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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Sunday Cartoon Blogging – January 15, 2017

In a week filled with news that forces you to look at it, one thing stands out: The “Dossier” on Donald Trump which purports that the Russians have collected some things that could be used to blackmail our Orange Overlord. There are many things to “get”, in order to understand this story, but let’s focus on the blackmail element.

According to the 35-page Dossier, Russia (supposedly) has blackmail material on Trump but isn’t using it. OTOH, the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community (IC), and certain media players are using it, both by making sure we know that the Dossier exists, and that Trump and Obama were told about it.

The story, which had apparently been around DC since the summer, was retailed to the rest of us this week. Trump’s reaction was typical, blaming the IC, while saying it was more fake news. And it could be just that, no one seems to know.

Then, Trump was warned by Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senate Minority Leader, saying on MSNBC: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

You take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday of getting back at you. So even for a practical, supposedly hard-nosed businessman, he’s being really dumb to do this.”

Wow! The president-elect threatened by the Senate Minority Leader, implying that the IC will get back at him if he doesn’t stand down. And there was no shock from Democrats, who have decided that they are the CIA’s best buddies, and that they love, love the rest of the IC.

Yet, when Clinton was being skewered for her emails, Dems protested loudly about the interference by the FBI. Glenn Greenwald has an excellent piece about the IC inserting itself into the US election, along with the Russians and others. As part of the story, he has this to say about the Democrats:

Did Russia attempt to interfere in the US election? Of course, and Democrats condemned it. Did the agents of the FBI et al attempt to interfere in the US election? Of course, and Democrats condemned it. Is the national security state today interfering in the outcome of a US election, by trying to destabilize and force its will on the incoming administration? Of course, and Democrats are cheering it.

The Dems are seeing just what they want to see, and that’s the (for now) flesh wound inflicted on Trump by the IC. They are not looking at what’s in plain sight. Which is the many efforts at false news stirring the pot of presidential illegitimacy, by domestic state actors as well as foreign.

Democrats should not support this; it’s dangerous…for them as well as for America. More about this next week.

The IC is far from happy with the Donald:

The GOP has started on their Repeal and Replace plan:

The GOP wants to take care of at least one pre-existing condition:

Trump’s cabinet nominees began their Senate hearings this week:

Secretary of State Nominee, Rex Tillerson, has to prove he’s not channeling Exxon:

Obama gave his farewell speech, and headed into the sunset:

 

 

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Saturday Soother – January 14, 2017

You may have noticed that the Wrongologist has not posted a column since Monday. Life intervened, as we began a to-the-studs kitchen renovation this week. Think about it, no kitchen in January in the Northeast. It’s like camping, but you sleep in your own bed, and use your own shower.

This week, the Trumpathon marched forward, with each day giving us something unique to consider, to react to with disbelief as our Overlord moves to fully take the reins of power.

The commonly accepted story is that the Russians hacked Podesta and the DNC, and that might have helped Trump defeat Clinton. Then there is the “Dossier” of possibly incriminating info that the Russians may, or may not, have on Trump. The story could be false or true, and there is no solid evidence either way.

Trump’s plan to place his business in “trust” is ridiculous, but he has no plan to abide by the spirit of a blind trust, and he’s exempt from the rules for other public servants, so deal with it.

The Democrats didn’t lose to the Republicans because of a Russian conspiracy, but because they didn’t do a good job of governing, for two reasons: First, the economy hasn’t recovered for quite a few Americans. Second, Obama’s record on foreign policy is at best, mixed and is possibly a failure.

Despite his success with Obamacare, we should remember that insurance coverage is not health care. Consider that the US mortality rate is going up. And there is still considerable economic uncertainty: Elevate’s Center for the New Middle Class looked at how much money in the form of an unexpected expense would be a crisis for ordinary Americans. Their study asked 502 nonprime (credit score below 700) and 525 prime Americans (credit score of 700 or above) how they could handle an unexpected expense. They found that:

A bill becomes a crisis for nonprime Americans at $1,400. For Primes, it’s $2,900…

160 million Americans come under the nonprime category, according to the study. That’s half of our population who would have difficulty paying for a trip to the emergency room with a broken arm. Two-thirds of Americans would struggle to cover a $1000 emergency expense. Half of Americans find it hard to pay over $100 a month for health insurance, while the average price nationally in 2017 for a bronze plan is $311 per month for a 30-year-old nonsmoker who does not qualify for subsidies. That means without subsidies, half of America is at serious risk of being uninsured under repeal and replace.

This speaks to our uneven economic recovery better than any average wage or unemployment statistics.

In short, Democrats lost to a very flawed person because they (Dems) ran the country badly for people like those in this study, and those people are upset.

If that didn’t bring you down far enough, there are just six days until the inauguration.

Wow, with all this going on, we need something to help us relax. Today’s soother is Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915“, with soprano Dawn Upshaw and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Barber was a 20th century American composer, perhaps our best. He was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

He wrote this piece in 1947, based on a prose poem by James Agee. Agee would later use the poem as a preamble to his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Death in the Family, published posthumously in 1957. Agee was also the screenwriter for the movie, the African Queen. Here is Knoxville: Summer of 1915:

While this feels operatic, the lyrics are in English. Here is a sample:

It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street…People go by; things go by. A horse, drawing a buggy, breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt; a loud auto; a quiet auto; people in pairs, not in a hurry, scuffling, switching their weight of aestival body, talking casually, the taste hovering over them of vanilla, strawberry, pasteboard and starched milk, the image upon them of lovers and horsemen, squared with clowns in hueless amber.

“Aestival” means of, or occurring in the summer.

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Are We Facing an Undemocratic Future?

What do you think when Trump appoints so many retired generals to cabinet-level posts in his administration? The positive side of the argument is that these are talented, well-educated individuals who bring a worldview and experience on the global stage that Trump himself lacks.

The other side of the argument is that the authoritarian president Trump risks making his government much more authoritarian than it needs to be. This from Roger Cohen in the NYT:

A quarter-century after the post-Cold War zenith of liberal democracies and neoliberal economics, illiberalism and authoritarianism are on the march. It’s open season for anyone’s inner bigot. Violence is in the air, awaiting a spark. The winning political card today, as Mr. Trump has shown…is to lead “the people” against a “rigged system,”…The postwar order — its military alliances, trade pacts, political integration and legal framework — feels flimsy, and the nature of the American power undergirding it all is suddenly unclear.

We sound like a nation that is ripe for political upheaval. Citizens are not only more critical of their political leaders, they have become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives.

Yascha Mounk, a lecturer in government at Harvard, has spent the past few years challenging one of the bedrock assumptions of Western politics: That once a country becomes a liberal democracy, it will stay that way. That bedrock assumption is called “democratic consolidation” in political science, but Mounk’s research suggests that isn’t correct anymore.

In fact, he suggests that liberal democracies around the world may be at serious risk of decline. Data from Freedom House, an organization that measures democracy and freedom around the world, showed that the number of countries classified as “free” rose steadily from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s.

But since 2005, Freedom House’s index has shown a decline in global freedom each year. According to Mounk and his research partner Roberto Foa, who reviewed the data, early signs of democratic destabilization exist in the US and in other Western liberal democracies. They found that the percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a democracy has plummeted, and it is especially low among younger generations. The survey was based on 2014 data. Here is a graph from the Mounk-Foa study:

percent-who-say-democracy-is-essential-us

The graph shows responses by age cohort. Younger Americans have substantially less need to live in a democratic society than do older individuals. (The grey shaded part of graph is the 95% confidence limit for the responses to the survey). Remarkably, the trend toward acceptance of nondemocratic alternatives is especially strong among citizens who are both young and rich.

Mounk and Foa found that support for autocratic alternatives is also rising. Drawing on data from the European and World Values Surveys, they found that the share of Americans who say that authoritarianism would be a “good” or “very good” thing had risen from 18% in 1995 to 35% of rich Americans:

support-for-authoritianism-by-income-us

While citizen support for authoritarian rule remains in the minority, it can no longer be dismissed as a fringe group. They support “a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament and elections” and they want “experts” rather than the government to “take decisions” for the country. (In the study, “Upper income” is defined as the top 20% of income. “Lower Income” was defined as the bottom 50% of income.)

Overall, the rich are also now more likely than lower income citizens to express approval for “having the army rule.” While 43% of older Americans, including those born between the world wars and their baby-boomer children, do not believe that it is legitimate in a democracy for the military to take over when the government is incompetent or failing to do its job, the figure among millennials is much lower at 19%. In the US, only 5% of upper-income citizens thought that army rule was a “good” or “very good” idea in 1995. That figure has since risen to 16%, so the young rich are much more autocratic than their rich elders.

The clear message is that our democracy is now vulnerable. What was once unthinkable should no longer be considered outside the realm of possibility. This is partially the result of an educational system that does not teach even basic civics, much less the meaning of the Constitution.

Generations have grown up believing that they can casually read the document and understand what constitutional law is. Young Americans have never known the threat of an undemocratic system, so their fear of autocracy is far less than it is in the minds of their elders.

Trump is the prime example of this. And according to Mounk’s findings, he has a receptive audience in the young and the wealthy.

Would that be enough to undermine democracy in the US?

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Monday Wake Up Call – November 14, 2016

We just can’t seem to stop talking about Trump winning the election. Pundits have sliced and diced the data from November 9, and so far, the major trend remains poor turnout.

From 538: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

The raw number of votes rose: About 1.4 million MORE Americans voted in this year’s election than in 2012, a total which itself was down from 2008. But the electorate was growing in the meantime: About 57% of eligible voters cast ballots this year, down from 58.6% in 2012 and 61.6% in 2008, which was the highest mark in 40 years.

The total number of votes was up, but the percentage of actual voters to eligible voters was down. This says that, in 2016, people cared less about the outcome of the election than they did in 2012. 60% of Millennials failed to vote, 6% less than in 2012. The 65+ cohort dropped most dramatically, down 12% from 2012. From Carl Beijer:

The major trend in 2016 was one of increasingly apathy. Within that broader trend, the demographic patterns are muddy. Deviations in relative support from group to group don’t map well onto the standard media narratives that dominated this election; for example, apathy grew more among women and voters of color than among men and white voters. Among the candidates, Clinton either broke even or lost support among every single demographic group, while Trump won support among voters of color and boomers.

And if we look at states that were key to Trump’s victory – Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, New Hampshire, all but Pennsylvania and Florida had lower overall turnout. And in the case of Ohio and Wisconsin, turnout was much lower.

While it’s too early to say that we saw a populist revolt, it is clear that the slimy campaigns and the unattractive candidates probably depressed turnout.  And it isn’t clear yet whether voter suppression laws had a significant impact on the outcome of the election, but America’s gotta wake up.

When 43% of eligible voters don’t bother to vote, we risk surrendering our democracy to a well-organized minority of Americans. Nobody should be complaining if they failed to vote.

To help the non-voters wake up, we will listen today to Leonard Cohen. Wrongo mentioned Cohen’s death yesterday. His dying wasn’t a surprise, since he said in last month’s profile in the New Yorker that he was “ready to die.” Yet, on October 13th he told an LA audience:

I think I was exaggerating. I’ve always been into self-dramatization… I intend to stick around until 120.

That didn’t come to pass. His final album, “You Want It Darker” came out on three weeks ago. In it, he waves goodbye to us with grace. Asked often about his process for songwriting he usually replied:

I’ve often said if I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often.

But we remember him today with “Everybody Knows”. It probably has been overplayed this week, but it is appropriate for the revolutionary week we had:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

Sample lyrics:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

Doesn’t that kind of sum up where we are heading for the next four years?

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Transforming America, Part I

For the past few months, this blog has featured this quote:

He didn’t know what was defeating him, but he sensed it was something he could not cope with, something that was far beyond his power to control or even at this point in time, comprehend –Hubert Selby Jr.

Let’s start this year with a meditation about one transformative idea. Not something that is peddled by the DC think tanks, but an idea that lurks just below the surface.

All of us have wondered, like the characters in Selby’s “Requiem for a Dream” (and maybe, with increasing frequency) “hey, something is wrong here”. Maybe you accept mainstream logic, but now you’ve come to realize that things are getting out of control, despite the constant messaging from your ideological god of choice that tries to pull you back to conventional thinking.

Here is the transformative idea for today: The free market isn’t a beautiful self-correcting machine. Instead, it is consuming our society and our environment for the benefit of a very few.

And it isn’t an orderly process; the trajectory is more like a slow free-fall in which the market system moves downward devouring everything, unless it is met by real opposition. In fact, the globalized version of the free market makes life horrible for lots of people, creating a constant need for intervention.

For a couple of examples, you don’t get the Russian Revolution(s) without the Czar trying to play ‘catch up’ with the West. You don’t get the Cuban Revolution without the crimes of the Batista regime.

When there is a backlash against corporatism, especially on the periphery, capitalists come up with a solution. Anyone is better than a bunch of reformers who want society to pay attention to people’s well-being rather than to profits.

With globalization, local thugs became very useful. Folks like Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran, the Saud family in Saudi Arabia, Mubarak in Egypt, Suharto in Indonesia, and Hussein in Iraq. Most of the time, these folks did the job big business wanted done (even if it was messy). And the American government protected US corporate assets in-country, and propped up the compliant local politicians. The profits got privatized, and the losses socialized, since our taxes paid for the military aid to the dictators, while the corporates skimmed the profits. And much of those profits remained offshore, out of reach of our taxing authorities.

Today, the useful thugs working on behalf of the American Empire are in Washington DC. They have made our political system a self-replicating support system for free market capitalism. We have retained only a veneer of our democracy, while moving rapidly in the direction of an authoritarian business-state combine, an improved version of Mussolini-style corporatism.

Oswald Spengler, who’s “Decline of the West” argued in the 1920’s that the urban culture of Northern Europe was a “Faustian” world, (his term for one of 8 global cultures) characterized by bigness and rationality, eventually to be dominated by the soldier, the engineer, and the businessman.

Doesn’t that seem particularly relevant to today’s America? Spengler thought that democracy is simply the political weapon of money, and that the media is the means through which money operates a democratic political system. Importantly, he said:

The ‘tragic comedy of the world-improvers and freedom-teachers’ is that they are simply assisting money to be more effective.

So here we are. One day, it was 2014, the next day, 2015. What has changed? Nothing. What will change? Nothing, unless you begin a process of thinking about one transformative idea:

The free market doesn’t self-correct. Therefore, it is an ideology that must be changed.

The struggle between market forces and societal needs has always existed. In the 20th Century, we evolved a series of social democracies that kept the rights of the people balanced against the rights of the corporations, with some of the pushback actually coming from businesses themselves.

But today, well-funded efforts to roll back New Deal and New Society social welfare programs are well advanced. And there are only so many times that this blog and others can point out that many Americans have been unemployed since 2008.

The political question is what happens to this great new underclass in America? An underclass that has grown large because of the past 7+ years of economic disparity. Since the free market system that is grinding up our society is a utopian fantasy, we should be able to turn to our democratic system to help solve the real failures of our economic system.

But, our democratic system has been co-opted by the free marketers. So, who can ordinary people turn to for help AGAINST the market?

The corporatists and their captured politicians have a term, “there is no alternative” or TINA. It has come to mean that “there is no alternative” to free markets, free trade, and globalization, if our society is to prosper. They stress TINA to keep ordinary people from seeing that we need to constrain the worst of free market excesses.

The unbridled free market has to die.

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Friday Music Break – November 7, 2014

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, they deserve to get it good and hard.” –H. L. Mencken

What has changed in our recent elections is that most American people live lives of barely suppressed ill-feeling. Americans have become hoarders of grudges, with voters believing that current politics bring only a sense of outrage, a feeling of being pushed aside, and made to feel small, or diminished.

They see those in power not as helpers and protectors of our people and our traditions, but as predators, out for whatever they can get. Our politicians see their own ideas for change as blessed, and the ideas of their opponents as damned.

Elections should attempt to bring out the best, not the worse in ordinary people. But in 21st century elections, this superordinate goal exceeds the people’s grasp.

Our political process has devolved. We have a deterioration of our public conscience, a smothering of community spirit when it comes to the vital issues of public life. Great ends are to be achieved by tawdry, underhanded or inadequate means.

We now try to reach political heaven mostly using the methods of hell.

Songs for today’s music break

We start with a song tribute to a guy that doesn’t let democracy mess with his plans. Its “Go Hard Like Vladimir Putin” by A.M.G. You had to expect there would be a Putin rap, and it comes straight outta Moscow by two black guys who emigrated from Africa. K. King, is from Zimbabwe via London, while Beni Maniaci is from Kenya. Both moved to Russia in the early 2000s to study medicine in Volgograd. It isn’t clear if they are still in medicine after this became a huge hit in Russia, but they say they are booked solid through December:

Difficult to imagine someone saying “Go Hard Like Barack Obama” or, “Go Hard Like Mitch McConnell”.

Next, a song that hopes democracy will solve the world’s problems. It is Jackson Browne who has a new album and a new song both entitled “Standing In The Breach“:

Sample lyrics:

You don’t know why,
But you still try for the world you wish to see.
You don’t know how, it will happen now after all that’s come undone.
But you know the change that the world needs now, is there in everyone.

Regarding our democracy, the Wrongologist simply doesn’t get it: Those most at risk of disenfranchisement, more regressive taxation, greater risk of losing their jobs, safety net and reproductive freedom, can’t be bothered to go to the polls.

Meanwhile, working class whites vote against the ACA—the best thing US government has done for working class people since Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid.

What a country.

 

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