Blog

ExecuTweeting the Climate

The climate…

Trump said he was going to do it; he did it. As with nearly all the other ExecuTweet orders, this one will be a dud. The reason coal stays in the West Virginian ground is not because of all those environmental regulations, but because it’s too expensive to get out. Even if they can dig it out economically, lift the environmental regulations and the people who suffer ill health because they live next to coal-powered electricity plants will sue them, so it’s hardly going to provide certainty for that end of the business, either.

Oh, and “clean coal”. Yes, you can scrub the particulates (soot), but

C + O2 = CO2

is a fact from very elementary chemistry. It doesn’t matter how few particulates coal produces, what isn’t soot is carbon dioxide.

What’s sad about this is that the interesting and exciting challenge is not how to make coal (and oil, for that matter) pay again, but how to harness all that free energy that pours in, day after day, from the sun. That’s an area where there are lots of jobs, lots of innovation, and lots of ways of creating wealth. And I guess Trump has just opened all those opportunities to the rest of the world.

So, thank you President Trump.

Curry Lamb in Hong Kong

This morning, 777 of Carrie Lam’s best friends voted for her to be Hong Kong’s Chief Executive.

The pronunciation of the word “7” in Cantonese is “chat,” but is also a contraction of “chow height” which is the foul language for stinky (“chow”) female genitalia (“height”). Not a good omen, and the selection committee’s subliminal message is plain for all to see (by the way, I don’t follow any particular system of transliterating Cantonese, I choose whichever seems easiest for an English reader. Chau haait in Sydney Lau system for the purist.)

Curry Lamb started her campaign by receiving a message from God, who told her to “run” for the post. The last time I remember God intervening in politics was when George W. Bush took a walk in the Rose Garden and God told him to invade Iraq – a war that achieved nothing positive, resulted in well over a quarter of a million deaths, and created the circumstances for ISIS/Daesh to flourish.

So, the omens are not propitious.

Hong Kong is a society in which almost no one under the age of 35 who was born here will ever be able to afford a property in the town of their birth. The Chinese Communist Party are intent on making Hong Kong just another city in China, and most Hong Kong people – especially the young –  want Hong Kong to remain distinctive. Although the British colonial government favoured vested interests, they at least kept them in check; today’s Hong Kong is run by vested interests and for them.

Into this divided society, 777 of Curry’s best friends – or 0.01% of the population – foist on us a person who is clueless about normal life, void of original ideas, and in a fundamental way, creepy. I say that not out of abuse, but because someone who claims to be deeply Christian, but who is not only willing to engage with, but embraces an atheist regime that suppresses religion and religiosity, is a creep.

Hong Kong’s property market has only ever crashed in response to non-economic factors: the 1967 riots, the 1983 joint declaration concerns, the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis followed by a final kick in the teeth from SARS. It’s been on a bull run ever since. I am not alone in being pessimistic about the world economy – listen to this (although it’s rather repetitive and turns out to be a sales pitch) – and I can’t think of a worse person to have at the helm if the worst happens. Unfortunately, it is we Hong Kongers, not Beijing’s masters, who will pay the price.

 

Fact Free Politics

The question is: Can we have a healthy policy without facts?

Truth is scarce and difficult, which is why we value it above lies, which are abundant and easy. In the past few weeks, the administration of the US has been promulgating lies at an unprecedented rate. It takes credit for the recent economic performance despite the fact that Wall St. is far more driven by quarterly returns, and that the current round of quarterly returns are for Q4 2016 which is when Obama was president. It takes credit for new jobs, when none of the policies it has attempted to put in place has had time to take effect (it will be at least a year before they do). It has denied that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas when it’s been known for over a century that it is; it has alleged wire-tapping… The list goes on.

Politicians lie all the time. But there is a sense in which this is defensible. We don’t only elect politicians to tell us the way things are – we pay scientists for that – we also elect them to tell us the way things will be: how our society will look a few years from now. And although we all make statements about the future that turn out to be false, or prophesies that turn out to be self-fulfilling, lies concern facts and facts are in the now.

But facts are also about the most likely future state of affairs. The current rate of unemployment in America is about 4.7%. We can say with a high degree of certainty that it won’t be 0% within one month, and that it won’t be 20%. We can project tax revenues and spending. And we can predict – albeit imperfectly and within a wide range of error – mortality rates, birth rates, and the climate.

And here is where Trump is at best lying through his teeth and at worst willfully ignorant of the facts. The future that we elect politicians to give us is constrained by the facts. There is no future in my lifespan where I can travel interstellar distances: it’s the speed of light. There is no future where poverty disappears: it’s part of the human condition. There is no future in which there are no terrorists and no acts of random violence: the best we can do is minimize these acts and minimize their impact.

Or let’s take the favorite whipping boy of all: the climate. Trump, Perry and the ghastly Scott Priutt can deny the reality of climate change all they like, but they cannot change the fact that, by powering our lives with yesterday’s sunshine in the form of hydrocarbons instead of harnessing today’s actual sunshine, we’re boiling the only home we have. They cannot change the fact that coal is no longer mined not because of environmental legislation, but because the cheap stuff already been dug up and what’s left is not economically viable. They cannot change the fact that renewable sources are rapidly closing in on cost parity with hydrocarbons.

Perhaps the more interesting question is why these fantasies gain such widespread currency. The internet is not the only cause, but it has a lot to answer for. I have a friend who is well-educated, very bright, and utterly determined that hydrocarbons are good. He has formed this belief by obtaining a google PhD in climate science – meaning that he spends a few minutes a week on google to find articles by like-minded others.

What he seems blissfully immune to is that he is directed to these like-minded sites by Search Engine Optimisation. This technology is a euphemism for saying that the author of the content pays the search engine (google, bing, whatever) to make sure that her content comes up on the first page of any relevant search.

SOE is a gift to well-funded liars. ExxonMobile can afford SOE to direct my friend to a whole plethora of sites that promote lies; real climate scientists aren’t allowed to use their money this way. The same is true of tobacco companies, and a whole bunch of other vested interests.

The result is that truth is severely under-represented on the web. This is exacerbated by the fact that very few published scientific papers are available on the web because nearly all papers are published in expensive and arcane journals. (There’s a certain irony here as the huge sums being used to do real science are not being used to make it available, but that the huge sums being spent on lies are snuffing out the real science.)

We get the government we deserve and, if we are so mindlessly uncritical of the lies being served up by vested interests in the clothing of facts, there is a sense in which we deserve the result.

But nor does the over-polite nature of public discourse help. It is obvious out that Trump lied about the wire-tapping. But not a single public figure has used the word. It’s described as an unsubstantiated fact, not a lie. And until we as voters are willing to punish our politicians for lying, and for allowing others to lie, we’ll vote for fantasy futures while our societies turn to actual hells.

Entertainment

A friend of mine who’s a journalist hoped Trump would get in because things had been dull under Obama – and that prompted a slow epiphany.

I’ve said in a previous post that it was about change, that Obama delivered steady growth, blah blah blah, but didn’t make any systemic changes; that there seems to be something I’m missing, etc. But, although I didn’t realize it when it was said, my journalist friend nailed it.

One of my great complaints about Obama during his presidency was that he consistently refused to beat his own drum. He got his country out of two unwinnable wars – not a word. He pulled the economy back from the brink – not a squeak. He created ten  million jobs – not so much as a high-five. And he got Obamacare through without so much as a smile. I’m sorry; my friend’s right. Obama was dull. And at least he was a great orator; Clinton offered the dullness without even the oratory. (See Paul Krugman today on the facts, by the way.)

This perhaps is why his record is being so swiftly ripped to shreds by Trump. Forget about the fact that Trump doesn’t blush to take credit for other’s achievements, doesn’t flinch to distract from his own shortcomings with bare-faced lies, and whose gift for showmanship is every bit as effective to his caucus as Obama’s rhetoric was to his. (I mean, remember that absurd photo of supposed business leaders in the Oval Office, some of whom were wearing construction helmets? Bob the fucking Builder’s going to “restore” America’s “greatness”? How stupid do you have to be to believe that that wasn’t staged?) Forget all that: Obama said almost nothing to take credit for his achievements, and that makes it oh so easy for those achievements to be dismissed.

I suppose I should lighten up. After all, despite the hundreds of thousands who’ll fall off health insurance when Obamacare is repealed later this week of whom some will die prematurely because of it, despite the hundreds of thousands of unwanted pregnancies and backstreet abortions that the destruction of Planned Parenthood will cause, despite the censorship of unpalatable scientific results such as Climate Science with the Secret Science Reform Act and the millions who will suffer as our planet warms even faster than it already is, it’s all just theatre, and those people are not victims but CGI animations, expendable so long as we’re all having fun.

And here we come back to the fourth pillar. Yes, Obama was boring. But Trump didn’t run against Obama, he ran against Clinton (and lost, by three million votes). Yet even the supposedly left-wing press published every ludicrous statement, every obnoxious lie, that he made. And this continues today. The “wire-tapping,” the five million “fake votes” are reported not as if they are fun, but as if they are true. That’s because the public still believes that the job of journalists is to serve up checked facts, not entertainment.

Or perhaps it’s because the future’s so dismal that we prefer entertainment to facts.

Toothache

A few years ago, I had double toothache. Within seven days, not one but both of my upper wisdom teeth became inflamed. Pulling the uppers ones was easy – they were dead anyway – but one of the opposing lower ones needed to be pulled too. It was a healthy tooth, and one of the roots was shaped like a fishhook. The X-ray didn’t show this so the dentist found out as he was going along. I have a very high metabolism, so the local anesthetics wore off very quickly. After four hours in the chair, all I wanted was an end to the pain.

It’s barely six weeks into the on-going agony of Trump. He’s killed US servicemen in a raid in Yemen that Obama avoided because… it would kill US servicemen to no purpose; he’s tried twice and will probably fail twice to get all Muslims banned; his Environmental Secretary has just decried that Carbon Dioxide is not a warming gas; it has only just come to Trump’s attention that one of his key advisers, Michael Flynn was a foreign agent; the repeal and replace programme being barged through Congress will defund Planned Parenthood, causing thousands of unwanted pregnancies, while dramatically cutting taxes for the rich and fucking over the poor; and Trump’s own active engagement with Russia is being forgotten under the unsubstantiated claims of wiretapping.

I said in my last post that some constitutional amendments are well overdue. Consider one to stop idiots voting. Americans will suffer first, but this administration’s only way of saving itself is war, and when they take on Iran – which they will – the rest of us will die too when the nukes start flying.

Trump for Change?

Here’s a thing. This link is a list of amendments made to the Constitution of the United States of America since it came into being.

In summary, the first ten and the twenty-seventh amendment were proposed on 25th September, 1789 and, with the exception of the 27th, passed on 15th December, 1791 (the twenty-seventh amendment was to do with congressional salaries, and took 202 years to pass). Two more amendments were passed in 1795 and 1804. There was then a break in constitutional fiddling until the Civil War, which resulted in the emancipation amendments (13th, 14th and 15th amendments), and thereafter a steady trickle of amendments until the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Then: nothing. In half a century, nothing.

No amendment to limit congressional terms (the most senior eight senators came to office before the median-aged American was born).

No amendment to revoke the second amendment – which is responsible for far more deaths than terrorists – or at least reword the second to limit ownership of weapons. A private citizen has the constitutional right to own a nuke, for goodness’ sake.

No amendment to reform political financing. After the shameful Citizens United, money politics has gone into overdrive.

No amendment to create a right to a decent minimum standard of existence.

No amendment to require legislative clarity of purpose rather than the opaque appropriations bills that carry most of the legislative burden, yet bury important lawlets, most with no legislative history – a lobbyists dream. Which brings me to…

No amendment to limit or regulate access by lobbyists.

It’s as if the Constitution is now regarded as perfect and thus as inviolable as the stone tablets of Mount Sinai. But, unlike the Mosaic law, the Constitution is a human creation and its creators explicitly crafted it to be changed. In the past half century, it’s ossified.

So, Trump, Clinton, Warren, whoever: up to it?

Elective Plutocracies

It seems that I am missing the point.

When Obama came to power, he promised change. The kind of change Obama delivered was not the kind that his supporters thought he was going to deliver. Obama delivered Obamacare and steady progress on a number of mundane problems, but what his supporters wanted was to break the nexus of power between investment banks (“Wall St.”), politics and business.

This is a pretty big call. It’s not an overstatement to say that modern American capitalism not so much facilitated the development of the investment bank, as that investment banking was what enabled modern American capitalism. Here’s why.

The granddaddy of all investment bankers is J. Pierpont Morgan, and his biography (a good summary is here) is a list of one deal after another, and one company after another, that grew because J.P. Morgan arranged cheap debt. This led to a business environment that was not so much a free market as a patchwork of overlapping monopolies. These monopolies are the ones that to this day, so the story goes, pull the strings in Washington, both behind the scenes through lobbying and on-stage through corporate funding of candidates and parties.

To unpack this…

In the old days, the only way to raise money for a business venture was through shares. Those who wanted to put some money at risk for a higher return chose a company, put their money in, and watched as the company went broke, floundered or, in rare cases, succeeded. Typical were the East India Companies (British, Dutch, etc.), where investors invested in individual trading expeditions (see The Honourable Company for more). The investor’s capital was used to purchase the raw goods that were sent East, and they received their profits on the sale of the goods that arrived back in the West. If the ship sunk, the goods were stolen by pirates, or no one bought them, hard luck.

Fast forward to the railways boom in England in the nineteenth century, and the same thing was going on. Investors had to front pretty much the entire construction cost of the railway, and received their money back in the form of dividends if the railway succeeded, or not if it went broke. But there was a difference – whereas in the case of the East India Companies, the investor got a one-shot payout, in the case of the railways, the investors got a recurring income.

The trouble with dividends is that the entrepreneurs who start the companies don’t get anything special. I put in $1, and get a few cents a year, while you put in $19 and get proportionately more cents per year. But I’m the one putting his life on the line, not you. Why should you get proportionately the same? And how come I’m left with a crappy 5% of the company?

Whence came the age of the capitalist robber baron. I have a business idea; I invest $1, I persuade other shareholders to invest $4, and I go to a bank and borrow the other $15. You and I both get better returns, but I now control 20% of the company. That’s enough to shaft most other shareholders. 5% isn’t.

Welcome to modern business capitalism – a misnomer. What we had by the early 20th century in the U.S. was not free-market capitalism, but crony debtism. And thus, albeit with far more sophistication, it remains.

This raises two points: the first is whether there is anything anyone can do about it, and the second is whether Trump is the person to do whatever can be done.

I’m going to set debt aside as a problem. Managing the levels of debt in an economy is something for economists and technocrats, and I’m neither. I’ll just assume a technical solution is broadly available. The problem we can address with politics is cronyism.

Many investment bankers will poo-poo the charge of cronyism, and point out that banks compete for business and that anti-trust laws prevent monopolies, etc. Yes, sometimes, but that’s not the charge. The charge is that one can name the top investment banks on the fingers of both hands, that the people who run them are on a merry-go-round, and that they carve up the world’s money markets in a cartel-monopolistic way.

This rings true. At the people level, getting into investment banking is very difficult but, once you’re in, you’re in Fat City for as long as you choose to be. With barely a dozen investment banks – Goldman Sachs, DeutscheBank, UBS, Credit Suisse, BoA Merrill Lynch, JP Morgan Chase, Nomura, Societe Generale, MacQuarries, RBS, Barclays Capital – dominating the scene, it’s lunacy to think that there isn’t a “gentleman’s understanding” of where they compete and where they don’t. Hence the cartel-monopoly on debt, and hence the control on the world’s financial system.

As to anti-trust laws, they do cover collusion and price-fixing, but again, that misses the point. The point is that the barriers to entry in this field are too huge for other entrants to come in. They all have similar cost-structures, price debt (and other services) the same way, and all know who does what, where they can compete and can’t. Neither price-fixing nor collusion are needed: it’s a carve-up.

Once you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow, and as the investment banks have the world by the balls on debt, politicians hearts and minds follow all too easily. Hence the title of this post: elect who you like, it’s still a plutocracy running the joint.

There is a simple way to fix this: break them up. That is do-able. No privately-held entity should be so large that its failure can crash an economy, and no set of companies should be so powerful that new entrants are for all practical purposes banned.

Will Trump do it? To the extent that he remains interested in his new job at all, he appears more interested in fighting the Seventh Crusade than in fixing America’s political system with its corrupted (not bribed, but corrupted) duopoly of power, un-replaceable senators, and free for all in political finance. But, who knows what the next ExecuTweet Order will be?

The Great Confusicator

As Robert Fisk points out, we’re becoming addicted to Trump. Presidency by tweet and publicity stunts are diverting us from the real nastiness happening behind the scenes. But I want to take a step back.

Obama came to power promising change, but the type of change he promised wasn’t the type of change we thought he was promising. Trump came to power promising change, and he’s delivered: he’s debased politics in a way that no other has.

I predict that, in two years in the 2018 mid-terms, the Democrats will gain majorities in both houses. They will use that majority to impeach Trump. I think that would be a wasted opportunity, because Trump is a the symptom, not the cause, of the desire for change.

So, over the next couple of years, I’m going to stay clear of current affairs and look at how the system is broken and what could be done.

The First Four Weeks

Here’s a (slightly adapted) quote:

“[Trump] did not have to destroy democracy; he merely took advantage of the decay of democracy and at the critical moment obtained the support of many to whom, though they detested [Trump], he yet seemed the only man strong enough to get things done.”

The big charge against Obama is that he came into power promising change and didn’t deliver. Let’s set aside the inconvenient fact that the American people voted Republican Congresses into power in 2011, 2013 and 2015, thus stymying any change. Obama may have promised change but it would seem that, on reflection, the American people didn’t want it. Or didn’t want the type of change he offered.

Anyway, Trump also came to power promising change, so let’s look at his first four weeks:

Hilary Clinton and Obama were decried for ties to Wall St in general and Goldman Sachs in particular. Trump’s new Treasury Secretary is none other than Mnuchin from… Goldman Sachs. No Change.

Hilary Clinton was called crooked because of the emails (despite the fact that repeated investigations by the FBI, even under blatantly partisan leadership, never found grounds to prosecute). Trump indulged in a very public selfie-fest when potentially secret information was being discussed over dinner in response to North Korea’s missile launch. No Change.

Obama has ordered lots of extra-judicial killings. There’s a spreadsheet here, put together by these people, on drone attacks.

drones

The number of people killed by drones peaked in 2010, and by 2016, was down to 3 strikes and 11 dead. One of Trump’s first actions: a military attack in Yemen, resulting in numerous deaths and casualties. Too early to call, but probably no change.

Obama promised to shut down Guantanamo. In a classic case of politics over principle, no senator or congressman wanted its inmates in his or her state or district, so it came to nothing. The number of inmates now stands at 41. Trump’s promised to fill it right back up again and has already found the first victim. No change.

Executive orders: the US government keeps a list of them here. Obama issued the lowest number of any recent president, and Trump came to power in a flurry of ExecuTweet Orders. Too early to call, but Trump thus far seems impatient of the legislative process. Change.

I could go on, but I won’t.

The quote above was from The Road to Serfdom, written by F.A. Hayek, the founder of neo-liberalism. The book does not, as is often represented, call for minimal government, but rather resists governments that plan. This is becuase central government planning, Hayek argues, leads to totalitarianism. I think he makes a strong case.

The first thing one does in a plan is to choose which bits are to be favoured. Trump has already picked which religions (Protestant Christianity, Orthodox Judism) and industries (coal, oil, steel and cars) are to receive his Imperial favour. And of course, there’s the wall, and rebuilding infrastructure. There’s a central government plan here, even if it hasn’t been articulated in public.

Hayek’s  original? “[Trump]” in the quote above (p. 68) was “Hitler.” Welcome to the new America.

Trump Chee-Hwa

When Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, one of the first orders of business of Tung Chee-Hwa, its first Chief Executive (the most senior administrative post in Hong Kong) was to establish the supremacy of Chinese Communist Party over the local judiciary. It’s interesting that one of Trump’s first acts is to attempt to establish the supremacy of the office of the President over America’s judiciary.

The background on Tung Chee-Hwa is this (skip forward if you know it): Hong Kong was a British colony from 1841 until 1997. As such, its judiciary was ultimately part of the British judiciary. Although the local courts could and did judge most cases, the final court was England’s Supreme Court, and the House of Lords and the Privy council before the Supreme Court was established.

It was uncontroversial that this wasn’t appropriate when the sovereign power was China, but it was also uncontroversial that Hong Kong would retain the system of common law. The solution was, therefore, that Hong Kong establish its own Court of Final Appeal (CFA), to be the final arbitrator. And, to be fair, most cases have been dealt with in that court.

But not all. It was an important point of principle with the communists that they had ultimate discretion. Tung (and them, no doubt) chose his battleground with care and patience. They waited until the right case came along, one in which the CFA produced a decision that was very unpopular – specifically, a Filipina that claimed she was denied the right to abode in Hong Kong under a discriminatory immigration law, and won. The government did some scare-mongering, and won a judgement in the CFA that the CFA invite the communists to “reinterpret” Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.

The resulting reinterpretation was predictable – the plaintiff lost – but the bigger point was that the CFA, although it retains that name, has in actuality since been the Court of Penultimate Appeal. The ultimate authority is political, not judicial. Hence Hong Kong’s judiciary is not independent.

Fast forward to Trump, and although the legal issue is coincidentally the same (immigration), the main political issue is who’s boss. The latest judgement makes it clear that the Trump administration is not arguing for the ban on legal or constitutional grounds, but claims rather than the executive order is “unreviewable” by the courts; and consequently that the constitution can be “switched on and off” at presidential behest.

The judgement, although interim, makes it clear that, in its current form, on legal grounds, the executive order doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell – rather than directing his “You’re fired” at Sally Yates, Trump should be directing his by-line at the person who drafted it.

But the nasty thought comes. Whatever you think of Trumps politics, his people are not stupid people. Could it be that the executive order was drafted in the full knowledge that it is unconstitutional, with the deliberate aim of getting a soon-to-be Republican majority Supreme Court to abrogate its own constitutional responsibility and make was for Imperator Trump?