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

Month: December 2017 Page 1 of 2

Why the Wave Election of 2018 Could Mean Nothing

Trump is a historically unpopular President. The bills passed by the Republican Congress are hated.

In 2018, the United States will likely see a wave election, with control of the House and possibly the Senate returning to the Democrats.

I remember a similar election, one I followed closely as my job: 2006. The Democrats took the House, and did virtually nothing with it. They did not meaningfully oppose Bush.

Then in 2008, Democrats took the House, Senate, and Presidency and used it to pass an inadequate stimulus, a flawed healthcare plan (which, yes, has helped some people), and some technocratic fixes, while basically running an austerian, neoliberal policy regime: They bailed out bankers, collaborated with banks to take away houses from homeowners through fraud, increased drone murders, and so on.

They then lost control of the House and Senate, lost about a thousand seats at State level, and eventually lost the Presidency to the most unpopular Presidential winner in history (running a candidate who had the second highest negatives of any major party candidate ever).

All of this happened for a simple reason: The Democrats governed badly. Yeah, the worst part of 2008 was patched over (something which would have happened anyway–financial crises and recessions end), but basically the economy never, ever became good for most Americans again. We saw an actual decrease in life span for many Americans, we saw the rise of the opiate crisis, we saw the percentage of people with jobs never recover.

It was catastrophic, and the Democrats didn’t fix it.

Yeah, they did some good. But they didn’t do much and they did a lot of harm.

Fed up, enough Americans in the right places decided to try the other side.

Now the other side has revealed themselves as even more rapacious and incompetent, and Americans will then go back to Democrats.




This ends ONLY when one party or the other decides to govern to the benefit of a significant majority.

Democrats did this under FDR and they basically controlled DC for 5o years or so, until they fucked it up by failing to handle the oil and inflation crises of the 70s–at which point, they decided to go along with Republicans in getting rid of the economic and political policies which made the previous period of great prosperity possible.

So, there are some signs that Democrats are beginning to get it: increased support for single payer, anger over various internet monopolies, and so on.

But when they win, they have to actually DO IT. Especially once they have a President, they must just ram through the right shit. 51 votes in the Senate is all it takes if you are serious. That’s a choice.

Until they do…




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Russia as an Enemy of the United States

I believe that most of the concerns about Russia are overblown. (See this for the argument.) In fact, I put it into the public hysterics category.

But to the extent that Russia is opposed to the US, and it is, I put most of the blame on the US. Russia desperately wanted to be part of the West, and for many years bent over backwards trying to be. (In this case, it is quite similar to secular Turkey, whose aspirations to EU membership were repeatedly crushed, leading to the rise of Erdogan’s Islamism.)

I want to quote an interview with George Kennan in 1998 about NATO expansion, in particular. For those who don’t know, Kennan was the architect of the Cold War containment policy towards the USSR: He was hardly a dove.

”I think it is the beginning of a new cold war,” said Mr. Kennan from his Princeton home. ”I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [The NATO expansion] was simply a light-hearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs.”…

‘I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe. Don’t people understand? Our differences in the Cold War were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.

”And Russia’s democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we’ve just signed up to defend from Russia,” said Mr. Kennan, who joined the State Department in 1926 and was US Ambassador to Moscow in 1952. ”It shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are — but this is just wrong.” (Emphasis mine.)

Indeed, a lot of people have forgotten that Russia also asked to join NATO (under both Gorbachev and Putin) and was rebuffed. Russia wanted IN the club. In fact, it was pathetic how much they wanted in the club and I thought so at the time. The West, steeped in Russophobia, was never going to let them in, and the Russians wasted somewhere between fifteen and twenty years before they got the message that the West, and the US in particular, was implacably hostile and intended to remain so.

Russia has about half the GDP of California. It is a superpower only in terms of nuclear weapons, though its army, technology, and geographic reach mean that it is still a great power.

It has been pushed into the arms of the Chinese, which from a geopolitical POV is ludicrous: Siberia is the most likely point of conflict between the Chinese and the Russians, driven by the realities of climate change, demographics, and aquifer depletion. Siberia has hardly any population, lots of land, and tons of water, and in twenty to thirty years, the Chinese are going to need that water, and in forty years or so they’re going to need the land.

It would have been easy to spin Russia in and make it the Eastern end of West. Instead, it has been made into a foe, and if the hysterics looking for someone to blame for their own electoral failures have their way, made into an actual enemy. (An enemy with enough nukes to destroy the entire world more than once. Sanity suggests picking better enemies.)

Whether or not the majority of Americans “want” this, emergent American behaviour shows this to be the path the US and the West are on.

Those of us who would prefer the world to survive might wish otherwise, but in-group thinking and the death wish are stronger than sanity or reason.

Putin is a result of shock doctrine, imposed by the West. Russian animosity is largely a result of Western actions that the Russians could not but interpret as hostile (including the color revolutions and the Western-backed Ukrainian coup.)

If, at this point, the Russians are trying to return the interference (and they probably are, just not nearly to the extent or effect the propaganda suggests) that is only what is to be expected, and Americans crying about a little bit of interference look ludicrous, given the US’s record of backing actual coups and constant, regular interference in virtually everyone else’s elections.

If you don’t want enemies, don’t treat them like your enemies. If you do, don’t be surprised when they act like your enemies.

And for God’s sake, Democrats, stop blaming Russia for an electoral failure that was primarily your own damn fault. Look to what you can control–your own behaviour–rather than seeking a scapegoat.

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’re all having a good Christmas. I do little on Christmas, but did spend Christmas Eve with a good friend.

The Genocidal Species

The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole

The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole

As a species, humans are genocidal.

This is a fact. We are genociding multiple species right now, we have genocided many in the past. We are driving so many species to extinction that the fossil record will show this as a great die-off.

And, if we decide one part of our own species isn’t “of the tribe,” well, we happily genocide them too. (A genocide is ongoing in Yemen, and, despite all our caterwauling about “never again,” we are doing nothing about it. Indeed, the US is aiding and abetting it.)

Humans commit genocide, a lot.

Now there are two ways to look at this tendency: with a view to free will and a view without. If humans don’t have free will, well, we have no moral culpability. It’s like blaming a fox for killing all the hens in a hen-house even though he won’t eat most them: He can’t help himself. In this model, humans are just animals and are no different from any other in terms of moral culpability. We’re biological machines governed by cause and effect.

That doesn’t make those we kill any less dead but it does mean feeling remorse is silly. We’re serial killing mass murderers, but it’s not our fault. We might as well be bacteria in a petri dish, eating everything they can, polluting the dish, and wiping themselves out amidst their own waste.


The other model suggests that human beings do have some control over ourselves. Some ability to use reason and reasoned emotion to control ourselves. We can model the past, present, and future and we can act to manage that future. We identify with and feel the pain of not just fellow humans but that of animals and even plants, and we can act on those feelings to reduce the amount of pain we cause.

Because whether we have free will or not, this we know: Suffering is real.

Even from a completely self-interested point of view, we know what we’re doing is bad: The species we’re killing are important for the health of eco-systems upon which we rely. If the ocean plankton go away, we are so screwed. If various other ecosystems collapse, well, we rely on them to keep the world habitable by higher lifeforms.

And the genetic wealth we are destroying, which we could use with our unfolding biological technologies, is incalculably large: Miracle cures and genetic modifications we will never know.

All this leaves aside the non-trivial possibility we could wipe ourselves out and the reasonable chance that we will destroy our civilization and plunge ourselves into a dark age.

If the other species could vote, surely most would vote to have us be the next genocide victim, in order to spare so many other species.

Looking at all of this leads to a fairly simple conclusion: We can’t handle the technology we have. We do not have the ability to manage ourselves. As a species, we cannot control our breeding, or manage limited resources and sinks, nor plan for any future more than a few years out. When we broke the Malthusian trap, we set ourselves up for disaster. When we learned how to exhume large amounts of carbon and burn it, we set most of the world’s species up for catastrophe.

We are dangerous to everyone, including ourselves, not primarily out of malice (though there is plenty of that) but out of selfishness, greed, stupidity, and short-sightedness.

And it’s not clear we can learn. Oh, individuals and groups can learn. The lessons of the Great Depression were learned well by those who were adults then, but they couldn’t pass those lessons on to their kids and grandkids, who went on to pursue essentially the exact same policies which caused the Great Depression (as well as fascism).

So if we make it through the great climate change and ecological collapse and learn our lesson, how long will it be before the grandkids or great-grandkids say, “Oh, we would never do that again. Let’s loosen some regulations, they’re stupid and get in the way of making a profit!”

As a species, we now have three great tasks:

  • Get through the ecological issues barreling down on us
  • Learn how to live in space and get off the planet so all our eggs aren’t in one basket (jump to more petri dishes!)
  • Most importantly, learn how to create stable, sane societies that aren’t a menace to themselves and every living creature around them.

The first two are clearly possible (though we may not manage them).

The third?

I don’t know. Can humans truly learn? Or are we just bacteria in a petri dish, too stupid to control ourselves?

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.

The Solution to Opiate Fentanyl Deaths

Why have opiate deaths spiked?

In the last half of 2016, fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, was detected in 56.3 percent of the opioid overdose deaths in the ten states that make up the CDC’s Enhanced State Opioid Overdose Surveillance program…

How do you solve this? You make available for purchase legal, reasonably priced, pure drugs. You make help getting off drugs available to anyone who wants it, free. (Tapering works in almost all cases.)

This is not a hard problem to solve. It is an easy problem to solve. It is also true that demonizing opiates, in particular, means that a lot of people don’t get the pain relief they need, especially chronic pain sufferers, whose nervous systems change over time so that they are more susceptible to pain.

We do not solve this problem because we are a bunch of moral hysterics who want to force our morals on other people, when their actions are less harmful than our prohibition is.

We also refuse to look at the actual cause of the opiate epidemic, which is fairly clearly economic despair and hopeless lives. Indeed, most drugs aren’t particularly addictive to people who have happy lives and things they want to do.

If you want to end at least half the deaths caused by opiate addiction, make it legally available (it will be more than half, because its illegality drives much of the behaviour that leads to death, beyond just adulteration.)

If you want people to get off opiates, create a society and economy which values them and treats them well. The policies to do this are fairly simple: Updated to deal with racism, sexism and environmental concerns, they are approximately the policies which ran the developed world in the post-war period until the ’70s. Tax the rich brutally, support high wages, have near-free tertiary education, make sure that jobs (or money) are so available that employers have to treat employees well, because employees who walk can always find another job.

This stuff can be complicated in the details, but it’s easy conceptually and hard only in the sense that you have to have the political will and to stay on top of it.

As for opiates and other drugs, just make them legal, regulate them, and make addiction treatment available.

The dead frustrating issue about most of our social problems is that the solutions are more or less known, we just don’t, actually, want to solve them. We prefer the problems to the solutions, or enough of us, combined with enough oligarchs, do.

We can fix our economy, our society, and our drug problem any time we want. Sadly, that is no longer true for the environment, but we can mitigate that damage.

Perhaps one day we’ll decide to do so. Much of this suffering is by choice, and as a society, we’re choosing it.

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.


The Torture Culture

Ok, here’s the deal: Torture does not work to get information. Period. You do not torture people to get information, you torture people to send information, or rather, to send a message. What is that message?

(Originally from Dec 16, 2010, but it seems worth re-upping for a new generation of readers – Ian.)

We Torture People

That’s all the message is.

The US is a torture culture. The majority of Americans accept torture; they think it’s okay. This extends right through the society. Sure, it is in its rawest form in places like SuperMax security prisons (23 hour a day isolation is torture), Bagram and Guantanmo, but it extends down.  Glenn Greenwald recently wrote a piece on how Bradley (at the time, now Chelsea) Manning is being kept in constant isolation, refused sheets or a pillow, not even allowed to exercise:

Just by itself, the type of prolonged solitary confinement to which Manning has been subjected for many months is widely viewed around the world as highly injurious, inhumane, punitive, and arguably even a form of torture. 

In his widely praised March, 2009 New Yorker article — entitled “Is Long-Term Solitary Confinement Torture?” — the surgeon and journalist Atul Gawande assembled expert opinion and personal anecdotes to demonstrate that, as he put it, “all human beings experience isolation as torture.” By itself, prolonged solitary confinement routinely destroys a person’s mind and drives them into insanity. A March, 2010 article in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law explains that “solitary confinement is recognized as difficult to withstand; indeed, psychological stressors such as isolation can be as clinically distressing as physical torture.”

Then there is this:

Ariz. Rep. Michele Reagan, R-District 8, is better known for fighting for new laws, but now, she is speaking about her fight against a lawsuit. Reagan is being sued by her mortgage company after she questioned who owned held the note on her home.

“It’s really scary,” she said, “I think that this really needs to be brought to light that this is happening to people in Arizona.” Reagan had wanted to find out she and her husband, David Gulino, could refinance their south Scottsdale home.

“In doing research, I began to wonder if the lender even owned the note to my home,” she said. “So I sent them a letter and asked them and asked them several things. I want to know who owns my property. Am I paying the right person?”

Soon after, Colonial Savings filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Reagan and her husband. The company says the couple is trying “to rescind their home loan,” or back out on the loan.

“We’re not interested in walking,” Reagan said. “We’re not interested in saying we’re not going to pay. We just need a little help with the interest rate. I’m current on my loan. Never missed a payment. We’ve never been late. We were sued for asking too many questions,” said Reagan.

Suing someone who has done nothing wrong, putting them through all that, isn’t about stopping them from defaulting, it’s about sending a message: “This is what we do to people who dare to challenge us in even the smallest way.” Win or lose, the banks have sent a message, and they can easily afford harassing lawsuits, while ordinary people can’t.

Torture is just an extension of bullying, and the message of the bully is always, “I can do this, and no one will stop me.”

The porno-scanners and the gropes (which definitely include touching your genitals, btw, I have been “padded down”) are also along these lines. They won’t stop a determined terrorist, but they do send a message: We can do this and no one will stop us. And if you fly on a private jet (i.e. you’re rich or important), hey you don’t get groped or scanned.

Likewise, PayPal, Visa, and Mastercard shutting down Wikileaks donations was about sending a message. “It doesn’t matter if what you’ve done is against the law or not, we will shut you out of the modern economy, and no one will stop us.”

In the modern world, you’re either a someone or a no one. If you’re reading this, odds are that you’re a no one. And if you’re a no one, you’d better do what you’re told and you’d better not resist, or they will punish you whether it’s just or not, whether it’s legal or not, whether it’s “torture” or not.

This will only stop when the price for doing it is too high, personally, for the someones.

And So Net Neutrality Ends in the US

Not unexpected. This will make direct competition with entrenched players nearly impossible, as they will be able to buy access to customers, and upstarts won’t. The Internet as a place where anybody could start a new business will constrict.

Oligopoly and monopoly providers (and many areas effectively have only one ISP) will extract even higher profits (understand that high speed internet profits are about 100 percent already) and will either hold anyone who wants to get to customers hostage for access or will force retail customers to pay premium rates for relatively unfettered access.

The fight will continue in court, and can always be overturned by elected officials.

Public internet, by a heavily regulated utility provider, is one solution down the road. The other to do what was done in the days of dial up and force providers to let other companies sell access to the internet through their networks.

To a remarkable degree, the internet is a natural oligopoly. It doesn’t make sense to drive multiple wires or set up multiple sets of towers–that’s irrational. As such, it needs to be regulated as a natural monopoly, with forced upgrades, set levels of profits (a low, single-digit number, inflation-adjusted) and regulatory knee-breakers who are not allowed to work for industries they ever regulated. (Meaning, you can go from industry to regulation, but not vice versa.)

These are, as usual, mostly solved problems. The world has had public or regulated utilities for ages and we know how to make them work if we want to.

Right now we don’t. We want private actors to make unregulated monopoly profits and to shut down innovation and the creation of new work and jobs.

So be it.

(See also, How Internet Monopolies Are Destroying the Web.)

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.

US Electoral Predictions for 2018 and Beyond

Back in 2009/10 I said that Obama would be replaced by a right-wing populist. I thought it would take four years, but it took eight, because the losses were concentrated down-ballot, and Obama hung on.

Similar to Matt Stoller, I have a fairly simple heuristic: People expect government to noticeably make their lives better, and when it doesn’t, they toss the bums out.

So, Bush Jr. was a disaster, and in ’06 a wave election put Pelosi in charge of the House. She did nothing with it: She didn’t oppose Bush in any meaningful way. In ’08, in the midst of the financial collapse, Obama got in, and, yeah, he didn’t help Americans for squat, instead concentrating his efforts on immunizing executives from fraud charges and helping banks defraud home-owners (see Chain of Title, by David Dayen if you think this is in any way an exaggeration).

So after his eight years, voters switched parties again. Yeah, it was close, yada yada, but as the field stood, Trump won, despite having the highest negatives of any Presidential candidate in history.

No, Trump didn’t win with racism alone; the margin of victory was given by people who had been willing to vote for Obama. Those people might be racists, but they were willing to put that aside if they believed in a candidate.

Trump had a very populist economic plan in many ways, and has implemented virtually none of it beyond some minor moves on the trade front.

And so the pendulum swings back, and in ’18 the Democrats will take the House and possibly the Senate. Will they do anything with it that really matters to help ordinary Americans in ways that are really noticed? If Trump loses in 2020 (or Pence), will the next Dem President do what matters?

The first party to do what matters will be in a position to sew up the country for 40 years, as FDR did after ’32 and Reagan after ’80.

And, as I have pointed out frequently, and Matt points out today, we dodged a bullet with Trump because he is incompetent. A competent right-wing ideologue who actually made the economy better (and it can be done), can change the US and own it–in a perverse reversal of FDR.

It is not enough to be for civility and decorum. Democrats must also truly be against Republican policies and for positive policies of their own which are radical enough to turn the United States away from its current economic trajectory towards further and further oligarchy. Policies which create and spread wealth, and which end monopolies and oligopolies, and break corruption.

These policies are well known and understood: high marginal tax rates, breaking up large companies and real universal health care, along with effective stimulus and investment. What is lacking isn’t knowledge of how to implement them, what is lacking is will: The Democrats don’t want such policies any more than Republicans do. What they want is kinder, gentler neoliberalism. A slow descent into oligarchy, with a few more cushions for the homeless.

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.

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