Thursday, December 3, 2020

The Two “Reigns of Terror”

(From A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court)

By Mark Twain

(It is not generally realized that America’s most beloved humorist was deeply stirred by the sight of social injustice, and many times went out of his way to give voice to his feelings. His recently published biography shows that influences were at work during his lifetime to repress him, and it would seem that such influences are still active after his death. It was found impossible to obtain the publishers’ permission to quote a passage of 176 words, which was to have appeared at this place in the Anthology. The passage in question is from the thirteenth chapter of “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” It points out that there were two “Reigns of Terror” in France; that the evils of the “minor Terror,” that of the Revolution, have been made much of, although they lasted only a few months, and caused the death of only ten thousand persons; whereas there was another, “an older and real Terror,” which had lasted a thousand years, and brought death to hundreds of millions of persons. We consider it horrible that people should have their heads cut off, but we have not been taught to see the horror of the life-long death which is inflicted upon a whole population by poverty and tyranny)

THERE were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror—that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.

Friday, November 27, 2020

The Jubilee Update - gotta have 'em

 (responding to a Methodist email)

A few updates about jubilees...

First: because interest compounds geometrically, it's a mathematical inevitability that loans become unpayable. This occurs since the loan obligation never stops increasing, while the real economy that provides repayment, tends to level out. This is so mathematically inevitable that Albert Einstein answered "What is the most powerful force in the universe?" with "compound interest."

The authority on jubilees is Michael Hudson, whose recent book "...and forgive them their debts" tells the (ancient) history of jubilees in some detail. (The link on Hudson's name is to something shorter on that subject.) There is some controversy about whether jubilees were implemented, but only because archaeological economists would deliberately mis-translate the cuneiform rather than admit jubilees occurred.

Hudson, who read the original documents, says ancient civilizations really implemented jubilees, starting in Babylon. He focuses on the meaning of the title of his book in economic terms, not in terms of behavior. Biblical scholars I've heard say a more accurate translation is "debts" rather than "trespasses" maybe he has a point.

In any case, the ancient Babylonians knew about the inevitability of unpayable debts...before the Jews. Apparently, the Jubilee was something the Jews brought back from the Babylonian exile. Babylonian rulers' traditionally declared a Jubilee when they took over from their predecessor. This gained them a load of goodwill, and prevented their population becoming debt slaves, who could not be warriors, so it also helped their kingdom's common defense. Jubilees were a bit easier than they would be in modern times since most debts were owed to the temple/palace complex rather than the private sector. Present-day student loans are analogous, even though the Senator from MBNA (Joe Biden) voted to make them impossible to extinguish, even in bankruptcy.

Hudson says that Jesus' first sermon, in which he announced this was the "year of our Lord" (reading Isaiah) was a declaration that it was time to forgive debts--and forgiveness of economic debts, not just sinful behavior or thoughts, was central to his ministry. The Romans opposed Jesus' system of forgiveness, and had no bankruptcy, much less a regular jubilee or other such accommodation for the inevitably unpayable debts. The Pharisees colluded with the Romans. Read Matthew 23 to see how Jesus felt about Pharisees.

Hudson says Pharisee Rabbi Hillel was trying to rewrite IOU contracts so that they were exempt from the traditional jubilee. The money changers in the temple were intimately involved in this cycle of grinding the debtors for every last nickel, too--hence an uncharacteristically angry Jesus' overturning their tables.

The question from Babylon to the present is: What does one do with the unpayable loans? For the Romans, as for the "Furnishing Man" in the post-Civil War South, the debtors become slaves or debt peons. The Federal Reserve reports 40% of the current U.S. population can't handle a $400 emergency without borrowing or selling debt peonage is still with us.

Jubilees aren't always ancient, either. The victorious allies in World War II granted debt jubilees to the German and Japanese populations, and thereby laid the foundation of their "miraculous" economic recoveries. Oddly enough, they did not grant such a jubilee to the Vietnamese, who were part of the allied opposition to the Japanese in Southeast Asia.

Before World War II ,  Ho Chi Minh, and the Viet Minh fought to cast off the shackles of indebtedness to French colonials and their local oligarchy--successfully too, until the World War interrupted. In reneging on its treaty obligations to hold a plebiscite to unite Vietnam, the U.S. tried to reinstall the French colonial debt peonage the Vietnamese fought so hard to overcome. That's one of the principal motivations for the Vietnamese to fight so hard against a much-richer-and-better-armed U.S. (See War Comes to Long An by Jeffrey Race...a guy who learned Vietnamese on the boat over, then interviewed the population rather than huddling in a "strategic hamlet" see what actually motivated them.)

While you're considering matters financial, you might also take a look at Corruption in America, and what is at stake by Sarah Chayes for a look at how legitimate are the debts the global north's former colonial powers continue to try to collect (or, alternatively, Tom Perkins' Confessions of an Economic Hit Man). In Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber tells the story of how the French invaded Madagascar, and told the natives they were indebted (for their lives)...then proceeded to collect. Same story in now-impoverished Haiti.

Graeber said Western banks prescribed austerity (the IMF published a staff paper saying that didn't work, but ignored it), even for loans in present day Madagascar. Because of such austerity, the government ended its mosquito eradication program. 10,000 natives died of malaria so that the former colony could pay a loan whose loss the bank could have easily borne.

I've also read recently that annually between $1 - 2 trillion still makes its way from the former colonies to their former colonial masters. The World Bank, IMF and a host of NGOs enable this. Heck, in a tribute to cluelessness the Methodists' "Social Principles" still prescribe "balanced budgets" and spending restraint (austerity). For a fuller explanation, read this.

One point Chayes makes that really resonated for me: The Muslim Middle Easterners aren't that enamored of religious fanaticism. It's the corruption of the Karzai government the U.S. installed that drives the population into the arms of the Taliban, not the population's affinity for Islamic extremism.

So...surprisingly current stuff, this. I'd still say Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years is essential reading to understand a lot of it, but the Bible is pretty up-to-date in recommending a jubilee. Mathematical inevitability lasts forever! You can read about more current jubilee-related proposals here, here, and here.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Sarah Chayes' On Corruption in America, and what is at stake.

Former NPR reporter and advisor to the U.S. military has turned her attention to America's domestic corruption which she finds eerily familiar with her experience in third world countries like Afghanistan.

Chayes begins her book with an account of a U.S. Supreme Court case prosecuting a former Virginia governor named McDonnell. Governor McDonnell had been convicted of accepting bribes by a lower court, whose verdict had been affirmed by an appeals court. Among other things, McDonnell had been treated to free private plane rides, his wife had gone shopping with the briber, receiving $75,000 worth of goods, and many other items, all to persuade the Governor to purchase and endorse the briber's products with Virginia's state money. And McDonnell had repeatedly requested those purchases and endorsements happen.

Both lower courts were persuaded this was a clear case of bribery, but the Supreme Court acquitted McDonnell unanimously, saying this is how America conducts its public policy business, and any inhibition of this behavior would be unreasonable. Remember: unanimously.

Ms. Chayes expresses her distress that the highest court in the land legitimized bribery as business as usual. She had been in those "shithole" countries where she might have expected this, but seeing it in the U.S. was unfamiliar to her. She adds that in her experience in the Muslim Middle East, the population was not so much persuaded by the religious extremism of terrorists as by their honesty. The corruption of the Afghan government installed by the U.S. is what drove the Afghan population into the arms of the Taliban.

She also examines the historical context of corruption, often referring us to the post-Civil-War "Gilded Age" as a model for the corruption that afflicts the U.S. now. A few excerpts:

p.81 "For, if this plunge into the history of the Gilded Age delivers one certainty, it is this: there is no way to access infinite wealth without rigging the system. No one becomes a billionaire honestly.

p. 102 "Given [the repetition of criminal acts] across the years, such practices must be understood as part of Goldman [Sach]'s business model. It is for all intents and purposes a criminal entity."

Historian Thomas Ferguson has discovered [p128] "Elections don't really reflect a clash between voters with different visions for improving American's lives. elections boil down to 'conflicts within the business community'--or, framed another way, to rivalry among kleptocratic networks."

p. 132 In a pipeline dispute, Louisiana state probation and parole officers "acted, as in the Gilded Age Strike Commission report would have put it, in the double capacity of pipeline employees and state officers."

p.134 In corrupt militaries, paychecks and equipment are siphoned off by corrupt officers. "When a unit is attacked and [overrun, in this case, by Nigeria's Boko Haram, it is] not because the soldiers are unable to fight, but lack weapons, ammunitions and communications equipment, the soldiers on many occasions will [run] away." Chayes adds "Such men were being court-martialed for cowardice."

p. 135 "The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are a glaring example of the abusive transfer of public wealth into the hands of private individuals, and of the consequences. But the methods used were old. They have continued largely unchanged for decades--across administrations of both political parties."

p. 136 "...shortly after taking the presidential oath in 1993, Bill Clinton put Vice President Al Gore in charge of a grand initiative 'to redesign, to reinvent, to reinvigorate the entire National Government.' With the stated goal of increasing efficiency, says [muckraking reporter] Rasor, 'the Pentagon was able to get rid of those pesky investigators and auditors' and loosen contracting standards. Efficiency became the new morality.
"Sick at the sight of years of effort undone, Rasor turned to health care for some years. Now, she says, the situation 'is worse than I've ever seen it.'"

p. 139 "The networks [of corruption] woven by such relationships get thicker every time people switch places, landing jobs in the private sector in return for ignoring contract terms, or going back inside government after a stint with a contractor." It's the "revolving door."

p. 164 "Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan--a Reagan appointee, reappointed twice by Clinton--flatly opposed government supervision of the banking sector. Despite the criminality that had caused the S&L was Greenspan's view that fraud should not even be prohibited by law."

p.174 Studies demonstrate "when  different aspects of our identity join within a liberal or conservative affiliation, as ours increasingly do, we grow more tolerant of the gap between the policies we were hoping to see and what our favored leaders actually do in office. We ignore--or make excuses for--their deviations....That is a wonderful state of affairs for kleptocrats." Note: more broadly, this could include racism, xenophobia, etc. as methods kleptocrats use to divide and rule.

Ironically, Ms. Chayes observes that big crises tend to encourage even the kleptocrats to abandon their obsession with adding zeroes to their bank accounts. Sad to say, we've certainly had that (more died from COVID-19 than in World War II and Vietnam combined), but I'm not sure it's been big enough.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

If “Did Not Vote” Had Been A Candidate In The 2016 US Presidential Election, It Would Have Won By a Landslide


American Collapse - by Indi Samarajiva

This is a series of three articles

First:  I Lived Through Collapse. America Is Already There

Second: Collapse Takes A Lifetime. America Is Just Getting Started 

Third: The Sadness of American Collapse


I lived through Sri Lankan collapse. It took forever. I feel that Americans are really underestimating what’s going down, and how long it will take.

First off, yes, America has already collapsed. You can’t just step over your newly dead and poor. America has already lost more lives than in WWI and Vietnam, combined. The economic contraction is the worst in your recorded history. The rest of the world has stopped accepting your passports. Worst of all, this is all self-inflicted. Your leadership and 40% of the population drove off a cliff, and they’re still hitting the gas.

If this isn’t collapse, what is?

To Marcus Breton, after he "attacks" Sue Frost, and answers her answer

Mr. Breton,

It was really entertaining to ready your "attack" on Sue Frost (that's what she called it) in the first place, and even more amusing to ready your answer to her answer. Does she really not know that the press gets the last word?

Anyway, poor Ms. Frost, a victim of fake news, obviously, has yet to put on her big girl pants (see here and here) and own up to racism in the U.S.

I've read that, based on surveys of emergency room visits for overdoses, all races use drugs equally, yet people of color are three and four times more likely to do jail time--and get longer sentences--for exactly the same crimes white people commit. Ms. Frost's fans say "Just enforce the law!", but the truth is that the law didn't arrive on stone tablets, engraved by lightning, and often was set up to criminalize innocent behavior so police could arrest those people of color (example: marijuana).

Perhaps the most damaging consequence of racism, however, was the way Harry Truman's "Medicare for All" proposal was rejected in 1948. The Dixiecrats were concerned they would have to integrate their hospitals, so they turned it down. How many thousands have died because of that? How many medical bankruptcies? (about 500,000 a year).

So...Ms. Frost may think humility is out of reach for white people, and racism as it exists is harmless, but reality says otherwise.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Virgin Hyperloop Has Invented The World’s Crappiest High-Speed Rail

November 11, 2020 2:32 pm

via Virgin Hyperloop

Shocking news! In an incredible breakthrough for American mass-transit engineering, the transportation technology company Virgin Hyperloop this past weekend successfully moved two people 500 meters across the barren Las Vegas desert at a top speed of just over 100 mph, setting a new world record for the absolute most pitiful thing anyone not named “Elon Musk” has ever tried to pass off as “high-speed rail.”

Here’s video of the shameful display:

Virgin Hyperloop, an American company despite the Richard Branson branding, proposes to use a combination of magnetic levitation, or “maglev”—a decades-old technology that has been in commercial operation moving real trains filled with real people in, for example, Shanghai, China, at speeds up to 268 miles per hour, for 17 goddamn years—and “vactrain,” a concept design for an enclosed, artificially evacuated tunnel where air resistance may be as low as in the upper parts of Earth’s atmosphere, theoretically allowing for much higher top speeds at much lower levels of energy consumption. It is so goddamn embarrassing to type this. France’s electric TGV system has been in regular commercial operation for nearly 40 years; in April of 2007 one of its trains hit 357 miles per hour in a test.

CNN’s article about this event paraphrases a Virgin Hyperloop executive claiming that the hyperloop pods “can travel at the speed of aircraft.” Which is true, in the sense that commercial aircraft with dozens if not hundreds of people aboard do sometimes travel at 100 miles per hour, on the ground, for seconds at a time, during takeoff or landing, when they are going only a fraction as fast as they’re capable of going. It is also true in the sense that, strictly speaking, a paper airplane is a form of “aircraft,” and you can really whip some of those suckers across a room. A more accurate but perhaps less flattering claim would be that my Honda Odyssey can travel at the fastest speed Virgin Hyperloop has yet attained, and with four times as many people riding in it.

Hell, for that matter, as a Twitter user helpfully pointed out, a freaking steam locomotive hit 126 miles per hour in England, 82 years ago, in 1938.

Yeah, but, when it’s done, it’ll go 600 miles per hour, you’re whining, and it’ll have 25 to 30 people in a pod! When exactly will that be? France opened the TGV in 1981. Japan’s oldest high-speed line debuted in 1964—1964!—and was better and faster then than Amtrak’s Acela trains go now. Shanghai’s maglev train has been operable since John Kerry was campaigning to unseat George W. Bush as president. Measure speed by the number of riders the respective services will have moved by, say, 2050. Measure it in carbon emissions. By the year 2020, the best-funded and most sophisticated high-speed rail developer in the United States moved two (2) people 500 meters.

The United States is generations behind much of the rest of the wealthy, industrialized world in this area. For all but a very narrow corridor along the East Coast serviced by the weak half-a-loaf shit that passes for high-speed rail in this country, the best an American commuter can hope for in intercity rail options are crappy and ancient diesel Amtrak trains that top out at around 80 miles per hour. Most American cities simply are not serviced by any intercity rail network at all. The U.S.’s shameful mass-transit situation—and thus its shameful dependence on personal vehicles, and all the downstream bad shit that comes from that—could be improved a zillion percent by just aiming for the level of railroad sophistication French people considered normal before the median 2020 French person was old enough to ride a bicycle. And here are these Professor Frink–ass Hyperloop dinguses, dumping resources beyond counting into inventing some shit that already exists when for a fraction of the cost and in a fraction of the time they could just purchase or at the very least copy what is already working just fine even in backward-ass doofus countries like freaking Italy. It wouldn’t need test tracks! It wouldn’t need years of iteration and development! They already did all that shit, all over the rest of the world!

In a vacuum (a figurative one: an alternate universe in which the rest of the post-industrial world were not absolutely goddamn bursting with operating networks of authentic high-speed rail; where high-speed rail were not already such a well-developed form of transit that the TGV system, which routinely moves huge numbers of day-to-day commuters across large distances of France at speeds well more than twice that achieved by this sad two-person billion-dollar pod going from nowhere to nowhere across a tiny patch of worthless desert, were not both infinitely better and more sophisticated than any presently available commercial rail in the United States and fairly outmoded in comparison to newer [yet still not all that new!] systems in China and Japan and elsewhere) the Virgin Hyperloop could almost look like an impressive accomplishment. Alas, here in the world of context, its only real accomplishment is a promotional one. The business of the American technology sector and its attendant courtier press is to continually recreate and exploit something like a vacuum in the public’s awareness of what the larger world is like, so that clueless observers will congratulate a bunch of boobs for “inventing” a shittier, more expensive version of something that is already regarded as boring and normal—fast, energy-efficient rail service!—pretty much everywhere outside of this stupid and embarrassing country.

Everything about the broken incentives and hollowed-out capacities of American society is crystallized in this dumb pod moseying its way along a track to nowhere in Las Vegas. The United States has a problem: It is too dependent on inefficient, dirty, and expensive forms of transportation, because the vast majority of its people have no practical access to other kinds. Its infrastructure and the health of its communities are all jacked up by the necessity of splattering asphalt all over everything in order for people to drive their big dumb cars to, and park them near, anywhere they’d decide to go. It cannot achieve efficient levels of density or make meaningful turns toward environmental responsibility for as long as this is the case. Thankfully, a solution to this problem already exists and is in operation throughout other parts of the world with comparable levels of wealth and technological capacity: Trains! Networks of fast-moving trains that do not need internal combustion engines in order to move lots of people very quickly along their tracks! Companies and agencies make and install and operate these train systems, and have been doing so for a long time, longer even than the lifetime of the graybeard crap-bag writing this blog. They know how to do it! They can probably just be hired to do it. At some level somebody can probably just buy some of those trains, and install them, and turn them on, and take people from here to there on them.

But who could make it happen? Broke-dick, systematically impoverished municipalities, lashed to budget-balancing like a cinderblock tied to their feet? Close your eyes and try to imagine how a sane and obviously good decision like Just import the TGV and run it between the big American cities instead of spending years and fortunes inventing maglev from scratch for no reason could get made in these United States. Imagine who’d make it, and what their goals would be, and where the money would come from. It simply can’t get made on those terms. It can’t get made at all. No level of American society even has a mechanism for that anymore. If it doesn’t require a messianic assbrain with a Steve Jobs cosplay fantasy pitching some sleepy billionaire or venture capital firm on the possibility of cornering the market on a brand-new technology that will conquer the world, then it will not get done. If it merely delivers a profound benefit to the common good rather than the promise of extravagant enrichment to a shrinking class of hyper-powered parasites, then it simply cannot exist.



The Two “Reigns of Terror”

(From A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court ) By Mark Twain (It is not generally realized that America’s most beloved humorist was dee...