an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

Posts Tagged ‘politics

Who will ultimately take responsibility for the boy-king?

leave a comment »

I’ve not read the book The dangerous case of Donald Trump, which seeks to highlight the POTUS’ mental health issues, because like many an ignoramus, I consider myself already an expert on these matters. The term ‘boy-king’, used by Sam Harris among others, sums up this individual quite nicely. ‘Spoilt brat’ is another term that comes to mind. It’s a term that would repay some simple analysis. Food, or a holiday, or a romantic evening, that is spoilt usually can’t be unspoiled. It’s gone, it’s done, you need to start again with another meal, another evening, another holiday. A spoilt child, unfortunately, is the same. He’s spoilt forever – that’s why early childhood is so important. I’m sure the psychologists analysing Trump have focused particularly on his childhood, as it is always key to understanding the adult, as the famous Dunedin longitudinal study and countless other studies have shown. Think also of a spectacular and tragic example – the Romanian orphans discovered after the fall of Ceausescu, not spoilt brats of course but permanently damaged by extreme neglect. And another – Masha Gessen’s  biography of Vladimir Putin provides insight into his horrifically malign personality through glimpses of a bizarre childhood in the devastated post-war city of St Petersburg.

I don’t know much about Trump’s childhood, but I imagine it to be very much like that of the proud patrician Coriolanus in one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. Coriolanus is both spoilt and il-treated by his mother, so that he struts about from the get-go with an air of privilege and power, a sense of self-importance which is completely unearned. Trump is much the same – too smart to actually learn anything, too important to need anyone’s advice. Of course, Coriolanus is a brave warrior, while Trump is a coward. And yet, in the field of business he’s also a scrapper, relishing the language of macho thuggery.

But enough of the literary guff, Trump’s less than adequate upbringing is plain to see in his solipsistic, tantrumming output. Amongst many screamingly serious red flags was his question to a military authority, ‘If we have all these nuclear weapons, why don’t we use them?’ Apparently he asked this question repeatedly. It’s a question an adolescent, or rather a pre-adolescent, might ask (most adolescents are pretty sophisticated these days). It can be interpreted two ways – he wasn’t being serious, he was just attention-seeking, or he was being serious and he genuinely couldn’t grasp the enormity of what he was saying. Both interpretations, and they could in some sense both be true, are indicative of a pre-adolescent mind-set. And by the way, so is his constant repeating of the same phrases, which reveal the lack of language skills of the pre-adolescent. And there are many other examples – the nasty name-calling, the transparency and ineptitude of his lies and attempted cover-ups, the neediness, the impulsiveness, the attention deficit, everything he says and does just about.

But here’s the problem I keep coming back to. Trump’s pre-adolescent behaviours have been on display since his pre-adolescent days, much more publicly than with your common or garden spoilt brat. So why was he ever allowed to make a tilt at what Americans would undoubtedly describe, with much reason, as the most responsible position on the face of this earth? THIS is the greatest conundrum of the Trump presidency. Americans like to argue that anybody can become President, as if that’s one of the things that makes America great. It’s a very very very very bad argument.

Another screamingly obvious point: this spoilt brat should be removed from office because, as a perpetual pre-adolescent, someone who will never become an adult, he’s totally incompetent for this position. Yes he has probably committed crimes, but that’s not why he should be removed. It’s because he’s actually just a little boy. He’s not responsible for his actions. It’s not his fault that can’t think clearly, that he’s impulsive and tunnel-visioned and profoundly insecure and pathologically self-absorbed. In fact, if he’s ever indicted, he should probably be tried as a minor, because that’s what he is. But that he is President, that will forever be America’s shame.

The famous fable of the Emperor’s new clothes comes to mind. In this variant, everybody tries to pretend they can’t see that their President is a little boy. Some of his long-time associates or playmates quite genuinely support him, are possibly quite genuinely oblivious of his profound stuntedness, perhaps because like is attracted to like. Others have found him a ‘useful idiot’ to be cynically manipulated for their own ends. Most of those opposed to him prefer to pretend he’s fully adult so that they can punish him and all his cronies to the full extent of the law. But another over-riding reason for all the pretence is that nobody around the President, or indeed in the whole country, wants to take responsibility for allowing a little boy to become their POTUS. A little boy who’d been quite clearly a little boy since he was a little boy, some sixty years ago. And it didn’t take anything like a degree in psychology to see it.

A spoilt, brattish, hurt little boy with the power of the POTUS in his hands is a very frightening thing. Bringing all this to an end isn’t going to be easy, but doing so as quickly and painlessly as possible has to be the highest priority.

And what about Pence? If Americans come to their senses and realize that all of a little boy’s political decisions, whether in office or before, should be invalidated because he’s a minor, then they’ll avoid the post-Trump disaster of President Pence. Will they do that? Very very unlikely. That would be a very adult undertaking indeed.

Written by stewart henderson

August 30, 2018 at 2:28 pm

Trump: the slo-mo train wreck is far from over – it’s likely to get much worse

leave a comment »

some semi-reluctant future reading – or maybe I’ll just watch the video

This morning I heard an American pundit saying Trump has got to change his approach and become more co-operative with investigating authorities, because his strategy isn’t working. Everybody is offering Trump free advice but he’s unlikely to take it because he’s Trump. People don’t change very much, they certainly don’t become completely different people, certainly not after the age of seventy. Trump has spent his life among crooked rich people, he was brought up by crooked rich people, he only admires crooked rich people, and he will die as crooked as he has lived. That’s his fate.

What pundits should really be working on, IMHO, is limiting his power and curbing his destructive tendencies. Now that the cognoscenti are coming to realise that better vetting processes should have applied to candidates for the overly-powerful position of POTUS, they should be doing their utmost to put obstacles in the way of that power (followed by root and branch reform of the entire political system once Trump is dumped). For example, putting real pressure on White House staffers, many of whom should know by now that the writing’s on the wall, to resign en masse. Or even just to suggest that they do so? Rats tend to desert a sinking ship, but perhaps not if they don’t sense any land in the offing, a safe haven to run to. So maybe it would be the most ethical thing to do, now, to entice Trump’s enablers to abandon him, not entirely without penalty, but with less penalty than if they stick with him to the end. A bit like offering limited immunity. And in the same way, the media should be onto those in Congress who are enabling Trump, or are not being sufficiently vocal in their opposition, or their position in general, to speak their minds more clearly. It’s time for more media hounding, for the sake of the beleaguered nation. Two of Trump’s most vocal supporters in Congress are now being prosecuted as swamp creatures, not surprisingly. More needs to be made of this.

I’m not talking here about ‘weaponising’ the media, or being partisan. This is clearly about corruption and the law. My own early recognition of Trump as a boorish, tasteless, noisome, proudly ignorant, self-serving buffoon had little to do with politics. I’ve learned over this year that he was a ‘lifelong Democrat’ until a few years ago. I didn’t believe it any more than I believe he’s a Republican now. He knows as much about politics, history and international affairs as he does about science. But I’ve also learned more about his inherent dishonesty and crookedness. The responsible media generally recognise this, and they should play, more openly, a heroic role in bringing him down. It wouldn’t be a partisan role, it would be about nation-building, or nation-repairing.

It’s important here not to be partisan, and that’s why it’s essential to focus on the law rather than on politics. Certainly there needs to be a political backlash against Trump, and against his Republican enablers, but I’ve already expressed my skepticism of impeachment, a political process, as a means of dismissing political leaders. All citizens should be subject to the law, regardless of position or profession. This is not to say the mid-term elections aren’t important, as the country needs more liberals and democrats in positions of authority to counter Trump’s fascistic or mafioso-style approach to government. However, the mid-term elections are over two months away, plenty of time for more damage to be done to the country’s political institutions by an increasingly desperate ‘Commander-in Chief’.

The preposterous and disgustingly juvenile, and typically American, idea that their POTUS may be above prosecution simply because he’s too important and vital to the workings of the State, needs to be punctured beyond repair. This seems to me a high-priority issue. Of course, the fact that the USA has given its POTUS too much power will make things difficult in the immediate post-Trump period, but this is a tough lesson that needs to be learned. It seems a constitutional crisis may be just what’s needed to get the nation to wake from its jingoistic slumber and start working on a better, more collegial and distributed power system than the current hero-worshipping laughing-stock it has created for itself.

So let’s go to the issue of indictment, and later we’ll go to the aftermath, which will presumably be a Pence Presidency – not a pleasant prospect, from what I’ve heard.

Unfortunately the indictment of a sitting President is regarded as a constitutional matter – unlike the indictment of any other citizen, presumably. This is a situation that should be rectified. Section 3 of Article 1 of the US Constitution puts it thus:

“Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust,or Profit under the United States; but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.”

Note the unclear wording here. It talks about impeachment first, which to my mind, is irrelevant. It’s the last part that is relevant, though it gets entangled with impeachment – ‘The party convicted shall nevertheless be liable to and subject to indictment’, etc. But impeachment is not about being convicted. The law convicts, surely. The Constitution was signed into law in 1787, and is a source of understandable pride to the American people, but it’s hardly to be expected that it would make everything clear and precise for the next two hundred-odd years. It looks as though indictment should follow impeachment, which is, it seems, misrepresented as ‘convicted’, but it cannot surely be the case that if the President commits what constitutes a ‘high crime or misdemeanour’ (and I really hope that term is clear in US law) he has to be impeached before being charged. That, to me, would be outrageous. It’s very obviously the wrong way round – though of course, you’d have to be sure that the Justice Department had a very sound case before proceeding – perhaps with a speaking indictment (I really like them things). And then, of course, if conviction occurs, impeachment wouldn’t be an issue. It would just be a matter of a change of residence.

It’s astounding, and frankly appalling, that some soi-disant constitutional lawyers really do argue for immunity (while in office) due to the heavy duties of the Presidency  (duties that Trump largely avoids), while other experts argue that Presidents really do have the power to pardon themselves. It’s yet another indication that Yanks, even high-powered legal eagle ones, are in thrall to the wankeries of their worst movies, featuring the vigilante superhero out to save the State from itself, with collateral damage just being part of the thrill.

Considering such jejune but baked-in attitudes about their ‘commander-in chief’, it’s unlikely that Americans will learn much from the current debacle. Still no proper vetting at the outset, still no reduction of pardoning and other powers, still no integration of the Presidency with Congress, still insufficient checks and balances, still the same childishly carnivalesque two-horse races every four years, still the same embarrassing, unreflective jingoism. And still, I find it all quite fascinating. I’m just glad I’m not actually there.

So what will happen by years’ end? Presumably impeachment proceedings, depending on the numbers in both houses – I haven’t yet read up on impeachment, what it requires and entails, and I’ll be doing that soon. But presumably impeachment isn’t easily enforceable, and Trump will ignore it and rely on his base to protect him. That’s when things will get really interesting.

Written by stewart henderson

August 27, 2018 at 1:04 pm

Posted in elections

Tagged with , , , , , ,

Lecturing the USA: less jingoistic complacency, more scrutiny of a failing system

leave a comment »

While convalescing from a severe viral infection, I’ve been paying almost too much attention to MSNBC and CNN as they more or less impotently report on the brutal farce that is the Trump presidency.

In the last year or so I’ve been on a steep learning curve about the workings of the US electoral system, and its politico-economic system in general. Much of what I’ve learned has frankly appalled me. And it may take a few posts to get all of this off my chest. We’ll see.

A couple of days ago, on the Rachel Maddow show, a legal pundit and former Attorney-General David Hickton, describing a matter relating to foreign interference in the US, just happened to drop the line ‘the world’s greatest democracy’, apropos of nothing much at all. It wasn’t spoken with discernible pride or even emphasis; it was a perfunctory remark. And I’ve heard this perfunctory remark, or variations of it – ‘the leader of the free world’, ‘the greatest nation on earth’, ‘the country everyone looks to as an example’, ‘the greatest beacon of freedom’ – so often, and trotted out so mindlessly, that it occurs to me that it is probably part of an educational edict or axiom in the USA, imprinted in the first school years at age 5 or 6. Any American who applies critical thinking to this axiom places herself at extreme risk, it seems to me. But it also seems obvious to me that such application, as to the axioms of Euclid or the Catechism, will yield many positive results.

It’s hard to know where to begin with this criticism. Of course I’ve already highlighted some problems in previous posts – here, here and here. Most of this criticism has been about the structure of the US system – giving their ‘commander-in-chief’ far more power than occurs in other democracies; fatally separating parliament, or congress, from the President and his personally chosen (and also overly-powerful) staff, including such vital positions as Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, National Security Advisor, Chief of Staff, Secretary of Homeland Security,  and the Secretary of Health and Human Services, among others. Congress has some oversight in the appointment to some of these positions, but astonishingly none of the people appointed to these high offices need to have had previous political experience, or to have been elected through any parliamentary process.

Other Presidential privileges I’ve learned about – somewhat goggle-eyed I have to say – are extensive veto and pardoning powers, power to select members of the high judiciary, and, most incredibly, the ability to turn what appears to be a Presidential whim into immediate action, as in the arbitrary imposition of tarrifs and the separation of children from parents seeking asylum on the southern border. Neither of these extraordinary and extremely problematic directives seem to have required any kind of congressional oversight whatsoever. Looking for a recipe for dictatorship anyone? Just check out the USA.

This is what the US system allows, but virtually no prominent member of the fourth estate has had anything critical to say about it. All their reporting is about the trees – their educational brainwashing from childhood apparently blinds them to a forest that was never healthy and is now dying fast.

The USA’s love of democracy means that the whole nation has significant national elections every two years, unlike in the Westminster system (approximately 3 years in Australia and New Zealand, 4 years  in Canada and 5 years in the UK). Presidential elections in particular are hyped-up affairs involving massive expenditures, and they really resemble sports tournaments, somewhat like Wimbledon, in which the contenders are eliminated one by one (often because they can’t maintain the expense of campaigning) until we have the final ding-dong battle for the top job. The two contenders get to choose their running mate – their doubles partner, so to speak – who can be as dumb and/or incompetent as you like, and who gets to be Prez if the winning contender is forced to retire or resign, or dies in office. Think of the then much-ridiculed Dan Quayle, the still-much ridiculed Sarah Palin, and the now-dreaded Mike Pence.

It’s part of the USA’s anti-collectivist, libertarian culture that they celebrate the ‘great man’ tough guy up against the forces of some evil or at least seriously flawed organisation or state (think Sylvester Stallone, Arnie Schwarzeneggear, Bruce Willis etc), and this is how they like to see their President, and seems to be why they give him such unparalleled power. It seems to me kind of juvenile, in the way of Hollywood movies. And then, having foisted so much power on him (always him, but more of that later), they then (or some of them) use this as an argument to bolster his power even further by suggesting he’s too indispensable to be charged with a crime while in office!! I’ve not yet heard from any American commentator who has recognised or highlighted the sheer absurdity of this conundrum.

Now, I recognise that the USA can compare itself favourably with other democratic nations. India and Indonesia spring to mind, as more or less fledgling democracies with massive problems of poverty, ethnic and religious tensions, as well as the ever-present lure of graft and corruption and the pressures of tribal and in-group associations. And I’m insufficiently expert in the political systems of Germany, France, Spain and most other Western European nations to make detailed comparisons, though I suspect such comparisons would be highly embarrassing to the USA. I do have a certain familiarity with the Westminster system, however, and it strikes me as superior to the US system in a number of ways. The most obvious is that there is virtually no chance that the Prime Minister can ‘go rogue’, as the swampy US President has done. The Prime Minister is primus inter pares, someone who has come up through the ranks, proven herself within the party, and sits with her party, at its head, in parliament, leading and participating with that party in debates before the House. Her principle role is to articulate the party’s agenda and policies, to deal effectively with objections and to bring those policies into law by shepherding them through the tough terrain of the House and the Senate (in the case of Australia). There’s limited opportunity for lone wolf, ‘off the cuff’ decision-making – there’s a whole crew of elected cabinet ministers tasked to deal with immigration, foreign relations, trade, education, health, infrastructure, agriculture and the like, and it would be considered scandalous if the PM made some impromptu decision over their heads (or tried to). It would be seen as arrogant and unprofessional and frankly extraordinary, not just because it breaks precedent, but more importantly, because the cult of the go-it-alone vigilante hero is not part of our society – that’s a uniquely American thing, at least in its intensity. A disciplined, collegial approach is what is expected here.

The difference is exemplified by the fact that Trump was a ‘Democrat’ a few years back and now he’s a ‘Republican’, but it should be clear to any reasoning observer that he’s neither. His interest in politics, such as it is, is only for the power, attention and money it provides him. And the US system enables this in that their President virtually never passes through the doors of their parliament, let alone works there. The ‘White House’ represents an entirely separate institution, and the importance of the more or less daily White House briefings highlights this disastrous separation and the over-emphasis placed on the heroic ‘commander-in-chief’.

Time and again I hear US pundits lauding the checks and balances which prevent their swampy president from going ‘full dictator’, but any comparison with the Westminster system will show that no leader in that system could have survived this long while attacking the law enforcement and justice systems, ridiculing basic science, supporting and praising foreign enemy states, and refusing to act on well-attested interference in the political system by those states. It’s also important to note that dumping a toxic or under-performing or unpopular leader under the Westminster system is much more easily done and far less traumatic. In fact it happens quite often between elections.

There is no such thing as impeachment in the Westminster system. It seems obvious to me that if a national leader, or any other senior cabinet minister, is charged with a crime, they should step down until a judicial decision is reached, though this may depend on the severity of the alleged crime. Impeachment, as I understand it, is a purely congressional process, and should have no place in deciding on criminal behaviour – as should be obvious. The whole business of impeachment has a political odour to it, and the Westminster system is far better without it.

There are no doubt many other problems with the US system as such, including the vetting of candidates for high office (you shouldn’t let just anyone run for President) and the rules regarding making money from the Presidency, but I want now to turn to other reasons why the US may be more likely to turn dictatorship than other western democracies.

These reasons, to some degree, go back to Plato and Aristotle, unabashed elitists who warned of demagogues and their appeal to the ‘mob’. Trump’s base consists largely of the USA’s ‘left behind’, people without tertiary education qualifications, people who are largely under-employed and underpaid, people who feel trapped and angry, people who hate the political and business elites, people with grievances they can’t readily articulate. True, there are other supporters, elitist libertarians who want more freedom from taxation, the crooked rich people who flock to Mar-a-lago and Trump Towers, etc, but they are small in number if large in ego and influence. It’s worth noting here the remarks by Tony Schwarz, author of the ‘Trump’ book The Art of the Deal, to the effect that Trump actually despises his base, whom he sees as losers. What he delights in, of course, is their fawning allegiance to him, and the way he can whip them into a fervour over practically nothing. Trump, of course, spends no time in the company of steel workers or farmers or war veterans, he far prefers the exclusive company of crooked rich people.

In most democracies the ‘working-class’, among whom I grew up, are somewhat divided in their political allegiance, torn between the promise of support for social services, infrastructure and jobs from the left and the promise from the right of crack-downs on immigration and crime, and generally macho law-and-order and nation-building issues or rhetoric. In the US we might embody these promises in people like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the one hand, or Trump or one of his many imitators on the other. But what’s interesting is that, among the elite, and the fourth estate in particular, there’s a clear bias against the kind of interventionist policies and social services that place Australia, for example, way ahead of the USA on the OECD list of best countries to live in. Too often I hear journos in the US interviewing candidates like Ocasio-Cartez and questioning them skeptically on their ‘socialist’ policies. ‘Socialism’ is quite possibly the dirtiest word in the American language, but what Americans call ‘socialist government’ is essentially what western Europeans and Australians and others call ‘government’.

It’s this bias, of course, that will forever prevent the USA from climbing further up on the OECD list. The libertarian fantasy, it needs to be asserted, is just as corrosive as the socialist fantasy. In the USA it means that the ‘left behind’, in their millions, are much more primed to look to a super-hero anti-state saviour with a slogan to make them all great, than to look to stronger regulatory models such as exist in western countries that are mere names to them. That’s why you have, at one end of the spectrum, angry, unhealthy, insular people with insufficient education  and too few prospects while at the other end you have under-regulated parasitic capitalists, investment bankers, speculators and fraudsters  – people like Manafort and Gates, the Koch brothers, Roger Stone and of course Trump himself, who happily enrich themselves while contributing zero to the common good.

In short, the problems the USA faces, post-Trump, are many-faceted and unfortunately well-entrenched. And to end on a purely selfish note, I’m just frankly glad their not my problems.

Written by stewart henderson

August 17, 2018 at 2:14 pm

on the US political and social system in crisis: 2 – the head of state and the constitution

leave a comment »


Canto: So, as we’ve said, the most substantial difference between the US political system and the Westminster system adopted with slight variations by other English-speaking democracies is the position of Head of State. Here in Australia, as in Canada, New Zealand and Britain, Queen Elizabeth II holds that position, and she’s represented locally, outside Britain, by Governors-General. There are differences in each country, with their state and provincial governments and legislatures, but essentially all of these countries are constitutional monarchies in which the head of state and her representatives have extremely limited powers. The USA by contrast has a Republican government in which power and authority is supposed to rest in the people through their elected representatives.

Jacinta: But as you’ve said, the monarch’s power within the Westminster system has been eroded over time by legislation, and essentially given over to the people through their elected reps.

Canto: Yes, as discussed in a previous post, the liberal political philosophy of John Locke was utilised both in the draughting of legislation limiting the monarch’s power in 1689 (and subsequently), and in the draughting of the US Constitution in 1787. That constitution instituted three separate arms of power, legislative, executive and judicial.

Jacinta: It’s said to be the oldest continually operating constitution in the world, which may be an object of pride, but it may also be an obstacle to reform. Just saying.

Canto: What we’re most interested in here is the executive power, defined largely in Article II of the Constitution. The US President has Constitutional powers regarding the vetoing of Congressional bills and the pardoning of convicted persons. These powers are clearly controversial, never more than in the present situation.

Jacinta: And how do they compare with Prime Ministerial powers under the Westminster system?

Canto: Well you never really hear of them, much. The pardoning power, though, isn’t invested in the Prime Minister, it’s delegated to the member of government most responsible for legal matters, in Australia’s case the Attorney-General, and in England the Lord Chancellor. It’s signed off by the monarch or her representative. It’s rarely used, and never controversially as far as I can tell.

Jacinta: But that seems a definite improvement on the US system, spreading the power load, so to speak. And they don’t trade in politically charged pardons, as that would be political suicide.

Canto: As you might think it would be in the US, but often their President pardons people just as he’s about to leave office, when he can’t be re-elected anyway. And that’s another difference. There’s no time limit on the Prime Minister’s tenure, and his length of time in office is just as often dependent on his party’s shifting allegiance as it is on the electorate. So pardoning, when it happens, would tend to be a more consultative process than in the US. And of course there’s no Westminster equivalent to the US President’s veto powers – another limit to placing power in the hands of one person.

Jacinta: So now to the principal difference between the US system and the Westminster system, the fact that the US President is directly elected, albeit through the Electoral College.

Canto: Yes, and he selects his running mate, the potential Vice President, who goes through no electoral process at all. And then appoints a whole host of executive officers – Secretary of State, Secretary of Defence and so on, and on. This is disastrous when you have a populist but obviously politically naive and ignorant candidate, who unsurprisingly selects an equally moronic running mate. Again, compare the Westminster system, where elections are about parties, so that voters, if they’re informed, consider a number of factors which militate against pure populism. These include the policy of the party, the local member in their electorate, and the leader of their party of choice – a leader who is chosen by her peers on the basis of ability, style, popularity, party loyalty and other factors. You’re much less likely to get a witless outsider as your Prime Minister in such circumstances.

Jacinta: And what about an incompetent or criminal head of state? How do you get rid of him in the USA?

Canto: Well of course under the Westminster system the PM is essentially the captain of the party team, but there’s no problem with the team dumping their captain if they feel he’s letting the side down. This doesn’t have to mean an election, though of course it may lead to popular disaffection with the ruling party – but then again it could lead to a swing in the other direction. But the situation of a dud head of state in the US system is far less clear. The whole nation can apparently be held hostage by a President who refuses to recognise any curb on a power that’s already far greater than that of any other leader of a modern democracy.

Jacinta: Well, the serious problem the US finds itself in is highlighted by the confusion about Presidential power, with many pundits claiming in all seriousness that their President can’t be charged with a crime while in office. The absurdity of such putative immunity should be obvious to any sensible person.

Canto: And the President can’t be removed from office it seems, for example through losing the support of his party.

Jacinta: No, because the structure of government is so different there, with the President surrounding himself with his own personal appointees, who will naturally support him. Of course our PM personally selects his cabinet, but these are all elected representatives, members of the party elected to government. Their allegiance is above all to the team, not just to the captain. So what does the US Constitution actually say about removing a dud Prez?

Canto: Well not surprisingly, Article II also describes the conditions for removal of the President:

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors. The Constitution also allows for involuntary removal from office…

Jacinta: Wow, so it might be constitutionally possible to get rid of the whole gang in one fell swoop? Conspiracy with Russian (enemy) agents to win an election, doesn’t that sound like treason? But then there’s this shabby-sounding, very un-Westminster process called impeachment, an inherently doubtful political instrument, surely. Isn’t conviction enough?

Canto: Well, of course impeachment and the rules around it have become hot topics in recent times. We know for example that impeachment doesn’t necessarily mean removal from office, so again the ability of the US Head of State to worm his way out of almost every attempt to remove him remains a serious problem, and a pretty egregious failure of the system. But yes, impeachment is a chimeric blend of legal and political judgement/justice. In most democracies, or at least many, being charged with a crime would be sufficient for removal from office. But the reason, it seems, that this is such a problem in the US is that the head of the state’s ‘executive’ staff are appointed by him, unelected, and therefore none of them really have a mandate from the people to govern.

Jacinta: Well, despite all the problems, the US is headed for almost certain impeachment in this case…

Canto: Well, hopefully the Mueller charges will be comprehensive and wide-ranging, leaving little room for doubt among the majority. Currently, just about everything hangs on the Mueller findings, and we haven’t heard too much from the enquiry recently.

Jacinta: One problem seems to be that that new avenues for enquiry keep opening up almost on a daily basis. It’s like they’re sitting at a table covered in dishes of rich food, and the waiters keep coming out with new dishes before they’ve properly digested what they’ve got. At some point they might just shut the doors and say ‘stop, we’re full up and we’re hurting!’

Canto: But another problem is that the Head of State may choose not to resign after being impeached, claiming that everybody’s being treasonous except himself. What then?

Jacinta: Well we seem to be constantly entering new territory – because nobody has sufficiently considered the prospect of a demagogic but completely lawless head of state. What the USA needs to face, once this crisis is over – and it’s surely set to worsen over the next year or so – is that their system needs a drastic overhaul, with power being more distributed, less concentrated in one individual. That’s the screamingly obvious lesson that virtually no American pundits seem to have learned – so prevalent is the jingoistic disease over there. And currently it’s almost impossible to change their beloved constitution.

Canto: Yes I think we need to look more closely at their constitution and their future. Changing the constitution requires passing an amendment through both houses of Congress with a two thirds majority. But so many changes are needed, regarding Presidential powers (for example the appointment of White House officials and their staff), regarding the financial affairs of the head of state, regarding prosecution of the head of state, regarding the conducting of elections for the head of state. It’s really hard to know where to start, but they have to make their system more flexible, so that the adults can take over when absolutely necessary. I’m happy to stick with my prediction that the present incumbent will be out of office by year’s end, but I’m far less sanguine about it being a non-violent transition. And who will be the replacement? For the rest of the world it’s an embarrassment (and for some, merely a joke), but for the USA it’s a tragedy. Hopefully, though, some vital, if humiliating, lessons will be learned.


Written by stewart henderson

July 8, 2018 at 9:57 pm

Posted in head of state

Tagged with , , ,

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

leave a comment »

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

zero sum game nationalism, Chinese style

leave a comment »

Jacinta: So we’ve been hearing about Russia’s, or Putin’s, obsession with wrecking democratic processes in the USA, Europe and elsewhere – not to mention in Russia itself – but what about Russia’s much more economically smart neighbour, China? We know it’s bent on interference, but for what reason, and to what degree?

Canto: Well this conversation’s based on something we heard this morning, about China having interfered, or tried to, in the last few federal elections, and the consequent problem of foreign donations and investments, and ‘pay for play’ generally.

Jacinta: Yes there’s been a top secret report into foreign interference generally, which is unfortunately ‘classified’, but some of it’s being leaked apparently, and there’s an article about it here. The report names China as the most concerning nation.

Canto: Quelle surprise. And it gets murky fairly quickly, with former NSW Premier and federal Foreign Minister Bob Carr, clearly a Chinese government apologist, trying to undermine John Garnaut, the principal author of the secret report. He recently described Garnaut as one of ”the leaders of the recent anti-China panic in the Australian media”.

Jacinta: Right – why should we panic about the most populous and economically dynamic nation on the planet, a massive human rights abusing dictatorship, interfering with all of our election processes down to the council level, with increasing frequency and sophistication? Surely they’re just doing it for our benefit?

Canto: Garnaut’s ASIO enquiry examined China’s infiltration of Australian political parties, media and academia, and it probed the activities of Huang Xiangmo, a billionaire Chinese businessman who created a ‘think tank’ (always a term to raise the skeptical antennae) called the Australian China Relations Institute (ACRI), headed by Carr. Huang also runs a lobbying organisation for the Chinese Communist Party. Garnaut provided testimony to the US Congress a couple of months ago about China’s considerable activities in interfering with Australian elections. Meanwhile Carr is talking up how friendly to us the Chinese dictatorship is, and questioning Garnaut’s right to advise the government on these matters. He doesn’t seem to have much interest in the facts about interference – which admittedly, we’re all in the dark about, in terms of details. Anyway, ACRI appears to be little more than a lobbying group.

Jacinta: I worry about academic interference, as I work in a field that’s become ever more dependent on full-fee Chinese students. What’s most clear about Chinese students – pace those from Hong Kong – is their general ignorance of and indifference to a political system that allows them no voice and provides them with minimal and distorted info. So I try to open their minds a little, but I get nervous – I’ve heard of spies in the ranks, reporting back to the Beijing bully-boys. And fear of ‘insulting’ the dictatorship, biting the hand that feeds us, will surely be hampering university administrators as well. The worry is that the universities profiting from all this Chinese money will become advocates of a softly softly approach and turning a blind eye to political influence.

Canto: But so far we haven’t addressed the question of what China hopes to gain through interference. Clive Hamilton – no doubt one of Carr’s ‘panic merchants’ –  had much trouble publishing his book Silent Invasion, simply for fear of a Beijing backlash. Two major publishers backed out – were they leaned on? The book raises questions about Carr and Andrew Robb and their dealings with billionaire businessmen..

Jacinta: But look, I do wonder about Silent Invasion‘s subtitle, ‘how China is turning Australia into a puppet state’. Doesn’t that sound a teensy bit panicky?

Canto: Granted, but there are disturbing things happening on Australian soil – which we shouldn’t panic about, but we should act upon. And we should be aware that China is not our friend, as is generally the case with small countries when big countries come sniffing around them. Look at the Philippines way back in the day, when they got some US assistance in their fight for independence from Spain. Once the natives had gained their independence the poor buggers then had to fight off the US, which was only interested in gaining control. Rule of thumb for small countries – don’t trust the overtures of the friendly giants in your neighbourhood, because for the time being, until we grow out of this infantile stage of humanity, nationalism is largely a zero sum game.

Jacinta: There was a small demonstration by a group of Tibetans in Canberra some years ago, at the time of the Beijing Olympics torch relay. They were set upon by Chinese thugs, apparently in what appears to have been an organised attack. Wonder what organisation was behind it. On that occasion, thousands of Chinese students were apparently bussed into Canberra, to celebrate their Chinese-ness. Rumour has it that they were bribed with job offers in China. That probably happens in China itself – fealty to the dictatorship is doubtless a pre-requisite for getting on in business there.

Canto: And the Chinese government recently issued a warning to students due to attacks on them by Australians, though it looks to have been an over-reaction, and probably politically motivated.

Jacinta: I’m sure there have been such racist attacks, we’re just as racist as other countries of course, but the Chinese government would love to have something to criticise us for. Our government’s announcement of tougher espionage laws was met by the usual claims from China of bias and a cold war mentality.

Canto: Those laws were announced precisely as a result of evidence of Chinese interference, and the reasons for the interference are the usual nationalistic ones – to get Australia to allow more Chinese investment, to have a more sympathetic attitude to China’s expansionism in the region, to support China’s domestic assimilation policies and the like. So there are the usual self-interested big nation issues, but there’s also the drive to get Australia, and other nations, to wholly accept its oligarchic and dictatorial closed society with its associated human rights abuses as legitimate, or at least of no concern to other nations.

Jacinta: The Sydney Morning Herald has a maddeningly undated 3-part online article, ‘China’s Operation Australia’, written by a team of top journalists, which highlights ASIO’s concerns about influence peddling and the monitoring of Chinese dissidents inside Australia. Chinese media have been particularly targeted, with some once-independent Chinese news outlets succumbing to the pressure of the Chinese oligarchy. ASIO believes it to be the largest foreign interference campaign ever carried out in Australia.

Canto: Yes and two of the biggest operatives in this campaign are the aforementioned Huang Xiangmo, and Chau Chak Wing. They’re both billionaires, and Chau is an Australian citizen, so changes to the law about political donations from foreigners wouldn’t affect him, though he appears to be in cahoots with the oligarchy. However it appears to be Huang who’s most suspect, though it’s not entirely clear why. He’s a dynamic business type from humble origins who appears to be genuinely philanthropic as well being a hustler for influence. His keenness to become an Australian citizen suggests he’s not entirely wedded to the Chinese political system, while other activities suggest otherwise. And here’s where I start to question, or put into perspective, the ASIO concern. If there’s influence peddling here, it’s not like the rabid Russian, Putin-directed attempts to subvert democracy in the USA and Europe. It’s definitely an attempt to influence policy toward China, and we need to be aware of that. Rules against foreign donations will help, monitoring is always required, and illegal activities should be exposed, but we need to be realistic about the zero sum game that every nation, including Australia, plays, while trying to whittle away at that ultimately self-defeating game in the name of global concerns, including human rights, which are, and always should be, a global issue.

Jacinta: All the same we need to hold our nerve against big bullying countries, and call them out on the international stage if need be.

Written by stewart henderson

June 3, 2018 at 1:13 pm

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

leave a comment »

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