Sunday, January 21, 2018

Does Germany need a new party of the left?

The German SPD has made an initial agreement in exploratory talks for a new coalition government with Angela Merkel's CDU and the CSU. Such a new coalition would continue the current one, which resulted from the 2013 elections. The 2017 parliamentary elections were in October, but a new government has not yet been formed.

A continuation of the Grand Coalition (GroKo, as it's called for short) has been very controversial within the SPD. A party convention on Sunday approved the concept by a substantial but not overwhelming vote, 56% of the delegates supporting it. Although the convention also demanded further negotiations on the coalition pact. According to the analysis of Max Ferstl und Jasmin Siebert in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (Wie es nach dem Ja der Genossen weitergeht 21.01.2018), negotiating the new agreement will take at least another four weeks. And it has to be approved by an SPD convention again.

The party base has very good reasons to worry about the future of the SPD in a new edition of the GroKo. After the 2013 election, the three parties SPD, the Greens and the Left Party had enough parliamentary seats to form a majority for a red-red-green coalition. Merekel's CDU/CSU had the largest vote, so they got the first shot at trying to form a government. The SPD didn't even make a weak attempt to hold out for red-red-green. They were almost pathetically eager to become a junior partner in another GroKo headed by Merkel.

In 2017, the three parties didn't win enough seats together to even have a possibility of forming a red-red-green government. Merkel tried but failed to reach an agreement for a "Jamaica" coalition (CDU-CSU-Greens-FDP). So even after party leader and Chancellor candidate Martin Schultz initial rejection of any consideration of a new GroKo, he soon came around and reached an agreement which he and his supporters attempt to sell to the party base as including big improvements in the social-democratic direction. But the claim isn't entirely credible to voters. As ORF reports (Klare Haltung von Schulz 21.01.2018)
In den Umfragen rutschen die Sozialdemokraten unterdessen ab. So sieht etwa die überwiegende Mehrheit der Deutschen die SPD als Verliererin der Sondierungsgespräche mit der Union. Eine Umfrage des Meinungsforschungsinstituts YouGov im Auftrag der dpa ergab, dass nur neun Prozent der Auffassung sind, die SPD hätte sich durchgesetzt. 29 Prozent meinen dagegen: die CDU.

[Meanwhile, the Social Democrats have been slumping in the polls. So, for example, the overwhelming majority of the Germans see the SPD as the loser in the exploratory talks with the Union {CDU and CSU}. A poll by the opinion research institute YouGov for the dpa {news agency} showed that only 9% were of the opinion that the SPD had succeeded. 29% thought the opposite: the CDU.]
The low numbers on both sides in that poll are probably a reflection of that fact that the details of the initial agreement are "inside baseball," as American political commentators say. More seriously, the poll also found that in a new election, which would be the most likely result of a new failure to form a coalition over the next month, the SPD would get 3% less than they did in October.

The SPD is experiencing its own version of the crisis of social-democracy in Europe. The center-left was at a high point at the end of the 1990s. But at the same time, the European social-democrats started embracing the neoliberal gospel of reduction of government, deregulation, weaker unions and lower wages, and support for corporate-deregulation treaties staged as "trade" treaties. Once the center-left parties took major economic questions off the table for the neoliberal TINA (There Is No Alternative) position and the 2008 economic crisis hit, followed by the malfunction of the eurozone in the subsequent debt crises, a political crisis followed for social-democratic parties from Greece to Italy to France to Britain to elsewhere and, increasingly so now, in Germany.

Currently, that crisis for the SPD is manifesting itself in the low poll numbers, the deep divisions in the party over a new GroKo, and a new proposal from Left Party leaders Sahra Wagenknecht and Oskar Lafontaine for a Sammlungsbewegung (collective movement) on the left aimed at a new kind of unity movement or party for the left factions of the SPD and the Greens and (most of) the Left Party. ("Links Unten" Der Spiegel 4/2018 20.01.2018)

Albrecht von Lucke makes the case for the SPD agreeing to new GroKo in Die gärige Republik Blätter 1/2018. Essentially, he argues that being in government would give an SPD that was focused on building its image a chance to prove itself as a center-left party again by fighting for left ideas, programs, and positions. It's telling, though, that even in an article advocating for SPD participation in a GroKo, Von Lucke displays some pragmatic doubts about whether the SPD can actually pull that off. For instance, he notes that Martin Schultz has been blaming their participation in the current GroKo for the decline in the SPD's vote since 2013. Which raises the obvious question: what can voters expect different from the SPD in a new one?

He mentions that in the context of what even the Spiegel "Links Unten" piece flags as a critical turning point, the decision of Gerhard Schröder's red-green coalition to adopt his "Agenda 2010" program which included the now-infamous Hartz IV reforms, which have become a synonym for low wages, loss of union protection, and precious employment ("McJobs"). The Spiegel article gives it the obligatory praise for neoliberal dogma, saying that the "economic data" increased and "the number of unemployed sank." But:
... zugleich führten die Reformen zu einer massiven Ausweitung der Leiharbeit und erhöhten die Zahl der prekären Beschäftigungsverhältnisse.
Für Millionen Menschen, die sich einst von der Arbeiterpartei SPD beschützt gefühlt hatten, waren die Sozialdemokraten zu Verrätern geworden.

[... at the same time, the reforms led to a massive spread of temporary work and boosted the number of precarious employment situations. For millions of people who had once felt protected by the workers' party SPD, the Social Democrats had become traitors.]
This has been a widespread pattern for the center-left parties in Europe and in the United States, as well. Their traditional base was working class and "middle class," although that term is defining in various ways. When the center-left parties started adapting economic policies fundamentally similar to those of conservatives that resulted in increasing hardship and decreasing security for their traditional base voters. And they got hurt badly.

Nelson Lichtenstein gives an insightful description of how that process played out during the Clinton Administration in the US (A Fabulous Failure: Clinton's 1990s and the Origins of Our Times The American Prospect Winter 2018, currently behind subscription):
Many recall the 1990s as a moment of economic triumph with increasingly low unemployment, 4 percent annual economic growth, a booming stock market, even a balanced federal budget by the end of the millennium. Economists Alan Blinder and Janet Yellen called those years the "Fabulous Decade" in 2001, while a 2015 opinion piece in The New York Times bore the title "The Best Decade Ever? The 1990s, Obviously." Although the Republicans had seized control of Congress in 1994, it is worth remembering that Ronald Reagan's vice president, George H.W. Bush, took only 37 percent of the vote in 1992 while that stalwart Republican, Robert Dole, won just 40 percent in 1996. Politics were clearly in flux. The Clintons therefore had the historical moment to recast not just trade, investment, and health-care policies, but the regulations, norms, and expectations that would govern a post-Cold War version of U.S. capitalism.

Their failure to take advantage of these fortuitous circumstances doomed any effort to build a more equitable economy or a political order powerful enough to sustain a dominant liberalism, a failure Donald Trump would one day seize. [my emphasis]
The SPD currently faces a dilemma in which their previous base voters and many of the current ones was lost confidence in the party's willing to fight for their interests.

So, on the one hand, participating in another GroKo would give the SPD a chance to have direct effect on government policy and give them public prominence in the form of ministerial positions. On the other, in this political moment, the election results and opinion polls seem to indicate that the SPD needs reframe its image. Not only in terms of policy but in showing their willingness to fight. The latter didn't happen very much when the SPD headed the opposition to Merkel's government of 2009-2013. They had served as the junior partner in a Merkel-headed GroKo 2005-2009. During the interim, their leadership was apparently focused on a new opportunity to become Merkel's junior partner in government again. Thus, the lack of any pretense in 2013 that they were even interested in a possible red-red-green government.

Albrecht Müller discusses both the current GroKo dilemma and the idea of a left Sammlungsbewegung in Linke Sammlungsbewegung – eine Schnapsidee oder die richtige Konsequenz aus der erkennbaren Ausweglosigkeit? Nachdenkseiten 15.01.2018. He argues that in the former case, it would be a bad idea. But he thinks the latter is a good idea. Because, in his judgment, all three of the left parties look to have poor political prospects for the near future.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

A faithful journalistic fan of Angela Merkel discovers she plays cynical politics on refugees

Dirk Kurbjuweit of Der Spiegel has been embarrassing himself for years with his fawning coverage of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. See, for instance, my post of 08/05/2013, German siesta? Or neoliberal demobilization?

Now he seems to be actually surprised at the calculating and cold-hearted posture she is now displaying on the refugee issue: "Die Kanzlerin der Grimmigen" Der Spiegel 4:2018 20.1.2018 (print edition). Merkel had an intense year in 2015. After soundly defeating Greece's attempt to get out from under the absurd EU debt policies that were keep Greece in a state of severe depression, her image had take a hit. The cold, dogmatic, destructive stance she took in the Greek crisis had tarnished her reputation as a world leader.

Klaus Stuttmann captured this image of her in a cartoon of 28.06.2012 depicting her as Frau Fritz, a takeoff on a famous portrait of Frederick the Great, aka, Old Fritz:

Angie is saying in the caption, "Thrift, incorruptibility, efficiency and discipline: THAT's what Europe has to learn!!"

The refugee inflow to Europe has been a chronic crisis, as well, at least since 2011. But it hit an acute phase in 2015, when large numbers poured into Europe. Merkel and the EU had been handling the EU crisis according to her signature extend-and-pretend style, i.e., do enough to stave off immediate disaster but don't do the hard task of actually solving the problem. So in 2015, the EU countries were insufficiently prepared in emergency services. And, critically, they had not made long-term plans for burden-sharing among the EU countries.

Dirk Kurbjuweit has discovered in 2018 that Merkel displays "the arrogance of power." In 2015, she announced that Germany was taking a large number of refugees that year, which turned out to be around one million. She clearly thought that she could force her EU partners, who she sometimes seems to regard more as vassals, into taking significant quotas as the refugees. It doesn't speak well of the EU governments like France and Britain that failed to take what would arguably have been a fair share of them. But Merkel had momentarily solved the problem for them.

And she got a momentary bonanza in the short-term, transforming her image from that of Frau Fritz to the Compassionate Pastor's Daughter. A Spiegel cover that September featured her as Mother Theresa:


In that same Spiegel, (Der alte Kontinent 19.09.2015), Peter Müller succinctly described in inadequacy of extend-and-pretend on the refugee crisis:
Ähnlich wie in der Eurokrise die Währungsunion durch eine gemeinsame Finanzpolitik ergänzt werden muss, können Schengen und Dublin in Zukunft nur funktionieren, wenn die Europäer Asylstandards angleichen, sich auf einen festen Verteilungsschlüssel einigen und endlich damit beginnen, die Ursachen der Migration ernsthaft zu bekämpfen: Dazu gehören eine effektive Entwicklungshilfe, eine Klimapolitik, die ihren Namen verdient, und gemeinsame, legale Zuwanderungsmöglichkeiten. Fast alles Jahrhundertaufgaben.

"Zur Herausbildung einer europäischen Identität gibt es nur eine Alternative", schreibt Jürgen Habermas. "Der alte Kontinent verschwindet von der weltpolitischen Bühne." Der Philosoph hat recht. Aber die Flüchtlingskrise zeigt, wie weit der Weg noch ist.

[Similar to the way that, in the euro crisis, the currency union has to be widened with a common financial policy, the Schengen and Dublin [treaties on borders] can function in the future only if the Europeans equalize their asylum standards, come together on a firm allocation formula [for refugees], and finally start to seriously engage with the basic causes of migration. Included among them are effective developmental assistance, a climate policy that deserves the name, and common legal immigration possibilities. Almost all of them tasks of a century.

"To construct a European identity there is only one alternative," writes Jürgen Habermas. "The Old Continent will disappear from the world stage." The philosopher is right. But the refugee crisis shows how far the way still is.]
Since 2015, rightwing parties have exploited xenophobia to demagogue against foreigners and Muslims. Meanwhile, the Compassionate Pastor's daughter worked out an extend-and-pretend "solution" to contain the number of refugees from Africa and the Middle East. Literally to contain the refugees in overcrowded refugee camps in Turkey and Greece (!). In order to reduce the high-risk flights by sea from North Africa, the EU worked with what currently constitutes government in Libya to also establish refugee camps, or prisons, there. The stories coming out of there have been horrific, e.g., Emma Graham-Harrison, Migrants from west Africa being ‘sold in Libyan slave markets’ Guardian 04/10/2017.

Deutsche Welle reports in Outrage across Africa after report exposes slave trade in Libya USA Today 11/23/2017:
Politicians in Africa have expressed their outrage at the scandal — especially in West Africa where most African migrants originate. President of Niger Mahamadou Issoufou felt particularly revolted by the reports, summoning the Libyan ambassador to Niger and demanding the International Court of Justice investigate Libya for trading slaves.

Meanwhile the foreign minister of Burkina Faso, Alpha Barry, told the press that he had also summoned the Libyan ambassador to the capital Ouagadougou for consultations. The issue has since been added to the agenda of next week's African Union meeting in Ivory Coast, to take place on November 29 and 30.

The issue has made waves in the Ivory Coast itself — 155 Ivorian refugees, including 89 women and underage migrants, were returned from Libya to the Ivory Coast earlier this week as part of a reintegration initiative launched by the European Union. Representatives of the Ivorian government, however, said that the health of those migrants returned from Libya was in a "deplorable state."
As part of the coalition agreement among the CDU, SPD and CSU that at this writing may or may not result in a new Grand Coalition government headed bgy Merkel sets an annual "upper limit" of 220,000 per year on the number of refugees Germany will accept.

Dirk Kurbjuweit is very disappointed by this policy. "Sie ist Ausdruck einer scharfen Kurve in der Flüchtlingspolitik, von den offenen Grenzen zur harschen Abwehr." ("It is the expression of a sharp turn in refugee policy, from open borders to harsh rejection.")

That's true so far as it goes. But, as shown above, there were plenty of reasons prior to this to regard Merkel's refugee policy as more hard political calculation with a preference for extend-and-pretend measures than the vision of the Compassionate Pastor's Daughter ludicrously constructed by Merkel's admirers in 2015. Still, Kurbjuweit seems to be quite disturbed by this latest position:
Nun zeigt Deutschland ein grimmiges Gesicht, und die Bundeskanzlerin hat kein Land mehr. Das stört sie jedoch nicht. Sie sieht das alles inzwischen ohnehin ganz anders. [Now Germany is showing a grim face, and the Chancellor no longer has a country. Now she sees everything very differently anyway.]
He sounds downright heartbroken! "The Chancellor" that he admired as the Compassionate Pastor's Daughter has been abandoned by her unworthy country. And (sob!) even she sees things differently now! Heartbreak is sad.

He's also noticed that the family-values parties have gaps in their family values:
Ausgerechnet der Familiennachzug wird begrenzt, von den Oberfamilienparteien CDU und CSU, obwohl allen klar sein muss, dass Männer die besten Chancen auf eine Integration haben, wenn sie hier mit ihren Familien zusammenleben. [Precisely the family unification {for some immigrants} will be restricted by the supreme family parties CDU and CSU, even though it must be clear to everyone that men have the being chance of being integated if they are living together with their families here.]
I hope nobody tells Dirk Kurbjuweit that Donald Trump is a foul-mouthed, woman-hating racist. He might be shocked at that revelation, too. Golly, it never occurred to him that xenophobes don't actually give a s*** about their "family values" pretensions when it comes to immigrants they regard as subhuman enemies of good German white folks!

Snark aside, he actually has a good point when he observes that Merkel's embrace of the xenophobic agenda is actually a slap in the face to voters and especially to all the volunteers in Germany who stepped up to compensate for the inadequancies of Germany's and the EU's insufficient emergency preparedness in the 2015 situation:
Nicht nur Politiker haben die Flüchtlingspolitik des Jahres 2015 getragen. Das waren auch viele, viele Bürger. Sie haben dem Staat, der nicht gut vorbereitet war, geholfen, haben Flüchtlinge willkommen geheißen, unterstützt, bei sich zu Hause aufgenommen. Sie waren Akteure der Politik, und viele sind es immer noch, weil sie dabei helfen, Flüchtlinge in diese Gesellschaft zu integrieren.

[It was not only politicians who supported the refugee policy of the year 2015. There were also many, many citizens. They helped the government that was not well prepared, they called the refugees welcome, supported them by taking them into their homes. They were political actors {in doing so}, and there are still many, because they still are there to help refugees to integrate into this society.]
Kurbjuweit also recognizes that Merkel is helping xenophobes in the AfD (rightwing Alternative for Germany) party in promoting nationalist hatreds by not only adopting their framing of the refugee issue but also adopting policies in line with theirs:

An deren Land baut Merkel gerade mit, für deren Sicht auf die Lage macht sie Politik. Natürlich gab und gibt es enorme Probleme mit Flüchtlingen. Aber es gibt auch eine hysterische Sicht darauf, die wenig mit der Realität zu tun hat. Silvester 2015/16 in Köln war fürchterlich, doch die Jahre danach haben bewiesen, dass man solche Probleme in den Griff bekommen kann. Jede Vergewaltigung ist eine zu viel, aber Recherchen des SPIEGEL (Heft 2/2018) haben gezeigt, dass interessierte Kreise dazu falsch informieren, um Flüchtlinge zu diffamieren.

Merkel is building on their land with them {the AfD}, she is making policy with an eye on them. Of course, there are enormous problems with refugees. But there is also a hysterical view of them that has little to do with reality. New Year's Eve 2015-16 in Cologne {sexual assaults on women by foreigners} was horrible, but the years since have shown that such problems can be handled. Every rape is one too many, but research by SPIEGEL (issue 2:2018) has shown that interested circles provide false information on that in order to defame refugees.] (my emphasis)
Defining the Other as a criminal, dangerous, threatening collective is standard procedure for bigots and demagogues of all sorts. Anyone familiar with the history of lynch murder in the United States will know how big a role false accusations and hysteria over sexual assault played in the murder of so many African-Americans. Sadly, the example can be multiplied many times in other countries, as well.

It's worth noting that there have been reports in the mainstream press about Russian cyber-operations using rape propaganda in exactly that way in western Europe.

As we know from long experience, countering such propaganda, from Russia or from homegrown agitators or wherever, isn't easy. Many countries, maybe all of them, have a hard core of authoritarians who are eager to believe and spread such hysteria, whether they actually believe it or not. In one way or another, advocates of democracy and decency always have to struggle with that problem at some level of intensity.

Kurbjuweit may have been starry-eyed about how the Compassionate Pastor's Daughter has been handling the refugee crisis and immigration issues. He may not have noticed in 2015. But a highly skilled politician like Merkel surely knew that whatever genuine humantiarian motives she may have had for taking on such a large number of refugees into Germany in 2015, it also had the practical advantage of giving her international image a big boost after the throttling of Greece that year. And it did, she was right about that. It also gave her a potential tool to force other EU countries to take on quotas of refugees and institute a de facto allocation formula. But that didn't work out that way.

Those of us who never bought into the exaggerated Mother Angela image of 2015 are not nearly as surprised as Dirk Kurbjuweit at the recent turn of events. As his Spiegel colleague Peter Müller recognized even then, the EU wasn't even beginning to grapple with the real dimensions of the refugee issue. With politicians all over the EU posturing with cheap nationalism and promising the "secure the borders," that is still true in 2018. And if Turkey decides for its own political reasons to send its refugees on to Europe, how illusionary the close-the-borders blather is will become very apparent once again.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Trump foreign policy and the strategic position of the US

Alfred McCoy takes a snapshot of US foreign policy after a year of Donald Trump as President with a Secretary of State committed to a systematic dismantling of his own department in The World According to Trump TomDispatch 01/16/2018:
... American leaders have been on top of the world for so long that they no longer remember how they got there. Few among Washington’s foreign policy elite seem to fully grasp the complex system that made U.S. global power what it now is, particularly its all-important geopolitical foundations. As Trump travels the globe, tweeting and trashing away, he’s inadvertently showing us the essential structure of that power, the same way a devastating wildfire leaves the steel beams of a ruined building standing starkly above the smoking rubble.

The architecture of the world order that Washington built after World War II was not only formidable but, as Trump is teaching us almost daily, surprisingly fragile. At its core, that global system rested upon a delicate duality: an idealistic community of sovereign nations equal under the rule of international law joined tensely, even tenuously, to an American imperium grounded in the realpolitik of its military and economic power.
And he suggests that we could "think of this duality as the State Department versus the Pentagon."

In a real sense, US power has been on the decline since the end of the Second World War. The US ended the war in overall great shape, militarily and economically, despite the large number of American lives lost in the war. The USSR was also victorious and constituted a major opposing pole of political orientation and a fundamentally different economic system. But it has also been devastated in the war.

And the "bipolar" confrontation between the two systems continued to reduce the relative strength of the United States, especially after the victory of the Chinese Revolution in 1949.

Adherents of the "realist" perspective in foreign policy argue that among nations there is a continuing shifting in balances of power, with each nation calculating its moves based on its own national self-interest. Self-interest isn't a constant factor, nor a simple one, nor one that is independent of the judgments and ideologies of the decision-makers. But some things, like an adversary power building up military bases on the border, are elements that any decision-maker about foreign policy in a country would regard as a potentially threatening factor that had to be taken into full account.

The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union increased the relative strength of the US in the world system, because its largest competitor for world power had exited the historical stage. This gave rise to a triumphal attitude by American policymakers and politicians and, in the tendency that the realists recognized, led to arrogant and incautious actions. Prior to his death in 2005, the leading realist thinker, George Kennan, was warning that expanding NATO closer and closer to Russian borders would lead to offsetting reactions by Russia.

Ebbs and flows of influence will continue. But the longterm trend of US power and influence has been in decline since the end of World War II. That's not good or bad in itself. The British Empire fell apart after the Second World War, but Britain itself has remained one of the richest countries in the world and has basically only been involved in wars by its own choice, e.g., the Iraq War, the Libyan intervention. There are costs of various kinds to trying to maintain overwhelming military dominance in all parts of the world. Not least of which is the damage to democratic institutions and personal freedoms in the United States that comes from a condition of permanent war.

But it's one thing to pull back from overly costly or excessively risky commitments in other countries, military and otherwise. It's another to just blunder along without coherent or sensible political leadership McCoy:
If all great empires require skilled leadership at their epicenter to maintain what is always a fragile global equilibrium, then the Trump administration has failed spectacularly. As the State Department is eviscerated and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson discredited, Trump has -- uniquely for an American president -- taken sole control of foreign policy (with the generals he appointed to key civilian posts in tow).
McCoy gives this impressive list of examples of shifts occurring due to Trump's nationalistic "American First" policies:
All you have to do is note headlines in the daily media over the past year to grasp that Washington’s world dominion is crumbling, thanks to the sorts of cascading setbacks that often accompany imperial decline. Consider the first seven days of December, when the New York Times reported (without connecting the dots) that nation after nation was pulling away from Washington. First, there was Egypt, a country which had received $70 billion in U.S. aid over the previous 40 years and was now opening its military bases to Russian jet fighters; then, despite President Obama’s assiduous courtship of the country, Myanmar was evidently moving ever closer to Beijing; meanwhile, Australia, America’s stalwart ally for the last 100 years, was reported to be adapting its diplomacy, however reluctantly, to accommodate China’s increasingly dominant power in Asia; and finally, there was the foreign minister of Germany, that American bastion in Europe since 1945, pointing oh-so-publicly to a widening divide with Washington on key policy issues and insisting that clashes will be inevitable and relations “will never be the same.”

And that’s just to scratch the surface of one week’s news without even touching on the kinds of ruptures with allies regularly being ignited or emphasized by the president’s daily tweets. Just three examples from many will do: President Peña Nieto’s cancelation of a state visit after a tweet that Mexico had to pay for Trump’s prospective “big, fat, beautiful wall” on the border between the two countries; outrage from British leaders sparked by the president’s retweet of racist anti-Muslim videos posted on a Twitter account by the deputy leader of a neo-Nazi political group in that country, followed by his rebuke of British Prime Minister Theresa May for criticizing him over it; or his New Year’s Day blast accusing Pakistan of “nothing but lies & deceit” as a prelude to cutting off U.S. aid to that country. Considering all the diplomatic damage, you could say that Trump is tweeting while Rome burns.
Like many accounts of Trump's diplomacy, McCoy also points to the pullback from trade treaties like TPP also represents a ceding of diplomatic and strategic advantage to others, especially China in the case of TPP.

You don't have to think that TPP style "trade" treaties, which are primarily corporate deregulation treaties that have become an important tool to lock in Herbert Hooverish neoliberal economic policies, are good in themselves to also recognize that Trump's approach has been a one-sided yielding of diplmatic and strategic power. A more progressive approach to trade treaties would have the potential to restore some of that influence but on a basis that would benefit ordinary people more substantially. Obviously, that's not the approach Trump is taking.

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.