Thursday, December 8, 2016

One China, Two China, Red China, Blue China

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This? This means nothing
As difficult as it is to keep up with the Trump Trainwreck of the Day™, most of them are merely stupid manifestations of his deranged mental state and lack of contact with reality. A few are genuinely problematic. And some we assume are horrible just because HE'S horrible, and some people we trust assure us that they are, in fact, horrible. Into this last category falls the now infamous 'congratulatory phone call' from President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan. The basis for the uproar is America's longstanding acceptance of the 'One China Policy', wherein both the PRC and the ROC agree that there is only one nation called China, and merely disagree on where the capital city is and what system of governance should be in place. All this is viewed as a temporary condition, much as it was in Germany and continues to be on the Korean Peninsula.

The American governmental leadership has agreed to participate in this farce since 1972, and in 1979 President Carter withdrew diplomatic recognition from Taipei. No high level contacts between the US and Taiwan have occurred since. In lieu of an embassy, most western nations (who also play along with the One China policy) have private "Trade Missions" that work with the Taiwanese government - and much business is done. The US is the primary supplier of weapons to the ROC, and for decades America has maintained a weird passive-aggressive 'ambiguity' about when and under what circumstances we might intervene in a cross-strait war.

This is all - quite obviously - transparent farce. The two key underpinnings of American (and Western) acceptance of the One China policy are a.) Respect for Beijing and the PRC government's diplomatic sensibilities in not supporting Taiwanese independence and b.) maintenance of an American 'strategic ambiguity' in the China sea. Those two approaches do not require the precise formula the US has employed over the last forty years. One could easily imagine a One China policy that included high level political contacts. The government in Beijing would complain, but as an adversary power they tend to complain about a lot of US actions - just as we complain about many Chinese policies. They complain when we have contact with the Dalai Llama, fer crissakes.

Whether or not Trump was aware of the historical diplomatic issues in play when he spoke to President Tsai, let's be careful not to overreact to the call. It won't lead to war - it won't even necessarily lead to a change in US policy. Of course, THAT'S not entirely certain. In the narrow, through-the-looking-glass Trumpian world view, China (along with Mexico) are the global villians that have out-smarted, out-played and out-negotiated the US for decades. If he were to decide to actually act on this demented worldview (and make no mistake, it would be in spite of the resistance of most of his more rational advisers), then it becomes somewhat difficult to predict the form of those policy changes. Tariffs on goods are possible, but if he wanted to play hardball without starting a trade war perhaps shifting US policy toward Taiwan might be considered.

Lots of things are possible, and most of them are bad. But right now this is a nothingburger.
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Monday, December 5, 2016

Pointless Pipeline Protests

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Dakota Access Pipeline - Still Going to be Built
The various factions of the #NoDAPL movement stood fast in the face of some very ugly tactics by the state, and eventually the Corps of Engineers decided to deny an easement for the route that crossed under Lake Oahe on the Standing Rock reservation and undertake an environmental study of alternate routes. This has been repeatedly declared a great victory, but that's a determination that requires a closer look at both the immediate and longer term outcomes.

Don't get me wrong - I'm in no way arguing that it wasn't a victory for the Sioux people - as in any classic NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) protest, when the offending development is re-routed into somebody else's neighborhood, it must be seen as a local victory for the NIMBY faction.

But the first question that comes to mind is one of outcome. The determination of the US Government was to give in to demands to re-route the pipeline. But was this the actual goal all along? Were all those courageous people out there accepting that the pipeline would ultimately be built, and it was simply a question of which vulnerable population would be put at risk? Did they use the rallying cry #NoDAPL because #RerouteDAPL was somewhat less compelling? If the goal of the protest was to simply build the pipeline on US rather than indigenous soil, it was a small, local success of no larger significance. If the goal was anything more than merely changing the pipeline's route, the movement was a failure, not a success.

So six months of Sturm und Drang have ensured nothing but the 'protection' of a single community from the horrors and deprivations of an oil pipeline. But that's a victory, right? It's not obvious. We know that fossil fuels are adding to the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and contributing to a rapidly warming climate. Burning fossil fuels is dangerous to human civilization, and needs to be curtailed. But here's the thing - burning fossil fuels IS being curtailed. Despite some political outliers - mostly in the United States - people, governments, militaries and corporations recognize that climate change is a problem and they need to radically shift the source of energy generation. The reason the price of crude oil collapsed in the last several years is lack of demand - the more people all over the globe build wind, solar, wave and other renewable energy sources, the less they will need to burn oil, gas and coal. This is an irreversible process - sure, it's one that would be helped by an enlightened carbon tax policy, but it's one that will continue, and will accelerate.

From a larger viewpoint, I have to confess I simply don't understand the recent fixation from the left on pipeline projects. I understand the opposition to fossil fuels, but to approach that goal with a 'no pipelines' policy agenda strikes me as being ideologically opposed to trousers and expressing it by boycotting suspenders. There's lots of other ways to hold up your pants, and most of them are inferior to suspenders. The same is true of pipelines. There are two and a half MILLION miles of energy pipelines in the US already - it seems a bit late in the game to decide to oppose them. But even more critically, if an energy company wants to ship its oil and we deny them access to a pipeline, they'll simply ship it by rail. In old, rusting, rarely inspected rail tank cars, through the center of cities and towns and across thousands of old, deteriorating bridges. Frankly, given a choice, I'd prefer a shiny new pipeline if you don't mind. The simple fact is you can't stop people from selling us a commodity we WANT to buy by trying to limit how they ship it to us. (Never lose sight of the fact that if one day we found we couldn't just drive around the corner and buy a tank-full of gas we'd be apoplectic.) There are times when protest is effective - this simply isn't one of them.

Of course, as of November 8, much of this is a moot point. The Trump administration is pro-fossil fuel, pro business, pro-corporation, pro-profit and anti-regulation. There is little doubt that we can expect much less of this kind of government flexibility in the next few years. But the argument is an important one, and I suspect we will keep having it.
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Monday, November 14, 2016

The Rocky Road Ahead

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I guess we're stuck with him
So. Hearts are broken, people are frightened, and dire predictions of the end of American constitutional democracy abound. It’s time to take a deep breath and think about what we’re truly facing. It’s not going to be pretty - even if we try to think about it realistically, setting aside the Trump bombast and madness, we’re going to lose a great deal of the progress that has been so painstakingly achieved in the last hundred years.

There will be many bad outcomes in the coming years, and few, if any good ones. But we need to abandon the tearful vague terrors and start trying to see the contours of the road ahead. Here’s my first pass.


Healthcare

Obamacare is toast. The Republicans have placed far too much emphasis on its repeal to back away now, regardless of who it harms or how much. Certainly the subsidies are doomed, and the Medicaid expansion (in fact, Medicaid as we know it is dead - see below). There will be some amusing arguments as Republicans struggle to keep the ‘good’ parts of Obamacare - guaranteed coverage and community rating - while scrapping the ‘bad’ subsidies, mandates and exchanges. But eventually they will have to kill off the whole thing, and we will go back to a worse version of the bad old days when insurance companies can sell worthless policies and then cancel them when a claim is filed. Worse, they will allow interstate competition, which will allow insurance companies to base themselves in the friendliest of states (Arizona, for example) and then follow those ridiculously loose regulations all around the country. A classic ‘race to the bottom’.


Budget

The greatest nightmare of modern Republican control over the US government is the Paul Ryan budget. We know what it looks like, because the House of Representatives has passed it numerous times. They will pass it again, and President Trump will sign it. We know it will include huge deficit - financed tax cuts for the wealthy, and that it will include deep cuts to social welfare programs. Medicare and social security may be safe - Trump likes them, but still might bargain them away - but Medicaid will be block-granted to the states, and we know what happens then.

Two points worth noting immediately. First, the rising deficit along with whatever infrastructure program Trump can convince the Congress to accept will provide the kind of fiscal stimulus the Republicans have been obstructing for years, and the economy should benefit in at least the short run. Second, offsetting that, the financial deregulation we can be certain is coming will put the economy on course for another catastrophic failure.

We know that Trump will want higher spending on Defense, Infrastructure and the VA. Congress will give him a free hand on Defense, and will probably go along with increases to the Veterans budget, but he’s liable to get serious pushback on Infrastructure. At some point in the next four years we can expect dramatic changes to the Tax Code.


Foreign Policy

Iran
Trump may - or may not - specifically abrogate the Iran nuclear treaty, but it doesn’t really matter. Congress will want to pass new sanctions legislation, and that will put the United States in violation of the treaty, not Iran. The rest of the P5+1 nations will be furious, and will work with Iran to shield them from the new American sanctions. The isolation of the US in Europe will be deep and dark.


NATO
Was Trump serious when he talked about limiting the US commitment to NATO? Will he insist that other states take more responsibility for their own defence? (We need to think about Korea and Japan in this context too, even though they are not actually part of the NATO alliance). American participation in longstanding security alliances around the world is one of the places where a President Trump can do the most global harm. Once those nations begin to doubt the American commitment, they are going to have to do what they feel they must for their own safety and survival. In many cases, this would mean establishing security agreements with China or Russia, which will change the balance of power radically. In some cases, particularly South Korea, it might mean yet another nuclear state.


Afghanistan
It’s anybody’s guess what Trump will do in Afghanistan. If his rhetoric is to be believed, one would think he would withdraw our troops and mission - it costs a lot and there’s nothing there in America’s interest. But it will provide a key test case - how much influence will the generals and the warhawk advisers around him have? If he leave the US mission in Afghanistan in place - or even enlarges it - it will be a clear signal that he’ll let his advisers make most of the less interesting decisions, and that will only make things that much worse.

Of course, he’ll be confronted with the same political considerations - if you pull the US troops and funds out of Afghanistan, the government will fall, Pakistan will be in a position to control the Taliban government and India will have a bigger problem with their Muslim neighbors.


ISIS/Syria
Trump has vowed to ‘destroy’ ISIS, and he has said he would do so quickly. Nobody believes for a moment that’s even possible, but it does raise the question: What actions will he take to differentiate his administration from the Obama policies? Any increase in US operations in Syria will risk coming into conflict with Russian combat operations, so some new coordination with the Russian military will be necessary. But that seems more than likely - Trump will likely overturn the US position that Bashar al-Assad must go, and rather work Russia and the Syrian regime to roll back ISIS. That will mean - at a minimum - withdrawing aid to the rebels (and perhaps the Kurds), and possibly supporting attacks against them.


Russia
The number one issue with Russia as Trump takes office is the sanctions that the US and Europe imposed after the Russians annexed Crimea. The sanctions regime is written to expire - and therefore needs to be renewed - every six months. Under Obama’s leadership, sanctions will be renewed in December, but in June we can expect President Trump to lead a push (with Eastern European nations) to end them. The Putin government will be friendly to the Trump administration until then at least, but a major part of Putin's popularity is his strong anti-American stance, and he's going to have to rattle his saber every now and then. And yes, the American response under Trump might be quite stupid and dangerous.


Immigration

At this point we’ve got to take him at his word. We know he doesn’t have the funding, personnel or infrastructure to find, detain and deport millions of undocumented Latinos, but he can cancel DACA and crank up the current enforcement mechanism to eleven. That will mean LOTS of people leaving, many on their own to avoid being deported, many others in ICE enforcement activities. At some point, the lettuce is going to rot in the fields and the construction projects are going to stall for lack of labor. Actions have consequences, and when you use a blunt instrument in the public policy arena the consequences usually come in the form of a blunt instrument of their own.

He’s spent too much time talking about building a wall on the southern border to not take action, but getting funding, right-of-way and dealing with lawsuits will take a very long time. It will be mostly talk for years, and whatever money is spent will NOT be recouped from the Mexican government.


Education

Sweeping changes are coming to federal education policy. Common Core is gone. Some kind of universal school voucher program is on the way. The tea party lunatics probably won’t be able to actually eliminate the Department of Education, but they will succeed in crippling it, and the damage will be slow, relentless, long-term and possibly irreversible.

Homeland Security

Here’s where things begin to get problematic. We’re going to see an avowed authoritarian defining the security state in terms we could never imagine. In addition to aggressive immigration enforcement, we’ll see aggressive domestic law enforcement policies including stop & frisk and much less federal oversight of local police agencies in human rights and brutality cases. Eventually we’ll see a terrorist attack on US soil, and then what happens is  anybody’s guess. When he’s actually in the White House, in power, he will be in a position to overreact to a San Bernardino or an Orlando. And make no mistake, ISIS knows he WILL overreact, and they can finally get what they want if they push him hard enough. And we’ve been far too accepting of the American domestic surveillance state, but hold onto your pixels, because it’s about to get a whole lot worse.

Environment

There’s no doubt that Trump will be a disaster for Environmental policy. From violating or outright abrogating the Paris agreement to increased coal production to drilling for oil and gas on Federal lands like ANWR and offshore to elimination of environmental regulations, we’re going to see a catastrophe unfold. On the upside, demand for fossil fuels is soft - you can’t increase production without an increase in demand - and many states have more stringent environmental regulations than the Federal Government, so things in those places won’t change at all. But many nations won’t participate in intensive carbon pollution reduction if the United States does not do its part, so we are facing a delay in Climate Change mitigation we cannot afford.

Judiciary

Donald Trump is so unstable, so corrupt and so incoherent that the Trump Presidency will likely last only four years, and the Senate Majority may only last for two. But his judicial appointments (which will almost certainly be outsourced to Republican legislators) will be with us for decades to come, and we can expect them to be worst kind of ideologue hacks. Long after the country has regained its senses and sent a an honest Liberal back to the White House, progressive legislation will be constrained by a Federal judiciary full of right-wing cranks.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Checks & Balances & Then What?

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Whew. I need a vacation
I have written extensively about the problems associated with the antiquated, obsolete and remarkably fragile American system of democratic governance. And certainly, to the extent that any ideologically based group, organization or party can exploit that kind of fragility simply by refusing to accept the norms of behavior that are necessary to make such a system functional, the Tea Party wing of the Republican party has repeatedly exploited that system. But in a way, I thought, there are limits to how far they could ultimately push that process.

After all, didn't we learn in school that the three branches of government are co-equal, and that there are 'checks and balances' available to each to prevent any other from acting arbitrarily or unilaterally running roughshod over the government as a whole? And certainly there are checks on that kind of action such as Presidential Vetoes, the so-called 'Power of the Purse' and Judicial oversight that are effective in limiting most kinds of excessive abuse.

But here's the nightmare that's just coming into focus. While the system at least gives the branches the power to prevent another branch from acting in dangerous, arbitrary or excessive manner, there is nothing to prevent a branch from simply not acting at all. And it is in these unforeseen acts of, well, INaction that we are sewing the seeds of the destruction of our own democratic system. Don't pass a funding bill? Government shuts down. Don't vote to raise the debt ceiling? Government defaults. Don't confirm judiciary appointments? Democracy collapses. And once again, to emphasize the scale of the problem, there is NOTHING in the system to prevent such tantrums of inaction. No rules. No sanctions. No arbitration. No recourse.

These are the kinds of activities of governance that were - and have always been - dependent upon the expected norms of behavior. Men of good will - statesmen if you will - would simply never subvert the system and harm the work of the people in order to advance their own partisan agenda. That wasn't something that anyone wanted to see attached to their own name, reputation and legacy. Then along came Newt Gingrich and the ultimate disintegration of the entire edifice was underway.

It's key to realize that this is all the Republicans. And it's the path they have adopted because, in their decline from a national political organization to a regional one, they have lost the ability to win national elections, and therefore, under the co-equal checks & balances system we have always had, they had no ability to implement their preferred policies. Of course, that's as it should be - the idea is that the people decide policy by placing in power the party whose agenda they prefer. But to the modern American political Right, none of this is about democracy. In fact, democratic norms are the primary impediment to their goals, so democratic norms are disregarded without compunction.

Would the Democratic party have acted (or NOT acted) in this way if the roles and power distribution were reversed? Who knows? We'd like to think we place a higher value on the beliefs and values of democracy than we do on winning, but if red meat accusations of treasonous perfidy and apocalyptic rhetoric drives the voting base into a spittle flecked rage, it's hard to control the kind of people they will send to Washington, and when anger and hate trump (heh) honor, all bets are off.
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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

You Say You Want a Revolution

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"Hold my beer, I'm going in"
As we watch the good ship Trump slip beneath the waves in the last weeks before his ultimate resounding humiliation, we are seeing just how foul and grotesque his behavior can be. By claiming that the election is somehow 'rigged', he is calling into question the basic functioning of democratic governance - the peaceful transfer of legitimate political power. American politicians have always been careful to observe the niceties of our democratic electoral system, conceding their loss and congratulating the winner as the legitimate choice of the citizens. Even Richard Nixon, in resigning the presidency, was careful to remark on how the system functioned even in extremis. And Al Gore - up by a million votes and apparently leading the Florida recount - stood down when the supreme court inserted itself into the race and chose a winner.

But not this year. Not this cycle. Not this candidate. When your most energized supporters are fueled by what should be easily debunked falsehoods piled one on top of the next, the idea that they would be willing to accept a loss that Trump himself is not willing to concede is clearly a non-starter. Some will merely shriek their anger at their country, their democratic system and their new president, while others can be expected to make increasingly violent threats to overturn the 'tyranny' they're sure they're seeing but somehow can't quite describe. When you couple this particular movement's butthurt with the decades-long process of stoking a particularly unique kind of spittle flecked hatred of all things Clinton and an ideological attachment to firearms, well, the fear of a violent response seems well justified.

And sure enough, we are seeing more and more Trumpist voters promising to take up arms, to go to war, to rebel against a system that was so corrupt and so co-opted that their candidate somehow didn't win an election in which he has never had a polling lead. But we need to think this through a bit before we give in to our darkest fears of Aleppo come to Peoria. Did you ever notice that when a person makes a death threat, that person virtually never follows through? It's as if the point of the exercise was NOT actually murder after all, but merely to shriek one's anger and frighten and intimidate one's foes. Conversely, when someone DOES actually commit a violent act, they usually did what they could to prevent their plans from being discovered before they acted. These people making these threats? Like Ted Nugent's famous promise to end up 'dead or in jail' if Barack Obama was reelected, we can safely discount them as the 'all talk and no gunpowder' end of the spectrum.

Beyond that, it is informative to look at the level of desperation that has historically driven citizens to take up arms in rebellion against their government. It is hunger, disease, extreme poverty, brutal oppression - the precise things we are NOT seeing in America in the early 21st century, despite the vague claims of 'tyranny' invoked by people, most often shirtless tattooed drunk white men in trailer parks. But that's the thing - even in trailer parks, Americans have jobs and televisions and families and barbeques and beer. That's a lot to give up to go to war against the most powerful military in the world over various tyrannical acts you can't quite describe, but are certain are taking place. None of your friends or family have been killed, imprisoned or tortured. Your children are in school. Your neighborhoods are intact, with clean water and well stocked grocery stores. When the time comes to actually load the magazines and start the killing, these things are going to seem even more important, and Americans will decide, once again, to call the president foul names (oddly still legal in the face of his tyranny) and open another beer.

Now, don't get me wrong. There are some who will do awful things. The Oklahoma Federal Building bombing in the spring of 1995 (unsurprisingly during the last Clinton administration) was a real mass-casualty act of terrorism, and we can't pretend there won't be more like it in upcoming years. The rhetoric HAS gotten hotter, and the hatred has been growing for decades. But those kinds of events are always a possibility - the strident calls to violent rebellion we're hearing from the white nationalist right during (and after) this particuarly ugly presidential campaign can safely be ignored. The one you never hear shrieking his hatred at the administration is the one you need to worry about...
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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Surely You Can't Be Serious

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The voices in his head are very, very serious
Back in the early years of the odious GW Bush administration, one of the complaints the American Political Right had about liberals in the post 9/11 era was that they were 'unserious'. The term was quickly adopted by the media, and politicians, policies and pundits were suddenly judged by how 'serious' they were. Of course, seriousness isn't something that can be objectively measured, so it was really just a term used to call out policies you disagreed with. Don't want to invade Iraq? You're not serious. Don't want to cut government spending? Deeply unserious on economic policy. Don't want to invest billions in a new generation of nuclear weapons? You're just not serious about strategic deterrence.

It's funny to see people now taking aim at Donald Trump's lack of seriousness. He's not a serious candidate. He isn't running a serious campaign. He doesn't have a serious policy agenda. And this is where I have to draw the line. We've totally lost contact with the meaning of a common three-syllable English language word. Let me correct the record here - Donald Trump is serious. He's as serious, as the old saying goes, as a heart attack.

Of course he's not a typical politician. He's a populist demagogue out of the Huey Long school. He's uninformed, incurious and unclear on even the most basic functions of 21st century governance. He doesn't KNOW anything - except what HE knows he knows - and when it comes to those voices and images bouncing around in his head, do not doubt for a moment that he is serious. If he says something and the rabble responds favorably, it becomes a part of the Trump policy agenda. Impossible, unconstitutional, illegal, it doesn't matter. He'll make the promises. And he'll believe them.

He's 'serious' in the sense that he is unable to differentiate between routine campaign promises and actual viable policy proposals. To him, strong-arming the Mexican government into paying for the wall is a very serious proposal. Sure, we might look at the real-world barriers to such a fantasy and smirk that he is utterly unserious, but that overlooks the madness that is Trumpism. He not only believes - nay, KNOWS - he can do these things, but his desperate, uninformed and fearful supporters believe it too. They know he is serious - and nothing that happens in the course of the campaign can convince them otherwise. We know enough about Trump that we can clearly see he'll be angry and frustrated with the legislative and judicial processes, particularly when he demands congress appropriate funds for his bizarre and dangerous initiatives.

But we also must not forget that, where he CAN act unilaterally he will - because of his own certainty around his actions. Will he really walk away from NATO? Abrogate the Iran Nuclear Weapons agreement? Demand tribute for continued US military presence in Japan and Korea? Impose trade sanctions on China? One can have no doubt - when he promises these things, and people respond positively, they become the hard core of his 'serious' policy agenda.  Trump - and Trumpism - is dangerous in a way we really haven't internalized yet. Not just for his authoritarian bent, his lack of democratic values or his inability to understand even the most basic second-order consequences of government action. Trump is dangerous because he actually believes what he says - what the world will perceive as a dangerous, impulsive recklessness is really just his inherent certainty of his own infallibility.
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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Today We Are All Corrupt Neoliberal Sellouts

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Our long national nightmare is over
Just to note in passing that after all virulent, spittle-flecked rhetoric, after all the accusations and innuendo, after all the threats and tantrums and willful intransigence over the basic functions of a political party's nominating process, today Bernie Sanders announced that he is With Her.

The Sanders campaign devoted no little effort in the attempt to amplify and focus the incoherent right-wing Clinton Derangement Syndrome narrative among the more liberal denizens of the Democratic party - and had a disappointingly large affect on the political conversation. For months the Democratic primaries were argued, not in terms of what Sanders might be able to accomplish, or how a Sanders presidency might compare favorably to a Clinton term, but rather about the alleged corruption, criminality and neoliberal warhawk tendencies of the Clinton dynasty. From a strictly practical sense, this was probably a reasonable choice. Bernie ran a dumpster fire of a campaign, insisting on labeling himself a socialist, turning every question into an argument about inequality in America, and refusing to even offer the slightest suggestion of how he might make his liberal fever-dream of a policy agenda a reality. It was a campaign straight out of the underpants gnomes playbook, and even his supporters quickly learned not to talk about him at all - leaving them with nothing to say except to shriek in increasingly over-the-top terms how terrible Hillary was and how we'd all be doomed if she won the nomination.

So yeah, there's a little twitch of a smile of schadenfreude today. It's pretty amusing that all the Sanders supporters who swore they would NEVER vote for Hillary Clinton are now more radical Sanders voters than...well, than Sanders. And even with just the explicit statement about the Democratic position on capital punishment, yeah, the party's policy platform is a pretty good statement of values. But it never mattered a bit. Clinton could have told him to take a long walk on a short pier. With the Republican self-immolation candidate Donald Trump as the opposition, the Democrats never needed their far left wing to elect her - they suddenly find themselves with a far-right wing instead. But she took the smart path (note - this should not come as a surprise to anyone) and added the vast majority of the Sanders voters to what is becoming an overwhelming political coalition. We can even start looking beyond her inauguration on January 20 of next year, and begin to think about the looming constitutional crisis over the Supreme Court. Because that could be the next phase in the collapse of the barking mad American political right.
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Saturday, July 9, 2016

Trade Globalization Agreements - Less Than Meets the Eye?

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This is your culprit right here
Between now and November, we're going to be hearing a great deal about 'trade', especially in terms of trade globalization and the impact on American manufacturing jobs. So it's a very good time to stop and think about international trade, how we got here and what it means today and in the future.

The first question, as always, needs to be about root causes. The conventional wisdom is that trade globalization agreements created trade globalization, by changing the rules and opening up low-cost manufacturing centers in poor countries. But is that the case? Once you think about it, it's actually the other way around - trade globalization led to the free trade agreements. In other words, the agreements were negotiated to address the changes that were already happening in global trade. But if that's the case, what caused the globalization of trade in the first place? The answer is the standardized inter-modal shipping container. Once you had a very cost effective way of transporting goods on ships, trains and trucks, there was no place on earth that wasn't available as a manufacturing hub. And once that infrastructure was in place, every corporation in the world was able to either create or participate in highly efficient large-scale global supply chains.

A second point to remember is that these are agreements between multiple parties. They are not supposed to be one-sided zero sum contests in power and advantage. America lost a lot of manufacturing jobs, but as the largest consumer market in the world we benefited hugely from the increased speed and efficiency of the global supply chain. We have our phones and tablets and laptops and televisions, sure, but we also have the tens of millions of servers, routers, switches, firewalls, load balancers, along with the millions of miles of optical network infrastructure what permits you to watch Netflix. Would any of that be affordable to all if it had to be manufactured here? Would the advances in technology have been deployed as rapidly? And along that same context, think about the millions of people around the globe who have been lifted out of the grinding poverty of subsistence farming, who now have houses with plumbing and health care and education for their children. For every $75/hr American manufacturing job that has been lost, a hundred desperately poor families have joined the modern middle class. All in the course of a single human lifespan. That is an unqualified good thing.

In the end, if you're an American worker these trade deals have not been a good deal. They have cost good jobs and empowered the worst instincts of corporations. But they are not the catastrophe they are often made out to be - rather they are the cudgel that populist politicians can use to drive hostility toward the parties in power. And if you look at the results of trade globalization over the last few decades from a global rather than an American nationalist viewpoint, they have done an awfully lot of good.

One final point to consider: manufacturing jobs will return to the US. That's not good news, however. Robotics and workforce automation have changed the capital/labor calculation. When all the costs of manufacturing are capital and none are labor, you can establish your manufacturing hubs anywhere you want - the only advantage is proximity to markets, and the US is still the largest consumer market on the planet. The jobs will return - they are returning - but workers will not benefit. Sooner than you think, the lions share of manufacturing will be automated, and both the advanced and the emerging economies will be confronted by huge numbers of desperately poor, unemployable people demanding solutions. At that point we'll look back on the days of trade globalization as a golden age.

UPDATE:
And, just like that, Yglesias makes the final point crystal clear...



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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The 'No Fly List' is Atrocious - Let's Not Make it Worse

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It would pretty much be all of us...
Start with an almost comically obvious premise: It would not be good to simply let terrorists buy guns legally. No rational society would allow such a thing - setting aside for a moment whether any rational society would allow broad unlimited access to modern firearms in the first place - and it shouldn't be terribly difficult to make certain such an obvious premise is enforced in day-to-day reality. Of course, we're not really saying what we mean here - if we know a specific individual is a terrorist, they are either in custody or the subject of a manhunt. Obviously what we mean here is 'suspected terrorist', or perhaps a better construct might be 'pre-terrorist', somebody who has come to the attention of law enforcement or Homeland Security but has not been arrested or tried for any crimes. And fortuitously, we have a 'list' of these exact subjects - it's called the 'No Fly List' and it is used to prevent terrorism suspects from boarding or traveling on commercial airliners.

The No Fly List contains about 47,000 names. It's unclear how many are American citizens or permanent residents, but that number is well under 1000 (it was 800 in 2013). Much of the actual intent of maintaining a No Fly List is to keep suspected international terrorists out of the US in the first place. So as a No Gun List, this compilation of names would be very close to useless, another case of 'security theater' writ large. But let me ask you a question: In light of what we know about the US National Security State, given this kind of new unilateral administrative authority to prevent gun purchases, do you think it's at least reasonable that the FBI might expand the scope of people on the No Fly List to more broadly include people in the US and people whose focus isn't necessarily on transportation targets?

And once we have surrendered yet another constitutional right to the whims of the DoJ bureaucracy, are you comfortable that it will all just stop there? What about Drivers Licenses? I mean, cars are little different from airplanes and truck bombs are the most common form of terrorist attack around the globe. And consider the attack on the soccer stadium in Paris. Perhaps the FBI should be able to deny the right to attend large-scale sporting events and concerts?

When you give up your due process rights and allow a government agency to determine whether and how to withhold rights and privileges you take for granted as a citizen - when you allow lists of names to be compiled by agency bureaucrats who can then restrict the rights of those on the list - you give up both any access to information about WHY your name is on that list, and you give up any opportunity to challenge that information, and have that challenge adjudicated fairly.  We've seen these excesses in the No Fly List from the very beginning. So much secrecy and ambiguity exists around the list that people have been denied access to airlines for years because their name was 'similar to the known alias of someone on the No Fly List'. Even after it was established that it was a different person on the list, it was still impossible for the unfortunately named individual to fly.

Look. Guns in America are a crisis. No one spends more time screaming about the gun violence crisis than I do. But children: THIS IS NOT THE WAY. If we're so desperate for a 'win' in the gun debate that we're willing to hand over another victory to the National Security State, then we've already lost the much larger debate. At the very moment when we should be fighting to radically reform or eliminate the No Fly List, instead we find ourselves enthusiastically doubling down on the premise of a society where our 'rights' are limited and controlled by government agencies.

Update: Just want to make sure we're thinking about this. This is what you get when you have a constitutional guarantee of the right to keep and bear arms. You can clearly have an American citizen who is the subject of multiple investigations, who has indicated a tendency to hate, violence and terror. But he's not chargeable, so he can walk into a gun store and buy a pistol, a rifle or a shotgun. This shouldn't be hard - no other country struggles with this challenge. But our toxic 2nd amendment saddles us with these horrific hobson's choices...
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Monday, June 20, 2016

Orlando and ISIS - Does it Matter?

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If it quacks like a duck...
Once again, in the wake of the Orlando atrocity, we see journalists endlessly pondering what seems to them to be an important question. If the killers were Muslims, and if there was an element of Islamic extremism driving their actions, were they actually ISIS operatives or were they merely influenced by ISIS' ideology? I wonder, however - does it even matter? Is this a distinction without a difference?

In the case of homegrown terrorists, particularly that very large fraction who do not survive their attack to be questioned, motivation is a difficult thread to unravel. Someone raised a Muslim, however, who at some point claims the attack is driven by Islamic fundamentalist or Muslim nationalist ideologies, must be taken at their word that their religious and ethnic indoctrination had some influence on their actions. In the case of the Orlando terrorist, for example, the attack was premised on his hatred for gay people, but it seems reasonable that the root of that hatred - whether for gay culture or self-loathing at his own sexual impulses - was the Islamic fundamentalist indoctrination via his father.

The fact is that, however you feel about the surveillance state and Homeland Security tactics, the US is a very difficult target for overseas terrorist organizations to get to. To move people, funds and weapons into the US, organize and coordinate them for a large scale attack is almost impossible to do without detection and interdiction. The only way to carry out an effective terror attack in the US today without an inordinate amount of luck is if the attacker(s) have NO communications with any known terrorist organization.

The lesson seems to be that people with a predisposition to mass killing will find some justification for doing it. The existence of Islamic terrorist ideology provides people who were raised in that faith (or converted out of some sympathetic feelings for the dogma) with a ready-made formula for both motivation and justification. And with the key factor determining whether someone carries out such an attack being a willingness/desire to die in the process, a motivation rooted in religious mythology that includes eternal life in paradise can be an important enabling factor. But it seems substantially less is important whether the attacker(s) were an active part of the terrorist organization or merely aware of their worldview and doctrine and sympathetic to their cause. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the successful mass casualty attacks will have that specific factor in common - zero communication with any extant terrorist organization before the attack. That kind of operationally secure mission planning is the best way to avoid coming to the attention of law enforcement or Counter Terrorism personnel.
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Sunday, June 19, 2016

Someday, We'll Look Back on All This and...Be Grateful??

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No, seriously, I love this guy
Not to go all Slate-Pitchy on you here, but I can't help but think that it's at least possible that the success Donald Trump enjoyed in this election cycle might turn out to be something we can be somewhat grateful for. Obviously, it exposed some deep flaws in our electoral system, and demonstrated that there is a path to political power in the US for an ignorant, narcissistic demagogue. But he has no real-world chance of actually winning the general election in November, so instead it gives us a chance to examine this bullet dodged, and think about how it might reshape much of the political narrative in the US in the future.

So what beneficial trends might we see come out of the Donald Trump phenomenon? Well, first think about the media reaction to him. It's quite different than what you see from more typical Republican politicians, even liars like Paul Ryan or madmen like James Inhofe. The media has always maintained a frustrating stance of considering both sides of the public policy discussion as equally valid, even when one side has gone very badly off the rails. "Shape of the earth - both sides disagree" we smile and say. It's a real problem - they are so terrified of being accused of bias that they won't just be honest about reality. But with Trump - he's lied so blatantly, said stupid things on camera and then denied he said them, taken both sides of an argument in a single speech and been so hostile to the media that they don't feel like they owe him any of this protection, or that they might be considered biased for calling him out for these laughable positions. And it's worth noting that we've mostly only seen primary campaign coverage so far. After the conventions, the heat on Trump to speak coherently and justify his statements is going to be turned up substantially. And media outlets are going to discover that people have an appetite for honest reporting.

On top of that, Trump has ripped the scab off the Republican party's coalition problem. The party leadership has long known they have a serious demographic problem that prevents them from building a national coalition of voters that support their policies. The leadership had one agenda - the upward transfer of wealth through reduced taxes on the wealthy and reduced regulation on business and the reduction of government transfers to the poor and middle class. But the Republican voting base didn't really care about this policy agenda, and to whatever extent they did they tended to oppose it. They cared about tribal and social issues. White Christian supremacy, immigration, gay rights, gun ownership - these were the empty promises the Republican party has been making them for decades to ensure their votes. Trump simply dropped much of the economic policy plans and concentrated on the issues important to white Middle-American Christianists. Now, while 70% of the non-college white American vote isn't enough to elect a president, the party is going to have to confront a base electorate that wants Trump's policies, not Paul Ryan's. The Republican party is going to have to find a way to build a larger coalition or risk becoming irrelevant. Post Trump, the path to that coalition is unclear, and the American conservative constituency may find itself splintered.

Next, think about money in politics. Despite the massive influx of wealthy donors since the Citizens United decision, it's hard to see what the Koch and Adelson millions have bought. The Republicans have been successful at the congressional district and statehouse levels due to population distribution, gerrymandering and voter suppression. The money from the billionaires doesn't seem to have bought much. And now we have Trump, who has run a campaign based on rallies, social media and free nightly cable news coverage, easily defeated Bush and Rubio and Cruz despite their tens of millions in campaign contributions. It's true that the Clinton campaign will spend a lot of money defeating Trump, but in a sense that's just accomplishing the outcome that would happen anyway. It's beginning to become clear that money - even unlimited money - isn't a guarantor of electoral success.

Last, there is a larger ideological benefit to America - not just as a result of Trumpism, but as represented by the excesses of Trumpism. The conventional wisdom - very likely true - has been that there have been hard political limitations on the Democratic party embracing more liberal public policies. The Democrats have had to adopt an 'assume the left to keep the center' approach to the electorate. But now Trump has put away the dog whistles and exposed the core conservative voter for the racist reactionary he is. The center will accept more liberal policies before it will accept a shift to that kind of tribal identity politics. In other words, the Democrats will be able to keep their larger, broad coalition even as the Democratic leadership moves left on social and economic populist policies.

In the end, Trump represents the end of a long, frustrating political era in the US. The voters have finally stood up and forced the parties to show what they really stand for, and what they truly believe. Between Trump and Sanders, the state of American political and economic policy making is better than it has been in a long time.
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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Self Defense in the Age of Rape Culture Awareness

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The term 'Cut and Run' has a specific meaning
I see more and more women on social media talking about taking self defense courses, and carrying pepper spray and folding knives with them when they're out. I tend to applaud this trend - first, because once men realize they can be badly hurt or arrested (or both), they will immediately think harder about their more predatory instincts. But also because what you DON'T see is a lot of "I'm gonna get a gun" postings. We have enough guns. We have enough untrained, unskilled Rambo wannabes in our cities and towns. Armed self defense is good, but we're still a nation in peacetime.

That said, the 'pepper spray and folding knife' self defense solution can be problematic. Pepper spray is great - I wish every woman carried both a full power version in her purse and a small short-range version on her key ring. But pepper spray isn't always disabling, and if you miss your 'shot' or the guy has a high tolerance or your pepper spray isn't as powerful as they said it was - well, you've escalated the conflict and now you've got a physically violent confrontation on your hands.

But my concern with knives is greater. Don't get me wrong - I ALWAYS have a combat knife with me. But you need to understand what it's for, and how to use it. If you confront a bigger, stronger opponent and you pull a knife and wave it around and try to stab your way out, you're going to lose. Stabbing is like punching - if you aren't confident of your success throwing punches against a male adversary, you won't be successful fighting him with a knife.

So let's go back to basics. First, think about your knife. Is it big enough? Is it razor sharp? Can you get to it quickly, open it efficiently and discretely and grip it properly? These are things you can practice in your living room. Nobody needs to know. Get a good 4-5" combat folder, half serrated blade, and a sharpening kit. Don't use it as a screwdriver or a prybar. Keep it scary sharp, and keep it where you always know where it is.

Now. How to use it. Stabbing people is surprisingly hard. You need to expend a LOT of force to drive a knife deep into a human torso. But that's ok - we're not here to talk about lethal force. We're here to talk about crippling, disabling wounds that let you disengage and withdraw. You have three targets. The tendons behind the upper arm, the soft tissue inside the elbow and the major tendons in the back of the thighs. Anytime an adversary throws a punch or reaches to grab you, he exposes those muscles and tendons under the triceps on the back of the upper arm. If he's not wearing a leather jacket, reach up, cut hard across the outside of the arm, use the serrated inner part of the blade, and slash around the arm. Use a LOT of pressure - you want to do deep muscle and tendon damage. This damage will render the arm useless, and you will have a physical advantage you can use to end the fight and get home safe.

If you are out of position to reach the back of his arm, the soft meat inside the elbow - where they draw your blood at the doctors office - is vulnerable to a similar deep slash from above, rather than from below. You'll do less structural damage but you'll back him off by getting some spurting arterial bleeding that will scare him into disengaging quickly.

Finally, there's that hamstring tendon behind the thigh. There's also an Achilles tendon behind the ankle, but that's a secondary target. If you open your knife and hold it down by your side, you might be able to go to the ground, wrap yourself around his legs and drive the point of the knife into the meat of his thigh and saw it out. If you cut that tendon, he won't be able to walk - and you can leave, or call the police, or just go ahead and end him, if you want.

Look. None of these things are easy, and if you just throw a knife in your bag without thinking or practicing you're going to get badly hurt. Not everyone can use a knife in defense, and not everyone can do it even if they want to. But these are the realities of using a knife in self defense, and if you are carrying a knife out with you, you owe it to yourself to at least think about how you're going to use it effectively.
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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

An Open Letter to Bernie Sanders

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Nope. Not buying what this guy is selling
Dear Bernie~

Your candidacy has been truly remarkable. You have done something I would have said was impossible until you proved otherwise. You took a platform with which I am 100% in agreement, and with your dishonesty, your style, your refusal to take the role of the US Presidency seriously and your refusal to consider political realities as part of the demands of the job of the professional politician, you drove me into implacable opposition to your candidacy.

That's amazing. When you first began your campaign, I thought "Wow - an American presidential candidate who speaks clearly about the need for stronger federal government intervention in the community to reduce inequality, end poverty, guarantee education and health care - that's amazing and I want to support you". But then, almost immediately, I began to have doubts. First, none of your campaign messaging seemed willing to address the problems in passing this kind of liberal legislation in the US. In fact, you didn't seem willing to address the legislature at all - you just kept saying YOU would do these things, which is, of course, impossible in our system. You insisted that we break up the banks, even though the consensus of the economic community is that's nowhere near the best way to address the 'too big to fail' problem. And when I tried to learn your positions on other issues, outside of economic inequality and social justice, you didn't seem to have any. You can't be a 'one issue' president - it's an executive management job, and you'd better be ready to deal with everything that would be on your plate.

And then, as time passed, your campaign seemed to just stop being about you and your ideas and your policy goals. It morphed into something vile and ugly, a non-stop 24x7 attack on Hillary Clinton. I knew most of the smears of Ms. Clinton were wrong, premised on decades of unrelenting attacks from the Right, but still I wondered "even if Clinton is truly evil personified, what is that saying about why I should vote FOR Sanders?" Indeed, if the Sanders campaign couldn't make a case for why he should be the President - if all they could do is make a case for why someone else should NOT be the President - they have given me no reason to vote for him.

I would still love to see much of the Sanders policy agenda enacted in the US. But I want to see the plans for passing and funding and implementing those policies. If you can't even tell me that, you're just a huckster promising the rubes anything to get into the office - you're a liberal Paul Ryan.

Nope. I can't support you, Senator Sanders. You were a good man with good ideas who was completely unprepared to operate at the highest levels of American governance. I hope you started something that can be picked up and moved forward by a smart politician who will drive toward these solutions with something more than empty promises.

But for now? For now I'll happily see Hillary Clinton win the White House. She will fight to get what incremental change is possible in the real world, and as the first female American president her election will be a historic moment of pride for us all.
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Saturday, June 4, 2016

President Hillary Clinton - Wars and Assumptions of Wars

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We're gonna keep on getting what we have been getting
I determined fairly early in the primary cycle that I preferred Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders for a number of reasons - electability, experience, knowledge/expertise and her willingness to tell me the hard truth, that political change is hard and no matter how hard we clap we ain't getting a pony. And heaven knows, I prefer almost anyone to egomaniac ignoramus Donald Trump. Having said that, and despite what Senator Sanders' most fervent supporters will tell you in repeated spittle-flecked tirades, no candidate is perfect. In the case of Ms. Clinton, I'm not concerned about the breathless innuendo around corruption, but I AM concerned about her willingness to use the US military in ways I believe to be inappropriate and counterproductive. Now, let's be clear - this is not because she is a bloodthirsty warmonger - I think she knows enough about the human cost of modern urban warfare to be reluctant about it - but rather because she comes out of a long tradition of Democratic interventionists, liberals who saw the use of America's overwhelming military power as a way of containing and even rolling back the more brutal, oppressive regimes around the world.

It's important to remember, however, that these Democrat-supported or even initiated interventions tended to be small, sharp engagements - think Mayaguez, Grenada or Panama - characterized by a small, focused objective against an overwhelmingly weak opposition force with little chance of becoming a larger, longer-lasting conflict. Those types of applications of US military power were coupled with ongoing support for strategic deterrence against peer-power expansion and an explicit or implicit promise to defend smaller allies against aggression. So the belief (or, common among many on the left, the certainty) that President Clinton II will initiate one or more GW Bush style large scale invasions/occupations in the third world and engage in belligerent saber-rattling against Russia and China is, historically, entirely unjustified.

But even if you honestly believe her instincts or downright bloodthirsty nature will drive her to engage in more large-scale combat, you have to examine that belief by thinking through the where and why of these presumed new wars. There are four regions of concern - South Asia, Middle East & North Africa, Eastern Europe and the South and East China Seas. And frankly, no matter how much you believe that Senator Clinton WANTS to use American Military power in some or all of those hot spots, I submit that you'll find it hard making a compelling case that she will.

The middle east is a non starter. Too many factions, too many allies and adversaries and proxies, too much history both regional and domestic. Large scale US troop presence in Iraq? The Iraqis don't want it, the Iranians don't want it, and the American people would sour on it very quickly. In Syria? Maybe, but risking war with Russia, Iran and even Turkey over what is essentially a regional multi-factional sectarian war? If you believe Clinton is delusional, perhaps. I don't believe that. Saudi Arabia loves having the US fight its wars, but they do NOT want the US to damage their Sunni Islamist proxies, so they'd be very selective about what they would permit in their neighborhood. All in all, there's nothing for American troops to do in the middle east at this point that wouldn't harm US interests and Clinton's own standing. No matter what you believe are her motivations, there's no fruit left on that tree to be picked.

South Asia is a mess. You can count on American troops remaining in Afghanistan for years to come, even if Jesus was the American President. There's just no politically viable path to drawing down to zero. But for the same reasons, there's no politically viable path to a large scale escalation, either. Pakistan is toxic - they (along with Saudi Arabia) represent the root of the Islamic terrorism problem, and yet we must pretend they are our allies. Obama started a cautious creep away from Pakistan and towards India, but in this particular part of the world any destabilization risks an immediate nuclear exchange. Hillary Clinton, no matter what else she is, is not in favor of nuclear war.

Eastern Europe will become increasingly problematic over the next few years, but despite America's traditional bellicose rhetoric, it has become fairly obvious to all concerned that the US is not going to actually risk a nuclear war with Russia over the likes of Latvia or Poland. And even more so, Germany, France and the UK are actively working to make sure they aren't turned into a smoldering radioactive wasteland because the US and Russia didn't know when to back down. The NATO treaties all come with asterisks today, and while the tensions will rise and fall from event to event, ultimately the US and her western allies will acquiesce to any small scale Russian aggression like we saw in Ukraine. The appetite for a shooting war with a near-peer adversary in Europe is exactly zero.

That leaves the waters off eastern China. And while Clinton would continue the Obama 'pivot', increasing ties to our allies in the region while challenging any Chinese limits on freedom of navigation through those international waters, it ultimately matters more what China does (and what Japan does) than what the US does. The US, for all it's bluster about the most powerful military in the world, is at a tremendous tactical disadvantage in east Asia. In a conventional war, China is fighting within a thousand kilometers of the mainland, while the US is trying to operate in those same waters from a distance that approaches ten thousand kilometers. Recognizing this asymmetric condition, the Chinese began working on a regional warfighting doctrine called A2/AD over a decade ago. A2/AD is shorthand for Anti Access/Area Denial - the concept that all China has to do is make it impossible for US navy surface combatants to operate within that 1000 km arc. Using a combination of missiles, submarines and aircraft and small littoral vessels with modern anti-ship missiles they are well on the way to accomplishing this.

Even now, if the shooting started, the US will almost certainly lose at least one and probably more than one aircraft carrier. The loss of life - and the blow to global American prestige - would be devastating. This is the one potential regional conventional war that America would very likely lose. And let's remember that accepted wisdom is that it is the nation in the process of losing a conventional war that is likely to turn to nuclear weapons. That's the concern in Europe, in Pakistan, and it must be the concern in the China Sea. As president, Hillary Clinton will get the briefings, and will understand that the US is not in the dominant military position it claims to be in Asia, and will therefore work very hard to avoid conflict with the Chinese.

So there you have it. If you believe Hillary Clinton is a demented bloodthirsty warmonger, then I have nothing to say to you - I'd merely direct you to your patron saint, Alex Jones. But if you believe that she is an intelligent - even brilliant - professional politician and statesman, then you need to explain where she would go to war and why. I'll stipulate that American forces will remain in action in dozens of places around the globe, mostly utilizing SpecOps and drone attacks, but I remain unconvinced that the US will fight another large scale war like Iraq during her Presidency.
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Sunday, May 15, 2016

Life at 750 GeV - Breakthrough Physics or Another Spurious Signal?

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Back at base bugs in the software
flash the message "something's out there"
There is an unusual level of hype around the 2016 run of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Europe. You're seeing explainers in the mainstream press, deep dives in the technical press, and there have been no less than 350 academic papers written in the last year. Physicists are cautiously breathless, science reporters are forgetting their objectivity, and mainstream journalists are just struggling with the terminology and basic science. Meanwhile, all the cranks are out - from the 'Multiverse' to 'String Theory' to unconserved momentum propulsion systems, the "New Physics" is a new age set of magicks where physical laws are just suggestions and 'Quantum' means something less scientific and more spiritual, all while people are asking physics to offer some kind of meaning to the universe. It's really exciting to see the world getting interested in high energy physics and the coming breakthroughs, but at the same time people have always had a strong tendency to conflate the edge of science with their Woo, and the result is very often incoherent.

Whether this hint of something new and unpredicted turns out to be real or not, it has been invigorating to see the world recognize the amazing discoveries that have been made in the last 50 years of particle physics. We now understand so much about the universe, how it works and what it is, and even better, we know a tremendous amount of things that we still don't know.

So what's all the excitement about?


Last year the Large Hadron Collider restarted after a couple years of shutdown for large scale upgrades. When it restarted, it did so for the first time at it's rated energy - 2 beams of protons at very close to the speed of light - each beam with an energy of 6.5 TeV - colliding head on to produce collisions with a combined energy of 13+ TeV. Last year's run was carefully managed, so the amount of data that was collected - while massive on any real-world scale - was far below the full 'luminosity' speced into the collider.

When that data was analyzed, scientists saw something...odd. There was an excess in photon-photon pairs produced at mass of 750 GeV. (Wait - mass? I though electron volts were energy? Yes - remember E=mc² - energy and mass are the same thing, and can be expressed using either set of terms.) Now, the problem was that there were not a lot of data, and the statistical confidence that the so-called 'diphoton excess' was anything but noise was about 3σ (3 sigma). At that level, it would be ignored as background noise, but what makes this data interesting is the same diphoton excess was detected at the same mass by TWO DIFFERENT EXPERIMENTS. (In collider terms, that's like "The telephone calls are coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE!!) Both ATLAS and CMS experiments saw the same data (or noise). THAT'S exciting, even at 3σ.


High energy particle physics, for all it's 'peering into the universe' majesty, is ultimately just a very large exercise in statistics. Some collisions produce particles from the energy released - most don't. Make a LOT of collisions and count the results. There will be anomalous data, noisy data and just plain bad data. But just keep counting and measuring, and eventually you'll notice something that happens more often than it 'should'. If it happens enough - what statisticians call six sigma - then scientists will consider it a real phenomenon and start trying to figure out what's causing it.

Why the excitement?


The standard model was completely described in the 1970s. Since then, particle physics has been a process of confirming its accuracy. That is, detecting the various elementary particles it predicted. And with the confirmation of the Higgs boson, we are now at a point where - at least according to the Standard Model - we know what matter is, how it gets its properties and how it interacts. Of course, we also know there's other stuff out there - dark matter, dark energy - that probably requires an extension/addition to the Standard Model. And of course, we still don't have a complete theory of gravity - the Standard Model includes force carriers for all the other known forces, but if gravity is going to be considered a force like the strong force, and the electroweak interaction, it's going to need a boson to mediate it.


What could it be?


Heavier Higgs?
Physicists were surprised to discover the Higgs boson at the low, low mass of 125Gev. Everything they predicted about the only scalar boson in the standard model would indicate a much more massive particle. The interesting thing is that there is nothing in the model that precludes the existence of multiple Higgs - if this signal is real, the most likely scenario is that it is a more massive Higgs particle.

SuSy?
One fairly popular theory in the 'new physics' community is Super Symmetry or SuSy. The theory postulates that every particle in the standard model has a more massive version - a Super Particle if you will. At the energies the LHC is running at today, some of these SuSy particles may show up, indicating a much expanded standard model is necessary.

Dark Matter?
A quarter of the matter in the universe can not be detected by any means humans have developed. This dark matter doesn't interact with normal, baryonic matter, even though it provides a huge gravitational force distributed about the universe, and seems to be responsible for the large scale structures we observe, including galaxies and clusters of galaxies. If we find a particle that we never even suspected might exist, it would be hard not to consider the possibility that we are observing dark matter for the first time.

????
What scientists hope for the most is that it will be something utterly unexpected, new and shocking, a launchpad for the breakthrough in physics that will guide us through the next series of discoveries. Back in the 1950s, a similar observation - known as the Tau-Theta puzzle - led to the discoveries around symmetry breaking, electroweak unification and ultimately Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD).

*******************************

In the end, however, the great likelihood is that by the end of summer we will have much more data, and the anomalous signal will have vanished into the background noise. Despite what everyone hopes it might be, the overwhelming odds are that it is routine experimental noise, and we will go back to working on the problems and questions we started out with.

But for now? For now we can dream, and think about where it might take us!
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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Art of the Possible

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Possible does not include Unicorns and Ponies
In the latter half of the 19th century, Otto von Bismarck, perhaps the greatest statesman of his era, famously advised “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best”. This has served as both an inspiration and a warning to politicians, activists and demagogues down through the ages. His point was clear - political leaders can only govern by accomplishment - any goal that is out of reach is not in the realm of politics - at least until circumstances place it into the realm of "the possible".  The opposite side of that coin is that leaders who consistently promise or demand the impossible quickly lose credibility and support as their promised policies never seem to actually materialize. The tea party has had to confront this reality in their headlong rush to repeal 'Obamacare'. Despite all their legislative and extra-constitutional manipulations, with a Democratic President in the White House that policy goal was never possible.

Which brings us, once again, the the 2016 Bernie Sanders phenomenon. Now a lot of my distaste for the Sanders campaign is not really Bernie at all, but rather the foul, obnoxious idiocy of many of his supporters. Their refusal to even consider that there might be one single tiny thing wrong with Saint Sanders, along with their willingness to immediately brand anyone who even asks legitimate questions as corrupt tools and closet right wing authoritarians characterizes the same kind of mindless ideological purity as we've been seeing out of the tea party right for ten years.


“Politics is the art of the possible, 

the attainable — the art of the next best”


Probably the most frustrating part of trying to have a rational conversation about Democratic presidential politics in 2016 is the immediate spittle flecked accusation that you are supporting the status quo, and if you'd just support CHANGE we could have all the stuff dreams are made of, from government paid healthcare to free college to the return of good manufacturing jobs to the US. If you're skeptical of these claims of unlimited political possibilities there for the taking, well, you must be benefiting from the status quo in some way or another, and are therefore a corrupt tool of the establishment.

Of course, this is deeply irrational. The status quo is the status quo - it exists for a reason, and that reason is a deeply entrenched political equilibrium. It IS true that if there was a pent-up demand in America for a systemic shift to a Democratic-Socialist political economy, then it would be possible to make that shift. But if that was the case, it would be happening. Instead, Sanders received millions of fewer votes than his more traditional primary opponent - the promised 'revolution' never materialized.

In the end, the facts are simple and obvious, and cannot be obfuscated by name-calling and temper tantrums. America is not a particularly 'liberal' electorate. If you passionately believe in the Sanders message, you are far from a majority in the US - you represent the left wing of the more liberal of the two major political parties. You don't want to hear it, but your views are 'extreme' in the context of American politics, and are entirely offset by a large, extreme far right constituency. The House of Representatives is structured at the level of the congressional district, of which there are many more low-population rural examples than diverse, cosmopolitan urban types, which results in generational Republican majority of that legislative body. Republicans control 31 of 50 statehouses.

These are not problems that can be wished away. This is the political reality in America today. It's interesting that for all the accusations of dishonesty against Clinton, she very clearly ran a more honest campaign than Sanders did. While Sanders was promising a revolution that would sweep away a hundred years of conservative governance and replace it with a far-left Denmark style high-tax/high service system, she was telling the truth about what could be accomplished against an unprecedented, even insane level of political obstruction from the Republicans.

There's nothing wrong with aspirational goals. But if that's all you have, you end up with nothing. It's better to recognize the limitations and obstructions one would confront as a leader, and do the hard work necessary to make change where change is possible. Anything else is irresponsible governance.
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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Musings on the Evolution of the Left in the Post Bernie Era

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Damn you people with your facts and your math
One thing this political cycle has done for me is to crystallize a few thoughts I've been considering around politics in general, and progressive politics in particular. First is the realization that, driven primarily by the internet and social media, progressive/liberal political activists have become infected with the same group-think/motivated reasoning/ideological purity demands that we've seen on the right, especially since the beginning of the tea party movement. Over time, they've moved away from the liberal tradition of thoughtful analysis, allowing the numbers and the models to drive policy solutions, to a point very much like the Republican belief system where the preferred policies are chosen upfront, and then defended with whatever derp-laden 'evidence' and justification they can come up with. This leads to the very aggressive push-back against anyone who asks straightforward questions about the math, or the implementation strategy, or the limits of constitutional authority. When you think about it, if their policies can't stand up under the basic scrutiny of a sympathetic liberal audience, how do they expect to make them into viable public policy they can sell to the nation as a whole?

A very good example of this is the Sanders mantra 'break up the TBTF banks'. Now, virtually all liberals would agree that this is a worthwhile policy goal. But we also point out, that as federal FinReg policy, it's probably not the most effective, and should perhaps be considered as a secondary option in an array of regulatory actions. Breaking up the banks does nothing to deal with the biggest problem, so-called 'shadow banking', and provides some incentives for banks to merely spin off a number of entities that can all grow right up to the designated TBTF threshold. Most economists think hard limits on leverage - significantly greater capital requirements - and a small tax/fee on certain kinds of high speed electronic transactions would protect the economy in a more robust manner, and make for a regulatory system much more difficult for the 'masters of the universe' to game out. But if you make that case, Sanders supporters will just accuse you of being corrupt pro-bankster.

Another trend that seems to keep growing is a kind of an 'ideological purity' conservative analog within the American Political Left. That is, the rise of a significant bloc of liberal activists who reject the slow pace and hard work of everyday real-world politics and demand complete ideological purity around a set of fairly radical policies. The obvious fact that many of these high-cost/high-tax government services and strong anti-capitalist government intervention in the private sector are not only unpopular politically, but actively opposed by a larger and more powerful opposition doesn't seem to matter. They have no answer to address the political realities standing between them and their goals, but they also don't seem to feel they need one. Just as the Tea Party bloc chafes in increasing frustration in the face of their inability to overcome basic constitutional limitations like a Presidential veto, this liberal-hating liberal bloc demands the implementation of the policies THEY prefer in the face of a huge, generational Republican hold on the House of Representatives, a broadly conservative federal judiciary and widespread conservative state-level governance. Again, ask them how they would overcome those roadblocks, the answer is "the people will rise up and sweep them away".

Perhaps this presumption that there is, somewhere, hiding in the nooks and crannies of the American electorate, a huge pent up demand for far left public policies is the greatest delusion of this political bloc. They told us people, particularly young people, would rise up and sweep Bernie Sanders into the White House, but at this point he's received millions of fewer votes than the more traditional Democrat Hillary Clinton, and young people continue to vote in very small numbers - as they always have.

At the end of the day, politics is about thoughtful, incremental change - revolutions are very rare, and they require some kind of triggering factor. Wealthy, safe, comfortable societies are typically not driven to radical political change. I am personally predisposed to technocratic solutions, where the process is as important as the goal. If you choose a tremendously ambitious goal and don't have a realistic, detailed plan for achieving it, you not only will fail, but you will open up the opportunity for the opposition to exploit your failure. Public policy is made by working together with the various factions and stakeholders, compromising to get to incremental progress. A scorched earth refusal to negotiate policy solutions in good faith is a certain path to retaining the status quo.
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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Trump's Foreign Policy - It's Certainly Incoherent, but is it Wrong?

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Asking the right questions,
offering the wrong answers
Virtually all other nations make decisions about international relations, alliances and belligerency based on a pragmatic sense of what is best for them.  They don't have the economic or military luxury to make unnecessary enemies or get involved in foreign conflicts that do not concern them directly, and may be, due to multiple factions and outside proxies, utterly unwinnable. The United States, of course, is different. With a globally dominant military and the largest economy in the world, American foreign policy can be made with a less narrow vision. And I think it's fair to say that, as the dominant world power, the US DOES have a responsibility to take on roles and missions that improve peace and stability throughout the world.

As president, Donald Trump proposes that we more closely examine the assumptions and claims around our foreign policy goals, to make certain that we are acting primarily - or perhaps in his vision exclusively - in our own best interest. Now, he has a very narrow understanding of what constitutes US interest, based substantially on extracting payments from our allies and forcing our adversaries to back down in the face of our belligerent threats, but being willing to consider these policies in terms of costs, benefits, realistic goals and historic understanding of the limits of military intervention is precisely what we should be doing more of.

I am one who believes there is a time and a place for humanitarian military intervention (Rwanda, Srebrinica, Misrata, Goma), and if the rest of the world won't do it then yes, we absolutely should. But other than in those rather unusual cases, American foreign policy and American interests should be at least fairly tightly aligned. ISIS, for example, is a regional problem. They are fighting in the civil war in Syria, and they are fighting a related insurgency in Iraq. They are a product of horrifically bad governance in the regional nations and a centuries-old sectarian dispute. They are a very serious problem in Riyadh, Tehran, Ankara and certainly Damascus, but they really are not a threat or a challenge to Washington. Those nations that have an immediate, local interest in resisting ISIS also have modern, powerful militaries, and are to the region what the US is to the globe. I can see NO reason why the US should be involved in that fight at all - if the Saudis and the Turks and the Iraqis and the Syrians can't be bothered to fight that battle, the US should recognize the hopelessness and pointlessness of her own involvement.

Look. American intervention in the Persian Gulf and North Africa has been an unmitigated disaster for a quarter century at least. Proposing that we change directions, espousing a different approach than Bush, Obama, Clinton, Biden and Sanders to varying degrees have taken since Gulf War I is not automatically wrong. There's certainly a lot of conflicting messages and outright cluelessness in Trump's positions, but this is a conversation we've GOT to start having. WHY are American troops still in Afghanistan? WHY should we escalate into Iraq AGAIN? Should we continue to risk a war with China over some uninhabited rocks in the China sea? Would we REALLY go to war against Russia over Latvia?

A peaceful, prosperous planet is in America's interest. To the extent that regional conflicts threaten that (do they REALLY?) then it's in America's interest to tamp them down, not inflame them. Islamic terrorism IS a problem - but it's almost universally a problem in Muslim nations. It's a series of unwinnable conflicts we don't have to fight - and a very good rule of thumb is that any war that isn't necessary is a war that shouldn't be fought.
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Sunday, April 10, 2016

Is There an Affirmative Case for a Bernie Sanders Presidency?

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Lovely...
The fact that Bernie Sanders has run a poor campaign is clear for anyone to see. From his insistence on using the term 'Socialist' to describe himself to his narrowly focused ideology to his unnecessary willingness to defend firearms manufacturers from lawsuits to his personal demeanor and appearance, he has sacrificed much in order retain the trappings of an obscure liberal northeastern politician. Obviously, no one, including Sanders himself, had any idea that there was going to be a significant constituency for his message, and that he might actually have been a viable contender from the beginning. It's interesting to imagine what the race would look like today if he had spent the previous year or two seriously building the image, message and operation necessary to compete in a major party presidential primary.

Alas, all that is water under the quaint Vermont water wheel. The math is, as they say, the math, and the primary process is structured to protect the lead of the frontrunner. In 2008 Obama led with only about 100 pledged delegates at the end of February, and even with a strong finish - including a win in California - Hillary Clinton was simply mathematically unable to close that gap. So we're left to consider what might have been, and to watch the sad, angry, often ugly recriminations from a populist constituency that never could quite figure out how to 'support' their candidate of choice.

In every campaign, particularly since the rise of cable news and digital media, it's important to separate the official campaign's messaging from that of its most passionate supporters. People frequently support a particular candidate for narrow or even ambiguous reasons, and often they are far too uninformed and politically naive to make a genuinely compelling argument in favor of that candidate. But it's impossible to pretend that the impressions and understanding of the supporters and fans aren't the direct result of the campaign itself. And while the Sanders campaign kept repeating its single tune about 'Wall Street Money' and income inequality - important issues, certainly, but not all by themselves the basis for a presidential campaign - his supporters were unable to find anything they could get their hands and heads around, any narrative they could weave that described why Sanders should be elected President.

If they couldn't make an argument in favor of Bernie Sanders, they were left looking for another approach. Ultimately, the Sanders constituency settled on a dual message: The media was biased against him and the Right Wing had been right all along about Hillary Clinton. She was horrible, toxic, corrupt, dishonest, a tool of banks and corporations and represented everything that was wrong with American governance. The media bias message is particularly incoherent - in a way it's similar to the more common conspiracy theories. The story is that the media is keeping the Sanders message from getting out, and in some cases even intentionally favoring Clinton in their coverage. How do they know this? Why, they can SEE it of course. It's just all those other people - presumably the people who favor Hillary Clinton - who are blind sheep who can't see that the media is fooling them. This is a classic closed-loop self-serving narrative, where the conspiracy is obvious but inexplicably only people who believe in the conspiracy can see it.

This approach has, necessarily, extended to attacking and smearing any pundit who even asked basic questions about the campaign's messaging. Even - or perhaps especially - iconic liberal voices have been repeatedly accused of corruption and self-interest. Paul Krugman is one of the popular liberal pundits that has come under vicious fire from Sanders supporters. One of the things I admire about him is his willingness to carefully examine his own beliefs and conclusions to make certain he's not arriving at them because they are things he truly would like to believe, but rather that they are borne out by the facts and models, and that they pass empirical as well as intuitive tests. So when he - as a Nobel Prize winning economist and author of the number one college economics textbook - asked specific questions about the Sanders economic plan, he was immediately smeared as a corporate tool (!!) and accused of angling for a job in the Clinton cabinet. They find it simply inconceivable that an economist might question the economic assumptions of a Presidential candidate.

Now, many of these attacks by Sanders supporters have been offensive, vile smears often descending into rank misogyny. But more annoying than that is their arrogant certainty - the absolute refusal to consider that someone might actually be offering principled support for Clinton, support based on something other than blatant corruption or outright evil. The belief that they are right, and all others are not just wrong, but intentionally wrong with malicious intent. When you couple that with their irrational belief that the majority of Americans would support extremely liberal economic and political policies, in spite of a century of evidence to the contrary - and the fact that Clinton has received almost three million MORE primary and caucus votes than Sanders at this point in the process - you find a deluded, irrational, angry, reactionary rabble. What you cannot find, sadly, is a single argument IN FAVOR of a Sanders presidency.
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