Archive for November, 2019

Bolivia, China, and 1984

November 12, 2019

Bolivia’s longest-serving President Evo Morales was first elected in 2006, a left-winger, of indigenous background, former head of the Coca growers union. He held a referendum to change the constitution to allow him to run for a fourth term. Voters said no. He ran again anyway. Typically for such autocrats, he got a packed court to legalize this. But voters said no again. When Morales tried to fiddle the election results, huge protests ensued. On Sunday, the military — Morales had not consolidated his co-opting it — finally said he must go. And Morales actually did step down; as did three others in his line of succession.

So it’s still possible for citizens to get rid of a seemingly entrenched regime. This is very encouraging. Yet the global trend is unfortunately contrary. Such regimes are perfecting the techniques for staying in power, neutralizing opposition. Look at Venezuela. The Maduro gang is literally destroying the country, impoverishing the populace, yet still it seems impregnable. There, unlike in Bolivia, the army is totally in bed with the regime. They’ve got the guns, and aren’t squeamish about using them.

It also helps to have at least some citizen support. In Venezuela, there are actually still a lot of people who actually believe the regime’s propaganda and back it. And they go into the streets and use organized violence against regime opponents.

It is indeed dismaying how so many people, everywhere, can be so misguided in their political allegiances. Look at Brazil. Its last presidential election had a run-off between right-wing and left-wing extremists — because in the first round few people would vote for the sensible, responsible moderate choice. So they wound up with an absolutely terrible person. The Brazilian Trump. Then there’s the Philippine Trump. Not to mention, of course, the American one.

But the godfather of authoritarian regimes, consummating the techniques for holding unchallengeable power, is China’s. PBS recently ran an exploration of Artificial Intelligence; one segment, titled “The Surveillance State,” focused on China’s use of AI to suppress any and all dissension. In its largely Muslim province of Uighuristan, it employs AI to intensively profile every citizen (or, more accurately, subject), and anyone suspect has been put into “re-education camps.” It’s estimated that that’s a million people. Meantime, nationwide, China is perfecting facial recognition technology to keep tabs on everyone, deploying a “social credit” system giving every inhabitant a score for subservience. Those with low scores are being treated accordingly. To make the whole system truly pervasive, China is deploying — wait for it — surveillance cameras — six hundred million of them.

Hong Kong is in revolt against all this. It’s widely feared that this must end with China’s regime violently cracking down, like in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Maybe; but I suspect that will not happen because it’s not necessary for China’s regime. There is simply no way for Hong Kongers to gain the democracy they seek. The Beijing bosses can just sit tight doing nothing. And the vast majority of China’s population is actually already so brainwashed that they support the regime — fervently —against the Hong Kongers.

Nineteen Eighty-Four may have been too optimistic. At the book’s end it was clear it was looking back on a regime that was no more.

Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy

November 9, 2019

Democrats love government; Republicans hate it. Of course that’s a big oversimplification. But in this respect Elizabeth Warren is the quintessential Democrat.

I was long a Republican, with a libertarian/conservative perspective. Not hating government, but seeing unconstrained government power as a problem. Warren doesn’t share that viewpoint.

The word “socialist” is thrown around a lot by people who don’t actually know what it means. It’s not “social welfare” or government regulating the private sector; it’s government replacing it.

Warren says she’s no socialist, and seems to mean it, actually having good things to say about the role of the private sector in creating economic dynamism. At least in concept. However, she does propose what amounts to socialism for one major economic sector: health care, prohibiting private insurance.

There’s much to hate about private health insurers. Typically in free market capitalism, a company makes money by making customers happy. But health insurers perversely make money by limiting what customers get. Nevertheless, it remains a principle of a free society for people to choose for themselves, and many Americans seem satisfied with their health insurance arrangements.

Taking that freedom away, with a government-only system, is not only wrong but unnecessary. Let Democrats instead create a government option as an alternative. If, as they believe, it’s so much better, it will outcompete private insurers and put them out of business that way. Warren’s refusal to accept that logic is politically stupid. Pointlessly so, because her plan can’t be enacted.

She targets inequality, her centerpiece proposal being a wealth tax (also impossible to enact). This reflects the standard left wing mindset of seeing the problem as what the rich have, as if it’s gotten at the expense of the rest (a basic fallacy). Thus their approach of beating down the rich rather than finding ways to uplift the others.

Actually, Warren does have some proposals in the latter vein, and some are actually reasonable. And I actually agree that richer people like me should pay more tax, especially after Trump’s disgraceful tax giveaways. But a wealth tax is a terrible idea, as several countries trying it have found out. Will an army of federal assessors be sent out to evaluate the worth of all rich folks’ assets — all the mansions, yachts, art collections? Which would invite stratagems to hide wealth and otherwise avoid the tax.

Far better to resuscitate the moribund estate tax. That makes much economic and social sense, and the counter-arguments are bogus. But the estate tax has gotten politically toxic. Though I cannot fathom how a wealth tax sounds better.

More broadly, a cause of inequality is corporate power, which Warren seeks to curb. And I find much to agree with here, free market champion though I am. “Free market” really means free, with open competition. With that, consumers capture the lion’s share of wealth creation. But too many big corporations use their power to squelch competition, especially by enlisting government in that effort. It’s one of the reasons I’m leery of government in general. Warren does have some plans, like stronger antitrust enforcement, breaking up “crony capitalism,” that I endorse; yet her idealization of government seems oblivious to how it’s in the very nature of big government to be captured and suborned by powerful businesses in the ways she herself decries.

And when it comes to coddling businesses, Warren herself does exactly that with her protectionist stance toward trade. Historically, Democrats were the party of free trade, understanding how that benefits consumers and the country as a whole, whereas Republicans were the protectors of businesses. But somewhere the left lost its way on this issue — while Republicans saw the light — until Trump came along and blinded them. Warren would not roll back his insane trade policies, that so harm the global economy and our own.

But most fundamentally, I don’t like the tenor of her campaign. The us-against-them stridency. That if you’re not on board with her program, totally, you stand for nothing, you’re weak, part of the problem, even morally deficient. It’s just this sort of scorched-earth partisan bloody-mindedness that’s tearing the country apart. Warren’s favorite word is “fight.” I think America’s had enough fighting; let’s have some peace.

I have endorsed Joe Biden, whose moderation and centrist reasonableness are far more in line with what we so desperately need. And, notwithstanding all the whining about Biden’s supposed electoral weaknesses, I continue to see him as the best candidate to beat Trump. (That’s why Trump viciously targets him.) National polls show Biden beating Trump soundly; with Warren it’s a toss-up. Her high-octane ideological shrillness (not to mention, alas, her gender) turns off a lot of voters. Whereas Biden is seen as a calm safe pair of hands, an antidote to the sturm und drang of Trump’s presidency.

Pete Buttigieg scores even higher on centrist reasonableness. He’s actually by far the best of all the candidates. His being gay would repel some voters, but I think most would be able to get past that when they see his admirable qualities. I believe he too would do better against Trump than Warren. And if Buttigieg did manage to rise to the top and get the nomination, it would be America at its best. Gosh how I miss that America.

And if it’s Warren nominated? What’s at stake in this election far transcends matters of ideology or policy. America’s soul will be dead if — after every monstrous vile thing he’s done — Trump is re-elected. It would repudiate every good principle this country used to embody. Warren understands those principles, and is everything Trump is not: honest, well-informed, competent, responsible, a decent and sane human being. For all I’ve said against her, we’d be far better off with her than Trump.* Another four years of him would be the end of America.

An imperfect world presents imperfect choices. If it’s Trump versus Warren, I will support her more strongly than I’ve ever supported any cause in my life.

* And if Republicans’ Trumpmania winds up resulting in their worst nightmare of a left-wing president, it will be poetic justice.

End Road Work? No!

November 8, 2019

We’ve all seen those signs along highways, saying “End Road Work.” This movement seems very misguided. I can think of many things that should be ended, but road work surely isn’t one of them. In fact, most people would consider it a very good thing if not, indeed, vitally necessary. Having myself sustained a flat tire recently due to a pot hole, count me as strongly in support of road work. What can these people be thinking, wanting to end it?

Sure, it can be an annoyance, slowing up traffic. But traffic would ultimately become a lot slower if the campaign against road work succeeds! One of the many things about modernity we blithely take for granted is good serviceable roads. But there’s no free lunch, everything has a cost.

Maybe road work opponents have been confuzzled by all the rhetoric trying to soft-soap socialism, by claiming that anything government does is socialism. So they think road work is socialism. Well, I’d be happy to see it done by the private sector. But failing that, I still want roads repaired, even if it is socialism. There are a lot worse ways for government to use taxpayer money.

Fortunately, years of “End Road Work” signs seem to have had little or no impact on curtailing the practice. These foolish cranks should give up and find a different issue to protest about.

Facebook: helping to destroy civilization

November 5, 2019

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says he won’t stop running political ads — even lying ones. Trump has already run ads falsely smearing Biden. But Zuckerberg says Facebook banning or censoring such ads would violate freedom of speech.

He’s wrong. Freedom of speech (embodied in the First Amendment) means government may not squelch what anyone says. Facebook — big and powerful though it is — ain’t the government (yet). “Freedom of speech” in no way obligates Facebook to make itself a platform for lies. (Twitter’s chief Jack Dorsey, trying to be a more responsible citizen than Zuckerberg, is stopping political ads on Twitter.)

We now know how thoroughly Facebook was manipulated by the Russians in 2016 to get Trump elected. It went way beyond political ads. Among other ploys, they also set up vast numbers of seeming Facebook user groups to spread disinformation and dissension.

Not only does Facebook blow it as a gatekeeper on all that, it even does so on it’s own mis-named “news feed.” More accurately a garbage feed. Because to increase traffic (and hence ad revenue) its algorithms parlay user information to show people stuff calculated to push their buttons — whether true or not. And much is not.

In fact Facebook’s system rewards falsity. I heard a radio interview with one guy who candidly explained how he cooked up a false report about Hillary vote fraud, and made thousands from it. This is called “clickbait” — whenever someone clicks on such a link, not just Facebook, but the link’s creator too, make money from ads.

Some time back, a Trumper I know indignantly distributed a bunch of quotes from leading Democrats slamming the Constitution. Obviously (to me) fake quotes. But instead of ignoring it, I did some googling and quickly found the source, a lying website, and the debunking. This was just one small taste of a monster phenomenon.

Manufacturing phony quotes or vote fraud reports is easy enough, low-tech lying. But now you can create fake video. Like the recent “drunk Pelosi” clip. But worse yet, you can even cook up footage showing someone appearing to say whatever outrageous things you want to put in their mouths. Watch for this in the 2020 campaign. How will the average voter know what to believe?

In the internet’s infancy, we naively imagined it would make people better informed. Instead, it’s a fountain of weaponized lies, and most people (like my Trumper friend above) just don’t have the capability for vetting all the stuff coming at them. This poisons the well of information influencing our voting decisions. Democracy cannot function this way.

It’s exacerbated by having a president who — instead of trying to confront the problem — is himself a big part of the problem.

We are headed toward a world where there’s no such thing as truth or reality. Or so it will seem. But, of course, no matter what rubbish fills minds, there will still actually be a reality out there. And voters with rubbish-filled minds will make for a pretty ugly reality.

Trump is just a harbinger.

Political follies across the river in Rensselaer County: Maddening, wilting, laughable, but real

November 3, 2019

Madden

Patrick Madden is the Democratic mayor of Troy. Last time he won the primary against Rodney Wiltshire, an African-American, by only a handful of votes. This year Wiltshire lost the Democratic mayoral primary again, but is running on the Green and Independence party* lines. Tom Reale, a State Senate staffer, originally wanted to run for city council but Republicans persuaded him to be their candidate for Mayor.

Wiltshire

Then the party’s local bosses, led by Rensselaer County Exec Steve McLaughlin and his henchman Richard Crist, had a meeting with Reale and bullied him to exit the race. Why? They’d decided Wiltshire had a better chance to beat Madden. In fact, they’d already previously connived Wiltshire’s Green party nomination, getting Republicans to register as Greens and write in Wiltshire’s name — not Reale’s. Other local Republicans are getting in line with this Wiltshire ploy.

Not only are these guys making themselves look terrible with these machinations, but for no purpose. Because Madden is sure to beat either challenger anyway, in now solidly Democratic Troy. How idiotic can McLaughlin and company be?

McLaughlin

Just this morning a tape of the meeting came out, in which McLaughlin, preening his power, his every other word an f-bomb, browbeats, belittles, and threatens Reale.

But bullying is McLaughlin’s style. Previously a state legislator, he was then recorded being loudly and vulgarly abominable toward a female staffer. But in the age of Trump, such behavior no longer matters — among “family values” Republicans. So they promoted him to County Exec. He continues to spew out bombastic Trump-like tweets.

Reale

Reale initially bowed to McLaughlin’s pressure and stopped his campaign. But then, with just a week to go, Reale reversed himself, publicly calling out McLaughlin’s bullying tactics, which we already knew about.

Meantime, the state has now instituted early voting. Rensselaer county’s population is concentrated in the city of Troy, which has a lot of non-whites and Democrats. But the county government, thanks to rural votes, is still controlled by Republicans. And, following the Republican playbook of striving to deny minorities the vote, they put the county’s early voting site not in Troy but out in the boondocks, difficult for city dwellers (especially the many without cars) to get to.

In Troy, in 2016, a black motorist, Edson Thevenin, was killed in a hail of bullets by a white cop, Randall French, under dubious circumstances. The Republican District Attorney, Joel Abelove, quickly brought French before a grand jury with no waiver of immunity, guaranteeing he couldn’t be prosecuted. Abelove was criminally prosecuted himself, by the state attorney general, for his role in this. Meantime the local police department also whitewashed French. But then, due to widespread public outcry, a Troy police captain, Joseph Centanni, was engaged to review the case. He courageously wrote a report concluding that the killing was unjustified, French lied about it, and the Troy police department conspired in a cover-up. (This was also the conclusion of the state attorney general, in prosecuting DA Abelove.) But Mayor Madden didn’t like the Centanni report, so not only did he hide it, even from the city council, but he also hired yet another guy to conduct of a review of it. And guess what? That second report tried to poke holes in the first one. But Mayor Madden refused to release that report too, refusing even to reveal how much the city government spent on it.

I don’t live in Troy, but if I did, I’d vote for Reale.

* There’s nothing “independent” about it, this is a shill party actually cooked up by Republicans.