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  • A society without money

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    In this post, we explored what money is. Short version, money is a sign that the holder of it is owed favors. But what if you had a society that didn't have money?

    Money is an ancient institution, Standardized coinage goes back almost 3,000 years, commodity money, representing a given weight of a commodity such as copper, further than that. But most people living in ancient civilizations never saw money. Most were peasants who paid their taxes in commodities and labor, or slave who labored without pay and we given what little they had by their masters, or serfs who were in some cases little better off than slaves.

    Some societies, such as the Inca civilization, had no money system at all. The Inca had a centralized system of government, and people worked for the government and were given what they needed by the government. Ancient Egyptians paid their taxes in grain and labor. While we use money to track almost all of our economic obligations, these societies kept track of peoples' obligations largely without the use of money.

    The problem is, if you don't have money, you have to keep track of peoples' obligations somehow, and that's easiest to do by defining their obligation very rigidly. If you were an Inca, you labored, and all you produced went to the state, and all you got back came from the state. If you were an Egyptian, you labored on land surveyed by the priests, your obligation depended on your relationship with the state, in time of famine you looked to the state for sustenance, and when the country needed a new pyramid, you got in the harvest, then worked on the pyramid.

    There wasn't a lot of freedom in a society like this, because freedom made it hard to know what your obligations were, whether you had met them, and what was owed to you. It was just simpler to have a regimented society in which you were told what to do.

    Perhaps most people in these societies liked it that way. They had a place in the world, and they didn't need to go through the business of inventing themselves.

    But then, the world started changing too fast for this system to thrive. The late bronze age collapse started about 1200 BCE, and the first standardized coinage showed up on the Anatolian Peninsula about 600 BCE. Instead of the unchanging life promised by the Egyptian Old Kingdom, the kingdom of Lydia, which occupied most of what is now Turkey, arose during the chaos of the late bronze age collapse as one of the new iron age kingdoms. The Lydians needed a system that worked better than barter and could deal with shocks better than the system of bondage to the land that Egypt used.

    Trade goods such as grain or copper are not ideal media of exchange, although their use is sometimes referred to as 'commodity money.' We see something similar in prisons, where tins of tuna or packs of cigarettes have been used as media of exchange. Real money is a much more abstract, and has not got the value for use that a bushel of grain or a tin of tuna has. Eating hundred dollar bills might be extravagant, but it would hardly be nutritious.

    Using coinage allowed for a much more flexible system, in which trade could follow whatever patterns the current harvest suggested was best, and a stranger could do business in a new town without building the kind of relationship the Egyptians had to their god-king and his representatives.

    It also made it a lot easier to cheat. Pirates who stole grain could eat, but pirates who stole money could have whatever they wanted. Instead of conning people for a meal, you could con them for enough money to buy many meals.

    Institutions had to adapt. The rule of law had once dealt mainly with stolen animals and such, now it had to deal with new ways of stealing the more abstract thing that was money. Some even said money was the root of all evil.

    That saying gives too little credit to the inventiveness of the ancients, who I'm sure found plenty of ways of being evil before money came along. Human beings have never been angels.

    The evil of concentrated wealth and power was as much a part of the pre-money civilizations as of those that used money. In fact, without the regimented systems many of these civilizations employed, and the centralized power of the god-king, it would have been impossible to have a large civilization.

    So, let's count our blessings. And our money. The concentration of power and wealth that we decry is as old as civilization, and much, much older than the humble coin.

  • The deep state and democratic institutions

    The Drawbridge, from Imaginary Prisons, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, John MacBeath Watkins

    Does a 'deep state' threaten a republic, or actually strengthen it?

    One of the complaints of Trump supporters is that the deep state -- a sort of Praetorian Guard that controls who will rule and how -- has frustrated Donald Trump's efforts to remake American government.

    This is a fascinating claim. The Praetorian Guard was an elite corps of the Roman army tasked with protecting the emperor. Over the centuries, their power increased, to the point where they were either killing emperors and naming their successors (Caligula, dead, Claudius, emperor) or signalling their support for who would rule after an emperor died (Claudius poisoned, Nero supported for emperor.)

    But these were not bureaucrats, nor were they equivalent to the lightly-armed Secret Service. In the reign of Tiberius, there were nine cohorts of 4,500 soldiers each in the Praetorian Guard, three of them stationed in Rome and the others nearby.

    The deep state of our time is supposed to be the staff of the U.S. government, whether in the Justice Department, State Department, or intelligence services. The idea is that they may lack loyalty to the president.

    One problem with this is that we are a country ruled by laws, carried out by our elected and career government, not a nation ruled by the will of a leader. John Locke, whose writing inspired many of the ideas for the American experiment, said that if the people cannot rid themselves of an oppressive and arbitrary ruler by any other means, they had a right to revolution.

    So, our founding fathers decided we needed a republic, which would be governed at the highest levels by people who could be voted out of office.

    But if a new regime is to take over, how is it to govern? Won't the personnel of the old regime frustrate the new?

    The first answer to this was the spoils system, which allowed each new government to replace large numbers of government workers with people chosen for their loyalty, rather than their skills.

    The result was powerful political machines with the ability to reward or punish people according to their loyalty, and a great deal of corruption.

    In the late 19th century, the progressive movement started changing this. Their idea was that they could eliminate much of the power and the corruption of political machines by replacing the political hacks with professionals chosen for their skills, and protect those professionals from the corrupting influences of political machines by ensuring they could not be arbitrarily fired.

    This was in keeping with the concept of the Constitution. Article VI of the Constitution includes this language:
    The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.Note that these officials do not swear to support the president. This is the current federal oath of office:
    I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.Donald Trump is reportedly upset that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the investigation of Trump's campaign, and blew his top over the issue, saying that he "needed his Attorney General to protect him."

    But Sessions -- and for that matter, Trump -- took an oath to protect the constitution against enemies foreign and domestic. This means that if even the president becomes an enemy of the constitution, his attorney general (and, paradoxically, the president himself) is obligated to defend the constitution from him.

    The U.S. Constitution lays out a system of government designed to work, within a set of parameters, for successive governments chosen by the electorate. For that system to work, it has to be a professional government that can work for whichever people get elected.

    But this is not how Donald Trump conducts business. He demands absolute loyalty of those around him, and has always relied on his lawyers to clean up any messes he may have with the law. Right now, his main fixer, Michael Cohen, is in trouble for the way he went about cleaning up those messes.

    You can run a business this way, especially a small family firm without the reporting or legal requirements of a publicly held corporation. As a system of government, the Germans had a word for it: fuhrerprinzip, usually translated as the leader principle. Under that system, at each level of government, the person in charge has total control, and that person's will overrides any written law. The person at the top of the hierarchy is the Fuhrer, whose will overrides any written law and any orders by subordinates.

    President Trump, with his admiration for dictators, has shown a preference for the leader principle. Now, the proper control on this behavior is not the democratic norms embedded in the professional standards of the civil service, which has no role described in the constitution for constraining the authoritarian ambitions of a president. The proper control is congress, which passes the laws the executive is charged with putting into action and has the power to remove the president.

    There's a problem with that. Not only are most Republican legislators scared of the power Trump holds over the Republican base electorate, many of them agree with his anti-democratic instincts.

    From a Sam Tanenhaus article in the July, 2017 issue of The Atlantic:
    (Economist James McGill) Buchanan's theory found another useful ally in the budget-slasher and would-be government-shrinker David Stockman, who idolized Hayek and declared that "politicians were wrecking American capitalism." But Stockman also discovered that restoring capitalism to a purer condition would mean declaring war on "Social Security recipients, veterans, farmers, educators, state and local officials, the housing industry." What president was going to do that? Certainly not Reagan. As Stockman reflected, "The democracy had defeated the doctrine."Tanenhaus was writing about Nancy MacLean's book, Democracy in Chains, which explores the influence of Buchanan's public choice theory on American politics. Essentially, the argument is that when it appeared that democracy was a threat to the pure form of capitalism Buchanan favored, his doctrine said that the value system of capitalism should be the one to triumph.

    If democracy defeated the doctrine, the solution was to defeat democracy.

    We live in a democratic republic. Republics can be undemocratic: The Roman Senate operated more like the English House of Lords than the House of Commons. America's founders thought the best way to have a peaceful and well-governed country was to have its leaders democratically elected, so that if they governed poorly, they could be peacefully replaced.

    Over time, we have recognized the humanity of groups like women and former slaves and their descendants by granting them the vote. Rousseau defined freedom as living under a law of your own making. Widening the franchise recognized that previously disenfranchise people were their own masters, and should have a role in determining the laws under which they lived.

    Buchanan's theory seems like a throwback to the times when one had to own property to have the right to vote. John Locke theorized that we each are born owning ourselves, and can never sell that property right to anyone else. If you own your own soul, should that not be property right enough to shape the government that rules you?

    Buchanan said he was applying economic theory to politics. The problem is that he, and those who have financed the political movement that has drawn on his ideas, also applied economic values to politics, privileging economic assets and market value above all else.

    Buchanan does stipulate that there can be just constitutional arrangements in which people can be rightly taxed. He only stipulates that this arrangement requires unanimity in agreeing to the terms of the constitution. From Chapter 6 of his book, Limits to Liberty:

    Under a unanimity rule, decisions if made at all are guaranteed to be efficient, at least in the anticipated sense. Individual agreement signals individual expectation that benefits exceed costs, evaluated in personal utility dimensions, which may or may not incorporate narrowly defined self-interest. With a purely public good, the individually secured benefits, as evaluated, must exceed the individually agreed-on share of costs, measured in foregone opportunities to secure private goods. From an initial imputation of endowments or goods, the multiparty exchange embodied in public-goods provision moves each individual to a final imputation, which includes public goods, that is evaluated more highly in utility terms. Each person in the collectivity moves to a higher position on his own utility surface, or thinks that he will do so, as a result of the public-goods decision reached by unanimous agreement.No such results are guaranteed when collective decisions are made under less-than-unanimity rules...(A couple of paragraphs later:)
    ...We are assuming that the same persons participate in the conceptual constitutional contract and in postconstitutional adjustments. From this it follows that, if a constitutional contract is made that defines separate persons in terms of property rights, and if these rights are widely understood to include membership in a polity that is authorized to make collective decisions by less-than-unanimity rules, each person must have, at this prior stage, accepted the limitations on his own rights that this decision process might produce.Now, that's a slightly different position than the "all taxes are theft" position taken by some other theorists, but note that none of the factors that would make the last quoted paragraph apply to the American tax system do in fact apply. While all the states ratified the constitution, they did not do so by unanimous vote. Massachusetts, for example, ratified it by a vote of 187 to 168. While Buchanan theorized that there could be just taxes, no government I know of meets his standards for justice.

    Charles Koch became interested in his work, and in 1997 donated about $10 million to finance Buchanan's think tank, the Center for the Study of Public Choice, which is associated with George Mason University.

    Public choice theory did much to destroy the idea of "the public good," as understood by political theorists prior to the 1960s. Public choice theory assumes that the people who make up government have their own self-interest. Therefore, any time someone claims to be acting in the public interest, we should assume that whoever is making these claims is acting in their own interest.

    Now, consider the first paragraph in section 8 of the U.S. Constitution:
    The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;James Monroe claimed the phrase "...and general Welfare..." was meaningless, Alexander Hamilton claimed it was crucial. Hamilton was a mercantilist who believed in government taxing and spending to develop the nation.

    The welfare clause became the justification for the Supreme Court's 1937 ruling in Helvering v. Davis that held the government had a right to levy Social Security taxes and pay pensions. After all, if Social Security doesn't provide for the general welfare of the country, what does?

    Well, who says what the general welfare of the country is? Is it any better defined than "the public good?" Aren't the people promoting the idea just acting in their own interest?

    One of the problems with the tools of economics is that it is a discipline that makes certain assumptions about human nature, that humans are rational and self-interested. It is a discipline with a decent but mixed record of analyzing behavior in a restricted part of human endeavor, the economic part. It is not really designed for analyzing altruism, heroism, or even the sacrifices a parent will make for a child, seeking to explain all these things in terms of individual self-interest.

    The self-optimizing individual isn't necessarily selfish. One may have a preference for as much money as possible, or one may prefer to spend a lifetime trying to save the world from whatever you feel threatens it. Economics treats these preferences as equal, making no judgments as to the moral value of preferences. However, many on the right seem to treat all preferences as selfish, because they are the preferences of individuals. Perhaps this is because they have fallen under the sway of a far more widely known thinker, Ayn Rand, who wrote:

    Man--every man--is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.This takes the economic assumption in the commercial sphere that people will try to optimize their financial well-being, expands the "virtue of selfishness" to all of life, and changes it from an empirical assumption into a normative judgment.

    But we have more than one way of organizing society. There are spheres of human endeavor in which the market is simply not competent to deal with our problems. In fact, markets cannot exist without these other spheres of endeavor. Attempts to run an economy without a properly-functioning legal system have resulted in poor economic performance, and societies only satisfactory to those with enough influence to make sure the courts rule in their favor. Markets were never intended to deal with the problems of those who cannot work.

    What sort of parent would fail to sacrifice their sleep to a wailing infant, or their time and money to the education, both academic and moral, of their children? Rand had no children, in keeping with her philosophy that she was an end in herself, but a society of such people would disappear in one generation.

    Even in obviously financial decisions, like what one does for a living, people are not financially optimizing creatures. That's not a problem for economics, it just means that the preferences being optimized are not necessarily financial. The problem is with the way this economic explanation is interpreted. The default assumption on the right seems to be that unless one's motives are Evangelical Christian or military, they are selfish, therefore those who seek a profession that gives their lives meaning, like taking a job in the Environmental Protection Agency in the hope of working toward a better world, are really motivated by selfishness.

    And if that's the case, the people working for the government cannot be altruistic. Any claims that they are acting for the good of the country can be discounted. People working at agencies because they agree with the purpose of the agencies and the laws that established them are, to this way of thinking, just as selfish as those who want to tear down those agencies so that corporations can make more money.

    One of the more troubling ways conservatism has become corrupt is this belief that there are no altruistic people, just hypocrites pretending to have moral standards.

    These assumptions would staff your deep state with morally corrupt people whose agenda is not that of the governed, but only of their own corrupt ends. And the solution to this problem would be to elect the Great Man, and make the government subject to his will. The checks and balances built into our government by people who believed there was such a thing as "the general welfare" are useless in this world view, and serve only to frustrate democracy.

    But we've seen this movie before, and the ending wasn't funny. In fact, it's a story thousands of years old. About 2,500 years ago, Aristotle wrote the following in Politics:
    "When states are democratically governed according to law, there are no demagogues, and the best citizens are securely in the saddle; but where the laws are not sovereign, there you find demagogues. The people become a monarch... such people, in its role as a monarch, not being controlled by law, aims at sole power and becomes like a master."Plato, his contemporary, thought societies went through a natural progression from oligarchy, to democracy, then tyranny, each stage representing the breakdown of the previous stage.  To be ruled by a tyrant is to be subject to the will and the whims of that ruler. Plato said the tyrant arrives as the peoples' champion, telling them only he can fix their troubles, but cannot even govern himself because there is no constraint on his whims and urges. Moreover, because all his relationships are built on domination and submission, the tyrant "never tastes of true freedom or friendship."

    If you cannot know friendship, can you know empathy? Trump is Ayn Rand's ideal man, always looking after number one and as a result treating others like number two. He wants to wield the kind of power held by the people he admires, men like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un. He does not want a government of laws, he wants a government that will do his will.

    When his followers refer to organizations such as the Justice Department as the "deep state," they are saying they do not want Trump constrained by the laws of our country. You might think this is just an animal urge on the part of his supporters, most of whom have never heard of James Buchanan, but that would mistake the nature of influential ideas. People who couldn't spell John Locke's name and have never read his work hold his ideas about each of us being born our own master sacred. You don't have to read The Second Treatise of Government to feel that way, the idea is embedded in our culture.

    The ideas of people like Buchanan and Rand have become embedded in the hive mind of the right, and have become part of their culture.

    The concept of the deep state also made some inroads on the left, particularly the far left, where faith in democracy has always been weak. Public choice theory has always had less appeal to this group, because its assumptions are those of capitalist economics. Whereas Buchanan might be said to have made the argument that money doesn't run everything, but it should, the far left tends to think that money does run everything. The deep state of liberal nightmares is the military-industrial complex. The deep state understood by adherents of Buchanan's ideas is government based on laws passed by the people's elected representatives.

  • We have nine months to find a new spot for the Ballard store

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    Some of our customers are already aware that the building the Ballard Twice Sold Tales is in will be torn down to build a 173-unit apartment building. Today, I got the termination notice for our lease.

    When I signed the lease, I insisted on nine months to find a new place after they give notice, so the lease will terminate March 31, 2019. I had thought they would give me more time, since they aren't likely to demolish the building for about a year and a half, but apparently they wanted more freedom of action.

    It's hard to find a location with enough foot traffic to support a bookstore that has low enough rent for a bookstore's revenues to cover it. I've been in business since 1992, so if you know a landlord who anticipates an opening, let them know that we're a solid business with an international reputation, and we've never missed a month's rent. I'd like to stay in Ballard, but I'm open to suggestions.

    The whole thing is a bit of bad luck, I had hoped that Ballard Transfer would not sell the building so soon, and the the new owner would not act so quickly. Moving a bookstore is difficult and expensive, so when the time comes, anyone who wishes to volunteer help is welcome.

  • The increasing division between racing and daysailing sailboats

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    The evolution of planing sailboats has favored the fast over the pleasant, at least in development classes.

    Here, for example, is an interpretation of current trends in planing sailboats:

    Hull B. Illustration by John MacBeath Watkins

    This is quite moderate compared to a modern Merlin Rocket, which would have a beam at the deck of about 7 feet and a waterline beam of less than 3 feet. The entrance angle is a little over 10 degrees, and it has the same U-shaped sections forward as its narrower cousin, flattening aft to help it plane. The flare allows the boat to gain some stability before it reaches the point where capsize is inevitable, but this is still based on the idea that stability should be minimized to reduce the drag of the hull. It's just the same set of priorities applied to a boat that more people could successfully sail around a race course.

    Compare this to the older planing types.

    The first type to plane regularly during races seems to have been the sharpie, as rigged for racing in the 1870s:

    Uffa Fox-type hull. Illustration by John MacBeath Watkins

    This type is deeply Veed forward. This allowed these boats to be fast in choppy conditions that hit the scow bows and impaired their progress to windward. The deep Vee forward produces too great a deflection angle for planing, which means that in planing conditions, the crew must move aft. The type was more stable than the U-sectioned boats that preceded it in the International 14 class and similar classes. To sail it fast, you needed to sail it flat, but the inherent stability of the type made it forgiving. They are fastest sailed flat, but if you failed to sail them flat, they simply became less efficient. You could capsize them, but not as easily as the modern types.

    The same year Avenger came out in England, Ted Geary designed a planing dinghy for the Seattle Yacht Club. That design, originally called the Flattie and now called the Geary 18, had a sharp bow and sharpie-type construction, but the bow was well clear of the waterline and the hull was clearly a scow type. The class added more sail area and a trapeze as time went on, but no spinnaker. They have a faster Portsmouth Yardstick rating than the Jet 14, which combines a 1950s-era International 14 hull with a Snipe rig, with a spinnaker added, but no trapeze.

    All of these older types were planing racing boats that could be used for daysailing. Few classes made this as explicit as the Lightning class, which sent a design brief to Olin Stephens asking for a boat sailors could take their families out in, but also occasionally race.

    These are the types of vessel that led to the great age of dinghy sailing from the 1950s through the 1970s. We now see the best racing sailboats as something unsuitable for taking the family sailing in. The older classes are still suitable for use as daysailers and as racing boats.  To some extent, the older one-design classes have mitigated the effect of trends toward a division between daysailers and racing boats, but some have allowed costs to skyrocket.

    The Optimist Pram, the most popular sailboat in the world, no longer allows homebuilt boats, and allows carbon fiber spars.

    Now, I've built a 9' 6" dinghy for less than $500 in materials that will easily out-perform the 7'9" Optimist, but I can't buy an Optimist new for less than $3,000, and can easily spend $4,500 for one with carbon spars and a boat cover.

    The problem for one-design classes is that the most avid racers are likely to be the most active participants in running the class, and they will want to be allowed to use the latest go-fast items. It's easy for a class to become as expensive as the latest racing designs without matching their performance.

    We are likely to continue to see a division between daysailers and racing boats as time goes on and the older designs are left behind. The classes trying to continue to provide a more stable boat, such as the JY 15, tend to be those which are aimed at youth sailing programs, not at families. There are still companies providing kit boats, but these tend not to be the sort of racer-daysailer that kit boats tended to be in the 1960s. Chesapeake Light Craft, one of the more successful kit providers currently, produces not one racing dinghy class.

    Not everyone likes to race, but it would be nice if people could experience the handling of a nice planing dinghy without either getting a boat that is difficult to sail, or one that harks back to the 1930s.

    Let's see where the logic of this situation takes us. We want a dinghy that is stable enough to that most sailors can handle it. We want enough carrying capacity for a mom, a dad, and a child. Current practice says that it should have a narrow entry, U-shaped sections forward, a flat area aft of the mast and ahead of the transom on which to plane, and enough flare that the crew gets some extra leverage for hiking, but not so much that it's difficult to get on and off it from a dock.

    I'd also like to see simple construction so that the home builder can make it out of plywood without a huge amount of skill.

    So, it's going to be either V-bottomed or flat bottomed. Let's explore both options.

    The V-bottomed boat will be simplest. You can't have U-shaped sections with a V or a flat-bottomed shape, but you can touch some of the points that describe a U:

    Hull D. Illustration by John MacBeath Watkins
    I'm showing this one in color to make its waterlines easier to read. This is a more stable, forgiving boat, because of the second chine above the waterline. It will plane more easily because it has a lower deflection angle and straighter run. I've had to use a transom bow to get the bilge panels to develop without excessive stress, and the entrance angle is twice that of the first hull we considered in this post, the narrow one with hiking racks that would be impossible for most people to sail.

    Finally, let's consider an even more stable and forgiving boat:

  • Trump's denials about his sex life must be taken with a pillar of salt

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    Jonathan Chait, writing in New York magazine, has invented the term "peeliever" for those who believe the notorious "pee tape" of President Trump watching hired prostitutes pee on each other on the bed that President Obama and his wife had slept on during their visit to Moscow.

    There's plenty of levity about this, and a twitter hashtag for 

  • A design to teach students to sail classic rigs

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    I've been thinking through the logic of a new sort of sail trainer, the object of which is to get people to learn to sail with traditional rigs.

    As some of those who follow this blog know, I helped start a sail training course called Sail Now at the Center for Wooden Boats. As the classes have evolved, more and more the classes are taught in Blanchard Junior Knockabouts, 20-foot spoon-bowed keelboats that are tractable and pleasant to sail. Unfortunately, some of the students come out of this feeling that the only boats they can sail are those like the BKJ.

    The Center for Wooden Boats is a museum founded to preserve, not just the objects, but the skills, associated with classic boats and wooden boats in general.

    Near the end of his life, Dick Wagner, who founded CWB, wrote a letter to the Collections Committee complaining that the fleet was becoming too homogeneous, with plenty of sloops about the same size, but fewer and fewer boats with traditional rigs. It occurred to me that part of the problem is that the boats that get used are the boats we train people to use, feeding a cycle that causes fewer and fewer people to use the great little classics we have on the dock.

    Here's my proposed solution, which I am tentatively calling the Adept class:

  • How Trump is destroying American power

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    One of the more surreal moments in the presidential campaign was when Donald Trump, at a rally in Tampa, Florida, June 11, 2016, walked across the stage and literally hugged an American flag -- even though his campaign is now being investigated for colluding with the Russian government and its minions to win the campaign.

    In retrospect, it might be more accurate to say he molested the American flag while working with the Russians to subvert what it stands for. He campaigned on a promise to make America great again, but he's been hollowing out the State Department in a way that reduces American power abroad.

    Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, recently tweeted, "The purposeful gutting of American power abroad is mystifying. If you didn't know better, you'd think some rival government was running our foreign policy."

    And Rod Dreher, a staff member for The American Conservative, recounts this quote from an interview with Northwestern University Prof. William Reno about an exchange with the former foreign minister of an East African country:
    "We spoke several months ago while I was in his country to meet with army officers for my research on civil - military relations. Well read and well informed, he expressed distress over what he saw as the Trump Administration's attack on the foundations of American power in the world. He compared Trump to Gorbachev... "He explained that Russians know Gorbachev as the man who destroyed a superpower. He said that "Trump is your Gorbachev" because he is also destroying his country's global power. He noted that Trump was systematically undermining the architecture of American power, such as NATO and all sorts of other arenas of cooperation that make America essential in the calculations of other countries. He pointed to people like Sebastian Gorka and took the time to find out who he and some of the other advisors actually are. His country, he explained, prefers to get advice from "reality-based professionals" and wondered how others in the American political establishment could tolerate people who are so harmful to American power."*The full interview is worth your time, I recommend clicking on the quote and going to the interview. When a publication like The American Conservative is worried about a Republican president destroying American power, you know things are getting bad.

    The Hill reports that:

    "These people either do not believe the U.S. should be a world leader, or they're utterly incompetent," Dana Shell Smith told The New York Times. Smith was the ambassador to Qatar until she resigned in June.

    Aides for Tillerson have also reportedly depleted much of the department's diversity by firing most of the department's leading African-American and Latino diplomats.
    Having a diplomatic corps that looks like the world could only help deal with the world, but the Trump administration doesn't want that.

    Very few Republicans (Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is an exception) have raised an alarm about this, and that may be related to the fact that they see as their greatest enemies not foreign powers, but their fellow citizens of the opposition party.

    In late 2014, I wrote about the role of the liberum veto in the decline of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a topic that might seem remote until you consider how the paralysis of government that plagued that empire resembled what happened when Republicans became the 'party of no' during the Obama administration.

    One aspect that I did not emphasize at the time was that part of the reason for the paralysis was that foreign governments were bribing legislators to use their liberum veto to serve the interests of the commonwealth's enemies.

    This has become more relevant as the story of Russian interference in the most recent presidential election unfolds.

    Certainly much of what happened in the Polish-Lithuanian Sjem, the commonwealth's legislative body, had to do with divisions within the polity, but part of the problem was the willingness of legislators to advance the interests of other countries with the exercise of their veto.

    It showed a lack of patriotism. And part of what we are now experiencing is a lack of patriotism.

    This is hardly our first rodeo. Prescott Bush, father of George H.W. Bush and grandfather of George W. Bush, was a director and shareholder of Brown Brothers Harriman, an investment bank set up for German industrialist and Hitler ally Fritz Thyssen, who helped finance Hitler's rise to power. (Thyssen was big in coal and steel, and benefited financially from Hitler's rearmament of Germany, and Brown Brothers Harriman helped him set up front companies to move money around the globe.) BBH was seized under the Trading with the Enemy Act, but strangely was not dissolved to benefit the taxpayers but returned to its stockholders after the war. Far from being prosecuted, Prescott Bush was able to sell his stock for a fortune after the war and used this wealth as a base for his election to the U.S. Senate.

    And we all remember that Charles Lindbergh, who was widely praised in Nazi Germany for his efforts to keep America from aiding Britain in its war with Germany and advising America negotiate a neutrality treaty with Germany. When President Roosevelt criticized his position, he resigned his commission as a colonel the the U.S. Army Air Corps. He even considered moving to Germany as late as 1939, but German friends advised against the home he wished to lease because it had been owned by Jews.

    Lucky Lindy also had some pretty racist views, but seems to have been motivated more by anticommunism than antisemitism. He was active in a group called America First, a term which has cropped up again in the Trump administration.

    The thing is, we had a House Un-American Activities Committee to investigate people suspected of being fellow travelers with Communists, but we never had such an agency to help deal with Quislings.

    Those on the right have never felt they had to answer questions about their patriotism, even when they have aided hostile foreign powers. Those on the right seem to get a pass on the issue of patriotism from pretty much everybody. The right was happy to accuse President Barack Obama of deliberately reducing American power, but it now appears those accusations were aspirational, and they were really voicing what they intended to do.

    One definition of a political gaffe is "accidentally telling the truth." When Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) said about tax cuts, "My donors are basically saying, 'Get it done or don't ever call me again,'" he was doing just that. His donors are very rich people who care more about money than about their country. They don't care if the deficit explodes, they don't care if the foreign service is so decimated that foreign ministers don't even know who to talk to at the local embassy.

    Because they don't care about their country, they care more about whether a president will sign a tax cut than whether he is destroying American power.

    And it's not just the Republican donor class. Many of the votes that put Trump in office were supplied by Americans who hate their fellow Americans so much that they elected Trump to battle against "liberals" with the aid of Russia.

    Anyone who talks to conservatives on line has run into people who don't care that Russians hacked the Democratic National Committee's emails, as long as it nobbled Hillary Clinton. I've run across some who didn't care that many of the things said during the campaign were lies, because "it worked, didn't it?"

    These are people who feel stronger ties to Vladimir Putin's Russia than to Americans in San Francisco. They are more conservative than they are American. The American flag represents something that was new in the world when this country was founded, a nation based on ideals rather than on ethnicity and religion. From the first we imperfectly embodied our ideals, proclaiming that all men are created equal, yet enshrining slavery in the Constitution, but we've made progress over the years, and during the Cold War America came to be seen as a beacon of freedom.

    We've come to represent an international order that seeks consensus rather than conquest. Our military adventures have often been either futile or have boomeranged against us, but our soft power has been consistently important and beneficial to the nation.

    Trump's treatment of the diplomatic corps shows that he does not understand American power, does not understand why we are seen as the essential nation -- or worse, that he sees this and rejects it, seeking to reduce us to the sort of gangster state Russia has become, a state that prefers conquest to consensus.


  • Plague and the medical neglect of the poor

    by Jamie Lutton

    I am worried about the Black Death outbreak in Madagascar, and am thinking about Trump's FEMA response to the disaster in Puerto Rico - how they are linked 
    in a chain of unholy possibilities. 

    The government  in Matagasgar -- a military junta has been running the country since 2009 - - has been not able to -- or has ignored the 'black death' or bubonic plague outbreaks that happen every year there.  The average citizen in Madagascar lives on less than $600 dollars a year. Even though this country abounds in natural wealth, like gemstones, this money does not filter down to most of the population. 

    Bubonic plague has been carried by rats on that island in rural areas for decades.

    After the rice harvest is over in the drier highlands,  there is a die-off of rats who endemically carry the bubonic plague. The disease then is carried by hungry fleas to humans, who catch it, from September to April, directly from the fleas of the dying rats.  Rats are so common in rural areas, they are a food source for the people there. 

    But this year is different.  This outbreak has come earlier, and is a different form of the plague. 

    There is a pneumonic plague outbreak - and instead of hitting the rural areas, the crowded cities are under siege. As of Oct 19, there were about 74 deaths and over 700 cases of this more serious form of the plague. unlike bubonic plague, which 30 to 60% of the victims recover without treatment, 100% of penumonic plague victims die within three days, sometimes 24 hours. There is no pattern of survival with this version, it is as fatal as rabies is.  

    This form of the plague seems to have jumped into the population from an untreated case of the bubonic plague.  Or perhaps more than one.  According to the CDC, 10% of the untreated cases of bubonic plague morphs into penumonic plague, so with hindsight,  with so many cases of every year here, this was bound to happen sooner or later. This version of the disease reaches the victim's lungs and is spread from person to person as an aerosol disease, spread by coughing and breathing. 

    The Index case seems to have spread it across the country as he took public transportation, a shared cab that he was in for many hours, as people were dropped off and picked up. .He appeared to think he only had a bad cold or case of malaria, util he suddenly died.   His body was not tested for plague, and was buried without any precautions, or 

    with tracing who he had contact with in his trip across the country.  They did not realize they had a plague case until more people had died. 

    The pneumonic plague outbreak there could turn into an international crisis, like the Ebola outbreak in 2015 did in Africa, where it  also jumped into cities where it had never been seen before, and into the poor urban population there. As  penumonic plague is spread by breath, coughing or spitting, this is much easier to catch than Ebola is, which is spread mostly by blood contact, as when a body is handled after death or when a caretaker touches the body fluids.   

    The authorities in Madagascar  have closed the schools and many businesses in the face of this outbreak, which has terrified the local population. 

    You can buy antibiotics over the counter in Madagascar, there is no controlover this.  People are dosing themselves like mad, trying to treat this on their own.

    Madagascar's care for their poorer citizens has sharply declined in the past 9 years or so, the infrastructure to support public health nurses and doctors has withered away from neglect and a disinclination to spend any money on the health of the people there. 

    This is where it can get dicey if a type of pneumonic plague arises that is resistant to antibiotics, which could happen pretty quickly  since the people are dosing themselves
    with all kinds of antibiotics that they can buy over the counter

    There is a type of tuberculosis that is resistant to antibiotics as people who had it and were treated with antibiotics did not finish their dose of pills, and a version of this disease evolved that can not be treated easily, as it  is resistant. And this version of tuberculosis is now spreading all over the world. 

    Watch the news. If this disease jumps to Africa, out of Madagascar, into their more crowded and poorer nations, this could be a terrible catastrophe. Thousands could die, if this disease is half as contagious as the seasonal flu. 

    What with the 1% writing off the poor nations, and poorer parts of nations, we could all be in trouble This is the price of ignoring the poor, and cutting aid to them, as can be seen in Trump's proposed budget. 

    The world is a lot smaller now, with passenger jet travel being quite affordable, international tourism and business trips linking all the major cities to each other, so that a sick person could travel thousands of miles in a day with ease. 

    Madagascar was devastated by cyclone Enawo  in March this year, with  80 dead, and with 276  thousand losing their homes.  This devastation might have triggered this latest outbreak of the plague, as the tens of thousands struggled to rebuild,  and not able to fight dirt and garbage, with their living conditions degraded. We see this after every natural disaster; it is very had to stay clean and control food waste and human waste, which is where rats thrive. 

    Does this not sound like the conditions right now in Puerto Rico, where tens of  thousands are driven to drink unsafe water and catching diseases from that water.? We are already seeing  many deaths of dialysis patents and patents on oxygen because there is no electricity to drive the machines that keep them alive.

    All it would take would be to have the rats that are already taking advantage of the garbage and chaos to start spreading this disease, or another disease. Haiti, after their last earthquake, now has endemic cholera on the island, brought there by peacekeeping forces from Asia, cholera that was not endemic before.

    The plague can be fought - antibiotics we now have can cure it.  But what about other diseases out there?

    Epidemic disease like influenza in the Far East, and this disease arises in areas that are dirty and with a lot of poor people crammed together close fleas on rats (or pigs  and chickens, with the flu) and who have governments who do not fund clinics or nursing care for their poor. 

    As anyone knows who owns a cat or a dog even in Seattle, pet fleas are damn hard to control - consider what the challenge is for a poor family in Madagascar without ADVANTAGE flea treatment on hand when they are fighting the fleas from the rats that have just died. . 

    The black death  has come back in a pandemic every 700 years. During the Justinian Roman Empire in the 680's, the late 1340's in Western Europe, and now this outbreak. Both those previous times, half the known world died. 

    Even though we know much more about epidemic disease than doctors did even 100 years ago, when bubonic plague was first analyzed and described correctly,

    Every flu season, a version of the flu goes around the world, killing thousands of people who are very young or old, have weak immune systems, or did not get their flu shots, or have complications from other illness. 

    What kind of toll will this disease take? And if not this year, next year, as long as the government in Madagascar refuses to take care of their weakest and poorest residents, by finally suppressing the bubonic plague completely.

    What disease could arise in Puerto Rico and sweep the world? And if you think I am being an alarmist, 5% of the world died in the flu epidemic of  1918, which was probably set off by the unsanitary crowded conditions during  World War l. 

    And if not this year, what about next?  What will happen in the future in Madagascar, Puerto Rico, or some other neglected and poor corner of the Earth, where the poor have been written off' by the 1% because they are of color, or speak the 'wrong' language?

  • Shibboleths in belief and identity

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    One of the remarkable things we've seen with the polarization of American politics is the rise of the shibboleth.

    A shibboleth is something that defines the identity of a group. The biblical basis for the term is found in Judges 12, when the men of Gilead were fighting the men of Ephraim. It was a rout, and the Ephraimites tried to flee to their homeland, but the Gileadites got to the fords on the Jordan River first.

    5And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; 6Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.
    In this case, it was just a word that the Ephraimites could not pronounce to save their lives, but over time it has come to mean what you say to prove you belong to a group. In many cases, you must say you believe certain things.

    For conservative Republicans, shibboleths are things like Birtherism (the claim that President Barack Obama was not born in America,) or claiming to believe that Obama is a Muslim. Another is claiming to not believe in climate change.

    No amount of evidence will shift these beliefs, whether it's Obama's long-form birth certificate or the fact the Obama for many years attended a somewhat controversial Christian church. Evidence won't shift such beliefs because they were not adopted based on evidence, or any real notion of objective truth. They were adopted to cement a sense of identity.

    Normally, when we think of truth, we think of something so logical, so well supported by evidence, that we cannot help but believe it, even if it is inconvenient to do so. But shibboleths are things that you can choose to believe, because it is convenient, because it establishes your bonafides as a member of a group, or even because it annoys people you don't like (which may also establish you as part of a group.)

    In many forms of communication, the intentions of the speaker are of the highest importance. To someone who believes climate change has the potential to wipe out humanity and most of the large animals on earth, those who deny climate change no matter what the evidence is appear to be speaking in bad faith. Those who deny climate change, as near as I can tell, do so as part of their identity. More evidence just appears as an attack on their identity, and continuing to deny climate change provides the satisfaction of pissing off those fucking liberals.

    I keep seeing climate change deniers try to show bad faith on the part of the scientists who have actually studied this. In part, this is a tactic of agnotology, the science of creating ignorance, and simply serves those who do not want to stop selling fossil fuels. But in part, it's a matter of both sides thinking they are arguing on the same ground. Those who claim climate change is real offer their proofs as if they matter to the climate deniers, and those who deny climate change assume this is a belief that liberals have adopted as part of their identity.

    Conservatives have told me that liberals are pushing the climate change narrative because the solutions are liberal ones, like regulation and international treaties. To me, this is an odd argument. Surely, we are not expected to believe that conservatives will only acknowledge the reality of problems conservatism can solve? And in any case, shown that a problem exists, shouldn't they display the superiority of their ideology by showing us a conservative solution?

    But the denier assumes that belief in climate change is as much of a shibboleth to the believer as to the denier. Therefore, to them, the conversation isn't even about evidence. Evidence, to them, is a marker in a game that is really about identity.

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