Showing posts with label: politics. Show all posts.

Book: The Divide

Saturday 01 April 2017

I picked up The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, by Matt Taibbi because I was looking for another book of his, Griftopia, but I couldn't find it in English here in Switzerland. The book was about how income inequality is tied to inequality in the American justice system - specifically how the poor are jailed in huge numbers for ridiculously silly things, while the rich can literally steal billions of dollars and only get a slap on the wrist. 

This is a subject with which I am intimately familiar, so there wasn't really anything new to me in this book. However, Taibbi really points out just how unjust the justice system is with detailed examples of how different types of people are treated completely differently. At one end of the spectrum in welfare fraud, which is aggressively prosecuted by states, and often incorrectly prosecuted. The welfare system is a vast bureaucracy where people are often charged with fraud where none exists - and without money to hire lawyers the defendants have absolutely no chance to beat the cases. So a poor single mother can be charged with fraud for basically any or no reason, and if she can't pay the money the state asks of her she risks facing felony fraud charges and jail time.

An example on the other end of the spectrum is HSBC, a massive multinational bank which was accused of working with drug cartels and terrorists to launder billions of dollars. In a deal typical of these types of white collar crimes, HSBC paid a fine of $1.9 bn, and faced no criminal charges. The US government felt that HSBC was "too big to fail" and feared that filing criminal charges could crash the world banking system. 

Personally, I don't think it makes sense for corporations to face criminal charges. Despite what the Supreme Court says, a corporation is not a person and can't make it's own decisions to engage in criminal behavior. An actual person had to make those decisions, and they should face the criminal charges. However no one at HSBC was charged with any crimes, nor were any of the banks whose actions led to the 2008 crisis charged with any crimes. The only bank charged with crimes related to the sub-prime mortgage crisis was a small bank in Chinatown, NY - which had no issues with subprime mortgages and thus no relation to the crisis, but which was scapegoated so that the government could say that they had prosecuted at least one bank.

American schools teach the propaganda that the US is a class-less society, where by hard-work and grit anyone can become rich. While this is a completely false statement - the US ranks near the bottom of developed countries as far as social mobility, it is perhaps considered a little white lie, encouraging people to work hard. The damage comes from the fact that this belief implies that if someone is not wealthy it is because they are lazy or unintelligent. So anyone who needs any kind of financial assistance is a priori assumed to be deficient in some manner. On the other hand someone who has money is considered to be superior, regardless of the facts or circumstances which led to them having the money. While there are some notable examples, such as Bernie Madoff, there are numerous other cases of wealthy hedge fund managers basically raping and pillaging the lower classes for a few extra bucks who are never even charged with a crime.

According to John Erlichman, who was an advisor to President Nixon, Nixon's motivation for launching the "war on drugs" was to politically target two groups of people who he disliked - the blacks and the anti-war movement. He couldn't overtly target those groups, so he instead decided to criminalize and focus on two drugs he felt were associated with those groups - heroin and marijuana, respectively. This has led directly to the huge incarceration rates in the US. The fact that different types of crimes are treated so differently is basically a continuation of this policy, except now anyone who is not a corporation and not fantastically wealthy is being targeted, with the crimes associated with poorer people being treated far more harshly than others. In this case, it is not a personal vendetta that is driving the laws, but the vast political influence the wealthy and corporations have over the government. 

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Book: Unspeakable by Chris Hedges

Tuesday 28 February 2017

Chris Hedges is someone I respect a hell of a lot. He is one of the few people today who is not afraid of really just speaking the truth. Despite all of Trump's talk about how the media is all fake news, the mainstream media in fact really just toes the party line as far as corporate interests. The sad truth in American politics today is that once you get past all the little details that the two political parties try to get people all worked up about the two parties really agree on most economic issues. The two parties get their constituents all riled up about issues that honestly won't really effect people's lives that much - and while everyone is busy arguing over who can urinate in what bathroom they conduct the real work of the government which essentially is catering to large corporations.

Very few people in America are willing to even acknowledge this. Third party candidates are dismissed as "throwing your vote away," which is largely true, but only because the media doesn't take any third party seriously enough to give them any real chance. Granted this is largely due to the US winner-take-all electoral system, which I would argue only exists because the founding father's didn't foresee the rise of political parties, but the end result is that if you disagree with the two parties in any substantial way you won't be heard and won't be covered.

With Donald Trump calling any negative media coverage of him "fake news" he is distracting from the very real biases of the press. Hedges describes one example which was how the media was basically forced to act as a proganda arm of the Bush administration in selling their now disproven fiction about Iraq having WMDs in the early 2000s. The media was not forced to do this by the government, but by the corporate elite who own and run the media. After 9/11, in the ensuing wave of patriotism, any questioning of government policy was viewed as un-American, and strongly discouraged by the media, as Hedges personally experienced when he tried to protest the war.

The political parties can squabble all they want over whether to build a border wall, but when it comes to promoting the interests of multinational corporations there is little to no disagreement. When it comes to promoting unfettered free-market capitalism they are in lock step. The Republicans and Democrats may disagree on how much regulation there should be on Wall Street, and how high the corporate tax rate should be, but they will never question whether corporate interests are really best for the country, much less question whether capitalism as a system has inherent flaws.

Unspeakable: Chris Hedges on the Most Forbidden Topics in America is a rather short book, but it touches on many of the issues that I think about a lot. I think we are lucky that someone like him exists and is not afraid to question the prevailing economic dogma although he will be ostracized and ridiculed for it.

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Book: The Reactionary Mind

Sunday 26 February 2017

The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, by Corey Robin, is a book of essays about conservatism from the 17th century to today. I have often struggled to try to figure out exactly what "conservatism" as a political philosophy actually means and I thought this book might shed some light. While it did have some interesting ideas, it didn't really do that great of a job answering my question.

The traditional idea of conservatism is about trying to preserve existing orders and traditions. Robin argues that modern conservatism is more of a reaction to radical ideas and movements than any real sort of ideology. While there are serious conservative thinkers, he draws a distinction between them and th conservative political movement, which seem more aimed making sure that those with money and power keep their wealth and influence than in instigating any real cultural or social changes. 

He says that traditional conservatism, as epitomized by Edmund Burke, was about having change be gradual and organic, about being more pragmatic than idealistic and in general preferring the known, no matter how good or bad, to the unknown - which has the potential to be much better, but also to be worse. Essentially it is a fear of change. Traditionally conservative movements have arisen in reaction to revolutionary ideas - when things start to change people start to mobilize against change, and in favor of keeping things they way they were. These types of counterrevolutionary movements have occured in reaction to things ranging from the French Revolution, to abolitionism, to women's suffrage, to civil rights, and even to the 1960's anti-war movement. Taken in this context, the recent radical populist conservatism in the US is just another reaction to social and economic changes, not a new ideological movement as the Tea Party, the "Alt Right" and Donald Trump like to think of themselves as.

In this book Robin gives some interesting analyses and thoughts on conservative movements through the years, but he is largely preaching to the choir. The book is not going to change anyone's mind, nor does it really aim to. It is an interesting read, and I agree with most of his points, but I didn't really get much out of it that I didn't already have going in.

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Book: The Trial of Henry Kissinger

Wednesday 08 February 2017

There's nothing I dislike more than people who are always 100% sure that their opinion is correct. When people are sure that they are right they tend to disregard any facts or evidence that contradict their beliefs and grab onto anything, however flimsy, that supports their beliefs. This leads to a situation which we see in the US now where "alternative facts" are made up to support an existing position, in clear contradiction of the actual evidence. This is why I hate so much that I so often agree with Christopher Hitchens - he comes across as so sure of his position that it just unsettles me, and it unsettles me even more that I usually can't argue with his reasoning.

This book is actually more of a long essay outlining alleged war crimes committed by Henry Kissinger. The biggest one is how he gave Richard Nixon information that allowed Nixon to torpedo the 1968 peace talks aimed at ending the Vietnam War. Nixon, at the time a private citizen, passed along information to the South Vietnam government that if they did not agree to a peaceful settlement he would be elected, and after election would provide better terms for them. So South Vietnam boycotted the talks and the Vietnam War went on for an additional four years before the exact same terms were finally agreed to, at a cost of twenty thousand American troops and maybe half a million or more Vietnamese casualties. Hitchens claims that Kissinger also provided information to the Humphrey campaign, playing boths sides so that no matter who became President he would have an in with them. I'm not sure who comes across worse in this whole mess - Nixon for meddling in foreign affairs as a private citizen and sacrificing an enormous number of lives for his political ambitions, or Kissinger who played both sides, again for the sake of his own ambitions.

This is not the only case of Kissinger doing things that would seem more appropriate for a murderous dictator than for the government of a supposedly democratic country. He was also complicit in the Indonesian massacre in East Timbor, the military coups in multiple South American countries, the coup in Cyprus, and others.

What strikes me the most about this long list of atrocities, most of which were justified in the name of anti-communism, is that the American government got the problem with communism exactly wrong. In my mind the problem with Soviet communism was the fact that it was actually a repressive authoritarian dictatorship, not the fact that this dictatorship was paying lip service to a different economic model. Kissinger and Nixon apparently took the exact opposite viewpoint - the US supported numerous brutal, murderous, totalitarian dictatorships - so long as they espoused free market philosophies. In Chile they supported a coup against a democratically elected government which had slight socialist leanings - Kissinger said that there was no need to let the country "go Marxist" just because the people "were irresponsible" - and supported Pinochet's government which was later charged for numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity stemming from it's brutal repression of any dissent and political opposition.

Who benefits from US support for repressive military dictatorships? Certainly not the people of the country who trade in democratic government for totalitarianism. The people who benefit are the multinational corporations who want to either privatize industry or keep their own business from being socialized. The US is supposed to be an example of "freedom" on the world stage - but in reality what they advocated was freedom for corporations and individuals to make money at the expense of the people, who were systematically impoverished and repressed, or in the worst case tortured and "disappeared." 

While I knew of some of Nixon and Kissinger's misdeeds in foreign affairs, reading this list of the worst of them made me horrified and ashamed to be an American, and glad I no longer live there.

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Book: Insane Clown President

Tuesday 07 February 2017

When I first heard of this book I assumed it was an anti-Trump gimmick, designed and written solely to sell copies by capitalizing on the anger at Trump's election. It wasn't until I discovered that the book was written by Matt Taibbi that I actually decided to read it. Matt Taibbi is the author of what I consider to be one of the most important books on politics in this century "The Great Derangement," which analyzes recent fringe conspiracy movements in the light of what US politics have become. In "The Great Derangement" Taibbi investigates one right-wing movement - apocalyptic religious fundamentalists - and one left-wing movement - 9/11 Truthers - and concludes that both stem from the fact that the American political system has become so corrupt and so removed from any real democratic influence. Rather than getting angry that the government acts mostly in the interest of the multinational corporations and monied interests who fund the politicians and agitating for any real change, people instead focus on fringe conspiracy theories and become obsessed with the coming of the rapture or trying to figure out who was "really" behind 9/11. In the meantime the political parties promote the idea that they are idealogical opposites by getting the people to focus on and get angry about social issues like what bathrooms transgender people can use, gay marriage and abortion while both parties take jam through their agenda which benefits the very wealthy and the multinationals. But enough about that book...

This book seems styled after the campaign work of Hunter Thompson and consists of a series of dispatches written by Taibbi during the campaign of Donald Trump. I was pleased to see that the dispatches were printed as they were originally written and not updated with the benefit of hindsight. The fact that after the release of Trump's comments on grabbing the genitals of women, Taibbi writes as if the campaign is over, as most people thought at the time, makes the fact that somehow Trump went on to win even more shocking and upsetting.

Even Taibbi's writing style seems very reminiscent of Thompson - full of bizarre and sometimes obscene descriptions of things - like describing Donald Trump's speeches as "turd clouds". Like Thompson's work, this book is fun to read, yet inside the florid metaphors it contains deep and profound analyses of the state of politics and the world. The only gripe I have with the book is the title, which to me seems more appropriate to tabloid journalism than to a serious political work like this. Even so, I highly recommend this book, and also highly recommend "The Great Derangement."

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