Friday, 28 April 2017

100 day Trump scorecard: Tactical victories, unforced errors, mostly incomplete

The world has not ended, fascism is not reborn and the enormous Washington machine carries on pretty much as per normal as US President Donald Trump’s first 100 days finishes on April 29.

A tradition of the US political system since Franklin D Roosevelt’s tenure, the first 100 days of a presidency receives tight attention by media and voters alike. Mr Roosevelt signed 76 pieces of legislation during this time, compared with Mr Trump’s 28 (along with 34 executive actions).

The US president has dismissed the 100 days premise on Twitter, calling the standard "ridiculous," while also outlining how much his administration has accomplished in its first few months. "No matter how much I accomplish during the ridiculous standard of the first 100 days, & it has been a lot (including S.C.), media will kill!" The term “S.C.” refers to the appointment of Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch.

"I think you can go back and find an area, one or two, and say, 'OK, well, he didn't do this.' But I think you have to look at it in totality of what he actually did get done," White House spokesman Sean Spicer says. The initial days were eventful, but plenty of work remains for Mr Trump.

At the end of his first week in January, the president signed a series of executive orders to enact campaign promises. They included plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), a fast-track for infrastructure projects, direction for building a border wall with Mexico, removal of federal funds for “sanctuary cities” and suspension of the US refugee programme.

All received loud opposition from Democrats, but the final order on refugees also led to blockages in the US court system which are yet to be resolved. Mr Trump responded to the criticism of the refugee order by re-drafting it in February. The order initially focused on halting movement from seven Middle East and North African countries, but was reduced to six in the second issuance.

In January, Mr Trump also extracted the US from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement following his “America First” policy. He cited serious concerns about low US workers from Malaysia and Vietnam wage competition.

The remaining 11 members of the TPP (including New Zealand) have tentatively upheld a reinvigorating the deal without the US. Japan, which spent significant political capital on the deal by breaking up its agriculture unions, is leading this effort along with Australia.

Other trade changes include a modernisation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which both Canada and Mexico say should be organised quickly. And although Mr Trump’s nomination for US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is still unconfirmed, the office has been instructed to re-assess all trade deals for upgrade opportunities, to find the causes of deficits and to “identify trade abuses,” according to Mr Trump.

Another of his campaign goals was to halt hiring at government departments. To achieve this, he signed a 90-day freezing order for hiring federal employees, which was lifted on April 12. National security employees were always exempt from the order.

Mr Trump also entered office with an empty seat on the Supreme Court. He promptly nominated conservative judge Neil Gorsuch. The final confirmation process was achieved with the “nuclear option,” referring to a Republican alteration of the success threshold to 51 votes, rather than 60.

At Mr Gorsuch’s swearing in, Mr Trump said: “a new optimism is sweeping across our land and a new faith in America is filling our hearts and lifting our sights.” Another Supreme Court seat could be vacated this year.

Republicans also attempted to “repeal and replace” the Obamacare health legislation. Led by House Majority leader Paul Ryan, the effort came close but failed to gather enough votes. The party and Mr Trump will try again to replace the healthcare package next month.

Pieces of Obama-era coal, waterways and climate change policies were also either reversed or cancelled. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has received heavy criticism from the White House, including cutting its funding as part of the new administration’s fiscal budget.

That budget proposal aims to avoid increasing government spending, while increasing the US national security funds. To achieve this, Mr Trump announced intention to siphon money from the State Department and to slice programmes from other departments.

Republicans still hope to secure funding for the proposed border wall with Mexico, even as Congress is holding back the required money. Presently, the border wall is 930 kilometres long and the total length of the border is 3,201 kilometres. Mr Trump hopes to fill those gaps.

Along with Obamacare, three other major pieces of legislation are not yet completed. These include a national security strategy, a cyber-security executive order and a tax reform package. Regarding the latter, a handful of smaller actions emerged in April – review processes and winding back of banking measures introduced after the 2008 financial crisis.

However, Mr Trump reversed his intention to label China a “currency manipulator” after the Treasury Department did not allege China was committing such actions.

Throughout this time, Mr Trump’s political opponents attacked the administration’s alleged connections to Russia. In what essentially amounts to accusations of treason, they claim Mr Trump and his officials are colluding with the Russian government.

While no evidence has been submitted either of Russian hacking attempts on the Democratic National Convention (DNC) last year or of malicious and hidden high-level cooperation, the flow of Mr Trump’s first 100 days have nevertheless been undermined by the accusations.

A series of nominated department heads were hampered by unnecessary legal testimonies and delays in their confirmations. Some were even forced to step down or compelled to recuse themselves for ongoing investigations.

It was however revealed that the administration’s transition team was under surveillance during the 2016 election campaign by domestic intelligence services looking for Russian connections, yet no evidence of collusion has been discovered. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was dismissed after it was found he lied about a poorly-timed discussion with the Russian ambassador.

Mr Trump also launched a series of missiles at a Syrian airbase following revelations of a chemical weapons attack in the country. Syria is receiving Russian military support and the missile attack has removed much of the energy behind the collusion allegations.

Finally, in the foreign policy realm, Mr Trump has sent his defence secretary on tours of East Asia, the Middle East and Europe to reassure allies in those regions and gauge any requirements of US diplomatic and military support in the coming months.

North Korea also continues to provoke with its nuclear programme. As it stands, the US intelligence community assesses Pyongyang will theoretically have the capability to send a nuclear-tipped missile to the Eastern seaboard of the US within four years. Mr Trump is hoping to carefully change the calculation of acceptable risk regarding the hermit kingdom.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The EU, France and the welfare state

It’s not over yet. The recent French elections wrenched back into EU headlines the triple threads of immigration, welfare and unemployment which seem to be inevitably uncoiling the tapestry of the EU structure. The pot boils in Western Europe.

A February survey by UK-based Chatham House found 61% of French citizens are in favour of suspending immigration from Muslim countries. In response to the sentiment, Front National leader Marine Le Pen says if the enormous welfare programmes can’t be reduced, the only thing left is to restrict immigration. But her main target remains the welfare state.

This is a perfectly reasonable target, too. The welfare state is not a “moral imperative.” The policy is best interpreted in terms of the common human tendency to seek power. History suggests when the nature to seek power conflicts with the nature to help, the former generally wins.

Therefore, the former is stronger, and we should look to it first to explain social and political phenomena in our own time. If we ask: What is a “welfare” programme? Through the power lens, we can see it is simply clientism – vote-buying on a wholesale scale.

Note that power-seeking and help-giving don’t necessarily contradict each other. Both can be true at the same time – and typically are. Nonetheless, on a historical timeline set out on a level playing field, the preference for people to use help-giving as modes to power-taking is so lopsided as to be funny. As Bert Cooper on Mad Men said, “philanthropy is the gateway to power.” Right on, Bert. Have I mentioned before how excellent those first three seasons were?

And in 2017, I can assure you that everyone in the French government machine a) thinks they are “helping,” and b) is quite conscious of how real votes are obtained in French politics. They see the two as a beautiful synergy. As of course, they are.

Over the last two centuries, the world adopted the welfare state because the world adopted democracy. Conservatives fail to see this. (I am not a conservative, but probably a reactionary. I want both democracy and the welfare state gone.) The world adopted democracy, an Anglo-American form of government, largely because of the power and prestige of England in the 19th century and the US in the 20th. In every European country, the democratic/liberal faction was also the Anglophile faction.

The welfare state is a result of Europe being conquered by America – specifically, by the New Dealers. Washington faced no opposition to its ideas and today there is no real political opposition to the overall liberal system in Europe – there has been none for decades. Not that there’s much in the US, either. So the result is an implicit oligarchy.

(To see how the Anglo-Americans themselves progressed toward democracy happened, you might want to read Sir Henry Maine – one of the great scholars in comparative government and jurism – specifically his Essays on Popular Government (1893).)

When discussing these sorts of things, I think people make the common democratic fallacy of treating “public opinion” as an intrinsically ultimate cause. It’s not. To reverse what Andrew Breitbart used to say, politics is upstream from culture because the machinery of government works in one direction. Thus, today, Europeans love democracy and the welfare state. Even in Germany. Then again, in 1930s Germany, Hitler was only slightly less popular than democracy is today.

Conclusion: public opinion is a function of whose military forces control the TV station, and not much more. The mass mind is a lever anyone can operate. If you find the public believing in one thing, you can be sure someone somewhere is instructing them in that one thing. So every democracy is in a sense an autocracy – whoever is in power, is in power. The question of what the proles believe is ultimately arbitrary and contingent, dependent as I said on military results.

So if we ask, as a matter of history, why French President Fran├žois Hollande supported programmes which give money to migrants? One answer would be: M Hollande loves Syrians and wants to help them as much as possible. Another answer is: M Hollande was elected by a massive vote-buying machine, which specialises in purchasing the electoral loyalty of migrants.

Now, the truth is: M Hollande probably does love Syrians, in at least some sense. However, my historical assessment is that he knew which side his bread was buttered on, and if the butter had ever found itself on one side and Syrians on the other, I am quite confident as to which side he would have picked. Power is, after all, extremely tantalising to hominids.

Today, almost everyone accepts the first explanation: M Hollande wanted to take other peoples’ money and give it to migrants because he loves and wants to help them. However, if this explanation is widely held a century from now, I shall be disappointed – it’ll mean nothing whatsoever has changed.

Ms Le Pen’s solution so far is to “cut down on welfare dependency” but might not be enough. The better solution is much simpler and more effective. If Paris owes a beneficiary some payment or benefit, it should compute the actuarial value of the benefit, pay it – in present or future money – to the beneficiary and terminate the programme.

Notice how this thought-experiment exposes the difference between wanting to control people, and wanting to help people. It provides all the help, but none of the control. (Clearly, if the “entitlement” becomes an actual financial debt, it is no longer producing its former vote-buying effect.) My plan is unpopular with liberals and conservatives alike, so it won’t be enacted. At least, not by any democracy! But Ms Le Pen is on the right track anyway.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Who is making Russia policy in Washington?

The Russians must think the Americans are crazy.

Russian prime minister Dmitri Medvedev said after the US Tomahawk land attack missile (TLAM) strike on Syria “we are on the brink of war” and that American and Russian relations are “absolutely ruined.” He is considered the most pro-Western of the Putin leadership. His concern should be our fear.

It might come as a surprise to some, but Russia has its own politics. Today, it is convinced America is preparing war against it, if not in Syria then certainly on the two other Cold War fronts of Ukraine and the Baltics where NATO is building up incredible force.

The one tiny piece of good news was US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Russia. He has been slurred in US media as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s friend because when working for ExxonMobil, Mr Tillerson worked for six years for access to vast Russian oil reserves under the sea. The Russians, and Mr Putin in particular, know Mr Tillerson very well. They never would have made that deal if they didn’t think he was a serious, honourable and reliable man.

I think two things happened at Mr Tillerson’s meeting in Moscow last week. Mr Putin wasn’t supposed to attend the meeting because a lot of the political class in Russia didn’t want him to, did sit down with the top US diplomat after all which lasted for about five hours. The conversation would have gone something like this: Rex, what is going on in Washington? What is this Kremlin-gate about that Trump as our puppet? And who is responsible for making policy towards Russia?

That last question is a dark indicator of how broken the relationship is. Mr Putin needs to know if the US still accepts the position that the choice in Syria is between Assad or the Islamic State. After the chemical gas attack, the US seems to have drifted from accepting the position. But Russia will construct its military posture based on what Mr Tillerson says about policy in Washington. I don’t know what the answer was in that room, but it wasn’t good.

US President Donald Trump after the meeting said American and Russian relations are at an all-time low. Mr Tillerson then said there is no trust between the two countries. Whatever was said at the meeting last week is exceedingly important for the state of war and peace in our time.

Because back in the cuckoo-land of Washington, it is still not clear in the slightest that Russia had anything to do with the hacking attempts during the recent US election.

In the hearings last month, it was implied that Russia had breached the Democratic National Convention’s emails, given the contents to Wikileaks, which in turn released the emails to the public to damage Mrs Clinton and put Mr Trump in the White House. Many people in Washington are now saying this constitutes an act of war, which means whether or not the claims are true the entire existence of the US is at stake. This is madness.

There is not one piece of factual evidence available showing that Mr Putin could or did undertake any of the alleged actions. That all 17 US intelligence agencies are “highly confident” the Russians hacked the DNC and affected the election is simply bogus. The one agency that could conceivably have done a forensic examination on the DNC is the National Security Agency (NSA) and it was the only one that said it was only “moderately confident.”

Think about that. You don’t go to war with Russia calculated on “moderate confidence”, and you certainly shouldn’t stage ridiculous theatre that could destroy the presidency. Those same people say Mr Putin directed Russian propaganda to help elect Trump. I don’t know about you, but if I were American, I would find that deeply insulting. The premise is that US citizens are mindless zombies ready to go anywhere Mr Putin leads them.

This attempt to paint Mr Trump as a puppet of Russia is convincing Mr Putin that the American warfare party (the progressives) is behind the whole charade. He has said outright he believes someone is trying to provoke a war between the US and Russia, although he did not say who. He suggests powerful forces in Washington did not like Mr Trump’s stated policy of detente with Russia and have done everything they can to destroy that possibility.

What we do know is that for quite a while, the US intelligence community has been leaking to the Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN and others in ways that are not only highly detrimental to Mr Trump as a president, but to his Russia policy as well.

My concern is that Russia will overreact. Forget North Korea, this is arguably more dangerous than the Cuban Missile Crisis because there are more moving parts. Back then, at least satellite photos of Russian missiles were presented. Compare that with zero evidence for the Russian hacking attempts. Apparently, we have to take the intelligence community’s word on it.

At this moment Mr Trump is being crippled by being accused of treason with no evidence. If this had all been happening to John F Kennedy, the only way to prove he wasn’t a Soviet agent would have been to launch nuclear weapons at the Soviet Union.

Which brings us back to the  59 TLAMs launched at a Syrian military base that had no military value.It was to show Mr Trump isn’t a Kremlin puppet. I’m not in the mode of bashing Mr Trump when he gets something right, and crushing the dangerous idea that Russia is controlling him with the minuscule price of 59 TLAMs, a handful of Syrian ground attack aircraft and a few Syrian soldiers was a good move in my estimation.

That’s why Mr Putin asked about who is making policy in Washington. If the pro-West faction in Moscow is concerned, does it take much effort to guess what the Russian patriot faction is telling him? Mr Putin wants to end this silly “New Cold War,” so does Mr Trump. But the project of progressive democracy to convert or kill the entire planet marches steadily onwards. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Why enlightenment is in such short supply

I used to wonder why so few people enlighten themselves. Surely, if the benefits include self-control and power over one’s own soul, then everyone would be doing it? But I realise now that enlightenment means we have to come to grips with the fact that you and I could have been a Nazi concentration camp guard, a Rwanda machete murderer or a Mongol building a pyramid of human skulls in eastern Europe. The reason it feels so shallow and unconvincing when people say “oh, don’t worry, you’re such a good person” is because it sounds like wishful thinking. Like something an advertiser might say. And I don’t think people believe it.

There’s a terrible beast inside of each of us. You can feel it sometimes, rising, wide-eyed. If you can’t accept that you could have been a Nazi, then I think you have absolutely no idea who you are. Imagining yourself as a Nazi is terrifying, but I don’t think you get any insight whatsoever into your capacity for good until you have some well-developed insight into your capacity for evil. In the cold, dark corners of your mind, there are motivations so terrible that they would traumatise you if they were ever revealed. Everyone knows at some level of analysis that this is absolutely true.

And you’d think since enlightenment is viewed as the medication for vulnerability and death, that everyone would be struggling as hard as they possibly could to be enlightened. But if the barrier to enlightenment is the development of the self-consciousness of the individual human’s infinite capacity for evil, then you can be immediately convinced about why enlightenment is in such short supply.

You see, evil and suffering are not the same things. For instance, cancer isn’t evil because it’s a natural part of living. Evil is what happens when a person – who already knows that a reality of nature exists – refuses to harmonise themselves with that reality. To harmonise yourself with reality minimises the inevitable suffering inherent in living as a vulnerable human being. To remove suffering entirely wouldn’t be a good thing because as vulnerabilities are removed, so too is removed the part of yourself that makes you human. Limitation and vulnerability is what makes it possible to have a story.

Evil happens when a person refuses to harmonise with reality and therefore exacerbates suffering. In other words, evil is the maximisation of suffering. A “correct” society as seen on that United Airlines plane is not the way to achieve this. Here we can see an environment in which the nature of reality was apprehended but then discarded in favour of an idealised reality.

Everyone on that United Airlines jet knows this is true. But still, evil entered the fuselage. You have to know – not feel, know – that evil isn’t some ethereal force wafting through the air waiting to descend on unsuspecting humans. It is a consequence of arrogantly refusing to a) accept that a reality exists, b) resigning yourself to that reality and c) doing the work in every moment of your life to harmonise yourself with that reality and reduce the level of suffering for you and others.

If you had stood up on that flight and yelled “stop,” chances are people around you would look at you weirdly – at worse you might be arrested for obstruction. That’s only suffering. Everyone suffers. It’s how you get through it that makes you a person. But not to stand up is the introduction of evil. There’s no way around this.

And yes, I know this risks placing you as the most important person in the world – a concept (narcissism) I’ve written against many times. I don’t think that makes it untrue. That you are responsible for ensuring evil does not enter the world in every situation you are privileged to occupy is precisely the insight of enlightenment. You have to believe that the reason bad things happen is because you and I are not good enough. We’re not good enough, and have a lot of work to do. We’re not good enough, and we know it. We’re not good enough. We’re not good enough.

No one can prove scientifically that everything we do actually, really, truly matters, but you have to believe it in the teeth of evidence. Otherwise, no one will stand up and people will be hauled off planes or to the Gulag. Suffering is going to happen anyway. You’re going to feel pain, there’s no hiding from it. Why not stand up right now and speak the truth? Nietzsche once said, “if I have a why I can endure any how.” And that’s exactly right. The things you do really matter. And the sooner we resign ourselves to this reality, the sooner we can go about removing some of this damn suffering.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Changing Trump’s mind on Syria

Directly after US President Donald Trump’s first real projection of force last week (cruise missiles fired against Syrian regime targets), his supporters complain he is listening to the exact experts he was supposed to ignore. But why does this complaint feel like such a waste of time?

Actually, a better question would be: who, exactly, are these experts? By what means did they achieve their positions of authority? Do their disciplines genuinely use the wonderful error-correcting quality of Popperian science? Or has this been, in some way, neutralised or bypassed? Was it never there in the first place?

Everything makes sense thinking about experts as a power caste, understood by using the Russell Rule (originally noted by Freda Utley about Bertrand Russell): the ruling caste are the people who say "we" when they mean "the government." The ruled castes always says "they."

This ruling caste enjoys obsessing about the negative aspects of life because, like all hominids, it likes power. Power in human societies is inseparable from responsibility: a person gains power by demonstrating they are sincerely concerned about solving problems. No problems, no power.

And these experts are definitely concerned. No one who has spent any time with these people can doubt their sincerity. This doesn't imply, however, their solutions will be effective. Mr Trump’s supporters agree: the solution is producing the problem it purports to be trying to solve.

For example, who hasn't suspected that democracy and the peace process are the cause of Syria’s ills? Don't you ever wonder what would happen in that part of the world if everyone decided to ignore it for a while? The experts didn’t want Mr Trump to wonder.

If you read the New York Times regularly and believe it is portraying an accurate picture of reality – obviously, it defers to universities in any case of doubt – you also believe that anyone who supports Mr Trump’s ideas is either ignorant, malicious or seriously deluded. And he is certainly out to lunch on many issues.

From this, people naturally conclude Democrats have better epistemology than Republicans. What this analysis is missing, I think, is a sense of the fundamental asymmetry between left and right in the modern American political system and how it impacts the presidency – and the world.

First, the right simply does not have an epistemological filtering system. It's only the American left that has genuine leadership institutions which work to frame the debate. There is no right-wing Harvard. There is no right-wing New York Times. There are only scattered circles of right-leaning intellectuals, generally poorly funded. The American university system speaks with one voice, and pretty much always has.

The only professional conservatives are neoconservatives, in other words, post-Trotskyists. Nothing at all survives of either McCarthyism or Patterson isolationism, both comical by pre-20th century standards, American or European. In short, American conservatism is a pathetic joke, and any liberal who worries about it is a paranoid.

In a society where scholars are the ruling caste, actual scholarship tends to vanish. The classical virtues of craft, originality and curiosity are virtually obsolete. They are of no use in the task of capturing the President’s psychology and expanding the state. Virtues leave little time for the organisationally valuable tasks of maintaining doctrinal purity, expelling dissidents and watching each other’s backs.

The place where these experts come from, universities, are no longer institutions of scholarship. They are revolutionary seminaries. Their product is cadre. Of course, it’s still possible to get a good education in STEM, but even there it is increasingly difficult to escape indoctrination.

As I wrote recently, ethnic minorities are ideal as cadre just as Ottomans selected and reared mainly Christian boys to serve as Janissaries. Children of the powerless classes have no reason to defect. They will be extraordinarily loyal warriors. This is why, if you're young, smart and ethnic, your ticket in life is written.

So Mr Trump has two sources of epistemology to choose from when making decisions. He can get his truth from the same place Mr Obama does. Or, as his supporters desire, he can get it from demotic folk wisdom, the Bible, common sense or whatever. You would expect the latter process to not be very reliable, and it generally isn’t.

What’s surprising is that it’s ever accurate. Yet there’s a pattern across the 20th century of this basically unintellectual side of the debate being correct, and universities being wrong. In economics, for example. This doesn’t mean it’s good to be an ignorant hick. It only suggests the “expert” system is not immune to epistemological corruption.

As the Syria strike now proves, it is a mistake to think electing Republicans will turn the US into Trumpistan. When a person votes Democrat, they are saying the people who have the real power should stay there. When they vote for Republicans, they are agitating and disrupting the system, albeit to a much lesser degree than most think.

There is one genuine, positive effect of voting Republican. It acts as a symbolic protest against the rule of universities. Progressives are very good at calibrating their demands to what the public will accept – I believe it’s one of Saul Alinsky’s rules. By saying, “we want Trump,” a voter implicitly says, “we have an issue with Maoist first-year indoctrination struggle sessions.” This doesn’t stop those programmes, not at all, but it strikes a little bit of fear into the progressive’s heart.

The way it typically works is that most of the ideas held by the ruling scholar caste are simply bad, whereas those held by its primary political competitor (the red-state bourgeoisie) are either unexpectedly sensible or profoundly awful. Traditions often work that way.

But complaints about the experts feel like a waste of time because the complainer inevitably becomes associated with low-status people. The result is a stable disequilibrium in which nonsense defeats sense. It's quite an ingenious design. Not that anyone designed it, of course, any more than someone designed, say, the ankle. But I think we can still be impressed.

However, experts know three things: One, their intellectual system is not capable of correcting itself. Two, it is possible to destroy it. And three, the red-state bourgeoisie is a productive, rather than a counterproductive, tool which can be useful in achieving this outcome. Now can you see why they wanted to change Mr Trump’s mind on Syria?