an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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Posts Tagged ‘democracy

the real story of American exceptionalism

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Sorry, God, I haven’t read your book but I’m sure you agree, haha

Canto: So while listening to the commentariat buzzing about the latest Trumpian debacle (you can take your pick), I’ve noticed the term ‘American exceptionalism’ being tossed about, whether in jest or earnest I’m not sure. What do you think it means?

Jacinta: Well we’ve already highlighted American jingoism, which is an across-the-spectrum problem, though more common among those who haven’t travelled much. It worries me more when I hear it from pundits who should know better, because people who think they’re exceptional tend not to be too self-critical. And Americans need to be more critical than ever, of their political system, which has brought them to this pass.

Canto: Yes, we’ve talked about this before but I recall a pundit saying, a few months ago, that America’s founding as a nation was in response to a tyrant – whom he named as the British monarch, George III – so why were they apparently descending into a tyranny now? But this wasn’t quite the story was it?

Jacinta: That’s right. The Brits had executed one of their monarchs a century and a half before the formation of the American state, precisely for being overly intransigent and tyrannical. Then a half-century later they threw out another one for similar reasons. George III was a constitutional monarch, and it was parliament that was making decisions about the American colony. Of course Britain wasn’t a fully representative democracy at the time, but then neither was the new American state – only 6% of the population was allowed to vote in their first Presidential election. It has taken centuries for western countries, including the US, to arrive at full adult suffrage. There are no exceptions in this.

Canto: There’s an article here by a presumably American professor of international relations at Harvard which punctures the American exceptionalism myth, and it says much that we already know, that powerful nations, regardless of their internal politics, are always keen to maintain and expand their sphere of power and influence, and that tends to be the basis of their foreign policy. That explains Britain’s behaviour in the ‘new world’ as much as it explains US behaviour in the Philippines and the Pacific, and in Vietnam and Iraq. The US has been expansionist since the get-go, and it shouldn’t take that much self-critical analysis to understand why so many regions of the world despise the very term “American’. This doesn’t make Americans exceptionally bad, but we should surely have reached a point in our progressive development to realise that foreign lives matter as much as those of our own nation.

Jacinta: Yet again and again, amongst even the liberal commentariat, we get comments like ‘leader of the free world’, ‘the checks and balances that make us stand apart from other nations’, ‘the nation that others look to’, ‘the world’s greatest democracy’ and other thought-free shibboleths. And now more than ever, as their nation has been brought down through allowing a clearly unqualified and inadequate boy-king to become their head of state, with powers far beyond his capacities, Americans need to take a good hard look at themselves and their political system rather than simply moaning about the boy-king and hoping that the system can withstand him. A better system would have dealt with him long before he ever got to this position.

Canto: But really, can you prove this? Can you give examples?

Jacinta: Well no system is perfect but let’s look at the recent meeting of Trump and Putin. Of course it would be silly to compare Australia with the USA in this regard – Putin would have no interest in a meeting with our PM – but any country under the Westminster system – say the UK – would have much the same checks and balances. And this is the thing – a Prime Minister under that system would see her role in very different terms, generally, from the President under the US system. She is first and foremost the leader of her party in Parliament, and is present in Parliament every day that it sits, leading the arguments and being informed, whether she likes it or not, of the dissension and divisions within her own party as well as the contrary views of the opposition. So a meeting with a major and adversarial head of state would inevitably be a matter thrashed out in Parliament, with the PM taking part in the debate. And of course, being closeted together in Parliament House with the Foreign Minister and other relevant ministers is a very different situation for the national leader than being completely separated from Congress and surrounded by mostly hand-picked underlings who are simply paid to do her (or I should now say, his) bidding. A recipe for disaster, if not dictatorship. Not to mention, as I already have elsewhere, the host of privileges and responsibilities vested in the ‘commander-in-chief’ and accorded to no other national leader in a democratic country. The fact that this sort of system is seen, by far too many Americans, as a shining example to all nations is surely proof that the US is exceptional only in its jingoism and its hubris.

Canto: Well that’s pretty strong stuff, and I’m not sure I entirely agree with you, and I’m not sure you answered my question. What’s to prevent a Trump-like figure becoming Prime Minister of Australia?

Jacinta:  I thought I’d explained. Our national elections are not fought out between Mr Conservative and Ms Liberal, one or other to be head of state. They’re fought on a mixture of local and national interests, essentially in the manner of the US mid-terms. We’re voting, essentially, for the party we want in power, as well as a local member we like (for those few who keenly follow politics) and we give due consideration to the leader of that party, always knowing that if that leader underperforms or is found to be corrupt or whatever, there are other elected representatives that can replace him, as quite often happens…

Canto: But even in Australia a situation could occur that a, shall we say unconventional, but very popular figure emerges, with a populist false-promises agenda that appeals to the masses (in a manner largely incomprehensible, if not reprehensible, to the elites), so the party – and surely it would be the Right – might batten on to her as its principle means of gaining and holding onto power – a Faustian bargain and all that – and vote her into the PM position…

Jacinta: Well everything’s possible in the worst of all possible worlds, but it’s far more unlikely. When Trump first started his bid, his candidacy was hugely unpopular within the Republican Party, so he took his message, such as it was, to the people. That’s to say, he worked out as he went along what his people lapped up most voraciously and he fed it to them. As many pundits over there are saying, he’s transformed most of the Republican party, and even more of the voters, into his lapdogs and willing enablers – ‘the party of Lincoln!’ as the Republican never-Trumpers moan. There’s really no opportunity for that to happen within the Westminster system. We have elections between two established parties, in the main, and they often have two established leaders, who owe their positions to party discipline. They’re not in a position to go rogue like Trump has done. And if one of the parties has a shiny new leader she’ll be more likely to toe the party line because she’s not yet established and because she knows the election is about far more than just her. We don’t have any simple person v person elections, except in small by-elections, and hopefully never will.

Canto: Well, I think you’re right, but it’s notable that, in all the noise from the free press from over there, there’s precious little soul-searching about the political system that has permitted someone so obviously inappropriate to hold an office that gives him so much power. Everyone knows that great power should come with great responsibility. Every sensible person in the USA is raging about Trump’s irresponsibility, but virtually nobody is raging about a political system that enables someone of his type to gain this enormous power without sufficient checking, and nobody seems to have anticipated how he could find means, in his blustering way, to extend a power that is already massive to an almost ridiculous degree.

Jacinta: So yes, that’s the real exceptionalism. The US bangs on about being the greatest democracy, but democracy by itself isn’t enough. Most people who vote – no matter what country they’re in – know precious little about how their government works, about foreign relations and trade, about history, about developments in science and technology, even about systems that protect their own welfare, so they’re susceptible to false-promising demagogues, especially if they feel they’re struggling more than they should. Concerns about democracy and demagoguery have been voiced loudly since the days of Plato and Aristotle. The US seems to have been exceptionally deaf about them. The bulwarks against demagoguery are not, as pundits keeps saying, institutions of democracy, they’re institutions of an open society. The free press is a meritocracy, owing its duty to the facts and the evidence, not to ‘the people’. The same goes for the judiciary, which owe its duty to the law and its judicious interpretation according to precedent and the given facts and evidence. The science and technology sector should be at arm’s length from the government, owing its credibility to the independent interpretation of data and confirmation of hypotheses, always subject to peer review. Now, to some extent, I’m talking about an ideal here – I’m sure no government is perfectly open in this way. But Trump has, in his blunderingly self-serving style, corrupted the free press and the judiciary in the minds of ‘his’ people, turned his nation’s formidable foes into his nation’s friends and vice versa, and made America a kind of monstrous laughing-stock worldwide. And there’s another problem – he will not give up his Presidency. He will not. And it will certainly get worse. So that’s a problem for their country’s responsible adults to deal with. I wish them well.

Written by stewart henderson

July 21, 2018 at 9:46 am

on the US political & social system in crisis: 1 – the illusory national superiority effect and limits on democracy

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an interesting partial insight from the days before modern democracies – and emanating from my philosophical homeland

Canto: So we’ve sort of promised not to talk so much about Trump, but let’s admit it, we’re still watching with a fair degree of obsession this slow-motion train wreck which might only get uglier and more damaging as the months roll on…

Jacinta: Well, let’s try to take a wider view, and consider how the USA got to this pass, which means examining its whole political/social system, since so many of its own pundits, IMHO, are infected by the strange disease known as American jingoism, and are expressing dismay about how the ‘world’s greatest democracy’, ‘the leader of the free world’, and the ‘model that the world looks to’, etc, should have come to this.

Canto: So they’re not fit to judge their own system?

Jacinta: Well, we have solid psychological evidence that individuals, for good reason, take a slightly rosier-than-true view about how attractive they are, how competent they are in various fields of endeavour, how generous they are, and so forth – it’s called the illusory superiority effect – and it doesn’t seem to me unreasonable that a lot of people, probably a majority, take a similar view of their nation. So it’s generally a better idea, for nations as well as for people, to listen to what others say about them, or simply to observe or monitor their actual behaviour, and make comparative and quantitative analyses.

Canto: There’s also another effect we’ve talked about, which should have a name, but doesn’t. ‘Might is right’ comes close, but doesn’t quite capture it methinks. It’s that sense felt throughout history by every powerful state – that their military-industrial power confers moral authority and a sort of natural leadership, as in ‘the world’s police officer’.

Jacinta: Absolutely, there should be a name for that fallacy, and there probably is, but in this discussion I want us to focus entirely on the USA’s domestic policies and its political system as it effects its own people.

Canto: So that’s where the OECD’s ‘Better Life Index’ (BLI) comes in.

Jacinta: Yes, I’ve talked about quantitative analysis, and I want to find as much quantitative analysis as we can to compare the best countries on the globe in terms of a variety of parameters. I’m hoping to find more than just the BLI figures, because as with the best science we need different teams to conduct studies that might confirm or disconfirm, using different methodologies, so that we can get a deeper and more complex picture.

Canto: But of course the BLI is itself quite complex. It analyses nations in terms of 11 different ‘dimensions’ – housing, jobs, income, community, education, environment, civic engagement, health, life satisfaction, safety, and work-life balance. The intention is to tweak these dimensions and add new ones if necessary over time. For instance there used to be a dimension called ‘governance’, which would’ve been useful for examining the USA as it currently stands, but that has been changed to ‘civic engagement’, which is more individual-focused.

Jacinta: Yes, and we may go into a little more detail about those dimensions, and into the OECD’s methodology, a bit later, but for now let’s look at results. The first BLI was produced in 2011, and it sought to measure quality of life in 35 Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries and 6 ‘partner countries’ – though only 38 countries are presented in the latest BLI ratings for some reason. It’s been regularly seeking to expand its membership. The latest BLI is from 2017 and In those ratings, Australia, where we are, is ranked third, behind Norway and Denmark. Last year, Australia was ranked second, and the year before that, first, so something’s going wrong.

Canto: I believe it’s in the dimensions of education and environment that we’re slipping up.

Jacinta: Meanwhile, the USA ranks eighth, moving up from ninth the previous year. Other western countries ahead of it, besides Norway, Denmark and Australia, are Sweden,Canada, Switzerland and Iceland.

Canto: So the USA isn’t doing badly at all, it just can’t call itself the best in the world, according to these criteria. So let’s look at individual dimensions, such as civic engagement, since we want to look at America’s political system.

Jacinta: Well that dimension is supposed to look at citizens’ involvement in democracy, so they’re sort of assuming that all these countries are democratic. The USA comes off well here, in third place, though I’m rather surprised to find that Australia is solidly in top spot in this field. Where the USA fares worst is in community (23rd), in work-life balance (30th, but Australia comes in at 31st) and safety (22nd, but Australia comes 26th!).

Canto: Interesting – the safety dimension looks at assault and murder rates, so for all the school shooting tragedies and gun violence and the attendant publicity, the USA is safer, overall than Australia. That seems incredible. Maybe we should look more carefully at this methodology. Where do they get their stats from?

Jacinta: That would take time to look into. But just taking this on face value, it provides a corrective to many assumptions, positive or negative, we make about the USA. Essentially though, I just just wanted to use the BLI to point out that the rhetoric about the USA as the greatest democracy – or simply the greatest nation –  should be taken with a heap of salt. And of course there are other surveys of ‘best countries’, such as the US News Best Countries survey, which currently ranks the USA in eighth position (the same as the BLI), behind Switzerland, Canada, Germany,  the UK, Japan, Sweden and Australia (a completely different grouping from the BLI – Norway doesn’t even get a mention). This is supposedly based on a ‘variety of metrics’ which it would be impossible to assess here.

Canto: And also, as you’ve mentioned, it’s not just about democracy. One thing I’ve noticed about the liberal pundits on CNN and MSNBC. They’re always talking about the free press and an independent judiciary as pillars of democracy, under threat from the current bullshitter in their china shop. An independent fourth estate and judiciary are pillars all right but not of democracy. In fact they’re bulwarks against the ever-present threat of democracy and the demagogues that take advantage of that flawed but best-of-a-bad-lot political system. That’s to say, they’re part of what Popper termed an ‘open society’ – and a thoroughly elitist part. This is the point that needs constantly to be made – democracy is dodgy as, but no better political system has ever been invented. However, we don’t practice anything like pure democracy, even setting aside the meritocratic institutions like the judiciary and the fourth estate, which hedge it around. Under the westminster system – used by every English-speaking democracy apart from the US – we have a parliament with more power than the US Congress, a judiciary which is generally more independent than that in the US, and a purely titular head of state instead of the all-too-powerful one sanctioned by the US system. There are no veto powers or pardoning powers to speak of, and nobody within that system ever imagines that they’re above the law in any sense whatever. We don’t have impeachment, which seems to me a disastrous political tool, and we tend to eschew the high-falutin term ‘indictment’, we prefer to just charge people with criminal activity – a far more levelling circumstance.

Jacinta: And it also isn’t a pure democracy in that we don’t just vote for anyone in the Westminster system. We vote for parties, with the occasional independent, who of course will never be able to form a government but might be able to curb some government policy. And the parties select candidates based on merit, more or less. Candidates are vetted, to some degree, even if it’s sometimes a bit ad hoc. Again, something of a meritocracy, an element of elitism.

Canto: And I should also mention, since we’re science advocates, that another thoroughly elitist component of an open, civilised society is an independent and flourishing science and technology sector. Climate science, for example, should be as free from politics as it’s possible to make it, and there certainly should be nothing democratic about it. If we based our science on popular vote, civilisation would never have taken off.

Jacinta: Okay, so we’ve laid some of the foundation for our critique of the US political and social system, next we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of why the US is currently in the confrontational mess that it’s in and what might be done, if anything to fix the problem. We’ll bring to the issues all the ambition and arrogance we can muster. It should be fun.

Written by stewart henderson

July 2, 2018 at 11:13 am

John Locke, the glorious revolution and the emergence of modern democracy

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Canto: So I’ve heard from various American pundits, who are concerned about the current move toward despotism over there, that their constitution and their war of independence were all for the purpose of breaking away from such despotism, namely the British monarchy. ‘So how in tarnation can this be hapnen in our country’, they mutter half-tearfully. So please explain.

Jacinta: Well, we can explore rather than explain. I’m no expert on the American constitution, but my general feeling without looking at it in detail would be that it was magnificently revolutionary and forward-thinking for its time, but that time was over 200 years ago. Every structure needs to be renovated now and then.

Canto: Also, though of course I accept that their fight for independence was a just one, their description of the British monarchy as a tyranny was a little over-simplified. It doesn’t take into account the fact that, in the century and a half before American independence, the Brits beheaded one king and chased another out of the country and didn’t accept his successors, William and Mary, until they agreed to conditions restricting their power, including a clear separation of powers. And these restrictive conditions have tightened over the years.

Jacinta: Yes but powerful states, such as the Britain of those days, tend to be more despotic over distant territories than over their home territory, where uprisings are more directly threatening.

Canto: Good point. But what’s interesting, when you look at history, is how much the more spectacular movements towards democracy in the late 18th  century, that’s to say the American independence war and its new state, and the revolution in France, owed to the outcome of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ that ousted James II, and to the philosopher of the new approach to governance, John Locke.

Jacinta: And yet the USA today is suffering under the burden of a potential if not actual despot, and they appear uncertain how to deal with him. It just seems unthinkable that such a character would ever achieve this position under the Westminster system, or in any western European polity.

Canto: Yeah, so wha’s hapnen?

Jacinta: Well, when I listen to the pundits on CNN and MSNBC, and on some of Sam Harris’s podcasts, they tend to talk of an increasingly polarised nation, echo-chambers of ideology enabled by social media sites, lack of civil discourse and the like. That’s to say, issues of today, usually with a tone of ‘it’s not like it used to be’. I suspect that this is a little exaggerated, and that a change of system might be in order.

Canto: So what can the Americans learn from the Westminster system, and from Locke?

Jacinta: Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government was published in 1689, significantly just after the ousting of James II, the installing of a constitutional monarchy, and the establishment of the English Bill of Rights – which, admittedly, was more about parliamentary than individual rights. It’s worth noting that absolute monarchy was then at its height in France under Louis XIV, who naturally felt it incumbent on him to support his ‘divine right’ colleague’s bid to regain the throne. In those days political philosophers were rather thin on the ground, and they liked to compare life under some kind of organised state with life in ‘the state of nature’, which was rather a playground for their imaginations. Locke’s predecessor, a generation or two earlier, Thomas Hobbes, described his ‘natural state’ as a war of all against all, which was nasty, brutish but at least mercifully short. People apparently decided one day to substitute this free-for-all for a scenario in which they’d bestow power on some entity, a Leviathan, in return for safety and protection. In giving up their freedom to this absolute authority they would preserve their lives from the depredations of the other, and what they gained would be better than what they lost. This was, of course, an argument for absolute monarchy just at the time it was being directly challenged. Locke’s perspective was very different, having come out of the experience of civil war between the forces pro and con Charles I, and then later James II – a rabid and very unpopular Catholic.

Canto: Yes, this makes me think of the accidents of history. Had James II been more like his older brother – that is, religiously liberal (or indifferent), more wary of the French, and more ‘indulgent’ with parliament, constitutional monarchy would have been delayed for who knows how long.

Jacinta: Yes, and Locke may not have written the political philosophy that later inspired, or partially inspired, the American and French democratic movements.

Canto: Or partially democratic movements.

Jacinta: Yes, democracy has always been partial, it seems to me. Certainly the constitutional monarchy agreed to by William and Mary in 1688 was far from democratic, but interestingly the upheavals of the period, and the more immediate dissemination of information in the form of political pamphlets – a product of the civil war in the 1640s – led to the emergence of radical democratic groups such as the Levellers, who wanted complete adult suffrage and annual parliaments, and also the Diggers, who demanded communal ownership of land so that no-one might starve. Starvation, by the way, was actually happening due to the harsh enclosure system that protected the landed aristocracy from the canaille. 

Canto: Anyway, I’ve never been sure about how much democracy is enough. Recent history suggests that directly electing a single leader, by national popular vote, can be an unmitigated disaster.

Jacinta: Yes, because it seems that, no matter how hard we try, we can’t get a general populace to make an informed decision. Education has always been touted as the answer, but it can’t be imposed on people, and it’s extraordinary how intractable so many people are to the charms of learning… Anyway, returning to Locke and the late seventeenth century, it’s fascinating to read some of the documents being written at this time, envisaging, in what seems to us today to be thoroughly moderate and reasoned language, changes to the political system that would take another two centuries or more to enact.

Canto: Because ruling powers or classes are, as a whole, extremely reluctant to give the slightest ground, and always think that the position of power granted to them is for the best or ‘natural’. So change generally needs to be incremental, or less, so as not to scare the aristocratic horses.

Jacinta: Anyway, Locke was no radical, and his Second Treatise was designed to justify what had already taken place in the Glorious Revolution. He begins, like Hobbes, with a state-of-nature ‘theory’, in which everyone has equal status and ‘rights’, especially the right to self-preservation, but nobody has the means to enforce those rights. Also, attached to those rights is the obligation to respect and protect the rights of others, which of course speaks to the means in some sense.

Canto: Suggesting some sort of social contract?

Jacinta: Yes, if you like, or the basis of a civil society, a ‘common-weal’ or commonwealth. Here’s a quote from the Second Treatise:

Having in the state of nature no arbitrary power over the life, liberty or possession of another, but only so much as the law of nature gave him for the preservation of himself, and the rest of mankind; this is all he doth, or can give up to the common-wealth, and by it to the legislative power, so that the legislative can have no more than this. Their power in the utmost bounds of it, is limited to the publick good of the society.

What Locke is pointing to here, notably in that last sentence, is that a government’s legitimacy is tied to the public good, and that an illegitimate government, one that doesn’t contribute to the public good, has lost its right to govern and should be dispensed with, one way or another.

Canto: Basically, this argument would’ve been used as a justification for the overthrow of James II, and as a means of limiting the power of his successor.

Jacinta: Government by the consent of the people, through the parliament (which was then hardly representative of the people, but a little more representative than a single absolute monarch), an idea which, with variations, inspired many figures of the 18th century ‘enlightenment’. The words and ideas of Locke were much employed during the 18th century uprisings against the French ancien regime and the British tyranny in America. But in Britain, they were used to justify the people’s fight against Charles I and later James II, in the 17th century. Of course the democratic process progressed by small steps from there, and it’s still progressing, but the work of Locke certainly helped it along. So I’ll end with some more words from the Second Treatise, on people power:

Who shall be the judge whether the Prince or the Legislative act contrary to their trust?…. The people shall be judge, for who shall be judge whether his trustee or deputy acts well, and according to the trust reposed in him, but he who deputes him, and must, by having deputed him have still a power to discard him, when he fails in his trust?


The age of genius: the seventeenth century and the birth of the modern mind, by A C Grayling

The second treatise of civil government, by John Locke

Written by stewart henderson

May 29, 2018 at 1:22 am

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.

Written by stewart henderson

June 18, 2017 at 11:10 am

a few words on Donald Trump and democracy

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Phineas T Barnum, a rather more likeable huckster

Phineas T Barnum, a rather more likeable huckster

I’ve never been too much exercised on US domestic politics, but I listened with some interest to an interview on the Point of Inquiry podcast recently with David Cay Johnston, the author of a book on Donald Trump, inter alia, and he effectively explained how such an obviously boorish character functioned, though he didn’t so much explain why he got to where he is today – which would require a different book, one that reads the psyche of a particular type of individual, or ‘mark’.

The term ‘mark’ is used by magicians playing as ‘psychics’ or ‘faith healers’ etc to refer to the easily duped. Johnson, in his book The Making of Donald Trump, describes Trump as a Barnum & Bailey ‘huckster’ type, far more interested in persuasion, usually for the purpose of making money, than truth. What struck Johnston, when he first reported on Trump in relation to his interest in casinos in the late eighties, was his ignorance, even of the business at hand. He tested this himself by asking Trump questions which contained deliberately false information and watching how Trump handled them. And of course got the usual arrogant bluster that we’ve all observed.

So this is the question. Why does anyone takes Trump seriously? I remember my own first experience of Trump, years ago, when he hosted some kind of reality show in which he was interviewing prospective job-seekers. It only took about five minutes to realise that the fellow was a self-important loudmouth and a bullying dirtbag. So it didn’t take long for my feelings of contempt to switch from the oxygen-thief to his ‘victims’. What kind of idiot would put herself in this position? Apparently it had to do with money and the power that it brought…

So the worry I have is not about the huckster Trump, it’s about those who take him seriously, his ‘marks’. And it’s also about the process by which anyone can obtain high political office in a very powerful country – a position of huge responsibility. Arguably, it’s a problem of democracy.

This problem was highlighted some 2,500 years ago, right at the beginning of democracy as a political system, when the sort of populism and demagoguery that Trump utilises so instinctively brought ancient Athens to its knees, and it’s the principle reason why the intellectual elites represented by the likes of Thucydides, Plato and Aristotle were so vehemently opposed to democracy. They’d witnessed the disastrous Sicilian campaign (which precipitated Athenian decline in the region) which they blamed, not entirely fairly, on that system. Certainly they recognised the dangers of such populists as Cleon and Alcibiades, though neither they nor anyone after them were able to come up with a better system. Plato’s Republic, which advocated, perhaps not entirely seriously, rule by an intellectual elite, was hampered by an absurdly static notion of society, a sort of eugenics avant la lettre, as if intellectuals (and warriors, and servants) were born and not made – or, at least, a mixture of both.

Yet if you look at our political system today, you’ll find that we temper the democratic political system with a fair degree of intellectual elitism in the form of our judiciary – the ‘unrepresentative swill’ that preside over our high court and other courts throughout the land, interpreting legislature judiciously and causing grumbling parliamentarians to find new and more thoughtful laws to get round them. And I would advocate another form of ‘elitist’ intervention to ensure more responsible government.

I’ve mentioned this before when I suggested that individuals who want to stand for public office, thus to participate in making laws that influence our citizenry and showcase our nation to the world (and more than this in the case of powerful nations), should have to pass a reasonably stringent scientific literacy test. Of course, such an idea will never get up, so I’m proposing an even broader one.

It’s expected that anybody applying for a job involving considerable responsibility should be submitted to considerable scrutiny regarding their plans for the job, their understanding of the job’s requirements, and their knowledge of the fields covered by the job. In the case of becoming the President of a nation, this scrutiny should surely be imperative. So, a rigorous questioning of the candidate’s knowledge and ideas with respect to that nation’s economic situation, its domestic and foreign policies, as well as a basic understanding of science in relation to national and global issues, should be an absolute minimum requirement.

Compare this requirement to what actually exists today. No scrutiny whatsoever. A complete protection against tough questioning on these matters, with no requirement to justify to the people who they serve – as the ultimate public servant – any remark or decision they make. It’s a problem.

Trump won’t become President, because though he knows how to play to and work a particular crowd, that crowd will continue to shrink as his tactics are exposed by the media and especially by those who otherwise would support the conservative side of politics he’s vaguely aligned himself to, but it’s surely a systemic failure that such an inappropriate and ignorant candidate should ever get to where he is today. If that’s how democracy works, then democracy isn’t enough. Democracy has its limits – it has become far too unquestioned as a political system. Its limits are in fact considerable. We shouldn’t decide scientific matters by democratic process (that sounds obvious, but I’ve heard more than one polly say the exact opposite), and we shouldn’t, in my view allow just anyone to stand for political office, especially at the top level. The consequences might be dire. And we should also do our best, though it’s a hard road to hoe, to make every vote count, by making it as generally informed and reasoned as possible. There’s nothing new about that last statement, but it still holds true. Democracy without education, in the broadest sense, isn’t worth much.

Plus ca change...

Plus ca change…

Written by stewart henderson

August 13, 2016 at 9:55 am