Sunday, May 28, 2017

The ruinous history of free trade, Part 1

November 6, 1860. Abraham Lincoln has been made President by a 39.8 percent plurality of votes. The Democratic Party had split in two over the issue of slavery expansion during its national convention in Charleston, South Carolina in late April. Almost exactly one month after the election, Robert Barnwell Rhett, publisher of the Charleston Mercury and the most open proponent of secession, walked along Meeting Street, almost to the southern tip of the peninsula Charleston is built on. He stopped at a house and knocked on the door. Now that secession was being planned, Rhett had come to talk with the Consul of Great Britain, Robert Bunch, about the �commercial prospects� of the South.

Once the two men had exchanged carefully courteous greetings, Rhett got right to the point.
Rhett asked Bunch how he thought Britain would act if ships arrived in its ports that came from the seceding states but did not have clearances from the customs collectors of the Federal government�assuming, of course, the Federal government didn�t object to their sailing and wasn�t going to �coerce the Seceders back into the Union.�
Rhett had represented South Carolina in the U.S. Senate in the early 1850s, so the British consul addressed Rhett with the honorific. �Is that what you believe will happen, Senator?� Bunch asked. Rhett replied:
�The course most likely to be pursued by the President is that he will not acknowledge the right of a State to secede as an abstract question, but practically, he will not interfere with it for doing so�. Foreign nations would be at perfect liberty to consider secession as an accomplished fact and to use their own discretion as to recognizing or making treaties with the new state.�
Bunch answered that he could not provide an official reply, since her majesty�s government had not yet provided him any instructions on the matter, and in fact had probably not even considered the issue yet. Bunch then slyly provoked Rhett by noting that most foreign governments, including his own, would take their guidance from whatever position the President and the Congress of the United States settled on.

This pushed Rhett to go directly to the heart of the matter, according to Bunch�s biographer:
[Rhett] expected the cottons states to form a Confederacy within the next sixty days, and he wanted to make it clear that �the wishes and hopes of the Southern states centered in England�; that they would prefer an alliance with her to any other power; that they would be their best customer; that free trade would form an integral portion of this scheme of government, with import duties of nominal amount and �direct communication by steam between the Southern and British ports.�
This conversation was communicated by Bunch to his superiors in the Foreign Office in London, and are part of the original documents used and quoted by Bunch�s biographer, Christopher Dickey, in his book, Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South (2015, Broadway Books / Penguin Random House, New York, NY, pages 179-184).

Monday, May 22, 2017

If China Can Fund Infrastructure With Its Own Credit, So Can We

The basic truth about money is that it doesn't matter what it is made of compared to what are the mechanisms for making it valuable. Money that can be traded for necessary items such as food and energy is always valuable. Money created to fund human inventiveness also falls into this category. Which is why people who understand this know that so long as it is spent to create necessary items such as infrastructure, the amount of money that can be created without triggering inflation is nearly limitless. The key is spending the new money right away on the products of human genius and hard work.

And so we see that China could build 12,000 miles of high-speed rail in a decade (among a host of other major infrastructure projects) without becoming Zimbabwe. If China had created a massive pile of new money and used it to fund a massive global shopping spree, the outcome would have been dramatically different.

Here's to Ellen Brown who has rediscovered the arguments for why massive amounts of fiat money CAN (under the right conditions) lead to massive increases in prosperity. And because climate change can only be meaningfully addressed by massive amounts of new and significantly redesigned infrastructure, and since this project is absolutely necessary for continued human life on earth, Brown is addressing THE most important topic in all of political economy.

If China Can Fund Infrastructure With Its Own Credit, So Can We

by ELLEN BROWN, MAY 18, 2017

May 15th-19th has been designated �National Infrastructure Week� by the US Chambers of Commerce, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and over 150 affiliates. Their message: �It�s time to rebuild.� Ever since ASCE began issuing its �National Infrastructure Report Card� in 1998, the nation has gotten a dismal grade of D or D+. In the meantime, the estimated cost of fixing its infrastructure has gone up from $1.3 trillion to $4.6 trillion.

While American politicians debate endlessly over how to finance the needed fixes and which ones to implement, the Chinese have managed to fund massive infrastructure projects all across their country, including 12,000 miles of high-speed rail built just in the last decade. How have they done it, and why can�t we?

A key difference between China and the US is that the Chinese government owns the majority of its banks. About 40% of the funding for its giant railway project comes from bonds issued by the Ministry of Railway, 10-20% comes from provincial and local governments, and the remaining 40-50% is provided by loans from federally-owned banks and financial institutions. Like private banks, state-owned banks simply create money as credit on their books. (More on this below.) The difference is that they return their profits to the government, making the loans interest-free; and the loans can be rolled over indefinitely. In effect, the Chinese government decides what work it wants done, draws on its own national credit card, pays Chinese workers to do it, and repays the loans with the proceeds.

The US government could do that too, without raising taxes, slashing services, cutting pensions, or privatizing industries. How this could be done quickly and cheaply will be considered here, after a look at the funding proposals currently on the table and at why they are not satisfactory solutions to the nation�s growing infrastructure deficit.

The Endless Debate over Funding and the Relentless Push to Privatize

In a May 15, 2017, report on In the Public Interest, the debate taking shape heading into National Infrastructure Week was summarized like this:
The Trump administration, road privatization industry, and a broad mix of congressional leaders are keen on ramping up a large private financing component (under the marketing rubric of �public-private partnerships�), but have not yet reached full agreement on what the proportion should be between tax breaks and new public money�and where that money would come from. Over 500 projects are being pitched to the White House. . . .

Democrats have had a full plan on the table since January, advocating for new federal funding and a program of infrastructure renewal spread through a broad range of sectors and regions. And last week, a coalition of right wing, Koch-backed groups led by Freedom Partners . . . released a letter encouraging Congress �to prioritize fiscal responsibility� and focus instead on slashing public transportation, splitting up transportation policy into the individual states, and eliminating labor and environmental protections (i.e., gutting the permitting process). They attacked the idea of a national infrastructure bank and . . . targeted the most important proposal of the Trump administration . . . �to finance new infrastructure by tax reform to enable repatriation of overseas corporate revenues . . .
In a November 2014 editorial titled �How Two Billionaires Are Destroying High Speed Rail in America,� author Julie Doubleday observed that the US push against public mass transit has been led by a think tank called the Reason Foundation, which is funded by the Koch brothers. Their $44 billion fortune comes largely from Koch Industries, an oil and gas conglomerate with a vested interest in mass transit�s competitors, those single-rider vehicles using the roads that are heavily subsidized by the federal government.

Clearly, not all Republicans are opposed to funding infrastructure, since Donald Trump�s $1 trillion infrastructure plan was a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, and his Republican base voted him into office. But �establishment Republicans� have traditionally opposed infrastructure spending. Why? According to a May 15, 2015 article in Daily Kos titled �Why Do Republicans Really Oppose Infrastructure Spending?�:
Republicans � at the behest of their mega-bank/private equity patrons � really, deeply want to privatize the nation�s infrastructure and turn such public resources into privately owned, profit centers. More than anything else, this privatization fetish explains Republicans� efforts to gut and discredit public infrastructure . . . .

If the goal is to privatize and monetize public assets, the last thing Republicans are going to do is fund and maintain public confidence in such assets. Rather, when private equity wants to acquire something, the typical playbook is to first make sure that such assets are what is known as �distressed assets� (i.e., cheaper to buy).
A similar argument was advanced by Noam Chomsky in a 2011 lecture titled �The State-Corporate Complex: A Threat to Freedom and Survival�. He said:
[T]here is a standard technique of privatization, namely defund what you want to privatize. Like when Thatcher wanted to [privatize] the railroads, first thing to do is defund them, then they don�t work and people get angry and they want a change. You say okay, privatize them . . . .
What�s Wrong with Public-Private Partnerships?

Privatization (or �asset relocation� as it is sometimes euphemistically called) means selling public utilities to private equity investors, who them rent them back to the public, squeezing profits from high user fees and tolls. Private equity investment now generates an average return of about 11.8 percent annually on a ten-year basis. That puts the cost to the public of financing $1 trillion in infrastructure projects over 10 years at around $1.18 trillion, more than doubling the cost. Moving assets off the government�s balance sheet by privatizing them looks attractive to politicians concerned with this year�s bottom line, but it�s a bad deal for the public. Decades from now, people will still be paying higher tolls for the sake of Wall Street profits on an asset that could have belonged to them all along.

One example is the Dulles Greenway, a toll road outside Washington, D.C., nicknamed the �Champagne Highway� due to its extraordinarily high rates and severe underutilization in a region crippled by chronic traffic problems. Local (mostly Republican) officials have tried in vain for years to either force the private owners to lower the toll rates or have the state take the road into public ownership. In 2014, the private operators of the Indiana Toll Road, one of the best-known public-private partnerships (PPPs), filed for bankruptcy after demand dropped, due at least in part to rising toll rates. Other high-profile PPP bankruptcies have occurred in San Diego, CA; Richmond, VA; and Texas.

Countering the dogma that �private companies can always do it better and cheaper,� studies have found that on average, private contractors charge more than twice as much as the government would have paid federal workers for the same job. A 2011 report by the Brookings Institution found that �in practice [PPPs] have been dogged by contract design problems, waste, and unrealistic expectations.� In their 2015 report �Why Public-Private Partnerships Don�t Work,� Public Services International stated that �[E]xperience over the last 15 years shows that PPPs are an expensive and inefficient way of financing infrastructure and divert government spending away from other public services. They conceal public borrowing, while providing long-term state guarantees for profits to private companies.� They also divert public money away from the neediest infrastructure projects, which may not deliver sizable returns, in favor of those big-ticket items that will deliver hefty profits to investors.

A Better Way to Design an Infrastructure Bank

The Trump team has also reportedly discussed the possibility of an infrastructure bank, but that proposal faces similar hurdles. The details of the proposal are as yet unknown, but past conceptions of an infrastructure bank envision a quasi-bank (not a physical, deposit-taking institution) seeded by the federal government, possibly from taxes on the repatriation of offshore corporate profits. The bank would issue bonds, tax credits, and loan guarantees to state and local governments to leverage private sector investment. As with the private equity proposal, an infrastructure bank would rely on public-private partnerships and investors who would be disinclined to invest in projects that did not generate hefty returns. And those returns would again be paid by the public in the form of tolls, fees, higher rates, and payments from state and local governments.

There is another way to set up a publicly-owned bank. Today�s infrastructure banks are basically revolving funds. A dollar invested is a dollar lent, which must return to the bank (with interest) before it can be lent again. A chartered depository bank, on the other hand, can turn a one-dollar investment into ten dollars in loans. It can do this because depository banks actually create deposits when they make loans. This was acknowledged by economists both at the Bank of England (in a March 2014 paper entitled �Money Creation in the Modern Economy�) and at the Bundesbank (the German central bank) in an April 2017 report.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, money is not fixed and scarce. It is �elastic�: it is created when loans are made and extinguished when they are paid off. The Bank of England report said that private banks create nearly 97 percent of the money supply today. Borrowing from banks (rather than the bond market) expands the circulating money supply. This is something the Federal Reserve tried but failed to do with its quantitative easing (QE) policies: stimulate the economy by expanding the bank lending that expands the money supply.

The stellar (and only) model of a publicly-owned depository bank in the United States is the Bank of North Dakota (BND). It holds all of its home state�s revenues as deposits by law, acting as a sort of �mini-Fed� for North Dakota. According to reports, the BND is more profitable even than Goldman Sachs, has a better credit rating than J.P. Morgan Chase, and has seen solid profit growth for almost 15 years. The BND continued to report record profits after two years of oil bust in the state, suggesting that it is highly profitable on its own merits because of its business model. The BND does not pay bonuses, fees, or commissions; has no high paid executives; does not speculate on risky derivatives; does not have multiple branches; does not need to advertise; and does not have private shareholders seeking short-term profits. The profits return to the bank, which distributes them as dividends to the state.

The federal government could set up a bank on a similar model. It has massive revenues, which it could leverage into credit for its own purposes. Since financing is typically about 50 percent of the cost of infrastructure, the government could cut infrastructure costs in half by borrowing from its own bank. Public-private partnerships are a good deal for investors but a bad deal for the public. The federal government can generate its own credit without private financial middlemen. That is how China does it, and we can too.

For more detail on this and other ways to solve the infrastructure problem without raising taxes, slashing services, or privatizing public assets, see Ellen Brown, �Rebuilding America�s Infrastructure,�a policy brief for the Next System Project, March 2017. more

Saturday, May 20, 2017

'Doomsday� seed vault meant to survive global disasters breached by climate change

Those of us who live in the frozen north tend, I believe, to understand more of the nuances and implications of climate change. We burn FAR more than our share of fuels, we are the folks who made industrialization happen, and even the slowest among us understand that without fuels, the cold will kill us very quickly. The overwhelming majority of the land on earth is found in the northern hemisphere so not surprisingly, most of the more dramatic manifestations of climate change happen where we cold-weather fire-starters set up our civilizations.

But even assuming that, the two stories below are amazing. One concerns how melting permafrost in Norway is threatening the seed vault that was supposed to protect the plant genetics of the planet for "eternity." The other concerns the likelihood that a failed Gulf Stream could leave Europe with the charming weather of North Dakota.

In all fairness, because we cold-weather denizens use an outsized share of carbon fuels, we should be threatened by most of the big climate-change disasters. Once upon a time, not so long ago, we would be just the folks to tackle a solution for such possible catastrophes. Unfortunately, the culture of the North is a shadow of what it was just two or three generations ago.

'Doomsday� seed vault meant to survive global disasters breached by climate change

Fortunately, no seeds were damaged

by Alessandra Potenza@ale_potenza May 19, 2017

The seed bank designed to preserve the world�s crops and plants in the event of global disaster isn�t prepared to withstand the greatest global disaster facing our planet: global warming. Melting permafrost on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, where the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located, has seeped into the seed bank, raising questions of how the structure will be able to survive in the future as the Earth keeps warming.

The seed vault is built in an abandoned Arctic coal mine, deep inside a mountain. It contains about a million packets of seeds from almost every country in the world, representing �the most diverse collection of food crop seeds.� In 2015, the ongoing civil war in Syria prompted researchers in the Middle East to withdraw some seeds to replace those previously stored in a gene bank in war-torn Aleppo.

The structure was built underneath the permafrost so it could be �a fail-safe seed storage facility, built to stand the test of time � and the challenge of natural or man-made disasters,� as the seed bank�s website says. But oh, the irony. Unusually warm temperatures in the winter have caused rain, and the permafrost has been melting. �It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that,� Hege Njaa Aschim, from the Norwegian government, which owns the vault, told The Guardian.

Fortunately, the water hasn�t flooded the vault itself. It only got to the entrance of the tunnel, where it froze. (The seeds are stored at minus 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit.) But the incident has raised questions over the durability of a seed bank that was supposed to operate without people�s intervention.

The vault managers are now waterproofing the facility and digging trenches to channel melt and rainwater away, according to The Guardian. They�ve also installed pumps in case the vault floods again. �We have to find solutions. It is a big responsibility and we take it very seriously. We are doing this for the world,� �smund Asdal at the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre, which operates the seed vault, told The Guardian. �This is supposed to last for eternity.� more

Collapse of Gulf Stream poses threat to life as we know it

Tamsin Walker, 11.01.2017

New research suggests the Gulf Stream system that grants Europe and parts of North America its temperate climate cannot weather global warming. Should we be worried?

There's nothing quite like an out-there climate prediction to elicit a looming end-of-the-world scenario from the doomsday press. The findings from recent research into what is known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) - or the Gulf Stream system - have presented just such an opportunity.

The study, which was published in Science Advances, explores the "overlooked" possibility that the Gulf Stream system could collapse under climate change, bringing with it a period of "prominent cooling" that would have significant implications for life as we know it.

And the way we know it is as such: the Gulf Stream brings warm water from the tropics all the way to the North Atlantic, where its warmth is released into the atmosphere, thereby helping to regulate global climate and weather patterns. As the water loses its heat, it becomes denser, making it sink and eventually circulate back to the warmer climes of the tropics to eventually begin its voyage again.

The existence of the Gulf Stream makes possible the relatively temperate climates in Europe and parts of North America.

If, however, carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise - and as a consequence, heat the air around the North Atlantic - the water in the Gulf Stream system would not be able to cool down, so would thus not be able to sink and circulate back to the tropics.

And that, says the study, could lead to a complete collapse of the regulatory flow "300 years after the atmospheric CO2 concentration is abruptly doubled from the 1990 level."

Meaning, parts of the northern hemisphere would be looking at temperature drops of up to 7 degrees Celsius (almost 13 degrees Fahrenheit). And that takes us back to the doomsday predictions.

Not looking at an ice age scenario

"When you tell people there is a risk of cooling, they talk about an 'end of the world ice age,'" Stefan Rahmstorf, head of Earth System Analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research (PIK) in Berlin told DW, adding that it is "extremely exaggerated."

A case in point is the concept that based on a comparison between our future and paleoclimatic records, descent into climatic frigidity could occur over the period of a human lifetime.

"We know this has happened in the past," Rahmstorf continued. "But that was during the last ice age, when we saw a massive sliding of continental ice into the Atlantic Ocean."

While Rahmstorf, who is among the leading climatologists in the world, sees little sense in comparing that past extreme with our unwritten future, he stresses that the study's prediction of 300 years "is not the final word."

"No way," he says. Not least because the model the researchers used for the study fails to factor in meltwater from Greenland, which could speed up the process of any collapse.

Author Wei Liu of Yale University acknowledges he is in the early stages of his work. "This is just a first step," he told DW, adding that he and his colleagues are already planning further research that he hopes will deliver more detailed results.

"The 300-year collapse, and extent and degree of North Atlantic cooling, may be subject to change for different models and different warming scenarios."

He says the model he used for this study was based on a "moderate" one, but that it has "opened a window" for further research.

Prevention is the cure

Rahmstorf, whose own research over the past two decades has led him to believe there is "quite a serious" risk that global warming will cause a slowdown in the Gulf Stream system, says Lui's research serves two main purposes.

"To make the wider climate modeling community aware of a potential risk that has not been properly evaluated, and to inform the public that there are risks of tipping points in the climate system that are poorly understood, and that may well have been underestimated in the past."

Exactly what that translates to in terms of the future face of northern Europe in particular, is, Rahmstorf adds, impossible to predict.

"If it were to break it down, it would imply such a massive change that I would be hard-pressed to make specific forecasts on human society."

And, like other scientists, he says that to alert rather than alarm the world. Rahmstorf means it as a call to action of sorts - a chance to prevent any doomsday scenario spun to make headlines from becoming a reality. And as Liu also points out, there is one way to insure that doesn't happen.

"A collapse of AMOC would be triggered by global warming, by the CO2 increase that warms the water in the North Atlantic - so if we want to prevent this collapse and reduce this possibility, we have to decrease the level of CO2." more

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

USA auto sales drop for four straight months

Probably the main observation from my Chicago trip was the seemingly huge mismatch between the purveyors of high quality goods at amazingly reasonable prices presented with all the �lan the marketing geniuses can muster and the lack of shoppers buying these offerings. There is something definitely weird about the economy that does not seem to be showing up in the big-time statistics such as unemployment and inflation. Yes, there are those who watch retail sales who see some major-league catastrophes but because retailing is so hopelessly overbuilt, these same folks seem to still be overlooking the more general collapse of purchasing power.

And as if on cue, we are seeing the end of the major USA auto boom that has been driven by low interest rates, cheap fuels, and a wide selection of well-built vehicles. Well, interest rates are still low, the cars are still excellent, and fuels are quite cheap yet sales seem to have hit a wall. Apparently the folks who could buy a new car have bought that car with a five year warranty and payment schedule. So this sales slump could last awhile.

There is also an institutional reason why car sales might never see another 17.55 million unit sales year like 2016 again. Electric cars. Compared to electric cars, the  internal combustion (ICE) vehicle suddenly seem hopelessly complex and unreliable. A well maintained 10-year-old EV is a new battery pack and tires from being essentially a new car. A brushless electric motor has almost nothing to wear out and EVs do not even need gearboxes and exhaust systems. But because going electric involves a bunch of lifestyle changes, it is unlikely there will be a massive boom in EV sales even when the day arrives when EVs have become superior in every objective category for a buy consideration.

US car boom ending as sales drop for fourth month

DW, uhe/kd (Reuters, AFP, dpa) 02.05.2017

The US car market appears to be cooling faster than expected as the big three American automakers as well as their foreign rivals reported fewer sales in April - the fourth consecutive month of declines.

After peaking last year with a record of 17.55 million cars sold throughout 2016 in the United States, the American car boom is coming to an end with a bang.

The big three American automakers on Tuesday all reported falling sales in April, compared to the same period last year. Industry analysts had expected the retreat - forecasting an industry-wide decline of between one and four percent - but the real figures surprised many.

General Motors (GM), the biggest US automaker, saw its sales drop 5.8 percent from April 2016, while Ford sales fell 7.2 percent. FCA US, the North American arm of Fiat Chrysler, even dropped seven percent.

Toyota saw a decline of 4.4 percent in the US market year-over-year, while Germany's Volkswagen (VW) was still suffering from its diesel emissions scandal in the US, barely making up a massive loss a year ago with a small gain of 1.6 percent in April.

Huge incentives

It was the fourth straight month of decline for the industry, which Automotive News characterized as "the longest losing streak since the market bottomed out in 2009."

Sales to consumers at car lots - rather than corporate, government and rental fleet sales - accounted for a big part of the downward slide at most companies. Even Americans' love affair with sport utility vehicles and light trucks could not compensate for the decline.

Industry analyst Jessica Caldwell of Edmunds said the market was starting to see "the slowdown in 2017 we've been anticipating," adding: "The industry has been holding its breath to see if the days of peak sales are over."

In April, car sellers relied on incentives and discounting to lure customers into dealership lots, offering average incentives of $3,814 per new vehicle - up 13 percent, according to a joint analysis by JD Power and LMC Automotive.

Yet, the US car industry is still selling a lot of vehicles. GM touted double-digit spikes in sales of crossover vehicles, with Chevrolet and GMC models up 20 percent or more, and Buick and GMC models seeing increases in the 40 percent range.

FCA US was down across all of its brands, except Ram trucks which saw sales rise five percent. Ford's bright spot was SUVs, with a 1.2 percent gain, while the company's total car sales plunged 21.2 percent. Toyota SUV sales rose 12.9 percent.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

What Exxon-Mobil knew

The story of what the oil companies once knew and promoted on the subject of climate change is deep and complex and for me, endlessly fascinating.
  • I find that the scientists at big oil knew a very great deal about climate change and their role in it as early the 1980s not the least bit surprising.
  • What I find less believable is the notion that big oil spent big money to broadcast their enlightened views on climate change. I know of no one, including me, who has any recollection of those efforts. Like most, I thought climate change was a theory discovered by the heavy hitters at NASA as a spin-off of the explorations of Venus and its CO2-rich atmosphere. My views are a lot more nuanced and complex since James Hanson's testimony in 1988 but the extent of the scientific understanding of big oil is still news to me.
  • The really big story (from my perspective) are the events that made the oil companies change course so dramatically. What happened in those momentous years of the late 1980s�the fall of USSR and the Berlin Wall and end of ideological competition to the most grotesque forms of Robber Baron capitalism? the ideological triumph of monetarism and neoliberalism? the examples of "problem-solving by mandate" in the automobile industry and against Dupont and their Freon? 
  • What made their road from enlightened to irresponsible so short�was their institutional mandate for business-as-usual so powerful?
  • It is possible that even big oil, with all its resources, really did not know what to do about so massive a problem as climate change?
What? It's a damn shame the oil companies did not act to change the world as mandated by their own scientific research. It would have been most interesting to watch them try!

How Exxon went from leader to skeptic on climate change research


Throughout much of the 1980s, Exxon earned a public reputation as a pioneer in climate change research. It sponsored workshops, funded academic research and conducted its own high-tech experiments exploring the science behind global warming.

But by 1990, the company, in public, took a different posture.

While still funding select research, it poured millions into a campaign that questioned climate change. Over the next 15 years, it took out prominent ads in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, contending climate change science was murky and uncertain. And it argued regulations aimed at curbing global warming were ill-considered and premature.

How did one of the world�s largest oil companies, a leader in climate research, become one of its biggest public skeptics?

The answer, gleaned from a trove of archived company documents and the recollections of former employees, is that Exxon, now known as Exxon Mobil, feared a growing public consensus would lead to financially burdensome policies.

Duane LeVine, Exxon�s manager of science and strategy development, gave a primer to the company�s board of directors in 1989, noting that scientists generally agreed gases released by burning fossil fuels could raise global temperatures significantly by the middle of the 21st century � between 2.7 and 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit � causing glaciers to melt and sea levels to rise, �with generally negative consequences.�

But he also made it clear the company was facing another threat as well � from public policymakers.

�Arguments that we can�t tolerate delay and must act now can lead to irreversible and costly Draconian steps,� LeVine said.

Heat waves and drought had scorched North America in 1988, fueling public concern that the planet was warming. Top government scientists testified in Congress that year, pushing for action.

Lawmakers at home and abroad began calling for reductions in carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels � the lifeblood of Exxon�s business. And, in 1988, the United Nations established a panel of scientists to study the issue and make policy recommendations.

Brian Flannery, Exxon�s longtime in-house climate expert, outlined the threat in a note to his colleagues in an internal company newsletter in 1989.

Government and regulatory efforts to reduce the risk of climate change, Flannery wrote, would �alter profoundly the strategic direction of the energy industry.� And he warned that the impact on the company from those efforts �will come sooner � than from climate change itself.�

The company�s shift � from embracing the science of climate change to publicly questioning it � emerged from interviews with former and current Exxon Mobil employees, and a review of internal company documents by Columbia University�s Energy & Environmental Reporting Project and the Los Angeles Times.

The documents were obtained from the Exxon Mobil Historical Collection at the University of Texas at Austin�s Briscoe Center for American History. (Some of those documents have also been the subject of recent reports by InsideClimate News.)

In a recent interview, Flannery said the company was understandably concerned in the 1980s that government regulations being proposed were simplistic and drastic.

�I followed the climate negotiations, and they�d say things like, �We should reduce our emissions of CO2 by 10% by 1990.� And you�re sitting there, and you say, �You guys haven�t a clue�� how difficult and disruptive that would be to global industry and the average consumer, he said.

�This isn�t like making low-fat yogurt,� he said.

In an internal draft memo from August 1988 titled �The Greenhouse Effect,� a company public affairs manager laid out what he called the �Exxon Position.� Toward the end of the document, after an analysis that noted scientific consensus on the role fossil fuels play in global warming, he wrote that the company should �Emphasize the uncertainty.�

In 1989, Exxon scientists and managers began briefing employees at all levels of the company on the policy implications of climate change.

LeVine made his presentation to the Exxon board as part of that effort, describing the known science and outlining the company�s position.

Other documents in the archives indicate Exxon scientists had been researching the topic for more than a decade � outfitting an oil tanker with carbon dioxide detectors and analyzers and building models to project how a doubling of the gas in the atmosphere would affect global temperatures.

�Data confirm that greenhouse gases are increasing in the atmosphere,� LeVine told the board, according to a copy of his presentation in the Exxon Mobil archive. �Fossil fuels contribute most of the CO2.�

LeVine argued that the growing push by lawmakers to address the problem was �rooted in the evolution of the just-completed Montreal Protocol.�

Two years earlier, the Montreal Protocol, which was signed by the United States and other countries and went intro effect in 1989, had called for phasing out chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, a group of chemicals responsible for thinning the ozone layer, which protects Earth from harmful solar radiation.

LeVine pointed out that CFCs had been increasing in the atmosphere, just as carbon dioxide levels were increasing. And just as in the case of greenhouse gases, scientific models predicted that CFCs could have serious future environmental effects.

After years of resistance, chemical companies like DuPont were forced to develop alternatives to CFCs.

CFCs might never have been regulated, LeVine noted, had it not been for one crucial event: the discovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica. That discovery, he said, was just the evidence environmentalists needed to rally the public.

The greenhouse gas issue, LeVine explained, had now reached a similar �critical event�: the hot and dry summer of 1988, which caused one of the worst droughts in U.S. history.

At the time, a growing number of experts were �talking about what climate change could mean in the near-term and long-term future,� recalled Joseph Carlson, a now-retired public affairs manager for Exxon who helped draft the company�s position.

That summer, James Hansen, then a NASA climate scientist, told Congress global warming had already begun. His testimony, enhanced by the sweltering temperatures outside, prompted many Americans to begin taking the threat of a hotter planet seriously. Time magazine even put the Earth on its cover as �Planet of the Year.�

Climate scientists, then and now, note that isolated heat waves and droughts are not necessarily the direct result of planetary warming. But, coming in the midst of that debate, that heat wave, which caused more than 5,000 deaths in the United States and cost nearly $40 billion, had a big impact.

So LeVine laid out a plan for the �Exxon Position�: In order to stop the momentum behind the issue, LeVine said Exxon should emphasize that doubt. Tell the public that more science is needed before regulatory action is taken, he argued, and emphasize the �costs and economics� of restricting carbon dioxide emissions.

Banning CFCs �pales by comparison to the difficulties of applying similar approaches� to carbon dioxide, an unavoidable byproduct of burning fossil fuels, which produce most of the world�s electricity, he said.

The company recently declined to comment on the 1989 board meeting. LeVine declined to comment for this story as well. Of the six living members of that board of directors, one declined to comment and five could not be reached.

Alan Jeffers, an Exxon Mobil spokesman, said: �Exxon Mobil has always advocated for good public policy that is based on sound science� and the archived documents reflect �a balanced approach to communicating the risk of climate change.� And he provided a list of more than 50 peer-reviewed publications showing the company continued investigating climate change science throughout the 1990s and 2000s.


By the early 1990s, Exxon began putting its new public relations strategy into practice.

At the company�s annual shareholders� meeting in 1990, the board of directors denounced a dissident shareholder proposal that called for Exxon to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, citing �great scientific uncertainties� about the environmental effects of global climate change. The board also criticized �drastic and precipitant proposals,� like those being considered by the United Nations.

In 1992, Exxon joined the Global Climate Coalition, an association of companies from industries linked to fossil fuels, which vigorously fought potential climate change regulations by emphasizing scientific uncertainty and underscoring the negative economic impact of such laws on consumers.

From 1998 to 2005, Exxon contributed almost $16 million to at least 43 organizations to wage a campaign raising questions about climate change, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental activist group. Greenpeace has estimated that Exxon spent more than $30 million in that effort.

Exxon�s executives also publicly questioned climate change science.

In 1997, Exxon�s chairman and chief executive, Lee Raymond, derided potential regulations on carbon emissions at a meeting of the World Petroleum Council in Beijing.

In the U.S., Exxon took out newspaper ads disparaging federal research into the effect of climate change on different areas of the U.S.

�Today�s global models simply don�t work at a regional level,� read an Exxon Mobil ad in an August 2000 edition of the Washington Post. It went on: �That is why we support emphasis on further climate research.�


In 1997, the U.S. Senate refused to ratify a U.N. treaty committing states to reduce greenhouse gases because restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions �could result in serious harm to the United States economy� � an argument Exxon used repeatedly in its public-relations campaign.

Today, the effect of climate change is widely accepted. Average global temperatures have risen approximately 1.5 degrees since 1880, and the sea level has risen at a rate of 0.06 of an inch per year and is accelerating. Moreover, Arctic sea ice coverage is shrinking so drastically that last August, National Geographic had to redraw its atlas maps.

In 2007, the company, for the first time since the early 1980s, publicly conceded that climate change was occurring and that it was in large part the result of the burning of fossil fuels.

�There was a fork in the road. They had the opportunity to make a decision to go one way or the other way,� said Martin Hoffert, an Exxon consultant in the 1980s and professor emeritus of physics at New York University. �If Exxon had listened to its scientists and endorsed our research � and not started that campaign � it would have had, in my opinion, an enormous impact.�  more

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Dying Days of Liberalism: Max Forte nicely summarizes Tom Frank's Listen Liberal

Well, of course it would happen that a few days after posting I have yet to see a decent summary of Thomas Frank's new book Listen Liberal, I find one.

First, a tip of the hat to Yves at Naked Capitalism, for linking to Canadian anthropology professor Max Forte's Donald Trump, Empire, and Globalization: A Reassessment, which is a very long but excellent and important article. Because of its length, I will plug it again in another post on Saturday, so people can wade into it over the weekend.

For now, let me point you to Forte's much shorter January 2017 posting, The Dying Days of Liberalism How Orthodoxy, Professionalism, and Unresponsive Politics Finally Doomed a 19th-century Project.

Forte is professor of Anthropology and Sociology at Concordia University in Montr�al, Qu�bec, and is a member of the Concordia University Faculty Association (CUFA), the trade union body for full-time faculty, and the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). His two writings I have perused so far are wonderful essays combining the knowledge and methodology of several disciplines, making for some of the best political economy I have read in a while. And, as I wrote at the beginning, his article includes an excellent summary of Listen Liberal:
....Thomas Frank�s Listen Liberal is worth reading in particular for its chapter devoted to �The Theory of the Liberal Class,� which makes extensive use of the writings of sociologists and political scientists. The book opens with a quote from David Halberstam�s 1972 book, The Best and the Brightest, a quote that speaks of, �a special elite, a certain breed of men whose continuity is among themselves. They are linked to one another rather than to the country; in their minds they become responsible for the country but not responsive to it�.

Rather than focus on �the One Percent,� Frank asks that we look critically at �the Ten Percent,� which includes �the people at the apex of the country�s hierarchy of professional status,� from which the Ivy Leaguer Obama came, as did most of his Ivy League cabinet, explaining the self-justifying and self-flattering slew of comments from Obama about those who are �qualified� to govern and �knowing what you�re talking about�. Professionals value credentialed expertise, and tend to listen mostly just to each other. They monopolize the power to prescribe and diagnose, in consultation with each other: �The professions are autonomous; they are not required to heed voices from below their circle of expertise� (Frank, 2016, p. 23). Professionals emphasize �courtesy� with one another (hence the incessant tone policing), and show high contempt for those of lesser rank, including precarious professionals. Post-industrial technocrats, the ones who hail the �knowledge economy� and �education� as a solution to all social problems, have bred their own ideology: professionalism. Frank notes that as a political ideology, professionalism is �inherently undemocratic, prioritizing the views of experts over those of the public� (p. 24). Though they usually claim to act in the public interest, Frank observes that they have increasingly abused their monopoly power, started looking after their own interests, and increasingly act as a class (p. 25), an �enlightened managerial class� of quasi-aristocrats (p. 26). Frank�s critique outlines how the Democrats became the party of the professional class, disposing of labour along the way (p. 28). As a result, they care little about inequality, because their own wellbeing is founded on it. Inequality is essential to professionalism (p. 31). Meritocracy is opposed to solidarity (p. 32).
I want to emphasize "Inequality is essential to professionalism." It goes a long way in explaining why the devotees of identity politics came unhinged over Bernie Sanders's campaign; they are now vehemently arguing "Minorities are sick and tired of being told that economic equality will fix all the racism, sexism and the social injustices in the world" as someone commented in a recent posting of mine on DailyKos.

On pages 32-33 of Listen Liberal, Frank writes:
There is no solidarity in a meritocracy. The very idea contradicts the ideology of the well-graduated technocrats who rule us�. Leading members of the professional class show enormous respect for one another�what I call �professional courtesy��but they feel precious little sympathy for the less fortunate members of their own cohort [such as] colleagues who get fired, or even for the kids who don�t get into �good� colleges. That life doesn�t shower its blessings on people who can�t make the grade isn�t a shock or an injustice; it�s the way things ought to be.
Frank identifies the terrible consequences this professional class ideology has for liberalism and democracy. One important consequence is that professionals hold the traditional Democratic Party base�organized labor and the working class�in low regard, bordering on contempt. This contempt surfaces over and over again when a professional class twit points to industrial automation as being the cause of lost jobs, absolutely refusing to even discuss the result of the disastrous policies of globalization and free trade. Here, for example, is the founder of DailyKos a few days after the November 2016 election: Be happy for coal miners losing their health insurance. They're getting exactly what they voted for. Here is an investment advisor who is a minority, indulging in some particularly cruel class consciousness: We are going to outsource your job. And there is Hillary Clinton's use of the label "deplorables" to describe her opponent's working class supporters.

This contempt for the working class, Frank writes, has been documented in study after study of the professional-class. For the professional class, unions, factory work, farm work, and most any blue collar occupation �signify lowliness, not status.� This was well understood by Thorsten Veblen: at the very beginning of his 1899 classic The Theory of the Leisure Class (And Frank named his first chapter �The Theory of the Professional Class�), Veblen writes:
the distinction between classes is very rigorously observed ; and the feature of most striking economic significance in these class differences is the distinction maintained between the employments proper to the several classes. The upper classes are by custom exempt or excluded from industrial occupations, and are reserved for certain employments to which a degree of honour attaches� the upper classes are exempt from industrial employments, and this exemption is the economic expression of their superior rank�. Manual labour, industry, whatever has to do directly with the everyday work of getting a livelihood, is the exclusive occupation of the inferior class.
Frank continues:
Professionals do not hold that other Democratic constituency, organised labour, in particularly high regard. This attitude is documented in study after study of professional-class life. One reason for this is because unions signify lowliness, not status. But another is because solidarity, the core value of unions, stands in stark contradiction to the doctrine of individual excellence that every profession embodies. The idea that someone should command good pay for doing a job that doesn�t require specialised training seems to professionals to be an obvious fallacy.
The result is not pretty. As Forte writes near the beginning of his essay:
Liberal democracy has been reduced to a shell, more a name than a fact that deserves the name. For many years, liberalism has been liberal authoritarianism or post-liberalism or neoliberalism, with a high elitist disdain for democracy and a fear of the masses everywhere. Promises of inclusion, fairness, and welfare, were replaced by sensitive-sounding rhetorical tricks and tokenism. Moral narcissism, virtue signalling, identity politics, and building patchwork quilts of diversity were the order of the day....

...It�s not a small thing that has fallen here, not merely the defeat of Hillary Clinton and Americans rejecting Obama�s �legacy�. We are dealing with a series of institutions, an expert class, and a network of political and corporate alliances, that is being shaken beyond repair. We are in the earliest days of a historical transition, so it�s not clear what is coming next, and the labels that have been proliferating demonstrate confusion and uncertainty�populism, nativism, nationalism, etc.
....liberalism will not disappear outright, and not instantly. Ideas don�t ever really die, they�re just archived. [Emphasis mine.]

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The origins of the Democratic Party's looming catastrophe

It is becoming a constant struggle to combat despondency, as I watch USA Democratic Party leaders shuck and jive, wriggle and squirm, to avoid having to accept any responsibility for their disastrous and destructive neoliberal economic policies of the past half-century. It's a tragedy having Donald Trump as President, with reactionary Republicans in control of the House and Senate. But having Democrats unwilling to address their own role in creating the widespread misery and discontent that is fueling political populism, thus crippling their ability to oppose Trump and the Republicans, is a catastrophe. Because without the Democratic Party in USA renouncing neoliberalism and putting forward a grand vision for a $100 trillion rebuilding of the world economy to stop global climate change, that political populism has no where to go except to the right.

The origins of the Democratic Party's insouciance today is the Party's response to the Republican victories of 1968 and 1980. The latter was an especially severe blow, because the common wisdom held that the Republican Party was on the verge of extinction because of the Watergate scandal. Democratic control of the Senate with 61 seats, flipped to Republican control of 53 seats. The Democratic majority in the House was reduced from 292 Representatives to 242.

The Democratic Party leadership responded to these electoral disasters by abandoning their traditional alliance with organized labor and beginning to shun the working class--explicitly The future of the Party, they declared, lay in embracing instead the rising new �professional class.� This is abundantly documented by Thomas Frank in his most recent book, Listen Liberal. A shorter summary is by Matt Stoller in The Atlantic this past October, just before the election: How Democrats Lost Their Populist Soul. Summaries of Stoller�s article are available on DailyKos here and here. There are a number of reviews of Frank�s book available with a search of the InterTubez, but I have yet to read one that is a truly adequate summary. The book is just too chock full of details, names, and dates, and it packs a wallop. Anyone still thinking in terms of Hillary versus Bernie should be shamed into silence if they manage to read the entire book. Unfortunately, I think most Hillary partisans will find the book much too painful and discomfiting to read in its entirety.

However, the key to understanding why the embrace of a �post-industrial� new �professional class� was such a disaster eludes both Frank and Stoller. First, no modern economy can ever be truly post-industrial. Modern standards of living would simply collapse without the products of industrial mass production. Just think of what would happen if there were no longer so simple a thing as medicine bottles. How would you store and distribute anti-biotics? Pain relievers? The special medications that today keep hundreds of millions of people alive, who a century or two ago would quickly expire because of their illness or disorder? I�d be willing to bet that without continued production of the trillions of medicine bottles each year, about half the human population would die off within five years. The really sick thing is: there are many so called �liberals� and �progressives� who think such a die off is not such a bad thing.

Second, the embrace of one specific class or another directly violates the republican (small �r�, not Republican Party) political economy of the U.S. republic, which is founded on the Constitutional mandate to promote the General Welfare. It is this Constitutional mandate that sets the USA apart from and above all other governments before it�monarchies, aristocracies, oligarchies, and dictatorships. It is what is supposed to distinguish the USA economy from the mercantalist economies of old Europe: all economic activity is supposed to strengthen not the state and the elites who control it (as was the case with mercantalism), but the entire nation�all the people. (And note that conservative and libertarian scholars explicitly attack the General Welfare principle for being the bedrock of the �nanny state.� The Confederacy that split the Union and fought to preserve slavery copied the U.S. Constitution, but deliberately removed any mention of the General Welfare�and conservative and libertarian scholars have written that this was an �important improvement.�)

This second point also directs us toward the reason why many people make the oversimplified argument that there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans, which is implicit in the results of the Washington Post /ABC News poll conducted in mid-April 2017 which that 67% of Americans think Democrats are out of touch with the concerns of average citizens. Embracing one specific class or another�for the Democrats, the �professional class�; for the Republicans, �entrepreneurs� or �job creators� or whatever�must be accompanied by the belief that the prosperity of that favored class will �trickle down� and �lift all boats.� Broken down in this way, it is easily apparent that Democratic economic policies are not that different from Republican economic policies. The major differences between the two parties is in their approach to how much of a social safety net there should be to alleviate the poverty that inevitably results from deindustrialization and an abandonment of the principle of promoting the General Welfare.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Has Putin driven Western politicians insane?

One of the sadder and more crazy outcomes of this fall's election is the Democratic Party's decision to blame their defeats on the Russians. That we are seeing McCarthyism II and Cold War: the next generation only this time perpetrated by so-called Liberals actually makes me feel sick at times.

I confess that I happen to feel a strong affinity for Russia and its people. Reason A is that as someone who grew up in arguably the coldest state in the continental USA, I have a highly developed sympathy for those who must cope with the nastiest of winters. Cold changes you.

After a short trip to Leningrad in 1972 where I learned a few of the incredible stories of what that city was willing to suffer to save itself during their Great Patriotic War (WW II), I determined to actually learn some of the history of this sprawling and nearly uninhabitable land populated by some of the most courageous humans to have ever walked the planet. Once you open that door, you have stumbled into an infinity of tales of heroic struggles against not only a harsh climate but murderous invaders, evil Tsars, serfdom, Marxist-Leninist crackpots, etc.

Fortunately, it isn't all tragedy. Perhaps my favorite story is about how Anatoly Tarasov figured out how to build an ice hockey program out of the ruins of WW II. Hockey is crazy difficult and very expensive yet out the ashes of near total national destruction, Tarasov invented a version of the game that even today is easily the most exciting to watch.

And these are the people we are supposed to hate. And lie about. And threaten with more warfare (as if the Russian people haven't suffered enough war at the hands of folks like Napoleon and Hitler.) This time though, the Russia-bashers have decided to make it personal. This time we are supposed hate Vladimir Putin above all. This is what makes Cold War II so surreal. The Russophobes would like to topple Putin but are confronted with the fact that he is wildly popular in Russia�mostly because he is arguably the best leader they have ever had (with the possible exception of Peter the Great.)

Hillary Clinton seems to hate Putin with the fire of 1000 suns. She is convinced he cost her the election. She has even called his election meddling an act of war. She is convinced that he hates her. And on that point, she might be right.

Putin has many reasons to detest Ms. Clinton. But in my mind, the one at the top must be her comparison of Putin to Hitler. Putin was the child of two people who actually survived the siege of Leningrad�a siege that killed his older brother.

Now I am pretty sure that Putin understands that virtually no one in the United States of Amnesia has any idea of how horrific the siege of Leningrad really was. After all, MOST 'Merikuns have no idea that Russia even fought in the Second World War. But for those fools, please be reminded that more Russians died due to that siege than all the USA, Brit, and French casualties of WW II combined. Many are buried in St. Petersburg's Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery. According to their official records, from September 4, 1941 to January 22, 1944, 107,158 air bombs were dropped on the city, 148,478 shells were fired, 16,744 men died, 33,782 were wounded and 641,803 died of starvation.

My guess is that as a son of St. Petersburg / Leningrad, Putin has a much clearer idea of the savage nature of Hitler's Nazis than a moronic twinkie like HRC. Apparently, one of the joys of being a Wellesley grad is that it entitles you to compare anyone you don't like to Hitler. Actually knowing some history is not required.

I believe MOST of this Putin-bashing is a nasty combination of fear and impotence. Putin is an amazing fellow. The Russians have PLENTY of experience with shit leadership so when someone like Putin comes along, they respond to the difference. He could win all elections until he dies. He has lavish approval ratings�he may be the most popular politician on earth. The people who think just a few more $ to the NED will bring down his government are quite insane. So not only can Putin thumb his nose at the neocon plotters, he drives them further insane because there is nothing they can do about it.

He is also an excellent example of what happens when someone in the old USSR educational system religiously did his homework. Compared to the dim bulbs we have in USA politics, he so outclasses them intellectually, he almost seems like he is from a different planet. And he sort of is. Bright guy, highly motivated, with a hyper-elite education.

In a saner world, we would have leadership that recognizes the opportunity to collaborate with such a gifted leader to solve some crazy-difficult problems. If we cannot get along with the best leadership Russia has to offer since Peter the Great, perhaps its our fault and not his.

Putin�s New World Order


Is Vladimir Putin the most popular Russian leader of all time?

It certainly looks like it. In a recent survey conducted by the All-Russia Public Opinion Research Center, Putin�s public approval rating soared to an eye-popping 86 percent, which is twice that of Obama�s when he left office in 2016. And what�s more surprising is that Putin�s popularity has held up through a severe economic slump and nearly two decades in office. Unlike most politicians, whose shelf-life is somewhere between 4 to 8 years, the public�s admiration for Putin has only grown stronger over time.

And the phenom is not limited to Russia either. According to a recent survey by the pollster YouGov, �Putin is the third most admired man in Egypt, the fourth in China, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, and the sixth most admired man in Germany, France and Sweden.� And don�t even mention Syria, where naming babies after the Russian president is all-the-rage.

Putin also won Time magazine�s prestigious Person of the Year award in 2007, and has remained among the top ten on that list for the last decade. The only place that Putin is not popular is in the United States where he is relentlessly demonized in the media as a �KGB thug� or the �new Hitler�. According to a 2017 survey by Gallup, only �22% of Americans hold a favorable opinion of Putin� while �72% hold an unfavorable opinion of him.�

There�s no doubt that the media�s personal attacks on Putin have dramatically impacted his popularity. The question that open-minded people must ask themselves, is whether their opinion of Putin is the result of their own research or if their views have been shaped by a vicious, corporate-owned media that denigrates anyone who stands in the way of Washington�s geopolitical ambitions? My advice to these people is to simply read Putin�s words for yourself and draw your own conclusions.

The western media claims that Putin is responsible for a number of crimes including the killing of well-known journalists and political rivals. But is it true? Is the man, who is so revered by the vast majority of Russians, a common Mafia hitman who snuffs out his enemies without batting an eye?

I can�t answer that, but having followed Putin�s career (and read many of his speeches) since he replaced Boris Yeltsin in December 1999, I think it�s highly unlikely. The more probable explanation is that Russia�s foreign policy has created insurmountable hurtles for Washington in places like Ukraine and Syria, so Washington has directed its propaganda ministry (aka� the media) to smear Putin as an evil tyrant and a thug. At least that�s the way the media has behaved in the past.

The US political class loved Yeltsin, of course, because Yeltsin was a compliant buffoon who eviscerated the state and caved in to all the demands of the western corporations. Not so Putin, who has made great strides in rebuilding the country by nationalizing part of the oil industry, asserting his authority over the oligarchs, and restoring the power of the central government.

More important, Putin has repeatedly condemned Washington�s unilateral war-mongering around the world, in fact, the Russian president has become the de facto leader of a growing resistance movement whose primary goal is to stop Washington�s destabilizing regime change wars and rebuild global security on the bedrock principle of national sovereignty. Here�s how Putin summed it up at Valdai:
�We have no doubt that sovereignty is the central notion of the entire system of international relations. Respect for it and its consolidation will help underwrite peace and stability both at the national and international levels�First of all, there must be equal and indivisible security for all states.� (Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club, � The Future in Progress: Shaping the World of Tomorrow, From the Office of the President of Russia)
This is a familiar theme with Putin and one that goes back to his famous Munich manifesto in 2007, a speech that anyone with even the slightest interest in foreign affairs should read in full. Here�s an excerpt:
�We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law. And independent legal norms are, as a matter of fact, coming increasingly closer to one state�s legal system. One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?�.�

�I am convinced that we have reached that decisive moment when we must seriously think about the architecture of global security. And we must proceed by searching for a reasonable balance between the interests of all participants in the international dialogue.� (�Wars not diminishing�: Putin�s iconic 2007 Munich speech, you tube)
The Munich speech was delivered a full four years after Washington launched its bloody invasion of Iraq, an invasion that Putin bitterly opposed. The speech shows a maturity of thought on Putin�s part who, unlike other world leaders, isn�t quick to judge or draw hasty conclusions. Instead, he takes his time, analyzes a situation thoroughly, and then acts accordingly. Once he�s made up his mind, he rarely wavers. He�s not a flip flopper.

Putin�s opposition to unipolar world rule, that is, Washington dictating policy and everyone else falling in line, is not a sign of anti-Americanism, but pragmatism. Washington�s 16 year-long rampage across Central Asia, North Africa and the Middle East, has only intensified crises, fueled instability, bred terrorism, and increased the death and destruction. There have been no victories in the War on Terror, just endless violence and mountains of carnage. On top of that (as Putin says) �No one feels safe.�

This is why Putin has drawn a line in the sand in Syria and Ukraine. The Russian president has now committed troops and military aircraft to stop Washington�s aggressive behavior. Once again, this is not because he hates America or seeks a confrontation, but because Washington�s support for violent extremists requires a firm response. There�s no other way. At the same time, Moscow continues to actively seek a peaceful settlement for both crises. Here�s Putin again:
�Only after ending armed conflicts and ensuring the peaceful development of all countries will we be able to talk about economic progress and the resolution of social, humanitarian and other key problems�.

It is essential to provide conditions for creative labour and economic growth at a pace that would put an end to the division of the world into permanent winners and permanent losers. The rules of the game should give the developing economies at least a chance to catch up with those we know as developed economies. We should work to level out the pace of economic development, and brace up backward countries and regions so as to make the fruit of economic growth and technological progress accessible to all. Particularly, this would help to put an end to poverty, one of the worst contemporary problems.��

Another priority is global healthcare�. All people in the world, not only the elite, should have the right to healthy, long and full lives. This is a noble goal. In short, we should build the foundation for the future world today by investing in all priority areas of human development.� (Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club)
This is why I think that the stories about Putin killing journalists are nonsense. It seems very improbable to me that a man who believes in universal health care, creative labor, ending poverty and �investing in all priority areas of human development� would, at the same time, murder political rivals like a common gang-banger. I find that extremely hard to believe.

The most interesting part of Putin�s Valdai speech is his analysis of the social unrest that has swept across the EU and US resulting in the widespread rejection of traditional political candidates and their parties. Putin has watched these developments carefully and given the matter a great deal of thought. Here�s what he says:

�With the political agenda already eviscerated as it is, and with (American) elections ceasing to be an instrument for change but consisting instead of nothing but scandals and digging up dirt�And honestly, a look at various candidates� platforms gives the impression that they were made from the same mold � the difference is slight, if there is any. �
Yes, formally speaking, modern countries have all the attributes of democracy: Elections, freedom of speech, access to information, freedom of expression. But even in the most advanced democracies the majority of citizens have no real influence on the political process and no direct and real influence on power�.

It seems as if the elites do not see the deepening stratification in society and the erosion of the middle class�(but the situation) creates a climate of uncertainty that has a direct impact on the public mood.

Sociological studies conducted around the world show that people in different countries and on different continents tend to see the future as murky and bleak. This is sad. The future does not entice them, but frightens them. At the same time, people see no real opportunities or means for changing anything, influencing events and shaping policy.

As for the claim that the fringe and populists have defeated the sensible, sober and responsible minority � we are not talking about populists or anything like that but about ordinary people, ordinary citizens who are losing trust in the ruling class. That is the problem�.

People sense an ever-growing gap between their interests and the elite�s vision of the only correct course, a course the elite itself chooses. The result is that referendums and elections increasingly often create surprises for the authorities. People do not at all vote as the official and respectable media outlets advised them to, nor as the mainstream parties advised them to. Public movements that only recently were too far left or too far right are taking center stage and pushing the political heavyweights aside.

At first, these inconvenient results were hastily declared anomaly or chance. But when they became more frequent, people started saying that society does not understand those at the summit of power and has not yet matured sufficiently to be able to assess the authorities� labor for the public good. Or they sink into hysteria and declare it the result of foreign, usually Russian, propaganda.� (Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club)
Putin makes some important points, so let�s summarize:
  1. Elections are no longer an instrument for change.
  2. The appearance of democracy remains, but people no longer have the power to change the policies or the process.
  3. Political impotence has led to frustration, depression and rage. New movements and candidates have emerged that embrace more extreme remedies because the traditional parties no longer represent the will of the people.
  4. Insulated elites have grown more obtuse and unresponsive to the seething anger that lies just below the surface of a seemingly-quiescent society.
  5. More and more people are afraid for the future. They see little hope for themselves, their children or the country. The chasm between rich and poor continues to fuel widespread populist anger.
  6. Trump�s election indicates a broad rejection of the country�s political class, its media, its economic system and its primary institutions.
This is first-rate analysis from a man who has not only spent a lot of time thinking about these things, but also pinpointed the particular event from which the current crisis emerged; the breakup of the Soviet Union. Here�s what he says:
�Last year, the Valdai forum participants discussed the problems with the current world order. Unfortunately, little has changed for the better over these last months. Indeed, it would be more honest to say that nothing has changed.

The tensions engendered by shifts in distribution of economic and political influence continue to grow. � Essentially, the entire globalisation project is in crisis today and in Europe, as we know well, we hear voices now saying that multiculturalism has failed.

I think this situation is in many respects the result of mistaken, hasty and to some extent over-confident choices made by some countries� elites a quarter-of-a-century ago. Back then, in the late 1980s-early 1990s, there was a chance not just to accelerate the globalization process but also to give it a different quality and make it more harmonious and sustainable in nature.

But some countries that saw themselves as victors in the Cold War, not just saw themselves this way but said it openly, took the course of simply reshaping the global political and economic order to fit their own interests.

In their euphoria, they essentially abandoned substantive and equal dialogue with other actors in international life, chose not to improve or create universal institutions, and attempted instead to bring the entire world under the spread of their own organisations, norms and rules. They chose the road of globalisation and security for their own beloved selves, for the select few, and not for all.� (Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club)
He�s right, isn�t he? The globalization project IS in crisis, and the reason it�s in crisis is because all of the benefits have gone to the people who crafted the original policy, the 1 percenters. So now the people in the US and EU are lashing out in anger, now they are taking desperate measures to reassert control over the system. That�s what Brexit was all about. That�s what the election of Trump was all about. And that is what the faceoff between Macron and Le Pen is all about. All three are examples of the seething populist rage that�s aimed at the elites who have imposed their own self-aggrandizing system on everyone else precipitating the steady decline in living standards, massive economic insecurity, and the loss of national sovereignty.

This is the first time I�ve seen the current wave of social turbulence traced back to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but it makes perfect sense. Western elites saw the breakup of the USSR as a greenlight to maniacally pursue their own global agenda and impose their neoliberal economic model on the world, a process that greatly accelerated following 9-11. The terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers became the seminal event that triggered the curtailing of civil liberties, the enhancing of executive powers and the beginning of a global war of terror. Unconstrained by any serious rival, Washington felt free to impose its corporate-friendly system on the world, redraw the map of the Middle East, occupy countries in Central Asia, and topple secular regimes wherever it went. The triumphalism of western capitalism was summarized in the jubilant words of President George H. W. Bush who stated in 1990 before the launching of Desert Storm: (From now on) �what we say, goes�. The pronouncement was an unambiguous statement of Washington�s determination to rule the world and establish a new order.

Now, 27 years later, the United States has been stopped in its tracks in Syria and Ukraine. New centers of economic power are emerging, new political alliances are forming, and Washington�s authority is being openly challenged. Putin�s task is to block Washington�s forward progress, create tangible disincentives for aggression, and put an end to the foreign interventions. The Russian president might have to take a few steps backward to avoid WW3, but ultimately the goal is clear and achievable. Uncle Sam must be reigned in, the war-making must stop, global security must be reestablished, and people must be free to return to their homes in peace. more

Climate Grief

Below is a pretty good description of what the author calls "climate grief"�the crushing realization that everything at all lovely...