an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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Archive for the ‘democracy’ Category

more inexpert punditry on the US political scene

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I’m no expert on US politics, or anything else for that matter, but it seems to me that the country’s current political woes, which are only set to get worse, are not so much due to Donald Trump but to a system that allowed him to become the President, and it’s that system that needs drastic reform if you don’t want your history to repeat on you like your foulest meal.

For example, Trump came to power from outside of politics, having never experienced political office under the discipline of a party machine. He was a registered Democrat from 2001 to 2009, and has contributed more to Democrat pollies, including Hillary Clinton, than to Republicans, but it’s fairly obvious that his political allegiances are opportunistic. Of course, his ‘outsider cred’ was a main part of his attraction for dispossessed and disillusioned voters, but this is a problem with all democracies – the appeal of populist demagogues.

But why would someone like Trump have such an appeal in 2016? The Obama administration had left the country in pretty good shape, after having inherited the global financial crisis, which the USA itself largely caused through extremely dubious lending practices by its under-regulated banks in 2007. According to Bloomberg news, the US economy under Obama was second best of  the previous five administrations, behind Clinton. However, it’s obvious that measuring the overall economy of such a diverse nation as the USA doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. A report by CNN Money, published between the election of Trump and his inauguration, adds further detail. The mega-wealthy, the top 1% of the population, are earning triple what they earned in the eighties, while the earnings of the bottom 50% haven’t changed in three decades. And it’s mostly this group (as well as that top percentile who hope to get even more) that Trump has targeted, in his half blundering, half cynical way, as marks for his circus act (though it would be invidious to compare him to P T Barnum, who was a philanthropist). It’s clear that many, probably most, Trump supporters have no interest or knowledge of the political process, in the USA or anywhere else, and their knowledge of Trump himself is limited to the fact that he’s ‘successful’ in ways that they’d like to be. They’re desperately drawn to the brashness, the indifference to rules, the lack of deference, the hatred of experts, the outsiderdom with its whiff of revolution, a re-evaluation of all values, where up is down and they, the forgotten people, will end up being magically up. That’s the hope, it seems, that out of the destruction of a system that has trodden them down for a lifetime, they might just escape with a whole lotta loot. Or something. Something better.

And that’s the sadness of it, because whatever Trump wants from the Presidency, it’s certainly not the chance to give anything away, or provide anyone any assistance. His whole life clearly proves that. But what I’m writing here is nothing new, and that’s the point. If it was only his potential marks and the super-rich who gave him the top job, I’d have different complaints to make, but he got there because many voted for him having no illusions about his character. And he also got there because, as Americans love to proclaim, anyone can become President, regardless of fitness, expertise, or even interest in what the job entails. No extreme vetting, no vetting at all – though money’s a pretty essential requirement. No interview, no test on governance, political history, the nation’s civic and judicial institutions, nothing remotely as rigorous as the test I had to sit a few years ago simply to become a citizen of the country I’d lived in for over fifty years. And yet this job requires you to take control of the world’s most powerful economy and the world’s most powerful military, and to negotiate with some of the most slippery and devious characters on the world stage – as dictators and oligarchs tend to be.

So think about this in terms of democracy. The USA likes to think of itself as the world’s greatest democracy. However, democracy’s greatest flaw was pointed out way back at its inception, two and a half millennia ago, by Plato and Aristotle, both unapologetic anti-democratic elitists. What they feared most was mob rule, fuelled by the limited populist talents of demagogues such as Cleon, a contemporary and opponent of Athens’ greatest statesman, Pericles. So what was their antidote to this poison? Essentially, it was experts and proven tradition. Plato, notoriously or not, thought philosophers would make the best rulers. Aristotle collected constitutions in order to find what institutions and instituted policies would lead to the most fruitful outcomes for city-states. Far apart though they were in many areas, both philosophers understood that knowledge and training were keys to good governance. Trump, on the other hand, has often extolled political ignorance as a virtue. Witness him boastfully introducing a key advisor, Hope Hicks, during a campaign rally, as someone completely ignorant of politics. That was what won her the job, he claimed – though he could have chosen anyone out of scores of millions if that was the criterion.

The USA is now paying a high price for putting its faith in Trump, his family members, and a bunch of hand-picked amateurs. And it provides the country with a lesson on the limits of democracy. We do put limits on democracy. It’s called representative democracy, a system of choosing a person to represent you, a person who usually belongs to one of two or more parties with different philosophies of government, though the philosophies are informal enough to provide a spectrum within them. That candidate has usually risen through the ranks of the party, understands something about party discipline, and has gained the respect of party associates. It’s an informal system rather than a rigorously formal one, and that’s useful as it provides flexibility, when for example an unusually gifted individual joins the team and is able to be fast-tracked into a leadership role. At the same time it’s formal enough to provide testing of team loyalty and respect. Loose and inter-subjective though it is, this is a kind of peer vetting that Trump has avoided and would be unlikely to survive. Could anyone imagine Trump doing the committee work, the political canvassing, the explanatory interviews and such that are essential for open government?

Another problem of democracy, as many have pointed out, is that every adult has an equal vote, regardless of their knowledge or understanding of the political parties they can vote for or how the political system actually works. Many of the less sophisticated might easily become enthused by populist types, especially in times like the present moment in the USA and elsewhere, when they feel they’re ‘outcast from life’s feast’. My recent reading of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was a stark reminder that in the ‘land of opportunity’ whole generations of families live in the direst conditions and struggle to make sense of a social system that offers them so little and treats them with more or less disdain. Trump promises jobs, jobs, jobs and protection from nasty Mexicans and Moslems and says he has a plan to make his country great again. This isn’t a message for middle class establishment types or lefty students. It’s for those who see themselves as disenfranchised and can’t find a way out, and suspect that the problem lies with others whose language and lifestyles and attitudes they don’t understand. Trump’s a rich tough guy who’ll rid his country of all the bad guys so that Real Americans will be set free to follow dreams they haven’t even been able to dream yet because they’re so busy fighting off the lazy blacks and latinos and the Islamic terrorists and the homos and the femocrats and the liberals who spur them on…

But Trump is fast finding that the Real Americans who fall for his bullshit aren’t as numerous as he first thought. And the numbers are falling. However, I’m probably being wildly optimistic. Still, here’s my prediction for 2018 in the USA. Trump won’t be in office by the end of the year. How he gets kicked out I’m not sure. The Special Inquiry into Russian collusion with the US election is an obvious possibility, his increasing unpopularity, which will fall to record lows, is another, the treatment of women as worthy/unworthy sex objects is another, and there will be further scandals not currently on the horizon. Currently Trump’s rating with American women is 24%. The candidates he backs in local elections keep failing. His ‘tax cuts for the rich’ bill is massively unpopular. His tax returns have never been disclosed (and this may be an issue for the Special Inquiry). The Democrats will undoubtedly take over Congress in 2018 and will very likely institute proceedings against Trump. Also,Trump doesn’t respond well to pressure, obviously, and his hitting out will finally become so unpalatable that there will be a general uprising against him, and his cronies, which will probably lead to what the Americans call a ‘constitutional crisis’. The next few months will be, I predict, the most fascinating as well as the most devastating period in modern US history. Glad I’m able to observe from a hopefully safe distance.

Written by stewart henderson

December 13, 2017 at 5:40 pm

Is Donald Trump a great businessman?

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another failed venture and a probable scam

Today I listened to a ‘news report’ delivered in front of our small class by a teenage student from China, a sweet young lad, near 7 feet tall and skinny as a bean, with limited English, whom I’ve been coaching in grammar. Students are asked to choose from a list of articles, simplified, in our class’s case, to pre-intermediate or elementary English level, and report on the article in their own words. My student had chosen the topic ‘Why Hilary Clinton lost the election’, a simplified version of an article by Dan Roberts, originally published in The Guardian on 9 November 2016, the day after Trump’s victory. Before he delivered his report, he had to check it through with me, a routine procedure, but to my annoyance he didn’t have any plan or notes to show me, and assured me that ‘it was all in his head’. He also asked me if it was alright if he focused more on Trump than on Hilary. I told him it was best not to divagate too much from the article, but he was free to voice his own opinion of the candidates.

It wasn’t a great talk. My student was, of course, very nervous, and he glossed over Roberts’ view that Clinton lost the election due to the economy, lack of trust and the weakness of her message. His main point was that Trump won because he was a successful businessman, and running a nation is all about money and success. This was really the totality of his talk, delivered in a halting, repetitive way.

Naturally I was irritated at this, but I let it slide. This was a test of English and not so much a test of critical thinking and analysis, though that had to be a factor. So, the fact that my student didn’t provide any evidence of Trump’s great business acumen certainly was a problem for his talk, which was clearly tendentious. However, considering that this was a low-level class I was prepared to give him a bare pass, and to quash my feelings over this oft-repeated claim that Trump has great business smarts.

From other sources I’ve heard very different claims. Sam Harris, in his Waking Up podcast, regularly asserts his view that virtually nobody is more unfit for the office he currently holds than Trump – the ‘boy-king’, as he calls him. In a recent interview with David Frum, Trump’s business skills were ridiculed. First, Frum took aim at Trump’s foreign policy approach, which was to see other parts of the world, such as the EU, as essentially business competitors, or people you should try to ‘cut deals with’, obviously to the advantage of the US. The fact that he was often dealing with allies who shared the values of the US seemed irrelevant. Then Frum mocked Trump’s reputation as a business operator, pointing out that in Toronto, where Frum, a Canadian-American, is involved in business, namely real estate, which of course is Trump’s business field, Trump’s reputation is somewhere between mud (to people he owes money to) and a laughing-stock (to interested spectators). He went on to say that ‘No-one in the business world has any respect for him as a businessman’.

Business and economics are not exactly my strong suits, but it seems to me that Frum, a lifelong Republican with inside knowledge of the real estate business, is a reliable witness here. However, I don’t want to take on face value his claim that nobody in the business world respects him. I need more evidence.

Before I go on though, I should make the point that Trump has, of course, already shown himself to be unfit for office regardless of his business activities. His bullying tactics as a candidate, the profound narcissism in so many of his utterances, his inflammatory and stupid remarks about those who live south of the US border, his ‘moslem ban’, his treatment of the free press, his admiration for the Russian mafioso dictator above all other world leaders, his scientific illiteracy, his pathetic and disgusting attacks on women’s appearance, his attacks on the judiciary, his contempt for his own intelligence agencies, and so much more, prove him to be a disaster for democracy and proper governance, and the shame for his election lies squarely with those who voted for him, knowing, as any intelligent person would know, the kind of person they were backing.

So to the business. A brief dummies’ guide to Trump’s ventures is given here, and it shows that his failures outnumber his successes, which presumably doesn’t prove him a failure, just as one or two movie successes can recoup twenty movie losses. As to his actual value, it’s pretty well the length of a piece of string, and it’s unclear if he’s made any money at all from the wealth he inherited. And it’s also very unclear how much money he actually inherited. Trump himself said during the campaign that he started off with $1 million and built a company worth more than $10 billion, a remark he prefaced with ‘believe me’.

Funnily enough, nobody does.

Trump received a share of his father’s estate at his death in 1999, and though there’s no clear figure, it was a lot more than $1 million. More importantly, his father set him up financially long before that. Donald Trump became President of Trump senior’s real estate business in 1974, at which time it was valued at $200 million, according to one estimate. But who knows? Here’s an interesting commentary from a Quora finance expert, Will Wister:

The growth of his wealth since 1982 has been in line with that of the S&P 500, according to his own statements. Donald Trump’s self-described net worth was $200 million in 1982. If he invested that money in the S&P 500, he’d be worth about $8.3 billion today. Today he claims his net worth is $8.7 billion. So based on his own claims, he has barely outperformed the S&P since 1982.

Some articles claim that Donald Trump’s inheritance was somewhere between 40 and 200 million in 1974. Since 1974, the S&P 500 is up about 74-fold. So his current claimed net worth of 8.7 billion would equate to about 120 million in 1974, which is right in the middle of estimates of what he inherited. In other words, if the articles are accurate, his performance was very close to that of the market from 1974 to present.

What this tells me, above everything else, is how the world is geared to the massive advantage of the super-rich (if you inherited millions in the seventies, you’d have to be disastrously stupid or dysfunctional to be a failure today), but it’s totally speculative about the boy-king’s wealth.

You would think that the public have a right to know more about this subject, considering that Trump parades his success as a businessman, and has used the claim as evidence of his ability to be the bestest of Presidents. Yet Trump has managed to evade the call to present his tax returns to the public, rejecting a 40-year tradition, and why would a successful businessman do that?

This matter of his tax returns and the state of his wealth takes on added importance in consideration of Trump and his family’s seemingly murky relations with Russia’s kleptocracy. Considering the bumbling way that Trump is dealing with the US presidency, it’s virtually impossible to imagine him as anything other than a bumbling businessman. Loud, histrionic, bragging and bullying certainly, but also bumbling and quite likely manipulable, given his infantile narcissism. This makes it more urgent than ever to uncover whether or not he’s indebted to Putin and his billionaire henchmen, who, I have no doubt, are far smarter and more cynical than he is. There’s an Emoluments Clause in the US constitution which states that:

no Person holding any Office…shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

The legal question then becomes – do any Russian bail-outs for Trump’s incompetent business dealings constitute such emoluments? This would result in endless legal argy-bargy. Presumably Trump could squirm out of it if it was shown that, if there were any bail-outs, they occurred before he became President. But anyway it’s unlikely that he would willingly provide any information whatsoever about his financial dealings – which, given his well-known association with Russian political and financial figures, and given the well-established fact that Russia sought to undermine the democratic process in the recent election, and given the fact of Trump’s fawning admiration for the Russian dictator, whom he clearly admires above all other political leaders, should surely be sufficient reason, not for impeachment, but for removal from office. The Emoluments Clause, which in any cause wasn’t originally intended to be interpreted broadly, shouldn’t be given as the reason, it should be based on more serious matters. I’m not one to argue for treason, given my stance as an international humanist, but clearly Trump has betrayed democracy, the open society and the rule of law with his evasions and allegiances.

So far it looks like Trump is the kind of businessman you’d expect him to be given his performance as President, and given the character he displays. His ties to Russia are legion, and appear to be financially substantial, given that his many bankruptcies have exhausted the patience of US moneylenders. His business bragaddocio may fool the odd naive Chinese teenager, but the American public should have known better.

Incidentally, it seems the best business decision Trump has ever made was to run for President. The huckster’s chuckling now. Talk about playing the American public for suckers.

http://www.internationalbusinessguide.org/trump-business-career/

http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/the-administration/338153-sleep-well-president-trump-there-are-no-emoluments

http://time.com/4433880/donald-trump-ties-to-russia/

https://www.quora.com/Did-Donald-Trump-inherit-a-lot-of-money-and-then-increase-his-net-worth-at-an-unremarkable-rate

http://www.politifact.com/florida/article/2016/mar/07/did-donald-trump-inherit-100-million/

https://www.businessinsider.com.au/trump-financial-disclosure-report-2017-6?r=US&IR=T

https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/the-great-unraveling

Written by stewart henderson

June 18, 2017 at 11:10 am

the little dictator and his acolyte

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Having seen how Russia acts within the framework of what we call hybrid warfare, I really don’t exclude anything when it comes to Russian operations in other countries.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Secretary-General, NATO alliance, 2014

We’re living in interesting times, and I can’t help but be both enthralled and horrified them, so I’ll be dividing my time for a while between science and current international developments in politics and culture.

I wrote my recent post before I’d quite finished Masha Gesson’s 2012 biography of Putin, but I find that her epilogue, together with an afterword written in 2014, is by far the most important part of the book as regards the future for Putin’s ambitions, for Russia and for our response to his antics. And of course there’s also Trump’s love affair with the apoplectically anti-democratic dictator, which is no laughing matter.

Vladimir Putin’s rise to the leadership of Russia was unlikely, as the subtitle of Gessen’s book suggests. It seems that he was was plucked out of obscurity to be the saviour of Russia, and he grabbed the opportunity with both hands. But of course the story is far more complicated than that.

I want to compare (albeit briefly) Putin’s background, and even his appeal, with that of Adolf Hitler, partly because I’m challenged by recent claims that one should never invoke Hitler as a comparison (bullshit I say), but more importantly because the similarities are screamingly obvious. It seems to me that in many ways Putin is a Hitler constrained by the rapid rise of internationalism, which was itself largely a response to Hitler’s nationalistic adventurism. Certainly, the horrors of Nazism are behind us, but make no mistake, Putin’s attacks on homosexuality, which of course are in line with his own brutal, primitive instincts, are every bit as totalising as Hitler’s scapegoating of the Jews in the thirties. Certainly there’s a greater cynicism in Putin’s approach, and there’s no doubt that international attention will parry his blows against gays, but I’ve no doubt that Putin’s attitude to homosexuality is sincere, and might be put down to his being picked on as a slight and effeminate-looking youth. This persecution clearly affected him profoundly, causing him to take up martial arts and body-building and such, but I’m not particularly interested in the psychology behind his bigotry. The Dunedin Studies have shown me that character formation occurs remarkably early, and those early years are lost to most analysts in Putin’s case. Anyway, I’m more interested in the effects of his bigotry on the Russian psyche.

While Putin isn’t as shallow as Trump, neither is he deep. He’s a product of a profoundly dysfunctional world, and he found solace and identity in the KGB, the western world’s laughing stock (its successor, the FSB, is entirely a tool of Putin). From what I can gather, he was a doted-on only child, who grew up in the ruins of Leningrad/Petrograd, Russia’s second city. Like Hitler, he seems to have been devastated by the loss of something, nationally, that once promised greatness, and he may have taken this personally. Of course international developments since Hitler’s time would have largely quashed imperialistic ambitions, which is why it seems more accurate to see Putin as a mafioso-style crime boss, extremely petty-minded, vengeful and gleeful about the suffering of his ‘enemies’ – and probably generous to a fault to those who are most complete in their sycophancy.

What we do know is that Putin, like Hitler, is largely impervious to basic human values, but much better than Hitler at hiding the fact. Don’t expect much from his assurance, more or less forced from him by the new French President Emmanuel Macron, that he would investigate gay persecution in Chechnya, a region he bombed into submission when first gaining power in 1999-2000. The Chechen capital, Grozny, was later described by the UN as ‘the most destroyed city on earth’, with tens of thousands of civilians killed. The state has been ruled for some time by Ramzan Kadyrov, not so much a Putin puppet as a fellow-traveller who has learned from the Russian’s mafioso methods. Apparently, he’s both more charismatic and more openly brutal, having murdered a vast number of his enemies. It’s unlikely that this macho thug would take or expect advice on the treatment of homosexuals by his thuggish Russian mentor. Yet while Kadyrov’s political independence is more a relief than a burden to Putin, some 85% of Chechnya’s budget comes from Moscow, and this is the ultimate measure of Putin’s power over the region.

The murder of enemies (just a name for those who act defiantly, or even independently, and who might have some influence), often in far-flung parts, is the most recognisable feature of Putin’s (and Kadyrov’s) dictatorship, but there are others, including threats to bordering countries, and endless attempts to interfere with democratic elections worldwide. Of course Putin went well beyond threats when he moved swiftly to annex Crimea in March 2014. The move seems not to have been for economic reasons, as it’s expected that large sums of money will be needed to prop up the region. It seems to have been a land grab in defiance of the pro-European overthrow of the corrupt pro-Russia Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. It would also have been done for domestic reasons, to suggest to his long-suffering people the fantasy that Russia is still a great nation that can throw its weight around. It’s likely that the annexation greatly improved the petty dictator’s domestic stocks, but as I’ve said, there isn’t much room to manoeuvre today in terms of Russian expansionism – though the Baltic states are understandably anxious about Putin’s intentions there – so it’s not surprising that he’s turned his attention to his first love, espionage and the perversion of justice, in trying to manipulate the outcome of foreign elections in favour of their most anti-democratic candidates. He appears to have been partially successful in somehow fashioning more support for Marine Le Pen in France than she had a right to expect, but clearly his greatest coup was to infiltrate the recent US election to a degree that has – somewhat belatedly – alarmed many pundits.

The current US President has praised Putin more than any other democratically elected leader. He would certainly like to have the power over his nation that Putin has over Russia, but the fact is that he just doesn’t have the nous to use that power effectively, even for his own benefit. As David Frum and many others have pointed out, Trump isn’t a smart businessman, even in the field of real estate. He’s a big-noter and a bullshit artist who’s incapable of the strategic planning required even to be a semi-succssful mafioso boss. His ham-fistedness, however, has to be seen in some respects as a saving grace. The job of more responsible leaders and powerful figures in the USA now is to provide a convincing case to the public that the Trump administration’s ties and indebtedness to Putin and his henchmen are massively detrimental to the country they’ve been elected to administer, and to the western democracies in general. Many journalists and public intellectuals – I’ll mention David Frum, Anne Applebaum, Timothy Snyder, Masha Gessen, and Lilia Shevtsova, but I’m a complete novice in this field, so apologies for not mentioning others at this point – have been firm in arguing against any rapprochement with Russia under Putin, whose anti-western propaganda for domestic consumption has risen to bizarre proportions in recent years. It’s time for more western and particularly US leaders, on both side of the political fence, to argue strongly for isolating Russia under Putin. One way to do this is to go in hard on Russian political interference in the US and other prominent countries – the hybrid warfare that NATO’s Secretary-General spoke of. And this will surely have the added benefit of substantially weakening, and maybe even derailing, the Trump administration.

The little dictator will complete his first six-year term in office in 2018. Actually, this will complete 19 years of  effective dictatorship, and he has altered the Russian constitution to enable him to stand for office again. If successful, he may retire, at 71, after 25 years in power in Russia (the longest reign since the time of the Czars), having given up on modernisation and economic development and left behind a state characterised by cronyism, thuggery, stagnation and misery, and a fantasy that it is an alternative to the ‘decline of the west’, though hopefully few of Russia’s intellectuals are taken in by this.

But Putin’s success isn’t guaranteed. As Gessen and others have pointed out, he got a real scare in the lead-up to the last election, and was quite possibly only saved from defeat, or at least from ‘legitimate’ success, by his campaign against homosexuality and ‘decadence’. Recently there have been sizeable demonstrations against corruption in Russia, and no-one is more corrupt than Putin. The Russian analyst Lilia Shevtsova is particularly critical of those pundits who appear to have given up on the possibility for a fairer, more open and democratic Russia. Her remarks here are passionate and timely:

This means that Russians are incorrigible, doomed to be manipulated, and ready to tolerate repressive rule. I don’t know what information the authors are privy to that makes them so sure that the Russians will continue clinging to Putin. Why are the experts so sure of that? Do they know something about us Russians that we are unaware of? This approach can be interpreted in only one way: Russians carry a special gene that precludes them from living in a rule of law state that respects international conventions. In other words, we Russians are a predatory nation that can live only by being subjugated by our rulers and by subjugating other nations, and we cannot rid ourselves of the serf’s mindset. This is not merely a condescending way of looking at Russians; it is racist as well.

We should do everything in our power to support those in Russia who oppose Putin and his corrupt state, and to isolate him if he manages to wangle power for himself for six more years.

 

https://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/02/03/how-the-west-misjudged-russia-part-4-mad-about-medvedev/

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/02/08/putins-dragon

Gessen, Masha, The man without a face: the unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin

See also these interviews from Sam Harris ‘s Waking Up podcast: Timothy Snyder, the road to tyranny; Anne Applebaum, the Russia connection; Gary Kasparov, the Putin question.

Written by stewart henderson

June 7, 2017 at 10:06 am