Archive for ‘November, 2016’

It is not about the monkey, it is about the machine.

datePosted on 17:13, November 24th, 2016 by Pablo

In the late 1980s I found myself sitting at a research institute in Rio de Janeiro pondering the sad fact that George H.W. Bush (aka Bush 41) had just been elected president. This was a guy who sat down the hall from Reagan’s desk and yet who claimed that he had seen nothing and heard nothing when it came to Iran-Contra and the drugs for guns schemes being run out of the Oval Office using Ollie North as the facilitator. With his having been a former CIA director, decorated WW2 pilot, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, US Representative, Ambassador to the UN and US envoy to China (before a US embassy was established in Beijing) as well as Vice President, I found it hard to believe that Bush 41 had no clue as to what was going on down the hall.

So there I sat in the Institute cafe, moping over my cafe com leite as I pondered another four years of Republican presidents. At that moment a Brazilian colleague showed up and asked me why I looked so sad. I told him. His face lit up in a big grin and he told me that to the contrary, I should be encouraged by the news. Given that he was a dyed in the wool Marxist scholar and activist who had suffered through the days of the US-backed dictatorship, I found his comment odd. When I asked why he believed so he said: “The US is the best country on earth! Here in Brazil we always look for one person to take us out of darkness and into civilisation. But in the US it does not matter if you have a monkey running the White House because the machine continues no matter what!”

That is why despite the gloom and doom occasioned by Donald Trump’s election as US president, there is a sliver lining in that cloud. It lies in the institutional edifice of the US State–that is, the complex of commonweal institutions, agencies, norms, rules, practices and procedures, plus those who administer them–which will serve as a restraining device on his most spurious instincts and largely dictate the limits of what he can and not do in the Oval Office. Mind you, I am not talking about the so-called “Deep State,” which I have trouble believing exists if for no other reason than it would have prevented Trump from assuming office one way or another. Instead, I am talking about is the conglomerate often referred to as the Federal Government, in all of its facets and permutations.

I have said publicly on repeated occasions that assuming the presidency is like putting on a straight jacket. When one takes the presidential office the entire weight of US history, good and bad, falls on one’s shoulders. This includes assurances, commitments, guarantees, obligations, promises, responsibilities, rewards and threats made in the past and occupying the present that may be possible to modify but which are hard to summarily rescind or revoke. Even in the latter case the process for withdrawing from established policy is generally slow and fraught with challenges, be they legal, political or diplomatic, and can elicit unintended or unforeseen consequences or responses (such as those occasioned by US troop withdrawals in Afghanistan and Iraq).

The presidency also inherits the entire edifice of governance–its rules, its mores, its  promotion schedules in a bureaucratic architecture that is huge and by design very compartmentalised and specialised in its legally allowable administration of policy. In fact, when freshly elected presidents attempt to  throw a cloak of campaign promises on an institutional apparatus that may or may not be disposed to following executive directives, the result may be bureaucratic resistance rather than supine compliance. When the president-elect campaigns on a promise of  “draining the swamp” that is the institutional nexus between public and private rent seeking, the stage is set for a confrontation between individual (presidential) will and institutional preservation. The odds do not favour the individual.

The idea that Trump is going to summarily dispense with assorted policies involving trade, security, immigration, domestic energy exploitation, press freedoms, civil rights and the like is wrong because he simply cannot unilaterally do so without challenge. Those challenges have already begun over his refusal to declare conflicts of interest with his business ventures and will continue across the gamut of his presidential endeavour. They will come from many sides, including from within his own party and congressional leadership. However grudgingly, he (or better said, his advisors) have begun the process of walking back most of his signature campaign promises, which may or may not emerge in modified form.  Even in areas where he is sticking to his guns–say, on withdrawing from the TPPA–the more likely outcome is that Congress will force a withdraw-and-renegotiate compromise rather than a full and final abandonment of it. As his mate Rudy Giuliani has explained, things are said in the heat of battle on the campaign trail that were never meant to be followed through on, and now is the time to bring America together. Given how divisive the campaign was, that will be a big ask.

Needless to say, that also makes those who voted for him look like a bunch of suckers.

The compromises being forced upon him are evident in the arguments about his senior level appointments. On the one hand naming Steve Bannon (of alt-Right/Breitbart fame) as Senior Counsel and Strategist has produced a wave of repudiation and calls for his dismissal because of his publicly expressed anti-Semitic, racist, misogynist and generally bigoted views. On the other hand, his consideration of Mitt Romney for Secretary of State has elected howls of disapproval from the likes of Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who was one of the first to endorse Trump after his own presidential bid failed, was rewarded for his troubles by being sacked as transition team leader on the orders of Trump’s son-in-law, whose father has been successfully convicted in the early 2000s by Christie during his days as a federal prosecutor (ostensibly because of Christie’s involvement in the so-called “Bridgegate” scandal). This has alienated many self-designated “pragmatic” Republicans who saw reason in Christie’s approach to governance and were willing to overlook his errors in judgement in backing Trump and pursuing personal vendettas while governor.

For his part, Giuliani stands to receive a important role in the Trump administration but interestingly, that role has yet to be announced in spite of Giuliani’s slavish boot-licking of the Orange One. This has led to speculation that he too is considered to have too much baggage to garner a cabinet-level prize such as Secretary of Homeland Security. What appointments have been made (Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, Mike Ryan as National Security Advisor, Betsy De Vos as Secretary of Education and Nikki Haley as UN Ambassador) have all met with wide-spread criticism on a variety of grounds (racism when it comes to Sessions, Islamophobia and mental instability when it comes to Ryan, and complete lack of relevant experience when it comes to De Vos and Haley). With 4000 political positions to fill, that makes for a a very fraught appointment process–and that is before the serious business of security vetting begins on pretty much all of them.

Whatever the provenance of the challenges, their conveyance will be institutional, be it from the courts, Congress or the federal bureaucracy. The latter is worth noting simply because translating policy initiatives into concrete action takes an institutional inclination (beyond capacity) to do so. As Ronald Reagan discovered when he tried to abolish the Department of Education, bureaucratic opposition, however self-serving it may be, is an excellent form of institutional constraint.

What this all points to is that not surprisingly, Trump’s presidency is off to a shaky start in spite of his desires and sometimes conciliatory rhetoric. That looks to continue well after his inauguration. Already there is talk of recounts, challenges and impeachment. So he may think, as he has said, that as president he has no conflicts of interest (in a reprise of Dick Nixon’s comment hat it is not illegal if the US president does it), or that he has a free hand when it comes to running the US government. But he is now learning just like Nixon that the hard facts of life in the Oval Office say otherwise.

The bottom line is this: no matter how strong the president may be at any given point in time and no matter the comparative weight of external events and presidential initiatives, the facts of life in the Oval Office are dictated by the institutional machine, not by the monkey that temporarily sits atop it.

Sailing aboard the SS Futility.

datePosted on 15:09, November 16th, 2016 by Pablo

The RNZN is celebrating its 75 anniversary through this upcoming weekend, with 18 foreign warships attending the events. There will be fleet review on Saturday and an open house on the ships on Sunday.  An exhibition of international naval history will be open throughout the week on the Auckland waterfront.

For the first time in three decades the US is sending a warship to NZ waters as part of the event. In doing so the US acknowledges and accepts NZ’s non-nuclear stance and the NZ government confirms that it can verify that the ship is non-nuclear propelled and armed via independent means (and quiet diplomacy). The ship in question is the USS Sampson, an Arleigh Burke class destroyer. Other nuclear powers represented at the celebration are China and India (and France and UK in lesser capacity), as well as a host of regional navies including Australia, Indonesia, Japan and several Pacific Island states. Ships from Singapore, South Korea and Canada will also participate.

The NZ Defense Industry Association is running its annual Forum concurrently with the RNZN celebrations. It gives NZ defense-oriented businesses an opportunity to take advantage of the presence of foreign military commanders in order to hawk their wares as well as exploit the opportunities provided by the NZ$20 billion in capability upgrades announced by the MoD/NZDF for the next fifteen years. Needless say, the combination of events has elicited opposition from a variety of groups.

Protestors have already blocked the venue of the defense industry meetings and more protests are scheduled for the next four days, including a flotilla on Saturday when the fleet will be on review in the Waitemata Harbour. Interestingly, some moron posing as a National MP suggested that the Terrorism Supression Act be amended to include protest flotillas as “terrorists” because they might terrorise the crews of the warships by accidentally getting run over by them. So much for intelligent representation but who knows, maybe someone at the defense industry Forum will have a marketable idea about non-lethal anti-dinghy defences that are designed to deal with such contingencies.

There seems to be several different elements in the protests. There are pacifists who are against the presence of warships of any sort as well as those who profit from the misery of war. There are those who are against the so-called “death merchants” but who do not necessarily object to naval forces (perhaps seeing them as a necessary evil). There are those who are anti-nuclear. There are those who are anti-imperialist. There are those who support indigenous sovereignty. There are those who are anti-American. There is some overlap between these factions but the core appears to be focused on two things: the defense industry Forum and the presence of the USS Sampson as symbolic of conjoined war-mongering evils.

Although one can not really argue against being opposed to “death merchants,” the reality is that like the tip of an iceberg, weapons manufacturers are a relatively small percentage of those exhibiting at the Forum (although major weapons providers like Lockheed Martin are major sponsors of it). Most of the NZ defense industry are logistics and support providers who often also have civilian branches to their businesses (for example, drone manufacturers, navigational technology suppliers and search and rescue equipment providers). At worst, one might consider them “enablers” rather than direct purveyors of instruments of death. Be that as it may, it is understandable why pacifists are opposed to the Forum. Simplistic, naive and righteous, but understandable.

The issue of the warships is a bit more complex. Although there are plenty of pacifists who are opposed to the entire notion of celebrating naval forces, many of the protestors appear to be more focused on protesting the presence of a US warship. This includes some of the ostensibly anti-nuclear types, who seem to have given a pass to the Chinese and Indians while focusing on the US boat. The same is true of the anti-imperialist crowd, who also are concentrating their attentions of the USS Sampson but seem unconcerned about the neo-imperialist ventures of other countries represented, to say nothing of the unhappy histories of places like Indonesia or Chile (whose visiting training ship Esmeralda was used as a prison for political prisoners during the Pinochet era). So that basically means that much of the protesters are anti-American more than anything else.

That stance has been made a bit harder to justify now that the USS Sampson has been diverted to do earthquake relief duties in Kaikura. After all, it is hard not to look silly when the focus of your protests is on a ship that is involved in humanitarian relief operations on your home soil and yet you ignore the authoritarian and often repressive histories of other countries represented in the visiting fleet. This is particularly true if the crowds at the naval expo, watching the fleet review and waiting to board the ships on open house day are larger than the number of demonstrators. Clearly they are not getting the message the protestors want to impart on them.

So the question is: what is the point of the protests?

If the answer is to support pacifism in its opposition to anything connected to war regardless of the ancillary civilian benefits of naval power such as disaster relief and regardless of public attitudes towards the military, then so be it. But if the answer is to selectively protest against the US and defense industry regardless of circumstance, well, that seems to be more of a futile gesture than a public education action.

The last thing the NZ Left needs to be seen as is silly and futile.

What a bummer.

datePosted on 13:02, November 13th, 2016 by Pablo

Well, THAT sucked. Myself and a zillion other pundits got the US election wrong. In fact, pretty much everyone with a Ph.D. in Political Science got it wrong as well as most veteran political journalists. The reasons are many but the moral of the story is that so-called experts armed with reams of data still cannot accurately predict the mood of an electorate that may lie to pollsters or remain undecided until election day. “Experts” like empirical data and believe in reasoned voting choices when studying well established liberal democracies, so are ill-equipped to comprehend seemingly irrational voting behaviour based on raw emotion, visceral reaction and religious belief in the false promises of demagogues. The anecdotal evidence was there from Trump’s rallies and the bluebonnet fields of Trump/Pence signs on suburban lawns. But those of us with advanced degrees and years of studying politics ignored it in favour of quasi-scientific methodologies that provided a numbers crunch to our opinions. We saw what we wanted to see rather than what was.

There is no point in trying to do a post-mortem on what happened. Plenty of others are doing so. I did find it interesting that Trump received less votes than Romney and McCain in the 2012 and 2008 elections, respectively, and that 6 million less people voted this year than in 2012 and 10 million less than in 2008. In fact, nearly 47 percent of the electorate did not vote, giving Clinton (as the majority vote getter) and Trump around 25.7-25.5 percent of the popular vote overall. The bottom line is that the absent voters, presumably those who would have voted Democratic but could not bring themselves to vote for Clinton, decided the outcome by staying home.

As for those who decry the Electoral College because this is the second time in 16 years that a Democrat wins the general vote but loses the presidential election in the Electoral College: tough luck. Hillary played the Electoral College game, focusing on so-called battleground states and apparently neglecting those states considered solid Democrat such as Michigan and Wisconsin. Since the base of that presumed solidity was the rust belt white working class that Trump targeted preferentially, that was clearly a mistake (both Michigan and Wisconsin went to Trump).

Much has been made about the class angle to the election but I also think that we should not forget Trump’s idealogical appeal–the xenophobic scapegoating, the racism, the bigotry, the misogyny posing as anti-PC righteousness. Perhaps not all of his supporters are closet Klansman, but it is clear that to many in the white working and middle classes that aspect of Trump’s ideological appeal resonated strongly. The intersection of class and exclusionary ideological appeal was found in grievance and fear, and that grievance and fear transcended employment concerns. Make of it what you will.

The vaunted female and Latino vote against Trump never materialised. In fact, the defensive voting surge that I repeatedly predicted would happen never did. Instead, it seems that people just stayed at home thinking that, given the polls, others would do the job for them. Even so, had those under the age of 35 been the only voters, Hillary would have won walking away. So the future holds some promise when it comes to progressive change, but for the meantime things could get worse and, if acts of hatred and protests are anything to go by, that has already started.

For those who think that Bernie Sanders would have done better against Trump, I say think again. That is because primary campaigns are run in parallel while looking at each other. Had Bernie emerged as the Democratic nominee Trump would not have won the Republican nomination. The GOP would have made a negative issue of Sander’s “outsider” status and marginalised the outsider on its side. Money would have poured into backing a more establishment figure who could take Sanders to task for his “socialism” and his vague and unrealistic policy prescriptions. Sanders would find it hard to counter the false accusations about his supposed communist leanings because the Democratic establishment would not have backed him as strongly as it did Clinton. He may also have failed to transfer the energy of his primary supporters into sustainable support from swing voters on the campaign trail as many undecided and independent voters would react fearfully to the dark accusations of what his ideological orientation would bring for the US.

Whatever the case, this is all idle speculation. We got the matchup that we got and for most of us Hillary was a safe bet even if we had to hold our noses when voting for her (and again, I flatly reject the notion that she somehow is “worse” or more corrupt than any other contemporary politician. If people believe that they need to look at who funds the Bush Foundation and the campaign coffers of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell).

My hopes now hinge on two things: 1) that once in office Trump will find his freedom of action circumscribed by the practical, legal, institutional and political realities surrounding him. This will force him to abandon or renege on many of his more outrageous campaign promises, which in turn will disappoint many of those who have vested their hopes in him but will mitigate against some of the more onerous consequences of what he could have done; and 2) that his lack of political experience and commitment to Republican principles and policies (remember that he only switched from Democrat to Republican in 2010) will lead to a serious clash with the GOP congressional leadership. That could hurt the GOP in the 2018 elections where all of the House and a third of the Senate will be up for (re) election as well as his re-election bid two years later.

Be that as it may, these are dark times for people such as myself. The Right may gloat and think that they now rule supreme (and we have had a couple of such folk appear here on KP), but I have a feeling that Trump’s victory is a crest of a wave or the last stand of the American Right. Neither demographics or policy orientation appear to favour the GOP and alt-Right over the long-term, so perhaps this is their last moment to shine.

I sure hope so.

Meanwhile, I thnnk I will have a cup of tea and a lie down.

Social origins of the Politically Absurd.

datePosted on 09:35, November 8th, 2016 by Pablo

The 2016 US presidential election is a an existential crisis of American society politically manifest as a theatre of the absurd. The story line revolves around a clash of visions over what constitutes the preferred America. On one side is what could be called the “old” vision. The vision is “old” not only because it harks to so-called traditional values rooted in nostalgic reimagining of the 1950s, but because those who most ardently adhere to it are lower educated whites aged 45 and over who are or were employed in blue collar, service sector and small business occupations.

This vision privileges the dominance of white heterosexual christian male values. It is both laissez faire and  economically nationalist in orientation, patriarchal and socially insular in perspective, wary of “outsiders,” and believes in a natural order where rules are made to be obeyed without question. It prizes conformity and stability and respect for authority.

On the other side is a “new” vision. This vision is “new” because it is multiracial, multicultural, heteroreligious and secular, plurisexual, post-feminist, economically internationalist, global in orientation and polyarchical when it comes to power distribution, legitimate authority and social hierarchy.

In reality the two visions bleed into each other in specific instances to form a hybrid social orientation in many groups that is not as dichotomous or binary as it otherwise might be. I say “bleed” rather than “blend” into each other because the overlap and cross-fertilisation between the two social perspectives is not uniform or universally applied: Mexican American IT specialists may enjoy rap as much as Norteno music while dutifully practicing their Catholic faith and adhering to its moral codes, while middle aged white professionals  can find identity in the mores and practices of non-traditional cultures and religions while engaging in post-modern leisure pursuits.

The battle between the old and new perspectives began in the 2008 presidential election when a representative of the “new” vision, Barak Obama, took on an old white man, John McCain, for the highest office in the land. That continued in 2012 when Obama confronted another old white man, Mitt Romney, in his re-election bid. It continues today in the form of another “new” candidate, Hillary Clinton, facing yet another old white man, Donald Trump. Clinton may not be the archetypical “new” candidate as described above, but the mere fact that she is female is a break from the traditional mould.

For his part, Trump represents a grotesque caricature of the traditional alpha male, and in the absurdity of his candidacy lies the last gasps of a dying culture. In his sociopathic narcissism, his sexually predatory behaviour, his racism, bigotry and xenophobia, his abject greed, his pathological lying, his thin-skinned obsession with revenge, his insensitivity to others, his ignorance of basic economic, political, military and diplomatic facts, and in his adolescent resort to crude insults and derision as a weapon of last resort, Trump is the antithesis of the self-made, strong and independent straight-talking man on horseback. And yet, because he acts as if he were and the GOP and conservative media enabled his deception, those who embrace the “old” vision see in him a saviour. But they are wrong, for what he is to them and the culture that they cling to is an angel of death.

That culture is dying because over 45 year old lower educated whites have the highest rates of suicide, alcoholism and opiod addiction in the US, so they are quite literally leaving the mortal coil at higher rates than everyone else. That is not a demographic on which to base a presidential campaign and yet Trump and the GOP have dog whistled, incited, pandered and courted it as these people will live forever or at least until the mythical past can become the future once again.

The “old” vision will lose this election but it will not be its death rattle. Its adherents will fight against the king tide of social change with  the fervour of a drowning man, and some of them will become violent. The obstructionists in the GOP will do everything in their power to undermine the Clinton presidency, and they will front another “old” visionary in the 2020 presidential campaign. But regardless of what they do and how much they resist, the hard fact is that demographic, socio-economic and cultural change are irresistible forces that work against them.

They are doomed and within a generation they will be gone.

Note: I write this the day before the election simply to give my brief read on the broader context that explains why Clinton will win. Depending on how poorly the GOP does in the House and Senate races, the bloodletting within the Republican camp could be epic. That will be fun to watch.

What Domestic Terrorism Threat?

datePosted on 15:44, November 5th, 2016 by Pablo

Last week the government released its National Security System Handbook.  The NSS is a national emergency response system headed by a committee chaired by the Prime Minister that is convened to address serious threats to the security of New Zealand and New Zealanders. It includes officials from various security and intelligence agencies as well as others where and when pertinent depending on the nature of the risk event.

On page 24 of the document examples of events that triggered convening of the NSS are given. Included among them are the 1080 milk powder poison threat, potential consequences of Ebola and Zika outbreaks, the 2010 and 2011 Christchurh earthquakes and the 2011 Rena maritime disaster. Nestled among these and listed separately is the line “(t)hreat of a domestic terrorism incident.” While the other examples are all a matter of pubic record, the domestic terrorism threat is not.

The government refuses to release details of this domestic terrorism threat. That is disappointing for several reasons.

Two years ago the government raised the terrorism threat warning level from “very low” to “low,” citing the international threat environment in which New Zealand is located. Given that the NSS Handbook has been in existence for only two years, the domestic terrorism threat mentioned in the NSS Handbook could have  happened after the threat warning level was raised. But even if it occurred before the Handbook was written, this was supposedly a concrete terrorism threat on New Zealand soil, not something of a general nature, so it is curious that the threat level was not raised to “moderate” or “medium” given the possibility of larger networks involved, existence of copy cats or emulators, or of other plots in the making (simply because it would be hard to predict that the threat in questions was a one-off). Again, this was supposedly a real threat–presumably a physical plot of some sort–rather than social media ranting or otherwise hollow venting by some disgruntled nutter.

As far as I can tell, no one has been arrested, charged, tried or convicted of a domestic terrorism plot in recent years. A couple of individuals were jailed this year for possessing offensive materials in the form of violent jihadist videos, but they were not charged with terrorism offences and were unlikely to require an NSS meeting in response to them. The same is true for the wanna-be jihadists who were prevented from traveling to the Middle East to join Daesh–there would be no need for an NSS meeting over a matter of passport control. There have been a few individuals who have pledged loyalty and support for Daesh on social media, but that does not rise to the level of threat required to trigger convening the NSS. The Urewera case does not seem to apply because both the 5th Labour government and the current National government maintain that its was solely a Police operation that resulted in no terrorism charges being laid.

A domestic terrorism threat of a magnitude that requires triggering of NSS protocols would not involve cyber-esionage, crime or warfare. It would be something that was real and imminent, or at least in the process of becoming so.

Thus the questions beg: If this domestic terrorism threat was real, what became of it? Was it thwarted? What became of the suspect(s)? Did the authorities act so early that they could not obtain evidence that could justify laying charges in court? Are those suspects still in the country or were they passing through? If the suspects are still in the country, are they moving about freely or is there some form of monitoring of them? Should not the public be advised of their presence?

The last point matters because one would think that the government could use this domestic terrorism threat to reinforce and justify its attempts to expand the powers of search and surveillance in various security related Acts. It would reassure the public of the need for more vigilance as well as the competence of the State when it comes to detecting and thwarting terrorist plots.

One can fully understand that the intelligence community would be reluctant to reveal the sources and methods by which this threat was detected and responded to. But surely some detail could be provided that does not compromise the intelligence gathering process but which could point to the specifics of the threat. Unless New Zealand uses secret terrorism courts or is involved in black site or rendition programs, it should not be too difficult for the government to provide a public summary of the facts surrounding the case listed as an example in the NSS Handbook.

Otherwise, the government leaves itself open to skepticism on that particular claim.