The Deconstruction of the West

What concerns me most from the following article is the misguided notion that pan-nationalism and global citizenship has displaced the sovereign nation-state international system. The sovereign nation-state is all we have to manage global affairs in a representative democratic, people-centered global society. Without it we are all vulnerable to constellations of power among political elites and authoritarians of all stripes.

Reprinted from The American Interest:

The Deconstruction of the West

ANDREW A. MICHTA

April 12, 2017

The greatest threat to the liberal international order comes not from Russia, China, or jihadist terror but from the self-induced deconstruction of Western culture.

To say that the world has been getting progressively less stable and more dangerous is to state the obvious. But amidst the volumes written on the causes of this ongoing systemic change, one key driver barely gets mentioned: the fracturing of the collective West. And yet the unraveling of the idea of the West has degraded our ability to respond with a clear strategy to protect our regional and global interests. It has weakened the NATO alliance and changed not just the global security calculus but now also the power equilibrium in Europe. If anyone doubts the scope and severity of the problem, he or she should ask why it has been so difficult of late to develop a consensus between the United States and Europe on such key issues as defense, trade, migration, and how to deal with Russia, China, and Islamic jihadists.

The problem confronting the West today stems not from a shortage of power, but rather from the inability to build consensus on the shared goals and interests in whose name that power ought to be applied. The growing instability in the international system is not, as some argue, due to the rise of China as an aspiring global power, the resurgence of Russia as a systemic spoiler, the aspirations of Iran for regional hegemony, or the rogue despotism of a nuclear-armed North Korea; the rise and relative decline of states is nothing new, and it doesn’t necessarily entail instability. The West’s problem today is also not mainly the result of the economic decline of the United States or the European Union, for while both have had to deal with serious economic issues since the 2008 meltdown, they remain the two largest economies in the world, whose combined wealth and technological prowess are unmatched. Nor is the increasing global instability due to a surge in Islamic jihadism across the globe, for despite the horrors the jihadists have wrought upon the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa, and the attendant anxiety now pervading Europe and America, they have nowhere near the capabilities needed to confront great powers.

The problem, rather, is the West’s growing inability to agree on how it should be defined as a civilization. At the core of the deepening dysfunction in the West is the self-induced deconstruction of Western culture and, with it, the glue that for two centuries kept Europe and the United States at the center of the international system. The nation-state has been arguably the most enduring and successful idea that Western culture has produced. It offers a recipe to achieve security, economic growth, and individual freedom at levels unmatched in human history. This concept of a historically anchored and territorially defined national homeland, having absorbed the principles of liberal democracy, the right to private property and liberty bound by the rule of law, has been the core building block of the West’s global success and of whatever “order” has ever existed in the so-called international order. Since 1945 it has been the most successful Western “export” across the globe, with the surge of decolonization driven by the quintessentially American precept of the right to self-determination of peoples, a testimony to its enduring appeal. Though challenged by fascism, Nazism, and communism, the West emerged victorious, for when confronted with existential danger, it defaulted to shared, deeply held values and the fervent belief that what its culture and heritage represented were worth fighting, and if necessary even dying, to preserve. The West prevailed then because it was confident that on balance it offered the best set of ideas, values, and principles for others to emulate.

Today, in the wake of decades of group identity politics and the attendant deconstruction of our heritage through academia, the media, and popular culture, this conviction in the uniqueness of the West is only a pale shadow of what it was a mere half century ago. It has been replaced by elite narratives substituting shame for pride and indifference to one’s own heritage for patriotism. After decades of Gramsci’s proverbial “long march” through the educational and cultural institutions, Western societies have been changed in ways that make social mobilization around the shared idea of a nation increasingly problematic. This ideological hollowing out of the West has been accompanied by a surge in confident and revanchist nationalisms in other parts of the world, as well as religiously inspired totalitarianism.

National communities cannot be built around the idea of collective shame over their past, and yet this is what is increasingly displacing a once confident (perhaps overconfident, at times) Western civilization. The increasing political uncertainty in Europe has been triggered less by the phenomenon of migration than it has by the inability of European governments to set baselines of what they will and will not accept. Over the past two decades Western elites have advocated (or conceded) a so-called “multicultural policy,” whereby immigrants would no longer be asked to become citizens in the true sense of the Western liberal tradition. People who do not speak the national language, do not know the nation’s history, and do not identify with its culture and traditions cannot help but remain visitors. The failure to acculturate immigrants into the liberal Western democracies is arguably at the core of the growing balkanization, and attendant instability, of Western nation-states, in Europe as well as in the United States.

Whether one gives the deconstruction of the Western nation-state the name of postmodernism or globalism, the ideological assault on this very foundation of the Western-led international system has been unrelenting. It is no surprise that a poorly resourced radical Islamic insurgency has been able to make such vast inroads against the West, in the process remaking our societies and redefining our way of life. It is also not surprising that a weak and corrupt Russia has been able to shake the international order by simply applying limited conventional military power. Or that a growing China casts an ever-longer shadow over the West. The greatest threat to the security and survival of the democratic West as the leader and the norm-setter of the international system comes not from the outside but from within. And with each passing year, the deconstruction of Western culture, and with it the nation-state, breeds more internal chaos and makes our international bonds across the West ever more tenuous.

Andrew A. Michta is the dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. Views expressed here are his own.

Siren Servers and the Data Age

Google’s commodification of content knowingly, willfully undermined provenance for profit. That was followed by the Facebook stream, with its journalistic jetsam and fake flotsam. Together, the two most powerful news publishers in human history have created an ecosystem that is dysfunctional and socially destructive.

Interesting article below by The News Corp CEO on the challenges of the information age and how it has disrupted content business models. (Siren Servers refers to the FANG – Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google – consortium that pretty much controls the digital world.) This has affected many businesses, especially publishing, music, and video.

We should recognize that these companies thrive on the proliferation of data, no matter how frivolous and inconsequential. This is why they encourage users to post anything – because it translates into higher eyeball metrics and higher ad revenues. This won’t stop until a new data filter model disrupts it. However, the future will be different because this concentration is unsustainable and nobody really likes where it’s headed. In other words, the disrupters will be disrupted.

Reprinted from the WSJ:

Fake News and the Digital Duopoly

Google and Facebook have created a dysfunctional and socially destructive information ecosystem.

By ROBERT THOMSON

WSJ, April 4, 2017 3:44 p.m. ET

‘Fake news” has seemingly, suddenly, become fashionable. In reality, the fake has proliferated for a decade or more, but the faux, the flawed and the fraudulent are now pressing issues because the full scale of the changes wrought upon the integrity of news and advertising by the digital duopoly—Google and Facebook —has become far more obvious.

Google’s commodification of content knowingly, willfully undermined provenance for profit. That was followed by the Facebook stream, with its journalistic jetsam and fake flotsam. Together, the two most powerful news publishers in human history have created an ecosystem that is dysfunctional and socially destructive.

Both companies could have done far more to highlight that there is a hierarchy of content, but instead they have prospered mightily by peddling a flat-earth philosophy that doesn’t distinguish between the fake and the real because they make copious amounts of money from both.

Depending on which source you believe, they have close to two-thirds of the digital advertising market—and let me be clear that we compete with them for that share. The Interactive Advertising Bureau estimates they accounted for more than 90% of the incremental increase in digital advertising over the past year. The only cost of content for these companies has been lucrative contracts for lobbyists and lawyers, but the social cost of that strategy is far more profound.

It is beyond risible that Google and its subsidiary YouTube, which have earned many billions of dollars from other people’s content, should now be lamenting that they can’t possibly be held responsible for monitoring that content. Monetizing yes, monitoring no—but it turns out that free money does come at a price.

We all have to work with these companies, and we are hoping, mostly against hope, that they will finally take meaningful action, not only to allow premium content models that fund premium journalism, but also to purge their sites of the rampant piracy that undermines creativity. Your business model can’t be simultaneously based on both intimate, granular details about users and no clue whatsoever about rather obvious pirate sites.

Another area that urgently needs much attention is the algorithms that Silicon Valley companies, and Amazon, routinely cite as a supposedly objective source of wisdom and insight. These algorithms are obviously set, tuned and repeatedly adjusted to suit their commercial needs. Yet they also blame autonomous, anarchic algorithms and not themselves when neo-fascist content surfaces or when a search leads to obviously biased results in favor of their own products.

Look at how Google games searches. A study reported in The Wall Street Journal found that in 25,000 random Google searches ads for Google products appeared in the most prominent slot 91% of the time. How is that not the unfair leveraging of search dominance and the abuse of algorithm? All 1,000 searches for “laptops” started with an ad for Google’s Chromebook—100% of the time. Kim Jong Un would be envious of results like that at election time.

And then there are the recently launched Google snippets, which stylistically highlight search results as if they were written on stone tablets and carried down from the mountain. Their sheer visual physicality gives them apparent moral force. The word Orwellian is flagrantly abused, but when it comes to the all-powerful algorithms of Google, Amazon and Facebook, Orwellian is underused.

As for news, institutional neglect has left us perched on the edge of the slippery slope of censorship. There is no Silicon Valley tradition, as there is at great newspapers, of each day arguing over rights and wrongs, of fretful, thoughtful agonizing over social responsibility and freedom of speech.

What we now have is a backlash with which these omnipotent companies are uniquely ill-equipped to cope. Their responses tend to be political and politically correct. Regardless of your own views, you should be concerned that we are entering an era in which these immensely influential publishers will routinely and selectively “unpublish” certain views and news.

We stumble into this egregious era at a moment when the political volume in many countries is turned to 10. The echo chamber has never been larger and the reverb room rarely more cacophonous. This is not an entirely new trend, but it has a compounding effect with the combination of “holier than thou” and “louder than thou.”

Curiously, this outcome is, in part, a result of the idealism of the Silicon Valley set, and there’s no doubt about the self-proclaimed ideals. They devoutly believe they are connecting people and informing them, which is true, even though some of the connections become conspiracies and much of the information is skimmed without concern to intellectual property rights.

Ideas aside, we were supposed to be in a magic age of metrics and data. Yet instead of perfect precision we have the cynical arbitraging of ambiguity—particularly in the world of audiences. Some advertising agencies are also clearly at fault because they, too, have been arbitraging and prospering from digital ambiguity as money in the ad business has shifted from actually making ads to aggregating digital audiences and ad tech, better known as fad tech.

And so, as the Times of London has reported, socially aware, image-conscious advertisers find themselves in extremely disreputable places—hardcore porn sites, neo-fascist sites, Islamist sites. The embarrassment for these advertisers juxtaposed with jaundice is understandable, but the situation is far more serious than mere loss of face.

If these sites are getting a cut of the commission, the advertisers are technically funding these nefarious activities. Depending on the type of advertising, it is estimated by the ad industry that a YouTube partner could earn about 55% of the revenue from a video. In recent years, how many millions of dollars have been channeled to organizations or individuals that are an existential threat to our societies?

Provenance is profound, and in this age of augmented reality and virtual reality, actual reality will surely make a comeback. Authenticated authenticity is an asset of increasing value in an age of the artificial—understanding the ebb and flow of humanity will not be based on fake news or ersatz empathy, but on real insight.

Mr. Thomson is the chief executive of News Corp, which owns The Wall Street Journal. This is adapted from a speech he delivered on March 29 to the Asia Society in Hong Kong.

Listen. Time for New Thinking.

One thing I have noticed in this political environment is that people do not listen to political views that diverge from their own. They believe what they believe, and that’s the end of it. Then they project bad intentions on anyone who disagrees. It makes for useless, though necessary, conversations.

This writer makes a good case for some rational reasoning through the imperative of listening to our politics rather than shouting them. We need to chart the correct path forward and it’s not by turning to the recent or distant past. Those mostly provide warning signs for the consequences of foolish mistakes.

History tells us that populist waves can lead to disaster or to reform…So how might we tilt the odds from disaster to reform? First, listen.

It’s Time for New Economic Thinking Based on the Best Science Available, Not Ideology

A new narrative for a complex age

By Eric Beinhocker 

If 2008 was the year of the financial crash, 2016 was the year of the political crash. In that year we witnessed the collapse of the last of the four major economic-political ideologies that dominated the 20th century: nationalism; Keynesian Pragmatism; socialism; and neoliberalism. In the 1970s and 80s the center right in many countries abandoned Keynesianism and adopted neoliberalism. In the 1980s and 90s the center left followed, largely abandoning democratic socialism and adopting a softer version of neoliberalism.

For a few decades we thought the end of history had arrived and political battles in most OECD countries were between centre-right and centre-left parties arguing in a narrow political spectrum, but largely agreeing on issues such as free trade, the benefits of immigration, the need for flexible efficient markets, and the positive role of global finance. This consensus was reinforced by international institutions such as the IMF, World Bank, and OECD, and the Davos political and business elite.

In 2008 that consensus was rocked, last year it crumbled. Some will cling on to the idea that the consensus can be revived. They will say we just need to defend it more vigorously, the facts will eventually prevail, the populist wave is exaggerated, it’s really just about immigration, Brexit will be a compromise, Clinton won more votes than Trump, and so on. But this is wishful thinking. Large swathes of the electorate have lost faith in the neoliberal consensus, the political parties that backed it, and the institutions that promoted it. This has created an ideological vacuum being filled by bad old ideas, most notably a revival of nationalism in the US and a number of European countries, as well as a revival of the hard socialist left in some countries.

History tells us that populist waves can lead to disaster or to reform. Disaster is certainly a realistic scenario now with potential for an unravelling of international cooperation, geopolitical conflict, and very bad economic policy. But we can also look back in history and see how, for example, in the US at the beginning of the 20th century Teddy Roosevelt harnessed populist discontent to create a period of major reform and progress.

So how might we tilt the odds from disaster to reform? First, listen. The populist movements do contain some racists, xenophobes, genuinely crazy people, and others whom we should absolutely condemn. But they also contain many normal people who are fed up with a system that doesn’t work for them. People who have seen their living standards stagnate or decline, who live precarious lives one paycheque at a time, who think their children will do worse than they have. And their issues aren’t just economic, they are also social and psychological. They have lost dignity and respect, and crave a sense of identity and belonging.

They feel – rightly or wrongly – that they played by the rules, but others in society haven’t, and those others have been rewarded. They also feel that their political leaders and institutions are profoundly out of touch, untrustworthy, and self-serving. And finally, they feel at the mercy of big impersonal forces – globalization, technology change, rootless banks and large faceless corporations. The most effective populist slogan has been “take back control”.

After we listen we then have to give new answers. New narratives and policies about how people’s lives can be made better and more secure, how they can fairly share in their nation’s prosperity, how they can have more control over their lives, how they can live with dignity and respect, how everyone will play by the same rules and the social contract will be restored, how openness and international cooperation benefits them not just an elite, and how governments, corporations, and banks will serve their interests, and not the other way around.

This is why we need new economic thinking. This is why the NAEC initiative is so important. The OECD has been taking economic inequality and stagnation seriously for longer than most and has some of the best data and analysis of these issues around. It has done leading work on alternative metrics other than GDP to give insight into how people are really doing, on well-being. It is working hard to articulate new models of growth that are inclusive and environmentally sustainable. It has leading initiatives on education, health, cities, productivity, trade, and numerous other topics that are critical to a new narrative.

But there are gaps too. Rational economic models are of little help on these issues, and a deeper understanding of psychology, sociology, political science, anthropology, and history is required. Likewise, communications is critical – thick reports are important for government ministries, but stories, narratives, visuals, and memes are needed to shift the media and public thinking.

So what might such a new narrative look like? My hope is that even in this post-truth age it will be based on the best facts and science available. I believe it will contain four stories:

  • A new story of growth [see this post]
  • A new story of inclusion [see this post]
  • A new social contract
  • A new idealism

This last point doesn’t get discussed enough. Periods of progress are usually characterized by idealism, common projects we can all aspire to. Populism is a zero-sum mentality – the populist leader will help me get more of a fixed pie. Idealism is a positive-sum mentality – we can do great things together. Idealism is the most powerful antidote to populism.

Finally, economics has painted itself as a detached amoral science, but humans are moral creatures. We must bring morality back into the center of economics in order for people to relate to and trust it. All of the science shows that deeply ingrained, reciprocal moral behaviors are the glue that holds society together. Understanding the economy as not just an amoral machine that provides incentives and distributes resources, but rather as a human moral construct is essential, not just for creating a more just economy, but also for understanding how the economy actually creates prosperity.

In short, it is time to forge a new vision that puts people back at the center of our economy. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, it is time to create an economy that is “of the people, by the people, for the people.” We are truly at a fluid point in history. It could be a great step backward or a great step forwards. We must all push forwards together.

Based on remarks originally delivered to the OECD New Approaches to Economic Challenges workshop, December 14, 2016, Paris.

The return of the nation-state

The lesson is that it’s a mistake to predict the inevitable decline of things that give meaning to people’s lives and involve fundamental human attachments. 

Mr. Lowry has got this mostly right. Trump is merely one actor in this play as national sovereignty and national identity is being reasserted in Great Britain, France, Germany, Greece, Russia, etc. across the globe. Some automatically associate nationalism with interstate conflict (i.e, war), but that is not necessarily the path it takes, especially in the liberal western democracies.

Also, people migration is not the most serious challenge facing the modern nation-state, but it’s the easiest to scape-goat. It’s deflected by cultural assimilation.

Samuel Huntington is worth reading.

The return of the nation-state

The first week of the Trump administration has been a vindication of the American nation-state.

Anyone who thought it was a “borderless world,” a category that includes some significant portion of the country’s corporate and intellectual elite, has been disabused of the notion within about the first five days of the Trump years.

Trump’s inaugural address was widely panned, but early polling indicates it was popular, which isn’t surprising since the broadly nationalistic sentiments in the speech were bound to strike people as common sense.

“At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.” Whom else would it serve?

“We are one nation . . . We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.” What’s the alternative — two nations, with two hearts and homes?

“From this moment on, it’s going to be America first.” Why would anything else come first?

“We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world — but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first,” Trump said.

Trump’s speech was less poetic, but in one sense more grounded than George W. Bush’s call for universal freedom in 2005 or Barack Obama’s vision of international cooperation leading to a new era of peace in 2009. Trump spoke of “the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”

If Bush was a vindicator of universal freedom, and Obama, in his more soaring moments, a citizen of the world, Trump is a dogged citizen of the United States concerned overwhelmingly with vindicating its interests.

His executive order authorizing the building of the wall is an emphatic affirmation of one of the constituent parts of a nation, namely borders. Trump also began the process of going after sanctuary cities as entrepôts of illegal immigration acting in defiance of the nation’s laws.

In general, immigration is an important focus for Trump’s nationalism because it involves the question of whether the American people have the sovereign authority to decide who gets to live here; whether the interests of American or foreign workers should be paramount; whether we assimilate the immigrants we already have into a common culture before welcoming more.

The Trump phenomenon is pushback against what the late political scientist Samuel Huntington called the “deconstructionist” agenda, whose advocates seek to undermine America’s national identity through mass immigration and hostility to assimilation and opposition to the teaching of US history from a traditional, patriotic perspective, among other things.

Huntington argues that until the late 20th century, these elites promoted national unity, as one would expect. “Then in the 1960s and 1970s,” he writes, “they began to promote measures consciously designed to weaken America’s cultural and creedal identity and to strengthen racial, ethnic, cultural, and other subnational identities. These efforts by a nation’s leaders to deconstruct the nation they governed were, quite possibly, without precedent in human history.”

Trump is a welcome rebuke to this attitude, though caveats are necessary:

A proper US nationalism should express not just an affinity for this country’s people, as Trump did in his address, but for its creed, its institutions and its history. These are absent from Trump’s rhetoric and presumably his worldview, impoverishing both.

Trump’s nationalism has the potential to appeal across racial and ethnic lines, so long as he demonstrates that it isn’t just cover for his loyalty to his preferred subnational group.

If Bush was overly expansive in his international vision, Trump could be overly pinched. Bush’s anti-AIDS program in Africa was unvarnished humanitarianism — and will redound to his credit, and the credit of this nation, for a very long time.

Finally, Trump’s trade agenda is also an expression of his nationalism. Trade deals should be able to pass the national-interest test — we shouldn’t embrace them for the sake of helping other nations, or out of strict libertarian principle. But protectionism is, historically, a special-interest bonanza that delivers benefits to specific industries only at a disproportionate cost to the rest of the economy.

All that said, the nation-state is back, despite all the forecasts of its demise.

The lesson is that it’s a mistake to predict the inevitable decline of things that give meaning to people’s lives and involve fundamental human attachments. The nation is one of them, something that Trump, if he gets nothing else, instinctively understands.

The Reassertion of the Nation-State

My how we live in interesting times. I’m sure they said that at the turn of the 20th century too. Let’s hope our leaders can manage this phase of national sovereignty a bit more successfully.

It’s a mistake to ignore or turn away from this reassertion of national sovereignty with horror. It is a natural communal reaction to rapid change not properly managed. The intention should be to slow down the social impact of those technological and economic changes in order to maintain a stable path to progress. This requires the establishment center to hold, but not by dismissing the real problems faced by significant portions of their populations. Because mismanagement of this complex challenge carries risks for nation-state conflict through trade wars or even hot wars with imperialist intentions.

We should keep in mind that nationalism, patriotism, and national identity are not necessarily expressions of ill-will toward others, but they can be turned into that.

From The New Yorker:

EUROPE’S POPULISTS PREPARE FOR A NATIONALIST SPRING

By Elisabeth Zerofsky   January 25, 2017

A gathering of European far-right leaders in Koblenz, Germany, on the day of Donald Trump’s Inauguration expressed growing confidence in its agenda following his victory and that of Brexit.

On January 20th, as Donald Trump was taking the oath of office, in Washington, populist leaders from across Europe were arriving in a quiet city on the Rhine. Early the next morning, French, German, Italian, Austrian, and Dutch nationalists stood together on a stage in Koblenz, a central German town that has been associated with political countercurrents since it harbored aristocrats during the French Revolution. Their national flags flew behind them as they greeted what they called the “birth of a new world.” “Yesterday, a new America,” Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, proclaimed to a hall filled with about a thousand attendees, most of them sturdy men in dark suits. “Tomorrow, a new Europe.”

The momentum of the Brexit vote, followed by Trump’s election, has provided European populists with a ready-made argument for their own inevitability. “People thought Trump wouldn’t win and he won; they thought during the two months preceding his Inauguration he would backpedal on all his promises, but he didn’t do it,” Thibaud Gibelin, a parliamentary aide to France’s National Front, told me. “It shows it is possible to achieve victory over the establishment, and for us that’s the most beautiful symbol.” The parties gathered in Koblenz have gained voters over the past few years, as Europeans across the political spectrum have lost confidence in mainstream politicians’ ability to manage the refugee crisis, the threat of terrorism, and, in some cases, high unemployment. Both Wilders and Marine Le Pen, of France’s National Front, will face elections this spring, and both lead in the polls. Le Pen, who could become President of France in May, has called for a Brexit-style referendum, which she claims is the only way to regain control over national borders and put an end to immigration. France and Germany are the nucleus of the European Union, and a “Frexit” would in all likelihood mean its end.

The Koblenz conference was organized by Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, a four-year-old party that is trying to gain a foothold in a country that is still loath to tolerate the far right. In the fall, the AfD will likely obtain seats in the German parliament for the first time. Much of the French and German press expressed surprise that Frauke Petry, the party’s forty-one-year-old chair, would appear with Le Pen; the National Front presents a particular taboo in Germany because of some of its founders’ ties to the Vichy regime. But of Europe’s populists, Le Pen has the most serious ambitions to become head of state, and she is the clear kingpin of the group.

Le Pen took the stage like the instructor at a populists’ master class, radiating a warm familiarity. She hailed the domino effect that June’s Brexit vote had set in motion. “We have felt it coming, the rebellion of the people of Europe against a non-elected power that has pretended to be based on democracy,” she said. “What a blow to the old order!” The applause at the end was so rapturous that she returned to the stage for a curtain call.

There is something contradictory about a confederation of nationalist parties, but in addition to their shared opposition to the E.U. the parties have a common patron in Moscow. “It’s pretty clear that one of the geopolitical elements bringing these different forces together today is proximity to the Kremlin,” Joël Gombin, a political scientist who studies the National Front, told me. Le Pen’s party has been taking money from Russian banks for years, most recently a nine-million-euro loan, in 2014, from a bank that has since been dissolved. Over the past four years, Le Pen and members of her inner circle have made several trips to Moscow, where they’ve met with officials including the Deputy Prime Minister and the speaker of the Duma; her contacts reportedly include politicians who have been sanctioned by the E.U. in response to the Ukraine crisis. Leaders from the AfD have been guests at Russian government forums, and Austria’s Freedom Party has signed a coöperation agreement with President Vladimir Putin’s party. These connections have coalesced into an informal network connecting Putin’s inner circle and the European far right.

Le Pen presents an alliance between nationalist parties as a source not of bellicosity but of harmony. In Koblenz, she laid out a vision of a flowering of European cultures, and argued that a “diversity” of strong national identities would bring not war but mutual respect. Far-right supporters also believe that new European and American alliances with Russia will bring about a broader détente. In Koblenz, I had coffee with a fifty-four-year-old German attendee who politely refused to tell me his name or profession. “I don’t know what American troops are doing six thousand kilometres away from their country at the Russian border,” he complained. I suggested that they might be responding to Russian provocation. “No, the Americans provoked first, by orchestrating Ukraine,” he said. “The Americans are very big in regime change, very bad in solving problems. Trump will solve Ukraine and concentrate on American interests. Then it’s O.K.”

At the Koblenz conference, the populists made their claims of “rebirth” before an audience of mostly older white men. But the “identitarian” movement, while small—the French chapter claims two thousand paying members—is growing among the young. Gibelin, the National Front aide, is twenty-seven years old and was dressed in a gray wool suit, his hair slicked back in the manner of Donald Trump’s elder sons. As we stood in the café outside the conference hall, the babel of languages thickening around us, I asked whether he agreed with the vision put forth by older party members. His response came in the form of a seamless narrative. “The reality today that European countries are interdependent is clear to everyone,” he told me. “Coöperation is obvious, but it’s a question of what kind of coöperation. The one we have now, which benefits the economic empire and denies identity in submission to globalized interests?” Europeans, he said, share a cultural heritage. “We have our Roman roots, our language, our culture; the cathedrals you see, whether in Cologne or Paris, that are Gothic, that’s transnational; the Renaissance was a European phenomenon; and the great religious moments that marked Europe, the spread of Christianity, the Reformation, those were never isolated to one nation.” The refugee question was simple. Global corporations sought cheap labor, and politicians enabled them. He didn’t mind European governments providing financial aid to refugees, as long as that aid was used to help them stay in their own countries. “We think the dignity of these people can be expressed in their own homeland. Not here.” He shrugged confidently. “We are attacked by the media as being extremist, but for me it’s exactly the opposite,” he said. “It’s global capitalism that is extreme. We are simply defending the interests of the people.”

The refugee question was simple. Global corporations sought cheap labor, and politicians enabled them. He didn’t mind European governments providing financial aid to refugees, as long as that aid was used to help them stay in their own countries. “We think the dignity of these people can be expressed in their own homeland. Not here.” He shrugged confidently. “We are attacked by the media as being extremist, but for me it’s exactly the opposite,” he said. “It’s global capitalism that is extreme. We are simply defending the interests of the people.”

Interesting Money Graphics

08-roman-empire-chart

dollar_devaluation

One cannot take these graphs at face value, for example, the long $ decline from 1933 to the present has also been the Pax Americana where the US has dominated geopolitics. Also, the Roman denarius was a commodity based currency, while the US$ is a fiat currency backed by US government taxing power over US assets.

But the larger issue of the costs of empire over time are instructive. One should dig deeper in analysis, but not be too complacent. Especially in light of the currency manipulations of the current age.

Why I Shorted Hillary Clinton

Six months before the election.

In the six odd weeks since the Nov. 8 election, the news media has presented a chaotic post-mortem of what exactly happened in this election. Mostly, they are focused on the unfathomable: how did Hillary Clinton lose? Sexism? Comey? Russian hackers? Putin?

But a number of election analysts saw the problems of a Clinton candidacy from afar. In the spring of 2015, I personally told a group of Silicon Valley liberals that Clinton was probably the weakest candidate the Democrats could choose in the current anti-establishment political climate. Democrats and Republicans alike were openly lamenting even the idea of another Bush-Clinton election.

More damning was the hard electoral evidence already out there on the Democratic agenda under Obama: the loss of the House and Senate, and more than a dozen governorships and state legislatures. How could these facts be ignored? I have discovered in our polarized politics that people don’t really listen to reason, they merely believe. And then they are faced with disbelief at the outcomes. (Scott Adams calls it cognitive dissonance.)

For most of 2015, the primary season was unclear, though most expected the party choices of Clinton vs. Rubio, Walker, Christy, or Bush would play out. Certainly very few–neither myself nor anybody I know–gave Trump even a remote chance of gaining the nomination. The GOP field of intended candidates became a parlor joke of seventeen dwarves crowding the stage. Liberals could not believe any of these could match up to Hillary on the national stage. They reverted to praising her extended political resume, as if that mattered. (Obama, for instance, probably had the shortest resume in modern presidential history.)

I maintained that Hillary had the highest negatives of any possible Democratic nominee and that after this became apparent following the DNC in August, panic would set in. I was off by a month because of someone nobody saw coming: Donald Trump.

After the first few primaries, Trump’s success gave new life to the fantasies Democrats were spinning. After all, Trump had the highest negatives of any candidate in modern history. At the time I tended to agree that a face-off between Clinton and Trump was a bit of a wild card and that by conventional politics, Clinton would seem to be favored. On the Republican side, opinion pollsters and media pundits all discounted Trump’s chances, but his primary wins rolled on. It was about March when I had the epiphany that past history was no guide to the future – this time was different. The anti-establishment wave that had been building since 2000 had finally begun to crest over “politics as usual.”

Ignoring this anomaly, liberals actually began to desire Trump to be the Republican nominee and conservatives secretly wondered if he wasn’t a Clinton shill. But still, I suspected none of what Trump did would accrue to Clinton’s benefit in this election cycle. It was in March, after observing the odd traction of Bernie Sanders, that I laid some wagers betting against a Clinton presidency (note, not FOR Trump or any other nominee, but solely against Clinton for the Democrats). Part of the reason was I felt the confidence of Clinton supporters was emotionally driven, so I got incredible odds that made the bet a no-brainer: 10 to 1, when the betting lines were closer to 4 to 1. I could have laid off this bet on the other side and enjoyed a riskless arbitrage, but I was fairly convinced, as a political scientist who had studied the data on the last 4 presidential elections, that any Clinton-Trump contest would be pretty much a toss-up and I liked the risk-return payoff.

When Trump’s support seemed to be bleeding working-class union voters from the Rust Belt, I was more convinced. But not my liberal Democrat friends. They cited endless poll numbers to support their beliefs, trusting in data from 538. I merely asked that since the polls, including those by 538, had been wrong for almost 9 months, why exactly should they be accurate now? Then they resorted to Electoral College math, but I replied that swing states with slim margins can flip rather easily. A month to two weeks before the election, with Clinton enjoying a 3-6 point lead in the polls I offered to double-down on my wagers against Clinton but got no takers. Apparently, confidence was growing a bit shaky. Trump support never seemed to go away despite the bashing he received in the media.

On Nov. 7, a friend who trusted my objectivity asked me who I thought would win. I said, although traditional measures point to a narrow Clinton win, traditional measures have failed and thus the outcome was still a 50-50 toss-up in my mind. I definitely liked my bet. On Nov. 9, we woke up to a new political reality, but the point is that we should all have seen it coming.

Here is a quote from the Economist assessing the election:

Republicans have long held the edge in America’s wide-open spaces, but never has the gap been this profound: a whopping 80% of voters who have over one square mile (2.6 square km) of land to enjoy to themselves backed Mr Trump. As the scatter plot below demonstrates, as counties become increasingly densely populated, fewer and fewer vote Republican. American politics appear to be realigning along a cleavage between inward-looking countryfolk and urban globalists.

The problem here (see italics) is that this tension in American politics is nothing new. In fact, it’s more than 200 years old. Regional differences have always existed but have become acute at certain times in our history. The urban-rural polarization is particularly sharp today because the parties have divvied up the polity with targeted policies: Democrats target identity groups that mostly live in urban areas and Republicans target everybody else (see this 2006 op-ed on the 2000/04 elections). The divide is compounded by urban media that targets political biases to its main audience: urban liberals. So urban media elites told their liberal urban audiences what they wanted to hear, rather than objective truth. I’m sure liberal reporters like E.J. Dionne, Juan Williams, Meet The Press, the NY Times op-ed page, etc., believed it themselves.

So, now the disillusioned are catching up with reality. Here’s Conan O’Brien stating the obvious:

“I really believe nobody knows anything right now,” says Conan O’Brien. “I really think the whole mantra that everyone must have, not just in this medium but in the world in general, is that no one knows anything.” Trump’s victory has landed a blow to the country’s notions of certainty. “I would say we’re not seeing the death of certainty,” O’Brien said. “But certainty has taken a holiday right now.” Plenty of certainty, now discarded, was generated in 2016. Our cozy silos of belief and customized group assumptions gave us our most brutal campaign in years. “Everyone has their own street corner,” O’Brien said.

As I stated above, partisan preferences have become less about reasoned policies and compromises and more about pure belief systems. Facts that don’t fit beliefs get tossed aside. If you believe Hillary lost because of Putin, or Comey, or sexism, or racism, or Electoral College math, you’re sinking into quicksand of your own making. Winning a majority of almost 85% of the 3141 counties across the nation is a significant statistical feat that can’t be explained by any single factor. From where I sat it had little to do with Trump, who merely road the wave. Rural and suburban America can never be dismissed by either party. Hillary Clinton was the weakest candidate in the post-war era, by far. If I could see it, so could you.*

*BTW, I’m not clairvoyant or particularly gifted with political genius. Using traditional electoral measures I bet on Romney over Obama for an easy win in 2012. But we can learn from our mistakes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At Long Last, the Fed Faces Reality

The Fed faces reality? After 8 years, I’m not holding my breath…

Unconventional monetary policy—including years of ultralow interest rates—simply hasn’t delivered.

By GERALD P. O’DRISCOLL JR.

WSJ, Dec. 15, 2016 

As was widely anticipated, Federal Reserve officials voted Wednesday to raise short-term interest rates by a quarter percentage point—only the second increase since the 2008 financial crash. The central bank appears to have finally confronted reality: that its unconventional monetary policy, particularly ultralow rates, simply has not delivered the goods.

In a speech last week, the president of the New York Fed, William Dudley, brought up “the limitations of monetary policy.” He suggested a greater reliance on “automatic fiscal stabilizers” that would “take some pressure off of the Federal Reserve.” His proposals—such as extending unemployment benefits and cutting the payroll tax—were conventionally Keynesian.

Speaking two weeks earlier at the Council on Foreign Relations, Fed Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer touted the power of fiscal policy to enhance productivity and speed economic growth. He called for “improved public infrastructure, better education, more encouragement for private investment, and more effective regulation.” The speech, delivered shortly after the election, almost channeled Donald Trump.

Indeed, the markets seem to be expecting a bigger, bolder version of Mr. Fischer’s suggestions from the Trump administration.

• Infrastructure: Mr. Trump campaigned on $1 trillion in new infrastructure, though the details are not fully worked out. The left thinks green-energy projects—such as windmill farms—qualify as infrastructure. Living in the West, I’d prefer to build the proposed Interstate 11, a direct line from Phoenix, to Las Vegas and then to Reno and beyond.

• Education: Nominating Betsy DeVos to lead the Education Department shows Mr. Trump’s commitment to real education reform, including expanded school choice. Much of America’s economic malaise, including income inequality and slow growth, can be laid at the feet of deficient schools. Although some students receive a world-class education, many get mediocrity or worse.

• Private investment and deregulation: Mr. Trump promises progress on both fronts. He is filling his cabinet with people—including Andy Puzder for labor secretary and Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency—who understand the burden that Washington places on job creators.

Businesses need greater regulatory certainty, and reasonable statutory time limits should be placed on environmental reviews and permit applications. That, along with tax cuts, would do the trick for boosting investment.

All that said, central bankers have a role to play as well. The Fed’s ultralow interest rates were intended to be stimulative, but they also squeezed lending margins, which further dampened banks’ willingness to loan money.

There’s a strong case for a return to normal monetary policy. The prospects for economic growth are brighter than they have been in some time, and that is good. The inflation rate may tick upward, which is not good. Both factors argue for lifting short-term interest rates to at least equal the expected rate of inflation. Depending on one’s inflation forecast, that suggests moving toward a fed-funds rate in the range of 2% to 3%.

The Fed need not act abruptly, but it also does not want to get further behind the curve. Next year there will be eight meetings of the Federal Open Market Committee. A quarter-point increase at every other meeting, at least, would be in order.

This could produce some blowback from Congress and the White House. Paying higher interest on bank reserves will reduce the surplus that the Fed returns to the Treasury—thus increasing the deficit. But the Fed could ease the political pressure if it stopped resisting Republican lawmakers’ effort to introduce a monetary rule, which would curb the central bank’s discretion and make its policy more predictable. This isn’t an attack on the central bank’s independence, as Fed Chair Janet Yellen has wildly argued, but an exercise of Congress’s powers under the Constitution.

The one big cloud that darkens this optimistic forecast is Mr. Trump’s antitrade stance. Sparking a trade war could undo all the potential benefits that his policies bring. David Malpass, a Trump adviser and regular contributor to these pages, argues that trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement are rife with special benefits for big companies, but that they do not work for America’s small businesses. The argument is that Mr. Trump wants to renegotiate these deals to make them work better. I hope Mr. Malpass is correct, and that President-elect Trump can pull it off.

But for now, a strengthening economy offers a chance to return to normal monetary policy. Fed officials seem to have come around to that view. With any luck, Wednesday’s rate increase will be only the first step in that direction.

WTF Happened? Pick Your Poison.

I can agree with the headline of this article, reprinted from the Huffington Post, but the majority of the analysis is plainly inconclusive (see comments). The Big Lesson is: Don’t believe everything you read in the media.

The Big Lesson From 2016 Is That Neither Party Has A Winning Vote Coalition

The Obama coalition turned out to be pretty weak, but Trump’s might be even weaker.

11/25/2016 03:49 pm ET

Donald Trump won the Electoral College by a 306-232 margin, but lost the popular vote by a more than 2 million votes (and still counting) ― more than any previous presidential winner ever has in a split decision. How this happened is a complex story, much more nuanced than most “here’s why Trump won” stories imply. [We don’t seek complexity, but clarity and accuracy.]

Almost all of those stories contain a piece of the puzzle, but in order to see the real story you need to consider all of the explanations combined. Neither party has much reason to celebrate the outcome of the 2016 election. Republicans have a demographics problem, and Democrats have a geography problem compounded by turnout issues. [Fair enough.]

At the state level, the 2016 vote patterns seem to show a sea of red states with blues isolated to the coasts plus Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota and Illinois. Looking county-by-county, it becomes clear that the divide isn’t just coasts vs. flyover territory; it’s rural-urban. Pockets of blue in the major cities, college towns and a handful of majority-black areas in the South are evident in this view. TheNew York Times’ graphic below shows just how little actual land area went to Hillary Clinton at the county level: She won 15 percent of the land to Trump’s 85 percent.

 

Yet declaring the United States a country divided by population density overlooks several trends that are key to understanding Trump’s success. The urban-rural split is nothing new; perhaps it’s more exaggerated in 2016 than before, but we’ve known for a long time that rural areas are conservative and urban areas are liberal. But if we consider gradations ― not just dividing counties by which candidate a majority of voters selected, but shading by the proportion of Trump and Clinton voters in each county ― the story is far less clear.

If we can’t blame everything on the rural-urban divide, then what happened? There’s not one single reason why Clinton lost several states where majorities voted for President Barack Obama twice: there are several reasons. [Blogger’s Note: Of course there is more than one reason (i.e., variable) that explains this election outcome. The scientific question is what matters most. Again it is the enduring urban-rural divide and how these match up with the parties’ platforms. All these other explanations are anecdotal to this particular election, in other words, not part of a trend. The interesting new trend is the continued weakness of both party coalitions that has been unfolding over the past 25-40 years.]

These Purple States of America

A few, significant, subplots played out in the supposed Democratic “firewall” states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, and the perennial battleground of Ohio. These states have been close recently, but in 2008 and 2012 Democrats were able to generate support among the rural working class to win over majorities of voters in the states.

But there was a sizable shift in 2016. It’s unclear how many people voted for Trump that had voted for Obama, but Trump did pull a larger percentage of the vote in many counties: more than Mitt Romney did in 2012. That could be in part different groups of voters turning out in 2016 as compared to 2012, but anecdotal stories and survey data reveal that there were some party switchers.

Turnout is part of the picture, though, particularly in Michigan and Wisconsin. AsHuffPost previously reported, turnout was down in Detroit’s Wayne County, Michigan and Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, in numbers large enough to swing the election in those states. Clinton received nearly 78,000 fewer votes in Wayne County than Obama did in 2012, and lost Michigan by under 12,000 votes. She underperformed Obama by 39,000 votes in Milwaukee County and lost Wisconsin by just over 27,000 votes.

Similar patterns of lower urban turnout were evident in Philadelphia and other cities in the Midwest. The numbers suggest these people didn’t vote for Trump: they just didn’t vote at all. And according to reports, the Clinton campaign didn’t make concerted efforts to get them to the polls. Many of these nonvoters were likely minorities who Democrats assumed would support the party in large numbers ― which they do, when they vote.

An additional subplot involves suburban areas and white women. Democrats hoped to make gains in these areas, particularly among typically-conservative women who might be turned off by Trump’s actions and rhetoric. That hope proved false. Nationally, suburban areas and white women voted for Trump in very similar proportions to their votes for Romney in 2012. Romney received 50 percent of the suburban vote, and Trump garnered 59 percent. Fifty-six percent of white women voted for Romney, and 52 percent supported Trump. [All exit poll data – see comments below.]

Nationally, as well as in the Rust Belt, Democrats lost support among the least educated groups. According to the exit polls, education didn’t matter much in 2012: Obama won college graduates by 2 points and non-college graduates by 4 points. Clinton won college graduates by 10 points and lost non-college graduates by 7 points. Relative to Obama’s totals, Clinton gained 2 points among college graduates and lost 7 points among non-college graduates.

The difference is even more stark among whites: Trump won white college graduates by 2 points, but he won white non-college graduates by 37 points. The racial breakdown isn’t provided in the 2012 results, but it’s safe to say there wasn’t that sharp of a divide among whites or there would have been a gap in the overall numbers. Among minorities, Clinton won college graduates by 50 points and non-college graduate by 56 points. Once you account for the educational divide, income doesn’t seem to make a difference in vote choice.

Yet despite all these trends that favored Trump, Clinton won the popular vote by a wider margin than several past presidents. Clinton cut the Republican advantage to around 5 points in the red state strongholds of Arizona and Georgia, and Texas dropped from a 16-point Republican advantage in 2012 to a 9 point win for Trump. California is still counting, but it looks like Clinton blew Trump out by nearly 30 points in the state ― substantially more than Obama’s 23-point win over Romney four years ago. [Duh. CA is an outlier in national politics these days.]

These results were likely driven by high support for Clinton among minority populations, particularly among Latinos and Hispanics in the Southwest. And although there’s some dispute over just how strongly that group supported Clinton, the most conservative estimates from the National Exit Polls indicate that Clinton won Latinos by 36 points. Other pre-election polls show even stronger Democratic leanings among the group.

Republicans also struggled with black voters. Trump’s 8 percent support is actually slightly more than Mitt Romney’s 6 percent in 2012, but slightly less than George W. Bush’s support among black voters in 2000 and 2004. Black turnout was slightly lower this year compared to 2012 as well, which helped states like Georgia stay red. An uptick in turnout among a group that so heavily favors Democrats has considerable potential to shift those states. [Hispanics, blacks, women, whites – these group identity variables are all driven by exit poll data, not reality.] 

The problem is that none of these states actually switched directions. Had Clinton won Arizona’s 11 electoral votes and Georgia’s 16 electoral votes, she still would have been short of the 270 mark, but it would have compensated for the losses in Michigan and Wisconsin, which combine for 26 electoral votes. But neither state appears as close to turning blue as some polls had indicated. So these gains meant nothing for the Electoral College, which is what really matters.

To state the obvious, as long as the Electoral College determines the winner, Democrats can’t rely on increasing support in already-blue states, and it seems that key red states aren’t ready to flip yet. The best strategy for 2020 will be to focus on the very narrow losses in the Rust Belt and win those voters back ― which probably means convincing them that Democrats are a better option for improving their economy than Republicans. Democrats clearly lost that battle this year. [That means a tough economic and social policy reversal for Democrats.]

Meanwhile Republicans will try to hold onto those gains and build their very fragile coalition that won the Electoral College. Whether it survives beyond 2016 is anyone’s guess. The Obama coalition didn’t outlast Obama, but the Trump coalition might not survive Trump.
………………..

A caution: most of the interpretations draw data from exit polls, which usually support the kind of personal narrative desired by media. In other words, the idea that our differences are driven by voter group characteristics is baked in the cake of exit polling. The dominant factor of geography and lifestyle choices is obscured by exit polls. Discount the exit poll inferences accordingly, but then what would journalists write about?

Taken at face value, the argument presented here merely outlines how the Obama era was a one-off and the same may hold true for the Trump regime. (Hillary Clinton could have won and that conclusion would still hold true, as confirmed by down ballot results.) But we have no real indication yet of Trump’s fate and reading the tea-leaves (“might not survive”) is a sign of wishful thinking, not objective analysis. I don’t expect much more from the inherent biases of the Huffington Post.