Carbon Democracy and the Road to Serfdom

Carbon Democracy is a book about the links between the oil industry and the current world order. The basic hypothesis is that many of our political institutions, both in the developed world and in the rest of the world, are shaped by the oil industry.

When I read it, and without faulting the detailed footnotes and bundles of research, my reaction was that the author asked too much of the data, and didn’t give sufficient consideration to other explanations. But that was pre-Trump.

I took the book’s point that many developing countries which have oil have been ravished by oil companies, and beaten up when their respective peoples tried to organize themselves to get part of the action. Iran in 1953 democratically elected a prime minister who was overthrown by a CIA-engineered coup d’état (ironically in the interests of British Petroleum) when he nationalized Iran’s oil; Ken Saro-Wiwa paid the price for standing up to Royal Dutch Shell when the then government of Nigeria hung him on trumped-up charges and Shell failed to intervene, thereby winning an extension of its concession. The list goes on.

I also took the point that, just as Imperial Britain in the nineteenth century imported tea at such a vast rate that it had to export opium to make up the balance-of-payments gap, the West imports oil at such a vast rate that it has to export arms to cover the difference. Hence most petro-cracies are armed to the teeth – even if incapable of using those arms.

But, I thought when I read the book, oil doesn’t have Western democracies in its pocket in the same way. Yes, the author pointed out that, with oil reserves becoming increasingly difficult to find and expensive to bring to production, oil companies are now turning to the developed countries for reserves – hence, fracking and tar sands – and that the people who live next door are not enjoying extraction on their doorsteps. Poisoned groundwater just isn’t the same. But the developed economies, I thought, were sufficiently diversified that this would be a side-show

No longer. Tillerson aside, the US government’s agenda is essentially oil. To the extent that it has a discernible policy, it is to bring back manufacturing, and especially car manufacturing, to bring back coal-fired power stations and coal mining, and to burn, burn and burn. As the oil industry’s proxy, on top of their well-publicized de-funding of the EPA, etc., Trump’s administration has been quietly removing references to climate change from the US Government’s website.

The Trump administration is not exactly dominated by intellectual heavyweights. In fact, they’re noticeable by their absence. But the tradition they draw on stems from Hayek, the intellectual father of neo-liberalism. It was Hayek, they say, who decried government interference and regulations that increase the cost of doing business. Perhaps the later Hayek did – I don’t know; I’ve only just started reading him – but his earlier work, The Road to Serfdom (I’ve chosen a gee-wow review) doesn’t mention regulation at all. The thesis is that, when a government becomes singles out any industry or group of industries for favorable treatment, totalitarianism is round the corner.

There’s no doubt that Trump has singled out a group of industries for his favours; you don’t need The Economist to point out that Trump and his team seem barely even aware that there’s more to the economy that digging fossil fuels out of the ground and finding various ways of burning them. What, I wonder, would the father of neo-liberalism think of this?

Writing on how totalitarianism states come into being – a process that he lived through in pre-Nazi Austria, so had seen (and suffered from) first hand – Hayek sets out the steps. First, choose an industry or group of industries for favour (√). Given finite resources, this will come at the expense of other industries, so throw away the free market (think trade treaties: √). Because this will disadvantage those who are not favoured, win them over. As it is likely that the majority will be so disadvantaged, this is no easy feat. So some mass psychology is needed:

The most effective way of making people accept the validity of the values they are to serve [in the transition to totalitarianism] is to persuade them that they are really the same as those which they… have always held… And the most efficient technique to this end is to use the old words but change their meaning. Few traits of totalitarianism regimes are at the same time so confusing to the superficial observer and yet so characteristic of the whole intellectual climate as the complete perversion of language.

I don’t it takes a critical reading of Trump’s abuse of language to see this in action. “Security” becomes the deprivation of rights, “fake news” the utterances of anyone opposed, and the like – so √ again.

The part of Carbon Democracy which I thought the author got dead right is that peak supply of oil has almost certainly passed, and that peak demand either soon will or has already happened. The result is that a massive and very powerful industry is dying – and knows it. Massive things are at their most dangerous in their death throes. As the oil industry is dominated by Anglo-American companies, it’s perhaps not surprising that British and American democracies will be the main victims.

This isn’t a conspiracy theory. People of similar dispositions and interests collaborate all the time without conspiring. It is, rather, the confluence of various independent historical trajectories that makes totalitarianism in Britain and America almost inevitable. But not quite. Because, as another hero of the right said, all it takes for the success of evil is for good men to do nothing – and good men are doing something.

Update: The UK is advancing Teresa May’s Snooper’s Charter. According to The Telegraph, the Hom Office wants to extend the already highly intrusive Investigatoy Powers Act seeks to give the government the right to read all communications in real time, and to ban the encryption of such communications. If that isn’t totalitarian, I don’t know what is.

Fakebook Democracy

Thank you to my friend, JT, for pointing me at a long, detailed article exposing just how much technology the right-wing threw at winning Brexit. In short, a small coterie of right-wing billionaires applied data-mining and psychological profiling technology to social media data, to identify those undecided and target on the one-hand those disaffected to go out and vote for Brexit, and on the other hand those unaffected to stay at home. And it worked. We will probably never know how many people voted Brexit as a “fuck-you” to the ruling classes and how many because they believed Britain was better off out, but no one voted “Remain” as a fuck you: our billionaires exploited this asymmetry in voting patterns to great effect.

Now, I’m no fan of conspiracy theories, and influencing voters is part and parcel of politics. And anyone reading this can judge the article on its own merits. But let’s just say that, in this case, there’s smoke because there’s fire. Extraordinary advances in technology have made invasive influence possible, and an elite have exploited that. But why? Why would Brexit matter so much to this coterie of billionaires? I guess they’re motivated by more than just money, but what would they gain either financially or ideologically from such an exercise?

In the case of Brexit, nobody really knew, either at the time of the vote or now, what the impact would be.

The economic arguments for and against Brexit were, to say the least, inconclusive. To say a little more, they bordered – on both sides – on incoherence. Remain threatened an instant economic melt-down if Britain left; Leave stated at one point that Britain’s contribution was (something like) £350 million a week which, on the back of an envelope, is £18 billion a year. In an economy of about £1,200 billion, this is 1.5%, which although it’s a huge amount to me (and probably you), is rounding error in the overall scheme of things – and was never substantiated. So, to your average plutocrat, case not proven.

The security arguments were at best xenophobic and at worst racist. The Syrian hordes, we were told, were arriving in their hundreds of thousands; the EU nationals working in the UK were doing so at pittances that no self-respecting “Brit” (I use the quote marks because what they mean by a Brit and what I mean are two different things) would.

Neither of these positions seem very pertinent to a billionaire: the world’s plutocrats worry about borders only in as much as they present opportunities for arbitrage in investments and tax. There may have been a mild ideological inclination to Brexit, but it was at heart a sordid little referendum in an island that is increasingly irrelevant. Why bother?

At first blush, I was tempted to say “because they can” – manipulating the Brexit vote was a kind of alpha-male dick-waving exercise. But, in the course of writing this, I wondered if there was more to it.

And I think there is a plausible explanation: I think the real prize was not Brexit, but the US, and that the Brexit exercise was what IT people call a Beta-test. Our billionaires had some great technology, and wanted to use it to sway the US election, but they weren’t sure it would work. Britain is culturally very close to the US, and the psychological profiling on which the technology hinged based would be more likely to be repeatable between the UK and US than profiling developed for, say, China or Arabia. In addition, votes for Brexit and Trump have deep structural similarities: both were to a large extent framed as votes against the status quo rather than votes for something. (As I’ve said before, I’m still not sure what Trump stands for.)

So the structural similarities between the Brexit and Trump votes, coupled with the need for psychological profiling that would transport across cultures, made Brexit a perfect test ground. Once they’d proven their technology in Brexit, the way was open for Trump.

And boy, did it work. One very telling thing: the activist Linda Tirado withheld her vote for Clinton for the usual reasons – Wall St., corruption, Benghazi. None of these reasons stands up to inspection: everyone in politics (or business – a propos Trump) in US has connections to Wall St., The Clinton Foundation is not corrupt, and numerous Federal and Congressional investigations absolved Clinton of any blame. These memes were put out there by precisely the people Linda didn’t want in power. Yet people like her fell for the right-wing profinling by staying home just as much as those who cast protest votes for Brexit and Trump did by coming out to vote.

It may be said that all parties are free to use this technology. But this kind of invidious and invasive technology is more than influencing people’s rational decisions: it’s a corruption of democracy: making informed choices is a very different thing to be bamboozled into a vote you don’t understand. And if Internet companies regard personal, private data as a resource to be sold to anyone with the money, irrespective of the use to which it will be put, democracy is dead.

So the real challenge is to take that power away from the big Internet companies. That’s for another post, and probably much more techy blog than this, but I believe it can be done – by technology, not by statute.

[Updated: thanks to Andrew, who reminded me that the claim was £350 billion with a “b”, not an “m”]

[Thanks to JT, who sent me a photo of a bus with £350 million a week on it. So I’ve changed that bit, but it doesn’t really affect the overall flow of the argument.]

Articulation, at Last!

Rex Tillerson gave a speech yesterday. Setting aside the folksy language that has come to dominate US political discourse, it was the first articulate expression by the Trump administration of anything at all, and I commend it on those grounds alone.

That said, I can’t say I liked all of it. Tillerson set out what he has learnt in his first three months, and where he is taking the US in the world. The entire subjects of Europe and climate change were conspicuous by their absence. But, on the positive side, he’s the first Secretary of State to recognize in public how clapped-out our Cold War institutions are, and, perhaps unlike his boss, he does seem aware that foreign policy consists of many parts and that those parts interlock in strange, curious and often unpredictable ways.

The ethical core of the speech, according to The Guardian, was this: “In some circumstances, if you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals” – i.e., sometimes you have to deal with bad guys to get good things done. The Guardian, however, read no further and condemned Tillerson without even pausing to mention that all governments and indeed most people sometimes turn to distasteful means to achieve worthy ends. This is a shame in part because this take renders the piece opinion rather than news so fuels the fake-news fire, but mainly because it misses the more revealing aspects of Tillerson’s approach.

A more telling quote is: “We must secure the nation. We must protect our people. We must protect our borders. We must protect our ability to be that voice of our values now and forevermore. And we can only do that with economic prosperity.” This is very clear: economic prosperity is good only in as much as it secures the nation. Or, to put it another way around, economic prosperity is subordinate to security: if there’s a choice between the economy and security, security will win (which perhaps explains why the economy prospered under Clinton and Obama, tanked under Bush and George W. and augers ill for Trump.)

So what does Tillerson mean by “secure”? He doesn’t spell it out but, as “security,” “foreign policy,” “defense” and similar terms are all politically correct terms for war, let’s turn to that.

Since Reagan, securing the nation and protecting the people has rested on the war on drugs. Since George W, it has further rested on the war on terrorism. Those wars are conducted because drugs and terrorism are bad. (This may seem obvious, but historically both of these “wars” were knee-jerk reactions to crises – crack cocaine and 9/11 respectively. Before the crack-cocaine crisis, drugs were merely one evil amongst many, and before 9/11, few Americans had a clue what terrorism was, and indeed many even funded it – think IRA).

But the point is not whether or not drugs and terrorism are bad – I’m simply saying that what is bad is disputable because it is to some extent fashionable – but that, far from divorcing policy from values, Tillerson’s stance is a reinforcement of policy by values. Securing the nation means ridding it of drugs and terror for the very reason that drugs and terror are bad.

If this is the case, what Tillerson means is not that exporting values per se is bad, but rather that “freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated” can be sacrificed, but that the wars on drugs and terror can’t. In other words, negative values (preventing bad things – security) are more important than positive values (engendering good things – liberty).

This is a depressing approach. If freedom and human dignity are to be switched off as soon as drugs or terror are involved, the reason for keeping the nation secure is already lost. And I’m not the first to observe that, in the tide of history, those who sacrifice liberty to gain security end up with neither.


Exercise in a Pill

`Exercise pill’ could deliver benefits of fitness in tablet form says a headline in yesterday’s Guardian. It sounds like more of a threat than a promise. In the last few days, I’ve

  • Crewed on a yacht, juggling poles and sails on an under-crewed foredeck (and not done a very good job of it),
  • Been for a short, easy walk with friends,
  • With thanks to Derek Irwin for organizing it, and for the pictures, I’ve been for a long, tough hike through some stunning, inaccessible places in Hong Kong
  • DSC09909-1.JPG
  • Won my first literary prize (albeit in an impromptu competition with few entrants) for the haiku verse inspired by the above walk, and
  • Compounded the aches and pains from the above by doing another tough walk yesterday.

Here goes the haiku:

Mottled green moss

Under fast bubbling water

A dragonfly dies

for which I received a bottle of champagne which we drank.

Even with a certifiable nutcase in charge of the world’s biggest nuclear arsenal, life is still pretty damn good. And they can’t put that in a pill.


Panning for Gold

According to my sister’s book (yes, that was a plug), the 200,000 tonnes of rock that Kalgoorie’s Super Pit blows up every day yields three or four bars of gold. As each bar weighs 12.4 kg, that’s a yield of about 0.00002%. The Great Confusicator’s ratio of information to words must be about the same.

Trump’s recent AP interview is typical (and a very funny account of reading it is here). Set aside the self-aggrandizement, blaming Obama for everything, and the rambling asides about how he, alone of the previous five Republican presidents, beat the electoral college system (which is a, er, pre-requisite to becoming president), and what’s left are stock phrases – “Great guy, done some wonderful stuff” – “We’re gonna have a plan and it’s gonna be a great plan.” As we never get to learn what wonderful stuff the great guy has done, or what the plan is, the yield of information content thus far is zero.

However, buried in the drivel, this interview does contains two nuggets.

The first is the slow dawning on Trump that the US government “is thousands of times bigger than the biggest company in the world.” Well, duh-uh. As it happens, his numbers are wrong: at UDS3.46tn / year, the federal government is about one thousand times as big as the total probable worth of Trump’s own company, but it’s only about ten times as large as Exxon. And his related statement that the Department of Defense is the second-largest is plain bollocks: the economies of China, Japan, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, California and India are all larger than the DoD.

The second nugget is “you know the human life that’s involved.” We do. He apparently is new to the concept. More telling yet: “Well in business, you don’t necessarily need heart, whereas here, almost everything affects people. … Here, everything, pretty much everything you do in government, involves heart, whereas in business, most things don’t involve heart.” Having had this epiphany, he goes on: “In fact, in business you’re actually better off without it.”

I know of a large number of businesses that take a different view, but that single statement is probably the clearest summing up of Trump’s own way of doing business.

Now, to be fair, our new-found convert to the strange concept of “heart” goes on to say “You have to love people. And if you love people, such a big responsibility…” But do you notice something about the locution? Trump doesn’t say “I love people.” He doesn’t say “I have heart.” No, he says “You have to love…”, “you know that humans life’s involved,” “everything you do in government.”

So heart, after all, is for others, not for President Trump.

I’m sorry, delicate reader, but is more proof needed that President Trump’s not only an idiot, but also a cunt of the first order?

Another Promise Kept

So tweeted, according to the NY Times, Donald Trump Jr as the Motherfucker Of All Bombs was dropped – as if a single bomb and 40 casualties will end the quagmire in Afghanistan or ISIS, and as if 59 Tomohawk missiles specifically targeted at nothing will solve Syria’s intractable problems.

But the President, in his own eyes and I suppose those his supporters, has been keeping his promises. He’s put the Muslim Ban in place (that’s 1) and, when Gorsuch (2) is sworn in, will no doubt take it to the Supreme Court where, if the Republican majority votes with its politics instead of with the law it will be upheld.

Jeff Sessions is ploughing ahead, deporting illegal immigrants (3), Scott Priutt is dismembering the EPA (4), and although TrumpCare was an embarrassment, it meant a lot more to house Republicans than to Trump.

Tax reform is next. As Trump doesn’t do details, he’ll probably be able to claim success no matter what the house agrees, so let’s give him that one (5). And, at least in his own mind and that of his supporters, the Syrian and Afghanistan pyrotechnics will probably count as having made America Great (6). With the military games exercises happening off South Korea this week very likely to end up in a skirmish, which no one involved has the diplomatic skills to prevent developing into a war, that’ll be more Greatness (6), especially as the only outcome if China and Japan get involved is nuclear, thus ending the competition from China (7).

And, as I live in Hong Kong, I’ll be nuked with everyone else on this side of the planet, so that’s one fewer pesky blogger (8 – well, 7.0000000001).

It is difficult to be optimistic under such circumstances. But I am. Short of an all-out nuclear war – which is on the cards – all this exposes what we knew already, which is that the political system in America, while not quite broken, is in need of some serious running repairs. Perhaps a second constitutional congress is overdue?

But I am ultimately optimistic because Imperium Americum, which stopped being a force for good some time back, is coming to a rapid end. That creates a space for a new, and I hope better, world.

Faster than I Thought

You saw it here first a few posts ago, when I predicted that Trump’s madness, folly and incompetence would soon paint his administration into a corner from which war was the only escape. I didn’t think he’d manage it this fast. (However, if you scroll down today’s NY Times here and here and here and here – and that’s only today – which show an administration in tail-spin, perhaps it’s not surprising.)

Let me be clear: chemical weapons are horrid, and Assad deserves a special place in hell. But – after taking almost a week for Trump to move from indifference to moral outrage when the rest of us took about a micro-second – is a sudden, trigger-happy launch of ballistics the appropriate response? Would a phone-call to Trump’s and Assad’s mutual sponsor, Putin, not be a better start? Is there an endgame here, a vision of a Middle East after the Syrian civil war has ended? Is there a path towards peace in the region, a peace that includes Russia, Iran, Iraq and Israel as well as the umpteen factions that vie for political supremacy? Will bombing a few of Assad’s targets weaken his regime thus strengthening ISIS?

I do not know the answer to any of these questions. But, and although it’s early in the piece, there is no evidence that Trump or his administration do either.

The path to rapid escalation and ultimate nuclear conflict is very clear. The path to peace is not. The former has just taken a big step forwards.

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.