Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

The Ministry for the Future

June 5, 2023

A recent article in The Economist addressed global warming’s effect on India and Pakistan. With discussion of “wet-bulb” temperatures, a more complex measurement of heat impact; 35 about the limit humans can endure. Heat waves in those countries inch toward that. It sounded like India and Pakistan are on the cusp of becoming literally uninhabitable.

Then I pick up Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 book, The Ministry for the Future. A novel — or a polemic in the guise of a novel. Starting in the very near future, with an Indian heat wave (and more wet-bulb talk), vividly chronicled through the eyes of Frank, a young aid worker at a clinic. The power’s gone out, but he’s got a generator and air conditioner. Until they’re stolen by gunmen. Frank still struggles to help save townspeople. In vain; all are among the 20 million killed by this heat wave. Frank himself survives — barely — traumatized.

The Ministry for the Future is a global agency set up to try to save civilization. But it’s not some monster bureaucracy with draconian powers. More like a glorified Greta Thunberg, to nag the world. Its head, Mary Murphy, is the book’s sort-of-hero. Its villain is “capitalism.”

There’s the usual bashing of fossil fuel industries; of course “the rich;” and “neoliberalism.” A pejorative referring to the economic consensus that widely emerged after communism and socialism seemed discredited; emphasizing free markets, globalization, free trade, and limits on government. When the word is fetishized, as here, you know where the writer is coming from politically.

Oh, and here America too is a villain. China and Russia basically good guys. Right-o.

This is a very preachy book. Pedantic, didactic, tedious. And long. Not a fun read. But a spoiler alert: the good guys win! Indeed, solving not just climate, but (practically) all the world’s other problems. Even inequality!

Some shadowy forces wage war against carbon emissions. Thus “Crash Day” when sixty planes go down. Though not quite indiscriminately — many are private jets. Container ships are being sunk. Et cetera. For Robinson, anyone contributing (heedlessly) to carbon emissions is a genocidal criminal deserving the ultimate penalty. Which he administers with relish.

Yet unlike many climate zealots, he understands the limitations of a carbon-centric approach. Even if we cut emissions to zero tomorrow, rising temperatures are already baked in. Global warming would only be moderated slightly.

“Geoengineering” is the term for actions to actually reverse the effects and cool the planet. It’s been a dirty word among climate warriors fixated on curbing emissions. One might think their real animus is not to save humanity but to punish it; to especially punish “neoliberal capitalism.” Geoengineering seen as an unwelcome distraction from that jihad.

In the book, India, after its catastrophic heat wave, goes full geoengineering — sending up planes to seed the atmosphere in mimicry of a major volcanic eruption, which does cause cooling. Mary Murphy tells India they can’t do that without international consensus. India tells Mary to stuff it.

Other concepts in the book, new to me, are pumping sea water into Antarctica’s interior where it freezes, thus offsetting sea level rises due to melting ice elsewhere; and dying the Arctic Ocean yucky yellow, to prevent heat absorption.

All these measures are portrayed favorably, as feasible and impactful, without the untoward side effects that geoengineering haters warn of. Indeed, given the climate crisis extremity in this imagined future, the word “geoengineering” loses its opprobrium, and even drops from common discourse. Now it’s just doing whatever it takes to save civilization.

Capitalism’s critics rarely have a glimmer of an alternative. Robinson at least tries. Confronting the argument that the market’s pricing and production decisions are too complex for government planners to substitute for — as the Soviet Union proved — Robinson says AI should solve that, being up to the job. Disregarding that bloodless AI lacks the entrepreneurial incentive to satisfy customers.

That’s the “greed” we keep hearing about. Another word Robinson harps on. Excessive greed can — like anything excessive — be a vice; but “greed” itself merely refers to the universal human desire for betterment for oneself and one’s family. An ineradicable thirst for wealth and status. Which has been the impetus behind betterment for everyone, all human progress. The idea of a world without “greed,” with everyone just complacently having their needs met, is actually inhuman — a world of cardboard cut-outs, not people.

Similarly, Robinson’s alternative economic model — he plays footsie with the word “socialism” — entails disallowing profit for provision of any goods or services people really need, those needs being met instead by government. Well, he talks in terms of everyone owning everything in common. But in practice that means government. Which in turn means certain people once again having inordinate power. Something you can’t get around, no matter the system.

The source of the money to finance production of all these goods and services, to be distributed with nobody making any profit, is something of a mystery. People would still be paid for working; with everyone, moreover, guaranteed a job. Old Soviet joke: “we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.”

Robinson considers money itself a bad thing, at least as presently constituted; he sees it replaced by some sort of blockchain “people’s money” which, somehow, no one can hide or exploit for bad ends. And nobody’s allowed to have more than a limited amount.

It seems he actually foresees replacing humanity itself, as presently constituted, with a new model, free of greed, selfishness, tribalism, ignorance, every bad tendency. Required for the global New Jerusalem he envisions.

I’m no misanthrope, believing human good outweighs the bad. But you gotta grapple with the bad. Can’t just wish it all away.

Early in the book, attendees at an annual Davos gathering are locked in by some of those eco-terrorists and subjected to “re-education” via films and power-points, trying to shake their capitalist faith. They’re told that four billion people are still in poverty.* And one of the captive fat-cats rejoins that but for capitalism, it would be eight billion.

That guy was right. Robinson should listen to him.

* No longer true.

Ukraine Foolishness

May 11, 2023

This is the biggest foreign affairs crisis of my post-WWII lifetime. Shattering a world order which had seemingly eliminated the age-old curse of major power wars.

Some “peace advocates” deem America and its Western allies blameworthy for the carnage, saying we should stop fueling it by supplying arms. They’re full of moralism but devoid of moral sense. Really urging that Russian aggression be allowed to succeed. Would such reward for war-making somehow make a less warlike world?

These fools also parrot Putin in blaming us for this war because we pushed NATO in Russia’s face, threatening its security. But NATO was never conceived to threaten Russia — rather, to defend against it. Had Russia been no threat to its neighbors in the first place, none would need NATO for their security. And the monstrous attack on Ukraine proves those fears of Russia were justified.

President Biden has done a great job rallying our allies against this Russian crime. Were Obama — or Trump — still in office, Ukraine would be a goner by now. Encouraging China to invade Taiwan. Which would really wreck the world as we’ve known it, something we must do everything possible to prevent. Russia’s defeat in Ukraine would help to deter China.

Russia has already gotten a bloody nose, suffering immense losses in men and equipment. Its incompetence reflecting the literally insane delusionality that prompted the invasion — vainglorious preening of Russia’s supposed greatness; believing Ukraine and Ukrainians are not a real nation or people; that they’re somehow “Nazis;” and the fiction of Russia’s “security” somehow threatened by America and the West.

In contrast, Ukraine has done itself proud. Yet for all Russia’s battlefield losses, it can still deploy far more men and weaponry. In a long war of attrition, Ukraine will run out before Russia.

That mustn’t be permitted. To those fools who say we’re prolonging the war, the answer is not to quit it but to win it. We may indeed be prolonging the agony by still holding back from a full commitment.

So while I applaud what Biden’s done, it’s not enough, a squeamish drip-drip-drip of military help. In particular holding back on F-16 fighter planes. Ukraine has so far managed to keep Russia from gaining control of her skies, but has by now lost almost half the aircraft it started with. Russia has way more planes. We have around a thousand F-16s. Over decades we’ve spent many trillions building up our military. What is it all for, if not NOW? When our national interest, and the whole world’s, is critically at stake.

Another red line is barring Ukraine from using our weapons to hit inside Russia itself. Why such impunity? When you start a war, you yourself may get hurt. No?

Obviously, there’s fear of escalation, of provoking Russia, of a wider conflict. But I keep asking: what could Russia do that it’s not already doing? If anything, their military capability has now been much reduced. Going nuclear would be vastly self-harming, with no actual military gain. Not even Putin is that crazy.

In a recent zoom briefing, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine expert, suggested that the Biden administration imagines this war is an aberrational event, a blip really in a bigger picture. That we can still revert to some sort of normal relationship with Russia. And this fantasy inhibits our giving Ukraine F-16s and other military aid sufficient for victory.

There are three possibilities: Russia’s victory; Russia’s rout; or prolonged agony. Assuming the first and third are undesirable, we must bite the bullet to achieve the second. Better sooner than later.

And as Vindman said, we can have no “normal” relationship with Russia as long as Putin holds power. I would add that the idea of his regime’s replacement by something more benign is also a fantasy. More likely it would be the opposite.

A lesson I’ve been learning, from modern observation, is that things get worse. Evil has a certain momentum. People get more extreme. And even when you think a bottom’s been reached, there’s probably still farther to go. (Look at the Republican party.)

I’m still an optimist believing that human rationality will ultimately prevail. I just wish it would hurry up.

May 14: Democracy’s D-Day

May 8, 2023

The 1970s through ’90s saw a great democratic floodtide. Since greatly receded. Many wonder whether its authoritarian antithesis is really the wave of the future.

I’ve written about the power imbalance between good and evil, and that’s a big part of the story. Moral scruples restrain good people; bad ones are unrestrained. In practice this means democratic-minded forces have to win every election, but authoritarians often need only win once. Because gaining power, they can then act ruthlessly to keep it.

America had a close call in 2021.

A key factor was our two party system, with Democrats, albeit narrowly, controlling Congress. Authoritarians can be empowered despite only minority support if opposition is divided among multiple parties. Take India, where Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has racked up crushing electoral victories; almost overlooked is that the BJP actually has only around 37% voter support. Yet a fragmented opposition allows Modi to run roughshod over it.

He’s on the cover of the authoritarian playbook, outwardly maintaining democracy while giving it the death of a thousand cuts, gaining control of the press and other media to silence criticism and opposition, and of the courts to persecute dissenters. The head of India’s leading opposition party has recently been sentenced to prison, and barred from politics, for “insulting” the prime minister — an all too typical authoritarian abuse of power.

It also helps if you’ve got guns. National armies, in the modern age, are mostly anachronisms, serving no legitimate public purpose, while in fact being a curse. Often they’re dressed up criminal mafias, ruling countries like Al Capone’s gang ruled Chicago. Look at Sudan, with rival armies battling. Egypt too is a classic example, the army having spread its tentacles to squeeze ever more of the economy for its own enrichment and aggrandizement. Myanmar’s army is now literally at war with the entire civil society.

Thailand embodies several of these syndromes. A populist political force created by Thaksin Shinawatra has won every election starting in 2001. But Thailand is a (notionally constitutional) monarchy, with a lèse-majesté law against disparaging the king, which military regimes have enforced ruthlessly against any whisper of dissension. The previous king was genuinely loved, worshipped really (on dubious grounds), but his successor is a stinking piece of shit. (Publishing those words means I can’t now visit Thailand. Seriously.)

The country has been wracked by periodic violent conflict and protests between democracy supporters and royalists. In a 2006 coup, the army ousted Shinawatra and banished him. Then his sister won an election in 2011; a 2014 coup ousted her too. Thailand has since been run by a General, Prayuth Chan-ocha, another real asshole. Finally forced to hold an election, on May 14 — which Paetongtarn Shinawatra (Thaksin’s daughter) looks poised to win. Whether, and for how long, the army will actually allow her to govern, is an open question. (There are rumors of a deal.)

But the spotlight is on Turkey, with parliamentary and presidential elections also on May 14. (The presidency may go to a later runoff.)

Backstory: Modern Turkey’s 1923 founder, Kemal Ataturk, established a secular democracy, with separation of mosque and state, enforced by the army. Challenged by Muslim chauvinists; one of whom, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, gained power by election in 2003. Yet he was initially a good guy, doing a lot right, with sensible economic policies. His foreign affairs mantra was “zero problems with neighbors.” He tried to pacify endemic conflict with Turkey’s Kurdish minority.

Then growing power in his hands, The Economist has said, “clouded his judgment and his moral sense, as it tends to.”

A 2016 coup attempt empowered him even more; the next year he put across a constitutional referendum neutering much of Turkey’s checks-and-balances. Erdogan went on a rampage against perceived enemies, exploiting a captive judiciary, with many thousands purged from jobs or jailed, including 200,000 charged with the crime of “insulting the president;” legions of others with “terrorism.”

The media has been brought to heel. “Zero problems” is a bygone, as Erdogan pursues ill-advised foreign meddling, and has made Turkey, a NATO member, the alliance’s problem child. He plays footsie with Putin and has poisoned relations with Europe. Mirroring Modi’s insane demonization of India’s huge Muslim minority, Erdogan now exacerbates conflict with Turkey’s Kurds. Numerous elected mayors in Kurdish regions have been barred from office. Crack-brained economic mismanagement has proven devastating for average Turks. The government’s recent earthquake response was widely criticized. The list goes on.

Happily, regime opponents have uncharacteristically managed to unite behind a presidential candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. No firecracker but he seems a very good man who promises to undo a lot of the Erdogan regime’s awfulness.

Given all this, you might think few Turks would be nuts enough to vote for Erdogan. But of course that’s not how the world works. Like all strongmen, one thing he is good at is manipulating support. Look how many Americans still back Trump.

Polls do show Erdogan trailing. But would he accept defeat? Trump again providing a cautionary tale. America’s institutions did prove strong enough to thwart him — but only barely. Are Turkey’s — already so ravaged by Erdogan — strong enough?

This is a seminal test of democracy versus authoritarianism. Erdogan is another poster boy for the latter, pulling every possible trick to neuter democratic accountability. Yet he’s also done everything possible to provoke votes against him. If, after all that, Turkey cannot free itself of Erdogan, what hope is there anywhere?

The Arrogance of Power: India and Tennessee

April 11, 2023

Long called “the world’s largest democracy,” India is becoming a DINO — democracy in name only. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, elected in 2014, are following the familiar authoritarian playbook of giving democracy the death of a thousand cuts, to emasculate opposition and cement their own power. This includes stifling criticism by a no-longer-free press, suborning the judicial system to harass and intimidate political rivals, and so forth.

Now we see just how far down this dark road India has gone.

Rahul Gandhi is the latest in his family dynasty to head the opposition Congress Party. He’s been sentenced to two years in prison — just long enough to forfeit his parliamentary seat and thus any role in the next national elections. His offense? Defaming Modi. With a critical campaign speech which in any free country would be routine advocacy. But it included a joke mentioning some unrelated criminal also named Modi. For that lame joke he’s sentenced to prison and barred from parliament.

But what’s so telling here is that Gandhi’s once-powerful Congress Party was already a spent force in Indian politics, barely even clinging to relevance, with Gandhi himself widely deemed useless. Thus no threat at all the the Modi-BJP political leviathan.

Squashing Gandhi like a bug shows just how intolerant that regime is toward any dissent. Sending a powerful message to anyone not with their program: you’re vulnerable too.

Moreover, it’s not just politicians the Modi-BJP regime sees as enemies. Theirs is a Hindu religious chauvinist movement, anathematizing India’s whole Muslim population. There are even moves afoot to yank Muslims’ citizenship.

A religion like Hinduism might seem silly. No problem if merely an individual peccadillo. But as we know too well, religions can often be hostile and violent toward one other — long exemplified by India, with repeated bouts of inter-communal bloodshed. Mahatma Gandhi battled for tolerance and peace — for which he wound up assassinated. He’s whirling in his grave to see the insanity of today’s Indian regime deliberately stoking Hindu animosity toward the nation’s Muslims —numbering around two hundred million.

The Rahul Gandhi affair has an uncanny parallel in Tennessee’s Republican-controlled legislature recently unseating some Democratic members for their political advocacy. In this case, joining protesters calling for gun regulation in the wake of a local school shooting.

What could be more anti-democratic than denying legislative seats to people elected by their constituents? Yet these Republicans rail against “cancel culture!” And, as in India’s case, there was nothing to gain politically, they already held overwhelming control. This was just the arrogance of power.

The insanity of India’s regime fomenting Hindu-Muslim violence also has a parallel in America’s Republican party. These self-styled “pro-life” and crime-hating “law-and-order” Republicans block all common-sense gun regulation — which could prevent much gun crime and thousands of shooting deaths annually. Like Modi, Republicans have blood on their hands.

Well, at least the Tennessee Republicans didn’t try to jail the expelled legislators. And one has already been sent back to the state house by his local government. America is still a democracy.

Fingers crossed.

China and the New Cold War: Detente?

April 8, 2023

What makes nations enemies?

The Soviet Union aimed for Communism’s ultimate global triumph. The free world, led by the U.S., strove for containment. That was the Cold War.

But despite proxy hot wars, there never was much prospect of America and the USSR coming directly to blows. Far too dangerous, with both being nuclear-armed. Mutual recognition of this reality came to be labeled “detente.” Never an explicit agreement; rather a tacit understanding that whatever the conflicts, in the bigger picture the two sides could coexist more or less peaceably. A modus vivendi.

Today’s Russian aggression is a different situation. There’s no pretense of a universalist ideology, like Communism was. Instead it’s an ideology of brazen nationalism, the imagined greatness and moral superiority of Russian culture (belied of course by its abominable behavior).

China’s ideology is more like Russia’s today than in the Cold War. Invoking no universalist values, but a nationalistic Chinese self-assertion, here too claiming some sort of ethno-cultural virtue or even superiority —and its place in the sun. “Communism” a mere detail. China doesn’t actually seek to rule the world.

Yet this is a new cold war because Chinese view the West as an enemy conspiring to keep them down. A new containment paradigm. China does want other nations to kowtow, and hates criticism over its human rights abuses and suchlike, which it sees as just a weapon wielded against it. Belligerently accusing us of belligerence. China’s rhetorical ferocity is astonishing.

Actually, we were not trying to hold China down, and were okay with its economic rise (which could benefit us through trade*) until lately that’s gotten lost amid all the confrontational recriminations. Which have become a vicious feedback loop.

One we should try to break. By reprising the kind of detente we had with the Soviets. Not a friendship, but a mutual understanding to coexist and avoid needless confrontation. We can both benefit from trade with each other while also being economic competitors, but not necessarily geopolitical enemies. (Note that our trade with China vastly dwarfs anything we had with the USSR.)

The key obstacle is the prospect of China invading Taiwan. That would really make for a different, darker, nastier world; a poorer one too, especially given Taiwan being the world’s premier semiconductor source. China considers Taiwan a “renegade province” and has whipped itself into such a nationalist irredentist hysteria that it’s hard to see them backing off. Yet rather than subjugating and thereby devastating Taiwan, China would be better off leaving it prospering as a trading partner — together with the rest of the free world.

That would be the detente deal: China accepting the Taiwan status quo in return for a relaxation of hostility and resumption of global economic integration. That wouldn’t mean we stop criticizing China over human rights and other misbehavior. It wouldn’t mean we’re friends. Just recognition that trade war, decoupling our economies, and severing global supply chains, hurts everyone. As would military conflict of course.

Unfortunately, all the “soft on China” rhetoric Republicans lob at President Biden may make any such accommodation seem politically toxic. And on the Chinese side, an explicit renunciation of force vis-a-vis Taiwan is surely off the table. Nevertheless, a detente could be something that obtains so long as China refrains from invading (or “grey zone” actions like blockading or cyberwar). On that basis we can have peaceable and mutually advantageous economic relations.

Is that a naive, airy-fairy dream? No, totally pragmatic.

And, who knows, someday China might rise into wisdom. After all, we never expected how the Cold War with the Soviets turned out.

* Trump’s saying China was “raping” us on trade was idiotic. It’s a simple principle: if another nation can produce something cheaper than we can ourselves, we’re better off buying it from them and pocketing the gain, and shifting our own production to something else.

“The Value of a Whale” — Capitalism and Climate

March 22, 2023

Adrienne Buller is a thirtyish British think-tanker. Her 2022 book, The Value of a Whale, is subtitled On the Illusions of Green Capitalism. Referring to tackling climate change through market-based approaches, incentivizing needed actions, as with a carbon price, carbon tax, cap-&-trade scheme, or carbon offsets, and “socially conscious” (ESG) investing, etc. All critiqued as flawed and ineffectual, no way to tackle what Buller deems an extreme crisis facing humanity.

The value of a whale was actually the subject of an International Monetary Fund study. We are of course meant to think that the very idea of putting a dollar value on a majestic living creature is crass and tacky. Thus the book’s title — embodying its ethos of prioritizing planetary health above money-grubbing “capitalism.”

True, the planet is beyond price — money is meaningless if Earth becomes uninhabitable. But that’s an extreme (and, so far at least, extremely unlikely) scenario. More realistically the question is the extent of environmental degradation and what we’d have to sacrifice to forestall it (or cope with it). Life is about tradeoffs. A choice between lower living standards and a worse environment is not obvious.

Buller notes that the IMF researchers came up with $2 million for a whale’s value, based on its contributions to eco-tourism and, mainly, carbon capture, reducing global warming. Hence they suggested investment in whale conservation, costing, she writes, “a modest $13 per person on Earth.” And this, on the first page, shows Buller’s mindset. Thirteen bucks may seem “modest” to an affluent brainy Brit. But masses of people earn less per day — or, indeed, per week. They might not be so ready to give up even one dollar for whales.

The book is full of voiced concern for the world’s poor. But they seem like an abstraction. Not flesh and blood.

“Green capitalism” Buller indicts as mostly greenwashing; just another gimmick for finance folks to make money. Surely much truth there. And she’s surely right that, by themselves, such measures won’t halt climate change. Yet so intense is her hatred for “capitalism” that she seems to reject market-based measures altogether, even as part of a larger toolkit. If climate change is such a huge menace, shouldn’t we try using every possible remedy?

Buller also doesn’t think technology can help much. For example, we’d need a lot more lithium, vital for many low-carbon technologies like electric car batteries; but she blasts lithium extraction as environmentally nasty. So she excludes that too.

Her answer instead — though she won’t plainly say it — is reducing living standards. She doesn’t face what this would actually entail for actual human beings — especially all those who’ve struggled to escape the poverty she bemoans. There’s no recognition of what she’s really asking them to sacrifice.

Even the affluent are asked to live, well, less affluently. We hear much about air flights adding to carbon emissions. But such travel has great value for us, it enhances quality of life. That’s just one example, illustrating what Buller refuses to confront. She wants people to accept poorer lives today for the sake of ones in the future whom they’ve never met. People naturally resist that. It’s the key reason why the sort of climate action she envisions is such a hard sell.

It should be imposed by force, Buller is really saying. Rejecting, again, market-based and incentivizing climate approaches, she thinks instead governments must lay down the law, requiring people to do what they can’t be induced to do voluntarily. She may be right that otherwise, we’re not biting the bullet. But nor does she bite the bullet of what she’s really advocating, in all its draconian coerciveness.

Furthermore, the left’s eternal faith in government is astonishing given how often it betrays their ideals. Buller forgets that the market-based measures she critiques are themselves government creations. Why expect government to be more brilliant imposing non-market schemes? And more fair to the poor? After all, the affluent and moneyed interests have far more influence over anything governments do. The kind of “direct regulation” Buller advocates is always vulnerable to capture by the very interests being “regulated.” Not to mention the law of unintended consequences. (My whole professional career as a government regulator gave me a healthy skepticism here.)

Like many climate warriors, Buller is also scathing toward fossil fuel producers. As though they’re villainously extracting oil and gas solely to make money, unnecessarily foisting their products upon us. She’s oblivious to the obvious: fossil fuels are extracted, sold and consumed because people need them. Yes, we should be weaning ourselves off them. But that’s a long process. In the meanwhile, stopping use of these energy sources would crash our economies and living standards. Berating oil companies for supplying needed oil is just idiotic. If tomorrow they all declared, “Greta is right! No more oil! We’re stopping now!” — it would be Mad Max time, wrecking civilization far worse than climate change.

Similarly, Buller condemns economic growth, as though it’s some sort of deranged obsession. Of course it’s true that economic growth is, ceteris paribus, bad for the environment. That’s the tradeoff we’ve always made — we could never have risen from the “nasty, brutish, and short” lives endured by our Stone Age ancestors without exploiting Earth’s resources. There’s no free lunch.

But what’s really jarring is Buller (like many left wingers) denouncing economic growth in the same breath as denouncing the lot of the world’s poor. Almost as if blaming the latter on the former. When in fact, of course, economic growth is the great poverty fighter. The powerful economic growth since WWII has converted the world from one where most people lived in extreme poverty to one where only a small fraction still do.

You’d never guess that fact from reading this book, which makes it sound like the opposite has been happening, “the rich get richer and poor get poorer.” Buller flays global financial systems and machinations as designed to suck wealth from poorer nations to richer ones. Which you might thusly think is the cause of world poverty. Never mentioned is the huge factor of lousy governance and institutions, rife with corruption and exploitation by indigenous elites, which so often afflict the poorer nations and keep them poor, with vast inequality. Nigeria, South Africa, and Zimbabwe jump to mind; there are plenty of others. It’s surely those countries themselves (not Buller’s first-world capitalist whipping-boys) bearing the most blame for their stunted economic picture.

It is true that the fruits of economic growth do not equally benefit all people, the richest doing best. But there is no conceivable economic system in which some people won’t do better than others. That would mean the rich getting richer and the poor poorer — absent economic growth. But with economic growth, even while the rich get richer, the poor can too. Because there’s more wealth to go around, so the poor can get a share, even if it’s not a fully equal share. That’s how poverty is reduced.

Buller types seem to think, instead, that the answer is to just take wealth from the rich and redistribute it to the poor. In fact, taxation does that to a degree. But good luck if there’s a no-growth zero-sum world where everyone is fighting over slices of a static (or shrinking) pie, so nobody can gain without someone else losing. And as world population rises (until, with birth rates falling, it levels off and eventually declines), economic growth will be necessary just to maintain current living standards. Opposing economic growth means favoring mass impoverishment.

And what produces economic growth? Not socialism. Global average real dollar incomes have risen something like sixfold since WWII, with again a massive poverty reduction and improved living standards. This gain has been concentrated in nations participating in a globalized, (relatively) free-trading, market economy, where people can improve their own lot by producing goods and services others need or want. Not a zero-sum world. “Capitalism,” if you will. (Marx’s biggest error was failing to foresee how capitalism would, rather than grinding the masses into deeper poverty, produce mass affluence.)

Yet distaste for capitalism, once more, pervades this book, for all its lamentation that some people are still poor. And of course, as with all indictments of capitalism’s evil, you will search in vain for any glimmer of an alternative system that would similarly make the masses richer rather than poorer. In fact, Buller does seem to endorse impoverishment, fatuously mooning about how life could actually be better, somehow, if we all decided to be satisfied with less.

Tell that to the world’s poor she keeps gnashing her teeth about. If governments did, as she seems to advocate, impose lower living standards, she’d be the first to lament that the rich would find ways to cope and thrive in that Brave New World, while the poor as usual get the short end of the stick.

Anyhow, there’s no attempt whatever to sketch out what her imagined “better” world would look like. Nor how we could conceivably get from here to there. But none of this deters her from demanding “bold changes,” positing “boundless possibility for things to be different.” Ah, the idealism of youth!

By the way, Buller types never seem to grasp that most people in the world earn their livings, and living standards, by working to produce stuff other people need or want. If we all did decide to cut back on “consumerism” and make do with less, a lot of people’s jobs would disappear. They in turn would be forced to cut back and spend less too. Eliminating yet more jobs. Economic growth gone savagely into reverse. A Brave New World indeed.

Meantime — yes! — climate change is a huge threat. And, at this point, rising temperature is baked in, there is no way we can avert some very severe harmful effects. No conceivable amount of emissions reduction can do the job — another reality this book refuses to acknowledge. So while it’s true that “green capitalism” won’t do it, the book’s own approach of imposing extreme governmental action and poorer lives won’t do it either. That too is an illusion. (Even aside from the question of whether voters in democracies would stand for it.)

Dealing with the now-unavoidable effects of climate change will require a lot of resources. Resources that economic growth can provide. If we really want to save ourselves (and especially the poorest), we’d better grow our economies as much as possible.

Justice — Maybe Just a Little?

March 18, 2023

The Judges of the International Criminal Court in the Hague have issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin. For a crime against humanity (only one of his many), abducting thousands of Ukrainian children. Such action against such a major head of state is unprecedented. Though no arrest is imminent; Russia does not recognize the ICC (nor, shamefully, does America). But most nations do, and would be obligated to arrest Putin if he’s found in their borders. So now, having made Russia one big prison, he’s confined there himself.

Closer to home, Trump’s indictment by a Manhattan Grand Jury at last seems imminent. What took so long?! The (“alleged”) crime occurred 6-1/2 years ago. Michael Cohen, who acted for Trump in executing it, has already been to prison. How could Trump himself not have been even more guilty? The facts are straightforward. What need for the endless investigation?

It wasn’t just the disgustingness of hush money to cover up adultery. Right before the 2016 election, it constituted a political expenditure whose non-disclosure violated campaign finance laws; and New York business accounting requirements, the crime prompting this indictment.

Trump previously lied that the payoffs (and the sex) never happened. Now he says he was actually the victim of a crime — extortion! Next he’ll claim those porn stars sexually exploited him. Grabbed him by the pussy?

But, as with Putin, don’t hold your breath to see Trump behind bars. He’s still a master at frustrating legal processes, running cases into a quicksand of pettifogging. This one will wind up at the Supreme Court, with a long record of shredding accountability for public corruption. (They’re about to let off New York’s Percoco.)

Trump meantime faces three other separate prosecutions: the Georgia Grand Jury’s on his attempt to engineer 2020 election fraud, and DOJ Special Counsel Jack Smith investigating his culpability for both the January 6 insurrectionary violence, and his government document thefts. Here again it’s hard to see the need for lengthy investigations, the facts being open-and-shut in all three cases.

About the documents, I recently saw a commentary by the absurdist Trump-apologist Victor Davis Hanson, with nine numbered points arguing that President Biden’s misfeasance outstripped Trump’s. Never mentioning the wee fact that Trump, unlike Biden, lied to government authorities.

So how will the criminal cases affect Trump’s 2024 campaign?

In July 2015, my very first blog post on his candidacy called it “just one big middle finger, attracting middle finger type people.” Civic seriousness out the window. Eight years on, it’s all the more glaring. With much of the million-plus U.S. Covid death toll caused by Trump’s idiotic handling — and after his literal attempt to overthrow our democracy, which included deadly violence — plus uncountable other grotesqueries — his popularity should skirt zero. At least a solid majority of Americans is repelled. Yet still sizable numbers remain fans. Actually imagining he was a good, even great, president. Probably enough to win him the Republican nomination, especially given winner-take-all state primaries, and non-Trumpers divided among numerous candidates.

His voters are not persuadable; akin to a religious cult movement. I recall one 2020 commentator saying they get access to the same information as everyone else, they just evaluate it differently. Not so. Fox News fans do not know that its leading lights were exposed as monumental liars, promoting Trump’s “stolen election” claim even while privately mocking it as bogus. Et cetera.

So even if a New York jury convicts Trump, his cultists won’t confront the reality that their god is a criminal. The counter-narrative will of course be a politically-motivated witch-hunt, the deep state trying to bring down that heroic tribune of the people — his enemies themselves the real criminals.* Like the Pharisees sending Jesus to the cross.

But it should be politically suicidal. Again, a solid sane majority of Americans by now is repelled; and even with all Biden’s negatives, he should win by a landslide. My rational optimist self hopes it would not only sweep Republicans from power all over, but finally lance the boil that has so long afflicted our civic culture. But I’m braced for continuing disappointment.

* Many Republicans believe the QAnon story, including those nefarious liberal elites extracting from trafficked children’s bodies the ingredients for youthifying elixirs. Though Biden-hating QAnoners find no cognitive dissonance in calling him a senile dodderer. No anti-aging elixir for him!

Religion Wrecking Israel

March 14, 2023

We’re often told religion provides “comfort.” It’s understandably comforting to imagine death isn’t death. Though a more authentically meaningful life can be lived by grasping its realities. But whatever may be said of religion in inner life, it’s bad for societies and nations. That might not be so if everyone held the same faith. However, we don’t, making religion an endless source of division and conflict.

Look at Israel.

Originally set up as a homeland and refuge for Jews in the wake of the unpleasantness they’d experienced in the Holocaust. Most nations are indeed ethnically defined. But while Jewish ethnicity is closely entwined with a religion, Israel was established as a democratic and basically secular state, closer to the American blueprint than to Iran’s theocracy.

Yet one difference from the American model has been the special status accorded to “Ultra-Orthodox” or “Haredi” Jews, a separate caste in Israeli society. Their education is solely religious, and they spend their whole lives immured in religious study rather than societally useful occupations or other productive work. This uselessness is coddled with taxpayer-funded subsidies. Furthermore, they’re exempted from the military service required of other citizens. Many of whom resent it all.

Perhaps this craziness was no big deal when the Haredi were only a small minority. But they have way more children than the Israeli average, so their population share inexorably grows. And in one key respect they’re not separate: they vote.

Mostly for parties representing their sectarian viewpoint and protecting their cosseting. Israel does not have a two-party system, no party ever wins a majority, and governments are coalitions. This often gives the Haredis outsized political clout as kingmakers. In modern times, the king they’ve made is Netanyahu.

Israel is closely divided politically — between liberal minded people favoring peace with (the Muslim) Palestinians through a two-state solution, and Jewish chauvinists whose attitude is “Fuck Palestinians.” Haredis are in the latter camp, and in the forefront of the “settler movement,” promoting expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank territories Israel has occupied since 1967. The settlements encroach upon the indigenous Palestinian inhabitants.

Those Jewish chauvinists imagine they can somehow forever keep the Palestinians down, with no real rights, confined as virtual prisoners, under grating and deeply hated Israeli occupation. Even while Palestinians too reproduce faster than the Israeli average. Israel is ultimately on a march toward national catastrophe.

The close electoral divide has made for chronic electoral stalemate. After the latest election, Netanyahu managed to return to power with a bare majority coalition by folding in the most extremist right-wing elements, giving them key cabinet posts, notably Itamar Ben-Gvir of the Jewish Power Party (its actual name), the most hard-line anti-Palestinian, put in charge of overseeing the occupied territories.

Now Netanyahu has advanced a plan to “reform” the judiciary — basically ending its independence and the separation of powers, giving the government of the day control over judicial appointments, and removing the Supreme Court’s ability to override the Knesset (parliament). Netanyahu most immediately wants to stymie corruption charges against him, working their way through the system. But it’s widely felt that this “reform” would destroy checks-and-balances. Emulating Hungary, where the Orban regime likewise gutted checks upon it, producing what Orban himself labeled an “illiberal democracy” — that is, a democracy in name only.

The last part of the 20th century saw a great global democratic flourishing. Since then there’s been a great democratic recession. If it sweeps Israel too — for so long a pillar of democracy — that’s really frightening and depressing. The sane half of Israeli society does see clearly what’s afoot, sparking massive protests against making Israel yet another authoritarian state. The outcome hangs in the balance.

Religious zealotry is a key factor in the sickness assailing the Israeli body politic. While our own U.S. Supreme Court is working assiduously to tear down our wall of separation between church and state. God help us.

The Trump Shitstorm, my book talk March 7

February 27, 2023

I will talk about my new book —The American Crisis: Chronicling and Confronting the Trump Shitstorm — on Tuesday, March 7, at noon, at the Albany Public Library, 161 Washington Avenue. 

Please come! I’ll try to make it lively and provocative. The 247-page book is an edited selection of my blog essays from 2015 to 2022, trying to analyze what was happening. It’s $12.95 and can be ordered (+ $4.50 shipping) by credit card, Paypal, or check to me at Box 8600, Albany, NY 12208.  

“A tremendous book, the best ever — believe me! A huuuuge best-seller, not on the failing New York Times bestseller list because the list is rigged, a giant fraud! I’ve been treated very very unfairly, it’s a witch-hunt! People who don’t read my book are dumb losers! And if you buy it, Mexico will pay for it!”

Ukraine: The Long and the Short of it

February 15, 2023

Long war or short war? That seems to be the question. Putin apparently had fantasized a very short war, Ukraine a pushover — believing it’s not really even a country, its people really Russian.

He portrays the war as provoked by Western threats against Russia’s national security. What crap. NATO was never going to attack Russia. (Actually tried to make Russia a kind of partner in the ’90s.) Nearby nations joined NATO not to threaten Russia but because they felt threatened by Russia. A proven invader of other countries, like Georgia, and now Ukraine. Yet local letters to the editor (one by “peace activist” Tom Ellis) have ignored these realities and pushed Putin’s lie that the West somehow culpably provoked Russia. Its allies and apologists push it too; notably China’s, most of whose people believe it, fitting with demonization of America.

The war is not about Russia’s security. It’s about rebuilding its old empire — to swagger as a great power. As if killing and subjugating people makes for greatness.

Another absurdity is Republicans saying Trump would have prevented this. His cultists do ascribe him godlike powers. In fact, Trump was a total Putin patsy, shown by his treasonous Helsinki performance, endorsing Putin’s lies over the findings of our own intelligence services. That’s why Putin connived to get Trump elected. On the Ukraine aggression Trump would have given him a pass.

In a recent zoom briefing, Ukraine analyst Alexander Vindman (the guy Trump fired for his impeachment testimony) doubted the war would go more than another year and a half, Russia being unable to sustain it longer. I’m skeptical. Rather than admit defeat, Putin can keep it up — inflicting atrocities to terrorize Ukrainians, and throwing away Russian lives (at least 60,000 so far) — for a long time.

They can capture insignificant towns like Bakhmut if cost, human and otherwise, is no object. Showing the war’s pointless insanity. It’s hard to see Russia triumphing, or even consolidating control over the bits it occupies. While if Putin won’t give up, nor will Ukrainians, their resoluteness and morale impressive. The war in fact imparting the national consciousness Putin denies.

It’s said that Putin counts on our tiring of the sacrifices our Ukraine support entails. Thus, a long war. A very bad thing, not only causing horrific human suffering, but it will indeed wear upon Western resolve. So — how can we shorten the war? Not by letting Russia win, an even worse thing, and anyway impossible as long as Ukraine can keep fighting. The only way to get a shorter war — and a good outcome — is to give Ukraine whatever it takes to win, or at least to finally convince Putin he cannot win.

President Biden has done a great job organizing robust Western action. After Obama’s weak response to Putin’s earlier aggressions had convinced him he was pushing on an open door. Biden shut that door. And yet, our squeamish incrementalism — we’ll give Ukraine this kind of tank but not that kind, and not too many, and this kind of missile but not that other kind — seems fundamentally misguided. What’s our real aim? For Ukraine to win, or merely not lose? A long war or a short war?

As Biden kept saying in his State-of-the-Union speech, let’s finish the job.

Of course there’s the fear of escalation. Of getting us into a full-on war with Russia. But Putin’s seen it that way from the start, indeed selling the war to his people as really a war against America and the whole West as Russia’s enemies. And if we give Ukraine everything possible to crush the Russian invasion, what might it provoke Putin to do — that he’s not already doing?

Go nuclear, you say? That’s the big bugaboo. But it’s a bogeyman. It would not mean a “nuclear war” because nobody would respond in kind. And it’s highly doubtful Russia’s military would actually go through with a nuclear strike. Because it would be so crazy and self-harming. Endangering Russian forces as well as Ukrainian. While its battlefield impact would actually be minimal, changing nothing on the ground. And it would make Russia even more of a criminal pariah. Many nations previously unwilling to go against Russia on Ukraine would draw the line at violating the nuclear taboo.

And why are we doing (and spending) so much to help Ukraine? Why is it so important that Russia’s crime doesn’t pay? For thousands of years we lived in a world where nations freely invaded each other, devastating human lives. We thought we’d put that recurring horror finally behind us, for 75 years after WWII. Largely because America stood up to sustain a “rules-based” world order, where Rule Number One was: no invasions. Russia is testing that rule.

“The Jungle Grows Back” as Robert Kagan’s recent book title warns. If we don’t get that evil genie back in the bottle, we’ll have a very different, more violent and hence much less prosperous world. The cost to America would be huge — vastly more than what Ukraine assistance costs us.

And that support for Ukraine, Vindman remarked, has already bought us, on the cheap, massive destruction of Russia’s military capability. Effectively precluding, for years to come, any further invasions. Surely money well spent.