Archive | politics RSS for this section

Ignorant reflections on US politics

But There’ve been some comments in the light of the recent US election about reforming/abolishing the electoral college — after all, apparently, like Gore in 2000, Clinton got more votes but they were in the wrong places and so Trump won. Votes in less populous states count more, and so on.

I would argue, based on what I’ve read and seen, that there are more important things. The US needs an electoral commission, independent of Federal and State governments, that makes sure polling booths are equally available to all groups across the country. Voting systems need to be uniform. There need to be as many booths in non-white communities as in white, for example, and they need to be open. It needs to be easy to vote by post, in advance and from overseas. Recall Florida 2000 — Federal votes need to be immune from state-based interests.

That is a far bigger factor than the EC. I mean, sure, reform that — but you need to fix the bigger problems first. It needs to be easier to vote, equally easy everywhere. Once everyone gets to vote under a more uniform system, then you can get the inputs into the EC system to be more representative. At the moment the EC is GIGO, Fix the garbage going in first.

Second, once you’ve made it easy for everyone to vote, you would (ideally, though this will never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever happen) introduce what I call ‘compulsory attendance’. Put simply, you can fail to vote if you want to, but you have to show up (or postal vote or whatever) and tick the Brewster’s Millions box (draw a funny face on the ballot paper, whatever) or the Feds come after you. Failing to vote through apathy, or showing up and choosing not to vote for anybody because they all suck are two very different things, and send two very different messages, and what it does — and this is very important — is it removes the effect of voter turnout. Getting out the vote is discounted as a factor. That means there can be more focus on policy and genuine comparison of the parties. And you have to appeal to a wider range of voters, which tends to cut down on the more extreme ideas like Mexican walls. it is not undemocratic, because you do not have to vote, you just have to actually choose to not vote, rather than just be lazy.

But there’s no way you can have a law like that until everyone has an equal chance to vote, and right now that’s not the case.

Advertisements

A Fearful World of Walls

As I write this, Trump looks like wining the presidency of the USA. His capturing so much of the vote says much about the mindset of many people, and not just in the USA.

A happy people would not vote for Trump. A hopeful people would not vote for Trump. Forward looking people would not vote to Brexit, and generous people would not vote for governments that persecute people fleeing persecution — as both sides of politics do in my own country of Australia.

Clearly, the world, even (especially? no) the bits of it that are supposed to be wealthy, is not a happy place. Not confident. ‘Progress’ has let us down. Globalisation has given us cheap TVs but lousy job prospects, or so the narrative goes. The climate is about to make our way of life a lot more difficult. Things do not look good, whether you are following your gut or thinking very carefully. It looks more and more like the baby boomers will be the peak of western affluence, with the seemingly endless climb finally cresting and falling away as we spend our time dealing with the world as we have made it and they have left it.

And so countries want to retreat, to blame somebody then keep them out.

Trump is not a cause, but a symptom. Despite all the interconnections in the world, the web being pre-eminent these days, we either have not come to understand each other any better, or if we have we don’t like what we see.

His win is not the cataclysm some would suggest. He is such a policy-free zone (except for thought bubbles) that what really matters is which GoP figures end up pulling his strings. When, after the election, he is desperately casting about for actual programs and policies, then the GoP establishment can swoop in, present him with a ready-to-go program which he can preside over. The question is, what will that program be?

The real impact of a Trump presidency depends on who gets to put the agenda in front of him. We are in the hands of a Republican Party that has the House, the Senate and the Oval Office.

Yay.

 

Hmm…

Pretty good at what it is: The Professor by Rex Warner.

The Professor, Rex Warner, Penguin 1944 (171 pages).

This is a decent novel and a fascinating artefact. First published in 1938, it is a direct response to the tide of totalitarianism that was then sweeping across Europe. My copy was published in 1warecon1-prof944, when that trend had reached its dreadful apotheosis, and is distinctly of its time. Here I reproduce some of the adverts found on the back cover and inside the back of the book. ‘The front’ is a current metaphor for fighting the bristles on your chin; we have advice for extending the useful life of a nightie, and we’re told to remember how useful a product is, even though right now it is in short supply. The book itself is produced in accordance with the war economy standards, and the paper is noticeably thin and the cover rather floppy (yet here it is 70 years later, speaking something to what was considered a ‘cheap’ edition back then, and making me wonder whether some our standards might not be irrecoverably lower now than they were then). Having said that, the design is clearly pre-Tschichold, with it’s penguin that looks ready to collapse and blobby ‘Penguin Books’ logo at the top. One would think that if a book company is going to save trouble by not designing the covers individually, the least they could do would be get the one design they were using right.

"The

Anyway.

To the story; it is a fable, taking place in an unspecified county (not Britain) that shares a border with a great power — rather like a Baltic state glancing fearfully at the Russians, say, or Austria in 1937. The little country knows it cannot fight and win, and there are sections of its own population attracted to the certainty that dictatorship offers. As the government is in free-fall they try offering the Chancellorship (a position akin to the German position, or to a Prime Minister in a Westminster-type government) to The Professor, a respected academic whose work has centred on Greek and Latin literature, and the like. The Professor is intelligent but not worldly, and events soon overtake him. His options narrow, the people around him have their own agendas, and eventually the inevitable eventuates. On the way we meet a cross section of the community, we see how people cope with living under the imminent cloud of envelopment — some embrace it, some disappear into fantasy and denial, many do not really understand it and so manage quite well.

The Professor himself is a somewhat unsatisfactory and pedantic figure. Some of the supporting cast, through the very fact of being drawn more economically and perhaps therefore bluntly, are more alive than he is. He never quite becomes more than the puppet the plot, and the philosophy behind the work, demands. The prose is… precise, bordering on pedantic. Every clause carefully set off, every verb correctly subjected, no infinitives even within a mile of splittedness; it is as if the words are designed to match the personality of the protagonist; prim, academic and correct.
These things add up to making The Professor a very interesting book if you like looking at books and how they work. It is not a story for the fan of plot and counter plot and subplot and action and suspense.

Is it a book that speaks to our times now? I suspect the inhabitants of Ukraine or Taiwan or Tibet would say, ‘Yes, though Rex Warner doesn’t know the half of it.’

It’s short; if you see it kicking around, give it a go.

Or not.

We did fine at the Olympics, how about some other competitions?

So Australia apparently came 9th or 10th in the medal tally in Rio 2016, lower if you look at medals per per team member. So we had a relatively inefficient team; or we are more inclusive, who’s to say? The problem is, we are trying to be one of the ‘big’ Olympic nations when we have better things to do.

Anyway. There’s discussion in the Australian media about an under-performing Olympic team. Will it result in more funding? Less funding? Funding moved around seemingly at random? Probably the third. How are we doing on some more meaningful metrics? (These stats are from various recent years; some tables may even change. The ranking are as noted by me when I wrote this, in August 2016. I’m not being terribly scientific here.)

OECD Education ranking: 14th (and falling).

Life expectancy for females at birth: 9th.

Size of economy (GDP): 12th to 13th.

Research and development spending (real terms): 14th. As fraction of GDP: 16th.

Democracy index: 9th.

Welfare spending (fraction of GDP): 25th. Fraction spent on the poorest 20% of the population: 1st. (Benefits are heavily means tested in Australia.)

Gender equity index: 11th.

Intentional homicides per capita (36th, where 1st is lowest rate, which is a good thing).

Suicide rate: Approx. 57th (1st is lowest).

Number of Nobel Prize winners: Equal 15th.

Patent applications (2014): 10th.

Advertising spending per capita (2014): 2nd.

Global Peace Index (2014): 15th.

Manufacturing output: 15th.

Population: 57th.

Disposable income: 10th. Obesity: 44th.

 

And so on. Key point is, if we want to be ‘top 5’ in the world at the Olympics, then our priorities are all screwed up. There are dozens of much more important metrics where we should be aiming for top 5. Gold medals is not one of them.

 

Bah, humbug.

The Road to Hell, etc.: The Hohenzollerns by A.D.Innes

T.C. & E.C. Jack, London, 1915 (94 pages)

This excellent little history was written as world war I was breaking out, when the German unification under Bismarck and the Kaiser had reached its apotheosis but not yet its nadir. It begins, though written in 1914, with the assertion that Kaiser William II is unlikely to get what he wants from the current war, and that “an appreciable curtailment of the powers of the house of Hohenzollern will be the inevitable and fortunate alternative.” Much of what the author says is equally perceptive.
The book begins with an introduction, then moves on to explore the founding of Prussia, its rise to prominence, the epochal figure of Frederick the Great and then the consolidation of the fragments of the German region – bits of the Holy Roman Empire, various duchies and independent cities — into the German empire. And then we seen how the same concerns that drove Hitler — the will to power, the sense of destiny, the fear of encirclement with France and the British Empire on one side and Russia on the other, even the belief in world-wide conspiracies designed to prevent the German nation achieving its destiny — lead to military build-up and, with utter inevitability, world war.

cover0004

The Hohenzollerns by A.D.Innes.

“…the Kaiser has always found it necessary — and not at all difficult — to persuade his people that he is the least aggressive of men, and that any appearance of aggression must be attributed entirely to the hypocritical craft of treacherous foes. The Kaiser’s greatest and tragical triumph lies in this, that to-day the bulk of the German nation is probably honestly convinced that William in 1914, like Frederick in 1856, drew the sword only to save the German nation from destruction at the hands unscrupulous and wanton enemies of whom the most unscrupulous and the most wanton is Great Britain.”

The same words could have been written about a different dictator in 1939 and it is nice, though perhaps taken for granted, that this is marginally less likely these days in Europe, at least in the major nations (excluding Russia) (add other caveats here). Even now, with the UK voting (misguidedly? regretfully?) to leave the EU, there is still a preference for talk and collaboration. Today one has to look elsewhere,. notably Russia and China, to see these attitudes; though sadly they are there. The sense of entitlement (like in the South China Sea right now), the us-against-them rhetoric, the “everybody else is to blame” pronouncements. Europe, it seems, has learned; but not humankind as a whole. It is sad that one part of the globe cannot learn from the tragedies of another part, that victors (for so the Russians were in WWII, and so the Chinese Communist Party was in 1948) cannot learn the lessons forced upon the vanquished.

Yet so it would seem. Reading history shows us that until nuclear weapons gave us the power to actually wipe out entire nations, and to (more importantly) be wiped out ourselves, war, all-out war between major powers, was indeed an acceptable, even popular, means of conducting foreign policy. Given the proxy wars, the civil wars, the religious wars, that go on and on and on, one is forced to conclude that even if we dislike war as individuals, we approve of it as a species, and we have learned next to nothing. Perhaps to-day we have a better sense of how we should behave.

The road to Hell, etc.

History does not tell us that we learn nothing from history; but the learning is rather incremental.

 

Incremental as anything.

Brexit vs Remain: A comment from a distance, or: Another reason for compulsory voting (or at least compulsory turning up)

Apart from the many ramifications of the result, surely one of the most interesting lessons of the UK vote to leave the EU is the way young people voted overwhelmingly to stay, while the vote to leave got progressively more dominant as the voters got older.

The key graphic is this one:

Remain/Leave as a function of voter age.

Remain/Leave as a function of voter age.

Some questions come to mind; what fractions of each group voted? As far as I know, voting is not compulsory in the UK, and voter turnout varies with age. It turns out only about 36% of the youngest category voted — so the apathetic got what they deserve, which is to say exactly what they presumably did not want.

But there is the deeper question of the working of democracy. Now, we can’t really go away from all votes counting for ‘one’, yet, but it is true that votes are already not equal. Not all districts have the same number of electors. In Australia all states get 12 senators, even though Tasmania has about the same population as Newcastle and Wollongong combined, and those two cities do not get 6 senators each. We already fiddle with the votes for historical or woolly ‘equity’ reasons.  We talk about ‘positive discrimination’ in the workplace; how about at the ballot box?…

 

weighting_the_votes-small

…yet is is easy to believe that wealthy, established, retired people are perhaps not going to be strongly motivated to vote in ways that will benefit the nation as a whole in the long term as much as younger people who are going to have to live and work in the nation long term.

We are seeing its influence all about us, in all the western democracies with aging populations. We see it in Australia where changes that might make it easier for younger people to buy homes or get an education get stymied by the vested interests of the investment-property owning classes, who didn’t have to pay for their own university degrees but who don’t want to contribute to anyone else getting a leg up either. Well, that’s a gross generalisation, but then, isn’t that another name for ‘democracy’?

Maybe one good of Brexit will be all the young voters who now realise they should have got off their arses. In Australia we have compulsory voting (or, at least, compulsory turning up to get your name crossed off the roll — you can still choose to disenfranchise yourself after that by putting an empty paper into the box, so there’s no real loss of ‘freedom’, except the freedom to not take part at all) — I wonder if the Brits are thinking about implementing that now… Forcing people to choose apathy looks smarter and smarter all the time.

 

Or else.

A Letter to my Member of Parliament

Dear Dr Hendy

I am a resident of Yass Valley, so I write to welcome you as our new member since the boundaries were redrawn. I note that you are a highly educated man, with great experience in economics. With this is mind, I do have a question.

I was recently reading an article called ‘The Cost of Delaying Action to Stem Climate Change’, published by no less an authority than the US government — the document is at the link below. I urge you to take a look if you have not already done so. It is sober, carefully considered and yet rather frightening:

http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/the_cost_of_delaying_action_to_stem_climate_change.pdf

Some key quotes:

“Second, the costs of climate change increase nonlinearly with the temperature change.”

“The higher carbon prices after a delay typically lead to higher total costs than a policy that would impose the carbon price today.”

In other words, while action in the short term is costly, failing to act strongly and immediately will have far more dire consequences for jobs and growth. ‘Jobs and growth’ is a phrase we hear often, yet it seems to me that not enough is being done to factor in the extraordinarily large costs of battling climate change as it gets worse, something which is bound to affect jobs and growth. We have already had flood levies from the Queensland floods, and drought packages. As the climate becomes more extreme the resources we need to put into helping victims of extreme weather will increase. Food production will become less reliable. Our Pacific neighbours may become less politically stable. There are many ‘knock-on’ costs with climate change that will become incredibly expensive, and the taxpayer will have to bear the burden.

I have kids and I want them to be able to obtain meaningful employment and a good standard of living. I agree that small business and innovation are some of the keys to the future. I would add scientific and technological advances resulting from fundamental research. But small businesses will struggle in an economy expending all its resources holding back the tide of environmental change. If an ever-increasing fraction of GDP has to go into climate change abatement because we failed to act soon enough, that will be less money for schools, for health, for welfare — and that means fewer opportunities and a lower standard of living, not a higher one. The benefits of short-term growth will have massive costs down the track, and result in a nett loss.

I am troubled by the way our recent governments of both colours have failed to plan for the years to come. They just don’t care about our kids, no matter what they might say. I see no evidence that either party cares what sort of a world we have in 2040, let alone 2100. A child born today could well be alive in 2100 – yet we are doing precious little to preserve their inheritance. For example, clearly the LNP is prepared to lose the Barrier Reef, despite its economic and natural value. I do not understand how this is considered acceptable, yet nothing is being done, as the recent budget attests. Were I a cynic, I would suggest that the LNP is not prepared make decisions that might upset its key stakeholders in industry. Governments that do nothing in the face of the single biggest threat to ever face use as a species — apart perhaps from the cold war — are remiss and not competent to lead. Right now there is one issue that dwarfs all others, and the LNP is failing to meet it.

I hope you will use your position to try to sway things in the right direction. My kids are depending on you and your colleagues to see to it that they inherit a liveable, viable land.

Best wishes

Darren Goossens

 


 

Of course, they don’t really listen.

A likely story: a review of France: A modern history by Albert Guérard.

This modern history dates from 1969, just after the establishment of the Fifth Republic.  It begins with the Palaeolithic, and calls itself a biography of a nation.

Title page of the book as it says it is. France.

Title page of the book as it says it is. France.

There is a sense about the book of the author explaining France to the Anglo-American world, and of elucidating the French sensibility, one that is both nationalistic and pound and yet aware that the nation is not all (“Above France, civilisation.”).  The book is opinionated, pithy, supportive of religion in general, and at times defensive.  It is an idiosyncratic work, factual as far as I can tell.  Some passages resonate today:

Arab nationalism, now such a burning problem for the French and for the whole world, had its inception in the efforts of the Young Turks to impose the supremacy of the Osmanlis.  It was sharpened when, after fighting on the side of the Allies, the Arabs, and not the Turks, were placed under tutelage, as though they were the lesser breed.  It was goaded into frenzy when the Zionist state was forced upon them, without any regard for their sentiments.  It became more darkly fanatical when financial aid was proffered to Egypt, on the condition that the donors were to dictate its policy.  The Arabs, in Cairo, in Iraq, in Algiers, will refuse to be bought.  Prosperity may be a substitute for dignity, for a handful of profiteer: never for the depths of a people.

There is much in this to argue with and at the same time much that is perceptive.  This is a good summary of the book.

Worth a look for the student of European history.

Of course.

The Hollow Man, Filled with Hate

Hitler by Joachim C. Fest, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1974. 844 pages. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston.

Title page of <i>Hitler</i> by J.C.Fest.  Cancelled from the Monash University library.

Title page of Hitler by J.C.Fest. Cancelled from the Monash University library.

 

This is a biography, though after about 1933 it really becomes a history of the third Reich, albeit one that pays even more attention that usual to the Führer‘s quirks and foibles — for Hitler is always, always, viewed from some distance. The tenor is more like a biography of some figure shrouded in the depths of history, a Hannibal, perhaps, or a Otto III. After a discussion of Hitler’s origins, his formative influences and his time in Vienna, there are very few glimpses of his private life. He fell in love with a half-niece of his, Geli Raubal but she killed herself in the early thirties, possibly to get away from him, and this appears to be an event that affected him deeply and permanently. But beyond that there is very little here that is truly personal.  He liked to (or felt compelled to) pontificate for hours in the evenings to an audience that felt compelled to listen politely. And he liked his Wagner.  But he never shapes up as a whole man.  Can this be done?  Do his deeds make it impossible to (want to) consider him as a rounded human being, or was there no such thing present in the first place?  In that sense he remains a hole at the centre of the book.

So the usual examination of private life as found in almost every modern biography is absent. Hitler ate simple meals, loved his dogs and was a mess of neuroses, anxieties, mad theories and cunning, but his dreams, errors and ‘achievements’ were all written out in his actions, as if he had no private life, no thoughts beside the grandiose.  He had his dreams — like emptying the Crimea and importing the whole population of the South Tyrol to live there, like establishing Berlin as a world capital — but they were all akin to the things he did do. There are few private dreams (though he did imagine retiring to curate and art gallery), no personal scandals, no jilted lovers and divorced wives.  Not even a drinking problem (though there is an apparent dependence on mood altering drugs as the war went on, but even those are more to keep him functioning in a mechanical, lifeless kind of way). Even Eva Braun barely gains a mention, and given her tightly circumscribed role in Hitler’s life, this is as it should be.

The book opens with a prologue, (provocatively?) titled ‘Hitler and Historical Greatness’. It makes the point that, had he died in 1938, he would have been seen as the rebuilder of Germany, a man who, yes, had some unseemly quirks, but who put a great nation back on its feet, gave it confidence and set it on the path to recovery after the grim years of the Weimar republic and the depression. (I am not so sure — Hitler’s Germany was paying its bills by printing money and would have come undone financially had it not gone to war, I suspect.)

We see the miasma of anti-Semitism and German nationalism that existed in pre-WWI Vienna, we see the reaction to the ‘betrayal’ of 1918, the anger created by the Versailles treaty and war reparations — Hitler comes out (inevitably, perhaps) as a mix of his inherent nature (his ability to judge and manipulate people, his uncanny abilities as an orator, his unshakeable belief that he and he alone knew what to do and how) and the environment that shaped him, that let his warped genius thrive. The way he turned so many reversals into triumphs in the early years, the faith he had in his own vision and his own leadership, these things are remarkable and show him as just as driven, compulsive, and inflexible in the 1920s as he was in the 1940s.  Crucially, Fest clearly demonstrates that Hitler did not ‘go crazy’ as the war went against him. Indeed, the war stripped away a veneer of reasonableness which he had put on in the 1920s as part of his strategy to gain power, and showed him more clearly as what he always had been. His consistency is remarkable. The war of 1939, the turning against Russia in search of lebensraum, the Holocaust, his ongoing desire to reach an understanding with the British Empire (basically, “you let me do as I like in Europe, and I won’t challenge you at sea, do we have a deal?”); it is all in Mein Kampf or one of his early speeches. One of the many remarkable sides to the story is just how frank Hitler was in his statements of intent, and yet how, when he switched tactics and extolled peace and made political deals in the 1930s, statesmen were prepared to — were desperate to — believe him.

We see how the many opportunities to halt his momentum were wasted, right up to the phoney war of 1940, when 100 French divisions could — as they had promised Poland they would — have rolled into western Germany in the face of at most 25 German divisions. But his grasp of the lack of will in his opponents was uncanny. Indeed, amidst the cavalcade of weak leadership, the arrival of Churchill — glimpsed tangentially here — only grows in importance.  Germany was never strong enough in men and material to wage a massive war of attrition, and when the rapid victories ceased, doom was a matter of time.  (That, says Fest, is the true reason behind blitzkrieg.)  When an implacable foe arose, Hitler was oddly powerless.  He could not understand a man who would not negotiate opportunistically.

War, it is clear, was inevitable — it was his aim all along. The politicking of the 1930s was explicitly a preliminary for war. He did not strengthen Germany to improve the lives of Germans but to create an arsenal. He could not have drawn back, pleased with building his greater Germany after the Anschluss and his success in Czechoslovakia any more than he could have ceased his anti-Semitism or fear/hatred of Bolshevism.

Similarly, even more grimly, the minorities he oppressed were always doomed. The Holocaust was no striking out of a doomed regime but integral to the machinery of state. Nazi Germany was ruled by a political system built on obedience, violence, and exclusion. The Holocaust was a completely natural extension of Hitler’s racial theories and of his anti-Semitism, both of which pre-dated even World War I.

Hitler, the prologue suggests, made a lot of history, yet there was no greatness in him. He was a small man, full of fear, vindictiveness and wrong-headed idiocy, yet convinced of his own destiny such that he managed to drag a whole nation, one in desperate need of self-belief and revenge, along with him to its doom.

As we already knew, nobody wins.

 

More broadly.

Quote of the Day: “we actually destroyed the places as well.”

Cover of <i>Drawing the Line</i>

Cover of Drawing the Line.

As different views of a common terrain, the Israeli and Palestinian maps signify not only different cultural perceptions of the region but the bitter polarization of mortal enemies. By creating new settlements and constructed features, the Israelis have had a more profound impact than earlier regimes. As Benvenisti observed, “We have done more than create a paper empire. We have actually transformed the physical reality, built cities, drained marshes, made the desert bloom. We not only eradicated Arab place-names, we actually destroyed the places as well.” The Palestinians deeply resent this, of course, and their research institutes in Beirut and refugee camps throughout the region feed the hunger for a restored Palestinian homeland by persistently promoting a pre-1948 map of Palestine that denies the existence of Jewish settlements, boundaries, and place-names. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has hardened to the point where, in Benvenisti’s words, “maps cease being geographical and turn into an act of faith, a call for action, for revenge.” […] The need to rename places is perhaps strongest among people insecure about their territory.

 

Drawing the Line, by Mark Monmonier.