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

Month: July 2018

Books vs. the Internet

One of the major changes in my life this last year has been that I’m reading a lot of books.

When I was young, I read a lot. For much of my childhood and most of my teen years I was reading about two books a day. During holidays I often read three a day or even four. Even into my twenties and early thirties, I maintained a book a day or so. I was one of those people who always carried a pocket book. Heck, I’d walk down the sidewalk, reading, the analog version of people staring at their smartphones.

Then along came the internet. A fair bit of my attention went to forums, but that didn’t slow down my book reading too much. Until I became a blogger, and somehow the internet ate my life.

A lot of that was good, especially from 03-08, but one casualty was book reading. I went down to one or two a week. I was intensely involved in political and economic issues, and paradoxically that made me hate reading books about economics and politics. I had trained myself, as a writer, to look for what people were (to my mind) wrong about, get angry about it (because it had real world consequences that were ugly), and then use that anger to write a post.

This made reading full books by people I disagreed with (almost all mainstream economists and political theorists of the time) really unpleasant.

This conditioning took a lot of time to overcome. But about a year ago I started really reading again, and today I’m up to about a book and a half a day. Buying a Kindle (yeah, Amazon, I know, but my experience with Kobo sucked) made this easy, and in general e-books are cheaper.

So I’ve been reading and reading, and I confirmed what I’d known, but put aside, that internet reading is not a substitute for reading books.

The vast majority of internet reading is too short. Even longer form articles and essays, which are becoming a smaller and smaller proportion of the internet anyway, just don’t match up to a decent book.

You don’t get enough information or argument or description. Even a five thousand word essay, which almost no one publishes on the internet anymore, and no one reads, does not allow the proper development of either the argument or the supporting facts as well as a good book. (Granted a lot of books are overgrown magazine articles, but that’s why I qualified with “good.”)

One gets pieces, on the internet, facts out of context, or arguments without all the facts. When learning about a new subject, one rarely gets all the context one needs: No essay is comprehensive enough.

Just recently, I spent a lot of time reading about the Chinese economy, and Chinese trade. I’ve kept a general eye on China for years, but I still didn’t know basic facts, like, for example, that China has the most decentralized government spending of any federal government in the world. (This is a fundamental and important fact, and explains much of why China succeeded.)

There is an idea, prevalent today, that one doesn’t really need to know things, because one can easily look them up.

This is not true if you want to understand anything, however. Your mind cannot work without facts and theories you don’t know. The more you know, the more you know you don’t know, and what you know you don’t know, you can then go study. If there’s important information you don’t know you don’t know, you can’t even take your ignorance into account.

Information outside your head can’t be used to improve your world and understanding, to make new connections, to understand more.

And disconnected facts and theories, not embedded within a fuller network of facts and theories; decontextualized, can be deeply misleading. They may make sense, but if you knew more you’d know they aren’t correct or don’t mean what you think they do. Equally you may think a theory or set of facts are bullshit, where if you knew more you’d understand whatever truth, or usefulness, they carry.

We thought the internet would be a huge boon, and in some ways it has been. But as with the research that shows that the more one uses social media the more unhappy and anxious one is, the fact of having so much information at our fingertips, while lovely, has also led to too much of it floating, almost context free, un-embedded in the networks of theory and meaning and additional facts necessary to make sense of it.

So, in general, while I think the internet has a lot to offer, I have to say that for those who want to understand the world, it should be used as little more than a reference library and news ticker; social media should mostly be avoided, with a careful calculus of whether the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, and one should spend most of one’s reading time with books, not online writing. (Er, of course, my blog is an exception. *cough*)

Books: Still better for actual understanding. And better for your happiness and your ability to concentrate as well.

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Oligarchy and the Death of Worlds


The reaction to my previous post was very gratifying in the sense that it sparked off a discussion in the comments touching on hitherto little-asked questions of moral priorities in a time of increasing global political crisis. More interestingly, it also helped point out places where we don’t necessarily even agree on important terms and definitions — I am particularly thinking about a part of the discussion that veered off into analyzing the material consequences of oligarchy, capitalist or otherwise, but it turned out we didn’t all seem to agree on what oligarchy was, who oligarchs are, and so on.

So let me take the opportunity to cast my own light on what the choices are, overall, in terms of real and possible oligarchies. There are, at a global level, two “mainstream” forms of hegemonic politics, each with their own oligarchical backing. One of these is the Clintonian-Merkelist-Obamist-Sorosian politics that is a confluence of at least overt social-liberalism and a variety of economic neoliberalism. The other one is a Trumpian-Putinian-Bannonite-Orbánist instrumentalization of parochial nationalism. The former represents an oligarchic politics, democratically unrestrained trans-national capitalism, that has the potential to do great harm to the world if left unchecked. The latter represents a con game that starts out with cotton candy for the True People and eventually ends up with states under the control of local and not-so-local looters who instrumentalize nationalist conflict for crony enrichment — this too, is oligarchy.

(This is Fascism 101: There are a small number of people who genuinely support exclusivist nationalism who, if they play their cards well right now, will be able to briefly experience that special, depraved feeling of being able to surround yourself with your imagined extended flesh and blood like a warm blanket, as the “antibodies” of the national immune system destroy the lives of the unwanted. Everyone else, even the True People, will be sucked dry and converted into feudal peons.)

Both of these options are bad. The problem is that they are the only ones currently on offer, in the sense that they have a significant quantity of “boots on the ground” — two sorts of oligarchy. If you’re a genuine supporter of “ethno-states” or revanchist nationalisms or whatever, you will naturally ignore my warning and happily choose the latter option. It’s what seems closest to what you want.  If you’re not in that category, things become a lot harder. The transnationalist oligarchy espouses a social ideology that is, at least at the level of words and aspirations, less noxious, but wrapped in a lethal package.

What seems to be the case, however, is that some people on the left of the spectrum, who nevertheless have understandable reasons to object to the neoliberal hegemony, have a tendency to lean, in a functional sense, to the side of revanchist nationalism. And this form of nationalism gains increasing power (due to the known failures of the major alternative), it seems tempting to make it out to be the real alternative, or at least the only one that will break the grey monotony of neoliberal choicelessness.

I see a few ways to understand this in terms of desired outcomes. One is that only when the Clinton-Merkel-Soros-Whatever worldview is defeated, will space be returned once again to better, hegemonic left-wing progressive politics. Precisely how this is to proceed when the entire world is under the control of nationalist autocracies, I am not entirely sure. Another is that only the revanchist nationalists have the means to save the world already, because only revanchist nationalists can make peace with other revanchist nationalists, due to ideological affinity. The problem is that is that everyone now has to live under nationalist autocracies.

This seems like a pretty lose-lose situation to me; the nature of nationalist autocracies is that even if they make peace now, we can’t trust that the irredentism they encourage won’t lead to nuclear war and world annihilation anyway. But if you don’t want to support the other, Clintonian hegemony, not least because it ends up leading to much the same places, you don’t have many other alternatives. A just, free, non-oligarchic world is presently not on offer, for whatever reason.

How Unpopular Is Trump?

Not very, unfortunately.

The bottom line is simple enough: The job economy is doing better than it has since the financial crisis. Oh, it’s still not a good job economy–the unemployment rate is low, but the labor force participation rate hasn’t recovered, and wages aren’t increasing like they would be if it was actually a tight labor market.

But still, it’s a relatively good economy.

As for the rest, the fact is that most Americans don’t think that the Russia story is important: It’s not a major concern to them, but Democrats are insisting on running with it. If they run with it in the mid terms they will shoot themselves in the foot unless they have hard, obvious evidence.

These numbers are also why Trump isn’t going to be impeached by Republican members of the House: They would lose their next primary.

Trump’s a nasty piece of work in a lot of ways: Drone murders are up by three times from Obama (who increased them about ten times from Bush), he’s saber rattling at Iran, and his immigration policies are cruel, rather than just strict.

But most people don’t care that much about such things. And it shows in the numbers.

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The Current World Peace Paradox


In a weird twist of fate, American liberals and (some) leftists are finding themselves in the non-traditional position of standing in the “hawk” corner, while (some) American conservatives under Trump are in the position of wanting to cut deals with so-called traditional enemies of the US. Whether those deals will actually lead to world peace is another question, but I know it seems a little odd for this constellation of allies and enemies to have occurred — in particular, for American liberals to side so openly with what was traditionally considered a very reactionary part of the US security and foreign policy state.

I would suggest that this is not so odd or illogical or morally convenient. American liberals and (some) leftists/progressives/whatever see this form of peacemaking as being between ideological brethren — opening the door to a form of intolerant, relativist nationalism that pushes back on notions of universal rights and freedoms. If world peace is to be made by people seated at the table who are happy to sacrifice openly international struggles for equality of race, religion, culture, and gender, what value is this world peace other than mere survival?

How to Stop Russian Election Interference

Let us take as a given that Russia interfered in the last US election (though many of the accusations are unconvincing, some appear to be be true).

I’m pushing this back to the top, for what I assume are obvious reasons. Originally published Feb 1, 2018.

Why did they interfere?

They most likely did so because having a President in charge who was somewhat favorable to Russia is in Russia’s self interest. Remember that Russia is under US-led economic sanctions.

There is a case to be made that what Russia did was simply what Russia should have done: Act in its own self-interests. Russia should do what is in its self-interest.

Moreover, it is the same as the US does to other countries, all the time, including to Russia. When the US thinks that a country should have different leadership, it tries to make sure that happens. Such operations include political support, propaganda, and often support for violence. Money is funneled to opposition factions. The color-revolutions were US supported and so were the Maidan protests which overthrew the elected Ukrainian government and caused the most recent big crisis with Russia. There are many, many examples, including extensive support for anti-government forces in Iran.

The US does this because they think it is in their interest. If they think a democratic party is good for the US, they support it, but they have supported dictators and anti-democratic coups as well.

So what Russia is doing has a lot of precedent. The US is not some trembling innocent suffering some unspeakable crime. The better analogy is a serial bully who got his eye blacked by a past victim.

From the outside, Americans screaming about this look like a bully screaming, “How dare you do to me what I do to everyone else. I’m going to bury you!”

This does not induce sympathy.

Still, we can make a strong case that countries shouldn’t interfere in other countries’ internal political affairs, including–especially including–elections.

I think that the Russians might be willing to agree to that.

So the sane method of dealing with this issue, to which which virtually everyone will agree, would be to begin negotiations towards that end.

Americans and Russians get together and have frank talks, which amount to a peace treaty: We won’t do it to you, if you don’t do it to us.

They might even extend the notion to not doing it to other countries.

This is the actual road out, though it’s laughable because it really seems impossible to imagine. Both the US and Russia have been interfering in many countries for a long time, though the US has been the champion for the last 30 years or so–and by a wide margin.

But if you don’t want someone to hit you, perhaps you shouldn’t hit them?

The problem here is that this can’t stand alone. If the US retains the ability to sanction other countries economically, in ways that are so damaging that they kill vast numbers of those countries’ citizens and impoverish even more, which the US does, who is going to agree to just sit there and take it?

And the US does have this ability, for now, due to its control over the world payments system. The US Treasury can unilaterally sanction countries and firms, and no one can stop them, because banks outside the US feel compelled to obey as any transfer that touches on the US triggers US law, and the payment system is US built and controlled.

Most foreign debts are also subject to either US or British law, as the Argentinians learned to their great detriment.

But then, doesn’t the concept of sanctions fall under the general idea of interfering with other countries? Perhaps the US might also wish to stop sanctioning countries. Almost every case has done more harm than good, and the sanctions almost always hit ordinary people harder than leaders, even when they are targeted at the richest.

The way to have peace, is to leave other people alone.

I know that this runs exactly against the American character which is, “Hurt them until they do what I want.” It runs directly against how the US disciplines its own people, which is, “If you don’t cooperate, you’ll be poor and miserable.” (See how felons are treated after their incarceration for the most direct example.)

But perhaps, just perhaps, the best results in this world rarely come from hurting people until they submit, however long that takes. (See Cuba and Iran for how long it can not work.)

Oh, sure, sometimes it does “work.” The US has overthrown many countries’ governments, and they have gotten many other political parties elected. No one can deny this. But somehow, doing so often leads to even worse situations down the line. It seems that if you hurt people enough, they resist and start hating you, act against you, and try to get a government they like that doesn’t like you, and so on.

Sanity is saying “Okay, okay. Let’s stop this cycle of reciprocally hurting people.”

But that has to start and be credibly initiated by the worst abuser. And though most Americans won’t admit it, that worst abuser is the US.

This has been another episode of “Kindergarten-level Ethics for Adults.”

If you don’t like it when someone does it to you, don’t do it to other people.

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The Mueller Indictment

So, we have the latest indictments from Mueller. Twelve GRU agents are named and indicted for hacking into a variety of servers, including those belonging to the DNC, the Clinton campaign, and voter registration centers. They also got the Clinton campaign’s voter model.

The indictment is very detailed–down to hours and minutes. Donald Trump said, “Russia, if you are listening. I hope you are able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by the press.”

On the same day, Russian military intelligence apparently started hacking. They released their results through Guccifer 2.0, Wikileaks and DCLeaks, among others. Guccifer 2.0 contacted Roger Stone, who was in contact with the Trump campaign, but the exchange was brief.

If the indictment is correct, then this is serious interference in another country’s election.

It is worth pointing out that the indictment offers no proof, only assertion, and because Russia is hardly going to send GRU officers to the US to be tried, proof will never have to be shown in a court of law.

And I think it is also worth noting that the US routinely interferes in other countries elections in attempts to get the candidates it wants elected. Assuming it doesn’t back a coup to overthrow an elected government, of course.

To non-Americans this looks like the US squealing about grievances much less serious than those they regularly impress on others. Still, even bullies don’t like it when someone hits them, and assault is assault.

The best solution would be for various countries to stop interfering in other countries elections and domestic politics. “You don’t interfere, we won’t interfere.”

This suggestion will strike most as clearly impossible: The US isn’t going to stop meddling and neither is Russia.

But if you won’t stop doing it other people, outsiders can be excused for not being super-concerned when it is done to you.

I will, finally, point out that, in as close an election as 2016, everything made the difference. Clinton not prioritizing swing states, the emails, the hacking, voter suppression, etc…

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Britain’s Conservative Government on Verge of Breakup

So, the expected has happened. Prime Minister May’s minority government has been unable to deliver a Brexit which keeps her MPs happy. Two senior ministers have resigned, and should there be a confidence vote over Brexit, it is likely that May will not muster a majority and her government will fall.

The figures who have jumped ship are hard Brexiteers, but the tightrope for May is that many of her own MPs want a soft Brexit. With almost no margin in the commons, she cannot please everyone, and likely cannot stand.

If the UK government falls, there will be a new election. Its outcome is uncertain. Both Labour and the Conservatives are pro-Brexit, with only the Lib-Dems as anti-Brexit, but the Lib-Dems, after their coalition government with the Conservatives, are unpopular and distrusted.

Brexit has been bungled from the beginning: May’s third option was never going to fly, neither enough of her party nor the EU want it. There are only two real options: Something close to Norway’s arrangement, in which Britain will have to pay for access to the common market, or a hard Brexit and reliance on World Trade Organization norms and enforcement.

I personally hope Corbyn wins. I believe he is the best chance for Britain. Various claims otherwise, being in the EU does compromise what an actual left-wing government can do in terms of unions, re-nationalization, and many other issues. The European Union, as it is right now, is a neoliberal organization and its laws and regulations enshrine neoliberal economic relations. That it is also socially liberal obscures this point.

We’ll see how this plays out, but it’s important. Remember that the current world order started in Britain, not the US, with the election of Thatcher. Britain is a bellwether for the Anglo world.

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On July 4th as American Evil Comes Home

It’s July 4th, and I hope all my American readers are enjoying the holiday.

I’m going to be a little grim on this day and talk about the current immigration practice of separating children from their families

In context.

I am very glad that so many people are up in arms about this. It’s clearly inhuman and it’s clearly a stupid catch-22: “We won’t let you ask for refugee status at legal crossings, but if you enter elsewhere we’ll call it a crime and take away your kids.” Further, a lot of the kids will be very damaged by this, especially the youngest, in key periods where they need human contact they just aren’t getting, especially in tactile and verbal communication.

It is, however, not even close to the worst thing that the US has done in the last 20 years. The Iraq sanctions were worse. The Iraq War was worse. The Libyan war was worse. The current Yemeni genocide, which the US is helping plan and execute, is worse. Drones were worse, etc.

But all of these things happened away from Americans. They were opposed, oh yes, but never with the ethical fervour I am seeing now–with the anger, anguish, and moral opprobrium being aimed those doing the separating.

Yet my list of American deeds created plenty of orphans, took plenty of children from parents, killed far more people, and involved a lot more rape, torture, and slavery as their inevitable side effects.

These acts desensitized a whole swathe of Americans to atrocity, too. Most of those involved in the wars, and in justifying them, were made callous and uncaring. They learned how to dehumanize people, and so when this was done close to home, there were plenty of people willing to do it and to justify it.

Doing monstrous things makes you into a monster. Doing evil makes you evil. It is almost impossible to avoid this. You are what you do. You are also what you justify.

Do monstrous things abroad, and similar actions may eventually come home. It is something which must be carefully contained to avoid contamination, and a 17-year series of endless wars is not containment.

So here it is, on the border. What’s happening there is not sui generis; what Americans have been doing to other Americans in prison is abominable, and that got ramped up in 1980 under Reagan. But now it is close, and in the face, and being done to children.

Hypocrisy is a sin, not so much because you are lying, but because you are denying the person you are. You are evil, when you say that you are good.

The United States’ wars did far more damage than this immigration policy, but many Americans didn’t care as much.

Now what you’ve sown is coming closer and closer to home, and now it comes in a form you can’t ignore.

This is not good in the sense I am glad it happened. I wish it hadn’t. But it is good in the sense that it is making some Americans see what the US is.

If you defeat it. If you defeat Trump. That is not enough. To truly end the evil, you must stop treating both foreigners and residents with so much evil. You must stop the wars and make them anathema. You must find a way to mostly empty the prisons and to make those that remain more humane.

You must find a way not just to rehabilitate prisoners, but all the various police, paramilitary, and prison guards, who by doing evil routinely (no, don’t pretend they don’t) have become evil themselves–far too willing to use force and to be cruel.

You must do this, to put it dramatically, for your souls, and because it is right. And you must do it because you believe it is right. But it is also self-protection, because what the US military and law enforcement does to others, they can–and very likely will–wind up doing to you and yours.

By protecting others from the overreach of great power and cruelty, you reduce your odds of ever being subject to it yourself.

Too many Americans seem to have lost this understanding. You protect people you don’t actually care about or even like, or people you hate, because by protecting them you protect yourself.

This doesn’t apply just to the fair implementation of law, but to justice and the norms of dignified treatment that protect everyone; if they don’t protect some people, one day they won’t protect you or someone you care about.

The crimes creep ever closer to home. Many of you have already suffered from them. More of you will if you don’t stop and then actually reverse this.

And reversal means you can’t tolerate leaders like Obama and the Clintons, who were evil, and made things worse, just more slowly than Republicans. You don’t need a lesser evil, you need, at the least, leaders who are more good than evil.

Good luck.

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