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TygrBright's Journal
TygrBright's Journal
February 15, 2024

Things that make me go "Godz help us!"

Fair disclosure: I did not watch Monday Night's The Daily Show featuring Jon Stewart, so if you can prove that it was NOT an exercise in bothsidesism, I'm happy to review your evidence.

In the absence of that, there seems to be a fair consensus that, in fact, it was such an exercise.

Which is sad.

But it's not what made me go "Godz help us!"

No, that was sparked by going to the YouTube post of that episode, and reading the comments. (I shouldn't do that. Really, I mostly know better. But...)

And seeing how many versions of "I am totally ignorant of how America's political system works and completely unaware of my responsibility as a citizen to participate in the electoral process but I can sure do the complain about it thing real good, watch this!" were there.

Versions of "why don't "THEY" find someone younger!"

This one made my hair stand on end: "Honestly, the plan should be for Americans to boycott the next vote until both parties have proper candidates." If I wasn't 94.6% certain that "John335i" is a Russian bot, I'd be seriously worried.

And this nugget of 'wisdom': "Politician” shouldn’t be a job. You’re a public servant, not a CEO." Oka-a-a-aay, Brainiac, what would YOU suggest the function of running for elected office, representing a constituency, studying the various legislative proposals and policy actions, formulating a constructive response, exercising your office responsibly, communicating with your constituents, providing constituent assistance, raising money to run for re-election, attending endless meetings, reading endless papers, and generally not having a life for a few years should be, if not a job?

And of course, that hardy perennial favorite: "Used to think that people who dont vote are misinformed or dumb now i just realize there's nobody worth voting for and theyre two sides of the same coin"

For comic relief, there were all the variations on "But what about RFK Jr?"

Hundreds upon hundreds of comments and I'd bet that less than 2% of the ones made by actual human beings (as opposed to trollbots) represent the responses of people who have actually attended a local Party meeting, run for public office, taken a civics class, actually read the text of a bill, attended a legislative hearing, worked on a candidate campaign, or even called an elected official's constituent response line.

Dear DU friends, did you think the Moms for Liberty were batshit cray-cray when they started banning books and lobbying school boards to not teach history? Just wait until they ban civics.

Godz help us, because apparently WE ain't helping us...


February 10, 2024

Dear Republicans: Please keep banging on about Biden's age...

...and how incompetent it makes him, and how age is fit only to get shoved aside where it won't bother younger and better folks trying to do the job.

You've really got something there. It's your Great Hope to campaign effectively against Joe Biden.

Pay no attention at all to anyone who reminds you:

This election has the largest cohort of voters over 70 in U.S. history.

The highest voter turnout is always among seniors.

Seniors get pretty cranky, oppositional, and defiant when younger and less experienced folks engage in thoughtless ageist prejudice and discrimination.

Also, the guy "Methuselah Joe" is running against is a) only three and a half years "younger" than him, and b) vastly less competent at everything except criming.

Just ignore that shit.

Keep banging on about how AWFUL it is that Joe is so ANCIENT and totally incapable of doing the job he's been doing superbly for the last four years - running an effective campaign and running the country.

You're definitely digging in the right spot. Would you like a bigger shovel? We'll start a GoFundMe for a nice excavator for you.


January 7, 2024

Money buys racism (and other forms of hate)

There are a dozen versions of the little fable about the three people sitting at a table with a dozen cookies. One person has nine cookies, one has two, and one person has one cookie. The two people with three cookies between them start giving the side-eye to the person with nine cookies, when that person leans over to the person with two cookies and whispers "That person with one cookie wants YOUR cookies."

In some versions the person with one cookie is black, in some they're an immigrant, etc.

Racism goes back long before 1492 and it's certainly not exclusive to this slice of North America. Our efforts to acknowledge it, identify the damage, and undo racism are painfully small and slow - but up through 2008 they were steady. Progress was made, in excruciatingly tiny increments, but it was progress.

I knew when Obama was elected that it would provoke some backlash - but I also felt proud of America in a whole new way. It was a watershed moment. There was the usual stupid racist bullshit, but it wasn't until two years later that the Hate Machine got turbocharged.

What happened in 2010?

"Citizens United". Money stopped being a complex, somewhat problematic economic concept and became "speech." And in the land of "free speech", making money "speech" was the ultimate way of SILENCING the not-rich.

Granted, it was Reagan who started undoing America's progress toward a more equitable society, deregulating banks and communications, destroying the tools government was using to address inequity, idolizing wealth and consumption and defining 'success' as making a fuckton of money no matter what you had to destroy or degrade to do it.

But until 2010 it was still possible, if increasingly difficult, to use the electoral process to curb the worst excesses. Which really pissed off the people with nine cookies, who all thought they were entitled to the whole dozen. Crumbs are plenty for the rest of us. So if we keep voting for people who won't let them grab all the cookies, we have to be stopped.

"Citizens United" made it possible for them to do exactly that. Not just buying elections, but buying communications outlets, buying "think tanks", buying the commons, buying the conversation and controlling it for themselves. And as long as they can keep the other two people fighting over that last cookie, they can get on with sliding the cookies off everyone else's plate.

In 2010, the Supreme Court basically told us "Enjoy fighting over your crumbs, you dumb suckers."

The hate spewed unchecked. Racism. Anti-semitism. Misogyny. Xenophobia. Any kind of hate that can be used to keep us dumb suckers suspicious and mistrustful of one another, while they grift everything out from under us.

And it's working.


P.S. I'm NOT saying we shouldn't continue to fight hate in all its forms. We can do that as well. But until we undo the Great Grift, we'll be trying to move the desert one grain of sand at a time.

December 31, 2023

The cheapest form of warfare

I downloaded several books on spookery, an area that has always interested me (especially for the difference between reality and legend) to read over the year-end holiday.

Call it what you will - espionage, intelligence work, secret service, spying, etcetera, true spookery is the art of gathering and using information about one or more targets, unbeknownst to (though often suspected by) that target, for any of a number of economic or political purposes (and, in the end, aren't 'economic' and 'political' inextricable strands of the same thread?)

Cue the obligatory Von Clausewitz quote:
"War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means."

One thing that obtrudes in the study of modern spookery (*defining 'modern' as beginning with the build-up to WWI, at the end of the 19th Century) is the extent to which the organizations involved are vulnerable to misinformation, disinformation, common griftery by dishonest agents, and many types of error. Whatever 'information' comes in via the spook channels has a surprisingly high chance of being at best incomplete and/or inaccurate (partially or wholly) and at worst, the work of counterspooks deliberately working to deceive the recipients.

This isn't always information warfare (see: "The Tailor of Panama" - while such incidents are rarely so extreme or cinematographically lurid, they are distressingly (to the spook organizations) common.) With the best intentions to maintain some level of integrity or even just reliability, the nature of spookery breeds grifters like roadkill breeds maggots.

However, information warfare emerged as a major function of spookery quite early on in the modern era. While a certain amount of deception has been included in many mission goals from the earliest days, initially it was the case (and still is in some spook organizations) that such goals were limited and focused as elements of larger operations. A means to an end rather than an end in itself.

Enter the Bolsheviks, early in the 20th Century. Finding themselves in the position of the dog who has actually caught the car and discovered it to be an old beater with an empty gas tank, and additionally, being squarely in the crosshairs of virtually every better-funded, better-armed, and more stable government in existence, they had to improvise. With verve. And conviction. The Third International was a shitload cheaper (not to mention a whole lot easier) than bringing the remnants of the Russian military, plus the revolutionary comrades still busy squabbling among themselves, up to par as a deterrent force.

Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades knew from their decades of experience kicking around the nations of the world as exiles and gathering plenty of information about them, that absent a potent, overtly military common threat, it was every nation for itself. They all secretly distrusted or hated each other, were constitutionally disinclined for any kind of meaningful united action, and would backstab or exploit each other at the drop of a hat if they thought they could get away with it.

Had two or three national powers united and mounted a military action in the wake of the October Revolution (early November in the Gregorian calendar) it would have been a cakewalk to dislodge the Bolsheviks from power. Even one major power, had they been willing to commit substantial military effort, could probably have done it. But in the wind-down and aftermath of WWI, none of the many nation-states who saw Bolshevism as a terrible threat to the established order was willing to step up to that extent.

Instead, the Third International declared its goal of "World Revolution" and the Central Committee of the Soviet mounted a successful information war, working to convince the thicket of opponents surrounding it that a) the Soviet was a strong, capable, and united government with a firm grip on its own territory; and b) viable revolutionary cells were springing up in every opponent's very own backyard. None of which was remotely true, in hindsight. But bolstered by a ruthless and successfully scary counter-espionage effort within its own borders, it succeeded in buying them the time needed for the sting of the successful revolution to moderate a bit and sap the will of potential opponents for a major military action to dislodge them.

Spook organizations will generally admit some level of awareness of their own vulnerability to information warfare. Indeed, they spend a lot of time and effort coming up with protocols and systems to prevent infiltration, identify disinformation, etcetera. It's a literal game of whack-a-mole (in the spook sense of 'mole') that costs a lot of money and effort. Throughout the 20th century, and especially in the post-WWII heyday of Cold War high spookery, a large portion of any spook organization's resources was devoted to fooling, and not being fooled by, other spook organizations.

They got used to it, they created tools, they improved their skills, and most accepted a certain percentage of losses in the spook-versus-spook arena. Because everyone in the spook world knew the stigmata of disinformation and the dangers of information warfare, they managed to contain quite a lot of it, up through the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

In 1991, the former Soviet Union broke up, foundering under the weight of a military and technological infrastructure its core economy had never been able to adequately support. Its power structure disintegrated into a kleptocratic scramble for control of economic resources, and its considerable cadre of spook resources hollered "sauve qui peut!" and went on the grab, too.

In 1993, just over 30 years ago now, the Internet went public.

In 2001, the 3G network made the Internet accessible by mobile phone.

In 2004, just about 20 years ago, Facebook hit the 'net and "social media" became a thing.

In 2007, Apple released the first iPhone.

As of today, an estimated 5.3 billion people - about 65% of the world's population - use the internet. In 'developed' countries that number approaches 100% of the population.

And sometime on that timeline, all warfare transitioned to a version of information warfare, taking place performatively and directly, not in the fetid swamps of spookery or between seasoned nation-state actors, but on the smart phones of virtually everyone.

Why mobilize vast military might or develop expensive new superweapons when you can horrify the world with a terrorist attack, and then proceed to successfully divide and conquer any potentially organized, thoughtful response? Why invade your enemy when you can divide their citizens and get them to immobilize and destroy their own effectiveness? Why create an elaborate disinformation program targeted to effectively deceive savvy professional spooks when you can propagate everything from misdirection to the wildest lunacy with a few bot networks?

Why try to hide your information warfare when you can successfully get your targets so tangled up in arguing about what it is and where it's coming from and who started it until they hate each other far more bitterly than they will ever hate you?

Think about it, DU friends, the next time you believe it's imperative to prove how wrong and/or malicious and/or misguided and/or stupid and/or deceived and/or mean and/or ignorant THAT bunch of your fellow DUers are.

The GOP may be scrambling for campaign cash, but their sugar daddies in the oligarchy can still fund a VERY successful information war. And they are perilously close to winning.


December 20, 2023

I'm in MN for my mother's funeral

She passed in the early hours of December 5th, she was 94 years old.

It was a rocky end after a long misery of dementia and increasing incapacity. On Oct. 7th she fell and fractured her hip, and that was the beginning of the end. The hospitalization, the surgery, the pain, the strangers all around her, the unfamiliar place. My sister spent as much time with her as she could, but Mom's dementia was such that as soon as someone she still knew left her, it was as though they'd never been there at all. and she was again alone among strangers. And in pain. Unable to remember why or what happened, aware only of the pain and scariness of being in a strange place with only strangers around her.

The surgery was "successful" - according to the surgeon, an excellent repair and if she had been able to cooperate with the rehab program Mom could have regained almost all of the mobility she had before the fall. But Mom wasn't having any. She'd been wanting to check out for several years and I guess this was her chance. She had a rough recovery, was in the hospital almost two weeks after the surgery, and then in a skilled nursing facility for another 2-3 weeks. Then 'home' to her apartment in the memory care unit where she had been living, to be evaluated by hospice.

Hospice had turned her down earlier this year when my sister had asked if she qualified. Hospice is the best assurance of quality of life for very elderly people with considerable impairments, even if they are not very close to dying; my sister had hoped to establish a less miserable life for her. But she was too robust in general health, then - the Medicaid restrictions on hospice meant she didn't qualify. When she came back from the hospital, she qualified. In fact, the hospice nurse who did the assessment said she would be surprised if Mom lasted longer than 3-4 weeks.

So I made arrangements to get to the Twin Cities, hoping to at least say good-bye, but she slipped away almost immediately, before I could get here. Instead, we scheduled her funeral for my visit.

I don't know what all I am feeling... happy for her, on one level - she was SO weary of what she was experiencing. A tangled up mess of loss and sorrow, guilt for not making it in time to say good-bye, guilt for not having been able to do something, anything, to make her last few years less miserable, numbness from the strain of travel and the funeral and trying to help my sister with the various chores like doing thank-you notes and sorting memorabilia and moving things.

More than anything, I guess I want to be able to stop time for a while, and sit in some void-like state without a schedule or agenda or people around me offering the kindest and most well-intentioned of consolations. A total stoppage that will let me take time to think and process and cry a little and come to terms and craft some kind and appreciative responses to all the well-meant condolences.

Mom had a small family remaining, just her three older daughters and a few nephews and nieces. Her youngest daughter, parents, and siblings had all gone before, along with both of her husbands, the love of her life, her lifelong best friend, and almost all her other friends.

Except that there was her OTHER family - the Twelve Step fellowships she spent more than 50 years among, working to help others to recovery. Her sponsees showed up, members of her home group, younger colleagues she'd trained and mentored. It is good to know that her legacy reached so broadly and her memory will be held green in so many hearts.

But I have so many unfinished conversations that will never be taken up again, so many hugs undelivered. I feel as though someone reached down and cut my deepest root from me, yanking it out of the ground and leaving me swaying precariously in cold winds.

I am trying not to be angry about the many political, economic and social factors that shaped and contributed to her pain. That's hardly going to do any good now.

But I feel like a motherless child...

and I am.

Thanks for being here, my DU community. I know you'll 'get it'. And I can rant a bit, and snorgle a bit, and even ugly-cry a bit, and I'm not alone.


October 11, 2023

About tragedy, horror, trauma and augmentation.

Trauma comes in several varieties. There is sudden catastrophic experience (your house burns down, you are badly injured in a car accident); there is sustained exposure to catastrophic experience (you are a soldier in a bloody war zone, you live under a brutal dictatorship where people are regularly 'disappeared', tortured, or shot in the street, etc.) There is anticipated and experienced catastrophe (you live with an abuser who beats you, you are a soldier injured in a war zone.) They can go together, and there is no "stack bonus", just cumulative damage.

There is also the 'chronic slow-motion trauma' of being oppressed, denied opportunity, denied full human status, denied agency in your own life and future. Children who survive highly dysfunctional families (without experiencing actual physical abuse) and people in groups marginalized by institutional discrimination experience this.

There is also "exposure trauma" or "witness trauma". You're the person sitting near the shooting victim, the person who witnessed the suicide's body hitting the pavement. Your body reacts to the anticipation of catastrophic peril, even though you're not about to head up to the 26th floor and throw yourself out a window.

"Witness trauma" also includes what many are experiencing now, seeing pictures and hearing horrors about appalling atrocities being experienced by other humans.

All types of trauma are painful and damaging.

And all types of traumas include a specific type of effect called "augmentation".

Augmentation is essentially a short-circuit between the part of the brain that does detailed assessments, makes measured judgments, and acts based on rational criteria, and the flight-fight response.

What that means isn't that you CAN'T do detailed assessments, apply rational criteria, etcetera, but that the threshhold for doing so changes - you are more likely to feel emotions more intensely, perceive potential threats as more imminent, powerful, or inevitable/horrible, and make quicker fight/flight responses. If the augmentation is bad enough, you can even start seeing quite ordinary things as threats.

Augmentation also means that your balance between feelings-based response and thinking-based response to almost any stimulus has tipped more in the "feelings-based response" direction.

The danger inherent in this is that your critical thinking capacity weakens, and you become much more vulnerable to manipulation by bad actors who want to stir shit, to get you to make bad choices, say stupid things, and submarine yourself. (Gaslighters rely on this to potentiate the harm they do their victims.)

Here's the deal: Anyone who wants to damage a family, group, or even a nation/state, knows that when the members thereof are reeling from the pain of witness trauma is the PERFECT TIME to drive in wedges, spread disinformation, promote bad decisionmaking, and divide the group from within as people start to passionately disagree about incredibly consequential things, and form judgments about each other based on those disagreements.

Add in the fog of war and the already high disinformation noise-to-signal ratio, and they can do serious damage.

If you think this isn't happening RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW, I can sell you a bridge, real cheap. (I need to replace a hot water heater. DM me... it's a great bridge.)

What can we do about this?

BE AWARE that what we are thinking and saying is being affected by witness trauma. BE AWARE that bad actors are using both accurate information and disinformation to increase this effect. BE AWARE that they will be doing their best to stir division.

Think before you post. Think twice or even three times before you reply to a post. Give yourself a waiting period or a time out if you can sense how strong your emotions are, step away, take a short walk in fresh air, have a cup of tea, then edit what you might have posted. Remind yourself that others are suffering the same augmentation. Cut them slack.

Keep reminding yourself, good thinking is going to create better choices and make better decisions that will benefit those who need the benefit right now - whose trauma is direct and experiential and catastrophic.


October 10, 2023

How "tu quoque" got us here, and why it will make things worse.

First, what is "tu quoque"?

From Wikipedia:

Tu quoque (/tjuːˈkwoʊkwi, tuːˈkwoʊkweɪ/;[1] Latin Tū quoque, for "you also" ) is a discussion technique that intends to discredit the opponent's argument by attacking the opponent's own personal behavior and actions as being inconsistent with their argument, therefore accusing hypocrisy. This specious reasoning is a special type of ad hominem attack.

As a logical fallacy, "tu quoque" presumes that the other party in the discussion is hypocritical, and equates hypocrisy with invalidity. (essentially, "you're just as bad, why should I listen to you?" )

The moral high ground is tricky territory, because it stands on the swamp of history, wherein every atrocity was preceded by the perpetrators having been victimized by a previous atrocity of some sort, granting them the moral high ground, however briefly. From that height, they perpetrate another atrocity to redress the perceived imbalance, passing the moral high ground to the new set of victims.

And so it goes.

An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind, ultimately.

I am no friend of realpolitik - it has too often been used to justify action that ignores the necessity of a sacrificial balance between current and recent perpetrators of injustice and their victims, for the purposes of enriching or aggrandizing the already-privileged.

Nevertheless, I believe that only between the perilously unstable moral high ground and the foggy ambiguities of realpolitik will we ever be able to find the solutions to the most tragic bedevilments of modern conflict and the slaughter of the innocents.

"Tu quoque" is the argument of the moral high ground. "The end justifies the means" is the argument of realpolitik. Both are perilous, both perpetuate the cycle of horror and violence and tragedy.

What is left?

I can only offer something learned from successes in helping people who suffer because of addictive disease establish and maintain a stable recovery. (Please note the phrasing "suffer because of addictive disease", which includes not only the people with addiction but the family members and people who love them who are drawn into the cycles of dysfunctional survival-based behavior, sometimes for generations.)

For a long time, treatment methodologies assumed that addictive diseases proceeded from a "root cause" - adverse childhood events, generational trauma, early exposure, genetic loading, etcetera. And there is, indeed, some correlation between a variety of genetic load, genetic expression, and experiential events, and addictive disease. Where we went wrong was in assuming that for each individual, recovery would proceed from a thorough examination and understanding of their own "root cause."

Here's the harsh truth of recovery from addictive disease:

Regardless of the 'root cause', recovery can ONLY proceed from changing the behaviors of addiction FIRST.

Stop drinking. Stop using the drug. Stop making the dysfunctional choices.

The longer you can keep that up, the more your recovery will stabilize.

Does identifying your "root cause" help at all?

Sometimes. Especially if you can identify the sources of some of your dysfunctional choice-making: "My alcoholic parents convinced me that nothing I did would ever be good enough, so I continually strive to reach an unreal standard of perfectionism" may be a good insight and help you recognize what needs to be changed. But the change comes from the hard work of learning to recognize the damaging internal dialog, and develop a better internal dialog to replace it, and keep working on that over and over, lifelong.

Getting stuck on a "root cause" can be incredibly harmful, too. One person I know had established three years' worth of stable recovery, and decided it was time to get therapy to 'surface some family issues and deal with them.' The resulting, as memories of childhood abuse and trauma were carefully recalled in exquisitely painful detail and hashed over in months of bi-weekly therapy sessions, was a profound depression and, ultimately, relapse.

Does this relate to world politics and conflict?

Every person in active addiction can give you a dozen reasons why they're using the drug, engaging in the self-destructive behavior, etcetera, without even stopping to think. Sometimes the reasons are heart-rending, like the brilliantly promising concert pianist who entered a concert hall to practice just as a crew were replacing a clerestory window, and dropped the sheet of glass, slicing off the pianist's arm. That one was good for years of drinking, to the loss of family, friends, health, and very nearly their future as the physical effects of alcohol toxicity accumulated.

Then there was the woman in the abusive relationship with her alcoholic father, who kept her in a state of virtual slavery, controlling every aspect of her life, taking every paycheck from her for his own needs, destroying every tentative friendship, isolating her from other family, and slapping, punching, pushing her downstairs when he thought she was even thinking of "rebelling." But it was okay for her to drink, so she did. And eventually, she killed him in a drunken rage, and the neighbor who was trying to intervene, and the cop who was called, and ended up in prison. Where, ironically, she eventually achieved a stable recovery, and began to write poetry.

Do these lessons apply to conflicts between peoples or nations?

For a lot of people, recovery starts with an intervention, or intervention-like event, involving outside parties. Primarily, people who have been, almost invariably unintentionally, enabling the dysfunction of addictive disease. Sometimes, it's a formalized appointment with those who care about someone expressing concern while making a believable case for how they will stop doing the things that have enabled the dysfunction. Sometimes, it's waking up with a terrible hangover to find someone gone for good. Sometimes its the death of an enabler and no replacement on the horizon, piled upon the accumulated misery.

A lot of times, though, those formalized interventions fail, because the well-intentioned people either don't make a believable case for no longer enabling, or because the person who can't imagine living without their drug or compulsion manages to sidetrack them with "tu quoque" and derail the whole process. Or because someone who wanted to be part of the intervention has a stake in making it fail, for their own reasons, and no one was able to prevent that.

Is there an analog for this kind of failure in negotiations to end conflicts, by well-intentioned other parties?

Yes, yes, and yes.

It is not easy. But two things are essential:

First, kick "tu quoque" to the curb. Keep it OUT of the process. The moral high ground, as a place of consensus, will NEVER be attainable. Focus on what needs to change, going forward.

Second, identify the 'enabling behaviors' and STOP THEM.

Mercy must win out over justice.

October 8, 2023

Prayers and loving intentions welcome - my Mom is having hip surgery now.

Dear DUer friends and family,

Yesterday I learned my 93-year-old Mom had a fall; the community she lives in is minimally staffed on weekends, and it was some time before the on-duty medical staff could be reached. This morning I learned that they had diagnosed a hip break and she had been taken by ambulance to a local hospital, where surgery is underway as I write this.

I have terribly mixed feelings right now. She has been so unhappy with life for so long. It has been so difficult for her to cope with the dementia and its concommitant loss of memory and capability, and the macular degeneration that is depriving her of the consolation of being able to at least read, look at magazines, etc. She often expresses the hope that she can 'go to heaven soon'.

The choice, the doctors told us, was between the surgery (always risky for a 93-year-old, even one as generally healthy as Mom) and being bedridden for the remainder of her life. She's been evaluated for hospice twice in the past year and each time the verdict has been "she's nowhere near qualifying for hospice - she could live another 10 years. Or die tomorrow from a sudden event." With that in mind, "bedridden for the remainder of her life" seemed like a potentially lingering and cruel sentence, so we okayed the surgery.

She has a history of negative cognitive complications with anaesthesia - post-anaesthetic psychoses, disorientation, etc. But her physical recuperation in the past has been nothing short of phenomenal.

Should she survive and recover from this surgery she will need physical therapy to regain maximum health and mobility, and for someone with her type of dementia that will be a trying ordeal as well.

There are no "good" outcomes for Mom, or for those of us who love her and share the pain of her struggle. But this morning as I was doing my morning meditation and prayer time, one of my readings had the heading, "Together". And the reading included this: "When I work, play, or pray with others, something greater than the sum of our individual efforts results."

That reminded me that I am part of a large, loving, and powerfully helpful community. Be with me, please, and hold us - my Mom and those who love her - in your hearts that we may be blessed with the strength and serenity to find the joy and the growth within the darkness of this difficult time.


September 11, 2023

Where economic theories take the wrong turn. (Long read)

Disclaimer: My opinion, based on a good deal of topic-specific reading and research I have been doing lately (as well as studies some decades ago at University), plus more than six decades of living in an increasingly unregulated capitalist economy. Your mileage WILL vary... that's part of what I'm getting at, here.

Economic theories are less like bungholes (everyone has one, and occasionally trumpets smelly and noisy stuff from it) and more like sex toys: People may try several, but they generally end up relying on the one that gets them off the most reliably.

As with a lot of other human nature-based phenomenological patterns, we've been trying to make economics into a "science" for ages. Proponents of this instance as evidence the elaborate mathematically-based models that occasionally coincide with observed phenomena, the demonstrable reliability of large-number prediction algorithms, and various other facty and numbery aspects of the discipline.

The addition of artificial intelligence, supermassive data sets, and high-speed processing gives these folks hope that someday we'll be able to feed in numbers and get out a precise explanation for why there's hyperinflation in Venezuela, and, even more hopeful, how exactly we can avoid the next bubble-related economic contraction. But economics, as a thought discipline (or even a worldly philosophy) doesn't work at those levels.

Granted, some things are fairly predictable - most of the time. When interest rates go up, usually bond prices drop and yields go up. When stock values go down, bonds become more desirable.

Of course, when interests rates go up AND stock values tank, where does that leave bonds?

You can tie yourself in knots trying to get every detail right in a prediction algorithm, because the suite of phenomena that make up "the economy" in the "finance and money policy" sense of the term (as opposed to whether you'll be able to get a job, afford your mortgage payments, or get the car fixed sense of the term) is getting steadily more complicated. Our understanding of "money" - what it is, how it functions, how to set policy involving it that won't fuck up the rest of the economy - has never been less of a consensus. And money is where it all started.

There are endless tomes on this, some more readable, some less. Having studied a good few, what I came up with boils down to this:

Money functions in a narrow channel that has greed (or 'incentive' if you like) on one side, and trust (or 'security') on the other side.

If you try to make the system absolutely secure, confining every kind of transaction with regulations, certainties, rules, and guarantees, money (and the economy) languishes. Growth fails, it may not even keep up with expanding populations. Stagnation is the best you can hope for, dearth is more likely, and Malthusian outcomes are not impossible to contemplate.

If you try to make the system absolutely free to grow and innovate and offer endless risks that incentivize growth and expansion, money (and the economy) spirals into an increasing concentration, producing a casino that rewards a miniscule few and impoverishes a multitude. Oligarchy is the best you can hope for, dearth is more likely, and bloody revolution is not at all impossible to prognosticate.

Any economic theory that ignores the reality of that narrow channel is someone's fantasy. Or perhaps, political agenda. Any economic theory that attempts to define that channel and explain how to keep it open in terms of measurements like interest rates, bond yields, commodity prices, trading practices, hedging tools, etc. is playing darts blindfolded.

The channel between greed and trust can easily be mismanaged in two ways: First, micromanagement that is like stretching temporary barriers along the sides of a river's path to try and keep it in bounds or nudge it a little this way or that. Such strategies may produce evanescent local effects, but they won't stop the river from eating out its channel as dictated by flow and climate conditions and random boulders crashing down here and there.

The channel between greed and trust can also be mismanaged by using Corps of Engineers tactics and building heavy-duty dams, levees, etcetera. They may last longer but when the inevitable comes the catastrophes are all the greater, even if you thought you got it right. (And how often do you? Look at the track records on America's major floodplains and coastal areas...)

So what does help?

A better understanding that economics is a dynamic discipline that is constantly changing, but it DOES exist in the context of human behavior. So aim at balancing the influences of human excess: Set up a system that provides modest incentives for those who seek security above all, to try a little risk. Add guardrails that prevent those who hit big at the greed casino from having access to the power structure, so they cannot bring others down with their risk taking, or consolidate their wealth into a twenty-ton weight damming the flow.

Tax progressively, but modestly, including all forms of wealth in the mix - asset holdings, value growth, and revenue.

Use the powers of government, through taxation, insurance, targeted credit guarantees, and the provision of base-level savings/investment tools, to provide access to minimum financial health for citizens. Post-office savings and loans rather than payday usurers. Reinsurance programs to assist the insurance industry in spreading risk and keeping prices low and accessible to homeowners. 'Untaxable' maximums for retirement and educational savings, based on mandatory and frequent reassessments of value. There are a hundred creative ways - of course, they all depend on having adequate tax revenue from those who benefit most from the economy.

Allow risk, and reward levels of successful risk taking that don't incentivize playing with other peoples money unbeknownst to them. "Windfall" tax exemptions, income averaging, deferred interest credits and other tools can encourage the creative to innovate, reward innovation, and still keep the games honest. Stepped 'elevators' to asset and growth tax exemptions that can be adjusted to somewhat offset marginal tax rates on income.

We are now suffering from decades of progressively unregulated capitalism and laissez-faire market practices. (One phrase: "Collateralized Debt Obligations" ) We've let the whales into the casino management, and they've rigged every game. So yes, recovery will have to start with restoring trust, in a big way. Reining in the excesses of "corporate personhood". Tying off the conduit between massive wealth and political control. Re-regulating the basics more stringently and capping the worst excesses of the baroque 'innovations' in hedging, arbitrage, venture capital, merger and acquisition rules, monopolization, etc.

Until then, all the formulae for interest rate management, credit and commodity pricing, bond offering, exchange and currency management, are just so many darts flung at the board. Some will make a difference for a while, maybe.

What we need to aim for, long term, is a realistic outlook that sees the economy as a platter balanced on a stick, with a bunch of marbles rolling around on it. Equilibrium becomes defined not as "no lateral motion" but as an acceptable level of lateral motion that always moderates in the other direction to a near-equal degree. "Acceptable" being perceptible but never at risk of wobbling out of control to the extent of the marbles falling off, or worse, the plate dropping off the stick.

It will always be a game of whack-a-mole with innovators trying to subvert or use each new rule to their own advantage. Therefore, having a robust and skilled corps of "hackers" to test each rule in advance, and reverse-engineer solutions to emerging problems, is also essential.

But first, we need to turf the whales out of the casino management.

September 6, 2023

The antidote to "Democratic panic syndrome": Putting Joe Biden's poll numbers in perspective

Full article here: https://www.salon.com/2023/09/06/the-antidote-to-democratic-panic-syndrome-putting-joe-bidens-poll-numbers-in-perspective/

It's that time in the presidential campaign cycle again when Democrats feel the need to express their discontent with their choices and political journalists, in turn, declare that the party is in a panic. It's a tradition — and it's always most dramatic when an incumbent Democrat is facing re-election.

I'm reminded of Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, who wrote in September of 1995, "There is little unity among Democrats or on the center-left on the desirability of reelecting President Clinton." He was right. At the time there were pitched battles going on among the centrists and the progressives which made the prospect of solidarity in the party a distant dream. The huge Republican win in the midterm election of 1994 as well as the non-stop scandal-mongering and investigations by the congressional Republicans had Democrats everywhere wondering how Clinton could possibly win re-election. The only thing that seemed to unite the party at the time was a mutual loathing of Newt Gingrich. 14 months later, Clinton won a decisive victory.

Similarly, at the same point in the 2012 election, there were rumblings from certain quarters that it might be wise to run a primary challenge against President Barack Obama after his approval numbers fell to the 30s in some polls. It had been a very rough three years trying to recover from the financial crisis, not to mention the rise of the Tea Party and a political massacre in the 2010 midterms. The New York Times reported in September of 2011, "Democrats Fret Aloud Over Obama's Chances":

In a campaign cycle in which Democrats had entertained hopes of reversing losses from last year's midterm elections, some in the party fear that Mr. Obama's troubles could reverberate down the ballot into Congressional, state and local races. "In my district, the enthusiasm for him has mostly evaporated," said Representative Peter A. DeFazio, Democrat of Oregon. "There is tremendous discontent with his direction."

"Yes, don't let up on working to make 2024 a Democratic win - it will save many lives, not to mention democracy itself. But also, don't waste too much energy fretting about the uncertain and unknown." Good advice, I forget who said it. Someone here on DU, no doubt.


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