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

Month: December 2016 Page 1 of 3

Vladimir Putin Official Portrait

On Trump’s Reaction to Putin Not Expelling US Diplomats

So, in “retaliation” for the Russian hacking that Obama claims happened during the election, Obama kicked out a bunch of Russian diplomats, shuttered some buildings, and so on.

Putin was expected to retaliate and did not do so, instead inviting the children of US diplomats to come to the Kremlin holiday parties, as Russian diplomats’ children had been deprived of some of their activities as part of Obama’s punishment.

Trump then tweets,

And people go wild, accusing him of treason, supporting the US’s enemies, etc.

Let’s state this clearly.

a) Obama does things to hurt Russia.

b) People expect Putin to do things to hurt the US.

c) Putin does not.

d) Trump says Putin is smart for not doing things to hurt the US.


Trump is undoubtedly a bad man. He will probably be a bad President, quite likely even a very bad President. (Making him similar to every President since Reagan, at the least, each of whom have only varied in how awful they were and in what ways, though that variance, yes, did matter. Especially to Iraqis, Libyans, Nicaraguans, and so on.)

But just because he does something doesn’t make it bad. Reagan did things I approved of, and he was loathsome and is more responsible than any other politician for putting the US and the developed world onto the road that has led, well, here.

If you are going to oppose everything Trump does, and always draw the worst possible conclusion about his actions, you lose all credibility.

The hysterics about Russia’s role in the election (if they even had one, there is, as yet, no hard proof; all the evidence is circumstantial at best) are hysterics. The hysterics about Russia, in general, are hysterics.

The US and Russia have no significant real national interests that clash. It does not matter to the US who rules in Georgia or the Ukraine. It just doesn’t goddamn matter to the US. It does matter to Russia. The US would have been better off if Assad and Qaddafi had never faced rebellions, because both were tame despots, happy enough to cooperate with the US against Islamic terrorism (no, Israel wanting Hezbollah cut off is not a US interest and Saudi Arabia’s fear of Shi’ites should not make Americans think Shi’ites are of concern to the US).

The US and China do have real clashing national interests, which doesn’t mean they can’t and shouldn’t be resolved to mutual benefit. The US and Russia? No.

Well, they shouldn’t. They do now, but almost entirely because the US insists upon it.

At any rate, the simpler point is just this: Saying that not expelling US diplomats is smart is not treason, or bad, or anything else. You wanted them expelled?

The people spewing this drivel are either propagandists, or in fear-driven overdrive.

Stop the hysterics.

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Book Review of “Dark Age Ahead,” by Jane Jacobs

This isn’t the best book by Jacobs, the famous theorist of city planning, economies, and morals, but on re-reading it for the first time since it was published, I thought it made points worth sharing.

Jacobs defines a “Dark Age” primarily as a great forgetting: Society loses the skills and culture known to one’s forbears in a widespread way.

She follows Henri Pirenne in naming the key point where Europe’s decline turns into a Dark Age as being when Mediterranean trade ended with the Muslim conquests–but the forgetting had been going on for years. Roman craftsmen in the 3rd century could not make items that their forebears could make in 0 AD, and by the fifth century, cities and culture were in noticeable decline under an autocratic state which allowed very little economic freedom. This state, with its remains of a much higher Roman and Greek culture, impressed the barbarians on its borders greatly, but it was a shell of what it had once been.

Once the Dark Ages descended in full, well, things got ugly. There was the loss of the three-field system, the loss of a skill as simple as bread-making (so much so that the staple food around Paris in 1000 AD was gruel), and the loss of most iron-making abilities, so that people were plowing with wooden plows. Archaeologists say the bones of French peasants show that they ate grass–which even showed up in their teeth, so they must have eaten rather a lot.

That’s a Dark Age.

Jacobs had recently read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which is about why some areas do well, and others don’t. The answer basically comes down to: “Those that start with the most just keep winning.” Jacobs noted that Diamond didn’t explain why such regions sometimes stop winning, such as the Fertile Crescent (the core of civilization for almost 8,000 years) and sets out to provide her own answer.  (Diamond later wrote his answer, which came down to (and I agree, in part, nor is he the first to make the point): “Advanced regions stop winning when elites are insulated from the effects of their actions.”)

I think that Jacobs’ answer, which she is not the first to give, is somewhat more interesting, however, if perhaps less fundamental.

Jacobs, as the book title suggests, saw signs that we in the West were moving towards a Dark Age. This was due to forgetting–not being able to do what we had done in the past. In this case, it is not about losing technical skills (yet), but in losing certain scientific skills and in not understanding how it is that our economies actually produced the civilization in which we live and thus being unable to do what our predecessors had done.

Jacobs hits five points as examples, starting with families. She notes that the median family can no longer afford the median house in most of North America; that the decline of community and extended family means that child-rearing has fallen far more on fathers and mothers than in the past; while median wage stagnation combined with fixed costs rising has meant people need to work more. These are all conditions that push the family towards failure, and indeed, that can be seen in the very high divorce rates.

As anyone who has read her knows, Jacobs thinks suburbs are very unhealthy: They don’t create community (no walking, no street life), and they don’t foster real economic growth due to zoning regulations. The large is often the child of the small, and we have deliberately pushed people into neighbourhoods which, by design, cannot be communities. There are other causes of the decline of community and family, and many are deliberate policy choices, like making housing prices rise faster than wages (this is policy, and has been since, at the latest, 1983).

Because society is made up of families, and families are the most responsible for the important work of raising the next generation, the failure of families indicates a deep malaise in society. Note that at the same time as families are under stress, alternatives like schools and community groups and libraries are also in decline; as parents need more help, less help is available.

Jacobs second point is that education at the post-secondary level is no longer education, it is credentialing. I shan’t go into that at great length, but it’s worth reading, because Jacobs was alive during the Great Depression, and personally remembered the GI boom, and so on. She was there when universities became credentialing institutions and not educational facilities, that is, places where you get a piece of paper that lets you apply for a job rather than an actual education. On a personal note, I have never found that in any social science, except perhaps political science (which I do not find useful), that I do not know more than almost any person with a B.A. in the subject. They’ve had four years of specialized instruction, and they know less than an autodidact.

Jacobs’ third point is about science. She starts with a review of the basic theory of science (testing hypotheses), and the work of Thomas Kuhn on how paradigms guide science and are overthrown. She then eviscerates traffic engineers (this is an old Jeremiad of hers, starting with The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961). Their fluid dynamics model of how traffic should operate (constrict it one place, it goes somewhere else) is not supported by the data, which shows that if you constrict traffic in one place, it often just disappears. She goes on into much technical detail about proper street use, but her point is simple: What traffic engineers say works, doesn’t work if you actually look at the data. That they don’t recognize this indicates bad science.

She then looks at the Chicago heat wave of 1995. 739 people more died that week than during an ordinary week, mostly old people. The Center for Disease Control sent in a team of 80 researchers, and they did a huge study which came to the conclusion that they had died because they ran out of water, didn’t have air conditioning, didn’t go somewhere that did, and weren’t checked in on.

As Jacobs points out, that’s what everyone already knew. Not useful.

Meanwhile, a single sociology student noticed something interesting. Death rates in certain parts of the city were much higher than others. Turns out that people who lived in low-density, low-income neighbourhoods were less likely to have air conditioning, more likely to lose water pressure because of kids opening hydrants, had fewer stores with air conditioning nearby, and fewer friends–especially local friends. They didn’t answer the door when checked on, and didn’t want to leave their homes, because they were scared of crime.

The CDC had not looked for what tied the people together as a group. Instead of looking individual characteristics, the CDC should have been noting where they lived, and to a large extent, their socioeconomic status.

Since the goal of the study was to figure out what to do next time, the second set of data was far more useful than the first.

The last part of this chapter is taken up with noting that economists don’t really understand what causes growth (creation of new work in cities and import replacement splurges in cities) and, as such, were mystified by periods of large growth in Canada which did not accomodate their models (in Vancouver in the early 90s, and Toronto in the 2000s), but I’ll leave that be. (See my review of The Economy of Cities to learn more.) The fact that economists don’t understand economies will surprise no one who remembers that most economists said there was no housing bubble.

Jacobs’ fourth point is about taxation, in particular, that the parts of government which have the ability to tax the most are the farthest removed from the people they serve and the least responsive to people. Our taxation system lacks subsidiarity and fiscal accountability.

Subsidiarity is the principle that government works best–most responsibly and responsively–when it is closest to the people it serves and needs it addresses. Fiscal accountability is the principle that institutions collecting taxes and disbursing taxes work most responsibly when they are transparent to those providing the money.

In other words, the more local the authority, the better it spends its taxes. This is one (only one) of the reasons why city states tend to be successful. People who spew over Singapore make me laugh: Of all the forms of government in the world, running a city state is the easiest as long as one can solve the violence problem (i.e., not getting taken over by someone larger).

Jacobs believes that these issues have been getting worse: More and more spending decisions are made further and further away from local government and those decisions are more and more opaque. She targets property taxes as the basis of city government in particular.

I am in broad agreement with her, actually, and would put primary responsibility for taxes on the local level, with mandated transfers up and out to rural areas, rather than our current system of federal governments doing most of the taxing and then deciding how much money they want to give local areas.

It’s not clear to me how much of this is new, but Jacobs is probably right that it’s getting worse and worse as populations increase. Cities can’t keep up with the taxes they have; federal and state/provincial governments would rather spend the money on items that don’t help the cities, and the next thing you know BART is 40 years old and dying, or Toronto’s subway and transit system can’t keep up with the population either.

Jacobs’ final example is about professional self-policing. She uses the decline of the accounting profession (right after their failure to notice Enron’s problems before it collapsed) as her case example, but arguments could be made for many professions, certainly including the clergy, medicine, and American psychologists. It’s very hard for government to regulate professionals properly, because they don’t understand the profession, so it is ideal for professionals to do it themselves. If they can’t, then the government must, and something important is lost. (Alert readers will notice the relationship to subsidiarity.)

Having tackled these five areas in much more depth than I can cover, Jacobs turns to the question of how to fix these self-reinforcing downward spirals, using as her example housing, which was her first point when dealing with how families are being set up to fail. She runs through the history of how we got into this mess and suggests that with appropriate changes to zoning laws, suburbs can be turned into high-density, productive neighborhoods with solid communities, reducing both the cost of housing and bringing back community.

Jacobs concludes the books with thoughts on the patterns of Dark Ages; how agrarian societies were gutted and lost their culture due to industrialization, how successful societies are in the most danger, because they cling to the ways of their success, and how some societies, like Japan, managed the transition from agrarianism to industrialization, under armed threat, and still maintained their culture and did not fall into a memory hole dark age. I’m not sure she has much in the way of prescription, other than, “Add to what you had,” but perhaps that’s appropriate: Jacobs’ prescription was given in her section on how to turn suburbs into communities and reduce housing prices at the same time, thus aiding the family.

To Jacobs, the small details matter as much as the big, and while every problem is related, each problem needs its own solution. If you want to fix X, you need to really understand the problem. Having spent her life studying cities, housing, and urban economics, Jacobs tackled the problem she knows how to handle and hopes that we can see, in her solution (take the old and turn it into something new, build off what is there) a pattern to use to fix problems in the areas of our own expertise.

As I said at the start, I don’t think this is Jacobs strongest book, and if you’ve read her other works, perhaps a third of it will have you thinking, “Oh, that topic again, my she loves to grind this axe,” but it may be her most timely book, given the times which lay ahead of us. The rest of her work covers principles which should still be useful a thousand years from now, assuming we haven’t become post-human or scavengers in a glowing post-apocalyptic wasteland.

And thinking of a “Dark Ages” as a loss of culture, a loss of learning, technology, and science, focuses our eyes on what we are losing as we move forward and what we might not be able to regain (for example, through offshoring manufacturing, we lose culture and know-how that will be extremely difficult to restore).

Worth your time if the topic interests you.

(I will review one more of Jacobs books, Cities and the Wealth of Nations.)

Note on the book review series. During last year’s fundraiser, I promised 20 book reviews. Clearly, not all will be done this year, but all will be done. The “Construction of Reality” e-book is two-thirds complete (of the text that will not be substantially revised) and that will be released as well.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.



Merry Christmas

I hope you are of good cheer, healthy, and in no danger or meaningful deprivation.

I’m not celebrating this year, since my immediate family is dead and my extended family far away, but it’s a lovely day of rest, and I am happy if others are happy.

Regular posting will resume soon, there seems little point in anything extended right now. (One of the things daily traffic charts make clear is that people surf far more at work than home!)

Take care of yourself.

Open Thread

Use the comment section to talk amongst yourselves, should you so desire.

Trump Is the Next Stage of the Disease

One of the more common mistakes regarding Trump is to see him as something that came out of the blue; unheralded and strange.

Trump is a kleptocrat. The US is a kleptocracy. It “formally” became a kleptocracy when the Supreme Court ruled in Citizen’s United that money was speech. (It is ironic that Trump won with less money, but it doesn’t change this fact.)

America was pragmatically a kleptocracy in 2009, when Obama entered office and continued his predecessor’s policy of bailing out bankers, taking houses away from little people and not prosecuting bankers for clear crimes.

Punish the people without money; let the people with money walk.

Trump is a walkimg emoluments violation: He should be impeached month two of his term for his refusal to sell his company.

But he won’t be (though he may eventually be impeached if Republicans decide they’d rather have Pence as President, and that they don’t think Trump’s followers will personally visit their houses to discuss the issue).

Kleptocracies are run for the benefit of the rich. It is that simple. A monarchical kleptocracy like Putin runs, and like Trump seems interested in running, makes sure the peasants get something, which means it may feel slightly better than what came before it. (Putin is very, very popular and was so even before the recent wars for the simple reason that Yeltsin was far, far worse.)

But they are still kleptocracies. Trump’s first order of business is tax cuts, mostly for the rich. There is a report that his team has asked for information on funding of environmental groups, and Trump plans on shutting down NASA’s climate change group.

These things get in the way of making money; and because environmentalism was pushed during a period in which the economy was, for too many people, a negative sum game, it is also unpopular with his base.

But these things are extensions of the already-existing Republican party orthodoxy. Tax cuts and fuck-environmentalism is where Trump stands in solid agreement with the kleptocracy that already ran the country. These things are not what make Trump interesting, or unique, they are what make him simply another stage of the disease.

Understand that what we had in 2016 was a crisis point. There were three options. Clinton was for the status quo kleptocracy. More or less the same, with a bit more help for those hurting the most, like students.

Trump was for monarchical kleptocracy, minus globalism: add tariffs and one-to-one trade deals to the mix, change up the foreign policy, make sure some more people get jobs, while gutting worker rights in general.

Sanders was an opportunity to actually change some of the key domestic policies away from kleptocracy: While not ideal, he was clearly a change from the status quo in a kinder direction, and he came fairly close to winning the Democratic primary, despite an active conspiracy by the DNC to stop him (no, no, it meets the actual definition of conspiracy).

Of those three options, Americans chose Trump: a new stage of the kleptocratic disease. Double down on transfers to the rich, but let’s give more scraps to the poor and fuck over some foreigners to get those scraps while burning up the world even faster. (Obama was not good on the environment; he was bad, but Trump will be much, much worse.)

I am not panicking, or running around screaming. I regarded something like Trump as nearly inevitable, with a small, but real, chance to avoid him by embracing the populist left (in this case, championed by Sanders).

In fact, Trump is not as bad as what I expected. His victory, a squeaker, may wind up precluding Trump 2.0, that is, the guy who would run next time, having learned from Trump what was possible, but far more disciplined, focused, and ideological than Trump.

Trump has the support of some powerful ideologues (most notably Bannon), and he has a world view, inchoate as it is, but he’s a very flawed man. Despite being very good at getting what he wants, it is undeniable that he lacks discipline, focus, and a broad base of understanding. Nor does he self-identify as being ideologically driven. Bannon may want to be the Lenin of the right, Trump does not.

More to the point, because the actions of US elites (and the world’s), along with the repeated votes of US voters, kept pushing America down this path, for decades, I regard running around screaming as pathetic. It’s like running full speed at an oncoming train for five minutes, with plenty of opportunities to veer off, then complaining when you get hit.

Many Americans, and the vast majority of their elites, affirmatively chose, repeatedly, to take actions and institute policies which were most likely to lead to Trump. Those who opposed those policies lost, and a huge chunk of the population sat on the sidelines doing nothing.

There were many, many opportunities to turn away from this path; the largest was to NOT bail out bankers in 2009.

In 2009, I wrote the US off. I knew that Obama had affirmatively made the choice to save oligarchy from itself (quite different from FDR saving capitalism, but not oligarchy). I knew then that something like Trump was the most likely outcome, but I expected worse than Trump, so far, seems to be.

So running around screaming is ridiculous. This was a choice, made affirmatively, repeatedly. If Trump had lost to Clinton, Trump 2.0 would have tried in 2020 and almost certainly won. The US is a kleptocracy, and eventually the disease would move to the next stage, if not reversed.

What I seek to do now, with regards to Trump, is two things. The first is simply to understand him and his movement. We’re going to be living in his America; it’s his world, for some time, so we’d best figure it out.

The second is to poke people who didn’t and still don’t get it, because until enough people do, we will keep losing to kleptocrats (whose number includes both Clintons) and people like Trump.

These two things are meant to support realistic assessment of Trump, the US, and the world so that effective action can be taken.

I have a friend who, as a result of Trump, is leaving the US with his two children. He has carefully looked at Trump, made his assessment of the US’s future and chosen a course of action. That is effective.

Make your assessment, take your action. Stop the hysterics. I strongly recommend that many people, who are most worked up, take two weeks off the internet, except for unavoidable work related tasks. Calm down, think, and decide what you need to do for yourself and your dependents. Heck, depending on who you are, you might even be one of the winners from Trump (they will exist).

Then decide what you’re going to do. Understand the consequences of your actions. Make your assessment. If you really think Trump = Hitler you should be getting the fuck out or preparing to fight, and I do mean fight. If you don’t, what do you think he is?

Get real.

In the meantime, I will continue to keep an eye on Trump and his team and try to provide analysis without hysterics or panic. Fear may be appropriate (it is for some people, for sure), panic is not.

But it will be vastly harder to fix this if people keep pretending it wasn’t affirmatively chosen, and not just by people who voted for Trump this time, but by everyone who supported the previous status quo, starting around 1980. Kleptocracy is neoliberalism’s child, its logical end-result, and Trump is just a new stage in kleptocracy, and yes, many people worked hard for this including most people who voted against Trump.

Understanding how and why you got here is necessary to get out of here–not in one piece (it’s too late for that), but without losing any body parts you’ll really miss (always choose to lose a leg–the prosthetics are great).

Trump: Just another stage in the disease of kleptocracy, made inevitable by neoliberalism and affirmatively chosen by modern “liberal” hero, Barack Obama.

Own it.

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Trump and the Taming of the Oligarchs

Some years ago, I read an article about a Russian oligarch who had wanted to close a factory in a Russian town in which the factory provided the only real jobs.

The people complained to Putin, and some time later Putin appeared on stage in the town with the oligarch. With an eye on the oligarch, Putin explained that the jobs would be kept in the town.

Putin’s speech was described as being cold and contemptuous towards the oligarch.

When Trump convinced Carrier to keep some, not all, jobs, in America, he did so largely through bribes.

What will be interesting, however, is to see how much he makes people bow.

Putin broke some oligarchs and allied with others, but the important thing to understand about Putin’s relationship with Russian oligarchs is that Putin is the senior partner. He is in charge. They can do well, even very well, but if they challenge him, he will force them to bow–or break them.

(For the record, I have less than zero sympathy for the oligarchs; I know how they made their money.)

We all, I presume, remember the picture of Romney meeting Trump, begging for the Secretary of State job (which he didn’t get). I suspect Trump really did want to give the job to Romney, simply so he could force Romney to bow on a regular basis, but Trump’s loyalists hated Romney too much.

Meanwhile, the tech oligarchs have all also met with Trump. He was gracious, but they came to him, despite their clear opposition of him.

One of the issues in the US is that its oligarchs think they don’t have to serve the public good. Apple and other companies have billions stored overseas, they dodge taxes, and they move jobs overseas at the drop of a hat.

They also think they don’t have to bow to the President.

Now Trump cares somewhat about Issue (by which I mean jobs, not tax dodging), but he’s going to care a lot about Issue #2 (bowing to the President). And Bannon cares a lot about both, because Bannon despises America’s oligarchs and wants to see them humbled.

Trump, well, Trump likes power. He wants to be loved by the mob, oh yes, but he values loyalty greatly, and, if crossed, he likes breaking people.

So I expect to see a number of oligarchs and other powerful people made examples of, forced to bow–indeed, forced to kneel.

If Trump wants to get his way, this is necessary. He needs these people to do some things they don’t want to do (make less money by bringing jobs back to the US), and they’ll need to be scared of him.

They need to be personally scared. They need to believe they personally aren’t immune from his power.

Trump will enjoy this. Bannon, if I read him correctly, will enjoy it even more.

Under Trump, oligarchs will do well, even very well. But not if they don’t bow. He wants some crumbs for ordinary Americans, and he needs the oligarchs to give them.

So one of the ways I will know if Trump is going to be successful (i.e., get his people enough goodies to get his second term, and the accompanying adulation) will be by watching the “kneeling to bribes” ratio, and seeing what Trump does to those companies who refuse to cooperate.

Be very clear on this, folks. This is something about which most people are complete idiots.

There is nowhere to go.

The rich cannot actually move their companies overseas. Where are they going to go? Europe will regulate them even harder (see all the problems Google is having). They don’t want to live in China or Russia, and China and Russia are the only countries strong enough to tell America to bugger off. Plus, of course, Putin and the Chinese Communist party won’t just make them kneel, they’ll make them get down on their bellies and grovel like worms.

No one else can stand up to America. Oh, Europe could, if it had its act together, but it doesn’t; and it wants regulation that repel oligarchs. Tax havens are a joke; they exist because the great powers want them to exist, and the second the Treasury cracks down on them, they will go away.

So if Trump wants to put the screws on, he can–especially if he’s smart about it. You make an example of a few people, you reward the others for cooperating, and soon they’re all bowing and scraping.

That’s how it works.

Let’s see if Trump knows how to play the game.

(And, for the record, no, this isn’t good. But the financial crisis proved we already have rule of men, and that this rule is to be used solely to enrich the few and immiserate the many. Rule of law will continue to disappear. I have no sympathy for most of the US’s oligarchs, because, while not as outright nasty as Russia’s oligarchs (on average–some of them are just as bad), they are almost all truly bad people who have strangled the US, and the world, to get where they are.)

The games are on, Caesarism continues its rise. It’s what Americans voted for and elites worked hard to create the conditions for it. Crying over it is like crying over physics.

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Trump’s Relationship with US Intelligence

Trump, as has been reported many times, does not attend most daily intelligence briefings. The CIA, FBI, and NSA have said that Russia tried to elect Trump through hacking, and Trump has fired back at them.

Liberals are wringing their hands about Trump’s unprofessionalism and disrespect for the intelligence agencies.

Some of this is just embarrassing: Given how intelligence agencies performed in the Iraq war, and their dubious and incompetent behavior in many other episodes, and given the historically violent, anti-democratic nature of the CIA overseas, and the FBI and NSA domestically, anyone who is even slightly left of center should be deeply suspicious of anything they do.

But there is a deeper issue, which speaks (again) directly to the inability of most non-Trump people to understand the Trump argument about the world.

The CIA says bad things about Trump, and Trump answers the same way that a hard left-winger would, and that anyone sane should: “Whatever.” Then he points out what a “heck of a job” they did in Iraq.

Daily intelligence briefings are one of the ways that intelligence agencies and the Deep State control presidents. Such briefings set the frame; they create the reality within which Presidents operate, frame the available options, and so on. Start the day with one almost every day, and you will be influenced to see the world the way they do.

And then you become Obama: Handmaiden to the same intelligence agencies you criticized while running your campaign.

Intelligence briefings are dubious activities. If Trump wants specific information, he can ask for it. If an issue is genuinely urgent, the head of the agency can push it personally, but taking those briefings every day is a poison pill, and I am highly skeptical of the notion that it leads to better decision-making.

Instead, it is almost certain to lead to status quo thinking, plus the perpetuation of those activities intelligence agencies most enjoy. (Say hello to Obama’s massive ramp up of drone assassinations, and to his huge crack down on whistleblowers.)

This the same as Trump not bothering to talk to State about his Taiwan call. Of course State is going to say, “Don’t do it,” they are wedded to “One China,” and they’ll also leak like a seive (as they and the CIA and FBI have already been doing).

Why even bother to talk to them about it? Oh, one can make arguments, but if you’re sure you want to change things, and you know they disagree, all talking to them does is give your enemies more opportunities to sandbag you.

There’s a lot that Trump wants to do that I don’t agree with, but putting the Deep State in their place isn’t one of those things. They serve at the President and Congress’s pleasure; they are not part of the Constitution, they do not have to be consulted, and, given their abysmal performance during the last few decades, it’s hard to see why any particular respect should be given to them.

This is the world model that Trump (inasmuch as he ascribes to a “world model”) and Bannon live in, Bannon especially. They do not grant that the people who have been running government are smarter or more competent than they are, they believe the reverse.

So, no, they don’t respect the CIA’s opinion. To them, the Deep State is a potential adversary who needs to be brought to heel.

More about bringing people to heel in a later post.

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Clio, the Muse of History

Heaven on Earth: The Kindness Maxim

In the past, I have noted that kindness is generally the best policy and always the best policy default. If you don’t have an ironclad reason not to be kind, be kind.

Let’s run through this.

People who are treated badly, become bad. The abused grow up to abuse. The sick make others sick and cannot contribute to society. Happy people are better to be around. Prosperous people can afford your products and services.

Happy, healthy, loving, and prosperous people are the people we want in our societies.

We evolved in bands. Forty to fifty people running around the Savannah. We would have been friendly to some other bands (those with whom we shared ancestors) and we were hostile to most other humans, who were our competitors. The level of hostility varied with carrying capacity; if resources were short because of too many humans, quite hostile, otherwise not very.

We did not evolve to take into consideration the needs of large groups of people. In order to do so, we evolved cultural methods: fictive kinship, culture, story, myth, and religion. These things created fictional identities which went beyond people we knew of or saw every day.

Theses are all hacks for a fundamental evolutionary problem: We’ve evolved to be pretty good to those we see all the time, and not to care much about people we don’t.

This was fine when were just a particularly clever animal. Even when we got to the point of making wholesale changes to the environment (usually through agriculture), the worst we could do is ruin a local ecosystem–we couldn’t mess up the world.

But, today, for good or ill, we live in that “interconnected world” and the “global society” everyone talks about. What happens to someone in Nigeria, Brazil, or China matters to me. Their happiness, their health, their prosperity affects mine.

And how they affect the environment affects me, too. How I, a first-worlder with a huge carbon footprint, affect the environment, affects them.

Their well-being affects mine. It is in my interest for them to be better off.

This isn’t what you’ve been told. Economics treats the world as a zero-sum game, a matter of managing scarcity.

The world has scarcities: resources, dumps for pollution like carbon, etc. But civilization isn’t, usually, a zero sum game. Instead, it’s usually negative sum or positive sum, or both. For some time for Westerners, and a few other developed nations, it has been positive sum, and there have been many other periods of positive-sum games.

My win is everyone else’s win.

Creating a good society requires both managing actual scarcities and understanding that actual scarcities are scarce, and that most things people want to do are positive sum. It requires turning most of what we do into positive-sum games. A good society is one in which “your win is my win” is made true far more often than not.

“We win together” is a prescriptive statement which must be made into a descriptive statement. (It is also a descriptive statement in general, because if my win isn’t your win more often than not, we don’t live in a good world.)

So humans must see beyond their identities, their tribes, and their nations, to treat all humans as people whom we want to be healthy, happy, prosperous, and loving. For their sakes and for our sakes.

But there is an additional step required to create a good society, a good world, a good civilization.

We must care for non-human life.

The mass-death of trees and plankton affects you, it affects me. The mass death of fish affects you, it affects me. The destruction of marshlands causes floods and reduces water quality; it affects you, and it affects me. Ecosystem collapse—well, you get it.

The problem here is that I’ve given you the rational argument.

Rationality is marginal. It’s not that humans can’t be rational, it’s that rationality is the lesser part of why we do things or how we make decisions. We make decisions based on emotions, and those emotions are based on our ideologies and identities.

Rationality, or “reason,” allows us to weasel out of doing the right thing too often. It is a tool for our emotions; emotions which right now scream: “My interests, my ideology, my identity, my people matter MOST!”

For a good world to exist, we must feel that other humans should be treated kindly simply because it is the right thing to do. We should be revolted by anyone going hungry, anyone being tortured, anyone being raped. The moment we think “They had it coming,” we’re on the wrong track. (Punishment is not the point, removing the ability of bad actors to continue to act badly is.)

And this principle needs to be extended to non-human life. We need to feel bad when animals are dying in large numbers and going extinct–bad enough to do something about it. We need to instinctively, by default, move to protect them. We should be as revolted by images of dolphins being slaughtered as we are by humans being slaughtered. If we kill for meat (and I eat meat), we should insist it be done humanely.

This must be based on values, principles, and identity, of feeling that humans and animals and even plants are all alive–and because they are alive, they must be treated with respect.

There are sound, pragmatic reasons for doing so; there are also sound moral reasons for doing so (read the Hidden Life of Trees). Anyone who doesn’t think most animals don’t feel pain, or don’t suffer, is on a profoundly unethical, immoral track.

This is the right thing to do, morally and pragmatically, and if we don’t figure out how to do it, we’re little better than bacteria that grow until they destroy their own environment and experience a great die-off.

Be kind. It creates the world you want to live in, and it may well save your life and the lives of those you claim to care about. By granting life the love you reserve only for a few, you give those few (and yourself, as it happens) their best chance at long life and prosperity–and grant it to your descendants as well.

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