. Ivory Bill Woodpecker permalink
    April 12, 2017

    Hugh has just reminded the Bens, DClues, and PNDs of the world why so many people, who basically would approve of social democracy, nonetheless fear and suspect anyone or anything, such as Sen. Sanders, which, fairly or unfairly, is judged to smack too strongly of Marxism.

    Most people would rather put up with the obnoxious plutocrats and their equally obnoxious minions, than risk the rise of gulags and killing fields. “Better the devil(s) you know…” and all that.

    Communism proved, however unwittingly, to be capitalism’s best friend, in that it managed the seemingly impossible feat of making capitalism look good, or at least less evil. Fascism (especially its Nazi variety), the psychopathic bastard offspring of Communism and capitalism, which combines the most hideous features of both of its parents, managed the same feat.

  19. Ben permalink
    April 12, 2017

    @Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    Except the polls, successful ballot measures, and things like the post-election town halls where they actually talk to Trump voters, make it overwhelmingly clear that socialist ideas like Medicare for All are a winning platform. The obstacle is Democratic Party policymakers, not the will of the people.

  20. Ivory Bill Woodpecker permalink
    April 12, 2017

    Then why, Ben, did the great masses of White Real Murkans turn their backs on the Democratic Party in the late 1960s and 1970s, BEFORE the DP began to compromise away the New Deal and the Great Society, which it did in order to gain money from the plutocrats, in order to afford the advertising to try to bring back its lost voters?

    Why did it lose those voters back then, when it was still the party of the New Deal and the Great Society?

    I’ll answer that for you; my tribe are “a stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears”, who will, in the now-famous formulation from the Web, VOLUNTEER to live in a cardboard carton, cooking a sparrow on a bent coat-hanger over an open fire, as long as they are assured that those non-white folks down the road don’t even have a sparrow, a carton, or even a bent coat-hanger.

    “Democracy is the theory that the people know what they want, and deserve to get it, good and hard.”–H. L. Mencken

  21. realitychecker permalink
    April 12, 2017

    Banging one’s head against a tree trunk all day does not seem to do much for one’s mental clarity.

    It’s almost as though some people think nothing has happened in the last half-century.

  22. Ivory Bill Woodpecker permalink
    April 12, 2017

    Shorter RC:

    That was then; this is now, and “then” holds no relevance for explaining “now”.

    Yes, the Democratic Party, in some ways, betrayed the White Middle Class.

    But the WMC betrayed the DP first, in order to punish uppity Negroes, uppity women, uppity hippies, uppity non-believers, uppity whatevers.

    The “Southern Strategy” still delivers for the GOP, partially because “Southern” here really means a cultural identity, rather than a geographic location.

  23. realitychecker permalink
    April 12, 2017

    Like I said, in your stilted POV, nothing of importance has happened in the last fifty years that could have any value in explaining our present situation. Nothing at all.

  24. Ivory Bill Woodpecker permalink
    April 13, 2017

    Culinary advice for RC: Remember to pluck the feathers off the sparrow before you roast it. 🙄

  25. realitychecker permalink
    April 13, 2017

    I can’t help myself from thinking “Go pluck yourself.” 🙂

  26. Willy permalink
    April 13, 2017

    I think what Ivory Bill is saying, is that your average voter is kind of dumb, and needs to be treated as such. Their thinking (and voting), outnumbers what we might find in this place by a margin of at least a hundred to one. These people are easily trained by clever evil because they’re made that way.

    How can the rational integrous few, those with proven cause-effect reasoning ability, ‘retrain’ them? The current DNC ain’t gonna do it.

  27. Ben permalink
    April 15, 2017

    @Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    …you do understand there’s a difference between the South and the Midwest, right? Not once have I been talking about the South; the GOP candidate was always going to win there. Just as the Dem candidate was always going to take the coastal liberal strongholds. What flipped the election for Trump was the Rustbelt abandoning the Democrats.

  28. Ivory Bill Woodpecker permalink
    April 15, 2017

    …you do understand there’s a difference between the South and the Midwest, right?

    George Wallace won the 1972 Democratic primary in that kudzu-strangled cradle of the Confederacy, the state of Wisconsin. As the late, great Hunter S. Thompson noted, that proved that there were just as many mean, stupid bigots in the North as in the South.

    The difference is smaller than Ben thinks.

  29. Ben permalink
    April 16, 2017

    @Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    Your explanation for states that previously voted for Obama voting for Trump is…racism?

  30. realitychecker permalink
    April 17, 2017

    @ Ben

    Gotta be racism, IBW don’t do complex lol.

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