The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Month: May 2015 Page 1 of 2

Fourteen Points on the World Economy as the US GDP Drops .7 Percent

So, while it generally takes two quarters for a recession to be so-called, it may be that the recession is here.

Let us recap the non-recessionary period:

  • The percentage of people employed in the US never recovered;
  • More than the total amount of growth went to the top four percent or so, with most of that going to the top one percent and most of that going to the top .1 percent;
  • The stock market had a huge bull market, even though the economy wasn’t working for anyone but the top few;
  • Outside America, the “south” of Europe never recovered in any meaningful way, and most European nations generally did badly for most of their citizens;
  • Various resource nations did well for a time, but their success was based on demand from developed nations or, more commonly, from China;
  • Chinese demand collapsed some time ago;
  • China has been printing more money than either Japan or the US; much more;
  • Japan’s “unconventional monetary policy” has been a roaring failure–if its intention was to get the Japanese economy going again;
  • The collapse in oil prices last year helped the US briefly, but because the rest of the world has rolled off a cliff and because those gains couldn’t go widespread, it was only briefly (this is as I predicted at the time);
  • Canada’s economy was hurt badly by the oil price crash, and because the mixed economy has been critically injured, there is very little else to hold up the economy;
  • Both Britain (or London…almost the same thing) and Canada have huge housing bubbles, and those bubbles, with the addition of financial games, are all that holds those economies together at this point;
  • Britain never actually recovered either, for the majority of its citizens–just a large enough minority to elect Cameron;
  • Australia has tied itself massively to resource extraction on the back of Chinese demand. There is no meaningful Australian economy whose fate is not tied to China.
  • India’s development is hollow neo-liberalism, and has seen an actual decrease in per capita calories. It is consumptive and limited to a few key areas.

Let me put this another way: The developed world is in depression. It has been in depression since 2007. It never left depression. Within that depression, there is still a business cycle: There are expansions, and recessions, and so on. Better times and worse times.

While cheap solar is a big deal, it is not yet deployed sufficiently to break the “widespread demand will crash the economy through oil price increases” problem, and this is exacerbated the by the deadlock rich elites have on most of the world’s politics and economic policies, since it is not in their interest to solve problems, but only to become more rich.  Not that solving problems is something they mind, if it makes them richer and keeps everyone else poor.

The world still has very few problems we couldn’t solve if we acted on them in a productive way (though some, like climate change and the great die-off, are beyond the point of no return for catastrophic damage), but that’s largely irrelevant while public policy remains in the hands of oligarchs. There is some reason for hope, as left-wing parties rise in Europe, but those green shoots are still nothing but green shoots.

I suggest that my readers who are able to make money do so now, you may soon find that you can’t. This is especially important if your employment is precarious.  Take care of yourselves, and take care of each other, unless you are lucky enough to live in the few rich, social democratic states left, you cannot expect much aid from your governments.

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Trying to Move the Democratic Party Even More to the Right

Peter Wehner in the New York Times:

AMONG liberals, it’s almost universally assumed that of the two major parties, it’s the Republicans who have become more extreme over the years. That’s a self-flattering but false narrative.

This is not to say the Republican Party hasn’t become a more conservative party. It has. But in the last two decades the Democratic Party has moved substantially further to the left than the Republican Party has shifted to the right.

Wehner then goes on to argue with what amount to mostly social policies (gay rights!) and a few other cherry picked issues, to argue that Obama is substantially to Clinton’s left. (Not on immigration, executive power, non-identity-based civil liberties, assassination, and a number of other issues.) He also conflates conservatism with running surpluses (not in living memory), and so on, and ignores Obama’s help in bailing out the rich in an unprecedentedly massive way.

Or look at this beauty:

Those who insist that the Democratic Party’s march to the left carries no political risks might consider the fate of the British Labour Party earlier this month. Ed Miliband, its leader, ran hard to the left.

Miliband, of course, did no such thing. The SNP ran hard to the left, and swept Scotland. Labour ran slightly to the left of the Conservative party, and did terribly.  What Wehner is doing is “creating” facts, attempting to move the major parties rightward, and not leftward.

But I’m not particularly interested in in debunking his ridiculous column; I simply want to note that it exists. This is the creation of the circle of acceptability, which is so vastly important in determining what parties are willing to do when they take power.

Read my earlier article on the British election for a more detailed analysis of how right-wing framing works, and how it is, now, beginning to fail the neo-liberals.

(h/t Tim Armstrong.)

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How to Be Liked or Even Loved by Blue Collar and Service Workers

Be friendly, interested, and acknowledge their existence.

You will be amazed how soon they think you’re a wonderful person.

What I find amazing is how little it takes: make eye contact, smile, ask a question or two. They’re in a near complete drought for people who treat them with even a smidgen of kindness, respect, and interest.

If you need a self-interested angle: Once you’ve established this relationship (shallow as it is), you will be astounded at what they will be willing to do for you, often without you even asking.

File this post in “absolutely obvious things most people don’t do.”

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Hizbollah’s Leader Says They Are Battling All Across Syria


The leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah has said his fighters would expand their presence in Syria, saying the group was engaged in an existential battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged for the first time that his Shia group was fighting across all of Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Picture of Hassan Nasrallah

Picture of Hassan Nasrallah

Years ago, I noted that Hizbollah needed to keep supply lines open to Iran, and thus had reason to support the Syrian government. That was a near-existential reason in itself.

And he called specifically on his fiercest critics in Lebanon to back his intervention across the border, warning that their support for Assad’s opponents would not save them from ISIL.

I think this is accurate. There is a weird idea that if ISIL conquers Syria it won’t move into Lebanon. Of course it will. ISIS is the Caliphate. As a matter of belief and ideology, their legitimacy is tied to expansion, and Lebanon is definitely part of the lands they consider as rightfully belonging to the Caliphate.

To not fight them will not save Lebanon if ISIL wins, and Lebanon is a heck of a lot easier of a target than Iran or Turkey. Thus, former prime minister, and leader of Lebanon’s anti-Hezbolla bloc, Saad Hariri’s criticism of Nasrallah’s speech and his movement’s intervention in Syria is nonsense:

“We in the Future Movement declare publicly that the Lebanese state and its institutions are legitimate and our choice and guarantee,” Hariri said in a statement. “Defending the land and the sovereignty and dignity (of Lebanon) is not Hezbollah’s responsibility.”

Well, I suppose the last part might be true. But it is laughable to suppose that the Lebanese army can guarantee Lebanon’s safety from an ISIL invasion. Lebanese who are old enough will remember how well the Lebanese army performed against the Israeli invasion. I am unaware of any particular reason to suppose they would do better enough this time to matter. (It is also true that Hezbollah is currently mostly fighting the Nusra front.)

These wars are also sharpening fighters throughout the Muslim world. They are becoming tougher and smarter. Hezbollah has already defeated the Israeli army twice, ISIL is fighting very well, and the same can be said of many other forces in the Muslim world. I will be frank: I believe that Western force’s edge now comes down mostly to military equipment, which means air power–open-field battle systems (i.e., shoot them before they are even in range of you) and surveillance systems.

I believe the Israeli military, especially, given its corruption due to being an occupying force whose primary job is to beat up, torture, and kill the effectively defenseless, is not even close to as good as quite a number of Muslim (non-state and ISIL) forces.

One really shouldn’t create the perfect Darwinian learning system for those one considers one’s enemies.

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As Palmyra Falls to ISIS, What Are the Syrian Government’s Prospects?

Palmyran AmphitheatreSo, yet another city falls, and the city has some very nice ancient architecture, which we will no doubt soon see sledgehammered.  Some Palmyrans apparently thought the international “community” might protect them since they’re a great cultural site. I’d laugh if it wasn’t so sad.

ISIS has fought well and fought smart, and came into a regional war which had been going on for years.  (One can argue, in Iraq, since the first Gulf War.) They have a huge ideological advantage in claiming to be the Caliphate reborn, and they have made ground. I keep hearing speculation that Syria’s government is on its last legs, but I have no feel for whether this is true or not. In large part, they appear to have been giving back gains.

One advantage the Syrians have is that they have to fight in their core areas; if they lose, there will be no mercy from ISIL. Everyone knows what they do to prisoners. A second advantage is that Hezbollah can’t afford for Assad to fall. If he does, their supply routes to Iran are cut off.

Back in 2008, I was in Las Vegas, and I sat at a table with a wealthy Syrian merchant and his beautiful wife. We talked about what we did, and he thanked me for what I did at the time, because he understood that I got paid shit in order to work against events like the Iraq war. I thought that was awfully gracious, given how little success those of us who oppose such stupidity as Iraq or arming the dissidents in Syria have had.

It’s not that I have any mandate for Assad; he’s a truly horrible man who appears to personally delight in torture. But war and anarchy have huge costs, and the early opposition were always very dubious people–perhaps not quite as bad as ISIL, but certainly no great improvement over Assad and without the saving grace of competence, meaning that they couldn’t necessarily expect to win the war quickly.

And Assad proved to be a lot more determined than most observers expected, the Syrian army, under Iranian and Hezbollah tutelage improved, and so on.

I’m not against all war, or against all violence. Sometimes they are the least worst option. But Syria never passed that test.

I wonder what happened to the gracious Syrian merchant I met. Are he and his wife and children alive? Being wealthy, did he get out? It’s not that he was more deserving of life than any other Syrian just because he happened to play blackjack with me.

But he was kind and gracious, and I remember him. And I wonder how many kind and gracious Syrians and Iraqis have died, men and women I would have liked, in the Middle East.

With no Iraq invasion, there is no ISIS. Saddam was a bastard, but again, the status quo was better than what the invasion caused.

The barrier for “just war” is high, and it is both pre- and post-facto: Fuck it up, and it doesn’t matter how wonderful your intentions were. Idiots used to go on about the Pottery Barn rule: “If you break, it you own it.” They didn’t mean “You then have to fix it.” Japan and Germany were rebuilt, but the preparations for Iraq made it clear that such rebuilding would never happen there, and the aftermath of Libya has been a clusterfuck.

Perhaps George Washington, whom I believe (with those who lived at the time) was the greatest of America’s Founders, was right. Not just for America, but for all nations, when he advised avoiding all foreign entanglements, and to be a friend to all nations.

Perhaps not always right, but perhaps you really do need to pass the “Nazi” test, and Saddam, Assad, and Qaddafi were never Hitlers, despite the rhetoric used to justify each war or intervention or “aid.”

Leave people alone. If they want to overthrow their rulers, great, but that’s their business and not yours. Short of actual genocide (which we never intervene against anyway–see Rwanda or Cambodia), war is almost always worse than the status quo, and outside intervention rarely seems to make the situation better. (See the Ukraine for this also–and yes, Maidan was an intervention by outside forces.)

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Egypt’s Freely Elected President, Morsi, Sentenced to Death

Really?  Really?

An Egyptian court has pronounced death sentences on ousted president Mohammed Morsi and more than 100 other people over a mass prison break in 2011.

And people wonder why Islamic groups become more and more radical over time. There is one set of rules for non-Islamic groups and another for Islamic groups. If they win fairly and within the rules (as when Hamas won the Palestinian elections), they are denied the fruits of their gains. If you claim that fair elections and democracy constitute legitimacy, then overthrow those who win when you don’t like them, no one can take your criteria for legitimacy seriously.

Peaceful means have now failed, legitimate means have now failed; expect those who support Islamic government to become more radical and violent. Yes, the Muslim Brotherhood was defeated militarily before, but this is not then: Islamic groups are on the rise, and often on the offensive, all through the region.

If you won’t let the reasonable people in the opposition take power, you will soon meet the unreasonable people.

Note also that Sisi has set a precedent with his executions. When the next Islamic group takes power in Egypt, they will follow suit. They will almost certainly purge the deep state in a bloodbath.

In this respect, Sisi has provided the perfect Machiavellian lesson to the opposition: You cannot leave men with guns in their positions when they oppose you. You must eliminate them.

Legitimate ways of transferring power are supposed to eliminate the need for Machiavellian practicalities. The men with guns, the deep state bureaucracy–even if they don’t like the new government–bow before them, precisely so that each new regime doesn’t feel it has to destroy the previous regime. This is so that society is not wracked by purges.

Al-Sisi and those who back them will reap as they have sowed. I feel very little sympathy for them, but I do feel great sympathy for Egyptians as a group. They tried.

At the time the Egyptians rose, I was castigated for my “cynicism.” It turns out to have been realism. Those who ignore where the real power lies in society in favor of mealy-mouthed niceties about “people power” are, too often, leading their flocks into a slaughter.

Allah bless Egyptians. They are going to need it.

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Does Attention Deficit Disorder Medication “Work”?

I’ve been skeptical of the official narrative on many mental illnesses for some time.  The evidence that many psychoactive drugs work is weak, at best. In many cases, there is reason to believe that interventions with less unpleasant side effects work as well. In fact, in many cases, doing nothing at all produces better long term results than medicating.

This lengthy paper on the subject is interesting:

it is quite simply hard to see how drugs such as methylphenidate and atomoxetine can have been licensed to “treat ADHD” in the UK. Once we probe behind the “symptom reduction” claim the alleged “benefits” of the drugs are difficult to ascertain. Claims tend to be somewhat folksy such as “improving the quality of life”. The only certain positive effect of stimulant drugs is a short-term increase in ability to concentrate; an effect which is the same for everyone whether or not they have an ADHD label. But the ADHD narrative concedes that this does not translate into an improvement in long-term outcomes. The actual “beneficiaries” of ADHD drugging may be those parents and schools who are glad to see a reduction in the disruptive behaviours which constitute an ADHD diagnosis. But this is not an advantage to the young person. On the other hand the harms are real and tangible and accrue to the young person. For example, methylphenidate routinely causes insomnia and stomach aches. Imagine the effect of suffering from drug induced insomnia throughout your childhood. Atomoxetine is linked to suicidal thinking and suicidal attempts.

If you’re of a certain age, the whole ADHD concept strikes you as strange; We just called such children hyperactive or troublemakers and teachers and parents just dealt with them. There’s no known “cause” for ADHD, as Wylie points out. It is a checklist driven diagnostic category.

Whenever an article like this is written, someone who suffers from the diagnosis will pop up in comments and say “It works for me!” A great, many things work for a great, many people (and the placebo effect is strong), but that isn’t really the point.  The point is whether the medication is beneficial  enough to outweigh any negative side effects.

When behavioral therapy is almost as effective as drugs with nasty side effects, as is the case with ADHD, it’s hard not to suggest that CBT should be done instead, and first, and drugs should be used, if at all, only after behavioral therapy has failed.

But behavioral therapy is expensive, takes trained practitioners to apply and it is hard to centralize the profit-making from it.  Giving the kid a pill makes the problem (for parents and teachers) go away, and if it isn’t as good for the child as therapy, well, it’s easy.

(And, as usual, exercise also works well for people with ADHD, as it does for depression, and many other mental issues.)

Read Wylie’s full paper.

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The Establishment Is Losing Control: Britain Shows Us Change Is Possible

The Guardian is widely considered a left-wing newspaper:

Guardian cover says Labor Lost Because Not Right Wing Enough

Guardian Cover Shot

When the election results first became clear, I pointed out that Thatcher’s real victory was not the policies she had put in place or the changes she had made to the UK, it was that the main opposition party had become neo-liberal as well. This meant that her project would continue, no matter who was elected.

Neo-liberalism is successful because it is the only alternative to itself; there is no other option but neo-liberalism. Of course, you can choose between flavors of neo-liberalism (“How fast should we do this project?”, “How cruel should we be to poor people?”, and “How quickly should we divest the public sector and the population of their income and wealth and give it to the rich?”), but all you’re choosing between is how quickly the neo-liberal project (which includes austerity as  its logical late form) will proceed.

Other than the process of how actual material circumstances turn into ideology, which then turns into action, nothing is as important as controlling the acceptable matrix of options.

What the Guardian is doing here is attempting to make sure that in response to its loss, Labor becomes even more right-wing, even more dedicated to neo-liberalism. One can equally and easily make the case that Labor was not left wing enough, and that’s why Scotland went SNP (which was more left-wing than Labor); and that’s why left-wing voters didn’t turn out to vote. But that’s not what The Guardian has chosen to do. The Guardian chose to put, on their front page, the assertion that Labor lost because it was not right-wing enough.

Note that most people read only headlines and that the most important headline is the one on the front page. Yes, The Guardian has published articles suggesting that labor wasn’t right-wing, but most people will never read those articles. In “journalism,” as in real estate, the three most important things are location, location, and location.

Do not think that The Guardian’s editors do not know this, or do not understand the consequences of what they are doing. This is their business, and they are good at their business. The conclusion which should be drawn, absent strong evidence otherwise, is that if they are taking an action likely to push Labor right, they know they are doing it, and they want to do it or they wouldn’t do it.  (Since, again, writing the opposite article would be easy enough.)

Now note that this system is breaking down on the peripheries. The Scots voted for the SNP, which was very left-wing by current standards. Albertans recently voted for the Canadian New Democratic Party, the most left-wing party in Canada, which the establishment never thought stood a chance of winning, and which ran on (among other things) increasing the corporate tax rate.

These are glimmers: sparks and little more. But they and the rise of other third parties, including ones I would argue are failing (like Syriza), indicate that the establishment is losing control of the democratic process; their framing is not sufficient.

Given an opportunity to vote for what appears to be a real alternative to the status quo (as opposed to a fake alternative like Labor under Millibrand), many people are starting to do so. This isn’t limited to the left-wing, mind you. UKIP, the anti-immigrant, essentially-fascist party in the UK got over 10 percent of the vote.

In Scotland’s independence referendum, the young voted for independence–it was the pensioner class that kept Scotland in the union.

The winds are shifting, and opportunities are arising. Many people in the core nations know that their lives are getting worse, and they are looking for political options to change that. Note that many of them aren’t that fussy–as in the 1930s, this doesn’t have to head towards anything good. A man on horseback who promises jobs and security and to stop bailing out bankers could easily take power in many countries.

Nor is the time quite here yet for major change, I think. Give it five to ten years, for simple demographic reasons. The new generations must rise, the old generations must get older, and in many cases, die, in order for change to be possible beyond the margins.

Nothing lasts forever: no regime, no form of government, no ideology. Neo-liberalism has gone from middle-aged to old, but still clings to power with an iron gauntlet. But concealed beneath that gauntlet is a shaky hand.

The time is soon. The young, even most of the middle-aged, will see it. Whether that time leads to a better world, or a worse one, is yet to be determined. Pick your sides.

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