Monthly Archive: September 2016

Privatizing Social Security

One of the constant ideas that gets floated by GOP partisans and fans of “the free market” is the privatization of Social Security. The arguments are familiar and well worn. The government should not be in the business of money management, private organizations can get investors a better rate of return, SS money was confiscated from people and they should get it back etc. etc.
I will tell you exactly what will happen if SS is privatized.
People will get those self-directed IRAs (or whatever shiny new name they acquire). They will initially marvel at their stunning rates of return, as all of the fund management companies compete for business and inflate their rates of return to attract the investors, many of whom will not be, shall we say, very sophisticated.. All will look wonderful, as they imagine a very comfortable retirement.
Then a recession will occur. Recessions always occur. They occur because as a species we always over-extend ourselves, especially if we are using somebody else’s money.
Suddenly those previously starry-eyed investors will notice their portfolio value sinking like the proverbial stone. If they are really unlucky they might find that their money management has been entrusted to a graduate of the Enron School of Creative Accounting, or the Bernard Madoff School of Creative Investing.
This will cause, as is written in the Bible, much weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth.
At this point, politicians will suddenly discover the virtues of government intervention, as the retirement funds are bailed out in some way by government. This is because there are more and more elderly electors out there, and older and retired people have all the time in the world to organize and make politician’s lives miserable.
The net effect will be yet another cycle of that dysfunctional game long played in Western democracies – the privatization of profit and the socialization of losses.
Think of it as another instance of the Savings and Loan fiasco, but with numbers at least 10 times bigger. Whatever the final bill turns out to be, it will be at least an order of magnitude larger than the initial estimate. Bail-outs work like that. As soon as people see the prospect of what they think is “free money” (i.e. somebody else’s money) they become extremely creative at whistling up losses and financial privations.


NO I am not watching the debate and other items

1. The Debate
No, in case you were wondering.
Hell No.
I am not watching tonight’s Presidential debate.
There are several related reasons for this.
#1. It is not a debate.
#2 The subjects are both trivial and inappropriate
#3 the media will not scrutinize either candidate properly
You see, when I went to high school in the UK, i actually attended and participated in debates. We had a debating society that met in the library room once a month. This was a proper debate. One side had to create and present a proposition. The other side had to prepare an opposing view and present it. Then the two debaters, with a moderator sitting between them, would debate their positions, providing arguments and rebuttals. Then they would have to answer questions from the floor.
The moderator had the gavel and the last word. He could (and did) bang his gavel if the participants went off track, changed the subject, or engaged in anything approaching a personal attack.
I learned a lot about some subjects from being at those debates.
What we have tonight is not a debate in any useful sense of the term. It is two political candidates engaging in a soundbite battle over subjects that are so broad as to be almost meaningless. The moderator has no real power, he is handcuffed in advance by terms of operation set by the candidates.
Let that last statement sink in for a minute.
Have you heard the old joke about the fox that offered to look after the henhouse for the weekend, assuring the owner of the chickens that he had gone vegetarian?
Allowing the political parties to set the format, content and moderation rules for a debate is just like leaving that fox in charge. They have no interest in any pointy-head from a TV network forcing Their Guy to tell the truth or provide insight. No sirree. This is about point-scoring using soundbites. Of course, this is the reason why the major parties long ago took control of the debates away from the League Of Women Voters and put the debates out to bid to the networks. That ensures that the networks, supine as ever, will do the candidates’ bidding, and the candidates don’t want a proper debate. They do not want scrutiny. Scrutiny gets in the way of their next zinger.
If many of today’s politicians showed up in my high school and tried to debate like they speak in these debates, our moderators would have gavelled them to silence and told them to damn well stick on topic and make an argument. seriously.
So, don’t watch tonight if you want insight into policy, governance and the world. By all means watch if your only objective is either to validate your prior choices, or to see which of the candidates looks more presidential. (One of the interesting features of US electorates is how many of them seem to only care about appearances when voting for leaders). Whatever you do, don’t complain to me that you didn’t learn much. You had no right to expect that.

2. The role of Fear in modern US politics
The whole of the “Make America Great Again” idea espoused by Donald Trump and his supporters is based on the belief that the USA is not as great as it used to be.
The evidence contradicts that belief. However, given that a substantial percentage of GOP partisans appear to live in a parallel universe fuelled by in-group reinforcement and echo chambers, evidence is not something that they are likely to be paying attention to any time soon. Their views is a visceral and emotional one, largely immune to discussion and debate.
Another underlying pathology implicit in the slogan is binary thinking. America is either Great or it’s not, and right now, it’s not. This is so simplistic as to be beyond laughable. In the same way that you can be married to somebody but be all too aware of their faults, you can like a country and still know that it is not perfect. (I stay away from binary thinkers except when doing computer math, for all sorts of obvious reasons).
However, leaving aside the people signed up for “Make America Great Again”, that leaves the rest of us. This tweet is appropriate:

3. The wordview of J.D. Vance
The author of “Hillbilly Elegy” explains the existential crisis that impacts many poor working-class areas of the USA. Those areas are stuck in a pervasive mindset that the American Dream is not working for them. Many of those people are supporters of Donald Trump, who they see as being the only current candidate that talks their language and appears to understand their problems.


Ah, the things that Christians say in election season

Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs is noticing that when it comes to coping with people of a different (often non-religious) worldview, some Christians have a habit of wishing eternal damnation on those people:

I know this pathology only too well. When I briefly stepped into the debate (well, that is the official title) over abortion rights last year, I soon found myself being wished all kinds of fates by Christians, steeped as they were in the conceit of deistic certitude. Those fates are generally one of:

1. You are going to Hell
2. Your God will judge you when you arrive at the gates of Heaven (Translation: You will go to Hell, you will simply be re-directed there to dash your foolish hopes for Heaven)

This, folks is the SOP for many Christians. Their tactics for modifying behavior or keeping people in line are the old standbys of fear, guilt and shame.
My reaction to these exhortations is one of total amusement.
I don’t believe in the existence of an omnipotent deity. Nor do I believe in an afterlife.
So the idea that my fate after death is to be consigned to either Heaven or Hell, to me seems utterly devoid of intellectual heft, reason or weight. It also speaks to a fundamental conceit that many Christians suffer from; namely, that anybody else should be interested in their thoughts on my ultimate fate at the end of my life. I wouldn’t presume to speculate to their face on what I think should happen to them, because their life is their life and it’s none of my business.
The result is that my first instinct when anybody utters either of those threats to me is to engage in humour. Since the concepts they are using in an attempt to shame me are ridiculous to me, ridicule for me is a perfectly valid response.
To (1) I usually respond along the lines of “that’s OK, i hear that the parties are better in Hell”.
To (2), I usually post this link to a Tom and Jerry cartoon, which, in that very unique Tom and Jerry way, nicely satirizes the whole pathology of “if you don’t behave you won’t go to Heaven” that many children hear from their religious parents while growing up.

The other important thing to note is that invariably both of the above supposedly-threatening ideas usually get deployed in lieu of anything resembling a cogent argument. They are regarded as some magic talisman that will Shock and Awe me. They need to try a damn sight harder at actually making an argument. Then perhaps they wouldn’t need to resort to this sort of bizarrely amusing behavior.


Sedition and anti-government movements inside the USA

While the media and politicians mostly appear to be fixated on the threat to the USA posed by Muslim and other foreign terrorists, seditious anti-government movements continue to operate largely under the radar inside the USA. These movements, often with their roots in Christian extremism (including “end of days” sects), and featuring elements of white supremacist and anti-Jewish animus, plus the usual dose of New World Order conspiracy theorizing, have periodically bubbled to the surface, usually when a group tried some blatantly illegal action and collided with law enforcement.
Although the normal tendency is to assign these groups to the bin marked “Sovereign Citizens”, in reality the various groups have no coherent or common ideology or objectives, although they are bound together by certain beliefs, such as the illegitimacy of the Federal government and its organizations. Beyond that, the mosaic of groups is fragmented and splintered and many of the groups appear to heartily despise each other. Like pseudo-revolutionary groups the world over, they spend a lot of energy engaging in ideological purity tests, and complaining that other groups are insufficiently “pure” or authentic.
The recent standoffs at the Bundy Ranch in Nevada and the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon are merely part of a continuing pattern of behavior by many of the groups, who, while not sharing much in the way of an ideology, do share a deep dislike of all forms of government oversight.
None of these groups have anything approaching a proper financial support system. Many of their members run websites which pump out recycled articles culled from conspiracy echo chambers, interspersed with not-very-well-disguised pleas to “Send Money”. The groups are almost entirely controlled by men, and one of the more amusing and ironic features of many of the groups is the number of men who, it appears, are on some form of government support (military pensions, disability benefits, Social Security), while spending a lot of time online and in person railing against the evils of government.
Another interesting feature of these groups, in reality, is their continual reliance on a small number of members who are, to be blunt, scamsters and grifters. Many of these individuals are selling do-it-yourself kits that claim, if properly used, to permit the user to avoid just about every modern obligation to an industrialized society, such as vehicle licensing, property and income taxes, and the need to obey reasonable requests from law enforcement. At some point, many of the grifters collide with law enforcement.
When you look into the backgrounds of many of the most vocal leaders of the groups, there is a commonality of experience. Many of them have suffered a bad experience with the governmental or legal system, often involving family breakups (messy divorces, child support issues) or tax and property issues leading to foreclosure, which led them to conclude that they were screwed over, and now they believe that the right solution is to blow that system up (sometimes literally).
Some of the members and leaders have many skeletons in their closets, to the extent that some of them even change their names to try and avoid their past.
Another dimension to several of the groups, including the Bundy family, is the exploitation of long-standing resentments in many of the Western States concerning the high percentage of land in those states owned by the Federal government. The original movement, known as the Sagebrush Rebellion, has been re-cast with a new collection of players, some of whom are decidedly uninterested in resolution of disputes by peaceful means.
This is not a rag-tag collection of “dress-up” uber-patriots, merely exercising their Constitutional rights. Some of these people are seriously dangerous. They have killed law enforcement officers on a whim, and have engaged in stand-offs with local and Federal law enforcement. Those standoffs and collisions are still happening, and law enforcement is bearing the brunt of the collisions, with a number of LEOs shot in the line of duty by people whose philosophy regards them as unavoidable collateral damage of the New American Revolution.
If these groups were comprised of individuals with darker skin hues whose first language was not English, I would expect that they would almost constantly be in the news as a clear and present danger to the USA, and a number of their members would already be in jail or dead. However, because they present themselves as upstanding, God Fearing Real Americans, they have succeeded in building a base of support among people who don’t know any better, and some people who damn well should know better. In addition, they take advantage of the US legal system’s high tolerance level for defendants trying bullshit moves. Members of these groups have a long history of filing bogus vexatious and meaningless legal documents in local, state and federal courts. The laws passed in the last 15 years across the USA to make it a felony to file false liens were passed because filing bogus liens against lawyers, police and judges became a favorite tactic of group members when prosecuted.
There is even a term for it – paper terrorism. Individuals and groups, when prosecuted for criminal acts, attempt to counter with a flurry of pseudo-legal gibberish, voluminous filings advancing legal ideas that have no basis in settled law, and stalling tactics, all specifically designed to gum up the court system.
Here is an excellent example of the sort of tactics that a Canadian defendant attempted to foist upon a court, explained in detail and with humour by the presiding judge.

Right now, the defendants in the Malheur Wildlife Refuge trial are filing an average of one frivolous motion a day each in a continuing attempt to have their charges dismissed. In the UK, where I grew up, they would already have been declared vexatious litigants and forbidden to file any more motions without advance approval.
This document is a useful overview of several threads of these groups. It is a good introduction to the origins of several of the ideological and religious value systems that support many of the groups.
Be careful. These are not play-actors. Some of these people are seriously motivated and potentially dangerous.


The Deplorables gang on Twitter

After 2 weeks of finding replies and Tweets all over Twitter from users with the word “deplorable” in their screen names, I have concluded that I can, reliably and at no cost to my online experience, issue the Block command for them. Without fail, they are obnoxious, partisan, bloviating asshats, a total waste of internet bandwidth.
It is also clear that a number of the accounts are sock-puppet accounts for Donald Trump. They have been created in the last couple of months, have next to no followers, and some of them issue the same tweets at almost the same dates and times.


Hanjin and the interconnected world

One of the drivers of the current trend towards nativism and xenophobia in the Western world is the Golden Age Fallacy. People imagine the world as they think it once was. Usually that feels like nirvana, at least compared to today. The fact that the world 100 years ago was a much more dangerous place on many levels, and they might not even have made it past early adulthood, much less lived to old age, is never considered.
One of the myths that nativists cling to is what I term the “pull up the drawbridge” myth. This myth is based on the idea that because a country was self-sufficient in the past, it should be easy to return to those Good Old Days. We see it in the grand pronouncements of Donald Trump, who has promised to cancel just about every trading agreement that the USA has with the rest of the world. He seems to think that the USA can go back to being some sort of trading island, the original shining beacon of freedom, just without the pesky problems of interacting with those inferior nations. Well, the USA would still interact with them. What I believe that Donald Trump hopes will happen is that the USA will simply send out a carrier group or two to “persuade” other countries to do our bidding or give us Stuff (like oil). In other words, a return to exploitative militaristic colonialism.
This story unfolding in South Korea offers a stark reminder that the “country as island” worldview is beyond obsolete. Hanjin, one of the world’s largest container shipping companies, has formally lurched into bankruptcy.The company had been in financial trouble for some time, but the creditor banks have now triggered the bankruptcy by refusing to extend any more credit.
The result is likely to be massive disruption to other businesses, the entire container shipping industry sector, and possibly impacts to countries. You could not get a better illustration of the realities of modern international trade. The mess is going to take years to sort out. Right now, dozens of Hanjin ships are impounded in ports or aimlessly sailing in international waters to avoid legal actions.
There is a bigger underlying story also, namely that, like the airline industry, the container shipping industry sector has been largely unprofitable for years, due mainly to chronic over-capacity. The recent downturn in Chinese exports exposed the underlying lack of viability of many container shipping companies and the network of suppliers (mainly shipyards) that fuelled the industry’s growth. Many of the non-viable businesses will probably be bailed out by governments, because businesses like shipyards are labour-intensive and therefore politically “too big to fail”.
Now, on one level, I could see fans of “pull up the drawbridge” arguing that this is precisely the reason why the USA needs to back out of those pesky bilateral trading agreements and Go It Alone. That is superficially attractive, but then the practical question emerges of how to do this. We can see a real-world example unfolding right now in the UK, where the government is now trying to work out how the hell it is going to negotiate the UK out of the EU, in accordance with the Leave vote in the recent referendum. It is going to be a train-wreck that may cause the break-up of the UK.
Leaving the interconnected world is not an option. Well, it is an option, if you want to push your country into a recession that might make the Great Depression seem like a minor economic blip.


You’re offended? Well, whoopeedoo

“I’m offended”.
I found a posting on my Facebook this morning saying this.
It’s about the the controversy over obeisance to the national flag and the National Anthem (as if you couldn’t guess).
I’m offended.
So what do you expect me to do about it?
And why are you telling everybody this?
I don’t know, but I think I can make one or two educated guesses.
Firstly, you are emotionally disturbed by whatever it is you are talking about. People who are emotionally unaffected by events almost never use phrases like “I’m offended”. They might say “I disagree with xxxx”, but “I’m offended” is primarily an expression of a reaction that is rooted in emotion.
Secondly, you seem to think that the rest of the world needs to know that you are offended.
I’m not sure why you think that is a good idea.
You see, when I read people huffing and puffing and using phrases like “I’m offended”, my experience of interacting with these people leads me to conclude that what they are really saying is “I intensely dislike what other people are doing and saying on an emotional level and they need to stop doing it. NOW”.
This is where I am always reminded of Robin Skinner’s perceptive comment about abusive relationships.

“People who cannot control their emotions react by trying to control other people’s behavior”.

One of the virtues of living in a reasonably free society is that, most of the time, other people don’t get to tell you what to do, or what to think.
But “I’m offended”, in my experience, is far removed from that approach. The people using the phrase are invariably emotionally invested in their view about whatever it is that has offended them to the point that they think that the cause of their offense deserves to be forced to change their behavior or sanctioned, penalized, eliminated, whatever. (it’s the source of the satirical Donald Fagen song lyric from the title song of “The Nightfly”… “So you say there’s a race of men in the trees/You’re for tough legislation, thanks for calling/We wait all night for calls like these”).
It is no coincidence that one of the more common reactions to the actions of Colin Kaepernick in kneeling for the National Anthem has been a call for him to leave the USA and live somewhere else. On one level it is just a juvenile discussion-closer, unworthy of being taken seriously. But the sentiment is actually rather revealing. People who claim to be offended almost never want to discuss or negotiate with whoever or whatever they perceive offends them. They just want whatever it is that offends to stop. NOW.
It is at this point that Skinner’s comment becomes highly appropriate.
So you are offended? So what.
Firstly, why should I care?
You control your own reactions. If you cannot keep an even keel and a cool head about an issue, that is not my problem. It’s your problem. It gives you a problem with me, because I am unlikely to be sympathetic to a person who cannot make an intellectually-based case for anything they feel strongly about. It’s like the authoritarian parent yelling “Shut up and just do it!” at a child. (If the parent is dumb enough to confuse respect with fear, they probably think that is an OK way to get the child to do their bidding. They will probably be disappointed with the long term impact).
Secondly, why should people or society enact controls, (social or legal) on other people’s actions and behavior just to cope with your offense? If the behavior is non-threatening and legal, there is no reason why any society should be in the business of pandering to people’s hurt feelings by enacting measures to control other people’s behavior.
(By the way, changing tack and claiming “but lots of us feel this way” doesn’t make your argument any more powerful or compelling. So ten thousand of you are offended? That’s now a mob. I have seen how mobs reinforce each other, both close up in person and on the internet. Mob rule, as history shows us, is not useful, pleasant or constructive.)
Here’s my bottom line.
Beginning a posting with a loud “I’m offended” certainly gets my attention briefly. Emphasis on the word “briefly”. It signals that you are emotionally disturbed, and that most likely you are also going to be making an incoherent argument that invariably revolves around you wishing you could control, or trying to control, other people’s behavior in a way that is not correct for a free society. At this point, I am going to move in the direction of Away. You don’t get to control the behavior of others by demanding that they think and act like you. That’s not how a free society should work.


A few brief comments about racism

One of the more interesting features of this election cycle is the apparent resurgence of racism in the USA. The GOP candidate, Donald Trump, has been actively supported and endorsed by a variety of white supremacist and racist leaders, including David Duke, and has not exactly done a lot of pushing back against that support.
Within my online universe, which includes both Facebook and Twitter, I see a lot more overtly racist comments and accounts. Not only are a significant number of self-identified Donald Trump supporters on Twitter openly espousing racist ideas, a lot of anti-Semitic folks appear to have showed up also.
Of course, we have people attempting to claim that this is somehow Obama’s fault. My view of that claim is that it is nothing more than an intellectually risible combination of dislike of the POTUS coupled with an attempt to rationalize the reality that an African-American POTUS, by virtue of his two terms of office, has drawn attention to unresolved issues with race in US society. We also have the growing realization that police actions in many parts of the USA disproportionately target black and immigrant people. Barack Obama did not go to Ferguson and ignite civil strife. The police lit the match under that tinderbox. I find the attempt to blame President Obama to be below unserious.
Nativism, xenophobia and racism are currently enjoying a resurgence throughout the Western world. The end of the Industrialized Era in these societies is leading to a societal crisis for indigenous blue-collar workers, whose jobs have already mostly disappeared to a combination of offshoring, ending of extractive industries, and automation. Many of those people are struggling to even stay alive, never mind thrive, and the Gospel of individual self-reliance that people tend to preach here in the USA does not exactly help.
Whenever people feel they are in a crisis, it is SOP for them to blame outsiders, and immigrants and anybody who looks different are the #1 target. They also have a tendency to be seduced by strong-sounding demagogues pretending to be “different” and offering grandiose simple solutions. The history of 20th Century Europe will tell us what can happen if enough angry people decide to vote for demagogues offering those simple solutions. If that happens here in the USA, it won’t be pretty, and racial and ethnic strife is certain.
My other complementary take on the hand-wringing about the resurgence of racism is that legislation against racism, which was passed in the UK at around the same time as the US Civil Rights legislation, did not eliminate racism, contrary to the hopes of social progressives. It simply made it socially unacceptable in most communities and social situations. So racists rapidly learned to only talk about their own racist worldviews in private among trusted family and friends, while listening carefully to others for “tells” and “dog whistles” indicating support for their worldview. Hence the rise of political “dog whistles” to signal tacit approval of the idea of discriminating on the basis of race.
So I tend to think that there is no major resurgence as such. All that is happening is that the collection of various types of individuals who normally keep very quiet about their racism have been emboldened in this election season to start not only talking about it, but in some cases revelling in it. The shallow end of the Twitter pool is currently awash with those kinds of people.
I might also add that my experience of contact with people in the UK who were racists and/or religious bigots, and particularly looking at Northern Ireland, is that once people become cognitively wedded to a worldview containing racism as one of its components, it is unlikely that they will modify that part of their worldview. Sadly, it may be the reality that only death ultimately removes those worldviews from active circulation.

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