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Posts Tagged ‘democracy

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.

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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

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