an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Archive for the ‘crime’ Category

Trump as dysfunctional crime machine

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One way to look at Trump is not so much as anything human but as a machine for generating crime – but as a somewhat dysfunctional one, in that everything he does is crooked but not all of it rises to the level of crime – which is I think, one of his major failings, and I’m sure he’s disappointed about it. For example he lies as others breathe, but not all his lies are crimes, so they don’t get the attention he wants them to get. In interviews or press conferences he doesn’t present talking points, he presents lying points. He doesn’t play golf, he cheats at golf. He doesn’t have advisors, he has echo-chambers.
But he’s also undisciplined, and sometimes falls down on the job and blurts out the truth. That’s when he gets into trouble. It’s like the ghost in his machine, and it scares the bejesus out of him.

Written by stewart henderson

October 13, 2019 at 1:49 pm

Posted in crime

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getting roolly rich in the USA 1: Jeffrey Epstein

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Epstein’s two islands in the Caribbean – Little St James is immediately below the Great one

The Jeffrey Epstein case, in terms of women, girls and exploitation, is something I’m far too squeamish to explore, and of course it’s very very sad and disgusting, but my interest was also piqued by the news that he was/is a hedge fund manager (but maybe not), with mansions and an island and oodles of moolah to invest in all sorts of science projects. This raised many questions. Was he obnoxiously rich to begin with, like little Donny Trump? And what is a hedge fund, and can you legitimately make millions from one?

I’ve never been rich and I’ve never invested in anything, unless you call giving money to Oxfam or UNHCR an investment, so I’m really starting from scratch here. The first definition I’ve found is that a hedge fund is ‘an offshore investment fund, typically formed as a private limited partnership, that engages in speculation using credit or borrowed capital’. So, if this is true, why invest ‘offshore’, and how are you able to do this with money you don’t really have or haven’t earned? I suspect I won’t find easy answers to these questions. The website Investopedia (which sounds immediately suss!) starts with another definition: ‘Hedge funds are alternative investments (?!) using pooled funds that employ different strategies to earn active return, or alpha, for their investors’. Alpha! What a lovely musical note that hits for investors (especially combined with ‘male’). But the mention of pooled funds (e.g. mutual funds and pension funds, as well as hedge funds) might explain how you can make money even if you have little personally to invest. Investopedia also tells us that hedge funds ‘are generally only accessible to accredited investors’, because they’re less regulated than other funds. And we all know that the wealthy are very very keen to have less regulation and oversight than what the Yanks call ‘regular folks’

However, it does seem that, to be an ‘accredited investor’, it helps to be already rich. The term applies to financial institutions such as ‘investment banks’ and corporations as well as individuals. Needless to say, this is a world of which I know absolutely nothing. All I’ve really heard about it is negative – high rollers, corruption, anti-government arrogance and the like – which says much about where I get my information from. Even so, the most objective analysis raises questions – for example, the Australian Corporations Act of 2001 ‘defines “sophisticated investor” [basically synonymous with ‘accredited investor’] so as to exclude them from certain disclosure requirements.’ That rings alarm bells for me – you’d think that these heavy investors would be the last people to be excluded from disclosure. The Act also says that such investors require an accountant’s certificate to the effect that they have a minimum of $2.5 million in net assets or a gross income of $250,000 over each of the previous two years. Presumably they’re not asked about how they acquired such income/assets. And the financial bar is considerably lower in the USA.

Hedge funds have grown in popularity, and as a proportion of the asset management field, over the years. After the GFC of 2007-8 there was an attempt (probably feeble) to rein in the sector. The essential hedge fund strategy (think ‘hedging your bets’) is to receive a positive return regardless of bear or bull markets, by spreading the risk in some clever non-risky way. If you get to be a hedge fund manager (which some reports have claimed Epstein to be, though Wikipedia doesn’t mention this in a fairly comprehensive bio) you get to keep a certain percentage of invested funds for yourself – generally a management fee (maybe 2% of assets) and a performance fee (a substantial percentage of any annual increase in net asset value). You can see how disclosure is essential in payment of such fees, and why the temptation to cook the books would be high.

Epstein seems to have ‘risen’ from humble beginnings. His mother was a ‘homemaker’ and one-time school aide, and his father was a groundsman and gardener, yet Epstein is described, at various periods in his career from the early eighties, as an options trader, a financial consultant, a limited partner (at the dodgy investment bank Bear Stearns), a finance manager and other such vagueries – all despite a patchy scholastic record (but as an autodidact and dilettante I certainly don’t hold that against him). However, one very interesting item stands out….

Back in the eighties, Epstein became an associate of one Steven Hoffenberg, who hired him as a consultant for his company, Tower Financial Corporation (TFC). Epstein was paid $25,000 a month, which to me is an absurdly huge amount for anyone to be paid, though in this world it’s probably peanuts. Even before joining TFC (a collection agency that bought up other people’s debts – and if you think that’s dodgy, read on), Epstein had been bruiting it about among the crooked rich that he was a ‘high-level bounty hunter’, sometimes working for governments or the super-rich to recover embezzled funds, sometimes working for clients to secure embezzled funds. He and Hoffenberg became very close, flying around the world to do their dodgy deals, done not so dirt cheap, but in 1993 TFC collapsed and was exposed as one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in US history, with some $475 million of investor funds vanishing. Epstein, though, had already left the company and managed to escape without charge. Hoffenberg was sentenced to 20 years’ jail, and has always claimed that Epstein was intimately involved in the scheme. In fact, Wikipedia’s brief entry on Hoffenberg ends with this fascinating line:

In July 2019, he claimed that the American financier Jeffrey Epstein was his co-conspirator in the Ponzi scheme.

That’s right now, folks. Presumably he has the evidence for that – so why wasn’t Epstein prosecuted way back then?

Anyway, it appears, surprise surprise, that Epstein’s criminality isn’t restricted to his treatment of the opposite sex, which makes you wonder how many super-rich types who don’t draw attention to themselves vis-a-vis sexual exploitation can be shown to be criminals. And how is it possible to buy what is presumably an American island to use as a tax haven?

Tax havens are always described as ‘offshore’. That’s to say, not a part of the country in which you want to avoid paying taxes. The US site Investopedia underlines its dodginess by providing plenty of info on tax havens (hey man, we’re just tellin’ stuff, not selling’ stuff, I mean, peace off man), as well as providing a list which includes the British (but not the US) Virgin Islands. Epstein owns two of the US Virgin Islands, Great Saint James and Little Saint James, where he has one of his mansions. Great Saint James cost him $18 million in 2016, pretty cheap for an island I would’ve thought, and I can’t find the price he paid for Little Saint James back in 1998. This tiny island was his principal centre of sexploitation, aka Orgy Island by the cognoscenti.

The USA has an international reputation as a bad actor in respect of tax disclosure. With monumental hypocrisy, it implemented the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act in 2010, requiring or ‘forcing’ (dog knows how) financial firms everywhere in the world to report accounts held by US citizens to their IRS, while at the same time refusing to comply with the OECD’s Common Reporting Standard – the only major nation to do so. To be clear about this the USA demands that other countries share information about US citizens’ offshore dealings, but refuses to share the same information with those countries about foreign investment in the USA. As a result, the USA is arguably now the world’s biggest tax haven. How this works exactly for US citizens like Epstein I’m not sure at this point, but the USA has become, especially over the last decade, one of the easiest places in the world for successful tax evasion, especially through the use of LLCs or shell companies. We’re finding this out through examination of Trump’s criminal activities, but of course I’m far from understanding the detailed nature of LLCs, offshore trusts and the like. I need to lern more.

I’ll end this piece – almost – with a quote from an organisation and site that’s the polar opposite of Investopedia, the Tax Justice Network:

The United States, which has for decades hosted vast stocks of financial and other wealth under conditions of considerable secrecy, has moved up from sixth to third place in our index. It is more of a cause for concern than any other individual country – because of both the size of its offshore sector, and also its rather recalcitrant attitude to international co-operation and reform. Though the U.S. has been a pioneer in defending itself from foreign secrecy jurisdictions, aggressively taking on the Swiss banking establishment and setting up its technically quite strong Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) – it provides little information in return to other countries, making it a formidable, harmful and irresponsible secrecy jurisdiction at both the Federal and state levels.

Of course, none of this clearly explains how Epstein ill-got the wealth to be tax-liable in the first place. Certainly the Ponzi scheme he seems to have gotten away with was one, possibly the main, source, but he seems even before this to have ingratiated himself into the world of dodgy financial entities and personae, presumably through schmoozing and force of personality. Certainly his relationship with Ghislaine Maxwell, daughter of that supremo of repugnant dodginess, Robert Maxwell, is an indication of the world Epstein had become familiar with, a world in which everyone is advising everyone else on how to make money out of nothing and how to retain as much of that money as possible, regardless of anything so inconvenient as the law.

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeffrey_Epstein

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedge_fund

https://www.investopedia.com/terms/h/hedgefund.asp

https://www.investopedia.com/terms/p/ponzischeme.asp

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_as_a_tax_haven

https://www.investopedia.com/terms/t/taxhaven.asp

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Maxwell

Written by stewart henderson

July 21, 2019 at 2:14 pm

situation USA 3: the right i word

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Nancy Pelosi – trying to make the best of a bad system

I’ve been saying from the start that impeachment – thankfully not a part of the Westminster system – is a hopelessly politicised process, and that someone like Trump should be dealt with by straightforward, clear-cut law. Unfortunately, when it comes to white-collar crime – which is far from being victimless – the USA doesn’t set a great example. Though of course it’s not the only democratic nation to fail in this regard. However, Trump has pushed white-collar crime about as far as it can go without consequences. Just about all he has going for him presently is Presidential immunity. That’s why his principal aim right now is to extend that present as far into the future as possible, and that’s why I’m predicting that things will get worse. He won’t give up the presidency without a very ugly fight.

Nancy Pelosi has been in a friendly-fire fight with Jerry Nadler over the right i word. She says it’s imprisonment, and of course I agree with her. The USA needs to create clear law wiping out presidential immunity ASAP if it’s to regain the respect of the international community, but of course this won’t be possible until 2021. In the meantime, the House should continue to build its case against Trump, just as law officials are doing outside of Congress.

CNN ‘Editor-at-large’ (what does that mean? Editor who should be in prison?) Chris Cillizza has written a strange and quite silly piece, saying Trump’s imprisonment is ‘not likely’. His first point is that Pelosi, by bringing up the right i word, is trying to show Nadler and others that, by opposing the rush to impeachment, she’s not being soft, but realistic. It’s indeed an incredible thing that the Senate Republicans are largely choosing to stand by their flim-flam man, but it’s a fact, and proof of the tainted, politicised process that impeachment is. But Cillizza then describes this word as a ‘rhetorical grenade’. Rubbish, I say. The fact that Trump is still President-at-large is a disgrace. For a start, he’s not an ‘unindicted co-conspirator’ in the SDNY case which saw his fixer plead guilty on two felony counts. I realise this a term of legal art, but it completely misrepresents the situation, in which Trump was the boss and Cohen merely the gofer. And of course the campaign violation stuff is just the tip of the iceberg.

Cillizza then instructs his readers with this gem of wisdom:

Remember that impeachment and indictment are two very different things. The first is a political process, the second is a legal one.

Wow. Is he addressing 10 year-olds or is he one himself? Anyway, he goes on rather long-windedly to point out that impeachment won’t work due to the GOP Senate majority and the two thirds rule. I’d be even more brief. Impeachment is gobshite. Only in America (ok – also in South Korea, Taiwan, Brazil and any other country fool enough to follow the US system).

Cillizza goes on to ‘examine’ the possibility of imprisonment. It’s more of a glossing over, however, than an examination. The Mueller Report itself evaluates ten cases of obstruction of justice, some of which are strong enough to have over 700 federal prosecutors (as of a month ago – the number keeps rising) sign a letter baldly stating that Trump would face ‘multiple felony charges’ on obstruction alone if he was not President. What this says about the totally stuffed federal political system of the USA should indeed be clear to any wide-awake 10 year-old. Then there are the 16 or so criminal probes involving Trump, his foundation, his taxes, his inauguration, his emoluments violations, his anti-immigration horrors (his worst crimes while in office), his links with Russia and the Middle East, the Deutsche Bank money laundering scandals etc etc. It’s abundantly clear that Trump is a pre-teen spoilt brat turned career criminal – because, given his background, he couldn’t succeed at anything else. But a spoilt child, like a spoilt dinner, doesn’t spoil itself. It’s spoilt by its ‘makers’, and I’m not talking about gods. I’m talking about parents and environment and other early influences. So Trump isn’t to blame for becoming the US President, and making the US Presidency the object of global scorn and opprobrium. The fault lies with the US political system itself. The USA allowed this fainéant to become its President (not forgetting Russia’s sly assistance), because it takes pride in allowing anyone to become President. No screening for party allegiance, no screening for legal or political or historical literacy, no screening for business integrity or acumen, no screening for any kind of competence whatsoever. And instead of assuring the world – noting that we’re talking of the world’s most powerful nation, economically and militarily – that with great power comes great responsibility – it teaches us that, in the US at least, with great power comes great immunity.

But let’s get back to Cillizza’s piece. Here are his concluding remarks.

To be clear: Neither impeachment nor arrest is a sure thing. In fact, neither are even long shots. We are deliberating between something that is very, very, very, very unlikely to happen and something that is very, very, very, very, very unlikely to happen. But between impeachment and imprisonment, the former is the far more viable option. No matter what Pelosi wants.

As I’ve made clear, I have no interest in impeachment, but Cillizza is arguing – or, rather, stating, that imprisonment is a virtual impossibility for this career criminal, in spite of all the evidence piling up against him – which will always amount to a mere fraction of his wrong-doing. And yet, my impression is that Cillizza’s as jingoistic about ‘the leader of the free world’ and ‘the light on the hill’ as most Americans. The proverbial frog in the slowly boiling water comes to mind. If Trump escapes imprisonment, then surely that frog is doomed.

References

https://edition.cnn.com/2019/06/06/politics/nancy-pelosi-trump-prison/index.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/powerpost/pelosi-tells-colleagues-she-wants-to-see-trump-in-prison-not-impeached/2019/06/06/afaf004a-8856-11e9-a491-25df61c78dc4_story.html?utm_term=.4907d39b22c7

https://www.wired.com/story/trumps-world-faces-16-known-criminal-probes/

View at Medium.com

Written by stewart henderson

June 9, 2019 at 3:33 pm

situation USA 2 – very likely, the worst is yet to come

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The USA, over the past two and a half years, has been the object of a global ridicule and opprobrium never experienced before in its history, and it’s largely deserved. And the reason lies in a flaw in democracy pointed out by Greek philosophers, unabashed anti-democratic elitists, some 2500 years ago. Their concern was that the people could be too easily swayed by populist demagogues, individuals who, either through self-delusion or basic deceit, promised everything and delivered nothing, or worse.

There’s a famous quote, attributed to Churchill, that democracy ‘is the worst system of government, apart from all the others’. That description should be taken seriously. There’s no perfect system of government, in fact far from it. And democracy, in its purest form, is never practised anywhere. I’ve heard it said that a free press and an independent judiciary are two of the ‘pillars of democracy’. This is false. They’re in fact bulwarks against democracy. Both of these institutions are elite meritocracies. Another essential bulwark against democracy is an independent science and technology sector. If we based our acceptance of science on popular vote, we’d almost certainly still be living in caves, subsisting on the most basic requirements for survival. So let’s not worship democracy, but nor should we throw it out with the bathwater.

Democracy’s biggest saving grace is that it is inclusive. Everybody gets to have a say. One possible vote for each adult – assuming there’s no corruption of the process. In this respect, if nothing else, everybody is equal. Yet we know that no two people reflect in an ‘equal’ way, whatever that means, before casting their vote. Some are massively invested in voting, others barely at all, and their investments go in innumerable directions. Some of those directions never change, others zig-zag all over the place. And history shows, as the Greek philosophers knew well, that a licence to vote doesn’t turn anyone into a discerning voter.

The USA, it seems to me, suffers from two problems – too much democracy on the one hand, and too great a concentration of power on the other. They say that in the USA, anyone can become President. This is something Americans like to brag about. It’s not true of course, but even if it were, it wouldn’t be a positive. There appears to be no screening for such candidature. Some Americans are calling for extreme vetting of immigrants, but nobody appears to be calling for the same for Presidential candidates. You might argue that the same goes under the Westminster system of democracy, but in fact there is such a system, albeit informal, for attaining the position of Prime Minister. She must first gain the approval of her party, her team (and she can be dumped by that team at any time). In the 2016 US election, the candidate Trump by-passed the party he claimed to be a member of, and appealed entirely to the people, with a wide range of vague promises and claims about his own brilliance and effectiveness. The business cognoscenti knew well enough that Trump was a buffoon, a blowhard and a flim-flam man, but they also knew that his presidency, in being good for his own business, would be good for other businesses too, especially in the field of taxation. The Republican Party as a whole – with a number of notable exceptions – fell in line. Those who believed in minimal government recognised that Trump’s noisy incompetence would actually bring about minimal government by default, and give the governmental process a bad name, which was all fine by them. The question of ethics rarely entered into it.

As a distant watcher of what I’ve called the slow-motion train wreck of the Trump presidency, I’ve learned more than I ever thought I would know about the US presidential system, and more than I ever wanted to know about Trump himself.

For some time, Trump was nothing more than a funny name to me. My first full-on experience of him must have come from an early showing of ‘The Apprentice’, probably accidentally stumbled on through channel-hopping. I’ve never taken much interest in the business world, mea culpa. Within literally seconds, I was thinking ‘If I didn’t know better, I’d assume this was a black comedy. The host talks total gobshite, and the contestants, all actors, treat him like a deity. His very name is meant as a joke – he trumps everyone else in spite of being tasteless, boorish and pig-ignorant – and the contestants, who are put up in a monument to vulgarity called ‘Trump Tower’, swoon at all the gimcrack opulence. No better caricature of the Ugly American has ever been created’. Yet I knew that this was no caricature. Or rather, Trump was a caricature, but also a real human being.

What I didn’t know then, and what I’ve learned since his accession to the presidency, was the extent of Trump’s criminality. This has been fully revealed through a couple of New York Times stories, but I first learned about it through Sam Harris podcasts and other outlets, as well as through the words and behaviour of Trump himself, and his thuggish cronies. His use of standover men, fixers and the like has all the markings of organised crime – or somewhat disorganised crime in Trump’s case. The fact that he has gotten away with this behaviour for decades is a testament to the problems of the US justice system.

Trump became President with a minority of votes – this time revealing a problem with the federal electoral system. Claims by pundits such as Niall Ferguson that Putin’s interference in that election had a minimal effect were either naive or politically motivated. The Putin dictatorship’s actions were sophisticated and brilliantly targeted, and the subsequent response of Trump to the clear evidence of that interference should have been enough to have him thrown out of office. Another massive problem with the US federal system.

Sensible Americans are now faced with the problem of getting rid of Trump, and engaging in the root and branch reform of the disastrous system that allowed Trump’s rise to and maintenance of power. It seems, from other pundits I’ve read, that the US Presidency has experienced a kind of ‘dictatorship creep’ over the years, and this now needs to be confronted directly. The judiciary, for example needs to be fully independent, with the highest positions decided upon by judicial peers. Presidential emoluments need to be eliminated through clear, solid law. Presidential pardoning powers need to be sharply restricted, or preferably removed from the President altogether and placed in the hands of senior law officials. The presentation of all available taxation documents must be a sine qua non of presidential candidacy. If Presidents are to be directly elected – not a great idea IMHO – it should be through a first-past-the-post, one-vote-one-value system. Presidential immunity must be jettisoned, and if this interferes with the President’s role, this should scream to the American people that the President’s role is too burdensome, and that governmental power needs to be less concentrated and more distributed.

All of the preceding, and more, seems obvious to an outsider, but among Americans, brought up since infancy to believe they have the best government in the multiverse, self-criticism in this area is hard to come by. Possibly more abuse of the system by Trump and his enablers will wake Americans up to what’s needed, but I remain skeptical.

Which brings us back to the immediate situation. I have to admit, what has surprised me more than anything about this presidency is that Trump’s following hasn’t been reduced substantially since falling to around the 40% mark very early in his term. Clearly, his base, much-despised by Trump himself, has gained nothing from his incumbency, as opposed to the super-rich (small in number but gargantuan in power), who see through Trump but cynically support his lazy, neglectful attitude to government administration. The fact that this base is solid and easily aroused reveals a long-standing problem in America’s individualistic, mistrustful, and massively divided society. Trump is wily enough to try to take advantage of this discontent, especially as the law appears to be closing in on him. He may not have the numbers to win another election, but he is very likely to use those numbers to do as much damage to America’s much-vaunted but clearly very fragile separation of powers as he possibly can. I’m unfortunately quite convinced that the worst of the Trump presidency is yet to come.

Written by stewart henderson

May 13, 2019 at 7:30 pm

the USA’s presidential crisis – what will they learn from it?

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it really is this crazy

The USA has a tragic problem on its hands, of its own making. It now has, as its President, a career criminal, a narcissistic demagogue, a flim flam man who’ll stop at nothing to remain in power. Within a few days, though, his power will be curtailed and, I strongly suspect, and certainly hope, US law enforcement authorities will be rounding up some of his accomplices and generally turning up the heat. Everything about Trump tells me he would be prepared to destroy as much of the country’s political edifice as he possibly can, rather than go quietly.

But it’s the political edifice itself that’s allowed Trump, who isn’t a Republican, or a Democrat, or a politician or a businessman, to take over the ship of state and steer it on a bumpy ride to nowhere. This could never have happened under the Westminster system, which pertains in Britain and Australia, two countries of which I happen to be a citizen. 

The flaws in the US Presidential system have been unwittingly exposed by Trump, and this may be the one true gift he will have bestowed on his people, just as the horrors of the great European wars of last century left the one bright legacy of over seventy years of peace in Western Europe. 

So what are these problems? Well there’s one general problem of democracy, which is shared by all democratic countries, and that’s the fact that not everyone eligible to vote is sufficiently informed or detached to use their vote to the best advantage of themselves or the nation as a whole. Many are massively influenced by what is called ‘identity politics’, because they identify with a particular sub-culture, be it ethnic, religious, job-related, or special-interest-related in a host of ways. Many simply don’t understand much about politics and are easily swayed by political promises or the promises made by those around them on behalf of politicians. The intellectual elites, the cognoscenti, have no more weight to their vote than the more or less completely clueless. 

This problem is exacerbated in the USA by the fact that, every four years, they’re asked to cast a vote essentially for one person over another. In the run-up to that vote there’s massive fund-raising and lobbying, hype (short for hyperbole), overblown promising, and circus-like razzmatazz and bells and whistles. 

The one-against-one competition is, it seems, typically American, where the ‘great man’ who saves the world by single-handedly defeating all enemies is a staple of Hollywood blockbusters. In contrast, elections in the Westminster system are more like a blend of the American mid-term and presidential elections, but with much more of the mid-term than the presidential. People essentially vote for parties – a major party of the left and of the right, together with smaller independent parties and independent members. The two major parties and the smaller parties all have leaders, of course, and they’re elected by the rest of the elected MPs of their parties. They’re the ‘captains of the team’, and they work with them in parliament. The Prime Minister, the leader of the party elected to power in general elections, is thus in a very different position from the US President, who resides in and works from the White House, surrounded by staff and officials who are appointed by himself (though more or less vetted by others) without necessarily having been elected by the public to any office of any kind in the past. These include some very influential positions indeed – the 15 members of the Presidential Cabinet including Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Attorney-General and Chief of Staff. The President thus heads the ‘executive branch’ of government, which is entirely separate from parliament, or congress.

Under the Westminster system there’s no such separation. The Prime Minister does get to select his cabinet, but they’re all appointed from within parliament, and all of them work within the House, or the Senate. So the PM is literally ‘primus inter pares’, first among equals, and often has to defend his or her ministers and policies in the teeth of opposition sitting across the aisle. This creates much more of a team spirit, and if the PM ‘goes rogue’, as Trump clearly has, his party can organise a no-confidence motion to oust him. Such an event obviously has major repurcussions for the nation, but they are clearly nowhere near as disastrous as the ousting of an American President. Though, arguably, the difficulties involved in ousting the President are even more disastrous. 

In watching and learning about the US political system over the past year or so, I’ve been totally astonished at the power granted to the President, and with that power comes a sense of Presidential immunity, due to his ‘indispensability’. This is virtually a recipe for demagoguery and dictatorship. The current President has clearly utilised powers that previous Presidents quite probably didn’t know they had, because they grew up within the usual ethical guidelines of the vast majority of people, regardless of background. Trump has no such guidelines, and so has sacked appointed officials without replacing them, has used pardoning powers – and will continue to do so unless ousted – without restraint, and has issued executive orders in a manipulative and detrimental fashion. He has monetised the Presidency, obstructed justice by declaring war on the FBI and justice department officials, viciously and relentlessly attacked the fourth estate, and spread myriad falsehoods with impunity.

All of this has created a kind of internal paralysis in the US, while making the country and its President both a laughing stock and a cause for grave concern worldwide. Meanwhile the success of demagoguery and ‘power’ over ethics has had its echoes in elections in Austria, Sweden and Brazil. But the USA’s political problems are unique. The two principal problems are – How do you rid yourself of a rogue president? and, How do you present this from ever happening again?

Many concerned Americans are looking to the process of impeachment as the solution. I’m writing this on the day (in Australia) of the mid-term elections, November 6, though the USA is some 11-12 hours behind us in central Australia. It seems likely that the Democrats will take control of the House and possibly the Senate, though I wouldn’t bet on it – I usually get these things wrong. But impeachment is a political process and therefore highly partisan in a nation that has become partisan perhaps to the point of extreme violence. Impeachment doesn’t exist in the Westminster system, because there is clearly no need for it.

For a Prime Minister, under the Westminster system, to ‘successfully’ go rogue, as the US President has, he would have to carry the whole of his party with him, or a substantial majority, as the party system and party loyalty are deeply entrenched in the polity. A no-confidence motion in the Prime Minister can be put up at any time during parliamentary sessions, either from within the PM’s party or from the opposition benches. It’s easier for the President to become a ‘one-man band’ because he’s entirely cut off from congress. I don’t know if Trump has ever entered congress. There seems no reason for him to do so. This complete disconnection from what is is supposedly his own party and government is, I think, disastrous. 

The massive power of the President – veto powers, pardoning powers, executive orders, and apparent, if limited, immunity from prosecution – is no small problem for a country that is the most economically and militarily powerful in the world.  Rachel Maddow of NBC has highlighted the problem of prosecuting the President. If he is charged and placed in custody or let out on bail, does he still have presidential authority? If not, who does? This would not be a problem under the Westminster system – the Deputy PM would step up, as s/he does when the PM is overseas. And if the matter were serious enough, that deputy, or another senior cabinet minister, would take over the PM’s role permanently. And there would be no hesitancy, under that system, to arrest and detain. Why should there be? The law should treat all offenders in precisely the same way.

In the US there seems to be a lot of confusion on these matters. Many consider the President ‘too important’ to be charged with a crime while in office. This is truly ridiculous. If you have allowed one person to be so important within your political system as to be above the law, for even a second, then your political system sucks, to put it mildly. 

Another bizarre anomaly of the US system is this ‘hanging back’ by the federal authorities, in terms of subpoenas and indictments, during pre-election periods. This, it seems to me, is an interference, by a kind of stealth, of the judiciary by the political sphere. Where did this ridiculous idea come from? It seems abundantly clear to me that when investigating potential felonies of any kind, the political background should play no part whatsoever. Once investigators have ‘all their ducks in a row’, as Americans like to say, that’s when prosecutions should begin. I’ve no idea right now what will happen to Trump after these elections, but he has already been clearly implicated in campaign finance violations via his criminal fixer, so prosecutions should have occurred already. To not institute criminal proceedings when everything is set to do so, because of some election or other – that constitutes political interference. Am I missing something here?  

Assuming that Trump is indicted after these elections (though what I’ve heard is that the Mueller will only issue a report to congress, even if it includes indictable offences, which makes my head spin with its unutterable stupidity and dereliction of duty), is it likely that Trump will give himself up to authorities? Trump is a career criminal who has never spent any time in jail, though his tax crimes and various scams should have seen him incarcerated for much of his adult life. It’s hard to know what he’ll do when cornered, but I can’t imagine him giving himself up to authorities. The real crisis is about to hit the fan, so to speak. It will get very very bumpy over the next few months, no matter what the election result. 

The other major question is – what will Americans learn from the Trump disaster? Will they reform their political system? With their jingoistic pride, I don’t hold out too much hope. My guess is that there will be some reform around the edges – the emoluments clause might be ‘promoted’ to something more than a mere clause, for example – but their beloved but outdated Constitution will remain largely untouched, and they’ll still keep their POTUS in splendid isolation, a law unto himself and a potential threat to their nation and the outside world. But then, as some dipshit has often said, we’ll have to wait and see. 

 

Written by stewart henderson

November 6, 2018 at 8:52 pm

another look at free will, with thanks to Robert Sapolsky

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Ah poor old Aynnie – from guru to laughing stock within a couple of gens

Having recently had a brief conversation about free will, I’ve decided to look at the matter again. Fact is, it’s been playing on my mind. I know this is a very old chestnut in philosophy, renewed somewhat by neurologists recently, and I know that far more informed minds than mine have devoted oodles of time and energy to it, but my conversation was with someone with no philosophical or neurological background who simply found the idea of our having no free will, no autonomy, no ‘say’ whatever in our lives, frankly ludicrous. Free will, after all, was what made our lives worth living. It gives us our dignity, our self-respect, our pride in our achievements, our sense of shame or disappointment at having made bad or unworthy decisions. To deny us our free will would deny us….  far far too much.

My previous piece on the matter might be worth a look (having just reread it, it’s not bad), but it seems to me the conundrum can be made clear by thinking in two intuitively obvious but entirely contradictory ways. First, of course we have free will, which we demonstrate with a thousand voluntary decisions made every day – what to wear, what to eat, what to watch, what to read, whether to disagree or hold our tongue, whether to turn right or left in our daily walk, etc etc. Second, of course we don’t have free will – student A can’t learn English as quickly and effectively as student B, no matter how well you teach her; this student has a natural ability to excel at every sport, that one is eternally clumsy and uncoordinated; this girl is shy and withdrawn, that one’s a noisy show-off, etc etc.

The first way of thinking comes largely from self-observation, the second comes largely from observing others (if only others were as free to be like us as we are). And it seems to me that most relationship breakdowns come from 1) not allowing the other to be ‘free’ to be themselves, or 2) not recognising the other’s lack of freedom to change. Take your pick.

So I’ve just read Robert Sapolsky’s take on free will in his book Behave, and it strengthens me in my ‘free will is a myth’ conviction. Sapolsky somewhat mocks the free will advocates with the notion of an uncaused homunculus inside the brain that does the deciding with more or less good sense. The point is that ‘compatibilism’ can’t possibly make sense. How do you sensibly define ‘free will’ within a determinist framework? Is this compatibilism just a product of the eternal complexity of the human brain? We can’t tease out the chain of causal events, therefore free will? So if at some future date we were able to tease out those connections, free will would evaporate? As Sapolsky points out, we are much further along at understanding the parts of the prefrontal cortex and the neuronal pathways into and out of it, and research increases exponentially. Far enough along to realise how extraordinarily far we have to go. 

One way of thinking of the absurdity of the self-deciding self is to wonder when this decider evolved. Is it in dogs? Is it in mosquitos? The probable response would be that dogs have a partial or diminished free will, mosquitos much less so, if at all. As if free will was an epiphenomen of complexity. But complexity is just complexity, there seems no point in adding free will to it. 

But perhaps we should take a look at the best arguments we can find for compatibilism or any other position that advocates free will. Joachim Krueger presents five arguments on the Psychology Today website, though he’s not convinced by any of them. The second argument relates to consciousness (a fuzzy concept avoided by most neurologists I’ve read) and volition, a tricky concept that Krueger defines as ‘will’ but not free will. Yes, there are decisions we make, which we may weigh up in our minds, to take an overseas holiday or spend a day at the beach, and they are entirely voluntary, not externally coerced – at least to our minds. However, that doesn’t make them free, outside the causal chain. But presumably compatibilists will agree – they are wedded to determinism after all. So they must have to define freedom in a different way. I’ve yet to find any definition that works for the compatibilist.

There’s also a whiff of desperation in trying to connect free will with quantum indeterminacy, as some have done. Having read Life at the edge, by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden, which examines the possibilities of quantum effects at the biological level, I’m certainly open to the science on this, but I can’t see how it would apply at the macro level of human decision-making. And this macro level is generally far more ‘unconscious’ than we have previously believed, which is another way of saying that, with the growth of neurology (and my previous mention of exponential growth in this field is no exaggeration), the mapping of neurological activity, the research into neurotransmission and general brain chemistry, the concept of ‘consciousness’ has largely been ignored, perhaps because it resembles too much the homunculus that Sapolsky mocks. 

As Sapolsky quite urgently points out, this question of free will and individual responsibility is far from being the fun and almost frolicsome philosophical conundrum that some have seemed to suggest. It has major implications for the law, and for crime and punishment. For example, there are legal discussions in the USA, one of the few ‘civilised’ nations that still execute people, as to the IQ level above which you’re smart enough to be executed, and how that IQ is to be measured. This legal and semi-neurological issue affects a significant percentage of those on death row. A significant percentage of the same people have been shown to have damage to the prefrontal cortex. How much damage? How did this affect the commission of the crime? Neurologists may not be able to answer this question today, but future neurologists might. 

So, for me, the central issue in the free will debate is the term ‘free’. Let’s look at how Marvin Edwards describes it in his blog post ‘Free will skepticism: an incoherent notion’. I’ve had a bit of a to-and-fro with Marvin – check out the comments section on my previous post on the topic, referenced below. His definition is very basic. For a will, or perhaps I should say a decision, to be free it has to be void of ‘undue influences’. That’s it. And yet he’s an out and out determinist, agreeing that if we could account for all the ‘influences’, or causal operants, affecting a person’s decision, we could perfectly predict that decision in advance. So it is obvious to Marvin that free will and determinism are perfectly compatible.

That’s it, I say again. That’s the entire substance of the argument. It all hangs on this idea of ‘undue influence’, an idea apparently taken from standard philosophical definitions of free will. Presumably a ‘due influence’ is one that comes from ‘the self’ and so is ‘free’. But this is an incoherent notion, to borrow Marvin’s phrase. Again it runs up against Sapolsky’s homunculus, an uncaused decider living inside the brain, aka ‘the self’. Here’s what Sapolsky has to say about the kind of compatibilism Marvin is advocating for, which he (Sapolsky) calls ‘mitigated free will’, a term taken from his colleague Joshua Greene. It’s a long quote, but well worth transcribing, as it captures my own skepticism as exactly as anything I’ve read:

Here’s how I’ve always pictured mitigated free will:

There’s the brain – neurons, synapses, neurotransmitters, receptors, brain-specific transcription factors, epigenetic effects, gene transpositions during neurogenesis. Aspects of brain function can be influenced by someone’s prenatal environment, genes, and hormones, whether their parents were authoritarian or their culture egalitarian, whether they witnessed violence in childhood, when they had breakfast. It’s the whole shebang, all of this book.

And then, separate from that, in a concrete bunker tucked away in the brain, sits a little man (or woman, or agendered individual), a homunculus at a control panel. The homunculus is made of a mixture of nanochips, old vacuum tubes, crinkly ancient parchment, stalactites of your mother’s admonishing voice, streaks of brimstone, rivets made out of gumption. In other words, not squishy biological brain yuck.

And the homunculus sits there controlling behaviour. There are some things outside its purview – seizures blow the homunculus’s fuses, requiring it to reboot the system and check for damaged files. Same with alcohol, Alzheimer’s disease, a severed spinal cord, hypoglycaemic shock. 

There are domains where the homunculus and that biology stuff have worked out a détente – for example, biology is usually automatically regulating your respiration, unless you must take a deep breath before singing an aria, in which case the homunculus briefly overrides the automatic pilot.

But other than that, the homunculus makes decisions. Sure, it takes careful note of all the inputs and information from the brain, checks your hormone levels, skims the neurobiology journals, takes it all under advisement, and then, after reflecting and deliberating, decides what you do. A homunculus in your brain, but not of it, operating independently of the material rules of the universe that constitute modern science.

This captures perfectly, to me, the dilemma of those sorts of compatibilists who insist on determinism but. They seem more than reluctant to recognise the implications of that determinist commitment. It’s an amusing description – I love the bit about the aria – But it seems to me just right. As to the implications for our cherished sense of freedom, we can at least reflect that it has ever been thus, and it hasn’t stopped us thriving in our selfish, selfless ways. But as to the implications for those of us less fortunate in the forces that have moved us since childhood and before, that’s another story.

References

https://ussromantics.com/2018/05/15/is-free-will-a-thing-apparently-not/

R Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst, Bodley Head 2017. Note especially Chapter 16, ‘Biology, the criminal justice system and free will’. 

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/#FreWil

https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/one-among-many/201803/five-arguments-free-will

https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2016/06/free-will-exists-and-is-measurable/486551/

Written by stewart henderson

October 27, 2018 at 1:25 pm

What’s up with Trump’s frontal cortex? part 2

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Before going on with my thoughts about little Donnie’s brain, I want to address two pieces of relevant reading I’ve done lately. 

First, the short article by ‘Neuroskeptic’ entitled ‘Don’t blame Trump’s brain‘. Now, as anyone who’s read much of my blog knows, I consider myself a skeptic and a supporter of the skeptical community. However, I don’t entirely agree with Neuroskeptic here. First, describing people’s attempt to work out Trump’s psychology or neurology from his words and actions as ‘Trumphrenology’ is a silly put-down. In fact, all psychiatric conditions are diagnosed on the basis of observed words and acts – duh, what else? Unless there’s a brain injury or genetic abnormality. So the medical terms used to describe Trump and others do have some validity, though I agree that ‘medicalising’ the problem of Trump can be counter-productive, as it is with many ‘conditions’ which have appeared recently to describe the spectra of human behaviour. It’s more important, in my view, to recognise Trump as a career criminal than to put a psycho-neurological label on him. Then again, as someone who doesn’t believe in free will, the brain that makes Trump be Trump is of some interest to me. Second, Neuroskeptic describes the arguments of those who attribute medical conditions to people on the basis of behaviour as ‘circular’. This is false. Behaviour is more than s/he thinks it is. When we try to understand the brain, we look at how it behaves under particular conditions. According to Neuroskeptic ‘it’s rarely useful to try to understand a behaviour in neuroscientific terms’. If that’s true, then the monumental 700-page book Behave, by Robert Sapolsky, one of the world’s leading neurobiologists, was largely a waste of time. Third, Neuroskeptic questions the validity and ethics of Trump ‘diagnosis-at-a-distance’. This is absurd. Over the past two years alone, Americans have been subjected to several thousand tweets, hundreds of televised speeches and comments, and the day-to-day actions of the lad in the White House. Unless they make a real effort to switch off, most Americans can’t help knowing more about Trump than they do about just about anyone in their intimate circle. Where’s the distance?

Second, on The dangerous case of Donald Trump, by 27 people working in the field of mental health. I’ve not read it, but I’ve read the ‘summary’, attributed to Bandy X Lee, the contributing editor of the full book, though I prefer to believe that Lee, a respected Yale professor of psychology, had no hand in writing this summary, which is, syntactically speaking, the worst piece of published writing I’ve ever read in my life (I say this as a language teacher). I prefer to believe it was written by an intellectually disabled computer. I’m sure the full book is far far better, but still I’m amused by the variety of conditions Trump may be suffering from – ADHD, malignant narcissism, borderline personality disorder, psychopathology, sociopathology, delusional disorder, generalised anxiety disorder etc (OK that last one is what most reasoning Americans are supposedly suffering from because of Trump). All of this is a bit of a turn-off, so I won’t be reading the book. I tend to agree with what Neuroskeptic seems to be inferring – that we don’t need a psychiatric diagnosis as an excuse to get rid of Trump – his obviously asinine remarks, his insouciant cruelty and his general incompetence are in full view. His criminality should have seen him in jail long ago, for a long time. Further, the idea that a diagnosis of mental instability could lead to invoking the 25th amendment is absurd on its face. Anyone who’s read the 25th amendment should see that. I don’t see any evidence that Trump’s condition is deteriorating – he’s been consistently deceitful and profoundly incurious throughout his life. That means he was elected as a fuckwitted dickhead. Don’t blame Trump, blame those who elected him. And blame the lack of checks and balances that should make it impossible for just anyone to become President. Democracy does have its flaws after all.

So what are the patterns of behaviour that might lead to a diagnosis, which then might be confirmed neurologically – if, for example we were to apply a tranquillising dart to this bull-in-a-china-shop’s voluminous rump, then tie him up and probe his frontal and pre-frontal regions and their connections, in response to questioning and other fun stimuli (I’d love to be in charge of that operation)?

I’ll first list some notable Trump behaviours and traits, recognised by the cognoscenti, without suggesting anything about their relation to frontal cortex disfunction.

  • A tendency, or need, to take credit for everything positive that happens within his particular environment, and a concomitant tendency, or need, to blame anyone else for everything negative occurring in that environment
  • a winner/loser mentality, in which losers are often members of ‘losing’ cultures, sub-groups or entities (blacks, latinos, women, the failing NYT) and winners are judged in terms of pure power and wealth (Putin, Kim, Manafort, Fred Trump)
  • lack of focus in speeches and an inability to listen; generally a very limited attention span 
  • frequently cited temper tantrums
  • lack of empathy and consideration for others, to quite an extreme degree, close to solipsism
  • emphasis on compliance and deference from others, inability to deal with criticism
  • extreme lack of curiosity
  • lack of interest in or understanding of ethics
  • lack of interest in or understanding of concepts of truth/falsehood 
  • extreme need to be the centre of attention

I think that’s a good start. As to how these traits map on to psychopathological states and then onto cortical development, I won’t be so psychopathological as to provide clear answers. Most people I’ve spoken to suggest malignant narcissism as a pretty good fit for his behaviour – perhaps due to its all-encompassing vagueness? Wikipedia describes it as ‘a hypothetical, experimental diagnostic category’, which doesn’t sound promising, and it isn’t recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR), though narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is. I suppose that some people want to particularly emphasise Trump’s malignancy, but I think NPD is bad enough. Here’s the Wikipedia description, drawn from the latest DSM and other sources:

a personality disorder with a long-term pattern of abnormal behavior characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, excessive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. Those affected often spend a lot of time thinking about achieving power or success, or on their appearance. They often take advantage of the people around them. The behaviour typically begins by early adulthood, and occurs across a variety of social situations.

Now, I came up with the Trump behavioural traits before I read this description, I swear. I think the fit is pretty exact, but it’s clear that those responsible for diagnosing someone with NPD don’t do so on the basis of brain scans. I’ve explored enough neurology to fairly safely say that NPD, psychopathy and many other psychiatric conditions just can’t, as yet be reliably correlated with neurological connections or lack thereof. Even schizophrenia, one of the more treatable psychotic conditions, is rarely described in terms of brain function, and is diagnosed entirely through behaviour patterns. 

Having said this, all of these conditions are entirely about brain function, and in Trump’s case, brain development since early childhood. We’ll never get to know what precisely is up with Trump’s frontal cortex, partly because we’ll never get that tranquilising dart to penetrate his fat arse and to then practise Nazi-like experimentation… sorry to dwell so lovingly on this. And partly because, in spite of the galloping advances we’re making in neurology, we’re not at the knowledge level, I suspect, of being able to pinpoint connections between the amygdalae, the hypothalamus, the hippocampus and the various regions of the frontal and prefrontal cortex. I plan to do more research and reading on this, and there may be another blog piece in the offing. However, one thing I can say – Trump probably isn’t a psychopath. Psychopaths tend not to have temper tantrums – their emotional responses are minimal, rather than being exacerbated by life’s slings and arrows, and their violence is instrumental rather than impassioned. Their amygdalae – the founts of aggression and anxiety – are correspondingly reduced. Doesn’t sound like Trump.

Again, though reflection on Trump’s curious psyche may be intrinsically interesting, it’s his crimes that should do him in. As I’ve said before, the fact that he’s not currently in custody is a disgrace to the American criminal and legal system. His fixer is facing a jail term, and in pleading guilty to two felony counts of campaign finance violations, has fingered Trump as the Mr Big of that operation. Those authorities who have not arrested him should themselves be facing legal action for such criminal negligence. And of course other crimes will be highlighted by the Mueller team in the near future, though such scams as Trump University should have seen him jailed long ago. Others have suffered lengthy prison terms for less. But that’s the USA, the greatest democracy in the greatest, free-est and fairest nation in the history of the multiverse. Maybe such overweening pride deserves this fall…

Written by stewart henderson

October 12, 2018 at 4:20 pm