Thursday, January 18, 2018

Authoritarian tendencies in the Argentine government of Mauricio Macri

With authoritarian-minded governments and movements in ascendancy in various places of various types, there's a lot of speculation about an wide-reaching authoritarian trend internationally: the US under Trump and his pliant Republican Party, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Russia of course, Austria, Brazil, the Phillipines, Argentina to some extent. Most American would probably include Venezuela in that list, and that's partially accurate. But the reporting on Venezuela in the US is pretty pathetic. And with it, we can never forget, "Venezuela claims the world’s largest proven reserves of petroleum, an estimated 298 billion barrels of oil." (Michael Klare, The Desperate Plight of Petro-States TomDispatch 05/26/2016)

Such trends are hard to measure. Marc Plattner gives his version of such concerns in Liberal Democracy’s Fading Allure Journal of Democracy 28:4 (Oct 2017). That publication's website states, "The Journal of Democracy is part of the International Forum for Democratic Studies, housed within the National Endowment for Democracy." The NED is rightly suspected of an excessive enthusiasm for regime change in countries in which US neocons and "humanitarian hawks" disapprove of the government in power. I mention that not to suggest that their arguments be disregarded, but rather that they should be understood in the broad context of NED's outlook and practice.

Plattner is looking back at the triumphalist "end of history" narrative after the fall of the eastern European Communist governments after 1989 in what former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer once called revolutions by implosion.
Looking at the global situation today, a quarter-century later, we see a vastly different picture. Those same principles and practices, which by the 1990s seemed to have fully regained their former attraction and to have spread to a much wider range of countries than ever before, now seem again to be losing their luster. Today liberal democracy is clearly on the defensive. Authoritarian regimes of various stripes are showing a new boldness, and they appear to be growing stronger as the confidence and vigor of the democracies wane.
Plattner expresses particular concern about the rise of populism in Peru:
In April 2016 in Peru, voters handed a landslide congressional victory to Popular Force, the party of populist former dictator Alberto Fujimori, who is serving a 25-year prison term for severe human-rights violations committed during his presidency. The party’s 2016 presidential candidate, the former leader’s daughter Keiko Fujimori, won a very substantial plurality in the April first round—almost 40 percent, nearly twice the vote share of second-place finisher Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. Yet this still left her well shy of a majority, and she was forced to face Kuczynski in a June runoff. She lost to him by less than a single percentage point, but her party’s legislative majority means that her influence on Peru’s political direction is considerable.
While the Peruvian case is important, the election of the rightwing/oligarchic government of Mauricio Macri in Argentina (end of 2015) and the "soft coup" in Brazil (2016) are currently notably more significant in terms of their effects on democracy and the neoliberal policies that undermine it.

Neither Argentina nor Brazil has abolished elections or political parties. And the "soft coup" that put current President Michel Temer in power in Brazil was more authoritarian in nature than the straightforwardly democratic election that brought Macri to the Presidency in Argentina.

But Macri's government is a great example of predictably bad economic policies - although of the kind approved and insisted upon by the IMF and the "Washington Consensus" - and how they are easier to maintain in more authoritarian conditions than in democratic ones. Macris's government came after 12 1/2 years of kirchnerismo government, i.e., left social-democratic Peronism under the Presidencies of the late Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Although Macri in his 2015 campaign made gestures toward Peronist perspectives and was supported by a Peronist faction (Peronism is a complex political phenomenon, to put it mildly), his economic policies have been the textbook neoliberal playbook of budget cuts, privatization, low taxes for the wealthy, and lower salaries and wages for the majority. The results, of course, have been high inflation and a slumping economy.

Kirchnerismo was notable in having broken with the Washington Consensus on free trade and debt by maintaining capital controls and refusing to pay vulture funds for debt that had to be defaulted on after the financial crisis of 2001. The goal was to develop the domestic economy and in particular to develop Argentine industry. Foreign debt has been a problem for Argentina as a block to national development and independence from foreign control since the "unitarian" government of Bernardino Rivadavia took a major loan from the British Baring Brothers bank in 1824. Developments in Argentina would later touch off what became known as the Baring Crisis of 1890-91, which "originated in Argentina but it was felt all over the world, first in London." (Gerardo della Paolera and Alan M. Taylor, Straining at the Anchor: The Argentine Currency Board and the Search for Macroeconomic Stability, 1880-1935 [2001])

The Elliott Management hedge fund of Paul Singer, an American vulture capitalist and one of the largest contributors to the Republican Party, bought up defaulted Argentine debt and sued in American courts, getting a bizarre and genuinely radical decision in their favor from Federal Judge Thomas Griesa in a ruling upheld by the Supreme Court. Once Macri was elected President, he quickly made a settlement that was extremely favorable for Singer's vulture funds, taking on new debt to pay it off. (The Vulture: How Billionaire Rubio Backer Paul Singer Made Billions off Argentina Debt Crisis Democracy Now! 03/11/2016; Katia Porzecanski, Singer Makes 369% of Principal on Argentine Bonds in Debt Offer Bloomberg Markets 03/01/2016)


Time magazine of 05/02-09/2016 included Macri in its list of 100 Most Influential People, with a two-paragraph tribute from Mauricio Macri:
Argentina is rich in natural resources and human capital, but its economic progress has been hobbled by the ineptitude and corruption of its political leaders. Over the past decade, the policies of Argentina's ruling duo, Nestor and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, led to rampant inflation, falling currency value and capital flight. The result was the 2015 election of the reformist Mauricio Macri.

Macri has removed Argentina's currency controls, allowing more freedom for trade. He has pledged to reintegrate Argentina into the global economy, seeking private investment from abroad. And he has taken action to end the 15-year default that has kept the country in economic exile since 2001. Macri still has important tasks ahead of him, including taming inflation. But if he lives up to his promise, Argentina may finally do the same. [my emphasis]
At that time, the Macri government was raising regulated prices on public utilities and the economy was slumping. Macri's supporters were telling everyone to be patient and wait for the segundo semestre (second half of the year). Argentina is in the first half of Macri's third year as President. But still waiting for the segundo semestre. This video from the beginning of his second half-year in office mocks, "The second half was born dead." Segundo semestre de Macri 07/01/2016:



There have been some disturbing signs of political repression.

Gastón Chillier and Ernesto Semánmarch wrote about the concerns that were already emerging in Macri's "first half-year" in What Obama Should Know About Macri’s Argentina New York Times 03/23/2016, including the already-iconic case of indigenous activist Milagro Sala. Obama left the general impression with US voters and a political press that's largely oblivious to Latin American affairs that he had a left-leaning policy on Latin America, largely because of his pragmatic abandonment of the long-standing, failed Cuba policy. But actually his Latin American policy was generally conservative, including welcoming the political-military coup in Honduras and the extra-constitutional soft coups in Paraguay and Brazil. Obama's relations with Cristina's government was distant. But he made a point of embracing Macri after his election:
Mr. Obama’s historic trip to Cuba has all the pageantry of a farewell to the Cold War in Latin America. His visit to Havana will serve as a symbolic climax in the normalization of American relations with Cuba’s Communist government. But his excursion to Argentina has a very different resonance.

Shortly before Mr. Obama’s arrival in Buenos Aires, his administration announced the declassification of United States government documents relating to Argentina’s 1976-83 military dictatorship. Yet the visit is not about the current state of human rights, but about free trade and hemispheric security.

An acknowledgment of the malign role the United States played in the early years of the dictatorship is welcome, if overdue. But to ignore the red flags on human rights raised by the recent actions of Argentina’s new ruling party is a worrying reminder of that legacy. For Mr. Macri, Mr. Obama’s visit is already an endorsement. [my emphasis]
There have been some questionable legal investigations of senior officials from the previous government, including Cristina herself. The details of such cases can be difficult to judge from outside. The allegations against Cristina herself always looked fairly thin to me.

But after the 2017 midterm elections which brought her back to Congress and gave her a stronger position as leader of the opposition, the questionable arrests escalated and included the previous Foreign Minister and former Vice President Amado Boudou. And a new legal charge against Cristina Fernández that didn't result in her arrest because of her new parliamentary immunity. But the charge related to a sensational suicide of a prosecutor named Alberto Nisman in early 2016, who had been working for years on the AMIA bombing case from 1994. I know enough about the details of that case to say with confidence that those charges are bogus. So those are not good signs.

There have also been some questionable acts of repression against some of the many demonstrations against Macri's policies. Those are also difficult to judge from afar. But it's a pattern that is certainly disturbing from the standpoint of democracy and human rights.

And the borrowing that has historically been such a burden and trap for Argentina is continuing. Axel Kiciloff, currently a Congressional deputy from Buenos Aires city, the last Minister of Economics under Cristina's government and still a close ally of hers, warns that Macri's government is taking on a "colossal" amount of debt that, in his formulation, is being used for speculative purposes and is of "little benefit for the national economy." Kiciloff also charges Macri with trying to evade constitutional procedures and attempting to govern by decree. ("El DNU es anticonstitucional" Página/12 14.01.2018)

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Democrats and the DACA showdown

Joe Scarborough and Cenk Uygar agree on something. That if the Democrats aren't willing to have the Republicans shut down the government over their stand against deporting the Dreamers, they will lose enormous credibility as the party of opposition to Trump and Trumpism.

Joe's Message To Democrats On DACA: #NoDreamersNoDeal Morning Joe/MSNBC 01/16/2018:



Even Republicans Can't Believe How Weak Democrats Are The Young Turks 01/16/2018:



Rachael Bade et al in House Republicans coalesce behind plan to avert shutdown Politico 01/16/2018 talk about the Republicans maneuvering over the shutdown.

There's no guarantee of how it would play out. But the Republicans have long since established themselves as the government-shutdown party. As
Dyle Cheney and Elana Schor write in Shutdown would backfire on GOP, Republicans say Politico 01/17/2018:
“The perception of most Republicans is that a shutdown does not accrue to Republican benefit. It’s a relatively tough sale,” Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) said in an interview. “It makes it that much harder for Democrats to acquiesce on a deal because they feel like they have the upper hand.”

The last time federal agencies shuttered, in 2013, Democrats controlled the Senate and White House. But with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and fellow conservatives pushing for a shutdown in order to whack funding for Obamacare — a popular cause among the Republican base, but not beyond — the GOP could not escape blame in the public eye.

During the 17-day shutdown of 2013, “the Republican Party’s favorable rating dropped 10 points in a matter of days, and it took a year to fully recover,” said Whit Ayres, a veteran GOP pollster. “It would take an act of extraordinary political agility to avoid a similar fate today.”

Andrea Drusch makes what sounds an awful lot like a Republican tactical argument for the Dems to capitulate in Can Democrats force a litmus test on DACA? 01/16/2018. The pitch comes down to, well, gee, Democratic Senate candidates have to act like Republicans in order to get elected as Democrats.

That was the conventional pundit wisdom not long ago about Doug Jones in the Alabama Senate race.

Drusch's description of the Democrats as the "party of minorities" also sounds very much like Republican framing.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Gold Watch and Chain, just because

The Jones Family - Gold Watch and Chain live On Hee Haw:


Decrypting the concepts of blockchains and cryptocurrencies

I'm fascinated by cryptocurrencies. But I've yet to be convinced that they offer major advantage to regular currencies.

Sue Halpern's essay Bitcoin Mania New York Review of Books 12/21/2017 is informative. But it also serves to reinforce my suspicion that cryptocurrencies at the moment are some combination of a high-risk speculative bubble, a techie fad, a swindle and a libertarian daydream that takes way too much energy and is based of thin-ice economic assumptions.

Halperin flags the problem with the renowned unhackability (to date) of Bitcoin, the best known of the crytocurrencies at the moment. Digital currencies like Bitcoin and Ether - there's not even a consensus yet on whether the names should be capitalized or not - run on a distributed-ledger network arrangement called a blockchain. Large blockchains are not easy to hack. Yet.

But to buy and use the digital currencies, people need other applications like exhanges and wallets. Thus the problem as Halperin describes:
While a blockchain is not a full-on solution to fraud or hacking, its decentralized infrastructure ensures that there are no “honeypots” of data available for criminals to exploit. Still, touting a bitcoin-derived technology as the answer to cybercrime may seem a stretch in light of the high-profile — and lucrative — thefts of cryptocurrency over the past few years. [David] Gerard notes that “as of March 2015, a full third of all Bitcoin exchanges” — where people stored their bitcoin — “up to then had been hacked, and nearly half had closed.” There was, most famously, the 2014 pilferage of Mt. Gox, a Japanese-based digital coin exchange, in which 850,000 bitcoins worth $460,000,000 disappeared. Two years later another exchange, Bitfinex, was hacked and around $60 million in bitcoin was taken; the company’s solution was to spread the loss to all its customers, including those whose accounts had not been drained. Then there was the theft via malware of $40 million by a man in Pennsylvania earlier this year. He confessed, but the other thieves slipped away, leaving victims with no way to retrieve their funds.

Unlike money kept in a bank, cryptocurrencies are uninsured and unregulated. That is one of the consequences of a monetary system that exists — intentionally — beyond government control or oversight. It may be small consolation to those who were affected by these thefts that neither the bitcoin network nor the Ethereum network itself has been breached, which perhaps proves the immunity of the blockchain to hacking. (In 2016, there was a $60 million hack of a company running on the Ethereum system, but the theft occurred because there was a bug in that company’s software.) [my emphasis]
For normal household or business purposes, this is like using a bank with no deposit insurance, or trusting your 401(k) savings build up over 30 years to a penny-stock operator.

She also gives some illustration of the energy issue with cryptocurrencies. With Bitcoin, new instances of the cryptocurrency are created by "miners." The blockchain process makes this a validation process that requires a staggering amount of electricity:
When the bitcoin network began operating in 2009, people could run the validation program on their personal computers and earn bitcoins if their computer solved the puzzle first. As demand for bitcoin increased, and more people were vying to find the random, algorithmic proof of work validation number, speed became essential. Mining began to require sophisticated graphics cards and, when those proved too slow, special, superfast computers built specifically to validate transactions and mine bitcoins. Individual miners have dropped out for the most part, and industrial operators have moved in. These days, mining is so computer-intensive that it takes place in huge processing centers in countries with low energy costs, like China and Iceland. One of these, in the town of Ordos, in Inner Mongolia, has a staff of fifty who oversee 25,000 computers in eight buildings that run day and night. A company called BitFury, which operates mining facilities in Iceland and the Republic of Georgia and also manufactures and sells specialized, industrial processing rigs, is estimated to have mined at least half a million bitcoins so far. At today’s price, that’s worth around $7.5 billion.

Still, it’s not exactly free money. Marco Streng, the cofounder of Genesis Mining, estimates that it costs his company around $400 in electricity alone to mine each bitcoin. That’s because bitcoin mining is not only computationally intensive, it is energy-intensive. By one estimate, the power consumption of bitcoin mining now exceeds that of Ireland and is growing so exponentially that it will surpass that of the entire United States by July 2019. A year ago, the CEO of BitFury, Valery Vavilov, reckoned that energy accounted for between 90 and 95 percent of his company’s bitcoin-mining costs. According to David Gerard—whose new book, Attack of the Fifty Foot Blockchain, is a sober riposte to all the upbeat forecasts about cryptocurrency like the Tapscotts’—“By the end of 2016,” a single mining facility in China was using “over half the estimated power used by all of Google’s data centres worldwide at the time.” [my emphasis in bold]
One of the advantages of cryptocurrencies was supposed to be that they could avoid or minimized transactions fees. But the transaction fees involved in using them can be significant. With Bitcoins, the validation process for mining and using them also makes them significantly slower in terms of the number of transactions that can be processed in a given length of time than what "legacy" financial companies can do. Halperin writes, "transactions can be held up for hours or days or dropped altogether."

So, we've got a type of currency that's slow, expensive to use, very volatile in value, insecure, un-insurable, and not backed by a government. Remind me again just why I would want to use this.

Even for shady businesses like drugs, illegal arms deals, or money-laundering, these strike me as big drawbacks. Oh yeah, those have the added legal risks as well.

One of the nice things about articles like Halperin's at this moment in time is that they include helpful definitions of what techie things like a blockchain are:
A blockchain is, essentially, a way of moving information between parties over the Internet and storing that information and its transaction history on a disparate network of computers. Bitcoin, for example, operates on a blockchain: as transactions are aggregated into blocks, each block is assigned a unique cryptographic signature called a “hash.” Once the validating cryptographic puzzle for the latest block has been solved by a mining computer, three things happen: the result is timestamped, the new block is linked irrevocably to the blocks before and after it by its unique hash, and the block and its hash are posted to all the other computers that were attempting to solve the puzzle. This decentralized network of computers is the repository of the immutable ledger of bitcoin transactions.
Blockchains are apparently far more useful for the secure storage of data. Halperin suggests that the use of blockchains for "smart contracts" is a potential valuable usage.

But the power demands alone would seem to be a major issue for any system that requires the kind of continuous fast transactions that a cryptocurrency does.

She also discusses ICO, i.e., "initial coin offerings."

Monday, January 15, 2018

Jürgen Habermas on classical German philosophy, the Young Hegelians, pragmatism, and communicative reason

"Our capitalist democracies are about to shrink to mere façade democracies. These developments call for a scientifically informed enlightenment." - Jürgen Habermas, Critique and communication: Philosophy's missions (an interview with Michaël Foessel) Eurozine 10/16/2015

That interview with Habermas covers a lot of ground with a surprising amount of substance in the (digital) space it takes up: Habermas' early philosophical concerns, his issues with Heidegger, pragmatism, his own communicative theories, neoliberalism and resistance to it. This excerpt gives a flavor of it:
With the paradigm shift from the philosophy of the subject to the philosophy of language you touch upon an important issue. Hegel was already aware of the symbolic and historical embodiment of reason in the forms of the “objective mind”, for example in law, state and society. But Hegel then sublates this objective mind after all in the dematerialized thoughts of the absolute mind. By contrast, J.G. Hamann and Wilhelm von Humboldt or the young Hegelians, i.e. Feuerbach, Marx and Kierkegaard, regard the transcendental achievements as being realized only in the performative acts of subjects capable of speech and action and in the social and cultural structures of their lifeworlds. For them, apart from the subjective mind there is only the objective mind left, which materializes itself in communication, work and interaction, in appliances and artefacts, in the living out of individual life stories and in the network of socio-cultural forms of life. But in the process, reason does not lose the transcendental power of spontaneously projecting world-disclosing horizons. This “creative” power of imagination expresses itself in every hypothesis, in every interpretation, in every story with which we affirm our identity. In every action there is also an element of creation.

Pragmatism and historicism were involved in the development of this detranscendentalized concept of reason just as much as phenomenology, philosophical anthropology and existential philosophy. I myself would grant a certain precedence to language, communicative action and the horizon of the lifeworld (as the background context of all processes of communication). The media in which reason is embodied, i.e. history, culture and society, are symbolically structured. The meaning of symbols, however, must be shared intersubjectively. There is no private language and no private meaning that can be understood only by a single person. This precedence of intersubjectivity does not mean, however, that – to return to your question – to some extent subjectivity would be absorbed by society. The subjective mind opens a space to which everyone has privileged access from the perspective of the first person. This exclusive access to the evidence of one’s own experiences may not, however, belie the structural correlation between subjectivity and intersubjectivity. Every additional step in the process of the socialization of a person, as they grow up, is simultaneously a step towards individuation and becoming oneself. Only by externalization, by entering into social relationships can we develop the interiority of our own person. Only by marching in step with the communicative entanglement in social networks does the subjectivity of the “self”, i.e. of a subject that assumes relationships to itself, deepen. [my emphasis in bold]
Habermas' distinctive contribution in the field of philosophy was his work on communicative reason. I was acquainted with his political and historical work, particularly his role in the German Historikerstreit of the 1980s, where he took the lead in criticizing contemporary effort to rehabilitate aspects of the National Socialist regime and its horrific policies, before I more recently dig into understanding his work on communications. I've also been very impressed with his writing on the European Union. He definitely falls into the left-leaning Eurocritical camp, as distinct from the rightwing "Euroskeptic" one.

In that interview he talks about Martin Heidegger's philosophy and politics. He's written at some length about the latter. He really has Heidegger's number. But he is careful to recognize Heidegger's more constructive contributions to contemporary philosophy, including in this interview:
... I’m still convinced that the arguments of Being and Time, if read with the eyes of Kant and Kierkegaard, retain an important place in the history of philosophy. In spite of the political ambivalence of the style, I regard this work as a result of the long history of detranscendentalizing the Kantian subject: by appropriating the methods of Husserlian phenomenology in his own way, Being and Time also digests an important legacy of American pragmatism, German historicism and the kind of philosophy of language that originates from Wilhelm von Humboldt.
He also notes, "My friend Karl-Otto Apel always insisted that only in 1929 with Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics did Heidegger set the course for his fatal late philosophy – and subsequently assigned to himself a privileged access to the “destiny of truth”. From that point on, Heidegger increasingly abandons philosophical argumentation and becomes a private thinker." (my emphasis) He has made the latter point in a considerably more blunt fashion elsewhere. Even in this interview, he reminds us that Heidegger "had become a convinced Nazi long before 1933. The fact that he had remained an unrepentant Nazi, however, could be known by 1953 at the latest." Heidegger had been publicly active in support of the Nazi Party in 1933-34. He was notably less public in his role after that. But he retained his Nazi Party membership right up until 1945. Heidegger was literally a Nazi.

His description of the Frankfurt School tradition of which he is considered the leading Second Generation figure is also informative, particularly in his connection of the Frankfurt School perspective with "Austromarxism":
From its inception the Frankfurt Institute was anti-Stalinist – and all the more so after the war. There are also other reasons why I was never tempted by orthodox Marxism. For example, I was never convinced by the centrepiece of political economy, the theory of surplus value, in view of the intervention of the welfare state in the economy. During my youth I was certainly more closely aligned with left-wing activism than I was later. But also the early project of “Realizing Philosophy”, to which you’re alluding, was more idealistic and inspired by the young Marx. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which was my post-doctoral thesis under the supervision of Wolfgang Abendroth, the only Marxist to hold a chair at a German university, at best points in the direction of socialist democracy. If you like, I was always a parliamentary socialist – in this respect I was in my early days influenced by the Austrian Marxists Karl Renner and Otto Bauer. My attitude to Theory and Practice has not significantly changed since I wrote the introduction to the new edition of this book in 1971. Academic studies are always written with the reservation that all research is fallible. This role must be clearly separated from the other two roles of a left-wing intellectual – from his involvement in political discussions in the public sphere and from the organization of joint political action. This separation of roles is necessary even if the intellectual attempts to combine all three roles in one person. [my emphasis in bold]
The Frankfurt School's contemporary attitude toward the Soviet Marxism of the 1930s ("Stalinism") was more complicated than this passage might suggest. Focused as they were on the menace of German Nazism which they had fled and the threat of war, their famous Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung did not focus on critiquing the Soviet model directly. Nor did they indulge in the Trotskyism of the day. Privately, some of their leading figures were very critical of the Soviet situation, others more supportive.

Politics was complicated in the 1930s, just as it is in the 2010s.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Venezuela's Petro: Really cryptocurrency? Or too real to be crypto? Or not currency enough to be currency?

"Cryptocurrency" is an interesting neologism. (At least it's relatively "neo" for me.) It's used to refer to digital currencies like Bitcoin and Ether. One implication of the "crypto" in the name is related to "encryption," which implies a high level of security.

But another meaning of "crypto-" as the first part of a word is also "semi-" or "phony." Cryptozoology is the study of animals that don't exist, e.g., a contemporary Tyrannosaurus Rex in some obscure jungle, or Chupacabra, or the Loch Ness Monster.

Mirriam-Webster Online defines the adjective "crypto" this way: "not openly avowed or declared —often used in combination [e.g.,] crypto-fascist"

Frances Coppola invokes both meanings of "cryptocurrency" in Venezuela's 'Cryptocurrency' Isn't Really A Cryptocurrency At All Forbes 01/08/2018.

So, does she mean that it's a real currency? Or that it's a crypto-cryptocurrency?

She explains her usage by noting, "The whole point of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin is that they aren’t 'issued' by any government, central bank or other 'authority.' No-one controls them. They are decentralized, anonymous and subversive."

In that perspective, cryptocurrency is not only encrypted in the software. It's also not a "real" currency like one backed by the government.

The Venezualan digital instrument is called a "Petro." As she explains, the Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro "is planning to issue a Venezuelan government cryptocurrency, backed by the country’s reserves of oil, gas, gold and diamonds. One unit of the new cryptocurrency – the 'petro' – will be backed by one barrel from Venezuela’s Orinoco oilfield, currently valued at $59." (Criptomoneda is the Spanish for cryptocurrency. Moneda virtual for digital currency.)

She argues that because it's in fact issued by the government and regulated by the government in a centralized way, it shouldn't be regarded as a cryptocurrency. It's more like a second currency, or an auxiliary currency, or, as she plausibly argues, a "digital oil-backed security":
Online cryptocurrency magazines report that over 860,000 Venezuelans have registered with Venezuela’s new Registry of Cryptocurrency Miners, which is the only portal through which the petro can be mined. Yes, you read that right - in Venezuela, government licenses its cryptocurrency miners, just as it licenses its banks. Furthermore, the operation of the new currency will be supervised by the Superintendency of Cryptocurrencies and Related Assets. Government controls mining, government supervises operations, government sets the price … the petro is looking less and less like a real cryptocurrency, isn’t it?
It can't a "real cryptocurrency" if it's not actually a currency. Or not actually "crypto" in the sense of being issued independently of governments, who are the ones who issue real currency. Could we say that a cryptocurrrency isn't one if it's not really "crypto"?
In fact, why are we calling this a cryptocurrency at all? Really, it’s a digital oil-backed security. Recording transactions on a blockchain and adding some cryptography doesn’t make it a cryptocurrency. It isn’t decentralized, it isn’t anonymous, and it isn’t going to be used to buy and sell goods and services in Venezuela, although there are suggestions that it could be used to pay international suppliers. And above all, its value depends on the trustworthiness of a government already in default on its international obligations. [my emphasis]
An economics question for the 2010s.

See also:

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Can we ignore Trump?

Political "framing" guru George Lakoff in a joint column withl his FrameLab podcast partner Gil Durán argues that Democrats have to get better at ignoring Donald Trump's daily provocations (Trump is using Twitter to manipulate the country. Here’s how to stop falling for it Sacramento Bee 01/04/2018):
Trump’s tweets are irresponsible and un-presidential. Yet the real problem is not Trump’s addiction to social media – it’s ours. Trump uses Twitter to control news cycles because the press, the political class and his Democratic opponents continually empower him to do so.

Every time Trump tweets, he can count on an instantaneous reaction. His tweet fixation fuels a parasitic economy in which people compete to ride his digital coattails. Reporters, Democratic politicians, and social media influencers fall for it every time. They obsessively retweet, analyze and attack. This helps Trump tremendously.
And they recommend an appealing alternative in general terms:
This doesn’t mean ignoring Trump. It means maintaining a steely focus on things that really matter, like the attack on our public institutions, the massive transfer of wealth and power to the rich, the resurgence of extreme racist politics, and the criminal investigation into the Trump Organization.

Let’s reclaim our power to decide what’s important. Let’s shrink Trump down to size. Let’s take away his power to control our brains.
But then, implementing such an approach is very complicated.

Because, as Michael Grunwald reminds us, "The point is that the crazy stuff Trump does is not a distraction from the important stuff Trump does. It’s important when the president does crazy stuff." (Donald Trump Is a Consequential President. Just Not in the Ways You Think. Politico 12/30/2017)

Or, as James Mann puts it (Damage Bigly New York Review of Books 12/21/2017; 01/18/2018 issue), "Other presidents have aspired to become moral leaders; Trump has become America’s chief thug." His rhetoric - maybe we should say his "shithole" rhetoric - is a big part of that. Supporters of democracy can't treat that as just a distraction. That's a key part of his political project. And, yes, that is a project of the Republican Party, even if Trump is a strikingly repulsive incarnation of it.

Any President of the US will be able have a major effect on the policy agenda and the political narrative of the country and even the world. The Trump narrative has to be countered in various ways on many fronts: debunking, ridiculing, arguing, condemning, rallying opposition, offering competing topics for the agenda.

Ignoring Trump is impossible. And would be irresponsible on the part of the Democrats and other opposition groups. Trump's agenda is destructive. So the opposition has to reframe it as destructive while offering their own issues to mobilize voters against the Republicans.

Mann reminds us that Trump's policies are having very much of a real-world effect way beyond the polluting and distracting nature of his Twitter output, notably the bandits' tax cut for the One Percent just enacted:
Before this bill, it might have been possible, though wrong, to argue that as president, Trump had brought to his office more sound and fury than action. ...

The sweeping tax bill gives a huge tax cut to corporations and to wealthy individuals ... It will widen further the already enormous gulf between the very wealthy and the rest of America. And it sets the stage for an attempt by Republicans in Congress in 2018 to shrink the federal deficit by cutting benefits to a large number of Americans through reductions in Social Security, Medicare, and other social programs.
The boundaries between words and actions can be especially difficult to perceive in foreign policy, which diplomatic signaling is so important and sometimes very high-stakes:
In cases where his policies aren’t entirely new, Trump’s style — his pattern of tweets and personal insults — has added a new dimension to them, with unpredictable results. The biggest foreign policy challenge of his first year came from North Korea’s rapidly developing nuclear weapons program. Trump’s threats to use force against North Korea were not a departure from past American policy; under the rubric of “coercive diplomacy,” previous administrations have also considered possible military action against North Korea. But Trump went a step further by taunting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, calling him “Little Rocket Man” not only in tweets but in formal settings including the United Nations General Assembly. He even threatened that he would “totally destroy” the country.
And, Mann concludes, "The longer he stays, the worse it will get."

Friday, January 12, 2018

Chuckie (Charlie Daniels) vs. Taco Bell and ... the Illuminati?!?

Back in the Aughts, I used to do a regular "Chuckie Watch" on the "Soapbox" posts from country musician Charlie Daniels, who appointed himself an avatar of Patriotic Correctness for the country music scene after the 9/11 attack.

At 81, ole Chuckie is still posting Soapbox rants at his website and on his Facebook page. They haven't changed much or improved in quality over the last 15 years or so. And because the rants are so monotonous, dull, and unimaginative, I've wondered sometimes if they are ghostwritten. But I'm willing to give Chuckie credit for being monotonous, dull, and unimaginative all by his own self.

These days, Chuckie has made a bit of news because he thinks that Taco Bell is being dangerously soft on the Illuminati conspiracy: Charlie Daniels wants Taco Bell to take Illuminati seriously USA Today 01/10/2018.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The brave new world (?) of cryptocurrencies

One of my New Year's Resolutions is to learn more about crytocurrencies like Bitcoin and blog about them occasionally.

Let's start off with Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize-winning Economist Paul Krugman on Tax Reform, Trump, and Bitcoin Business Insider 12/15/2017. The section about bitcoin comes in the latter part of the video. But Jacqui Frank et al have provided us the transcript of that section, PAUL KRUGMAN: Bitcoin is a more obvious bubble than housing was Business Insider 12/15/2017:
Josh Barro: Finally, I want to ask you about Bitcoin. Does the runup in bitcoin prices make any sense to you?

Paul Krugman: No.

Barro: What's going on here?

Krugman: Bitcoin, nobody understands it. Which is for the time being a positive. It comes with this -

Barro: A positive for the prices?

Krugman: For the price of it. It's got this mystique about it, because it's some fancy technological thing that nobody really understands. There's been no demonstration yet that it actually is helpful in conducting economic transactions. There's no anchor for its value. You know, unlike pieces of paper with dead presidents on them, those are anchored by the fact that you can use them to pay taxes. There's not anchor for bitcoin. But bitcoin has developed this mystique. The price is going up, partly, it's tied up with Libertarian stuff ... I'm told that there are apocalyptic, the-end-is-coming guys who are accumulating bitcoin because once we turn into a Mad Max wasteland, having a digitally distributed – nevermind. So ... I think it really doesn't make a whole lot of sense. And the psychology of it is clearly — if you're using the shoeshine boy test, my barber asked me about bitcoin. The feeling that people are caught up in something that they really don't understand, is overwhelming. [my emphasis in italics]
Krugman succinctly introduces several important aspects about Bitcoin right there. Investing in it is a pure gamble. It's not an actual currency in that it's not backed by anything, except in this case by pure faith in speculation itself. It's a techie thing. And nobody really understands it in a comprehensive way because it's new and complicated. And it has advocates who indulge in the most discredited kinds of "libertarian" economic ideology. Oh, and investing your money in it at this point is basically a pure gambling operation.

Scientific American for January includes three articles on cryptocurrency under the rubric, "The Future of Money":
  • Alexander Lipton and Alex "Sandy" Pentland, "Breaking the Bank"
  • John Pavlus, "The World Bicoin Created"
  • Natalie Smolenski, "The Evolution of Trust"

Blätter 2017:12 carried two articles giving some basics of Bitcoin, under the general title "Bitcoin: Der gefährliche Hype" ("Bicoin: The dangerous hype"):

Justin Kirkland has a helpful guide,Okay, Here's What You Actually Need to Know About Bitcoin Esquire 12/27/2017.

And Roula Khalaf uses the Bitcoin craze to do a little millennial-bashing, an unwholesome current habit of people who are annoyed at growing older, in A bitcoin bubble made in millennial heaven Financial Times 01/10/2018.

What is Bitcoin? A cryptocurrency. Like any currency, it acts as a medium of exchange and a store of value.

What is a cryptocurrency? Here a brief descdription from a sidebar to Pavlus's article: "A form of digital currency that relies on the mathematics of cryptography to control how and when units of the currency are created and to ensure secure transfer of funds." It uses encryption and is based on the blockchain technology.

What is a blockchain? It's a software platform that uses various separate computers to create a "distributed ledger." It provides a way of validating information in a way that is not dependent on a central institution such as a single corporation or a central bank. Blockchain technology is not used only for cryptocurrencies. Pavlus discusses its current use by governments, universities, financial institutions and individuals, and its potential for far more widespead use for self-driving vehicles, medical data handling, and creating a multiple-node "global supercomputer" function. Blockchain systems are used for many other things than cryptocurrenies, though the latter may be the best known at this point, though not necessarily the most important.

But Bitcoin and other current cryptocurrencies are based on blockchain technology. As Pavlus puts it, "What people call 'blockchain' is a technology that makes Bitcoin possible — an infrastructure that can be used for tracking many types of transactions. Blockchain technology exists without Bitcoin — but not the reverse. Think of Bitcoin as a kind of application that runs 'on' the blockchain, much like Web sites run on the Internet."

William Mougayar in The Business Blockchain: Promise, Practice and Application of the next Internet Technology (2016) defines a cryptocurrrency based on the blockchain is characterized in particular by four aspects:
  • Peer-to-peer electronic transactions and interactions
  • Without financial institutions
  • Cryptographic proof instead of central trust
  • Put trust in the network instead of in a central institution
Kirkland notes that Bitcoin "was invented to be unhackable, untraceable, and safe for investors."

Unlike normal currencies, Bitcoin is not backed by a store of material stuff like gold nor by the full faith and credit of a government, like national currencies and the euro. That's what Krugman means when he says that Bitcoin has "no anchor for its value." It's based essentially on faith. It has values in facilitating trade or transmission of values from one person to another because other people accept it and all participants have some level of faith that other users will continue to accept it as having value. We might call it a faith-based currency.

Rudolf Hickel describes it this way, "The one and only thing that counts is the trust in each digital curreny." ("Einzig und allein das Vertrauen in die jeweilige Digitalwährung zählt.")

Khalaf writes, "One person ventured that blockchain was the casino and bitcoin the chips — an apt description since investing in cryptocurrencies is very much like gambling."

A cryptocurrency could be tied to a hard asset or basket of assets. Lipton and Pentland distinguish between a Bitcoin-type peer-to-peer network and what they call "peer-to-peer Tradecoin network." They write, "As with Bitcoin, transactions would be made directly between users and are publicly recorded in a blockchain. But consensus is maintained by designated validators. Tradecoin’s value is backed by real assets supplied by sponsors, so its price is relatively stable." Tradecoin is the name they use for a project of theirs at MIT. They describe its basic concept this way: "it will be indelibly logged on a blockchain and anchored at all times to a basket of real-world assets such as crops, energy or minerals."

But here is where economics raises questions. Once a cryptocurrency is anchored in this way, it would then present the risk that if it were used on a wide enough scale to have macroeconomic effects, it could wind up having the same kind of negative effects that the gold standard had in Europe during the Great Depression, or that the euro had in the "periphery" countries of the eurozone in the Great Recession, or that the dollar peg had in Argentina in the 2001 financial crisis there.

So it's not at all clear to me what the advantage of cryptocurrency on a large scale would be compared to national currencies backed by the legal "full faith and credit" of their governments or to the current digital banking and payment systems.

Security is one big feature that cryptocurrency advocates tout. Pavlus notes, "Some experts say that a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin has value because of its security (the Bitcoin blockchain has never been hacked—yet)."

Still, that security is based on faith in the blockchain network. The idea is that because there are so many nodes in the peer-to-peer network that hacks on one or several of them would not be able to override the verification mechanism. If that doesn't sound entirely reassuring after over a year of hype about Russian hackers, there really is good reason for reservations. For one thing, other cyptocurrencies have been hacked, as Pavlus explains, "... even coins with impressive technical bona fides can be risky. The DAO—a “decentralized autonomous organization” running on Ethereum that raised over $100 million in 2016 — "had a bug" (in [MIT's Christian] Catalini’s understated terms) that allowed hackers to make off with $50 million worth of Ether," another cryptocurrency.

A $50 million hack sounds like quite a security gap! Especially since it apparently represented 50% of the total value of the Ether cryptocurrency. Pavlus quotes Gün Sirer of Cornell advising that peer-to-peer validation structure runs on the “assumption that a majority of nodes in their network are benign,” i.e., operating with integrity according to the rule of the blockchain. Bitcoin does not rely on encryption for security, it relies as the distributed ledger that the nodes constitute.

And it's worth paying close attention to what is being discussed when we heard that "Bitcoin" hasn't been hacked. It's one thing to say that the Bitcoin blockchain itself has not been hacked. But to buy Bitcoins in the first places, users have to rely on accessory software applications. Natalie Smolenski advises:
The application layer is where untold confusion and often outright bad faith can reign. The history of Bitcoin, for example, is littered with cryptocurrency exchanges and wallet providers who left gaping security flaws in their applications, leading to high-profile hacks and accusations of embezzlement. In the case of the Ethereum network, vulnerabilities have resulted in the theft or loss of millions of dollars in its Ether cryptocurrency, with virtually no recourse for users. In general, using any application built by a trusted third party to hold your blockchain-based digital assets is still a highly insecure proposition.

This is the crux of blockchain’s catch-22: the public won’t use blockchains without user-friendly applications. But user-friendly applications often achieve that ease through centralization, which replicates the conditions of control that blockchains sought to circumvent. [my emphasis]
And that centralization provides a more convenient point of attack for hackers than the widely distributed peer-to-peer network of the blockchain itself.

And Hickel writes, "In August 2016 alone, hackers stole Bitcoins with a market value of 58 million euros." ("Allein im August 2016 haben Hacker Bitcoins mit einem Marktwert von 58 Mio. Euro gestohlen.") Presumably these were stolen from the ancillary applications that aren't part of the the Bitcoin blockchain but are in reality a integral part of the process of acquiring and using Bitcoins. Daniel Leisegang provides some additional details:
Nicht die (Noten-)Banken, sondern die technischen Strukturen sollen also das Vertrauen in die Digitalwährung begründen. Dieses Versprechen ist jedoch überaus zweifelhaft. Denn in den vergangenen Jahren verloren zahlreiche Bitcoin-Nutzerinnen und -Nutzer Millionen an Euro – unter anderem, weil Cyberkriminelle Programmierfehler ausnutzten. So wurde im August 2016 die Bitcoin-Börse Bitfinex gehackt und um rund 58 Mio. Euro erleichtert. Bereits gut zwei Jahre zuvor – im Februar 2014 – vermeldete die in Tokio ansässige Handelsplattform Mt. Gox den Diebstahl von Bitcoins im Wert von damals 480 Mio. Euro. Als das Unternehmen kurz darauf Konkurs anmeldete, verloren die Nutzer ihr dort noch verbliebenes Geld endgültig.

[Not the (cash-) banks but rather the technical structures should be the basis of trust in the digital currencies. Nevertheless, this promise is very much doubtful. Because in past years, numerous Bitcoin users lost millions of euros - among other things, because cyber-criminals exploited program flaws. So in August 2016, the Bitcoin stock market Bitfinex was hacked and around 50 million euros were lifted. Already two years earlier - in Feburary 2014 - the Tokyo-based trading platform Mt. Gox reported the theft of Bitcoins valued at 480 million euros. When the businesspeople shortly thereafter filed for bankruptcy, the users ultimately lost their money remaining there.]
The economics behind the whole thing are pretty shaky. Some libertarians were enthusiastic about cryptocurrencies because it seemed to be in line with their free-market faith and offered the possibility of a currency independent of governments. The possibility of using them to evade taxes and otherwise break the law might possibly contribute to their enthusiasm. And since libertarians often seem to be goldbugs, the possible similar functions of cryptocurrencies to the gold standard may be part of the attraction.

Bitcoin isn't based on any material standard or government guarantee. But it does have built-in limits to the number of Bitcoins that can be created.

And how are they created? The process is called "mining." Yes, mining. The "miners" have to set up new Bitcoins through a complex process of calculation and verification within the Bitcoin blockchain. Leisegang writes, New Bitcoins have, because of that [the complex creation process] come to be generated almost exclusively in giant commercial computer centers - the so-called Mining Pools. ("Neue Bitcoins werden daher inzwischen fast ausschließlich in riesigen, kommerziellen Rechenzentren generiert – den sogenannten Mining Pools.")

If you are wondering how that affects the libertarian goal of a decentralized currency, you're asking the right kind of question. According to Leisegang, four large mining organizations are doing around 70% of the Bitcoin mining. This kind of concentration offers easier opportunities for theft or hacking.

Aside from monopoly power, the mining process also uses a surprisingly large amount of energy power. As Leisegand explains, this is part of the reason that more than half of the Bitcoins are mined in China, which has relatively cheap power available. (China is reportedly putting new restrictions on the use of Bitcoin.)

Bitcoin also has restrictions built in that limits each round of Bitcoin mining to a smaller number of Bitcoins than the preceding one. Which means that eventually, the mining process hits a limit at which no more Bitcoins could be created. And that kind of restriction on the available currency units could have a similar effect to the same kind of limitation imposed by the gold standard. Lipton and Pentland explain:

[Bitcoin] also has serious logistical constraints. For example, the number of transactions that can be handled per second is approximately seven, compared with the 2,000 on average handled by Visa. It’s an energy suck, too: mining — the process by which nodes of the cryptocurrency network compete to securely add new transactions to the blockchain—depends on a huge amount of electricity. In high energy-cost countries, miners go bust if they cannot afford the utility bills for the computing power. While exact numbers are not known, it is believed that Bitcoin consumes as much electricity as eBay, Facebook and Google combined. [my emphasis]
Frances Coppola has been a critic and skeptic of the Bitcoin craze. She states her perspective succinctly in the following tweet. The "Lightning" to which she refers is another kind of software solution that aspires to allow Bitcoin to overcome some of its current limitations:

She discusses the Lightning network in more detail in Probability for geeks Coppola Comment 01/09/2018.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

MRAs and their Honey Badgers: the "documentary"

Another exercise in evaluating a claim when you don't have the time or specialized knowledge to research it in detail yourself. Which is, after all, how most claims about most anything come to us.

I decided to click on a YouTube selection because I was thinking, oh, it's been a while since I listened to a TED talk. It was MEETING THE ENEMY A feminist comes to terms with the Men's Rights movement, presentation by filmmaker Cassie Jaye for TEDxMarin 10/18/2017. The title is more of a marketing hook than a good description of the talk, because at the end she says she no longer considers herself a feminist:



Jaye made a documentary called The Red Pill, released last year. She describes it in the talk as starting out as being an expose of the notoriously anti-feminist and generally hard right "Men's Rights Movement" (MRM), whose adherent like to call themselves "men's rights activists," or MRAs. They are most known in the US political scene as part of the so-called "alt-right" movement, particular via the crassless misogynistic Gamergate bruhaha. And for disparaging liberal, left or feminist women online as SJW's, or "social justice warriors," which in their view is clearly a bad thing to be. (Geez, back in the day even fascist-minded Catholic rightwingers claimed to stand for a warped version of "social justice.")

What Jaye presents in this 15-minute talk is a conversion experience, although she shrinks from claiming to be an advocate for the MRM, picturing herself instead as an open-minded seeker of truth who learned to listened to the misunderstood whiny white guys that the dogmatic, close-minded feminists say mean things about. She describes her documentary work as traveling North America - apparently meaning she did one shoot in Canada - "meeting the leaeers and followers of the men's rights movement.

My initial take on this was that she actually was advocating for the MRM, if in a passive way. Why did my (apparently hopelessly closed) mins think that? Well, for one things it's because I know about Gamergate and at least a fair amount about the Radical Right in the US. I also grew up in Mississippi, so I have a lifetime's experience in listening to whiny white guys whine about how they're bein' picked on. Then there's the fact that she cites some statistics used by the MRM to illustrate about how us pore persecuted white guys are bein' oppressed by wimmin, without any indication that she had verified or analyzed the factual claims. And her self-presentation of her film project sounded an awful lot like the endless stream of reports we've had from journalists and the occasional scholar on their bold forays into Trump country to listen to the Trump supporters who are tired of them thar Mean Libruls from the Coasts lookin' down on them.

It also sounded discouragingly similar to the much-cited and much-quoted study by UC-Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (2016), about how she learned to sympathetically listen to white folks in a deeply Republican section of Louisiana gripe about how the blacks and the gubment were messin' them over and the Mean Libruls just don't want to listen to salt-of-the-earth white folks like them. Hochschild was doing serious scholarly work, despite its faults, much more so than anything I've heard about Jaye's foray among MRM fanboys, so I don't want to put them in the same category. But I suspected from her TED talk that she might have fallen into the same trap I've criticized Hochschild for falling into, of implicitly treating claims from her target study population at face value on how they acquired the attitudes they did, without sufficiently investigating how soundly rooted they were in reality.

Her talk left me with the strong impression that she's marketing herself as a young, pretty, blonde women who is willingly giving validation to the MRM and their ideas. Around 4:15, she explains the insight into her formerly intolerant feminist ways by saying that in interviewing the MRAs, "I would often hear an innocent and valid point that a men's rights activist would make, but in my head I would add on to their statement a sexist or anti-woman spin, assuming that's what they wanted to say, but didn't."

That's a red flag in itself. Politics 101: political advocates try to make their messages sound reasonable to their audiences. (Actually, that's more like Politics Kindergarten.) But different political currents often develop their own particular vocabulary, sometimes in a way that is almost cult-like, so that they are using familiar words, but using it to mean something different than what most people hear. That's especially true of more militant and extreme groups. And someone investigating them seriously needs to be aware of what are coded meanings. If you're talking to, say, a Christian Right activist who says that defending freedom of religion is one of their main priorities in their politics, there's a 95% or better chance that what they mean is not that they want to see Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and rival Christian denominations have full freedom to practice their religion. It's more likely they mean, "Store owners shouldn't have to serve no queers 'cause our religion says thay're perverts who are all goin' to Hail."

It's not just a matter of words. It means having a nuanced and realistic understanding of the social milieu of the activists. The New York Times recently took some very well-deserved criticism for its sloppy and uncritical report on an Ohio Nazi activist. The Times' response by Marc Lacey (Readers Accuse Us of Normalizing a Nazi Sympathizer; We Respond 11/26/2017) very grudgingly conceded that they told the story "imperfectly," which is about the mildest imaginable kind of self-criticism. But the paragraph containing that sentence starts with, "We regret the degree to which the piece offended so many readers." Also a sentence that may require some translation. It's common meaning in American English is "We regret that some people were such pathetic jerks that our wonderful story offended them, get over it, you wimps!" Kind of like the Southern, "Bless your heart!" Which also requires some translation.

Jaye presents as a lesson in her enlightenment fielding the rhetorical question from an MRA, "Where is justice for the man who was falsely accused of raping a woman?" And the feminists or politicians or political groups out there who are advocating imprisoning men on false accusations of rape include ...? [Crickets]

I'm giving her TED talk probably more attention than it deserves. But I'm describing my initial judgment of her presentation from the kinds of indicators I've described.

So I watched the documentary itself, which is currently available on YouTube with Spanish subtitles, The Red Pill Subtitulado Español 12/06/2017.

The film does come off as more-or-less a propaganda pitch for the MRM, presented as a more-or-less disinterested account. In fact, her TED talk uses the same basic framing as the film, in which she started off as an earnest feminist who, in talking to those nice folks in the MRM, renounced her feminist delusions. At the end, she says, "There are so many perspectives on gender. And I believe they're all worthy of listening to. However, the conversation is being silenced. [Presumably by Mean Librul feminists.] ... I don't know where I'm headed. But I know what I left behind. I no longer call myself a feminist."

I can't promise that anyone not already inclined to enthusiasm for the arguments of the MRM will find it particularly interesting. In the world of propaganda films, this is a long way from Leni Riefenstahl levels of quality.

Jaye says in the TED talk filmed 44 MRAs total. But the interviews she includes in the film are heavily focused on prominent leaders in the MRM, i.e., people who are skilled and experienced advocates for their cause. She sets up a large part of the context to be framed by Paul Elam (founder of A Voice For Men) Fred Hayward (Men's Rights PAC), grief counselor Tom Golden, Dean Esmay, and Harry Crouch (President of the National Coalition for Men). The leader who comes off as the least dubious of this group is Warren Ferrell.

Elam's persona in the film features what can reasonably be described as a bug-eyed stare, which I suppose is a congenial look for some people:


The pro-MRM speakers are partially "balanced" by much shorter segments showingscholarly critics of the movement, who are mostly shown making mostly general, carefully qualified comments, contrasted to the relentless advocacy of the MRM spokespeople.

The film is replete with unchallenged slams at the women's movement. "Feminists have spent the last 50 years demonizing men," says Paul Elam (1:35:00). "Stop pretending that you're oppressed and that men are you oppressors. It's a lie. And it's a hurtful lie, and it's a hateful lie, and it's wrong," insists Esmay, with his eyes closed in what is a apparently an attempt at a deep-thinking pose. (31:00)


The film itself is structured into sections, one presenting spokespeople presenting the general case for the MRM, which among other things features what sound to me like labor issues (working long hours) as discrimination against men to the benefit of women. Then there are sections focusing on custody issues in divorce battle, wrongful paternity claims ("paternity fraud"), domestic violence, a general comparison of how the women's movement is much more prominent that the MRM, and a concluding summary section in which Jaye unveils her conversion experience at the end.

The section dealing with men's grievances over child custody may be the most interesting, beginning around 41:00. It begins with a 7-minute segment of Fred Hayward telling an emotional story about what he describes as a 14-year custody battle for his son after a divorce. The film allows Hayward to tell his story with no indication that Jaye attempted to independently verify anything about it. I would say that it plays like something his divorce attorney might have put together, except that he tells a story that sounds suspiciously like manipulating his son against his mother in an unethical way that an attorney might not have preferred to have described that way.

Warren Ferrell (43:40) provides what might be described as a tell: "Many men's rights activists come into being men's rights activists as the result of getting a divorce, wanting to be equally involved with the children and realizing that women have the right to children and men have to fight for children."

In other words, a lot of middle-aged men get divorced and are not pleased to discover that their wives have legal rights enforceable by the courts. And so they seek out narratives, including those provided by divorce attorneys, about how women are selfish bitches who have all the rights.

At just after 53:00, Jaye interviews Michael Messner, a professor of gender studies. I would say that this is the closest the film comes to providing any kind of realistic critical perspective. He addresses some entirely sensible and plausible reasons why women generally do better in child custody fights. But it's a brief presentation, and a general one, compared to the much lengthier presentations by MRM leaders that prominently feature anecdotes of individual cases for which the film doesn't provide any independent validation. It's no secret that anecdotes have a greater emotional appear than statistics. So that's exactly what someone making an explicitly advocacy movie might be tempted to do in presenting that case, i.e., putting guys passionately telling anecdotes up against a shorter segment of a professor carefully presenting his (more informative) side of the story.

That section segues into one on "paternity fraud," featuring what to an unsympathetic observer might be inclined to describes as some fairly blatant woman-hating with a generous mixture of white racist contempt for black women in particular. But Jaye would probably write such an interpretation off as an unwillingness to listen on the part of Mean Libruls influenced by deceptive feminist propaganda.

Don't miss the segment featuring, Karen Straughan, a strangely androgynous "Honey Badger" (female supporter of the MRM) at 1:23:00 who makes an obviously confused defense of the Boko Haram terrorist group kidnapping girls. She repeatedly says that "they" wanted attention, but "they" for her seems to be a vague mixture of feminists, terrorists, Muslims, Nigerians and black people. People who have listened to Republicans complain about people who "just want attention" will detect a familiar sound in her comments. She also describes Boko Haram as "chivalrous." (?!?)

I suspect that among the many people that Jaye reports interviewing for this project, she probably gathered quite a bit of footage from MRAs and Honey Badgers who displayed the kind of garbling narrative that we see in the Straughan segment. Because even though most of her MRM adherents in the film who are experienced spokespeople at least seem to be making a coherently logical (if factually challenged) argument, even they display some fairly obvious signs of dogmatic rigidity.

One of the strangest moments comes near the end, after 1:45:00, when the viewer is apparently meant to believe that infant male circumcision may make it impossible for the circumcised boy to have kids later on. Jaye describes anti-circumcision as a very common position among MRAs. Someone with a little more familiarity with the far right might have wanted to dig into that aspect a bit deeper, given the Jewish ritual of circumcision. You have to pay attention to threads like that when dealing with Radical Right groups.

Friday, January 05, 2018

"Black Book of Communism" and Holocaust Denial

Ben Norton tweeted over a month ago about a Holocaust-denier exercise, which first came to my attention this morning:

Norton's citation is to his article Why Are the Trump White House and Media Citing an Antisemitic Book's Claims to Demonize Communism? AlterNet 11/22/2017. The book in question is The Black Book of Communism, first published in French as Le Livre noir du communisme: Crimes, terreur, répression in 1997. Norton explains:
The Black Book of Communism is a collection of right-wing essays published in France in 1997, and subsequently translated into English and published by Harvard University Press in 1999. Some of its contributors have admitted that the book’s figures are fabricated or exaggerated. Contributors Jean-Louis Margolin and Nicolas Werth distanced themselves from the text, criticizing the editor Stéphane Courtois and his “obsession to arrive to the 100 million deaths.” When he could not round out the figure to 100 million, Courtois apparently just added numbers.

Perhaps more troubling than The Black Book of Communism’s many egregious errors is the fact that it counts Nazi-collaborating fascists, anti-Semitic White Army fighters and czarist officers who oversaw genocidal pogroms against Jews in its list of “victims of communism.”

The International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania — known popularly as the Wiesel Commission, after Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who led it — condemned the editor Courtois for “comparative trivialization” of the Nazi Holocaust. In order to portray communism as more evil and murderous than fascism and demonize scholars who refuse to do the same, Courtois fell back on anti-Semitism, “inserting an incriminating insinuation directed at the Jews,” the Wiesel Commission wrote. The commission noted that the editor’s tactics inspired “prestigious intellectuals” to rehash anti-Semitic stereotypes and talking points like “Red Holocaust,” “monopoly on suffering” and “Judeocentrism,” which it noted “are widely popular in radical-right circles.”
These "body-count" controversies are always grim. I find it helpful to keep in mind as an ethical guideline when looking at them that 100 wrongful deaths in one country or under a particular regime doesn't justify even one wrongful death in another country or another regime.

At the same time, invidious comparisons between countries is a standard feature of international relations, including these body-count disputes.

Anti-Communism was always a key part of Nazi ideology. And Holocaust-deniers to this day try to justify the Holocaust and even the German invasion of Russia by saying it was all the Commies' fault.

One of the best analyses and debunking of Holocaust denial I've come across is the 2000 decision written by Mr. Justice Gray in Irving v. Penguin Books Limited, Deborah E. Lipstat [sic[, the case depicted in the movie Denial (2016). The decisions deals with the historical issues at length, and in language accessible to non-attorneys. Because the notorious David Irving was suing Lipstadt in a British court for portraying him in a book as a Holocaust denier, the decision goes into some detail about the nature of the available documentation and what reality-based uses of it requires.

Section 11 is about the Allied bombing of the German city of Dresden in 1945. The section is a case study in how Holocaust deniers take a real historical event, exaggerate facts in the favor of the case they want to make, and make a tendentious historical interpretation that tends to minimize or justify the mass murder of Jews and others in the Holocaust. In this case, it is the Western Allies, not the Communist Soviet Union, whose actions are exaggerated and used to cast the Holocaust in a more favorable light.

There is a website, Holocaust Denial on Trial from Emory University's Tam Institute for Jewish Studies, with historical resources on the Holocaust and Holocaust denial, including transcripts of expert witnesses at the Irving v. Lipstadt trial.

The current (Jan/Feb) issue of Foreign Affairs journal has a set of stories on "The Undead Past: how Nations Confront the Evils of History," with articles focusing on the US, Germany, Russia China, South Africa and Rwanda. In his essay "China's Cover-Up: When Communists Rewrite History," he describes the perspective of Karl Jaspers on how Germans needed to come to grips with the crimes of the Nazi regime:
The man who devised the road map for the expiation of German guilt was the philosopher and psychoanalyst Karl Jaspers, who in 1945 gave a series of influential lectures at the University of Heidelberg that were later collected in a book titled The Question of German Guilt. Even though what happened under Adolf Hitler precipitated something "like a transmutation of our being," said Jaspers, Germans were still "collectively liable." All of those "who knew, or could know" - including those "conveniently closing their eyes to events or permitting themselves to be intoxicated, seduced, or bought with personal advantage, or obeying from fear" - shared responsibility. The "eagerness to obey" and the "unconditionality of blind nationalism," he declared, constituted "moral guilt." Human beings are, said Jaspers, responsible "for every delusion to which we succumb." He put his faith in healing through "the cultivation of truth" and "making amends," a process he believed had to be completely free from any state-sponsored propaganda or manipulation.

"There can be no questions that might not be raised," he declared, "nothing to be fondly taken for granted, no sentimental and no practical lie that would have to be guarded or that would be untouchable." In Jaspers' view, only through historical awareness could Germans ever come to terms with their past and restore themselves to a semblance of moral and societal health.

Jaspers' approach owed a great deal to psychoanalytic theory and the work of Sigmund Freud. For Freud, understanding a patient's past was like "excavating a buried city," as he wrote in 1895. Indeed, he was fond of quoting the Latin expression saxa loquuntur: "The stones speak." Such mental archaeology was important to Freud because he believed that a repressed past inevitably infected the present and the future with neuroses unless given a conscious voice to help fill in what he called "the gaps in memory." In this sense, history and memory were Freud's allies and forgetting was his enemy. [my emphasis in bold]

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Roy Moore, the ick factor and the evidence (3 of 3)

This is the last of three posts on the Roy Moore scandal material. My purpose has been to look at what the public knew before the election and what was a reasonable way to process it.

I'm personally was and am "tribally" inclined to think Roy Moore is a scumbag. And I've thought so ever since his Ten Commandments monument sideshow in the early 2000s. But the Washington Post  story that initially reported his alleged molestation of a 14-year-old was well-sourced, with at least two people the complainant/accuser had talked to at the time backing up her story that she had told them she was dating an older man, one of them remembering Roy Moore as his name. And the three women who he dated when they were 16-18 added some kind of a pattern.

It seemed to me that, at a minimum, a man in his thirties who had been a Army officer in combat in Vietnam who sought out 16-year-olds to date was weirdly immature. Although according to the Post story, none of the three reported having sex with him. All four of the women were on the record with their names in making the statements. And Moore's responses weren less than convincing to anyone not drinking the special Breitbart-Limbaugh Kool-Aid concoction. Plus, one of the 14-year-old's later boyfriends said on camera a bit later that she told him about the molestation part of the story when they were together.

But our Pod Pundits couldn't even keep a well-sourced story like this straight. This Morning Joe segment treated the story of the other three women as essentially just like the story of the 14-year-old, The Choice Dems And GOP Must Make On GOP Alabama Senate Nominee Roy Moore MSNBC 11/13/2017:



One of the panel said that all four women had experienced what had to have been "the worst horrific moments of their lives, being fondled and touched by Roy Moore when they were teenaged girls." Another said "these women have been playing this on auto-repeat every day of their lives." When the real story is well-sourced and, for marketing purposes, sensational enough on its own, careless embellishments like that are unnecessary. (Is there a phrase for gilding an ugly lily?) Especially since it won't surprise anybody if more damning stories come out in the next couple of weeks. In fact, AL.com the famous attorney Goria Allred is having a news conference at 2:30 EST with another accuser reporting that Moore "assaulted her when she was a minor."

A few days after the initial report, another accuser came forward on the record in a press conference claiming that Moore had sexually assaulted her when she was 16: Dylan Stableford, New woman accuses Roy Moore of sexual assault when she was a minor Yahoo News 11/13/2017. This case described a very similar scenario to that of the 14-year-old and she showed what she said was something that Roy Moore wrote in her school yearbook.

The same day, Charles Bethea reported on people who remembered Moore's reputation as a mall crawler during that period, Locals Were Troubled by Roy Moore’s Interactions with Teen Girls at the Gadsden Mall New Yorker 11/13/2017.

By November 15, the stories of Roy Moore's fondness for actions toward women and girls that fit consistently with the patterns others had described were coming out faster than revelations about Trump associates with dubious involvements with Russians: Stephanie McCrummen et al, Two more women describe unwanted overtures by Roy Moore at Alabama mall Washington Post 11/15/2017; Anna Claire Vollers, New Roy Moore accuser: 'He didn't pinch it; he grabbed it' AL.com 11/15/2017.

November 16, one week from the original molestation story, it had reached the point where Matt Bai - also tribally inclined to be unsympathetic to Moore - was writing the following which by then had come to seem like the cautious and sensible conventional wisdom on the topic (Roy Moore fights his inner demons. It's not pretty. Yahoo News 11/16/2017):
I’m not a fan of media stampedes, generally. And I suppose it’s possible that the ever-growing list of women who have accused Moore, in highly detailed accounts, of general creepiness and outright assault on teenage girls have all been put up to it by nefarious Democratic operatives.

But I’m guessing the only ones who really believe that now are longtime, willfully blind supporters and Breitbart editors who profit from their insistence that reality is the opposite of whatever the coastal, elite media say it is.

(Related: Apparently someone operating on Moore’s behalf has been calling people in Alabama posing as a sleazy Washington Post reporter named “Bernie Bernstein” who is trying to dig up more gossip about Moore. I mean, you can’t do better than that? There are plenty of names that sound more realistic. Like “Philip Roth,” or maybe “Hank Greenberg.” Use some creativity.)
This Velshi & Ruhle segment addresseds how to evaluate claims like the ones being made against Moore, Roy Moore's Friend Mat Staver: “This Is Not The Roy Moore I Know” 11/16/2017:



There was certainly a lot of credibility in the reports against Moore. Maybe not enough to satisfy a court in a legal proceeding, I don't know about that.

Josh Marshall had a good point in this post about accountability on the larger issue of sexual harassment and abuse. (Trump Skates. But It’s Not the Press’s Fault. TPM 11/29/2017) High-profile cases can prompt action by management or employers. But in places like, say, the Republican Party, where neither shame nor fear of losing voters currently seem to be factors when Rep politicians are credibly accused of genuine bad acts, there is no accountability.

In the larger scheme of things, high-profile scandals of the Moore, Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer types may not do a lot in themselves to address the much wider problem. Large organizations of all kinds as well as small businesses have a strong incentive for self-protection on these things, and sweeping them under the rug is usually the prescription. That's why non-disclosure agreements on settlements are so popular. I don't know what psychological studies may say about it. But I'm reasonably sure that the Moores and Weinsteins and Lauers aren't going to be deterred from genuinely predatory behavior by obligatory annual HR presentations or by seeing other employees warned or disciplined for telling lewd jokes at work.

The decline of unions, employment-at-will laws, business deregulation generally, the increase of "precarious" jobs with more and more "independent contracting," those all make systemic solutions more challenging. I saw one report recently suggesting that the restaurant business may be the one with the largest number of sexual harassment reports. And despite the large number of chains, that's a notoriously decentralized and high-turnover business. Also in agriculture, construction, and service industries like restaurants, there are large percentages of undocumented workers who don't find it easy to use what recourses are available to citizens and legal residents. E.g., "You tell anybody about me showing you my dick in the back office and I'll call ICE to arrest your children at their school."

One thing that could be mandated legislatively with some reasonable chance of enforcement would be to somehow legally obligate personnel/human resource departments to have a responsibility to defend employees in some meaningful way. Because right now, HR departments in practice think their only job is to defend employers to the extent they can get away with it. That would probably involve some kind of more extensive auditing requirements along the lines of compliance audits in medical facilities. But that's heresy to the gospel of deregulation and "free-market" competition.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Trump the bold Disrupter?

Digby Parton called this piece by Michael Grunwald "he best 'Trump's first year' analysis I've yet read": Michael Grunwald, Donald Trump Is a Consequential President. Just Not in the Ways You Think. Politico 12/30/2017.

He makes this point about whether Trump is "normal." The Democrats in 2017 generally stressed how abnormal Trump's Presidency is. And it's not hard to find points in favor of that argument: the blustering nationalism, the reckless tweeting, the blantant authortarian actions and threats, the narcissistic bombast, his obvious contempt for members of the female gender, his crass mixing of the Presidency and his family business.

But Grunwald also makes a reasonable observation here:
The most consequential aspect of President Trump — like the most consequential aspect of Candidate Trump — has been his relentless shattering of norms: norms of honesty, decency, diversity, strategy, diplomacy and democracy, norms of what presidents are supposed to say and do when the world is and isn’t watching. As I keep arguing in these periodic Trump reviews, it’s a mistake to describe his all-caps rage-tweeting or his endorsement of an accused child molester or his threats to wipe out “Little Rocket Man” as unpresidential, because he’s the president. He’s by definition presidential. The norms he’s shattered are by definition no longer norms. His erratic behavior isn’t normal, but it’s inevitably becoming normalized, a predictably unpredictable feature of our political landscape. It’s how we live now, checking our phones in the morning to get a read on the president’s mood. The American economy is still strong, and he hasn’t started any new wars, so pundits have focused a lot of their hand-wringing on the effect his norm-shattering will have on future leaders, who will be able to cite the Trump precedent if they want to hide their tax returns or use their office to promote their businesses or fire FBI directors who investigate them. But Trump still has three years left in his term. And the norms he’s shattered can’t constrain his behavior now that he’s shattered them. [my emphasis]
To recognize Trump's antics and misconduct as a "new normal" is not the same as endorsing them.

Grunwald adds this accurate observation:
... after campaigning as an anti-establishment populist, Trump has mostly governed as a partisan corporatist, earning loyalty points from congressional Republicans by stocking his administration with movement conservatives and embracing their unpopular agenda, ditching his promises to protect Medicaid and close tax loopholes for hedge funds while consistently siding with business owners and investors over workers and consumers. Congressional Republicans, even those who once called him unfit to serve, have mostly ignored his antics and even his sporadic attacks on them, kissing his ring in public even as they roll their eyes in private. They’d prefer their tax cuts without the white nationalist retweets, but it’s a package deal.
As he puts it later in the long article, "The point is that the crazy stuff Trump does is not a distraction from the important stuff Trump does. It’s important when the president does crazy stuff."

In a similar vein, David Shribman writes in President without precedent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 01/01/2018:
An Inaugural Address that was at once a statement of triumph and a manifesto of change. A Supreme Court nomination fight that altered the Senate’s customs and transformed its rules. Repeated efforts to overturn Obamacare. Heightened tensions with North Korea — and with the mainstream media. A final push for a tax overhaul. Ferocious opposition, and ferocious devotion. ...

He has changed how presidents behave. He has changed how presidents talk. He has changed how presidents communicate. He has changed how presidents deal with Congress. He has changed how presidents approach the press. He has changed how presidents regard international trade. He has changed how prsidents deal with foreign countries. He has changed how presidents interact with scientists. He has changed how presidents treat the agencies and departments of their own government.

As Disrupter in Chief, Mr. Trump is arguably more in tune with the national zeitgeist than was former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton who, though she would have been the first female president, would have comported herself more like previous modern presidents, from FDR to Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama, than has Mr. Trump, for whom there seems no antecedent, although John Tyler, Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson might be the closest approximations.
Is this analysis, criticism, or praise? For Trump's fans, Trump being a "disrupter" is a good thing. He's shaking things up, challenging the Establishment, yadda, yadda, and - most importantly - doing it in the pursuit of goals that free-market zealots, white supremacists and corporate tax-cutters and deregulators can enthusiastically support.

Also, a special moment of garment-rending for Shribman's choice of Presidential comparisons: Jackson, Tyler and Andrew Johnson?!?

As Grunwald accurately notes, "Republicans have made it pretty clear that they don’t plan to stand up to Trump." And he reminds us of various ways in which the Republican Party has long been practicing a radical approach to politics while the Democrats take a conservative approach to preserving political norms even when it works to their disadvantage:
In 2016, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, which was perhaps the most effective shattering of Washington norms—first by helping elect Trump, by giving skeptical conservatives a pressing reason to vote for him, and later by enabling Trump to fill the vacancy with Justice Gorsuch, who will keep pulling American jurisprudence to the right long after Trump has left office.