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Monthly Archives: March 2016

Professor And Columnist Paul Krugman Wins Nobel In EconomicsEconomist Robert Pollin writing in The Nation takes on some heavy hitter critics of Bernie Sander’s economic policy. Among them: Nobel prize winner in economics and NYTimes columnist Paul Krugman*, something of a favourite of mine.

Pollin thinks Sanders might just make the American economy great again:

It is true that the overall share of GDP going to corporate profits and the rich will decline, and this will likely counteract to some degree the positive factors encouraging private investment and growth under Sanders. But even The Economist recently concluded that corporate profits in the United States are excessive, so much as to be damaging the economy’s overall performance. The entirely feasible challenge today is therefore to produce higher growth rates through creating more jobs, getting more money in people’s pockets, widening educational opportunities, and raising productivity rather than allowing the country to slip further into economic oligarchy.

In short, if something like a Sanders program is enacted in the United States, the critical point will not be whether GDP grows, on average, at 3 percent, 4 percent or 5.3 percent. A Sanders economy will be fully capable of growing at healthy rates. But more than just growing, a Sanders economy will also deliver standards of well-being for the overwhelming majority of Americans, as well as the environment, in ways that we have not experienced for generations.

I think that his argument makes sense. I’ve never been entirely convinced by Krugman’s line of argument here. But then, right at the top of my CV it says “not a Nobel laureate”.

What does convince me with Sanders, though, is that I have been to enough Scandinavian socialist utopias to know that they fundamentally work and that they are economically intense and fast-growing and far preferable in living conditions and the way the economy works for normal people instead of the other way around. I myself live in a country that spent the postwar years implementing parts of what is now the Bernie Sanders economic platform. It certainly isn’t perfect — but it’s a step in the right direction.

Nowhere in a social democracy does anyone have to work a second full-time job. It just doesn’t happen. If his economic policies do anything to move the US in that direction. It is inexplicable to me why someone would not want to live in such a country.

This is one of the reasons  I think Bernie Sanders is the best choice. I wouldn’t be torn up about Hillary Clinton being president, but on economic policy she’s quite simply not anywhere near radical enough to deal with the fundamental problems of the American economy.

* Actually, folks, it’s the Albert Nobel Memorial Prize in the … oh, you don’t care either?

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Super interesting conversation on Twitter between Edward Snowden and The Wire’s creator David Simon, Storifyed. Simon has been (to simplify his position) pro-surveillance.

I’m with Snowden, obviously, but Simon is a challenging opponent. He sees the need for surveillance to unmask social ills like organised crime. They get deep into the nitty gritty but also zoom out to the big philosophical questions of surveillance and privacy:

I thought this was actually a really interesting point by Simon. We tend to think of spying as destabilising, a sort of low-intensity warfare with constant attacks being made. The fact is, though, that espionage  can be thought of as stabilising, meaning that the intentions, goals and movements of all agents in the political field are known to all the other players. Nobody misunderstands, nobody gets it wrong. Everyone knows more or less what everyone else is doing at all times. This is a good thing. Think of the shrouded, miscommunicated motives of the summer of 1914 and how that helped usher in the historical disaster in the trenches.

mussolini-balcony-palazzo-venezia“It is time we stopped worshipping the false god of the strong individual leader”, writes political scientist Archie Brown in Aeon Magazine.

Overweening leaders within a well-established democratic system can, of course, do less harm than a Stalin or a Mao. Yet why should we heed calls to strengthen the hand of the prime minister and of 10 Downing Street rather than to strengthen collective leadership within the Cabinet and the political party? The mass media are constantly urging prime ministers and party leaders to do this, that and the other, bolstering the odd assumption that the leader is entitled to have the last word on everything.

It is puzzling why the idea persists that the more power is placed in a prime minister’s or president’s hands in a democracy, the better. It is high time to rebut the idea that the leader we should most look up to is one of unshakeable convictions, able utterly to dominate the political party, the Cabinet and the policy process. One-person domination is undesirable in principle in a democracy and it is fortunate that it is only rarely achieved in practice, whatever the leader’s pretensions.

Brown’s point is really good. Another thing he touches on which I wish he had also written more about not just the practical but also the principled side of why and why not.

It’s a fundamental democratic value that power should be distributed. But it is a foundational problem with democracy that there are organisational costs to distributing power. Autocratic leaders are more effective but have unhealthy incentives and don’t fully represent the aggregate will of the people, indeed: they frequently have greater loyalty to themselves  than the people. This leads  over time to political inefficacy.

Both ways of doing things present insoluble dilemmas. Democracy is fair and efficient, but will often lead to basic disagreements in society remaining in tension, not being resolved. Autocracy leads to unfairness and inefficiency, but since the state is more or less governed by a single will (autocracies are never as simple as they seem,  power  is always distributed), it is easier to get things done.

A modern example is climate change. It may very well be the case that China will do more to solve the climate problem than the Western world  precisely because they have a more autocratic form of government. The Chinese state can enact sweeping reforms without too much consultation with civil society.

I loathe autocracy. Democracy and socialism are the twin helixes of my political DNA. This is why climate change concerns me so much. If democracy can’t pass the test of mastering a fundamental, existential challenge efficiently, then it will be so much harder in the coming decades to resist the authoritarian governments of Russia, China or other countries.

Yes, democracy – liberty and the individual is all well and good, they will say. But what have you done for us lately?

PS: I think Aeon is starting to build a really interesting profile. I rarely see anything there I find fundamentally uninteresting. Worth paying attention to them.

 

A new study finds that mass surveillance is a monstrous threat to free speech. 

 

 

It’s been known for a long time that knowing that someone might be listening to you changes the way people behave. The risk that you might be under surveillance means you don’t speak your mind freely. This is in many ways one of the primary functions of surveillance in authoritarian states: it is one of the most effective supressors of anti-government speech in private as well as in public. When even private conversations are considered to be potentially overheard, potentially public, you bite your tongue and don’t tell your friends how the Stasi, the Junta, the tyrant really makes you feel.

This is known as the chilling effect on free speech. It’s been a known criticism of authoritarian states for a long time. And now, of course, also of the United States of America. It turns out that this effect can be scaled up.  Way, way up.

Being scared that your exact phone might be tapped produces different actions. But it turns out that the very knowledge that you are under constant surveillance, that everything is stored for posterity, even if you specifically are not “targeted”, causes self-censorship.

Participants in the study were first surveyed about their political beliefs, personality traits and online activity, to create a psychological profile for each person. A random sample group was then subtly reminded of government surveillance, followed by everyone in the study being shown a neutral, fictional headline stating that U.S. airstrikes had targeted the Islamic State in Iraq. Subjects were then asked a series of questions about their attitudes toward the hypothetical news event, such as how they think most Americans would feel about it and whether they would publicly voice their opinion on the topic. The majority of those primed with surveillance information were less likely to speak out about their more nonconformist ideas, including those assessed as less likely to self-censor based on their psychological profile.

This demonstrates powerfully that a natural public life requires a natural private life. We need to have a reasonable expectation of privacy  at all times. As John Stuart Mill, the great philosopher of freedom of speech, wrote in On Liberty, it is precisely the most unheard, but held, opinion that needs to be voiced. The NSA has made a machine for subtly, but profoundly eroding freedom of speech.

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Let’s pull for  a moment on a single thread in the tapestry of hellish horror that is the Donald Trump campaign for president of United States. 

So today the Republican front-runner, to pretty much nobody’s relief, kinda sorta said that he did not support internment camps for Muslim Americans. The exchange came in a segment on ABC’s This Week: 

KARL: So let me ask you, you said that Islam is at war with us. A lot of people wonder, given some of your proposals, whether or not you would go the next step towards internment camps. And I know you’ve never proposed that. But let me just ask you here now, would you categorically rule out the idea of internment camps for American Muslims? Is that something —

TRUMP: — rule it out but we would have to be very vigilant. We’re going to have to be very smart. We’re going to have to be very rigid and very vigilant. And if we’re not very, very strong and very, very smart, we have a big, big problem coming up. We’ve already had the problem. Check out the World Trade Center, OK, check out the Pentagon. We’ve already had the problem. But I would — I would say you have to be extremely strong. You have to keep your eyes open.

And by the way, Muslims in our country have to report bad acts, OK?

There are many little things about this exchange that should make you sit up and pay attention. Not least, as many on Twitter noted, the fact that such a question needed to be asked at all. It should be right up there with would you consider not gassing the Jews? or do you think we really need  to have elections?

This passage is interesting in that it is at once Trump caught a little off-guard and at the same time him using his boilerplate messages. This is obviously not a downright rehearsed line and the question comes at him a little unaware. And yet, this is a virtuoso performance by Trump, replete with dog whistles and complicated, strategically vague messaging in declarative, seemingly simple words. While he flails and pivots to things he knows, some ideas might slip by that he would normally guard. So let’s quickly parse some of the meanings in what he said.

Islam is at war with us.

First off, there’s the distressing fact that the Republican front-runner openly thinks Islam is at war with the West. This is an idea detached entirely from reality. And, logically, it means that Donald Trump believes that roughly 1 % of the US population is at war with the US – and that, consequently, the US is also at war with a segment of its own population. “There’s a tremendous hatred there”, he has said. “Islam hates us”.

… rule it out but we would have to be very vigilant

So, we shouldn’t have internment camps, but note the choice of words: “but we would have to be very vigilant.” He’s saying it would be easier and more expedient to have camps. But since we’re not going to do that, we’ll have to make an extra effort since we’re not doing that. So Trump is signaling to his far-right voters that he sees use for things like internment camps, sees that they achieve his goals, and notes that it would take extra effort if we want to not have internment camps.

We’re going to have to be very smart. We’re going to have to be very rigid and very vigilant. And if we’re not very, very strong and very, very smart, we have a big, big problem coming up.

This passage is classic Trump. Simple words. Dumb, feel-good, macho adjectives used without any kind of arguments to back them up: smart, rigid, vigilant, strong, smart. All propped up by nothing except the empty word “very”, sometimes “very  very”. And here comes the second dog-whistle: Muslims are a big, big problem. The problem is getting stronger. The idea that  Muslims represent a growing, eclipsing threat, demographically and culturally, to the West is a classic racist trope.

We’ve already had the problem. Check out the World Trade Center, OK, check out the Pentagon. We’ve already had the problem.

But wait,  we’ve already had the problem? But you just said – okay, never mind. So we’ll have more terror – if we’re not  rigid, vigilant, strong, etc. What Trump is doing here is communicating that he wants to introduce authoritarian measures against Muslims. He’s already asking for a ban on Muslims entering the US (except maybe not) and a whole host of other things. He wants you, the listener with the anti-Muslim prejudice, to hear that there’s more of that coming. That will make you feel strong, smart, vigilant.

But I would — I would say you have to be extremely strong. You have to keep your eyes open.

So probably surveillance and police forces will be the first part of these more draconian measures.

And by the way, Muslims in our country have to report bad acts, OK?

Meaning: Muslims don’t talk to law enforcement about terrorism – which, by the way, is not true – and you can’t trust Muslims. Any Muslims you see you could be a terrorist. Think about voting for  me, Donald Trump, the next time you see someone scary and foreign.

To sum up, according to Donald Trump:

  • Muslims are soldiers in a war with the West.
  • Muslims are dangerous and a growing threat.
  • Muslims can’t be trusted.
  • He does not agree with having internment camps, but thinks that they would accomplish his goals.
  • He will introduce authoritarian measures against Muslims.
  • Increased surveillance, monitoring and intelligence will probably be the first wave of this effort.

Let me end on a little prayer for conservatives or people who know conservatives in my readership:

When the election rolls around, whatever your values, if Donald Trump is running, there is no conservative candidate. There is a right-wing radical authoritarian demagogue who could potentially fundamentally disrupt the world order. And there is either a fairly normal centre-right or a leftwing socialist (in Europe we would think of Sanders as a centre-left, moderate social democrat). That means the true conservative or democraticc move is the same: you support the Democratic candidate, whoever he or she is.

You need to go to the polls and vote  for the Democratic nominee, whether it’s Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton. Don’t think of it as voting for the issues they support. Don’t think of it as voting for whoever is not Trump. This is not what this is about. You vote for or against fundamental democratic values. You vote for the greater likelihood of not having internment camps  in the US. You vote for the greater likelihood of there being elections in the future.