Streetwise Professor

March 27, 2017

No, I Haven’t Gone Soft on Putin: It’s That I Understand Who the Real Menace Is

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:09 pm

I spoke to my uncle over the weekend. He asked me, in all seriousness: “You haven’t written anything about Vlad lately. You going soft?”

My answer: “No–not going soft. But there are so many know-nothing lunatics shrieking about Putin that I don’t want to run the risk of being lumped in with them or confused with them or giving them any credence.” (If you think “know-nothing lunatic” is too strong, check out the Twitter timelines of Louise Mensch or John Schindler. You’ll see I’m actually being overly generous.)

And here’s the truly perverse thing about the hysteria. The lunatics are Putin’s most useful allies. If he really desired to create havoc in the American political system–which I would have no problem believing–in his wildest dreams he couldn’t have done the amount of damage that is now being wreaked by the Democrats and the media (I repeat myself, I know). They are using Putin and Russia as the pretext to carry out their own political vendettas, and to express their rage at losing a race that they just knew was in their pocket.  By massively overreacting to rather pitiful allegations (Podesta’s emails–really?) for purely partisan reasons they are doing far worse harm to the US than Putin could have ever hoped of doing.

I know Putin has an obsession with the US, and would love nothing more to undermine it. But his best sappers are unwitting ones, and Americans to boot. And bizarrely, they are doing their sabotage in the name of fighting Putin. I have never seen anything so demented and destructive in all my living days: it is so twisted it is difficult to explain it. Given that, it is far more important that I go after them, and leave Putin out of it. They are the immediate menace, and fighting them is not only justified in its own right, it is also the most direct way of depriving Putin of a chance to weaken the US.

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March 26, 2017

Counting the Days Until Jerry Brown Raises the Confederate Flag Over Sacramento

Filed under: History,Politics — The Professor @ 8:44 pm

For more than a century, progressives have tried to read the 9th and 10th Amendments out of the Constitution. Some conservatives and libertarians periodically attempted to argue that the amendments could be used as a check on federal power: whenever they did so, the left assailed them as extremist cranks–that is when they did not accuse them of racism and other reprobate tendencies:

[Senator Mike] Lee is a “Tenther,” part of a new extremist movement that seeks to brand all major federal legislation — not only labor regulation, but environmental laws, gun control laws, and Social Security and Medicare — as violations of the “rights” of states as supposedly spelled out in the Tenth Amendment.

But that view is soooo pre-Trump. Post-20 January, 2017, the progressive left is enamored with these amendments, and is seizing upon them as a talisman to ward off the evil Trump spirits. Want proof? Look no further than Governor Moonbeam himself, Jerry Brown:

Despite some recent threats from the president to use federal funding as a “weapon” against the state if it voted to become a sanctuary state, the Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown gave a tough rebuttal in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” this week from the nation’s capital.

“We do have something called the ninth and the 10th amendment,” Brown said.

“The federal government just can’t arbitrarily for political reasons punish the State of California, that’s number one,” he said.

Jerry Brown, Tenther. I wait with bated breath for The Atlantic to label him an extremist fellow traveler of Mike Lee.

Under Brown’s leadership, California is moving to become a “sanctuary state”. As such, it would not be able to prevent the operation of federal law enforcement of immigration laws, but it would bar local and state cooperation with such efforts. In response, Trump has threatened to pull federal funding, and it is this that Brown considers a violation of the amendments that his ilk previously considered Constitutional dead letters appealed to only by right wing freaks.

The sanctuary state movement (which includes Maryland as well) edges very close to advocating nullification of federal immigration laws: it is interesting to note that nullifiers on the right routinely appeal to the 10th Amendment. To do so in defiance of a Jacksonian president is quite risky, in light of how it worked out for South Carolina in the 1830s in its conflict with the original Jacksonian. Like Jackson, Trump may well take up the challenge. Because of his personality. Because immigration is one of his signature issues. Because he is on firm legal ground, since courts have been decidedly hostile to 10th Amendment based claims (although I would not be surprised if leftist judges followed the example of Brown and find a strange new respect for the 10th). And since politically it should cost little: California (and Maryland and other states likely to pursue sanctuary legislation) aren’t going to vote for Trump  anyways. This is the kind of fight someone like Trump relishes.

But regardless of whether Brown and Trump come to legal blows over sanctuary status, it is beyond amusing to see progressives man the 10th Amendment barricades. I expect any day now that Jerry Brown will take up the states rights banner, and raise the Confederate flag over Sacramento. Even if he doesn’t go quite that far, the mere fact that he cites amendments that the left once scorned and which the hardcore right embraced demonstrates just how thoroughly Trump has scrambled American politics.

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March 11, 2017

One Degree of Idiocy: Michael Weiss Expounds on Trump-Putin Connections

Filed under: Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:59 pm

Some years ago, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” was somewhat popular. The object of the game was to connect any randomly chosen actor to Kevin Bacon in six movies or less.

Today, the game that is all the range in DC and the media is Six Degrees of Donald Trump. The main difference is that the starting point is not any randomly chosen individual, but one very specific individual: Vladimir Putin.

Not surprisingly, the most  demented and absurd entry in this game was submitted by Michael Weiss of the Daily Beast. Here’s how it goes. Putin is connected to Gazprom. Gazprom was a participant in a consortium (which also included European energy giants Shell, ENGIE, Winterhall, OMV, and Uniper) to build the Nordstream 2 pipeline. This consortium hired McClarty Associates as a lobbyist. McClarty employs ex-US diplomat Richard Burt. Burt made suggestions about Russia policy that a third party passed on to Trump. As a bonus connection, Burt attended two dinners hosted by Jeff Sessions, and wrote white papers for him.

Burt has never met Trump. Like many in the foreign policy establishment, Burt advocates a pragmatic approach to Russia. He was engaged in diplomacy with the USSR while in the Reagan administration (hardly a hotbed of commsymps and Russophiles), and shockingly, has continued to do business in Russia in the past 30 years. But apparently under the Oceania Has Always Been at War With Eastasia mindset that dominates DC at present, this is tantamount to Burt being a Russian puppet (a view that requires the consignment of most of the history of that period, not least of all that of the Obama administration 2009-2014, to the Memory Hole).

As far as connections are concerned, this is about as tenuous as one can get. The headline (“The Kremlin’s Gas Company Has a Man in Trumpland”) is a vast overstatement. For one thing, Burt is barely in Trumpland. Indeed, although the article says that the connection offers “Republican bona fides,” it is almost certain that was not the reason for hiring McClarty. Astoundingly, the article fails to note that said McClarty himself is a Clintonoid: Mack McClarty is from an old-time Arkansas political family, was closely connected to Bill Clinton in Arkansas, and was Clinton’s first chief of staff. Weiss ominously starts his piece with a recounting of the importance of having a krysha (“roof”, i.e., political protection) and insinuates that hiring Burt was intended to obtain a roof in the Trump administration. But if anything, it would have been an entree into a Clinton administration–which, of course, everybody figured was an inevitability.

Furthermore, perhaps Weiss hasn’t noticed, but “Republican bona fides” are hardly a ticket into Trumpland. Trump’s relationship with the party establishment varies between the hostile and the transactional.

And the timing is all wrong: the contract was signed before Trump was even the Republican nominee, and at a time when no one figured he would be the party’s candidate, let alone president. Talk about a deep out-of-the-money option.

It’s also rather bizarre that the connection between Burt and Gazprom also involves several very large European companies, and a purely European issue. There is nary an American company involved, and the matter is an intramural European spat pitting eastern vs. western EU countries. Wouldn’t you think that if you are trying to buy influence in the United States, you’d engage McClarty/Burt on an issue that would allow them to interact with US officials and politicians?

Further, if you are going to buy a krysha in the Trump administration, dontcha think you’d want to hire somebody who, you know, actually knows Trump?

But our Mikey is not deterred by such pesky details. He has a connection between Putin and Trump, and he is going to flog it for all it’s worth. Which isn’t much.

Of course the details of the Burt-Trump (non-) connection alone wouldn’t make for much of an article, especially for Weiss, who typically drones on paragraph after endless paragraph. So he adds gratuitous ad hominem attacks on Burt, such as comparing him to the late Russian UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin (career diplomats are a type–who knew?), and trotting out Bill Browder, who snarked about how gauche the Russian influence efforts were back in the bad old days (you know, when he was on the make in Russia) and yet again drags out the corpse of his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, in order to score political points.

Weiss also notes that McClarty has been retained by a Mikhail Fridman company in the UK, but fails to point out that Fridman is hardly a Putin pet. Indeed, Fridman took on Sechin, and came out the winner. But in Weiss’ worldview–which makes that of a 1950s John Bircher look nuanced by comparison–all them Russkies are Putin pawns.

And the anti-Trump establishment should at least get its story straight. On the same day that Weiss’ article appeared, Foreign Policy ran a piece claiming that Tillerson is a weak Secretary of State (the weakest ever, in fact!) because he doesn’t have Trump’s ear. So Trump ignores his own Secretary of State but somehow a guy whom he has never met and who has no position in the administration exerts some great influence over him? And weren’t we told a month ago that Tillerson was going to be Putin’s cat’s paw in the Trump administration because of his extensive dealings there (including with Gazprom in Sakhalin I)? But now he’s a nobody? Damn, that Memory Hole is getting a helluva workout.

Indeed, if the Burt connection (such as it is) and the like are the best that these people can come up with, they are doing a great job of showing how limited and tenuous Trump’s ties to Russia are. And remember the whole point of the Kevin Bacon game: it was a cutesy way of illustrating the “six degrees of association” theory, which posits that any two people in the world are separated by no more than six acquaintances. Any two people, no matter how obscure. Play Six Degrees of Vladimir Putin using yourself as the terminal connection: I bet you could connect with Vlad in six steps or less. I know I can. And does make me some sort of Putinoid? Hardly, as anyone who has read this blog knows.

When major international figures are involved, moreover, there are inevitably multiple such connections, often involving less than six steps. So finding a connection is about as earth shattering as finding sand on a beach. Furthermore, when considering a figure like Trump, he has myriad connections to other figures, many of whom may have interests and views contrary to Putin’s/Russia’s, or orthogonal thereto. Ignoring all these other contrary connections and focusing monomaniacally on ties to Putin and Russia when attempting to predict or explain Trump’s motivations is beyond asinine. In econometrics, this is called omitted variable bias–if you omit relevant variables, you get a very biased estimate of the influence of the ones you include.

But this is what passes for journalism in the United States right now: parlor games posing as deep analysis, latent with dark meanings.

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March 10, 2017

US Shale Puts the Saudis and OPEC in Zugzwang

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Politics — The Professor @ 2:55 pm

This was CERA Week in Houston, and the Saudis and OPEC provided the comedic entertainment for the assembled oil industry luminaries.

It is quite evident that the speed and intensity of the U-turn in US oil production has unsettled the Saudis, and they don’t know quite what to do about it. So they were left with making empty threats.

My favorite was when Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said there would be no “free rides” for US shale producers (and non-OPEC producers generally). Further, he said OPEC “will not bear the burden of free riders,” and “[w]e can’t do what we did in the ’80s and ’90s by swinging millions of barrels in response to market condition.”

Um, what is OPEC going to do about US free riders? Bomb the Permian? If it cuts output, and prices rise as a result, US E&P activity will pick up, and damn quick. The resulting replacement of a good deal of the OPEC output cut will limit the price impact thereof. The best place to be is outside a cartel that cuts output: you can get the benefit of the higher prices, and produce to the max. That’s what is happening in the US right now. OPEC has no credible way of showing off, or threatening to show off, free riders.

As for not doing what they did in the ’80s, well that’s exactly OPEC’s problem. It’s not the ’80s anymore. Now if it tries to “swing millions of barrels” to raise price, there is a fairly elastic and rapidly responding source of supply that can replace a large fraction of those barrels, thereby limiting the price impact of the OPEC swingers, baby.

Falih’s advisers were also trying to scare the US producers. Or something:

“One of the advisors said that OPEC would not take the hit for the rise in U.S. shale production,” a U.S. executive who was at the meeting told Reuters. “He said we and other shale producers should not automatically assume OPEC will extend the cuts.”

Presumably they are threatening a return to their predatory pricing strategy (euphemistically referred to as “defending market share”) that worked out so well for them the last time. Or perhaps it is just a concession that US supply is so elastic that it makes the demand for OPEC oil so elastic that output cuts are a losing proposition and will not endure. Either way, it means that OPEC is coming to the realization that continuing output cuts are unlikely to work. Meaning they won’t happen.

OPEC also floated cooperation with US producers on output. Mr. al-Falih, meet Senator Sherman! And if the antitrust laws didn’t make US participation in an agreement a non-starter, it would be almost impossible to cartelize the US industry given the largely free entry into E&P and the fungibility of technology, human capital, land, services, and labor. Maybe OPEC should hold talks with the Texas Railroad Commission instead.

Finally, in another laugh riot, OPEC canoodled with hedge funds. Apparently under the delusion that financial players play a material role in setting the price of physical barrels, rather than the price of risk. Disabling speculation could materially help OPEC only by raising the cost of hedging, which would tend to raise the costs of E&P firms, especially the more financially stretched ones. (Along these lines, I would argue that the big increase in net long speculative positions in recent months is not due to speculators pushing themselves into the market, but instead they have been pulled into the market by increased hedging activity that has occurred due to the increase in drilling activity in the US.)

Oil prices were down hard this week, from a $53 handle to a (at the time of this writing) $49.50 price. The first down-leg was due to the surprise spike in US inventories, but the continued weakness could well reflect the OPEC and Saudi messaging at CERA Week. The pathetic performance signaled deep strategic weakness, and suggests that the Saudis et al realize they are in zugzwang: regardless of what they do with regards to output, they are going to regret doing it.

My heart bleeds. Bleeds, I tells ya!


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March 4, 2017

Obama v. Trump: Strictly Correct & Misleading v. Not Strictly Correct But Fundamentally True

Filed under: Politics — The Professor @ 8:45 pm

I won’t comment in detail on the substance of today’s latest outbreak of our fevered politics: Trump’s accusation that Obama ordered wiretapping of Trump Tower and the Trump campaign. I will just mention one fact that strongly supports the veracity of Trump’s allegation: namely, the very narrow–and lawyerly–“denials” emanating from the Obama camp.

Obama and his surrogates–notably the slug (or is he a cockroach?) Ben Rhodes–harrumph that Obama could not unilaterally order electronic surveillance. Well, yes, it is the case that Obama did not personally issue the order: the FISA court did so. But even if that is literally correct, it is also true that the FISA court would not unilaterally issue such an order: it would only do so in response to a request from the executive branch. Thus, Obama is clearly implicated even if he did not issue the order. He could have ordered his subordinates to make the request to the court, or could have approved a subordinate’s request to seek an order. Maybe he merely hinted, a la Henry II–“will no one rid me of this turbulent candidate?” (And “turbulent” is a good adjective to apply to Trump.) But regardless, there is no way that such a request to the court in such a fraught and weighty matter would have proceeded without Obama’s acquiescence.

I therefore consider that the substance of Trump’s charge–that he was surveilled at behest of Obama has been admitted by the principals.

This episode illustrates a broader point that is definitely useful to keep in mind. What Obama and his minions (and the Democrats and many in the media) say is likely to be correct, strictly speaking, but fundamentally misleading. In contrast, what Trump says is often incorrect, strictly speaking, but captures the fundamental truth. I would wager that is the case here.

The lawyer word games are not limited to this episode. The entire Sessions imbroglio smacks of scumbag lawyer tactics. The Unfunny Clown, Senator Al Franken, asked (in a convoluted way) a very narrow question (which was related to an even narrower written question in a set of interrogatories) about Session’s interactions with the Russians. Sessions answered the question–which was not an unconditional query about contacts with the Russians, but which related to very specific types of contacts and discussions. Franken and the Democrats then accused Sessions of perjury because the Senator (and then-Attorney General designate) had met with the Russian ambassador to the US on two occasions. Asking a narrow question, and then claiming the answer was a false response to a broader question (that was not asked) is a sleazy lawyer trick (and one that has been tried on me, BTW).

One last thing. Why did Trump push this button today? I can think of offensive and defensive reasons. Offensively, he might want to gain the initiative in the war against Obama and the intelligence community. Defensively, this could be an excellent way of derailing the Russia hysteria, and the calls for an investigation. If it turns out that there was an FBI investigation, and it turned up nothing, then there is no justification for further investigation, whether by Congress or law enforcement. So it could actually help Trump if the FBI and the intelligence community were forced to acknowledge that they had investigated, to no avail. By raising the issue, Trump is pressuring the FBI to put up or shut up.

Figuring out Trump’s reasoning is always hard, but it is worth remembering that he is often at his most clever when he appears to be at his most unhinged and outrageous. So stay tuned. This isn’t over. By a long shot. And given that Trump has emerged triumphant whenever his foes have declared him to be dead meat, I would be very nervous right now if I were Barry or Ben or anyone in the IC.

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March 2, 2017

The Politicization of the Death of CPO Ryan Owens

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 4:00 pm

Today the WaPoo serves as ventriloquist dummy for ex-Obama NSC staffer Colin (with an “i”) Kahl. Kahl continues his criticism of Trump’s handling of the planning and approval process for the mission in Yemen that resulted in the death of SEAL Ryan Owen. The gravamen of Kahl’s criticism is that the Obama administration engaged in much more internal debate at high levels, including at the presidential level, before approving such a mission. Kahl insinuates that the (allegedly) perfunctory process was a cause of the deadly outcome of the mission.

However, as I noted in my first post on the Yemen raid, there were multiple special operations mission in the Obama era that resulted in casualties and deaths among American special operators. Thus, more extensive internal debate is obviously not a sufficient condition for avoiding casualties. The fact is that these sorts of operations are inherently dangerous, and go wrong with some regularity. By failing to point out that reality, and the reality that a more “hands-on, deliberative process used by the previous administration” did not suffice to avoid American casualties in multiple cases, Kahl is lying by omission, and the WaPoo is facilitating that lie.

Further, Kahl and his WaPoo mouthpieces fail to point out that extensive internal debate, and senior involvement in the planning and approval process to the point of micromanagement, has its costs too. It must be pointed out that while Obama and his senior aides fretted about what to do about ISIS in 2014, the group ran amok and conquered much of Iraq and Syria. There was a clear case where Hamlet-like indecisiveness resulted in a result that was far more catastrophic than the failure of a particular special operations raid to go according to plan. Indeed, some of the raids resulting in American casualties undertaken by the Obama administration wouldn’t have been needed if the Obama administration had checked ISIS in the summer of 2014, instead of deciding that it was the JV and letting it go on a rampage.

The micromanagement continued throughout the Obama administration. This inevitably reduced the effectiveness of the war on ISIS, the cost of which is written in blood. Pace Bastiat, one has to consider the unseen in war as well as in economics.

The issue of the Yemen raid and the death of Ryan Owen required the WaPoo’s emergency intervention because it is widely recognized (even by Van Jones, for crissakes) that Trump’s recognition of his widow at his speech before Congress on Tuesday was a powerful moment that resonated with Americans. The left, and assorted non-left Trump haters (e.g., bloated, drunken, unemployed flashers who pontificate on security matters on Twitter), have worked themselves into a frenzy in an attempt to discredit this moment.

This has taken two tacks. One is the Kahl tack–to claim that Trump is responsible for Owens’ death through shoddy planning. The other is to claim that Trump somehow used Mrs. Owens, or even forced her to appear. Kahl’s tack is fundamentally dishonest (as discussed above) and the other tack is just disgusting. Carryn Owens was obviously deeply moved and appreciative. She wanted to be there, and wanted her husband’s sacrifice to be recognized. As to how she could have been forced to appear (as alleged by aforementioned bloated flasher), I have no clue. Insofar as using is concerned, Trump invited scrutiny of the events leading up to Owens’ death, and obviously believes he has nothing to hide, and that recognizing Owens’ sacrifice was more important: recall that Trump met Owen’s body when it was returned to the US.

If there is politicization of the death of CPO, that is coming primarily from the left in its unrelenting war on Trump, in which all is fair.

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February 25, 2017

Should Social Media Be Regulated as Common Carriers?

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 6:43 pm

Major social media, notably Twitter and Facebook, are gradually moving to censor what is communicated on them. In Twitter’s case, the primary stated rationale is to “protect its users from abuse and harassment.” It has also taken upon itself to  “[identify] and [collapse] potentially abusive and low-quality replies so the most relevant conversations are brought forward.” There are widespread reports that Twitter engages in “shadowbanning”, i.e., hiding the Tweets of those users it identifies as objectionable, and making these Tweets inaccessible in searches.

Further, there are suspicions that there is a political and ideological component to the filters that Twitter applies, with conservative (and especially alt-right) content and users being more likely to fall afoul of these restrictions: the relentlessly leftist tilt of CEO Jack Dorsey (and most of its employees) gives considerable credence to these suspicions.

For its part, Facebook is pursuing ways to constrain users from posting what it deems as “misinformation” (aka “fake news”). This includes various measures such as cooperating with “third party fact-checking organizations“. Given the clear leftist tilt of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s workforce, and the almost laughably leftist slant of the “fact-checkers”, there is also considerable reason for concern that the restrictions will not be imposed in a politically neutral way.

The off-the-top classical liberal/libertarian response to this is likely to be “well, this is unfortunate, but these are private corporations, and they can do what they want with their property.” But however superficially plausible this position appears to be, in fact there is a principled classical liberal/libertarian response that arrives at a very different conclusion. In particular, as arch-libertarian Richard Epstein (who styles himself as The Libertarian in his Hoover Institute podcast) has consistently pointed out, even during the heyday of small government, classical liberal government and law, the common law recognized that restrictions on the autonomy of certain entities was not only justifiable, but desirable. In particular, natural monopolies and near-monopolies were deemed to be “common carriers” upon whom the law imposed a duty of providing access on a non-discriminatory basis. The (classically liberal) common law of that era recognized that such entities could exercise market power, or engage in discriminatory conduct without fear of competitive check. Thus, the obligation to serve all on a non-discriminatory basis in order to constrain the exercise of market power, or invidious discrimination based on the preferences of the owner of the common carrier.

Major social media (and Google as well–perhaps most of all) clearly have market power, and the ability to discriminate without fear of losing business to competitors. The network nature of social media (and search engines) leads to the dominance of a small number of platforms, or even one platform. Yes, there are competitors to Facebook, Twitter, and Google, but these companies are clearly dominant in their spaces, and network effects make them largely immune to competitive entry. Imposition of a common carrier-inspired obligation to provide non-discriminatory access is therefore quite reasonable, and has a substantial economic and legal foundation. Thus, libertarians and classical liberals and conservatives and even fringe voices should not resign themselves to being second or third class citizens on social media, merely because these are private entities, rather than government ones. (Indeed, the analogy should go the other direction. A major reason for limiting the ability of the government to control speech is because of its monopoly of legal violence. It is monopoly power, regardless of whether in a market or political setting, that needs to be constrained through things like rights to free speech, or non-discriminatory access to common carriers.)

Further, insofar as leftists (including the managements of the major social media companies) are concerned, it is utterly incoherent for them to assert that as private entities they are perfectly free to restrict access according to their whims, given that leftists also adamantly (indeed, obnoxiously) insist that anti-discrimination laws should be imposed on small entities operating in highly competitive environments. Specifically, leftists believe that bakers or caterers or pizzarias with zero market power should be required to serve all, even if they have religious (or other) objections to doing so. But a baker refusing to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple does not meaningfully deprive said couple of the opportunity to get a cake: there are many other bakeries, and given the trivial costs of entry even if most incumbent bakers don’t want to serve gays, this only provides a commercial opportunity for entrant bakers to cater to the excluded clientele. Thus, discrimination by Baker A does not impose large costs on those s/he would prefer not to serve (even though forcing A to serve them might impose high costs on A, due to his/her sincere religious beliefs).

The same cannot be said of Twitter or Facebook. Given the nature of networks, social and otherwise, entrants or existing competitors are very poor substitutes for the dominant firms, which gives them the power to exclude, and which makes their exercise of this power extremely costly to the excluded.  In other words, if one believes that firms in highly competitive markets should be obligated to provide service/access to all on a non-discriminatory basis, one must concede that the Twitters, Facebooks, and Googles of the world should be similarly obligated, and that given their market power their conduct should be subject to a substantially higher degree of scrutiny than a small firm in a competitive market.

Of course, it is one thing to impose de jure an obligation on Twitter et al to provide equal access and equal treatment to all, regardless of political beliefs, and quite another to enforce it de facto. Of course Jack and Mark or Sergey don’t say “we discriminate against those holding contrary political opinions.” No, they couch their actions in terms of “protecting against abusive behavior and hate speech” or “stamping out disinformation.” But they retain the discretion to interpret what is abusive, hateful, and false–and it is clear that they consider much mainstream non-leftist belief as beyond the pale. Hence, enforcement of an open non-discriminatory access obligation would be difficult, and would inevitably involve estimation of discriminatory outcomes using statistical measures, a fraught exercise (as employment discrimination law demonstrates). Given the very deep pockets that these firms have, moreover, prevailing in a legal battle would be very difficult.

But this is a practical obstacle to treating social media like common carriers with a duty to provide non-discriminatory access. It is not a reason for classical liberals and libertarians to concede to dominant social network operators that they have an unrestricted right to restrict access as a matter of principle. In fact, the classical liberal/libertarian principle cuts quite the other way. And at the very least, imposing a common carrier-like obligation would substantially raise the cost that social network operators would pay to indulge in discrimination based on politics, beliefs, or ideology, and this could go a long way to make these places safe for the expression of political opinions that drive Jack, Mark, et al, nuts.


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February 19, 2017

More Contradictions and Confusions

Filed under: History,Politics — The Professor @ 2:12 pm

One could really make a parlor game out of identifying all of the contradictions and confusions in the “thinking” of the identity progressive left.

Further yesterday’s point, how can they possibly win (in the US, anyways)? On their terms, winning would mean the subjugation of the victimizers (e.g., the alleged white patriarchy, including all of those white privileged denizens of Appalachia). How is this to occur? Since those to be subjugated are unlikely to voluntarily agree to become Morlocks, they must be subdued by force or the ballot box. The current correlation of forces, however, is strongly on the side of the alleged oppressors. Re-education camps to get their minds right would also be required, but “elite” liberal arts colleges (the closest thing to such camps currently in operation n the US) have already made plain their unwillingness to admit such people, and coercion would be required to force them into something that Pol Pot could love. And given that those to be coerced have the guns (a fact the left never ceases to bewail), how could that possibly work?

And is victory even possible? The leftist version of identity politics is predicated on the conflict between the oppressed and the oppressors. What happens if the oppressed defeat the oppressors? How could they function if a vital piece of their worldview disappears? When your life is structured around fighting The Man, what do you do when The Man loses/dies/disappears? My guess is that there would be a period of internecine struggle to identify who assumes the role of oppressor, and who gets the prized role of being the oppressed.

This brings to mind the Taoist critique of other (not exclusively, but mainly) western religions and philosophies which posit wars between light and darkness, goodness and evil, and so on, which can be summarized as: “um, what happens when light/good win?” Similar critiques have been applied to progressive thought (cf. Alan Watts): how is progress possible in a world of polarity? This problem is particularly acute for identity leftists, because polarity (oppressed/oppressors) is at the core of their mental model.

Traditional Marxists faced a similar dilemma. Marx was quite detailed in describing the class struggle and its ultimate outcome of a dictatorship of the proletariat, but he was quite hazy at describing just what that dictatorship would look like, and how it would be free of conflict (in the presence of any specialization at all).  I would guess that in the unlikely event of victory that the intramural contests on the left would put the intra-party conflicts among the Bolsheviks post-1917 to shame. (And remember what ended the latter conflict: Stalin killing everybody who disagreed with him.)

One last thing. the focus on identity has led to a category error in interpreting US politics, Trump’s rhetoric, and the appeal of that rhetoric to his supporters. In the identity left’s worldview, nationalism is inherently based in national, racial, and ethnic supremacism (and gender and sexual orientation and on and on). Hence, when Trump or a Trump supporter celebrates or asserts American nationalism, the Pavlovian response on the left is to think of European nationalism of the blood and soil variety. No! American nationalism has always been different, and to equate Trump with a Le Pen or an Orban–or a Putin!–on this issue is fundamentally wrong.

On this eve of Presidents’ Day, a review of Lincoln’s formulation of American nationalism, and his distinction between American and European varieties is quite useful. Sadly, all too many people have forgotten this fundamental distinction, including Republican Senators, notably John McCain, who committed this very category error a few days ago. In a statement aimed clearly at Trump, as well as continental nationalist leaders, he said:  “[The founders of the Munich conference] would be alarmed by an increasing turn away from universal values and toward old ties of blood and race and sectarianism.”

Maybe that’s true in some countries, but it is not what is going on in the United States. Indeed, it is a disgusting insult of tens of millions of Americans to insinuate that it is. McCain’s combination of senility and narcissism is becoming too much to bear, but this remark (and other things he said in Munich) demonstrate how deeply the identity left/progressive rot has penetrated establishment opinion in the US.



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February 18, 2017

Putin Is So Smart That He Outsmarted Himself–You Should Have Listened to Me, Vlad

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 2:29 pm

Apparently there is buyer’s remorse in Moscow, as Putin and his coterie are disappointed at Trump’s failure to change dramatically the relationship between the US and Russia. Don’t believe me? The WaPoo and the FT say so.

This is no surprise to me at all. Indeed, from the time that the hysteria over alleged Russian manipulation of the US election broke out, I said Putin should be careful what he asks for, because it was be unlikely that Trump would behave as expected–and hoped, in Moscow, apparently. There are several reasons for this, some of which I pointed out at the time.

The first is Trump’s mercurial nature. Counting on what he says at time t to be reliable information for forecasting his behavior at T>t is a mugs’ game, because much of what he says is for tactical value and to influence negotiations, and because he changes his mind a lot, in part because he does not have strong ideological convictions.

I think Trump’s stand on Nato–an issue of particular importance to Putin–is a classic example. There is good sense at the core of Trump’s position: European Nato states have been free riding for years. He wants to get them to stump up more money. What better way than to threaten to ditch Nato? He has quite clearly put the fear into them. Then he dispatches his reasonable emissaries–Mattis and Tillerson–to lay out the framework of a modus vivendi.

The second is that Trump’s assertion of an independent United States with attenuated ties to traditional multilateral organizations is hardly helpful to Putin. This is especially true because part of Trump’s program along these lines is to revitalize the US military. Russia has strained mightily to overcome the decrepitude of its 1990s military, and has managed to recapitalize it sufficiently to make it a credible force. Even after these efforts, however, it can only dimly see the tail of the American military in the distance. If Trump goes into super-cruise mode, Russia’s expenditures will have largely been for nought. Closing the military gap required the US not to compete. Trump made it clear he would compete. How could Putin have desired that?

Nato was already the US military plus a few European military baubles hung on for decoration. A stronger US military makes Nato stronger, regardless of what the Europeans do. If the Europeans kick it up a bit too, well that all really sucks for Vlad.

The third is something that has only become manifest in the past months. Namely, the Democratic loss left them desperate to find a scapegoat. Russia has become that scapegoat, and anything said that is remotely positive about Russia unleashes paroxysms of fury–not just from Democrats, but from many Republicans as well. Any positive move that Trump would take towards Russia would be seized upon as evidence of a dark bargain with the Kremlin. So (as he acknowledged in his press conference) he has no political room to deal with Russia. Indeed, if anything he might be forced to being more Russophobic Than Thou in order to put this issue to rest.

That is, the dynamic created by his intervention has completely undermined Putin’s purpose. A self-inflicted wound.

There is yet more irony in this development. Along with their spawn, 1980s peaceniks who shrieked that Reagan’s robust stance with the Soviet Union threatened the earth with nuclear annihilation now sound like those in the hard right in the ’80s who thought Reagan was a wimp, and a traitor for talking with Gorbachev. Trump, of all people, is the one lamenting that defusing conflict and talking with the Russians would reduce the risk of nuclear holocaust.

All this calls into considerable doubt Putin’s vaunted tactical and strategic acumen. If indeed Russia intervened heavy-handedly in the US election, it is not turning out well for Putin. And evidently he recognizes this, and is sharply reducing his ambitions. Maybe, pace Stalin, we’ll see him write an article where he claims Russia is dizzy with success, and needs a respite to consolidate its gains.

Truth be told, I do not think that Putin thought that his machinations (whatever they were–and I am skeptical about some of the more lurid claims) would result in Trump’s election. I surmise that his objective was to damage Hillary, in the full expectation that she would win and it would be advantageous to deal with a weakened president. But, he was too clever by half, outsmarted himself, and now has to deal with an unpredictable dervish capable of turning any which way.

Viewed in this light, Putin is less Sorcerer, than Sorcerer’s Apprentice, who cast a spell he could not control: authoritarians who have been in control too long have a tendency to do that, because they are convinced of their own greatness. Whatever his intent, the unintended consequences of his actions have arguably left him worse of than if he had left well enough alone. I do not believe that it was his intent to elect Trump. When Trump was elected, he let his mind run wild with the possibilities, but he has now come crashing to earth.

Wiley Coyote comes to mind. That Acme Election Kit (or would it be the Acmeski Election Kit) hasn’t worked quite as planned, has it Vlad?

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The Identity Left Needs to Heed the Lesson of Major Patrick Ferguson & King’s Mountain

Filed under: History,Politics — The Professor @ 12:56 pm

At his Thursday press conference Trump unleashed a frontal attack on the press, and appealed directly to the American people: he said, in not so many words, that he would not accept the press as an intermediary standing between him and the electorate  because it is not an honest broker, but is instead  tendentiously partisan, and fundamentally dishonest in its partisanship. Trump followed this fusillade with a Tweet labeling an alphabet soup of media organizations “enemies of the people.”

The media reacted predictably, and indeed as Trump predicted during his press conference. And you know what: He doesn’t care! Indeed, he relishes it, precisely because he knows that the people to whom he is appealing detest the media. And the primary reason that they detest the media is that they know the media detests them, and indeed, largely considers them beneath contempt.

Which brings me to my main subject, which is the left’s doubling down on identity politics post-election. This is the subject of an excellent essay in the Claremont Review of Books by William Voegeli (unfortunately behind a paywall).

Voegeli brings out a couple of very important points. One is the relentless, and indeed militant, subjectivity of identity politics. (This is something I’ve remarked upon going back at least 25 years.) The premise is that there are no universals, but that everyone’s beliefs,  mind, and behavior are determined by their identity, which is the function of a nexus of primarily race and gender (with the latter definitely NOT being binary) and sexual orientation (and crucially, only to a very minor degree class/economic status–more on this in a bit).

This leads to an intense tribalism.*  This tribalism inherently creates conflict and makes dialogue impossible. This is greatly exacerbated by the leftist belief that language itself is highly subjective and the product of power relationships. When the possibility of a common meaning of language is denied, conversion by persuasion and the demonstration of error through argument become impossible. The left thinks the Tower of Babel is, if not a good thing, an inevitable thing. In such a world, dispute can be settled only by conflict and the assertion of power. In this situation, language serves the purpose almost exclusively of signaling one’s identity tribe, and to one’s identity tribe, rather than to engage in civil discourse with those outside it.

Moreover, the most crucial part of these identities is victimization. Which requires a victimizer. The left of course has that all figured out, and of course it is identifiable by race, gender, orientation etc.: the victimizers are white, primarily male, heterosexual, and middle class. Often rural or exurban, living in the Heart of Darkness that stretches from the Hudson to the San Andreas fault (with a few small islands inhabited by good tribes, namely college towns, scattered there).

And as Voegeli notes, this creates a tremendous problem for the left. They were convinced that demography, combined with raising the identity consciousness of the victimized categories, would result in an electoral majority that would sweep them into power. Once in power, they could take their revenge on the benighted–and Voegeli points out that many (e.g., Harvard’s–go figure!–Mark Tushnet) were quite explicit in their desire to exterminate the American kulaks as a class.

But the demographic revolution has not proceeded as quickly as the left had anticipated, and they launched their revolution too quickly, while the hated kulaks were still in a majority (and in particular, in an Electoral College majority–pesky Constitution!). They also misjudged their enemy. (And I am not being hyperbolic here–they definitely view whites in flyover country as the enemy.)

They should have read Walter Russell Mead’s description of the Jacksonian American. It is usually politically detached and rather passive. But when it perceives it is threatened, it reacts with a rather frightening intensity, latent with the threat of violence.

A historical example illustrates this. During the American Revolution, the “Overmountain Men” of Tennessee, the proto-Jacksonians, largely remained aloof from the conflict. They wanted to be left alone. But neutrality did not satisfy the British crown. The British demanded subservience and support. British commander Patrick Ferguson made blood curdling threats to attack Over the Mountain unless subservience was forthcoming, post haste.

These threats pushed the Overmountain Men into outright defiance. Believing their liberty to be at risk, and not willing to bend to any man (which is why they were living in the wilderness in the first place), they flooded out of their mountain fastness and gathered near King’s Mountain, North Carolina, where they met Ferguson and his Redcoats. And proceeded to shoot them to pieces, killing Ferguson in the process, in one of the most decisive and one-sided battles of the war.

The Trump election bears some similarity to this. The left’s identity politics requires that their enemies either deny their own identity and submit, or commit suicide (which, in fact, some on the left have helpfully suggested). Yes, this may work with pussified white males at Oberlin (obedient products of the feminized primary and secondary education systems in the US), but it doesn’t work with high school graduates in Gunland. As the left found out to its horror and shock on November 8, 2016.

The old Marxist left always went on and on about how the internal contradictions in capitalism would cause its collapse. The new cultural left is blind to the internal contradictions of identity politics. One cannot reasonably expect that the Evil Identity–which the Good Identities constantly call out by name–will not itself consolidate on identity lines and fight back, but that is exactly what the left’s strategy requires. A strategy based on one’s enemy’s self-abnegation can hardly be calculated to succeed, especially if that enemy is Jacksonian America, which (a) already has a well-formed identity, and (b) has a nasty habit of fighting war to the knife when threatened.

Indeed, the irony here is almost too much. The gravamen of the left’s criticism of the white middle class focuses on the very characteristics (which Obama conveniently summarized as clinging to guns and religion) that make it dangerous when threatened. So it’s not like this should have been a surprise.

One last thing about economic status and class that is worth mentioning. Although Trump’s message does appeal mainly to the white middle and working class, the fact that it is primarily economic (jobs! factories! Make America Great Again!) its appeal is not limited to whites. Indeed, it has the potential to appeal to blacks and Hispanics who are in similar economic circumstances to the whites who put Trump in the White House, especially in places like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

This is a mortal threat to the left, because the supposed demographic inflection point has not arrived, meaning that the left needs every black and Hispanic vote, and it needs these groups to turn out in number. Indeed, by pushing away many whites who have in the past voted Democratic, the left needs these minority voters all the more. Therefore, Trump’s attempts to appeal to these voters, and the inherent appeal of his program to those in the 30th-50th income percentiles, and those without advanced degrees, regardless of ethnicity, is potentially disastrous for the left. This is why Trump has to be portrayed as a racist indistinguishable from Bull Conner.

The left has responded to the Trump defeat not by questioning the wisdom of its identity-based strategy, but by doubling down on it. Those who question–such as Columbia Historian Mark Lilla–are subjected to a torrent of abuse not much different from that directed at Trump. If you want to see the doubling down, look at the contest for DNC chair, which is all about identity politics. The most flagrant example of this being the statement of one candidate to the effect that she (a white woman) believes that her “job is to shut other white people down when they want to interrupt.” Yeah. That will work really swell with Jacksonian America. You go, girl!

Thinking about these things, and reading things like Voegeli’s essay, leaves me very dispirited. The entire premise of the left is that there is no common ground among Americans. We are a collection of tribes defined by racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual orientation categories. Language is a reflection of oppressive power relationships, and is not to be trusted. If this is what one believes, then persuasion and debate and appeal to sweet reason are futile. It all comes down to a fight.

And the left’s big mistake is not recognizing that they have picked a fight with people who outnumber them, are quite disposed to fight back, and who now have as president someone who is quite willing to bring it on, and won’t back down.

I say this not because it is something I want. It is a diagnosis of what I believe the situation to be, independent of my desires. What I desire is that Americans accept a common civic creed applicable to all, and where diversity is respected by letting heterogeneous people pursue happiness according to their own lights, and where the role of the state is largely limited to protecting individuals from force and fraud attempted by foreign nations and fellow citizens.

But that is not what the left desires. It demands obedience to its (self-contradictory) creed of no common creed, and is willing to crush those that do not submit. It is acting like a modern-day Patrick Ferguson, and has stirred the descendants (some literally, most figuratively) of the Overmountain Men to take up their arms and fight. That did not work out well for Major Ferguson, and is unlikely to work out well for the left. Not that such an outcome would disappoint me. What is disappointing is that they have brought on this battle. Whoever wins, America would have been much better off had it not been fought at all.

*Reading Voegeli’s essay I was reminded of something else that I read recently, namely that most Native American tribe names were not given by the tribes themselves: most tribes referred to themselves by a word meaning “the people.” Instead, tribes were named by their enemies, and the name was usually something meaning enemy, or some negative characteristic.

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