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

Month: November 2022 Page 1 of 3

US House Passes Bill Forcing Railway Workers Not to Strike

Update: as expected, the Senate did not pass increased sick days. The House broke it out to say that they had included it, while making sure it wouldn’t be passed and the blame would be on the Senate. BUT if the main bill had included 7 days, it might have passed, since if the Senate voted it down, a strike would still be legally possible.

The bill makes them take a deal they had rejected before. Of particular note is that the bill gives them one sick day a year. Democrats voting against were:

Chu-CA, DeSaulnier-CA, Golden-ME, Norcross-NJ, Peltola-AK, Pocan-WI, Tlaib-MI & Torres-CA.

I note that AOC did not vote against it. I was initially hopeful, but I think it’s now undeniable that she’s performatively left-wing only; she cannot be counted on.

The House then passed a separate bill which would give the railway workers seven sick days and Democratic defenders are claiming this makes it all good.

But if the House had the votes to pass the second bill, they could have included it in the initial bill. It was clearly done so that the union was forced to send their members back to work: They are sure the “force back” bill will pass the Senate, but not if it includes sick days, but want to say they voted for sick days.

Recently in Ontario, the government passed a bill which forbade education workers (non-teachers) to strike. It included a $4k fine a day for each striker, and $50k a day for the union. The union struck anyway; other unions stated they would strike as well, and the bill was rescinded.

In the US, general strikes are illegal, made so in the 50s by Taft-Hartley (which also made it so that supervisors can’t join unions — a huge problem).

If a law is unjust, you must break the law. To be successful, you must do it en-masse. I know it won’t happen soon, but US unions need to buckle down and do a wide strike, with the goal of repealing Taft-Hartley and making “back to work” bills illegal. Without that, the right to join unions and their right to call strikes means little.

I do see some hope. I wasn’t sure if Ontario unions would have the guts to do the right thing, but they saw an existential threat, and they acted with solidarity. In the US, the ongoing Amazon and Starbucks unionization efforts are very hopeful because the people doing it are tough — in the face of repeated firings and closures they have simply continued.

People’s backs are to the wall. Since about 1980, the predominant policy in the US has been to immiserate workers, especially wage workers. This was possible because the New Deal and post-war eras had made workers well enough off that they had some surplus which could then be stolen from them.

But now a lot of people are up against the wall. Many full-time workers, especially at places like Amazon, live in their cars or tents, for example. There is nothing left to give.

People with nothing to lose are dangerous.

One of the reasons, I think, that the Ontario government lost is that they chose the wrong union to intimidate. Custodial staff and low-ranked clerical workers don’t have anything: 4K a day isn’t so frightening to them. Most of them don’t have homes or any real assets. If they’d tried this tactic with the teachers, who do still have fat and meat to trim off the bones, the teachers might have been too scared.

The custodial staff? No. They didn’t even hesitate.

Backs to the wall. If the US labor movement wishes to survive and become strong again, they need to recognize how bad a shape they, and most of those they represent, are in.


China’s Zero-Covid Is the Right Policy Done Stupid (How China/The West Could Kill Covid)

Imagine policy on two axes: Good vs. Bad Policy, and either type of policy done well vs. done badly.

Invading Iraq was Bad Policy, and it was done badly beyond the initial conquest.

Quantitative easing was Bad Policy (unless you were very rich, it was good for the rich and bad for everyone else) and it was done well: It saved the rich then made them much richer. (They aren’t concerned about long term downsides.)

Social Security, Medicare, or Canada’s Universal Health care system (when first created and for a few decades afterwards) was Good Policy done well.

Zero-Covid in China is Good Policy, but in most cities, and generally across the country, it has been done badly. (A lot of these criticism are taken from Naomi Wu, who is worth reading — don’t be fooled by her appearance.)

Understand first that China doesn’t have nearly as many hospital beds, and especially ICU beds, per capita, as most of the West. If Covid gets out of control, a higher percentage of people will die than did in most Western countries. Indeed, probably many more. Even if they only lost as many as the US has so far, we’re talking about five million people or so, but it would easily be double that.

Second, understand that China has an onrushing demographic issue and is still a manufacturing state. They need workers. They fundamentally regard their population as a productive asset, while most Western elites regard their populations as passive assets to be consumed. (One argument for why Japan has handled Covid better than most developed nations is that they need their population. They regard the people as a productive asset.)

A third principle to understand: Long Covid would disable a lot of Chinese. That number, today, would probably be around 40-50 million, and would increase every day. Again, in China, people are productive assets, and you especially don’t want working age people disabled.

There is also a moral argument: Stopping people from dying or being disabled is ethically the right thing to do.

Keeping Covid under control via a “Zero Covid” policy is thus firmly in the Good Policy bucket. Even if there are some short- and mid-term economic costs (and actually, in a lot of metrics, China has done better economically than the “let’er’rip” countries) the long-term costs are much more significant.

Now the next thing to understand is that the way most people think of China, in terms of authoritarianism, is essentially wrong. Oh, China is an authoritarian one-party state, for sure, but regional elites have a lot of freedom. Only about 30 percent of the overall government budget is controlled from the center, for example. In the US, that figure is about 45 percent. States and cities are often rich, not poor (i.e., they have discretionary money), but they also have a lot of policy freedom within the guidelines set from the center.

So, different cities have done Zero-Covid differently. In Shenzen, where Naomi Wu comes from, there has been a total of one week in full lockdown. That’s it. Other cities have had more. When Hong Kong and Shanghai lost control in the summer, they had not been doing the same thing as most cities – they, in fact, didn’t lock down early, or totally, but tried a more “Western” approach.

We’re now seeing some fairly significant anti-Zero-Covid protests in some cities, including Beijing. This thread is a fairly good and balanced summary:

The issue isn’t that Zero-Covid is Bad Policy, it is that it has been done stupidly. To pick out a few major points:

One: Surgical masks are still being used. n95 masks are much more effective, and China has the capacity to manufacture them on a mass scale, almost trivially.

Two: Most Chinese homes don’t have p-traps (that little bend in your pipes under your sinks and toilet). P-traps keep water in the trap so that fumes from the sewer system below don’t get into your house. Not only does that mean your home smells better, it’s reduces disease transmission significantly.

Three: There is no mass move to install proper filtration or use of ultraviolet light in ventilation systems.

All of these actions would be low-hanging fruit for China. They can easily manufacture and install p-traps, filtration, and UV: China is the manufacturing capital of the world, and with the construction slow down there are plenty of people who need the work and are capable of doing it with respect to upgrading ventilation. It would be a win/win — more economic activity and an improved chance of achieving Zero-Covid.

Public health methods like testing, track and trace, and lockdowns work, but the real method is to fix the air quality and transmission through structural changes — exactly as we did in the 19th and early to mid-20th century to defeat diseases like Cholera, but with the water and sewage systems. Studies on the effectiveness of filtration, p-traps, n95 masks, proper ventilation, and so on show decreases in transmission that are massive — often over 90 percent.

Public health measures like mass testing and lockdown should be largely temporary; you use them until you figure out how to deal with a disease more permanently. In Covid’s case, that is NOT going to be vaccines. While they are helpful, they are not a silver bullet. Instead, what is required is the infrastructure transformation — make buildings and cities more healthy, thus reducing transmission massively (and in the meantime, for mitigation, move to n95 masks).

China has no excuses here: The science is clear and they have the industrial and installation capacity.

For China to achieve “Zero Covid,” they must move beyond emergency public health measures to permanent fixes. We know how to do it, and they actually have the capacity to do it.

That would be Good Policy, done well.

China’s mistake is trying to control Covid, not end it. The West’s mistake is not even trying to control it, let alone end it.


The Decline & Fall of the Soviet Union

Our society seems fascinated by the decline and fall of empires and nations. You rarely see a book on the “birth” of Rome, say. It’s the collapse we care about. In this respect, I’m a bit odd. I prefer the creation period, the early years when everything goes right, to the fall, but it’s important to see that death precedes birth. The Czars fall, the Soviets rise…the Soviets fall, and after some birth pangs, Russia rises.

But when considering the fall, one should also remember the rise. We act as if the late period, which is almost inevitably full of corruption, stupidity, and foolishness is all there was. It rarely is.

In the early days, the Soviets were startlingly effective. The Soviet economy did much better during the Great Depression than most Western economies, and even after the war, the Soviet system seemed to create superior growth. American textbooks from the early fifties note the challenge of this faster growth, and that if it continued, the USSR would overtake the US.

Nothing is more inevitable than what has already happened: We look back and say that the USSR was destined to fall, it had to fail, and that our system was superior because it outlasted the Soviet system. We “won,” they “lost,” and that means our ideology and our way of doing things was the better one.

I would suggest this is a misunderstanding. I’ve written two articles before on the collapse of the USSR. One is “well, a command economy has specific pathologies which can develop.” It was based on the book Power and Prosperity, by Mancur Olson (which I recommend highly), and its thesis was that the late USSR lost control of production because the people who were sending them numbers from all the factories, shops, mines, farms, and so on were systematically lying. At the start of the Soviet system, this wasn’t possible, but over time, they organized local networks which allowed them to do so.

Faced with false production numbers, central control over the economy failed. Central planners didn’t know the real supply of anything — inputs or outputs — and couldn’t control it. Workers bunked off, managers got rewards for production totals they had falsified, and everything became false.

This argument is elegant because it also explains the early and middle successes of the system: It takes time to create local networks capable of deceiving the center, and until that happens, central control is actually very effective at certain types of economic activity. Roughly anything can be “tailorized”; if you know what inputs should produce what outputs, and you know what inputs exist, you can hold people accountable and you have a system which can directly allocate resources (i.e., people, capital goods, and inputs like minerals, fuel, and so on). There’s actually less waste and more efficiency in such a system than in a more decentralized system like western “capitalism.”

So the Soviets industrialized with what was, at the time, startling speed. But then they lost control of inputs and outputs (due to falsified information being fed to the center) and then the decisions feeding back out to the productive parts of the economy caused everything in the system to go to hell.

Now, before you get too smug about the superiority of capitalism, let me point out that incorrect feedback has been increasingly overwhelming the capitalist system, with the result that it produces the wrong things in the wrong places. This has been going on for a long time; you can see it as far back as the 60s (and obviously this is one lens through which to look at the Great Depression). This sped up when Reagan/Volcker took over and, since 2008, it’s been in overdrive, as the feedback mechanisms which drive decision making have been deliberately broken by quantitative easing and other similar policies. When you won’t let companies go bankrupt which have made bad decisions and have mis-allocated resources, you produce the wrong stuff at a massive scale.

The point of trying to understand what went wrong in various societies isn’t to pat ourselves on the back about how great we are, but to learn, so we can avoid, postpone, or maybe even fix such problems in our own societies.

The Soviets did much better during the Great Depression in part because they had a centralized system which was able to avoid all the bad feedback crippling most Western economies. They did worse near the end in part because they had more bad feedback than we did, but only in part.

Which leads us to the second article I wrote on the fall of the USSR, based largely on the work on Randall Collins (a summary article of his theories can be found in his book, MacroHistory. He predicted, in advance, the fall of the USSR, not based on any self-congratulatory notion of “our system is more wonderful than their system,” but on old-fashioned position and resource comparison.

  1. The Soviet union had a central position; it had more borders than the West, especially after China became hostile.
  2. It had fewer resources and people, even if you compare the alliances vs. alliances.
  3. It thus had to devote a larger percentage of its resources to the military and so on, and, eventually, it collapsed because it was under increased and protracted strain.

This situation was even explicitly part of Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative to create defenses against nuclear war. The idea was to make the Soviets spend more and more to keep up, as the US and the West could more easily afford such escalation. Add in Afghanistan, along with some other issues, and the strain helped lead to Soviet collapse.

More simply, this is a “guns and butter” question. Ever since the introduction of capitalism, the smart, longer term money has been to not engage in military over-spending, in favor of growing the economy, because “guns,” understood broadly, are unproductive. An economy which grows faster eventually leads to a significant military advantage. Adam Smith makes this argument in The Wealth of Nations. This idea is not new, and it includes things like foreign aid, subsidies, and so on, that aren’t productive for the home economy, but are necessary as part of the Great Power competition.

So, we have the “breakdown of feedback” argument, and we have the “worse position and fewer resources” argument as the two basic threads. I think both have truth to them, but I think the resources/position argument is a LOT stronger and more important.

The systems argument is weaker because every system rots and goes through cycles. There are times when the system works well, and times when the system works badly, and many of empires, nations, and societies go through cycles, with periods of rejuvenation.

If your system is under added pressure during a period when it needs rejuvenation, its odds of collapse increase if there’s a strong, high-prestige alternative, and one can simply look at the collapse of the USSR and the release of the Warsaw pact through that lens.

All that said, however, systems can take longer to decay and there are methods of rejuvenation which can make the troughs less dangerous and less likely bring down the entire system. The Chinese Communist Party, we know, has studied the collapse of the USSR intensively, because they don’t want to lose power.

Which leads us to mistakes, stupidity, and historic specificity. In the Soviet situation, there were a few more factors.

The first is the failure of collective agriculture. Unlike in industry, which worked well for multiple generations, collective agriculture was never effective — either for the Chinese or the Soviets. It’s easy to see how true this is by looking at the fact that the USSR had chronic food shortages, whereas post-USSR Russia has massive food surpluses.

No one’s quite sure why collective agriculture doesn’t work. The standard argument is that, here, the profit motive works better. In the West, up until about the 70s, smaller farmers were as or more productive than large corporate outfits. Since then, the corporate outfits have done better, but it’s odd that factories worked and farming didn’t, as corporate mega-farms are now working well — if one ignores certain environmental costs and problems with monocrops and so on (which are also affecting small farmers).

But whatever the reason, no one’s made collective farming work at scale, including the Israelis, who made a hard run at it for a few decades.

Essentially, the first thing the Chinese communists did when they started moving towards a mixed (not market, but mixed) economy was to progressively dismantle the cooperative farms. This led to higher agricultural outputs, including per person, and allowed them to move people into factories, service jobs, and into cities. This allowed them to industrialize and also helped increase the level of consumer consumption, which is necessary for creating a consumer society, which is further necessary as part of industrialization for large nations. (The other usual trick is to conquer places and force the natives to buy your goods. See British capitalism and imperialism.)

Regimes also tend to have prestige based on their foreign affairs. Winning wars and imposing themselves on foreigners non-violently increase prestige internally, as well as externally, and losing wars and being otherwise humiliated reduces prestige. Lose foreign wars and domestic legitimacy collapses. Russia became Communist after the Czars were humiliated in WWI, as the most obvious example, and losing in Afghanistan cost Communism a lot of legitimacy, on top of the drain on resources.

One can also bring up the consumer goods issue: jeans and rock and roll. The USSR was bad at producing consumer goods. It’s hard to disentangle this issue: How much was based on “guns and butter,” and how much was based on markets actually being good at producing many different goods? Combined with constant food shortages, late-stage USSR simply couldn’t argue that the West wasn’t better at providing material benefits to its population.

Because the argument of Communism’s legitimacy lay in the argument that it was a better way to provide for ordinary people, for workers, its failure at doing so was devastating. As one anecdote, there came a point where Soviet computer scientists were told to just copy Western designs and stop working on Soviet alternatives. This was devastating to morale in the Soviet computer industry.

But let’s move to more specific problems — to fuckups and dysfunction caused by history and specific decisions. Much is based on an article by Georgi Derluguian in the book, Does Capitalism Have A Future?

The USSR had three main institutional tiers: the Party, the Secret Police (KGB), and the Red Army. All three had significant problems, which increased as time went by.

The biggest issue was with the Party, the main control organism. It was a gerontocracy, corrupt, and unwilling to take action. The modern CCP is full of technocrats of various varieties, but the Soviet Party was in conflict with its technocrats, specialists and was full of hacks who didn’t want to change anything.

Looking at this, Gorbachev did something foolish: He tried to work around the Party instead of fixing it. He created councils and groups with authority that circumvented the Party and took power away from the Party. He deliberately put people in charge who were not dedicated to Communism and whose continued power relied on Communist Party weakness. This undercut the system, and because Gorbachev’s power was based on his position in the Party, it appears to have undercut his personal power, as he doesn’t seem to have been good at picking people who were loyal to him. (Even if he had been, if his desire was to keep Communism strong, he needed to fight and win the battles inside the Party. See what Xi in China has done. Deng did the same in different ways.)

The second issue was the Communist Party’s (CP) fear of the KGB. If you have a massive problem with people lying to you, with the periphery acting against the center, the solution is to have the secret police find out the truth and get rid of the people and groups who have been conspiring against you.

But the CP apparatchniks were terrified of using the KGB. Remember they were a gerontocracy. They remembered the Stalin years, and the terror Stalin had unleashed using the secret police. The lesson that should have been learned wasn’t, “never use the secret police,” it was how you should use the secret police. But paralyzed by fear, the CP kept the one institution which could have solved their information problem, and thus a large chunk of their production problem, on a leash. Scared to use it against themselves at all, they couldn’t get the information they needed to fix the Party’s own internal issues.

The third pillar was the army. It was damaged by the Afghan war, but the generals and colonels were also deliberately kept weak, and popular (and often effective) leaders were also sidelined and kept ineffective. The army, as a whole, was kept weak, so it could not challenge the CP. Authoritarian states are always scared of the military taking over — and for good reason. But when the Warsaw Pact and the USSR started collapsing, part of the reason why the military wasn’t used is that no one trusted it, and it wasn’t trusted in part because treating it badly had made it untrustworthy. (Another reason why the army wasn’t used was also ideological collapse. Gorbachev and other CP leaders no longer believed in the USSR enough to feel they should use military force. That hadn’t been the case even two decades earlier.)

Looked at dispassionately, from outside and with the distance of time, its clear that Gorbachev’s particular reforms and other policies actually weakened Communism. Gorbachev may or may not have sincerely wanted to fix Communism to save it, but he undermined the sources of its institutional power. Previous leaders had done the same, but it was Gorbachev specifically who damaged the Communist Party itself by going around it, a strategy which both further de-legitimized and weakened the Party in formal terms.

So when push came to shove, none of the three pillars, the Party, the Secret Police, or the Army could (or in the case of the Army and the Party) would save the USSR.

Much of this debacle seems to have been driven by fear. Rather than seeing the KGB and the Red Army as sources of strength, they were viewed primarily as threats. The Party needed to learn how to use them in ways that were safe, because both institutions had genuine functions required for the system to work. But the Party itself was dysfunctional, and none of the late Soviet leaders were able to fix that either.

Late in any cycle, systems become sclerotic; most of the people in charge are incompetent, corrupt, and so on. Successful systems renew themselves, and another cycle ensues until eventually a renewal cycle fails. Renewal cycles lead to sub-ideological changes: The US after FDR is different from the US before FDR in real ideological and systemic ways. The US after Reagan is very different from the US before Reagan.

But the Soviet system didn’t manage this. As with the US, it had “original sins”: For the US, one was slavery; in the USSR it was purges and gulags. The US has gone through at least two crises related to slavery, the most significant of which was the Civil War. The USSR failed to deal with its legacy of purges, which effected all three tiers and civil society in different ways. Its failure to find a new equilibrium which allowed for the efficacy of all three tiers meant it couldn’t deal with its production problems, its weak geopolitical situation, and it ultimately failed to survive an end of cycle through renewal.

And so it fell.

Don’t be smug, and don’t take this as vindication of our system. One bitter Russian joke of the 90s was, “Everything the Communists told us about Communism was a lie. Unfortunately, everything they told us about capitalism was true.”

We simply survived longer, but we are in a period in which we must either renew the system and transform it into something quite different, or the system will fall. Our original sin, in this case, is treating the natural world as a resource which does not need renewal, as though it is inexhaustible. This sin is not unique to capitalism, but our system has taken it to extremes.

We have not managed even one renewal cycle which deals with this problem. Meanwhile, the Western system is now close to the position in which the Soviets found themselves; we have an opponent with more resources and a higher population, and our system has a massive feedback and information problem, in which we’ve lost control of production to the extent that we are producing too much of what is bad for us and too little of what we really need, while simultaneously destroying the very basis of both our existence and economic model. As for our elites, they are easily as corrupt and incompetent as the late Soviet party bosses.

Plus Ca Change.


Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – November 27, 2022

by Tony Wikrent

Strategic Political Economy


8 billion and counting

[ABC, via The Big Picture 11-22-2022]

This week, the world’s population ticks over a historic milestone. But in the next century, society will be reshaped dramatically — and soon we’ll hit a decline we’ll never reverse


The incredible shrinking future of college

[Vox, via The Big Picture 11-23-2022]

The population of college-age Americans is about to crash. It will change higher education forever.


Life Expectancy and Inequality 

[Medium, via Naked Capitalism 11-22-2022]

…as we look at data from the Global Health Data Exchange, certain counties in America are not growing at the same rate as other counties, largely for reasons that policymakers understand well.

Drug overdoses and heart disease have been some of the leading causes of these increases in deaths. Over the last 20 years, drug overdose deaths in midlife have increased nearly 400% while suicides have increased 71% from 28,000 per year to 48,000 per year… heart disease is now the leading cause of death in America, claiming 655,000 individuals per year. Healthier lifestyles and exercise can dramatically reduce a person’s risk, but healthier food options are more and more out of reach for millions of Americans….

Money has become an increasingly strong determinant of who will live longer. People in wealthy counties outlive their poorer counterparts by as much as 20 years now, the greatest gap that in ages that America has seen in 40 years. In South Dakota’s Oglala Lakota county, for example, the average life expectancy is 66.8, making it the worst county in America. The median income in Oglala Lakota is $30,347, which stands in stark contrast to Colorado’s Summit County where life expectancy is 86.9, making it the highest in the country. Median income in Summit is more than 2.5x higher than it is in Oglala Lakota.

When we dive deeper than the county level, we see this relationship between money and life expectancy come into even clearer focus. Raj Chetty at Harvard analyzed 1.4 billion individual tax records between 1999–2014 and matched those to death records. His findings were alarming:

“First… the gap in life expectancy between the richest 1% and poorest 1% of individuals was 14.6 years for men and 10.1 years for women. Second, inequality in life expectancy increased over time. Between 2001 and 2014, life expectancy increased by 2.34 years for men and 2.91 years for women in the top 5% of the income distribution, but by only 0.32 years for men and 0.04 years for women in the bottom 5%.”


Oligarchy versus republicanism

Elite Conservatives Have Taken an Awfully Weird Turn

Graham Gallagher, November 25, 2022 [The New Republic]

[TW: This is a lengthy article, but it highlights the accelerating shift of American society, and especially “the right” away from republicanism, to oligarchy. Gallagher even uses the word “republicanism” a couple times, though he does not mention the historical tension between republicanism and liberalism. More importantly, Gallagher does not place this accelerating shift in the crucial context of the triumph of neoliberalism and resulting extreme economic inequality of the past half century. They are linked, as I will explain after these excerpts.]

An inkling of the Republican Party’s shocking underperformance in the midterms could be seen in a literal, not figurative, crusade. Allen West, former congressman and Texas Republican Party chairman, decided in September that the time was ripe to join the Knights Templar, the infamous sect of medieval soldier-monks. Photographed standing in a white robe emblazoned with a red cross draped jauntily over his tuxedo, West—a close ally of Donald Trump—tweeted that he had taken “an oath to protect the Christians in the Holy Land.”

The real Knights Templar, of course, were dissolved in 1312. The organization West joined is an American-based “chivalric order” that grants its members “knighthood” and, aside from its name, shares nothing with the actual Knights Templar….

The ascendant weird right will likely struggle to sell its deeply anti-patriotic vision to many voters. In these segments of the mostly young, online-influenced American right, the optimistic vision espoused by Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” has been discarded. The elite educated right has moved even beyond the overt pessimism of Donald Trump’s “American carnage”—now disgust with equitable citizenship, personal liberty, and democratic self-governance is commonplace. Fed by an endless outrage cycle and a motivated and well-resourced donor class willing to pour money into increasingly reactionary think tanks like the avowedly anti-democratic Claremont Institute, right-wing thinkers and activists have begun to identify the foundational pillars of the United States itself with immorality and adopted a new fascination with medieval Catholicism and imported European extremisms. Today, the right has shed its American and conservative roots and seeks a radical shift—a national “refounding.” Indeed, leading right-wing intellectuals like John Daniel Davidson have said that “the conservative project has failed” and that people like them constitute the educated vanguard of a “revolutionary moment.”

Nine in 10 Americans believe that being “truly American” involves respecting “American political institutions and laws,” the Public Religion Research Institute found last year. Americans consistently affirm that liberty, equality, and progress—the core values of republicanism and the Enlightenment—are ones they try to live by. While the content and meaning of those values have always been contested terrain, opposing them is a nonstarter….

[Peter Thiel’s venture capitalist protege Blake Masters, who lost the US Senate race for Nevada 46 to 52 percent has] openly said that democracy is a smokescreen for the masses “stealing certain kinds of goods and redistributing them as they see fit.”

….When right-wing writers like National Review’s Nate Hochman argue that no-fault divorce was “a tragic mistake” (a view shared by numerous other far-right figures), he is not only embracing a position outside the bounds of conventional American life but one that is deeply politically unpopular, opposed by at least four-fifths of Americans. The activist right’s legal alternative is “covenant marriage,” which allows divorce only under extreme circumstances like felony conviction or child abuse. Covenant marriage has recently made its way into the Texas Republican Party’s official platform as a replacement for existing marriage law….

The growing fascination with Catholicism—particularly sedevacantism, which denies the current pope’s legitimacy—is, according to one critic, indicative of the educated and activist right’s “admiration for the [European] aristocratic past” and a longing for a new elite to which it feels it belongs. This segment of the right has, both programmatically and aesthetically, lost interest in conserving that which is American and moved on to mine its influences from stranger sources. Constitutionalism, Enlightenment rationality, religious freedom, and republicanism are out. European aristocracy, crusading holy orders, and mysticism are in….

[TW: In The Politics of Inequality: A Political History of the Idea of Economic Inequality in America (New York, NY, Columbia University Press, 2007), Michael J. Thompson argues that there are sharp distinctions between republicanism and liberalism, especially the fear of republicans that economic inequality “lead inexorably to political and social inequalities of power” which grievously weaken “the political community and any kind of democratic or republican political culture,” allowing, for example, the resurrection of feudal hierarchical social relations, and the rise of demagogues like Donald Trump.  Thompson explicitly writes that “the contemporary tolerance of economic inequality is actually the result of liberalism and liberal thought itself,” and “Any political community that suffers from severe imbalances between rich and poor is in danger of losing its democratic character…”

[But, how does a society “lose its democratic character”? Marxist theory posits that capitalism itself is the villain, but what about democratic societies before capitalism? Repeatedly, the writings of classical republicans point to the rich as the major source of problems. So, there is some process of human nature that is operative, regardless of how a society’s economy is organized. Marxist theory, in fact, is probably a hindrance in understanding this, as it misdirects attention away from this process to that of “capitalist exploitation.”

Open Thread

Use to discuss topics unrelated to recent posts.

Happy Thanksgiving

To American friends. I  hope you have a good one.

Why Twitter Has Been Marvelous

I try not to write about topics about which a lot of other people have said what I’d say, or, indeed, written it better than I would. Musk’s takeover of Twitter is one of those topics. There have been plenty of excellent articles about what it means and about how Musk could really screw up Twitter by destroying the feeling of safety which advertisers require and by misunderstanding that the users are the product, not the customers.

I’ve been on Twitter since August of 2008 (@iwelsh). I visit it almost every day, and for many years, I spent a lot of time there. Nowadays, it probably takes up 30 to 45 minutes of my day. My account isn’t huge; I have something like over four thousand followers, and I follow about thirteen-hundred. (Following too many people is a sign of disrespect and twitter-gaming, because it means you don’t actually read them.)

For me, Twitter takes the place of the email lists I was on in the 2000s and which collapsed near the end of the decade. “Townhouse,” which some people may have heard of, was one, but only one of them. Emails on these lists would often include links to articles of interest and discussion of important topics of the day.

Each list would have a primary topic; I was on lists that focused on domestic US politics, foreign affairs, the tech industry, and so on. The lists acted as both a filter and a way to read people discussing topics in which I was interested — often, very well-informed and smart people. Because the lists were semi-private, there was some additional value: People could be frank.

These lists collapsed near the end of the decade, in part because of a series of leaks. A lot of the value was that it was “off the record.”

Twitter, frankly, isn’t quite as good for quality of discussion about controversial topics, simply because it is public. You can’t “let your hair down” and everything you say can and probably will be used against you. But it is still a venue where everyone talks about everything, and if you curate who you follow, you can still connect with people interested in specific topics discuss them and share article links and so on.

I don’t just follow political types; I follow book-twitter, archeology-twitter, a bunch of artists, a fair chunk of the crypto-crowd, some pagans and hermeticists, classicists, and so on.

A lot of what passes in my Twitter-stream is chuff, especially from the political junkies, but a lot is smart and interesting and seeing what the people I have chosen to follow think is worth talking about is useful in itself.

Twitter is a curated experience, and if Musk doesn’t fuck it up (his idea of not showing non-blue checks content would destroy its value — most of the best accounts I follow don’t have a blue check), it will remain useful because you choose who  you follow. It’s just that simple. Turn the timeline to chronological so the algo doesn’t go all Facebook on you, and it’s much like early Facebook was before Zuckerberg screwed it up by trying to over-monetize it.

A timeline on Twitter is just people you chose to follow talking or re-tweeting something they like someone else wrote.

And frankly, at it’s base, that’s marvelous. If you don’t like your Twitter feed, well, you chose it, and you can change it.

This can easily be fucked up, of course. Facebook screwed this up with algos instead of just giving you a chronological timeline of people you chose to follow; Twitter has gone some way down that road, but it can still be made to work. Musk may screw that up, and if he does, I’ll leave. If he doesn’t, I’ll stay.


Politics Series: International Government and Relations

(Previous: Government)

(Introduction and Table of Contents)

Clausewitz wrote “war is a continuation of policy by other means.”

Foreign affairs are government by other means.

They are attempts to control what people do in other countries: what their policies are, how they govern themselves, and often enough, who is in charge.

In foreign affairs, the government trying to control the actions of another government doesn’t have full direct control, though it can have some control.

Take “free trade” and International Monetary Fund (IMF) “structural agreements.” These deals say what governments can and can’t do, or rather what they must or must not do. The government cannot subsidize certain industries or set tariffs in certain circumstances or in various other ways impede trade or the free flow of capital (two different things.) But they go beyond this.

A feature of many free trade deals are “takings” clauses. Investors can’t have their property damaged or removed by government without compensation.

You’re probably nodding along thinking, this sounds reasonable! And it does. But it’s used to stop things like environmental regulations: if a new regulation would damage a company or investors, they must be made whole. The more money they’ll lose, the more damage they’ve been doing and the more expensive it is to stop, especially since the payment is “forward” the government has to compensate for future losses of profits.

These are called ‘investor to state dispute settlement’ (ISDS). Government made a regulation that will cost you future profits? Sue them in a special court. Want the to stop mining that is poisoning groundwater, lakes and rivers? Compensate them. Want them to remove a cancer causing additive from their products? Compensate them.

This is influence on government from outside governments. The biggest ISDS case, against Russia, has been going back and forth in Netherlands courts for years. Most recently, the $50 billion dollar settlement was put aside, and the case referred back to lower courts by the Netherlands supreme court, “But the court rejected Russia’s other arguments that it was not bound by an international energy treaty on which the original 2014 payout ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration was based.” (Moscow Times, Dec 5, 2021).

The thing about treaties, of which trade agreements are only one type is that they are hard to undo. If you don’t like a law that is domestic only, any government can get rid of it with some possibility of internal judicial review. If you don’t like a particular part of a treaty, you have to throw out the entire thing, and many agreements have clauses which state that notice, sometimes years of notice, must be given.

And notice it is a Netherlands court deciding on whether Russia will pay $50 billion, which even today, is real money. In 2021 the entire Russian federal budget was about 311 billion: so this payment would be one-sixth. Of course, the mass Ukraine war sanctions may have made this moot: the Netherlands can rule what it wants, it’s hard to see Russia paying after the West froze hundreds of billions of reserves, though those reserves might be the source of any payment.

Every invasion or bombing is, of course, government by outside governments. The Iraq war was used to impose a new government and government structure on Iraq. After Germany and Japan lost WWII, new constitutions were written for them by the victors. After Austria-Hungary and Germany lost WWI, their monarchs were forced to abdicate and they were turned into democracies: against their will.

Sanctions are obvious government by outsiders, especially when they involve third parties. It is one thing for the US or the EU to say “we won’t sell or buy some things from you” it is another to say “we won’t let anyone else sell or buy these things to you and will sanction or fine or use military force against them if they do.” The Iraq sanctions of the 90s, which caused millions of deaths, were sanctions enforced by the military, but often the West’s control of the financial system is enough: if you can’t pay and receive, you can’t trade.

All of this is government. Back in the last chapter on government, we said, “Government is the people who make choices about law and policy, plus those who implement the policies and enforce the laws.”

If people in another country are choosing your law and policy and enforcing those policies and law, they are government. Remember, there can be more than one government in an area.

When the IMF imposes a structural agreement, which, say, forbids food subsidies so that people go hungry and starve, the IMF is government. When developing world nations were told to get their subsistence farmers off the land and grow cash crops in plantations to pay off loans and “buy development”, that was government too.

Foreign affairs is how one government governs a place and people who aren’t officially under their control, that’s all. Even in states there are often multiple governments in conflict with each other, not all of which are recognized as government. Is Wall Street government? Given the influence it has over government decisions, especially in the Federal Reserve and Treasury department, it would be jejeune to suggest otherwise.

Let’s turn from “foreign affairs is government by other means” to an examination of the conditions which surround government by foreign governments.

The first is whether a world system is a unipolar or multipolar and whether it is global or local. For most of history there were multiple world systems. To be in the Chinese world system during a dynasty was different from being in the Roman world system, or the Persian one, or the Caliphate one or the Mayan or Aztec one.

In a unipolar world system, which may not take up the entire world, but only part of it, there’s one power that matters and everyone else’s primary relationship is with that power. The world from the fall of the USSR is the example we’re most familiar with, but to be near China when it wasn’t divided was similar. Even if you could win a war against China, as its neighbours sometimes did, you’d rather avoid the scenario, because you couldn’t really win, you could only defeat the Chinese invasion. The Japanese came closest to proving this wrong, but even they could only hold parts of China, and that with a massive industrial advantage.

In the same way, to be near Rome during the mid to late Republic and good chunks of the imperial era was to be in the Roman system even if they didn’t rule you. Trade and military and everything focused on them. When Rome fell, and the Church arose, the pagans on the edge of Christianity found the Christian world even worse: determined to change their religion, and if it couldn’t be done peacefully, war was the way. Charlemagne once force-baptized ten thousand Saxons, then killed them all. (Wouldn’t want them to change back, after all.) The Teutonic knights beloved of Germans forced a huge number of pagans to change religion at sword’s point.

Sometimes the world system is multi-polar. Persia and Byzantium, before the rise of Islam. The Caliphates and Byzantium afterwards. Carthage and Rome till Carthage lost the second war against Rome. Greece and Persia before Alexander. The USSR and the US from WWII to the fall of the Soviet Union. And sometimes there are more than two great powers as in the 19th century.

A world system is about how things are done. The structure of what wars are right, what beliefs are right, and so on. The Christian and Muslim worlds wanted you to worship their God, their way and wars were fought to make it happen just as the West has forced democracy and their form of markets on various nations over the last 150 years, sometimes with guns, sometimes with economic coercion.

Vietnam and Korea and even Japan bear huge imprints from China, Korea and Vietnam often by the sword; but Japan thru China’s sheer cultural power and prestige.

All powerful ideologies create ways the world should be, and they rarely stop at national borders. If a way of life is the right way, the legitimate way, then there are always many who believe that all should follow it, and act on that belief.

High prestige and economic power has a weight of its own. The Greek conquests, which were huge and lasted centuries left Greek the educated language of much of Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. As almost everyone now dresses like Europeans and Americans; many people, especially educated classes, dressed like Greeks. Greek was the international tongue of the region.

These patterns “blue jeans and rock and roll and suits and ties everywhere” are not unique to our era and no more eternal than Greek tonsure and robes were.

It should be pointed out that there is often internal support for external interference. Though it will offend many, it’s obvious that there is great support among Americans for Israeli influence and even control over American foreign policy, for example. For every American coup, there are those in the country who worked with the Americans. The British always played different groups off against each other during their conquests and their colonial rule, but so did the Mongols. Genghis Khan was always sure to know which groups internally were unhappy and could be used against the government before he invaded.

Likewise there are factions that want those trade deals we discussed. In Canada the Free Trade deal which was the precursor of NAFTA was passed even though the majority of Canadians opposed it: a powerful minority collaborated with Americans to make it happen.

Ideologies are transnational, and so is legitimacy. For a long time representative democracy has been considered the only really legitimate government, but before that it was monarchy: remember the restoration of the monarchy after France’s defeat in the Napoleonic wars.

Likewise there will always be factions that oppose foreign interference and have ideological ideas that create a legitimacy different from that of the world system’s predominant power. In some ways both the American and French revolutions can be seen thus, and as precursors of a new legitimacy, but so can Switzerland’s long independence and democracy in a world system that was far from democratic.

Britain’s rise arguably starts when England stopped wool exports. They made worse woolens, at first, than the Flemish had, but this created Britain’s first major industry. Genghis Khan created a nation out of the Mongols, in opposition to constant Chinese interference in steppe affairs, among other things, then he and his successors conquered the largest land empire in history and, ironically, were in many ways became similar to those they conquered, the most famous case being how quickly the Mongol rulers of China became Chinese, just as happened to the Manchu (though they were already essentially Confucian even before the conquest, where the Mongols were definitely not.)

In our era, great damage was done to the world system’s legitimacy by the rise of China, because China rose thru policies that did not align with the “Washington Consensus”. They managed their trade, they did not democratize and they kept much of the economy under control of the state. They did not follow the model sold to most developing nations which had failed and by conspicuously succeeding, they made it clear that the Western “development model” did not work. Likewise, constant interference in trade and free money flows by the US government thru various sanctions destroyed the idea that global trade and finance flows were the inevitable future. By acting against their own declared values, the US undermined them.

Internal changes in individual countries or areas can thus drive changes to the world system. Peripheral nations (and even China was peripheral very recently) which create something new can gain an advantage and change the world. The unified Mongols with Genghis’s new tactics and strategies and organization burst upon the world. Britain’s industrial revolution allowed it to create the greatest Empire the world has ever known. Greek  and Macedonian phalanxes, combined with cavalry, created a Greek world thru conquest.

Christian and Arab religious fervor likewise changed huge chunks of the world, some by conversion, much by the sword. The potential for the Arab expansion had already existed but it took and ideology and idea of a legitimate order to make it happen. No Islam,  no Arab conquests.

As with internal political change, externally driven change which goes badly can damage or destroy legitimacy. If a US coup installs a dictator like Iran’s Shah who turns out badly, the legitimacy of the American system can be badly damaged. If war is made to create democracy and it is a disaster, as in Iraq, then legitimacy is damaged.

If it goes well, however, as with the post-war prosperity of Japan and West Germany, and the restoration of Europe, then massive legitimacy is gained.

At the end of the day all ideologies create a legitimacy whose promise is just “this is a good way to live.” If it isn’t, compared to other alternatives, well, that ideology loses legitimacy.

Every time foreign affairs, thru economic pressure, persuasion or force change a country, legitimacy is on the line. It makes things better or worse. If better, then increase legitimacy. If worse, less legitimacy. Better or worse are slippery terms, of course, but an ideology and world system can be judged on its own claims. When policies said to create development and prosperity didn’t, the legitimacy of the post-war and neoliberal orders were damaged. When the USSR couldn’t feed itself or make sufficient consumer goods, their legitimacy was damaged because Communism was supposed to make the proleteriat better off and be superior in doing to so to capitalism.

Rome lost legitimacy when it could not protect the Empire from barbarians. The classic promise was stability, essentially. Jupiter defeats the Titans and rules forever and so does Rome. The long peace in the core of the Empire was the primary promise of Roman Imperial legitimacy (the Republic was quite different) and when it was broken, it broke not just Rome, but Roman Imperial paganism. Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and his reforms set the stage forfeudalism. This staved off the collapse

When a world system falls, legitimacy changes with it. The end of WWII saw the end of colonialism, and the division of Europe between the winners. The decline of Rome made Christianity legitimate then its its fall led to feudalism; a very different polity than the urban centered classical world.

Foreign affairs, then, are not just government by other means, but ideology and legitimacy and identity by other means. They are, again, about how the world should be, and persuasion, economic power and violent force are used when necessary to create that world.

As with internal affairs, everything flows from legitimacy, because legitimacy controls what humans do. Without it the police and soldiers won’t shoot, so it is primary even to violence.

Let us move now to some concluding remarks on the entire “Politics”.


Next: Concluding Remarks



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