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

Month: May 2016 Page 1 of 2

Do Great Men and Women Change the World?

Most of us, when we were young, were taught history as a series of events, with the names of important men and women attached. In effect, we were taught the “Great Man” theory of history, that history is the result of the actions of great individuals.

Do the great matter? Do they make a difference?

Sometimes, I think.

In some cases, a person we call great fills a role someone else would have filled, and does it no better than anyone else would have. Sometimes they fill a role someone else would have filled and perform it so well it makes a huge difference.  And sometimes they wrench history about, in a role someone else would not have filled.

Let us start with a man who filled a role someone else would have, but did it brilliantly, and it mattered.


The Revolution almost inevitably ended with a dictator. I don’t think, given the sort of revolution France had, that could have been avoided.

That it was Napoleon, one of the greatest generals in history, mattered. He didn’t have to be a great general to get the job, he had to be in the right place at the right time. A competent general could have gotten the job.

Napoleon almost never lost a battle. Other French generals lost often. That mattered. Napoleon, wherever he went, changed everything: from ending the Holy Roman Empire, to shattering various other bonds of feudalism, Napoleon changed Europe far, far beyond France. A man who lost even a few more battles than Napoleon did, wouldn’t have.

Let us take two modern great men who, I think, changed little. Start with Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook. Someone was going to win the “social friends” space. For a while it looked like it would be MySpace, and there were contenders before Facebook. Indeed, Facebook is not dominant in every country in this space.

All Zuckerberg did was win a space someone would have won. The details are different, sure, but not enough to really matter to anyone. Having won it he has done nothing particularly different anyone else would have done in that space.

Though still worshipped as a genius, I think Bill Gates is in the same category. MS DOS (in which I was an expert) was little different from any other OS that IBM could have chosen at the time. Windows (like the Macintosh) is just Xerox Park tech, which if Gates had not been around, would have been stolen/co-opted by someone else (aka. Jobs).

Gates was very good at creating a near-monopoly for a couple decades, but other businessmen in the same situation might well have done the same thing.   Perhaps they wouldn’t have, and he made a difference. If so, that difference was negative, it seems to me.

If something is inevitable, someone will do it. The specific individual Who does it only matters if they are extraordinary. If they are just very good at what they do, well, someone else very good could have stepped up and the difference would have been minor.

I suspect this applies to a lot of earlier “Lords of Industry.” Ford, for example.

In the “inevitable” but it mattered who it was category I’d slot, say, Genghis Khan. He wasn’t the only one trying to unify the Mongols, but his degree of success rested on his own particular genius, which, oddly, was mainly that he was an extraordinary judge of ability and character in other men and women. Temujin’s generals and administrators were extraordinary, and he made loyal followers out of people he had been enemies with. Similar to Shaka (but much more succesfully since he didn’t have to face 19th century weapons), he was also able to turn his society into an extraordinarily efficient war machine.

So who came out of nowhere and changed the world? Who forged a position which wouldn’t have existed otherwise, then did something extraordinary with it?

I find it hard to think of anyone. In the intellectual sphere, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, for example, came out of a specific time and place where philosophers and teachers were very highly valued because they taught people how to argue.  (Read Plato’s dialogues and tell me, for all his sneering at “sophists” he is not an amazing debater.)

Perhaps one can make a case for Newton, but Leibniz created calculus almost at the same time. Were the rest of his discoveries made much sooner than they otherwise would have been?

Or perhaps the great religious figures? Buddha, Christ, Confucius. Does a Buddha have to happen? Certainly the circumstances are there for one in the newly urbanized cities of northern India with their loss of faith in the old Vedic religion. Indeed, modern Hinduism really comes out of that period as well, for all they claim the Vedas they have little in common with that religion.

Someone would have done what Buddha did, but I think a strong argument exists that how well he did it, and how he did it matters.

So, what do my readers think? Who would you nominate as coming out of nowhere and changing the world? Who is the great one who did not fill a slot someone would have filled?

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“Voltaire’s Bastards” by John Ralston Saul: The Death of Purpose at the Hands of Reason

I have re-read John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards. But because I haven’t read it since it first came out in the early 90s, it was more like reading it for the first time.

For those who haven’t read it, Saul basically says that reason (rationality) has become un-moored from common sense, democracy, and purpose.

I think purpose is probably the core of the argument. Organizations, including government, parliaments, and so on, have become rational and forgotten the purpose of their existence.

Saul eviscerates the military—slow, ponderous, capable of winning only with overwhelming force, and usually not even then. Full of rational mediocrities and controlled by staff officers who squash any field officer capable of initiative or of winning battles without vast waste of men and material.

He eviscerates the arms trade–weapons sold for less than it costs to make them, non-capital goods that make up the largest manufacturing sector in the world, and completely irrational from the point-of-view of both the economy (guns being the paradigmatic drain on the economy) and from winning wars; selling weapons to everyone and their mother means your enemies know their weaknesses, something you should be trying to avoid.

He eviscerates the take-over of of cabinets and parliaments by the bureaucracy on one hand and the Prime Minister or President’s private advisors. “He who controls the briefing books controls the decisions,” and “…perhaps Ministers’ primary responsibility should be to decide on policy, not take prime responsibility for running a department they don’t and can’t run. That job is for bureaucrats.” (paraphrased).

He goes on to eviscerate economic management by bureaucrats, and the decline of capitalism, to note that every major improvement in human welfare (like, oh, sewage control) was opposed by the majority of owners. He eviscerates the confusion of actual capitalists with managers, rentiers, financiers, and landlords (despised by traditional capitalists).

On and on it rolls.

This is a fairly old book now. The examples are drawn from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. It is interesting that Saul states even then that the western world is in a concealed depression, and notes precisely when things went wrong (68-72).

It’s also somewhat infuriating. For a number of years, I found it difficult to read contemporary books on economics and politics because they would make me angry. I had echoes of that feeling reading Voltaire’s Bastards–I am, after all, old enough to remember, say, Reagan and what a disaster he was.

But I think the prime takeaway is really about purpose. Rationalization and reason do not provide purpose. They are tools to enact purposes decided other ways. When they become masters, they become about process. So we declare that corporations exist only to make a profit, which is deranged. We forget that armies exist to win wars (and deter wars from even happening), not to fumble around. We treat military officers as bureaucrats, which they cannot be if they are to win wars, because bureaucrats are shitty field officers (yes, yes, logistics, but those people should not be in charge).

Rationalization removes purpose. The economy exists to provide for the needs of people. Corporations were created to do things that increase the public good, making a profit is necessary but is not their purpose. Parliaments exists to debate policy, which they pretty much never do and cabinets are the prime policy making instrument, exactly because they are elected.

Saul’s evisceration of rational experts runs against the grain of our age, but is convincing. He notes how well rational bureaucracy did work, but notes how it has decayed and been corrupted. The “experts” have become corrupt, incompetent, or both. Yes, the economy has been fucked since the early 70s, and no, we haven’t fixed it. Incompetent? Corrupt?

Why not both?

This is a cry for purpose, for prudence, and for real democracy where elected officials (and not just two or three ministers, plus their staff) make actual decisions. It is a scream for a change in the role of ordinary citizens, for an end to secrecy, for treating citizens like adults (as opposed to infantalizing them).

It is an evisceration of the idea that reason by itself works. Reason is a tool, only one among many. It is not useful in all places and times, and it cannot provide purpose, ethics, or morality.

Reading this book made me angry in a very personal way, because I grew up and was educated by the remains of the last generation who believed in purpose: The organization had a job and that job was to do something. This extended even to mundane crap like insurance, the old timers believed in careful actuarial work and underwriting because they believed the company had a duty to be able to pay out benefits to people who were in trouble–someone whose breadwinner had died, who would be in poverty if the company failed.

Purpose. Government should see to it that its citizens are healthy, prosperous, and ethical. Militaries exist to win wars quickly and decisively. Parliaments are to debate what society should do. Bureaucracies exist to carry out those decisions. Capitalists? Their role is to produce more capital, which is not money, but real productive capacity.

Voltaire’s Bastards isn’t a short book, and while Saul is erudite, it isn’t a very pleasant book to read.

But it’s a book worth reading.



Hilary Clinton Secretary of State Portrait

Why Hillary Clinton Is the Worst Kind of Leader

Guest Post by Hugh

Hillary Clinton doesn’t just make mistakes, she makes big mistakes, the kind that cost a lot of other people their lives and leave ruin and chaos in her wake. She doubles down on them and persists in them long after virtually everyone else has come to realize that they were mistakes. And then she repeats them.

Clinton voted for the Iraq War. During the next 12 years, her principal criticism of the war was not that it was a mistake but that she could do it better. This is another defining characteristic of the Clinton way of doing things. She doesn’t recognize that mistakes are to be avoided. Her argument, and it is a really strange one, is that she, because of her RECORD and EXPERIENCE, can do these mistakes BETTER. Just contemplate for a moment the sheer cluelessness of someone who thinks it is a plus to argue that they make better mistakes.

And it wasn’t just that. During those 12 years, she angrily attacked, derided, and arrogantly dismissed those who did not agree with the war, you know, the people who got it right. Finally, in June 2014, 12 years (OK, 11 years and 8 months) after her vote for the Iraq AUMF in October 2002, she revised her position on the war in typically legalistic Clintonesque fashion. She did so in a in a well controlled venue, a book with the wildly inappropriate title Hard Choices (since the hard choice was opposing the war) where she couldn’t be cross-examined and for which she got a multi-million dollar advance. With the Clintons, it is always about the benjamins.

Anyway, here is her non-explanatory explanation and non-apology apology:

I thought I had acted in good faith and made the best decision I could with the information I had. And I wasn’t alone in getting it wrong. But I still got it wrong. Plain and simple.

This is like an engineer designing a plane that keeps crashing killing all on board. After years of denying that there was any problem, she comes out and says that her calculations were correct but the numbers she was given were wrong. Oh, and lots of other people made the same mistake.

What Clinton’s statement overlooks, of course, is that that plenty of people pointed out the dangers which she chose to ignore. Instead she slammed and belittled those who tried to avert the Iraq disaster. Nor is there anything about why it took her 12 years to even partially understand the nature of her screw up or long after virtually every other being on the planet with a pulse. Only grifters like the Clintons would then take this monumental, impossibly bad example of self-serving, poor judgment and seek to spin it into the gold cloth of “foreign policy experience” or even more ludicrously a Hard Choice.

What her statement on the Iraq War does illustrate, however, is another Clinton tactic. Issue a statement (in legalese) on one of her many bad decisions and then move on as if the issue has forever been answered and is now irrevocably closed.

I have gone on at some length on this one subject, but have only scratched the surface of just how bad Hillary Clinton is. You can find similar examples with Libya, Syria, the TPP, and the Keystone pipeline, to name a few. Beyond these, there is Hillary Clinton and the abuse of power with her email server. There is the corrupt Hillary Clinton with her speeches to Wall Street and the Clinton Global Initiative. There is the blatantly lying in your face Hillary Clinton paid for by Wall Street who tells the rubes she’s going to fight for them, that she is going to create jobs for them. There is the “I’m so experienced” Hillary Clinton who’s solution to the economy is to turn it over to her grifter husband Bill.

For redemption, there must be both the awareness of error and the desire to atone. Both of these acts are totally alien to Hillary Clinton, and Bill too, for that matter. They are grifters. And the first rule of the con is never to admit the con. The second is to take the money and run. It is in the con, not redemption, that you really see what makes the Clintons tick.

Peter Thiel’s Attack On Gawker Is Not an Abuse of Wealth

So, some years ago, Gawker outed Peter Thiel as gay. To the best of my knowledge, there was no public interest case to be made: Thiel was not funding anti-gay initiatives or some such.

They also published Hulk Hogan’s sex tape and did various other scummy things.

Thiel, being a billionaire, decided to take them out. What he did was put together a team of lawyers, and find cases against Gawker to fund.

Law cases.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing over this. The argument is that Thiel is using his money to destroy a media outlet (and jobs!) and that this is a bad thing, because any billionaire could do the same thing to any outlet.

I have little time for this argument.

The American legal system is only for the rich, when it comes to civil law. One of the plaintiffs against Gawker is a multi-millionaire, and he still couldn’t afford the suit on his own.

What Thiel is doing is making it possible for people who have a good case that the law has been broken, and they have been harmed, to actually use the legal system.

The argument these people are making is that those who aren’t rich shouldn’t be able to avail themselves of the legal system.

Gawker can afford lawyers. If Thiel wasn’t backing these plaintiffs, many of them would have to settle for smaller, out-of-court settlements, and, in the case of the guy who who refused insurance money, justice against Gawker. The plaintiffs would not have gotten their day in the court, because they are poor, and Gawker can outspend them.

Gawker is losing these cases not just because Thiel is funding them, but because they were in the wrong.  They did something illegal, and in this case, something which should be illegal.

Hulk Hogan’s sex tape was “public interest”?

So, no, I have little sympathy here. Don’t do what Gawker did. And stop with the hysteria.

The real story here, so far as I’m concerned, is that the civil law system in the US only works if you have the sort of money a billionaire has.

The problem isn’t that Thiel is making it work for a few people; the problem is it only works for a few people.

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Ethical Political Redemption

One of the great problems of political life is the question of whether politicians and senior bureaucrats can change. Can they learn from their experiences? Can they become more ethical?

We know pretty well that becoming a powerful politician can destroy a person’s ethical moorings: They wind up doing things that, as a private citizen without power, they considered abominable.

Apologists for a current government always call this becoming “practical,” but I’ll posit that this is rarely so, except in personal terms–the principled politician is generally taken care of quite well for giving up his or her principles. (You can see this in John Kerry’s career, if you care.)

The more important question is: Can a politician with bad judgement and terrible ethics learn?

For example,suppose you were in favor of the Iraq war. Can you be trusted if you say, “It was a mistake?” If you were in favor of Welfare Reform (which hurt the weakest and least powerful people in America terribly), same.

The simple answer is that a politician must prove they have learned through their actions.

Hillary Clinton is not credible saying she’s learned from the Iraq fiasco, because she was also for Libya. She didn’t learn the practical lesson (destroying a regime is easy, not having the country become a failed state is hard); nor did she learn the ethical lesson (don’t attack countries who haven’t attacked you).

Clinton is not credible, because her actions have not changed. She’d be for the next Iraq in a heartbeat and find reasons to justify such an action. Her rhetoric against Russia and Putin might as well be from the Cold War and is a great threat to world peace (and survival).

But the lesson here is larger: Don’t pay attention to what politicians say, pay attention to what they do. Look at their record. If they want to say they’ve changed, you need something concrete to prove that.

And if you’re looking for someone who you know you can trust, look for them to have taken hits for their beliefs. Sherrod Brown came into the House a left-wing champion, but when he ran for the Senate he voted for torture because he felt he needed to in order to win.

Not trustworthy. Does not actually believe in what they say when the chips are down.

Some compromises are necessary in legislative careers, no question. But there are lines a person of integrity won’t cross. Those lines differ by belief system, but if someone crosses the lines of your belief system, they aren’t one of your people. They aren’t a leader of your ideological faction, whatever that is.

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The Role of Politicians in an Oligarchy…

…is to wrangle voters for oligarchs then enact policies to make the rich, richer.

This is clearly indicated by jobs for the families of politicians and the way that politicians are rewarded post-career.

The Clintons had a 100 million dollars a few years after leaving the White House.

Seven figure lobbying jobs are routine for Senators after their legislative career. Before that, their families are taken care of, and most of them somehow become multi-millionaires.

The same is true for high ranking bureaucrats. Timothy Geithner, who helped bail out Wall Street was giving six figure speeches almost immediately after leaving his post.

If you want to know who someone works for, look for who pays them.

You pay lawmakers far less than the rich.  They do not work for you.

I would estimate that this is true of well over 90 percent of American politicians.

When Russ Feingold was defeated for re-election to the Senate, he took a job as a university Professor. Now this isn’t a terrible fate, and I’m not crying for him, but being the only person to vote against the Patriot Act and not, in general being corrupt, cost him at least a million dollars.

A year.

Americans seem to believe that people act in their self-interest (and should do so) and then, contradictorily, believe their politician should be willing to give up millions to do the right thing.

This is true, by the way, of Obama. His State department effectively immunized bankers for criminal acts by letting them off with fines (fines that did nothing to harm the money they had earned through illegal acts). His number one priority this last year has been the TPP trade deal.

Obama’s presidency oversaw the rich getting even richer, most of the population getting poorer, and there being fewer jobs per capita which pay less. These are his economic results, and they are not accidental.

The good things you can have in an oligarchical government are the good things of which the oligarchs approve. Oligarchs want workers to be interchangeable. Nonsense about gays or transgenders or whatever is bad business.

So are unions. So are good wages.

None of this is to say that you’ll never get thrown a bone, as with Obama’s sponsoring of overtime. But a clear-eyed look at Obama’s record (or Clinton’s, or Bush’s, or that of any Congress in the past 30+ years) indicates that policies were meant primarily for the benefit of the few, not the many.

Politicians wrangle voters for oligarchs, who pay them well for the service. They then pass bills and regulations which help those oligarchs, because it is those oligarchs who give them almost all their money.

If a politician does not do this, and gets into a position of potential power, the attacks are unrelenting.

For an example, please read the media coverage of Corbyn; note also how much he is attacked by Labour party politicians, EVEN as the vast majority of Labour party members support him (and that support has increased since he won the leadership.)

Corbyn didn’t take the money. For decades he didn’t take the money. He didn’t become a Blairite, even though he had every reason to believe that by not doing so, he was condemning himself to a life as a bank bencher, who would never get rich.

Whether you agree with Corbyn’s beliefs or not, THAT is integrity.

The vast, vast majority of politicians in the developed world are not just corrupt, they are your enemies. The actions they take impoverish and kill you in exchange for wealth and favors from the rich.

A man like Obama or Bill Clinton (or, in the future a woman like Hillary Clinton) is far more likely to ruin your life than Osama bin Laden ever was. Bill Clinton pushing through Welfare “Reform” harmed millions of the poorest weakest people in America. The repeal of Glass-Steagall allowed the financial crisis to happen.

Unless you are an oligarch, or a retainer who is on the gravy train, people like Clinton, Obama, Blair, Cameron, and Thatcher are your enemies. They are a direct threat to your well-being, welfare, and even life.

The first thing anyone who wants to be realistic about politics and power needs to realize is this fact. They are enemies.

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Democracy Is a Way of Avoiding Violence

Democracy is intended to provide a legitimate way for change to occur, a way which does not require violence.

We vote, and what we vote for is done.

To the extent that the people get more or less what they think they are voting for, democracy is working.

When people do not get what they think they are voting for, democracy is not working.

If democracy does not work for long enough, the government comes to seem illegitimate–people may have voted, but they didn’t vote for what they got.

It is for this reason that endless austerity, or candidates who are hypocrites and do not do what they said (or very strongly implied) they would do, are a problem.

They destroy democratic legitimacy, and when that legitimacy is gone, people start wanting a government that “works.” They become willing to go to demagogues and men on horseback. They become willing to engage in revolution and violence.

They are correct to do so. Democracy which does not translate the will of the people into the acts of the government is not democracy worth having.

Or, more briefly:

Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable.

— John F. Kennedy

This is why Trump. This is why LaPen. This is why the Golden Dawn.

Democracy can regenerate itself. FDR in 1932, for example. But then there were also Mussolini and Hitler. This is not a specious example; it can happen “here,” wherever here is.

Cynical elites, who do what they know won’t work to give people what they want (neoliberalism never providing prosperity), are doing profoundly evil work: They are undermining the very basis of democracy and in doing so they are destroying the peace.

They will reap as they have sowed.

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Surviving Climate Change

The news is all bad. You may have seen this graphic already, but it’s worth meditating on.

Climate Trend from NASA

Yes, this year has been breaking records. Every single month has been the hottest on record.

There is a chance we’ve “broken out” from the trend, and will now see full operation of the vicious cycle.

I am going to suggest that readers start taking this into account in their personal lives. Figure out how climate change is likely to effect where you live. It isn’t always obvious or linear (for example, there’s a chance that Europe could enter a cold-free if the Gulf Stream shuts off, and it’s already lost one-third of its strength).

Effects will also include movements of people from the worst affected areas. Is where you are, or are going to be, one of the places they will flee to? Are you in a “global city” where the richer citizens may want an “insurance property” driving up real-estate prices even more?

What do you want to do about this for yourself, your family, your nation, and/or the world?  The answer can be “little to nothing,” but it’s worth thinking on. Pushing for residence requirements for real-estate ownership could save your house or condo, as increased prices will increase taxes. It could also make it possible for your children or other young people to live in the nicer cities where the good jobs are.

Where are the refugee camps going to be set up? Does your country have any realistic possibility of settling refugees fairly rather than in camps?

Are you, conversely, in a place from which people are going to have to flee?

Move before you are required to flee. Really. Take the hit necessary and get out, unless you’re old and without dependents.

Is your area going to run out of water? I recently visited San Antonio, and that city will probably run out of water in a couple decades. It might be able to import enough, but it might not. Water is going to be in short supply all through the south.

As shortages hit, violence will increase. Are you on good terms with the local violent authorities, whoever they are? Dean Ing, the science fiction writer and survivalist, moved to a small town and then made sure to become friends with the police chief and the local base commander.

Are you considering how to get, at least partially, off the grid? Could you eat or drink for a few weeks if there were disruptions? What about alternate heating or cooling arrangements? Do you have a “bugout bag” and a “bugout plan” if you have to leave suddenly? The very basics can be cheaper than one might think.

Some of this may be overblown: yet. But it’s worth thinking this stuff through and making what precautions you can. And remember the rule of surviving bad times and disasters.

Friends and neighbours. Make sure you have friends, locally, and that your neighbours know and like you. People who are well-liked by a lot of people are far more likely to survive bad times than those who aren’t. And having really good friends wherever you may have to flee to, if it comes to that, is wise.

Start cultivating.

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