Saturday, July 20, 2019

Why painting Trump as a racist won't work

As Russiagate is losing more and more of its credibility the Democratic leadership in the US has found a new issue to demonize Trump: racism.

There can be little doubt that Trump is playing on the racist instinct of some people. But many politicians have done so in the past. Even much of the appeal of the capital punishment is based on racism.


Racism is a complex issue. Even many very liberal white people will initially be shocked when they find that their new neighbors are black or that their daughter is dating a black boy. Only after this initial shock their rational brain will take over and consider that there are good black people and bad white people too and that they shouldn't judge people just on the color of their skin. There are many psychological tests that explore this subject.

While this instinctual sentiment is repressed in much of society it has its refuges such as some birthday parties and some pubs. And there are people who just indulge their instincts wherever they are and who just the rest of society just has learned to live with. But such people marginalize themselves and aren't taken too seriously. Ku Klux Klan type open racists are rare nowadays.

More problematic nowadays is the more civilized type of person that shows lip service to the societal norms while at the same time he or she "understands" the racists worries. Mass incarceration was a recent symptom of this attitude.

Much of this happens unconscious. We are happy to see that specific guy incarcerated and we don't like that boyfriend of our daughter. But we never realize that if exactly the same guy had had a white instead of a black skin we would have judged differently.


Trump is primarily a bully: someone who shows his "strength" by humiliating other people. Of course people against whom other people have prejudices too are easy targets.

Trump is also very egocentric. His discrimination against black tenants and employees may well have business reasons. He might be able to charge more for an apartment when there are no black neighbors and black employees might deter some guests in his casino's and hotels. I am not sure whether this really works. But I can understand that he might reason this way.

Trump isn't a hard core racist. He doesn't have inner convictions that white people are superior and should be on top. I doubt whether he has any convictions whatever except for a greed for power, wealth and recognition. He is just playing on widespread sentiments.

Trump has an image as taboo breaker. So he can go further than most of us without losing the respect of society. But there are limits for him too and he knows them and respects them. This is the reason that I don't expect that this new Democratic campaign will have any effect. Of course one day he might make a miscalculation and go too far even for his supporters. But don't count on that.

Trump's racist exploits are harmful and disgusting. But it would be naive to assume that that will result in falling polls. There are too many examples from the past of politicians who thrived despite (or thanks to) similar behavior.

This doesn't mean that that the Democrats shouldn't criticize Trump for his statements. But they shouldn't pretend that these are the most important issues of the country. Other issues are much more important. By ignoring the issues that people really care about - as the Democrats have done too long because of Russiagate - they are actually strengthening Trump. 

Fighting Trump

Both Clinton and Obama were presidents of the opinion polls. Every measure they took was polled extensively. This worked for them in the sense that they won elections.

But ruling by the poll means ruling without a big vision. And that has consequences. One consequence was visible with Obamacare. The lack of vision meant that the project became vulnerable to demonization by the Republicans. And the multitude of interested parties caused complications that nearly got the project cancelled.

Another problem is that many people don't have an opinion about many subjects. In those cases both Clinton and Obama tended to listen to big business and other interest groups. And so the neocons got their wars and the finance sector its deregulation. And when the peanuts that those presidents gave to the common people were finished the big presents for the interest groups remained.

It may not appear in opinion polls because it is too abstract but people do notice that their interests are ignored in many cases. And it is the resulting discontent that has resulted in the election of Trump. For all his faults Trump is a man who at least suggests that he will ignore the special interests and listen to the common people.

In order to get the trust of the voters back the Democrats need once again to embrace ideas and visions. Unfortunately at the moment the party is held hostage by a leadership that is wedded to special interests. It preaches "moderation" but that is just a code word for maintaining the status quo and not rocking the boat.

This doesn't necessarily mean that Sanders and AOC are the future of the Democratic Party. They are so influential at the moment because they are the most visible ones offering an alternative vision. Since the last presidential elections the enthusiasm that Sanders raised has already caused a shift in the party towards more vision. Once the party leadership is changed this could turn in a real change of how the party works.

Some of the left wing program points - such as universal health care and free college - make sense. Other countries have similar things and that works well. Other points - such as the New Green Deal and abolishing ICE - are not only radical: they are also ill-considered. Every country in the world has some kind of immigration service - although most aren't as vile as the ICE. And the New Green Deal is a random package of proposals for environmental policy. But environmental policy is a matter of improvisation and experimentation. Ten years from now the New Green Deal will very likely look hopelessly outdated. The voters don't want or need this kind of ideological rigidity. They just want to be convinced that their politicians take those issues seriously.

No longer pandering to special interests will also mean a different way of fund raising. But as Sanders showed in the last elections: that is possible.

Vision is an abstract thing. It is not so much in the specific program points as in the way choices are made. It means politicians who see themselves as representatives of the people who voted for them instead of as political entrepreneurs who can win power with the rights mix of program points and marketing.

Campaigning on a vision will also decrease the polarization in American politics. An important reason for this polarization is that there are almost no real differences between the parties. Republicans have always had strong ties with special interests. That leaves both parties without ideals. So neither has something to profile itself on. Neither has good arguments against the other. And neither has real reasons to want power other than the benefits of power itself for the politicians involved. So instead both resort to demonization. Obama's birth certificate, the mendacious campaign against Obamacare, Russiagate and (the denunciation of) Trump's foul mouth and racism: what all these campaigns have in common is a distortion of reality and - most importantly - a lack of relevance for what voters really want. As both parties have wedded themselves to special interests they don't want to discuss real issues. So they keep alternating between bringing up phony issues (or marginal issues like toilet rights for transgenders) and just obstructing the other side.

Once the Democrats make this switch the appeal of Trump's behavior will diminish. Racism is feel-good policy. It can capture the attention of people only for a short time. Sooner or later they will realize that you cannot eat hatred and they will start to see Trump as a salesman of hot air. The trigger to such a realization is usually that another politician offers something real.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

How not to present Democratic campaign points

The recent campaign debates among the Democratic candidates for the primaries showed mainly how not to present proposals. The proposals seemed made for the East Coast elite, the Democratic Party leadership and the Liberal press. Everyone seemed to compete to win their favors. Not those of Joe Sixpack with a low income.

Let's look at some proposals:

Universal health insurance
What would work: you will pay less for the same service, you will have a wider choice of gp's and you no longer risk to lose your insurance when you are laid off.

Considerations: Setting such goals turns universal health insurance into a "means" instead of an end. It shows that you are open to other solutions as long as you can achieve your goals. That way it takes the dogmatic stigma away.

What would work: Illegal immigration is caused by a bad economy in some countries. We can do something about that. We can give them better conditions of trade. We can stop trying to overthrow their governments and instead focus on real cooperation.
But we should treat the people that do arrive decently - even when send them back. After all we are a decent country with strong values.

Considerations: America obviously cannot allow billions of people to enter the country. So don't make remarks that can be interpreted as such. Instead offer a solution that matches your values with the desired outcome of abetting the fear of being inundated by immigrants.
Of course many of the Democratic candidates won't do this because in their hearts they do want wars in other countries.

The environment
What would work: We need to do more to save energy. We need to do more to promote alternative sources. We need to do more to force the industry to become cleaner. And guess what: it will hardly cost us anything when we do it smart. A cleaner environment will make us healthier. And alternative energy is increasingly become cost effective.

Considerations: Environmental policies too often embrace fads that turn out badly. Biofuel, carbon tax, electric cars: there is an endless stream of proposals that turn out bad.

The New Green Deal is exactly the kind of formula that tries to lock people into defending such proposals.
In this area there are quite a few subjects on which there is almost universal agreement. Focus on those and don't waste your credibility on defending more controversial proposals. Even if you might personally agree with them it is just bad strategy.

Reparations for slavery
What would work: It is obvious that there are still remaining effects of slavery such as discrimination, segregation and low income. We need policies to address that. In some situations that can be positive discrimination. In other situations that can be the raising of aware that discrimination is taking place when for example a big corporation is all-white. And sometimes it can mean establishing services and building infrastructure that focus on predominantly black communities.

Considerations:There is no need for some study of the effects of slavery. Every can see them. And everyone can see how hard it has been to get rid of them.
Reparations won't fix anything. Suppose that you would give every black person 30,000 dollar - what in total would amount to one trillion. Then the black community will live better for a few years. And after that it will in mostly the same position. In fact worse as people will start to claim that they already have been compensated and that they have nothing to show for it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Bernie Sanders is not a populist

Populist translates as a politician who tells the people what they want to hear. Of course every politician tells people what they want to hear. You won't win elections by insulting your audience and telling them that you will increase taxes, raise the retirement age and offer nothing in return.

What discerns discerns populists in the usual definition from other politicians is opportunism. "Normal" politicians follow to a considerable extent their convictions. They may discard some of their more extreme beliefs as unfeasible and they may highlight the attractive parts of their plans while hiding the less attractive parts, but for the most part they follow their convictions.

Populists on the other hand have few fixed ideas about what they want to do. They will promise people whatever they want to hear. Only when they are in power will they bother to look how to implement their ideas. Many of their promises will vaporize at the moment they are chosen. As long as they deliver a few and organize good pr around it their supporters will be happy.

Trump is a typical populist. Very likely he wouldn't care about a wall at all if it wasn't so popular with his audience. His promises about infrastructure have long been forgotten. And his trade wars to protect America's industry have become a bit messy as he is shooting from the hip and has no idea what how such things work.

Sanders on the other hand has a clear idea what he wants. His ideas are not mainstream and if he might rise to power he certainly would encounter situations that he hadn't thought through. But his promises derive from his ideas about society and not from opportunism. So it would be wrong to call him a populist.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Trump can still win the next elections

It is striking how little has changed since the elections. The liberal press and most Democratic politicians are still talking about Trump in the same way: he is incompetent and outrageous, his tweets are ridiculous, he has no program and he is a friend of Russia.

In fact Trump has a program. In fact he was called a populist by many of the people who didn't like that program. They forget that "populist" means listening to the common people and telling them what they want to hear. Of course there can be an element of insincerity in this and many populists act very different from what they promised. But that still means that there was a program. Trump's program contains issues like immigration (for which he wants to build his wall) and America's decaying industries (for which he has started all his trade wars).

Of course you can argue that Trump's analysis of those problems and his solutions are wrong (I do think so). But that doesn't distract from the fact that as long as you don't provide an alternative solution Trump is the only one who has a solution for those problems. And that makes him an attractive candidate for many.

As for all those other points (Trump's incompetence, tweets and Russiagate), they are primarily tools to distract the public from the fact that those Democratic politicians don't have alternative solutions to the problems Trump addresses. But unfortunately for them only Trump's adversaries are impressed by those points. His supporters overwhelmingly see them for what they: efforts by people who don't have an argument to change the subject.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Globalization is a threat not an insurance

You hear it often: more trade means that we get to know each other better and that there is less chance that we start a war against each other. It is one of the main arguments in favor of free trade.

I have serious doubts about this. The first World War happened when the world was very integrated. And when the world resumed globalization after World War I it ended in the Depression of the 1930s - very much an economic war between countries. More recently we see Trump taking on China - despite huge trade ties.

The problems with trade are many:
- First of all there are the terms of trade: they are to be negotiated and that can make them quite arbitrary. Just look at the oil price to get the idea.
- A related problem is dependency: if you depend on other countries to produce certain goods for you they are in a position to blackmail you. The increasing use by the US of economic sanctions is a good example.
- The theory of relative advantage made sense in a time when most trade was about natural resources. But nowadays most trade is about industrial products. And you can place a factory everywhere. Nowadays free trade often means the advantage of the incumbent: they have the patents, the infrastructure, the skilled workers, etc. and it takes a lot of effort for a country that doesn't have that to build it up.
- Some sectors are seen as important strategically either because they are believed to be growth industries or because they are related to defense industries. If you want to be able to build tanks you better have some steel works.
- Finally there is the issue of perception. If there are problems and you are dependent on others, it is easy to blame those others. That was what we saw happening in the 1930s and that is what Trump is doing now. If the US would be self sufficient Trump wouldn't be able to blame other countries for America's economic problems.

Trade has two important functions: it allows poorer countries to catch up and it helps spreading technology. But I believe that outside that its benefits are limited.

Just imagine that the US would be self-sufficient. Trump would have nothing to complain about America's trade partners. A politician like him would be forced to focus on internal issues instead.

I believe that - when all things are equal - we should strive to localize production. It is a matter of giving people as much control over their life as possible.

The depressed president Trump

There has been lots of speculation about the psychological health of president Trump. Some Democrats would even like to impeach him as "unfit" for the job under the 25th amendment. There is even a book where 27 mental health experts discuss Trump and come with diagnoses like hedonistic, bully, sexual predator, narcissist, paranoia, sociopath and dementia. My take would be depression.

Did you ever see Trump enthusiastic? His voice is dark and monotonic. Even about becoming president he was ambivalent.

One property of depression is realism. When you ask in any organisation who is above average a wide majority will claim to believe they are - what is statistically impossible. Normal people see the world through rose tinted glasses and are often more optimistic than the facts justify. Under depression that falls away and people see reality in all its ugliness. It is that realism that enabled Trump to win the primaries and consequently the elections. He saw his adversaries in all their weaknesses and used that against them. It is also what the voters loved from him: he said things like they were.

The backside of realism is a kind of Machiavellian realism. Pretending to be better than you are works. So Trump shamelessly does so. Being demanding works too. It evades Trump that the world would be a living hell when everyone would behave that way.

Depression is often associated with a lack of energy. Trump spends much less time and effort on his job as his predecessors.

Depression is also linked to overuse of social media. Trump's addiction to Twitter certainly counts.

Depression makes on self-centered. That strengthens the narcissist tendencies that Trump already had.

Trump can be quite aggressive. That doesn't fit the image many people have of depression. However, irritability is a quite common symptom of depression.

Depression is often associated with feeling locked in by your own assumptions. Trump's conviction that the world is divided in winners and losers and that he should be a winner at any price is certainly the kind of conviction that can lock one in.

Is it good to have such a president? It depends on your view of the world. Many Republicans like it to see someone who says things like they are and acts accordingly. On the other hand: in the real world many things are quite complicated. It takes effort to understand them. And Trump isn't likely to put in that effort.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

What Obama forgot to do and why he was a weak president

In this post I will provide a list of policies that Obama should have done if he had followed really Democratic policies and hadn't sold out to the establishment. Like FDR he should have exposed the crimes of the rich and brought them to justice. Instead he chose for subtle policy changes.

- Obama could in 2008 have ordered investigations in the financial malversations and sent people to jail. He instead for some subtle rule changes accompanied by massive financial aid. As a consequence the financial industry is now more centralized than ever.
- Obama chose to ignore the Clinton Foundation - laying the foundation for the public acceptance of Trump troublesome financial past.
- Obama did nothing to punish the torturers of the Bush era. As a consequence the CIA is now headed by a torturer.
- Obama did nothing to address all the increasingly absurd voting suppression and district meandering schemes. He should have introduced a proposal for reform. He should also have used his position as a pulpit to expose abusive practices. And he should have done so in an explicit way, comparing some states with authoritarian regimes.
- Obama did nothing to reduce the influence of money on politics.
- Obama took some measures to stop government subsidies to fraudulent education institutes. He should have gone much further and prosecuted them as the frauds they were. If Trump had been prosecuted for his fraudulent "Trump University", (ex-)employees and students had been asked to testify and the premises of the institution had been searched for evidence Trump wouldn't be president now. Sure, given the dubious state of the judicial system this might not have resulted in a conviction - but that would only have been an excuse to campaign for stricter laws and against "judges" who are incapable of understanding that justice should be blind.
- Obama did nothing to attack the Koch Brothers. Wouldn't it be time to have a really good look at all the pollution that their companies cause? Sure, these guys can afford judicial fire power that will prolong procedures forever. But in the end the government is the strongest and it can make life very hard for them.
- Obama didn't abolish the Patriot Act.
- With Obamacare he did implement a reform, but only after endless foot dragging and compromising. He erroneously assumed that such an important law needed to be bi-partisan - forgetting that support from a majority of the population is at least as important. Few people understood how the law would work out and as a consequence the Republicans were able to demonize the law. So it was a big mistake to allow endless discussions. The correct strategy would have been to quickly launch a proposal and then to be open to amendments by the Republicans - but without allowing them to delay the introduction.

The consequences of the Obamacare debacle were far reaching. They cost him the midterms and they taught the Republicans that obstruction pays. And then we saw Obama carry on with executive orders. In fact he could have taken back the initiative by looking what the Republican Congressmen wanted. That would have broken Republican unity while helping Obama to look like someone who achieved things. But he never did so and his contact with Republicans was notoriously poor.

A special mention deserves Obama's relationship with Israel and - specially - Netanyahu. As a recent good analysis based on the new book from Ben Rhodes shows, Obama started with a rather balanced policy and then became gradually increasingly pro-Israel under pressure from Netanyahu and Israel lobby. I watched it happen with astonishment. Netanyahu is a classical bully. When you give in to him he will see that as weakness and he will push even harder. In that light I was astonished to see Obama react to Netanyahu's early transgressions with a huge financial support package for Israel. We saw the same thing later when Netanyahu insulted Obama by addressing Congress. Any skillful politician would have found a way to punish Netanyahu - for example by not vetoing some UN resolution or by giving some kind of support to his enemies. Obama did nothing. He kept silent and hoped that the complaints of his supporters would have any effect. But predictably the Congress and the American Jewish lobby became increasing aggressive for pro-Israel policies. Many of them just joined a winning team: what is the point of supporting Obama on a point where you know he won't achieve anything.

We see this same respect for power in many of his policies. He strengthened the secret services and went after journalists and people like Assange. The scene in Michael Moore's new film about the Flint water crisis where he sides completely with the authorities and abandons the people who have to drink polluted water is painful to watch. Despite being the most powerful man on earth he still felt the need to please authorities rather than the responsibility to use his power to make the world a better place.

Sure, the Obama administration did impose quite a lot of fines on companies. But those fines worked just like a cost of business. Companies became a bit more careful but the public expectations didn't change. Obama should have had something like the FDR's Pecora commission of the Senate that exposed financial malversations for the big public in the 1930s and greatly contributed to public support for financial reform. If you want change you shouldn't be shy to say what is wrong with the present situation.

As Rhodes remarks: he doesn't read much and obviously isn't an intellectual. And that made that - although he might sympathize with certain ideas - he didn't have the strength of conviction to make them reality. The vagueness of his ideas made him time and again hesitate.

But intellect isn't the most important thing. He could have hired someone and listened to him. The most important thing is leadership=strength=chutzpah=balls: the ability to go against the stream and win. And that was what Trump was showing. By making politically incorrect remarks and standing for them he showed that he wasn't a pushover. People want leadership and he offered signs of it. And although his actual program turned out to be quite different from what he promised he certainly hasn't been afraid to impose his will.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

What Soros did wrong

Recently the New York Times has a magazine article about George Soros. The title "George Soros Bet Big on Liberal Democracy. Now He Fears He Is Losing.". Of course the article mostly refers to Hungary and Poland, with also some reference to Trump. In this article I will explain why he is losing.

According to the article Soros' main intellectual inspirator was Popper from who he got the concept of the "open society". In this context Soros' Jewish identity is mentioned: he wants societies where Jews feel welcome. The big question is of course how you can achieve that.

For many people the melting pot of New York and London is the inspiration. You can meet there people from many ethnic groups living together without problems. I am not convinced. Such places are mainly for people in their 20s who haven't settled down. They usually don't have deep interests and ties. Such places aren't very attractive to raise a family: when people settle down they do it somewhere else.

Another point of inspiration are the "cosmopolitans": these are people like diplomats and businessmen working for big companies who move regularly from one country to the next. But these people form their own tribe. They tend to have their own schools and churches and to mainly form ties among each other. Sometimes they don't even move: the Eurocrats in Brussels are (in)famous for the extent to which they form their own tribe that looks down on their compatriots back home as "provincials". Cosmopolitans don't care about democracy. They just want what they see as "good government". And if they don't like what they see many will just move to another country.

Some people see the mono-ethnicity of many Western countries as the problem. Hitler happened in mono-ethnic Germany - not in the multi-ethnic Habsburg empire. And the Armenian genocide happened in mono-ethnic Turkey and not in its predecessor the Ottoman empire. I have met several influential Jews who openly stated that they are in favor of mass immigration because that would end the mono-ethnic character of my country and improve the position of the Jews.

But the facts don't support this position. Those multi-ethnic empires faced quite regularly ethnic uprisings - to which they often reacted very brutally. Sure, Jews were often treated quite well. But that was just because their dispersion and low social status guaranteed that they were no threat to the central government. Europe's most anti-Jewish country is Poland. Poland is now rather mono-ethnic, but before World War II there were many areas where Germans, Poles and Jews formed similarly sized segments of the population. It looks like multi-ethnicity is a source of friction while in a mono-ethnic state you at least know who is the boss. As part of a minority you may not always like that but at least you have peace.

What does work?
Real openness depends on mutual trust and respect. Yet Soros has done the opposite. In many of the formerly communist countries Soros supported the liberal parties while doing everything he could opposing conservative - often Christian-democratic - parties.

This was a gross violation of democracy. Democracy is something between the people of a country or a region. Outsiders should not interfere. They can be very harmful. It is not only that they can help shift the election results so much that a minority becomes the majority and can rule the country. Even more harmful is that they can poison the political discussion in a country.

Politics isn't black and white. You can support refugees and also respect the feelings of people who feel no longer at home in their own region because too may strangers with foreign habits are arriving. You can be an atheist and still respect people who are deeply religious. You can support free trade yet care about the fate of those who lose their jobs.

Sure, this means that you will need to make compromises. But isn't that at the core of democracy? But when you are a foreign outsider like Soros you don't hear what the other side says. And you force the party that you support to ignore it too. What of course blocks the local dialogue.

Now his puppets have started to lose. And instead of concluding that his approach was wrong Soros is doubling down. He now tries to employ the EU to do his bidding and force those countries to behave like he wishes.

It is just as stupid as the Democrats in the US who keep whining about Russian influence. Real politics starts with listening and a dialogue. Making noise about things that people don't care about will just annoy them.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The "influencing the elections" madness

So the Russians have influenced the US elections... Really?

The Russians operate one or more "alternative news" operations. But so do American groups. And it is not punishable as the US has freedom of press. So instead an obscure law forbidding foreigners to influence the elections was unearthed. Of course such a law is plainly ridiculous in the internet era. What about all those newspapers and bloggers who wrote what a horrible person Trump is? Shouldn't they be persecuted too? And all those non-Americans who posted something on Facebook - or just "liked" some post regarding Trump or Clinton?

Of course there is a fake news problem. See for example this issue about how a fake claim that one of the spokesmen of the children of the Florida high school were there was a shooting was an actor. But the main problem was that Youtube promoted it so much. But the problem here is not the fake news. It is that Youtube promotes is so much. As long as Youtube - and other social media - promote anything that catches eyeballs it will stay attractive for people to provide fake news.

In the meantime Western politicians have used the fake news issue to open the attack on the freedom of media. But actually it isn't about fake news. They recognize that themselves when they accuse the Russian campaign as polarizing the US. As anyone who follows censorship issues in dictatorships knows this is one the favorite arguments of dictators too for censorship. We may be losing our freedoms.