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

Month: July 2021 Page 1 of 3

Open Thread

Use comments to discuss topics unrelated to recent posts.

A Brief Note On Afghanistan And The Taliban

I can’t find it now, but in the brief period between 9/11 and the American invasion of Afghanistan, I read an interview with the Afghan (Taliban) ambassador to Pakistan. He said, paraphrasing:

The Americans will invade. They will capture the cities. We will retreat to the country and fight a guerilla war, and in the end they will leave, and we will reconquer the cities.

At the time I knew he was right, and the last phases of his prediction are now bearing fruit.

I don’t like the Taliban, ideologically they’re my enemies, as are all fundamentalists, but they brought an end to rapine, pillaging and torture at the cost of fundamentalist religious law and repression, and it was an improvement over the previous situation.

Those who don’t like the Taliban should remember that if America had not supported religious fundamentalists against the Soviets, there very likely would be no Taliban or Al-Q’aeda, 9/11 wouldn’t have happened, either, nor ISIS, etc, etc… In the 60s and 70s women could walk down the streets in most Afghan cities in a skirt and be safe; they went to university, got degrees and had jobs.

Blowback is real. A lot of Afghans wanted to be secular and modern, but the war between the USSR and the US mattered more, and so that dream died. Pakistani secularism also died at the same time and for largely the same reason, and the encouragement, by the US, of the Saudis, to spread their particularly vile and intolerant branch of Islam had poisoned the world to this day.

Anyway, the Taliban will rule most of the country again, because whether you like it or not, they are the natural rulers right now and if you don’t like that, remember that the US did as much as it could to make it that way and everyone with two neurons firing together knew that the US could not “conquer and hold” Afghanistan, nor could it “nation build.” (Nor did it ever intend to nation build.)

Every time you think the US is “helping” another country, laugh yourself sick, because it rarely is. The last countries to truly get helped by the US were Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and Korea. The preference and often reality, all cases, was to have a right wing government in charge, with a veneer of democracy as a facade (the South Koreans, to their credit, would not accept the facade), but in exchange those countries were really helped and allowed to industrialize or re-industrialize.

This wasn’t done out of any goodness of heart or belief in democracy, it was done to stop the spread of Communism beyond the USSR and China in a period when US elites genuinely thought they could lose the cold war. Fear, genuine fear.

But Afghanistan? No. Afghans were never more than disposable pawns and punching bags. Nothing like kicking the shit out of someone to make far too many Americans feel better and by 01 Americans had forgotten that they could only win wars when the enemy cooperated by fighting field battles, while back in the 80s Americans still remembered they couldn’t actually win against any enemy smart enough to not sit there and take it, and shouldn’t even try, so they used Afghan proxies to fight for them, while destroying any last chance of secular prosperity in Afghanistan, Pakistan and, indeed, much of the Islamic world.

We just talked about Daniel Hale, who revealed that 90% of all drone killings were of innocents.

When you think of your time in Afghanistan, keep that in mind. Your image should always be of innocents being blown away in a wedding party.

That’s America. That’s who you are. In essence it’s who you were in Vietnam. And that’s why Americans should always be on their knees, praying that God isn’t just.

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Who Goes To Prison For America’s Crimes? The Whistleblowers.

There’s a joke about the CIA and torture, in that the only person who went to prison for torturing people was the guy who revealed the torture.

Daniel Hale, the guy who revealed that drone bombing killed 90% innocents, is now off to his stint in jail. He seems tough, maybe he won’t be driven to multiple suicide attempts like Manning was by the deliberate mistreatment he will surely experience..

The judge, an enforcer named Liam O’Grady, said,

“You are not being prosecuted for speaking out about the drone program killing innocent people,” O’Grady said. “You could have been a whistleblower . . . without taking any of these documents.”

Without the documents, though, there would have only been a claim, not proof. The documents are what made the “speaking out” work. O’Grady surely knows this, but his job is to put people in jail who don’t deserve to be there, and unlike Hale, his conscience, if he has one, isn’t sufficient to make him change his ways.

There is a certain irony of all this happening now that the US had admitted defeat and pulled out of Afghanistan. At least in that war, what were all those innocents killed for?

(Aside: we do all know, as we have always known, that the Taliban is the natural ruling party of Afghanistan and now that the US is gone they will rule it.)

Hale is a hero but I feel bad for him, less because of the jail sentence, though I’m sure it’ll be horrific, than because his proving that drone murders were even worse than we thought did nothing to slow or stop them, because the American people don’t care and American elites are depraved psychopaths for whom mass murder means nothing.

Unlike American elites during the Pentagon papers: also depraved psychopaths engaged in mass murder, modern American elites don’t believe the public has a right to know, or that anyone else has the right to a conscience. To be rebuked with proof, to them, is beyond the pale.

Note that Obama, the great black savior, was actually the President who really started the crackdown on whistleblowers. To a large extent Bush Jr. didn’t care much, his particular depraved indifference “who cares what you think” didn’t require people to not call him out, he just required that his will was followed and his crimes committed. Wail away, even with documents, who cares what you think?

I hope Daniel Hale comes thru this as well as can be expected. As for everyone else,  your leaders are depraved psychopaths. Don’t expect them to respond to moral reasoning, and since they despise you as weak, don’t expect them to respond to threats. They cannot be reasoned with, only removed, then prosecuted for their crimes against humanity and the world.

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A Great Idea About Capitalism That Was Wrong

So, back in the 80s, when I was young, green and wet behind the years, one of the great thinkers about how to help poor people was a guy named Hernando DeSoto. (Great name, aces on parents!)

DeSoto, who was mostly concerned with Latin and South America had one big idea: the reason that poor people were fucked is they didn’t have clear ownership of what they actually owned: slum dwellers didn’t own their houses or the land they sat on, peasants often didn’t own their land either, and informal bus companies and the like operated without licenses or any rights to their routes.

Because they had no clear title, they couldn’t borrow against their actual property, couldn’t sell it and move, or in general use it as an asset.

This DeSoto said (and at the time, I believed, and so did many governments and NGOs and so on) was one of the reasons they stayed poor, not only couldn’t they access capital: they couldn’t even use the capital they already really owned.

The solution was to give them that clear title, which would allow a million new businesses to bloom, and so on.

Because we live in a far more cynical age (and because I gave it away in the title!) you know this didn’t work out. What happened instead, though it took a couple decades to become obvious, is that once they had title, they could lose it: sell it, have the government take it away, go into debt (which most poor people do) and have it seized in payment of debt, etc…

If you’ve ever been real poor (in the informal economy, unbanked, no assets) you know that perhaps the only good thing about it is the ability tell collection agents (generally the scum of the Earth) to go fuck themselves. “Take me to court, I have nothing you can seize!)

DeSoto managed to remove that one sliver a silver lining, so that slum dwellers could even lose their tin shacks.

Ah, capitalism! Truly the most glorious system ever developed to concentrate wealth and power in a few hands while pretending that it’s all voluntary. At least when feudal nobles or MOngols conquered you and took everything you didn’t have to pretend it was your free choice, or something.

Realism aside (I was going to say snark, but this is just how the system is meant to work) this is what happens when we are indoctrinated into thinking that capitalism is a system designed uplift everyone, and it just happens to require concentration of wealth. It’s also what happens when we assume that the uplift actually powered by industrialization happened because of capitalism instead.

It’s hard to disentangle these two because capitalism was in power when industrialization happened and the great challenge against it (state centralized “communism”) lost (largely because it had the inferior geostrategic position, I’d suggest.) So we mix the two.

But they aren’t the same, and capitalism, to the extent it has virtues, works best when it is kept under strict control and a lot of things are kept out of the market.

I assume DeSoto was sincere (though who knows), but because he bought the myth, and sold his myth so well, he wound up hurting exactly the people he wanted to help.

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Rationality Is Not A Way Out Of Group Action Problems like Climate Change and Covid

One: “The system is interdependent and what I do is damaging it, but it doesn’t matter because I will die before it breaks in a way that hurts me.” This is rational. Rational thinking will not get you out of issues like climate change. Rational thought is a means, not an end.

Two: The system is interdependent and what I do is damaging it, but by doing so I am becoming more powerful, rich, or otherwise benefiting. If I was not damaging it I would not benefit as much, and might even suffer.

A lot of people worship rationality in our society. We think that rational is a synonym for “good” and that if we are rational, we will do the right thing.

This is incorrect for a variety of reasons, but it is extremely incorrect in group action problems. If 90% of society, and 95% of people born 50 years in the future will suffer because I do something, but I benefit greatly, it is entirely rational to cause that harm.

Covid has made the rich much richer, fast. Statista has a nice little graphic:

As for Climate Change, business as usual worked fine for the world’s elites. We really started paying attention to global warming in the 70s, and since then, by not just ignoring it but increasing it, they’ve done brilliant.

(The top .1% and .01% and .001% numbers have risen even faster.)

Rationality does not work for ethical decisions. It can help you determine means, “what’s the best way to do this” but it can’t determine ends.

It isn’t even that great for means. The rationalists (epitomized by Stars Slate Codex) tend towards hard utilitarianism: the most good for the most people, and sneer at virtue ethics.

Seems smart: what you want is the most good, right?

But the problem is that instrumenalism “the right thing is whatever gets you where you want to go” often doesn’t work because humans are both stupid and very good at motivated reasoning. “Well, people will obviously be better off if we tax rich people less, because rich people give jobs and they can give more jobs and pay more for them!”

Or, “if we pay people like CEOs more if they raise shareholder value, they’ll do more of the right thing!”

Or, in general terms, “people help others because of greed, not virtue, so we have to bribe them to do the right thing and micro-manage incentives.”

None of this stuff worked, of course. It never has, and it never will. The eras where you tax the rich heavily and keep executive compensation relatively low had better behaviour by executives than the post Thatcher/Reagan era. Faster economic growth, too. (Better isn’t necessarily the same thing as good.)

The problem with instrumentalist thinking, which utilitarianism tends to fall into, is that “means are ends.” If you bomb the village to save it, or invade the country, you’ve done a shit load of evil. If you lock people up in prison for victimless crimes, you’ve created victims: the people being brutalized in prison. If you let cops take people’s property without proving a crime, you’ve increased theft. If you torture, you’ve tortured. If you lower wages to increase efficiency, you’ve lowered wages. If you surveil workers to get the most out of them you know that’s bad (Bezos would never let someone else determine when he can take a shit.)

The means are always most of what we do.

We know that being greedy, or selfish, or cowardly, or sadistic are bad. We know that rape is always bad. We know that killing people is bad. We know that beating people is bad.We know that hunger is bad. We know that homelessness is terrible. We know lack of water kills. When the IMF removes food subsidies we KNOW more people will go hungry. When we sell bombs to Israel and Saudi Arabia, we know they’ll be used to murder innocents.

Instrumentalism and utilitarianism allow you to say to yourself “well, I know virtue ethics would say this is bad, but actually it’s good because it’ll lead to a better world.” Meanwhile there you are with policies that lead to the Amazon being clearcut and dumping so much CO2 and methane into the world that eventually the world’s forests just start burning down and permafrost methane starts exploding like bombs.

Virtue ethics and bars on behaviour like “no torture or rape ever” exist because we know we tend to find excuses to allow us to engage the worst parts of ourselves: to be greedy and selfish, to force others to do what we want, and to live like Kings and Queens because we exploited others. Bezos goes to space, workers in his warehouses piss into jars or wear diapers and walk around in shit before they pass out or die from heat stroke: these things are related.

Rationalism just says “how do I get what I want?” Virtue ethics and red lines say “you can’t get it by doing evil.”

This is why straight utilitarians and instrumentalists are either hypocrites or fools. Either they know that their ethics allows for monstrous behaviour and doesn’t guarantee results, or they know it produces subpar results for a lot of people, even most people, but they expect to be in the minority who benefits (which, by the way, is very rational.)

Don’t worship at the cult of rationalism or instrumentalism. Virtue ethics and red lines have their own problems, and there are reasons for being way of them too, but at the end of the day, if getting what you want requires you to hurt a lot of people, perhaps you aren’t doing it because you truly believe it’ll make the world a better place?

(My writing helps pay my rent and buys me food. So please consider subscribing or donating if you like my writing.)


Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – July 25, 2021

Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – July 25, 2021

by Tony Wikrent

The Pandemic

US sees COVID-19 cases surge by 224% in last three weeks as CDC director says the Indian ‘Delta’ variant now makes up 83% of all new infections

[Daily Mail, via Naked Capitalism 7-21-2021]

‘I’m sorry, but it’s too late’: Alabama doctor on treating unvaccinated, dying COVID patients

[, via Naked Capitalism 7-22-2021]

In the United States, COVID is now a pandemic of the unvaccinated, according to the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Alabama, state officials report 94% of COVID hospital patients and 96% of Alabamians who have died of COVID since April were not fully vaccinated….

“I try to be very non-judgmental when I’m getting a new COVID patient that’s unvaccinated, but I really just started asking them, ‘Why haven’t you gotten the vaccine?’ And I’ll just ask it point blank, in the least judgmental way possible,” she said. “And most of them, they’re very honest, they give me answers. ‘I talked to this person, I saw this thing on Facebook, I got this email, I saw this on the news,’ you know, these are all the reasons that I didn’t get vaccinated.

“And the one question that I always ask them is, did you make an appointment with your primary care doctor and ask them for their opinion on whether or not you should receive the vaccine? And so far, nobody has answered yes to that question.”

Republicans freak out because the delta variant they fostered is killing … Republicans

Dartagnan, July 21, 2021 [DailyKos]

Let’s be clear on something: Variants to the COVID-19 virus are caused by allowing the virus to continue spreading among the unvaccinated, giving it more time and opportunity to mutate. The more unvaccinated people there are, the better the chance of a variant developing and spreading. That’s what led to this delta variant that’s now ravaging the vaccine-refusing Republican population in this country. In simpler terms, Republican intransigence and political pandering created and abetted the conditions that led to the spread of the delta variant and encouraged an environment that allowed it to flourish. And now that it’s disproportionately killing “their” people, in red-leaning states, Republican elected officials are desperately seeking—once again—to avoid the blame.

[Twitter, via Naked Capitalism Water Cooler 7-23-21]

You have to click through to see the math and the assumptions behind 80,000 Republican voters dying of COVID in Florida over the coming year.

Open Thread

Use this post to discuss topics unrelated to recent posts. (So, no Covid convo, for example.)

How The Metaphysics Of Capitalism Destroyed The World

Back in 1968 the book “Limits to Growth” stormed the world. Computer models predicted that humans would run out of almost every resource, overshoot carying capacity, then crash.

It was well known and widely discussed and combined with the oil crashes, made the 70s a ferment of practical and theoretical work on alternative energy, different ways of farming and so on.

Almost all of that came to an end in the 80s, with Reagan. Carter had put solar panels on the White House, Reagan had them torn down. A decision was made to crush wages and thus the oil consumption of ordinary people, while bringing new sources online as fast as possible. Obama, with fracking, made the same decision, by the way, but even more successfully, turning the US back into a HUGE producer of oil.

But what’s important today isn’t all of that, which I’ve discussed at tedious length in the past.

Instead I want to discuss the basic argument against the “Limits To Growth”.

“We will substitute away.”

In other words, alternate energy will step up and we’ll move away from oil and coil. We’ll find substitutes for steel and nickel and rare earths and anything else in short supply.

BUT what matters is the metaphysics of the argument. When the people making this argument said it would happen, they assumed “the market” would do it.

Which, it sort of has, but too late. Much too late.

There was a strong assumption that prices were information which stored in them all known information about the past and the future, and that therefore prices would drive self-interested people to make the necessary substitutions or find new sources.

To market disciples, the market’s “free hand” was like God, all-knowing and all-powerful and weirdly benevolent. All we had to do was let the market run and it would solve all our problems.

So why didn’t that happen?

Well, to start, the market doesn’t price the future well at all. Never has, and never will. People making decisions in 1970 will mostly be dead before all this stuff matters, and the same is true of people making decisions in the 2010s. Even if they aren’t dead, is there anything in human history which makes us believe humans are good at making very long term plans, over decades to generations?

Why would you believe the market would do it based on a discipline which suggests humans are rational and know what is good for them and act rationally to get what is good for them? (If you believe all of that, you are more of a fantasist than some fanatic whipping himself while screaming for God to save him.)

Now I’m not concerned here with the hypocrites: the people who knew this was all bunk but expected to get rich off it (they were, in a real sense, very rational. A bad future they don’t see or don’t care about, “I get 50 good years and die rich when the bad times come, whatever” isn’t a reason not be rich now, if you don’t care about future people.)

But many many people really believed this bunk and the issue is that by believing that the “market” and “price signals” and *vague hand waving* would solve the problem: by saying “we have a system that solves these problems automatically by giving correct feedback” they made it impossible to solve to the extent that they were believed. (And remember, huge amounts of money were run on the markets for decades based on these ideas. People believed and put their cash on the line.)

In fact, of course, we could have taken the warning of “Limits To Growth”, “Peak Oil” and “Global Warming” and used them to make changes.

Ironically a lot of those changes would be exactly what the disciples of hand-wavy “market” crap suggested would happen automatically.

Use markets and public policy: massively subsidize alternative energy and research so that where we are with solar today is where we would have been in the 90s. Massively research alternatives to bottleneck resources. Stop over-fishing, by force if necessary. And, of course, put sharp limits on “planned obsolence” backed with death sentences for executives.

If you’d rather get more resources or if you want more than one strategy, massively fund space exploration with an eye to mining rather than defund NASA in waves (Obama, classically, did the worst cuts to NASA ever so that private industry/billionaires could make money, but NASA funding should have been increased in the 70s.)

Warnings only serve those who heed them and when you believe in metaphysical entities which don’t have the attributes they think they do (God, Markets), then you don’t act to save yourself. Markets were never, by themselves, going to miraculously do what needed being done in time. Oh sure, price feedback has eventually gotten us some decent solar, and so on, but decades later than we needed it.

Markets are human creations, like God, and to work correctly they have to be tuned for the problem at hand or, even (heresy) one has to consider that there are things that Markets or Gods can’t do, or are bad at, and find other solutions.

So here we are, and markets have not made everything good and the world’s forests are burning and we’re about to have another oil boom, as best I can tell.

Like God, mis-using markets or assigning them powers they don’t have, leads to terrible consequences, so get ready for the invisible hand to slap us silly.

(My writing helps pay my rent and buys me food. So please consider subscribing or donating if you like my writing.)

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