Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

29 December 2016

“Fake news”: Democracy’s Hemlock


[For analysis of defamation law’s deficiencies in curbing fake news, click here.]

    “Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.”— Euripides
Two extraordinary things have happened in the last few years. No one, it seems, has yet appreciated just how extraordinary they are. Both have directly to do with the presidency of Donald Trump.

The first extraordinary thing is Trump’s utter lack of relevant experience. He has never served a day in our armed forces or, for that matter, in any alternative national service like the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps. He has never held any public office, even one as humble as city councillor. So if you count as relevant the military commands of our general-presidents (including Washington, Grant, and Eisenhower), Trump will be by far the least experienced president in our national history.

As the New York Times recently reported, Trump’s much-vaunted businesses bear absolutely no resemblance to the the huge federal executive bureaucracy he will take over on January 20. He runs his business empire out of two floors of offices in Trump Tower, with around 150 full-time direct employees worldwide. He makes virtually all the key decisions (and many minor ones) and signs all the big checks himself. His sidekicks with real power are either close relatives or loyal sycophants who have served him for decades.

It would be hard even for a writer of fiction to imagine anything more different from the massive federal bureaucracy, let alone the independent Congress and the courts, that Trump will have to govern and work with as president. So a pulp-fiction writer, contemplating a Trump-like character as president before last year, would have had to dismiss the notion as too improbable for readers to believe.

“Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction,” our hypothetical novelist might say to himself, “but that would be ridiculous!” Yet here we are.

The second extraordinary thing is how we got here. There is every evidence that “fake news,” if not the primary cause of Trump’s election, was instrumental in it. Think about that. Our next president will hold office not just because of normal electoral propaganda and “spin,” but in part because of absolute lies, made up out of whole cloth, and taken as “news” by a significant minority of voters. (For examples of fake news, with statistics on how many voters believe them, see this survey.)

Not only that. Perhaps the key bit of fake news—the one that gave Trump his uneasy start in politics—was a product of Trump himself. His own fake news story may have started the whole downhill slide.

Trump may not have invented the “birther” lie that Barack Obama is not a native-born US citizen, as our Constitution requires presidents to be. But he promulgated and pushed it harder, more explicitly, and more successfully than any other mainstream public figure.

Of course he had help, lots of it. In selling the lie to a much-too-large fraction of the American public, he, Fox and the GOP cooperated. It doesn’t matter whether or not they actually conspired; their parallel action did the trick.

Here’s how the scheme worked. Trump dumped the lie on the American public with no evidence whatsoever. He simply insisted that the burden of proof was on the president to prove his citizenship. He also made constant innuendos that a president who is half black, who has the foreign- (and Islamic-) sounding name “Barack Hussein Obama,” whose father was admittedly a citizen of Kenya, and who lived in Indonesia and Hawaii for much of his early life bears an especially heavy burden of proof.

GOP public officials never repeated the lie directly. But when asked to refute it, they invariably refused. They mouthed the code words and blew the dog whistles of racism, without ever actually repeating the lie, thus maintaining “plausible deniability” as liars. Fox, of course, repeatedly broadcast and repeatedly emphasized their refusals to deny the lie, spreading the notion that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” In this way, Trump, Fox and the GOP created a complete edifice of smoke and mirrors, with only Trump mouthing the actual lie.

No one, least of all Trump, offered evidence of the President’s foreign birth. No one scoured records of births in Kenya (or anywhere else!) and came up with a birth record contradicting the President’s native birth. Like most fake news, the “birther” lie depended on no evidence whatsoever. Instead, it thrived on innuendo, implication and reinforcing what many people who simply didn’t like the president already wanted to believe.

How successful was this fake news? Very. As of this August, when the presidential campaign got rolling, 41% of surveyed Republicans and even a small fraction of surveyed Democrats disagreed that President Obama was born in the United States.

Contrary to what some may believe, our First Amendment doesn’t protect fake news. The seminal case is New York Times v. Sullivan (1964). In order to protect free speech from overzealous suits for libel or defamation, our Supreme Court ruled that news media cannot be held liable for propagating lies about public figures unless they do so with “malice,” i.e., something more than mere negligence. They must act recklessly, without regard to the truth or falsity of what they publish.

Fake news is way beyond that standard. The American Law Institute’s Model Penal Code lays out four standards of legal intent, in the following order of strength: negligent, reckless, knowing and purposeful. Fake news is purposeful or deliberate; it involves the highest and most culpable level of intent.

Even if not purposeful or knowing, it is reckless for anyone to publish a falsehood as important as the president’s supposed alien birth with no evidence whatsoever. So the President, and perhaps his tarnished Cabinet, could sue Trump and maybe those (like John Boehner) who assisted his lie with winks and nods, for defamation or libel. Maybe Trump and Boehner could even be jailed for criminal libel.

But how do you assess damages? How can you calculate how much to charge for subverting the world’s most powerful democracy? For falsely tarnishing the image and legacy of a president, making it harder for him to push his agenda and making it impossible for his successor (Hillary) to gain traction? And if the worst happens, and Trump hits The Button is a petulant fit, or when driven to the wall by a Putin or Xi eager to exploit his inexperience and narcissism, how do you calculate the loss in that, assuming that anyone survives to care?

But there’s more. Just to continue with our president-elect, there’s another bit of fake news that he Tweeted after his election. He claimed “millions” of fraudulent votes for Hillary. As in the case of the birther lie, he had no evidence for this claim whatsoever. Nor have the news media discovered any, after pawing through election records nationwide for over a month now. Like the birther lie, this is another bald lie—a bit of fake news designed to distract the feeble-minded and those already disposed to believe that Hillary is Satan.

As many have noticed, the fraudulent-votes lie undermines our democracy. It discourages people from voting by making them doubt that their votes have meaning. It also encourages people who want to suppress the votes of “undesirables” (usually Democrats) on the false ground of “voter fraud.” Its acceptance and its promulgation have real consequences for the future of American democracy.

So fake news is not something that our authorities or our legal system can ignore. Well-informed voters are a fundamental assumption of democracy. If voters are “informed” by lies made up out of whole cloth, that assumption breaks down catastrophically. The electorate becomes a flock of sheep to be misled in any direction. The more lying and unscrupulous the leaders, the “better.”

To see how bad the situation already is, consider a recent survey of both Republicans and Democrats, testing reactions to three real and three fake news stories. On the average, respondents identified fake news stories as very or somewhat accurate 75% of the time. Republicans were more gullible than Democrats, at 84% versus 71%. For example, 64% of all respondents thought very or somewhat accurate a story that the Pope had endorsed Trump.

China is already taking notice, as is consistent with its ever-pragmatic approach to politics and governing. It’s reportedly doubling down on political censorship of the Internet, in order to restrict both fake news and real news that makes it harder to govern.

We Yanks think our system is superior. We think politics and government are more robust and resilient when the people governed hear all the news and have a say in how they are governed. But what if what they think they know is pure fiction—if they believe, in substantial numbers, things that just aren’t so, but that advance narrow partisan objectives? Can democracy then survive?

To answer that question, consider what is happening in the world today. Democracy and even hope for it are on the ropes in all three great empires. Putin has ruled Russia for fifteen years, despite its constitution’s ostensible ten-year term limit for presidents. There is no indication that he has any intention of stepping down. And as his recent influence on our American election shows, Putin is a master of propaganda, although so far he has shown a preference for well-timed releases of real, private and embarrassing facts.

China appears to have informal but effective term limits (two five-year plans’ worth). But Xi has decreased the size of China’s top ruling committee from nine to seven members and is reportedly packing it with his cronies and sycophants.

And we Yanks? Well, a recent, comprehensive academic study of 1,779 separate substantive issues shows that, insofar as concerns policy, we now have a business oligarchy, not a democracy. And have just elected an utterly inexperienced and highly authoritarian leader as president, at least in part, due to fake news and other lies.

Looking beyond the three great empires hardly increases one’s optimism. Turkey has Erdogan, a strongman and term-limit circumventer like Putin. Egypt has Al-Sisi, a former general with little political experience who rules by force, with the aid of our modern weapons, and jails thousands. The Philippines has Duterte, a man who brags about killing people personally and who has unleashed a torrent of extrajudicial killings throughout his typhoon-wracked nation. Then there’s Najib in Malaysia, who serves as both prime and finance minister just to manage things better. And if you look to Europe, you see Britain, Hungary, Poland and even France turning sharply to the right.

Why is this so? Why is the entire world turning to unbridled strongmen with the suddenness and ferocity of a summer typhoon? Could it be that, in nations everywhere, people no longer know what to believe and want something or someone to believe in?

I have already written why voters often lean on “simple” and oversimplified social issues like race and abortion. Real issues like terrorism, the war in Syria, economic inequality, and globalization are too complicated for most voters to get their minds around. So when they hear fake news that confirms their own deepest fears and prejudices and narrows their understanding yet further, what chance do they have to make rational decisions, let alone to protect their own interests against strongmen, demagogues, and oligarchs with louder voices and much better access to the media?

Let’s be clear. The First Amendment does not protect fake news. Nor should it. Any nation that does not outlaw and control fake news will find it impossible to maintain even a semblance of democracy.

I rarely make predictions on this blog. But here I can make one with fair confidence. If nations that style themselves “democratic” don’t get this scourge under control, and quickly, there will be no real democracies left on this planet by mid-century. Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany and New Zealand might survive in democratic form by virtue of their relatively small size and their popular penchant for skepticism and common sense. But our Yankee democracy, now morphing into oligarchy, almost surely will not. We Yanks already confuse politics and policy with entertainment—a cultural defect that Fox and Limbaugh brilliantly exploit.

Fake news is an existential threat to democracy worldwide. We must crush it quickly and relentlessly. Or it will crush us, as surely as the “gods” in Euripides’ proverb.

Endnote: “Loopholes” in Defamation Law

The mere fact that the First Amendment doesn’t protect fake news does not by itself make publishing it illegal. There must be some positive law making its publication a crime or a proper subject for a civil suit.

In Anglo-American jurisdictions, the law that best serves that purpose is the law of defamation or libel. “Defamation” is a general term, which includes oral statements, i.e., slander. “Libel” refers to defamation in print, for example, in newspapers or books.

To my knowledge (after a reasonable Internet search), there is no general federal law of defamation. (A federal statute does require claims for defamation under foreign laws to satisfy our constitutional protections of free speech. See 28 U.S.C. § 4102.) Defamation is a tort under old English common law. So in the United States, it’s therefore state law (either common law or law codified in statutes), and its details vary from state to state.

The reason for making defamation a tort (civil wrong) was to protect the reputations of identified individuals or groups against the power of news media. To this end, the tort has seven elements: (1) making public, (2) a falsehood (3) that is factual, not just opinion, (4) about an identifiable individual or group, that (5) injures his, her or its reputation and (6) causes (7) damages. In some jurisdictions, certain false statements are “defamation per se,” automatically satisfying elements (5) through (7); they include false allegations of having committed a crime or having a “loathsome social disease.”

To illustrate these elements, consider the following old English limerick:
(a) “There once was a young man from Trinity,
(b) Who stole his sister’s virginity;
(c) He buggered his father,
(d) Had twins by his mother,
(e) And still got a first in Divinity.”
Does this limerick satisfy all seven elements of the tort of defamation? Every line states a fact, not just opinion, so element (3) is met. Lines (b) through (d) also satisfy element (5) and, since they affirm activities that are crimes or “loathsome,” probably elements (6) and (7) as well. Lines (a) and (e) don’t satisfy the element of injury to reputation (5) or causation of damage (6) and (7) because they assert neutral or positive facts.

For this limerick, the most difficult elements to prove would be elements (2) and (4): that the damaging factual allegations in lines (b) through (d) are false and refer to an identifiable individual or group. The limerick identifies no specific individual, so only Trinity College, if anyone, could sue for defamation. Yet the limerick mentions only a single individual and does not identify him, let alone state whether he is still alive. So it would probably not satisfy element (5) in most jurisdictions, even ignoring its primary purpose of humor. And of course Trinity College might have trouble proving the elements of causation (6) and damages (7).

As this brief analysis suggests, defamation law is an imperfect instrument for stamping out fake news. It ought to condemn Trump’s “birther” lie, which is about a specific individual (the President) and tends to bring him into disrepute (as unqualified for his office). But even so, there might be difficulties in proving causation of specific damages.

Trump’s second lie, about “millions” of fraudulent votes for Hillary, would be even more problematic. It identifies no specific fraudulent voters, so who would be entitled to sue? The general electorate, or even Hillary voters, is probably too large a group for that. And the lie doesn’t accuse Hillary herself of anything, although the notion that millions of votes for her were fraudulent probably brings her into disrepute. Anyway, she admits she lost in the Electoral College, so what would her damages be?

The general problem of using defamation law to curb fake news is even deeper. What about lies related to an issue, rather than to any individual or group, identified or not? What if a pol declares falsely that the vast majority of claims under “Obamacare,” or of welfare payments in general, are fraudulent? What about fake news that the Pope endorsed Trump? What about James Inhofe, who throws snowballs from a rare D.C. storm on the Senate floor and declares global warming a hoax—a “logical” connection that the vast majority of climate scientists would ridicule?

As traditionally construed, defamation law would cover none of these falsehoods. But should it?

Before you answer, consider that both the law of defamation and the law of false advertising have important safety valves. They both allow you to say or publish anything you like, as long as it is your opinion and doesn’t purport to state facts. A pol can call his opponent a “scoundrel” or “liar” without fear of civil or criminal liability. But when he steps over the line of alleging specific behavior, such as incest or murder, or alleging a specific lie, the law of defamation comes into play.

The same rule applies to commercial lies about products. You can call the product or service you offer “the best” or “high quality,” without fear of a successful suit. But if you say it “whitens teeth better than any other product” or it “reduces injuries by 20%,” you’d better have some proof.

If we protect individuals’ reputations against reckless, knowing or purposeful lies, and if we protect competing commercial products and services similarly, shouldn’t we also protect our pubic sphere—our democracy? The existing law of defamation doesn’t do that well, and in some cases doesn’t do it at all.

The traditional response to this defect is that the “free marketplace of ideas” will cure it. Faced with the truth and a bunch of lies, the public (it is said) will eventually discern truth in the cacophony and emerge enlightened.

But is that really so? And if it once was as least putatively so, doesn’t the Internet disprove it? When every Internet user can (and often does) become a publisher, and when the Internet offers almost every version of any important fact you can name, from the false but diabolically clever to the fantastic and the bizarre, does the “free marketplace” notion really hold up?

Most modern sociologists and political scientists would say “no.” The Internet, with its millions of “channels,” has allowed us Yanks to divide ourselves into numerous warring camps, each of which reads, views and believes only things that confirm its prejudices, predilections and ideologies. So we no longer see the whole “marketplace,” if we ever did. Instead, we live in partisan echo chambers, each mindlessly repeating our own views. As a result, we are less like sophisticated shoppers in an all-compassing free market and more like balkanized warring tribes.

Trump’s candidacy also provides compelling experimental refutation of the comforting but naïve myth of the “free marketplace of ideas.” Already he’s gotten millions of people to believe the lies that Barack Obama is not a native-born US citizen, and that millions of people voted fraudulently for Hillary. These beliefs appear to be durable, and Donald Trump is just getting started.

If we protect individuals and businesses against like lies, shouldn’t we also protect our national culture and our political system? If we require news media to exercise minimal discipline (not being “reckless”) to avoid harming individuals or businesses, shouldn’t we require presidential candidates and presidents-elect like Trump, as well as bloggers and other Internet publishers like me, to exercise similar minimal discipline to avoid killing our democracy by a thousand small cuts?

Would a uniform federal law requiring people who publish statements of fact with political impact at least to avoid reckless, knowing and purposeful falsehoods impair our “freedom”? Or would it save our democracy? Would it bring us together around a commonly understood background of basic facts? Or is it better to have, as we do today, each political party and fringe group living in its own world of false reality, forming Yeats’ “ignorant armies that clash by night”?

On the answers to these questions depends not just the immediate future of American politics, but perhaps the future of democracy itself. Empires don’t need self-discipline. They have ways of discovering the truth. Putin has his FSB, successor to the KGB, from whence he came. Trump, should he become our first American emperor, will have his CIA and FBI to inform him, even if he bores of their briefings. Requiring “us, the people” to wade through a cesspool of lies called the “Internet” in a vain attempt to find the truth unaided seems like a very poor way to protect our waning power and influence, or even our basic rights.

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21 December 2016

President Trump: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly


[For a recent popular post on the four tribes that put Trump in office, click here. For a review of Trump’s team, click here.]

Introduction
Jobs
Energy
Environment
Finance
Foreign and immigration policy
Conclusion

Introduction

The “VIX,” or “volatility index” is a measure of uncertainty and fear on financial markets. As yet, there’s no such thing for politics and government, no “Pol-VIX.” But there ought to be. If there were such a thing today, it would be at an all-time high.

According to exit polls, the millions of voters in the South and Upper Midwest who put Trump in the White House wanted to “shake things up.” Well, they sure did. Trump has said many inconsistent and contradictory things. In a few important cases, he has shouted obvious whoppers than no one (maybe including himself) believes. So the American public, our allies, and the world in general have no good idea what Trump will actually do in office.

Some might say we’re like ancient Romans in the time of Caligula or Nero, waiting to see what the crazy emperor will do.

But that’s not really a good analogy. For all its basic structural flaws, of which the Electoral College is just one, the US is still a nation of laws. Congress still makes them; the president just executes them. We have a huge government bureaucracy, whose workers our Civil-Service laws protect from political or arbitrary dismissal.

Most of all, we have business. As “Silent Cal” once told us, the business of America is business. If there’s any common thread that runs through Donald Trump’s bizarre mind, it’s that. Anyway, as I’ve noted at least twice (1 and 2), business corporations are in the process of taking over global government, supplanting nation-states. So a lot of stuff is likely to happen, or not to happen, just because of business, totally independently of Trump.

Business doesn’t run arbitrarily, let alone by the Mind of Trump. It runs by logical and predictable rules: profit and loss, supply and demand, comparative advantage, and innovation. It runs by technology and sometimes even science. It has a logic of its own, which Trump cannot change. If he thought about it, which he seldom seems to do, he might not even want to.

So when we think about what a Trump Administration means for us Yanks and for the world, it’s best not to dwell too long on what Donald Trump says and Tweets. You can go crazy doing that. The world is a big place. For all his bluster, ego and coming presidential power, Donald Trump is only part of the picture. So is his mostly inexperienced and sometimes radical team. So it’s best to consider carefully what’s possible and what’s likely.

Once you do that, you can make some predictions about what the next four years will be like, i.e., what’s likely to happen regardless of what Trump Tweets and does. You can also see how those of us who aren’t Donald Trump can best protect ourselves, our families, and our values from the worst of his craziness. Let’s get started, going from good, to bad, to worst.

Jobs

Skilled American workers who are unemployed, or who think they are underemployed, made Trump President. They got tired of losing jobs making real things that people use and having to flip burgers at McDonalds, stock shelves at Wal Mart, or learn massage therapy. They also got tired of watching their towns and communities dry up and blow away after the factories that gave them life had closed.

These workers are the new wild card of American politics. In the next decade they are likely to reshape the two-party system and determine our nation’s political future. There are several million of them, but the most angry and disaffected are in the Upper Midwest and the South.

How will these workers do under a Trump presidency? Right now, it’s looking pretty good for them, but they are going to have to be flexible. If they’re willing to move and retrain a bit, they can have good jobs. But their desiccated communities are probably not coming back.

As President, Trump will do three things for these workers. His first, most likely and most effective move will be his infrastructure-building program.

Trump is now talking about a one-trillion dollar investment. That’s a lowball figure: our American Society of Civil Engineers says we need to invest $3.6 trillion by 2020, just to make sure things keep running well. But a trillion will put a lot of people to work. Most of them will be in construction, but there will be plenty of work in medium-technology as we upgrade our air-traffic control system and our Internet backbone, and as we prepare our roads and highways for self-driving cars.

The second most probable benefit for skilled workers will be Trump’s risky tariff plan. No, it’s not the one to throw 35% tariffs on all goods from China and Mexico. That would be an absolute disaster. Trump’s good plan is much more subtle: to throw 35% tariffs on goods from American factories built abroad, after fair warning, that are imported back into the United States.

What these tariffs will do is say to American business: you want to supply our American market; you build factories here at home. Or you figure out how to make stuff abroad more than 35% more cheaply.

As we all hope about nuclear weapons, these tariffs likely will never be used. So there will be no actual “protectionism.” Instead, like a hangman’s noose, the mere threat of these tariffs will focus the minds of American plutocrats on how to keep jobs at home by making things efficiently here. In the long run, their doing so will increase their use of robots and artificial intelligence, which will reduce human employment. But the resulting drain of jobs will be a trickle compared to the last two decades’ flood of jobs to low-wage nations. Anyway, it’s worth a try.

The third way that Trump will try to keep jobs onshore is “jawboning,” as recently he did with Carrier. This will his the least effective means. Jawboning will stroke Trump’s huge ego and give him lots to brag about, but it will work only sporadically and erratically. To the extent it works, it may distort our domestic economy and generate business pushback against Trump.

If Trump really wants to reward the people who put him in office, he will work on these three things, in the order listed. If he can make substantial progress on the first two, he might even be a two-term president.

Energy

Donald Trump is in love with fossil fuels. He doesn’t use McCain’s old slogan, “Drill, baby, drill!” Perhaps that’s because he also wants to dig for coal. But he might as well.

Coal is an obsolete fuel. It’s the dirtiest fuel known to mankind, far dirtier even than the animal dung used in parts of the third world. But that’s not its worst trait. It’s also more expensive, on an energy-equivalent basis, than natural gas or oil, all by itself. When you consider the cost of remediating the environmental damage it does—acid rain, mercury pollution of bodies of water, asthma and other respiratory diseases, let alone global warming—it’s a gigantic cost loser. So when Trump says he’s bringing coal miners’ jobs back, he’s just blowing smoke, dirty coal smoke.

But natural gas and oil are different stories, as least in the short term. Our nation runs on them. Right now, and until they begin to run out, they are cost efficient. And if we Yanks can produce what we use, as we are close to doing now, we can regulate our own energy expenses and not depend on the likes of Iran, Iraq, Russia and Venezuela.

Donald Trump is hardly a long-term thinker. He’s going to be president for, at most, eight years. During that short time frame, pumping all the gas and oil we can extract from our own and Canada’s reserves is not a bad idea. If we can stay independent and keep ourselves from suffering more oil-price shocks, we might just avoid yet another energy crisis for that short time.

But there are subtleties that Trump has yet to admit. They all relate to timing.

Global warming is real, and it’s accelerating rapidly. During the next decade or two, it could reach a tipping point that could cause a climate catastrophe. Trump doesn’t care much about that, because he’ll be long out of office when and if that happens. He is, after all, a risk taker.

Trump also doesn’t seem to care much about the time scales for capital investment. But business people do. They have to make that investment. The smart ones know that two things are likely to happen within the time frame for any long-term capital investment. First, whether or not Trump himself does, our species generally is going to recognize and react to the climate threat of fossil fuels and tax or regulate their use. Second, for those and other reasons, demand for fossil fuels is going to peak and drop, even before they start to run out. And they will start to run out within approximately two generations.

So what will business do? Will it invest in yet more infrastructure that is likely to become substantially obsolete in a generation or two? Or will it divest from fossil fuels and invest in things like solar arrays, windmills and smart grids that could last a century or more?

It takes a lot of money to buy all the drills and fracking equipment, for example, to support the Bakken Shale fracking boom in North Dakota. But that’s already done; the investment is sunk. Ditto the Eagle Ford Shale in Texas. The drilling equipment is mobile, much of it mounted on trucks.

So when energy companies like Exxon Mobil think about where to invest next, what will they do? Will they buy more drilling equipment that they may not ever use? Will they invest in offshore, deep-water drilling, which is hideously expensive and risks things like the Great BP Oil Spill, with all its massive liabilities and adverse publicity? Or will they invest in things like wind and solar farms, which work fine right now, involve far less risk, and have far longer productive horizons?

What will drive a global conversion to clean energy won’t be regulation or even taxation of carbon, although both would help. What will drive it is the growing recognition, on the part of our entire species, that (1) we are heating our planet beyond our evolutionary safety zone, (2) demand for fossil fuels (especially dirty coal) is dropping, and (3) fossil fuels are getting harder and more expensive to find and eventually will run out. Not even Donald Trump can stop these three things from happening, or this recognition from growing among the worldwide business community, and especially among investors asked to risk their hard-earned cash.

The really odd thing is that Rex Tillerson knows all this, and Trump has nominated him for Secretary of State. In fact, Tillerson has known this for at least five years [subscription required]. In 2009, on behalf of Exxon Mobil, he bought a natural-gas fracking company called XTO Energy. Speaking to the financial press, he was quite honest about the reason for that purchase: oil was getting scarcer and harder and more expensive to extract, and natural gas was (and is) cheaper on an energy-equivalent basis. That was seven years ago.

So is Rex Trump’s “stealth” genius? Is he the guy to let the rest of the world—or at least our allies—know what’s really happening, while the rubes who voted for Trump here at home whoop it up in their muscle cars and big pickup trucks? Or is Rex going to scarf up the remainder of the Earth’s cheaply extractable fossil fuels for us Yanks to ease our own Yankee transition to clean energy?

Stay tuned for an answer. But doesn’t the Saudis big push to lower oil prices, plus aiming their sovereign wealth fund at clean energy long term, give us a clue? The Saudis?!?!?!

The Environment

As we move from jobs and energy to the environment and worker safety (often a related issue), we move from the good to the bad. Donald Trump is no environmentalist. Why should he be? If Manhattan gets clogged with smog, he just moves to his estate in Mar al Lago. Bad air and bad water kill people even more slowly than cigarettes, and Trump just doesn’t think most of us will notice. That goes double for his core constituency, who are more worried about good jobs than getting cancer a generation down the road.

The problem is what economists call “the tragedy of the commons.” If there are no rules to keep people from dumping manure on commonly-owned land, it will magically appear there, rather than on private property. So our commonly-owned air has become the dumping ground for sulfur dioxide, nitric oxide, harmful olefins and particulates, and, yes, carbon. The woe of water is similar; hence the lead in Flint’s.

There is no practical way to stop pollution but regulation or taxation. That’s the tragedy of the commons: we all breathe the same air, but no one owns it. So no one protects it unless government does.

Maybe Trump doesn’t understand this simple principle. Maybe he does and doesn’t care. Certainly a lot of the folks who voted for him want less regulation and more pollution, because they think pollution will bring better jobs and more wealth (especially if they are plutocrats).

There’s a lot of reason to doubt that simplistic conclusion. Jobs protecting the environment are some of the best and best paid of all, although they require a level of education that most Trump voters don’t have (a college degree).

Yet don’t despair. There is a simple basis for compromise. Where do Trump’s most avid supporters live? In the sticks. Where do the bluest of the blue live? In big cities. Why not let the folks in the sticks pollute a little more, where there’s lots of room to absorb and dissipate the pollution, while keeping strict regulation in the cities where people need clean air and water and they’re much more at risk? In other words, why not let a flexible federalism square the circle and give both rural and city people what they want?

To some extent, that’s already happening. Remember the statewide ban on fracking in New York? The Masters of the Universe from Wall Street, who control not just Manhattan but most of the state, are not going to let fracking fluids pollute their precious water and air. No, no, no!

So if “state’s rights” and a little federalistic flexibility prevail, the rich and powerful and have their clean tap water and air, while the struggling workers who made Trump president can drink and breathe their comforting myths that polluting creates jobs. Sort of poetic justice, eh?

Maybe not. In the business-is-everything regime of Donald J. Trump, the most important rule for ordinary people will be “caveat emptor”: let the buyer beware. Ordinary people are going to have to learn to take care of themselves.

How do they do that? Let’s take Flint and its lead-infected water, for example. Parents are worried that their kids’ brain development was irremediably impaired by drinking lead for eighteen months. The tragedy is how easily and cheaply they could have avoided both the fear and the risk.

Reverse-osmosis filters for drinking water cost as little as $150. You can buy 24 half-liters of purified water at Wal Mart for less than $3. At two liters a day for each person, that’s less than $7 a week for a family of four, or $364 a year. Tests for lead in water are available at Home Depots and Lowe’s hardware stores across the nation. They are also available at Amazon.com [the actual testing is extra but not exorbitant].

Is this a lot of money for a poor family? Sure. But a kid’s brain is a precious thing. It may be the most precious thing a family has. The point is that there are ways for ordinary people to protect themselves if they are well informed. Once they are well informed they can seek financial help through local politics, charities, and even crowd funding. And local small businesses can get a start by informing them and vending the filters and bottled water needed to keep their kids’ brains pristine.

Is this solution ideal? Probably not. Ideal is having local governments provide clean water and air. But as the GOP philosophy of drowning government in a bathtub prevails, there will still be opportunities for affected people to help themselves. After all, the rural people who put Trump in office are supposed to be independent and self-reliant. So if they have to protect themselves against natural contaminants, farm runoff, and industrial pollution, there is some poetic justice in that.

Finance

Donald Trump won in part by railing against Wall Street. Why not? There was and is still plenty of well-justified anger to tap. But will Trump actually do anything to curb Wall Street? To curtail banks’ ever larger and trickier fees for simple savings and checking accounts? To keep the big banks from killing the real economy with systemic risk again, perhaps by breaking them up?

Not likely. Trump has no incentive to curb even the biggest, baddest banks. They finance his businesses and the delights of his Manhattan home, Trump Tower. When the Fed and the most sophisticated business people barely understand how Wall Street has turned a useful capital-formation machine into an out-of-control financial casino, you think the average Trumpet does?

No, Trump is not going to do much, if anything, about Wall Street. He’s going to let it rip and take the risk of another financial panic on his watch. He’s going to put all his eggs in the jobs basket and let the people’s righteous wrath against Wall Street just simmer and slowly subside.

Worse yet, he’s going to collude with the GOP’s so-called “conservatives,” his erstwhile arch-enemies, to torpedo Elizabeth Warren’s baby, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The little payments and fees by which banks stick it to the consumer while advertising favorable interest rates and terms will increase without limit. And with industry-favoring arbitration replacing class-action lawsuits under a right-wing Supreme Court, the law will offer the average consumer no redress.

So finance, like pollution, will be yet another field of caveat emptor. Smart consumers will move their accounts to small, local banks and credit unions. The rest will stick with the big banks and be raped slowly, by innumerable small thrusts. Consumers who want to keep their honor and their balances intact will have to be nimble and keep their accounts moving in order to be treated fairly. To the extent they do so and are well informed, new business opportunities for small and honest financial institutions will open up. All in all, the Republic will survive, but only the smart and rich will be well served financially.

Foreign and immigration policy

If our hypothetical Pol-VIX had sector indexes, the one for foreign policy would be the highest. In fact, the uncertainty in this sector is so high that it’s hard to tell whether to put this area into the category of good, bad, or ugly. It could be in any of those, depending on which of the many things Trump has promised or threatened he actually does.

Will Trump lower the international temperature by making nice with Russia, as he promised? Or will he misjudge Putin so badly as to tempt a Russian incursion into the Baltics, Ukraine or Eastern Europe, with all the risk of a general or even nuclear war? Will his hard bargaining with China, throwing Taiwan into the mix, induce less currency manipulation and more cooperation, or will it result in conflict in the South China Sea? Will China stop pressuring North Korea and leave Trump to curb Kim with a small, targetable, dial-a-yield nuke?

It’s now clear that Trump has adopted Richard Nixon’s “crazy man” posture, big time. He’s going to try to put everything on the table, which means risking a lot. The ultra-cautious, take-few-risks approach of Barack Obama will probably go flying out the window on January 20.

But we don’t even really know that for certain. Trump has purposefully given no hint of his risk threshold for action, let alone backing down. Is that good, or is it bad?

If you like certainty, it’s probably bad, very bad. The worst thing about it is that we Yanks and our foreign-policy specialists are as much in the dark as our allies and adversaries. And with prematurely-revealed secrets having put Trump in office, we’re probably going to stay that way. Trump likely will never reveal, let alone in his Tweets, his goals and strategy, except in the crudest and perhaps most deceptive way.

That can be bad: it can raise risk thresholds all around. But it can also be good: it can make our adversaries more cautious, so as to counter our apparently increased appetite for risk. A more cautious Vladimir Putin, who has now co-butchered Syria, would be a consummation devoutly to be wished. Isn’t that, after all, what playing the crazy man is all about?

Understanding Trump will require careful adherence to a simple approach: watch what he does, not what he says. The first thing that will reveal his approach will be Syria. Will he keep us out, with maybe some air strikes against IS? Will he let Russia, Iran and Assad “enjoy” the full benefits of the tragic mess they have made, including increased terrorism along the lines of the downed Egyptian airliner and the recent assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey? Or will he extend our blundering invasion of Iraq in unforeseen ways?

Will Trump finally get us out of Iraq and Afghanistan, our two longest-ever forever wars? Or will he turn Obama’s creeping “advisory” mission into full-scale escalation, as in Vietnam?

These are vital questions, but no rational person can claim he or she has the answers. Trump is an utter novice in foreign affairs. His bold campaign promises will mean nothing when confronted with the reality of specific facts on the ground, or specific threats. Probably not even anyone on Trump’s transition team has a clue.

Only two things are certain. First, there will be no Wall. We already have a wall along the most-traveled 700 miles of our border with Mexico. Building a wall along the rest of the 2,000-mile border, mostly far from populated areas, would be a colossal waste of time and money. It would be easier and much quicker to send up a geostationary spy satellite with sufficient video resolution to pinpoint border-crossing trekkers from Mexico. The Wall was just a crude metaphor for Trump’s sympathy with immigrant-haters, as was his bizarre promise to get Mexico to pay for it.

As for Trump’s promise to deport all our undocumented immigrants, that’s not likely to happen, either. All those hard-working immigrants keep labor costs down for Trump’s fellow plutocrats. If they wanted to get rid of them, they could do so in a couple of months, simply by fining the employers who hire them more than they save in wages. That will happen when Sheldon Adelson starts handing out free money to gamblers at his casinos in Macau.

The most likely outcome of the immigrant wars is for Trump to deport dangerous undocumented criminals, as Obama has been doing, and declare victory. There might be a little frolic into less dangerous criminality, just to keep the fear alive and convince Trump’s red-meat voters that he’s for real. But deport eleven million peaceful, hard-working immigrants who don’t ever make trouble because they fear deportation every day? Fuggedaboudit! It’s not going to happen.

Much more serious is Trump’s apparent intention to turn fear and hatred toward Muslims into misguided policy. It’s one thing to insist on using the term “radical Islamic terrorism” to describe terrorists’ unprovoked assaults on innocent civilians throughout the Western world. That’s just a bit of verbal slight-of-hand for which GOP operatives are famous.

But actually bringing understandable popular fear, and dangerous popular hatred, to bear in registering, “interning” or excluding peaceful Muslims lawfully in our nation would be wholesale abandonment of our national values and a clear step toward an American Holocaust. Everyone in our nation who values freedom of speech and religion should fight that dragon as soon as it rears its ugly head.

Yesterday would not be soon enough. Already the intemperate statements of Trump himself while campaigning, plus the even more intemperate statements of Steve Bannon and General Flynn, provide ample reason for alarm. Good men and women should speak up, hard and soon, so that evil does not ever get a foothold in our country.

Conclusion

Donald J. Trump is a man who bears close watching. During the campaign, when no one gave a thought to his winning, watching him was just a game. The newspapers did it obsessively. They made a pile doing so.

But now the watching is deadly serious. We hope that Trump will come through for the skilled workers who elected him, and we should keep his feet to the fire. We know that a Trump Administration will not be a kind father or gentle mother; it will cast us all out on our own. “Caveat emptor” will be emblazoned on the White House, and “Equal Justice under Law” may vanish from the Supreme Court. (Surely it will unless the Senate has the spine to kick Jeff Sessions back to cracker land where he belongs.)

Even the skilled workers that Trump wants most to help will be on their own. Infrastructure projects will not come to their dessicated towns. They will have to go where the work is, living in trailers or moving their families. Ditto for new industries that Trump’s 35% tariffs may keep onshore.

People in fracking-land will be well advised not to buy homes, but to rent. Private-equity firms like Black Rock will likely swoop in. They will buy up homes with questionable water and racked with small earthquakes at rock-bottom prices (pardon the pun) and rent them to workers. Fracking country, which is mostly in sparsely populated areas (outside of New York state, which has banned fracking), will likely become a sort of no-man’s land for work only. Fortunately for workers planning self-help, the outlines of fracking country—our national shale deposits—are well mapped.

In every field, consumers and citizens will have to rely more on themselves and less on government. That will certainly be true of the 3,000 small, mostly rural communities that have higher levels of lead in their water than Flint. Small business and nongovernmental organizations will have to rise to the occasion and fill the gaps. Nonprofit organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, the Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club, and the Southern Poverty Law Center will have to grow and adapt. People who can will fill their coffers with contributions.

Fortunately, we Yanks are a resilient and resourceful people. So are our many private institutions. We will survive the Trumpocalypse, just as we are surviving our grief at an unexpected loss caused in part by Russian cyber-meddling. We will have to do more on our own, more in small groups, more in non-governmental organizations, and more in business. We will have to be far more vigilant about encroachments on our liberties and protection of minorities, and far more active and forward-leaning in opposing them.

But if we do all that, four years of Trump may not be so bad. We may come out with a viable strategy for using natural gas to transition to renewable power, at least if we don’t sell too much of it abroad. Fracking country may be mostly abandoned after the gas and oil are gone. But except for New York, where fracking is banned, it’s not exactly densely populated now. And as Vladimir Lenin once dryly observed, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.

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17 December 2016

Trump’s Four Tribes


A friend whose husband has a special fellowship at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government told me an interesting story. After every presidential election, the Kennedy School traditionally holds a big party for its many Cambridge MA constituencies. This year, it canceled the party and hired grief counselors.

My first reaction was empathy. Trump’s unexpected victory shocked me, too. I, too, am fearful of the consequences for my country. But my second reaction, hard on the heels of the first, was an impulse to laugh uproariously. I barely suppressed it.

Unbeknownst to most Americans, a tiny geographic sliver rules this nation. I call it the “Cambridge-Manhattan-D.C. Axis,” or just the “Axis.”

I use the word “rule” deliberately. It’s not just about government. It’s about economics, banking, finance, commerce, trade and the news. Two of our three national newspapers—the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal—are based in Manhattan. The other (the Washington Post) is based in D.C., where it covers mostly politics and government. Even the PBS News Hour broadcasts from Manhattan or D.C. Almost everything newsworthy that we read or see comes out of one those two places, while some longer-term research, coming out of Cambridge, gets reported there.

Although a Westerner by birth, domicile, and preference, I’m no stranger to the Axis. I lived and worked in it during several key phases of my life. I enjoyed its intellectual delights: the high level of culture, the fluent and accurate articulation, the quick repartee, and, yes, the pervasive sense of dominance and superiority.

When I graduated from Harvard Law School and the Harvard Law Review, I told my friends that I thought I would at least be governor of a small principality. Instead, I joined a big San Francisco law firm where my prestigious education was respected, but nothing special. I soon came back to earth and to reality.

Now, whenever I contemplate the Crash of 2008, those memories flood my mind. When I was growing up, in the fifties and sixties, the banks of Wall Street were paragons of integrity, prudence and caution. They were the gold standard in honesty, as solid as the Rocky Mountains that separate my West from the Great Plains and our ruling Axis beyond.

So what happened? How did these paragons of smart but honest business end up in a culture of pathological greed and stupidity not seen since California’s Gold Rush? Why did nobody notice as it grew and metastasized over a decade or more? Why did the Manhattan-based news media never publish an investigative exposé with anything like the comprehensiveness, perseverance, and fierceness that Woodward and Bernstein brought to the Watergate scandal, toppling a sitting president and ending an era of terrible abuse of power?

Now I think I know. Manhattan is a very small place. Everything in it—the marvelous museums and art galleries, the diverse, fine restaurants, the globe-leading theater (including the musical “Hamilton”), and the astronomically priced apartments that allow every emigrant from Manhattan to buy a castle anywhere else—all of it flows from the enormous sums of money that pour into and out of Wall Street every day. The rest of Manhattan’s denizens—the lawyers, accountants, personal bankers, stock brokers, restauranteurs, performers, producers, advertisers, and, yes, even the artists—are but barnacles on this big ship.

Willy nilly, no one wanted to rock the boat. No one wanted to bite the hands that fed, and still feed, the whole Island and its sick but maybe convalescing culture. And so, nearly a decade later, no one who caused the debacle has gone to jail, and no one has even lost much money. To add insult to injury, one of our major parties still peddles the lie that the cops asleep on their beat (our government) were at fault, and not the perps themselves.

Yet there’s more. Unlike modern Germans apologizing for their former Nazi psychosis, Wall Street has never apologized. It has never even admitted it did anything wrong. There are still hundreds of trillions in face value of financial derivatives out there, waiting to blow the whole system up again. And we are supposed to believe this is all for the good of the commonwealth, and not to enrich the guys (they are all men!) who have houses in the Hapmptons, London and Shanghai, take limousines to work instead of the subway, and fly the globe on their own private jets. We are told, in the infamous words of Goldman Sachs’ CEO LLoyd Blankfein, that this is all “God’s work.”

The anger burns yet in me, a comfortable middle-class retiree who managed to game the system enough to profit from the Crash. Imagine how much more corrosively it burns in the families who lost homes, jobs, self-respect and marriages!

For all his narcissism, inexperience and inconsistency, Donald Trump managed to turn this anger into electoral gold. His new political coalition consists of four tribes: (1) the racists and other tribal malcontents; (2) the tens of millions of skilled workers who lost good jobs and want them back; (3) the vast majority of this nation that resents the hell out of Wall Street for trashing our economy and getting away with it; and (4) a much more amorphous geographic tribe that feels left out of and betrayed by the Axis and wants not just better recognition but more heft and maybe even revenge.

So far, the Axis media have focused only on the first two tribes, with emphasis on the first. But this is stupidity at best, misdirection and deceit at worst. However much the Trump campaign may have lent them undeserved credibility, our white supremacists and white nationalists are a tiny, insignificant minority of our people.

By and large, we Yanks are not racists, xenophobes or misogynists. We Yanks do not live to hate; we live to work in good jobs and enjoy their fruits.

Even the fringe players themselves seem to recognize this point. Emboldened by their new notoriety, are they marching in the streets? Are the brandishing their many weapons? Not at all. They are trying to “go mainstream,” toning down their language and their websites. They are trying to dismiss and disguise their Nazi salutes as jokes. They are trying to frame the white race as a disadvantaged interest group, just like the abused minorities who quite properly have enjoyed affirmative action. They are troubled children craving more of their parents’ time and attention.

If not just its usual focus on the colorful but irrelevant, the Axis media’s obsession with the white supremacist fringe is an attempt to distract attention from the real breadth and depth of Trump’s tribes. Every one of the last three is vastly more important, both to Trump’s victory and to our nation’s future.

Trump himself recognized the second “tribe” repeatedly in his campaign, and he’s doing so in his transition. His proposal of a 35% tariff on goods imported from factories newly sent abroad, after fair and ample warning, might actually keep some good jobs onshore. If he can make that plan work, at least credibly, he might have a second term, barring international disasters.

The skilled-worker tribe’s very importance itself undermines the fear of racism. As careful analysis of voting patterns has shown, many of these Trump supporters voted for Obama in 2008 and/or 2012. They don’t want Nazism or white supremacy. They want good jobs and secure futures for themselves and their families, even if their educations aren’t superior and they didn’t go to schools in the Axis or the Ivy League.

But the last two “tribes” may be the real wild cards in the next decades of American politics. Most pundits and analysts barely recognize their existence. But they are there, big time.

The third tribe—opponents of Wall Street and our financial elite—may be the most immediate reason Hillary lost. Perhaps unwittingly, Hillary excited their animosity with (to quote a recent North Carolina court decision striking down voter ID laws) “almost surgical precision.”

Not only did she take big money from Wall Street and refuse to disclose what she said to it—an error that Russian hackers and Wikilieaks later corrected. She also did with her own e-mail, for a very important job, what no other desk worker is allowed to do. For a woman who reached the Axis from Chicago by way of Arkansas, she couldn’t have done herself more damage if she had worn a sign board declaring, “I’m elite! I’m from the Axis. If you don’t like what I do, suck it up! I’m smarter and better than you and I’m going to rule, so get used to it!” Any pol who can do the opposite of what Hillary did, and earn this tribe’s trust and confidence, will have a potent instrument of political power.

Donald Trump oft courted this third tribe during his campaign. He even stole lines from Bernie declaiming a “rigged economy.” But his chosen team of tax-cutters and deregulators, including two Goldman Sachs alumni, belies his intent to do anything real for this tribe. His neglecting them would open a huge opportunity for the Dems, especially for Elizabeth Warren. If Wall Street causes another financial panic in the interim, which it well might, the resulting political opportunity would be as golden as FDR’s.

Yet the most mysterious and probably the most consequential of Trump’s four tribes is the last one, the geographic one. Just look at my table of landslide votes for the red states. They exceed even the landslides for Hillary in blue states like California and New York.

Why do you suppose that is? Could it be that people in all those states are sick and tired, not just of being ruled by the Axis, but being lied to, deceived, talked down to and belittled?

Here my mind wanders to that joyful photo of Bill and others, in 1999, as Bill signed the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act, also known as the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999, which paved the way for the Crash of 2008 nearly a decade later. There were all the usual suspects—lackeys, sycophants and donees of Wall Street, including Alan Greenspan (far left). But there, too, were some new faces, including Bill from Arkansas and Phil Gramm from Texas (third from left).

Never mind that Bill’s penchant for triangulation with an ever-rightward-drifting Republican party had led him just one bridge of middle-seeking too far. Never mind that Phil Gramm was one of the biggest economic morons ever to gain undeserved influence over our national economy. Just look at their faces, especially Bill’s and Phil’s. Their smiles say, louder than words, “We’ve made it! We’re part of the Axis now! We’re helping them do their work and earning their gratitude. What a party!”

What a party, indeed. Our nation and the world are still feeling the hangover. There’s a direct line from that big party in 1999 to the one that the Kennedy School recently canceled.

Quite apart from the resentment of a whole nation of 320 million people being ruled from a narrow strip of highway on the East Coast, there’s an enormous waste of talent and resources. Maybe it was just a coincidence. But a few days after I published my post decrying Trump’s neglect of biotech and Silicon Valley, some of their biggest entrepreneurs appeared suddenly at Trump Tower.

The purpose of the meeting was unclear. Apparently, it was a command performance, rather than the party-crashing I had recommended. According to PBS’ brief coverage, Trump congratulated the assembled CEOs as doing great work and then, uncharacteristically, listened a bit. PBS never revealed what he listened to.

All I could see in the brief video was Elon Musk, sitting way at the end of the table and glowering. It wasn’t hard, in my imagination, to verbalize his glowering. What he might have been thinking is this:
“What the hell am I doing here?!?! I got called all the way across the country, for what? I’m running three leading-edge businesses, for electric cars, storage batteries, and private space travel. I work harder than any being on the planet, if not in the Universe. I don’t have time for this!

Just as Trump put up his own money for his campaign, I’ve promised to put up my own wealth to keep these businesses alive. I believe in them. To justify my trip across country, I need more than just ‘have your people call my people.’ I need some assurance that the president-elect and his team understand what I’m trying to do and what it means for California and the nation. I’m not getting that here.”
Whatever Trump does or doesn’t do, the West Coast blue states will be fine. All by itself, California now has the world’s sixth largest economy. Together the “high-tech” states of California, Washington, Oregon and Colorado, whose CEOs were there at Trump’s command performance, have produced more wealth recently than any other sector of the American economy. They may even have produced more wealth than Wall Street destroyed in the Crash. They certainly have produced far more wealth than Commerce-designate Wilbur Ross and his ilk saved by bottom-fishing and saving a few Rust-Belt firms.

But I think the mood of the CEOs in that room must have been similar to the moods of the leaders and voters in all the red states that supported Trump by landslides. Look at the abbreviated list in my table. They’re all in the Midwest and the Old South. They’re all “flyover states” neglected by the elite in their rush to power, which Wall Street drained dry in the Crash.

In short, they all have much the same complaints against the Cambridge-Manhattan-D.C. Axis. If Trump’s team can figure out what those complaints are and address them, he can probably have a second term. If he fails and the Dems can figure it out, there will be a counter-landslide in 2020 as great as the one we have just witnessed.

For far too long, an arrogant, self-righteous elite from a tiny sliver of land on our East Coast have told the rest of us what is “fact,” what’s important, what to think, and what to do. They are far more polished than Trump but not much less self-assured. The most conspicuous results of their rule have been the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression and the tide of resentment that has put Donald Trump in office.

The obvious solution is to invite the neglected to the party, give them some say, and help them control their own destinies better. The “forgotten” skilled workers are a big tribe, which also inhabits the neglected territory outside the Axis. So are the folks who desperately want to see Wall Street get its comeuppance. But the biggest “tribe” of all is simply the rest of the country outside the Axis.

The pols that first succeed in supporting and attracting that tribe are going to build an unbeatable political coalition. Doing that may be as simple as consulting the locals for more than photo-ops, listening to them, and then actually doing some of what they ask.

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14 December 2016

Shadow War


[For a more detailed analysis of how and why Russian hacking may have affected our election, click here. For a recently popular page on the coming transition in free-world leadership, click here. For a recent post on saving federalism in the EU and US, click here. For a recently updated page on Trump’s transition, with a new General Overview, click here.]

Not for nothing does today’s lead article in the New York Times sport a black border. Its exhaustive description of Russians hacking archives of the Democratic Party and its operatives may be the biggest story since Woodward and Bernstein broke the Watergate scandal in 1972. Two years later, that scandal brought Richard Nixon down in resignation.

But this story is much bigger. The Watergate Scandal involved a campaign of internecine political warfare in which no foreign power intervened. What today’s Times reveals is a foreign power cleverly using our own national divisions against us.

No one was killed. Not yet. Yet imagine something that never actually happened, but which might have strangled our struggling democracy early in its youth. Imagine a European or Asian power having taken sides in our own Civil War. Imagine clever foreign intrigue making us fight each other harder and more ruthlessly and even determining the outcome. Imagine foreigners making the South win.

Isn’t that just what the recent Russian hacking and revelations may have done, but without all the blood and gore?

Dribbled out with exquisite timing, the hacked e-mails grabbed attention at a critical time. They may have tipped the scales in November’s election. If this subtle but active foreign meddling can’t bring us Americans together to protect ourselves and our way of life, nothing short of nuclear war will. And then it would be too late.

The sad thing was how crude and simple the hacking was. It was nothing like the “Stuxnet” virus, which crawled through the internet and infected firmware controlling electromechanical devices to shut down the centrifuges Iran was using to enrich uranium. It wasn’t even as sophisticated as the thousands of viruses, worms and other malware circulating perpetually in cyberspace, against which regularly-updated software is supposed to protect our personal computers.

The Russian hacking didn’t even use malware. Instead, it got people to give up their passwords voluntarily, through simple e-mail scams known as “phishing.”

In a society inured to false and misleading advertising, operatives two or three steps from a woman aspiring to lead the free world gave up the keys to the castle without a second thought. For months, a man hired to tend the drawbridge never met with the FBI agent who sounded the tocsin. For much of that time, he wondered aloud whether the FBI agent was really who he claimed to be.

So many questions arise. Why did the FBI agent, whose office was only half a mile away, never deliver his warning in person? Did that laxity have anything to do with the fact that his ultimate boss, FBI head James Comey, later broke all professional rules in mounting an “October surprise” against Hillary on much the same issue—lax protection of emails? Or had Hillary’s “la-di-da” attitude toward a personal server in her home as Secretary of State infected everyone around her with utter carelessness regarding computer systems and security?

We may never know the answer to these questions. And that’s precisely the point. Modern information warfare—modern shadow war—is not designed to achieve a decisive victory. It may not even strike a decisive blow. It’s the modern counterpart of a gladiator throwing sand in a foe’s eyes. It may not blind him enough to enable a fatal blow, but it will put him off balance and get him to back off.

That’s precisely what Putin and his spooks were after. By luck and fate they got much, much more.

The Russian hacking set America back in so many subtle ways. At very least, it makes us look like utter fools—Keystone Kops—before the entire world. It makes us doubt the intelligence and effectiveness of our leaders. It makes us doubt our democratic system and the validity of its results. And it makes us wonder whether Donald Trump, who will take the oath of office as president in 27 days, really deserves to do so. Even after he does so, many of us will still wonder whether a foreign power’s action help install an incompetent leader in our White House.

Casting doubt on a high-stakes presidential election, and perhaps giving us an incompetent president, are about as much as any shadow-war enemy could expect to accomplish without open warfare. We have been dealt a heavy blow.

So what do we do now? Do we rerun the election? Probably not. Trying to do so might actually start a civil war. It would certainly exacerbate the divisions among us, which have never been greater [scroll to table] except during our Civil War or Vietnam era. Wouldn’t that just help the Russians achieve their goals?

Of course we cannot allow this foreign intrusion to pass without response. But an immediate counterstrike is not a good option, as the president recognized in threatening retaliation at a time and place of our choosing. The very nature of shadow war requires much thought about timing. It waits for the most opportune moment. For the Russians, another such moment will not likely come at least until our midterm elections in 2018. By then, our defenses had better be ready.

The worst thing we could do now is point fingers at each other in an attempt to avoid or fix blame. Our leaders, our pols and our government are all guilty in letting us drop our guard so badly. “Phishing?” Really? Couldn’t our kids and grandkids all have told us how to avoid falling for that?

Embarrassing and shameful as it is, this incident could be a blessing in disguise, or at least a cloud with a silver lining, if we take this opportunity to wise up. Four things we must do right away, and pretty much regardless of cost.

First, we must put our guard up. Every government officer, corporate official, political operative and non-profit employee who handles sensitive information should be instructed how not to be “phished.” People who don’t take this seriously or can’t seem to catch on should have their e-mail monitored, whether by special software or security personnel. That’s the very first line of defense.

Second, we must all give computer security much higher priority and much more money. We could vastly increase our government and military cybersecurity for the obscene cost of a just few more F-35s. We should do so.

Third, we must recognize that phishing is just the first line of attack. “Higher” stages of cyberwarfare will be much harder to perpetrate, much harder to detect, and potentially much more devastating. Imagine opening a dam’s floodgates, sending a nuclear plant into meltdown, shutting off a regional power grid, or sending city’s traffic-control lights haywire. We need a comprehensive, expert assessment of infrastructure cyber-vulnerability and a corrective plan, nationwide, and we need them yesterday.

Finally, for the kind of release of confidential information and resulting “kompromat” that the Russian’s foisted on us this time, we need much more self-restraint and common sense. We need to develop a different and better Internet culture.

In the old days, before computers, people with important jobs thought long and hard about what they said and what they put in writing. Here Wall Street was and is way ahead of our military and our political class. That’s why no banker went to jail for causing the Crash of 2008: none ever put anything incriminating in e-mail. Isn’t it shameful that greedy and reckless bankers were more circumspect than people vying to rule the free world?

If our military, government bureacrats and pols could just be as careful as Wall Street’s bankers, this phishing scandal might have had few or no deleterious consequences. When in doubt, the most basic rule is “don’t put anything in e-mail that you wouldn’t want to read in the morning paper, under your byline.”

The customs, habits and traditions of human communication arose over millennia of human social evolution. The advent of radio and television didn’t change them much, because these media were much like speaking in person, just over greater distance.

But when the Internet came along, it blew apart millennia of social conventions. Long established habits of tact, finesse, privacy, confidentiality and prudence flew out the window with the speed of light. The attractions of many-to-many communication, worldwide, blinded us to something vital in our human civilization: the stability of our human culture.

And so we have people “saying” things to each other, through e-mail, Facebook and Twitter, that they would never think of saying face to face. We have flaming and cyberbullying which go unchallenged and unpunished, when the very same behavior on the sidewalk would provoke a fistfight, or at least some heavy shoving and shouting. We have people saying things to each other about third parties, in writing, that they would never think of even saying out loud at a dinner party. We have pols and company heads indiscreetly disclosing private feelings and secrets—on a worldwide medium that can record them for all time—which once they would only have whispered into ears of listeners whose reaction and discretion they had carefully gauged in advance. And we have people who spend their days making up “fake news,” some to see how much effect it will have, some to sway elections, some for profit, and some just for fun.

The final ignominy, of course, is our president-elect. He routinely publishes, worldwide, what he thinks about others on Twitter, in words that no earlier man in his position would ever have uttered out loud. Not even most monarchs would have been that reckless.

Trump is physically a big guy, so maybe he thinks he’s immune from the normal rules of human intercourse. But I don’t think that’s really the reason. Like most of us, he subconsciously believes that the electronic medium exempts him from normal rules and customs, established over generations. Somebody, probably from the Secret Service, is going to have to take away his Tweeting devices, if only to prevent him from giving up state secrets, or starting a war, on some dark night when he jolts awake in a semi-conscious snit.

When we read old literature today, we sometimes think ourselves superior to our forebears. How much time and effort they spent in guarding, planning and restraining their communication, the way they expressed themselves, and what they said to whom! How much they cared about tact, delicacy, discretion, “honor,” and getting the point across without riling ever-present human feelings!

We don’t do much of that anymore. The results we see in the ruins of our culture and our civilization lying all around us. Our wounded and perhaps stolen election is just the most recent example. If we don’t wise up, we may some day see the radioactive ruins of a nuclear war.

As inventors of the Internet, we Yanks are responsible for this mess, and we should be the ones to start cleaning it up. We need to resurrect concepts of “propriety,” “politesse,” and “discretion” for the Internet age. We need to think before we Tweet, as much as our Founders once thought before they spoke or wrote.

Once we do, we will have much greater protection against the type of assault that has made a mockery and a mess of our most recent election. We will also be much closer to the understanding of human nature and human limitations that our Founders possessed in much greater measure, and that we must restore in our Internet age if the best of our species’ culture and civilization is to survive. The Internet has nearly dissolved our mental discipline and emotional restraint, and we must restore them.

Endnote: Among the very few things that could be done right away is for President Obama summarily to fire James Comey as FBI head. Of course at this late date the firing would be merely symbolic. But for the FBI to have let months go by, in the middle of a high-stakes presidential election, before making sure that the DNC was reacting effectively to well-established Russian hacking was a dereliction of duty of unfathomable proportions. As FBI head, Comey was responsible; if he didn’t know about it, he should have. When you add to that his gross violation of professional and Justice norms in his “October surprise,” his record cries out for making an example of him. This is a man who should never again hold a sensitive government job, except maybe in Russia.

Footnote 1: Of course the Russians inserted malware to spoon data out of compromised data systems once they broke in. But they didn’t use malware to break in; they got ahold of user’s legitimate passwords through pedestrian “phishing” schemes. The weak link was not security software, but careless personnel, although better security software might have limited the amount of data stolen.

Footnote 2: Anti-phishing software uses a simple principle: it never lets a user click on a e-mail from an “unknown” source, i.e., one to which the user has not previously sent an independent, non-automated message. The software compares not just nicknames or abbreviated addresses, but the full, detailed addresses hidden in the headers of messages, or the actual IP addresses. Other refinements prevent the user from sending e-mails to addresses automatically picked up from incoming messages. Users could achieve the same effects by opening the headers of suspicious messages and making sure they are legitimate, but most users don’t have the technical knowledge or patience to do this. Hence the success of the Russians’ phishing.

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13 December 2016

Russia’s Meddling in Our Elections: the Implications are Even Worse Than you Think


[For a recent post on how Trump thinks, click here. For a recently popular page on the coming transition in free-world leadership, click here. For a recent post on saving federalism in the EU and US, click here. For a recently updated page on Trump’s transition, with a new General Overview, click here.]

Today the politisphere was all agog with news about the CIA. Its analysts say that Russian hacking and related propaganda helped swing a very close Electoral-College race to Trump. The FBI demurs. It doesn’t dispute the “overwhelming circumstantial evidence” of Russian hacking. It just disputes the Russian motive and goal: to throw our election to Trump.

According to the New York Times (Mon., Dec. 12, 2016, at A11), the FBI’s demurral arose out of its stronger standard of proof. The CIA operates only abroad. It can act covertly and unilaterally, through black ops, black sites and even secret foreign prisons. So it can use the standard of proof that most of us use in daily life: more likely than not. In contrast, the FBI has the task of bringing criminals to our courts and convicting them under our laws. For that purpose, our legal system requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

OJ Simpson was acquitted of murder but later held liable civilly on the very same facts. The difference was the standard of proof in criminal and civil trials. For OJ and many others, that difference is decisive.

So the standard of proof does provide a plausible theory why the FBI and CIA differ on Russian motives. But let’s not ignore the obvious. James Comey, who still heads the FBI, is the same guy who violated all rules of professional discipline and prosecutorial restraint, plus written rules and policies at Justice, to bring us the the “October surprise” that probably threw the election to Trump. If he could step so far out of line as to break all the rules of his profession and destroy his reputation as a nonpartisan straight shooter, might he have put his thumb on the scales of the FBI’s analysis, too?

It would be hard, if not impossible, to disentangle the effects of Russian hacking from Comey’s October surprise. Political scientists would have to delve inside individual voters’ minds. So we will likely never know whether—perhaps for the first time in American history—a foreign power influenced an American presidential election. Yet we should check at least a few electronic precincts in key battleground states to make sure the Russians didn’t hack the election results directly. Probably the recounts now going on will shed some light on that question.

In any event, the real issue is not whether Russian hacking threw the election to Trump because he has a less hawkish attitude toward Russia than Hillary. If that were the sole result, it might actually be positive.

While gigantic geographically, Russia has less than half our population and an economy the size of Italy’s. It has plenty of oil, but it can’t even persuade or cajole OPEC. Its economy is a mess—far too dependent on natural resources, and far too concentrated in politicians’ hands. It’s making some trouble in Ukraine and plenty in Syria. But Iran and Assad himself are equally culpable. And North Korea’s Kim Jong Il is far more dangerous and unpredictable than Putin, who’s very smart and very cautious.

More important, as most Americans don’t know or don’t care, Russia’s Soviet Union, not we, won the Second World War in Europe. While we, the Brits and remnants of the free French were fighting ten Nazi divisions in the West, the Russians were fighting 200 on the Eastern Front. Russia lost more people than any European country in that war—an estimated 23 million, about one out of seven of its entire population. So Russians know the cost of war better than any other people on this planet.

Not only that. Although parts of our countries are near enough for Sarah Palin to see Russia’s foreign policy from her porch, Russia’s center of gravity is on the opposite side of the globe from ours. There is absolutely no reason for our two nations to pick fights with each other. The only plausible reason is psychological. We almost duked it out with nukes in 1962, but we both stopped for a very good reason: avoiding species self-extinction. Now some of us, on both sides, “reason” like testosterone-fueled teenage street fighters spoiling to see who’s tougher.

This is insane. No matter what the motive, including conflicts of interest, if Trump can get America and Russia to relate to each other more as normal countries, on a routine, businesslike basis, that would be a good thing. And Trump’s propensity to do that, rather than to blindly follow the deadly Cold War logic of perpetual enmity, is one of the very few respects in which his erratic and poorly-expressed policies beat Hillary’s hands down. We can cooperate—and we do routinely—on the International Space Station and in fighting IS, so why not more broadly?

So it’s not the policy result that matters. A less warlike relationship between Russia and America would be good for everybody and good for business. The problem with Russia’s hacking and selective revelations is something much deeper and much more sinister. They may have given us an incompetent president, but our own “democracy” made that possible.

Both Russia and America have the outward forms of a democracy. But neither is a real democracy. Russia never was. It tried to be for a decade or so after Gorbachev, but it lapsed back into a sort of monarchy, with Putin cleverly and resolutely taking all the reins of power into his hands and becoming the latest tsar.

Meanwhile, America has degenerated into oligarchy. It has minority rule in Congress, which has now hardened into custom and tradition. In the formation of real policy, business and corporate interests inevitably prevail, as a recent comprehensive academic study shows.

Yet despite their similarity as democracies in form but not substance, our two nations differ radically in stability. Russia has no term limits. Al least Putin has effectively circumvented them. So it looks as if he, as modern tsar, will rule until he becomes senile, dies, or retires. Therefore Russia’s policy will be a stable as Putin’s psyche, which, although apparently getting more provocative, so far has not made any major blunders. (Russia’s intervention in Syria may turn out to be as catastrophic as ours in Iraq, but it will take another decade at least to find out.)

If you look at us Yanks from outside, it’s hard to imagine a nation less stable. In about a month and a week the ultra-cautious, thoughtful, politically-correct, offend-no-one and take-few-or-no-risks approach of Barack Obama will morph into Donald Trump’s habits of offending everyone all the time and saying (if not doing) the first thing that comes into his mind. No one, not even his closest confidants, can predict what he will do.

So Russia-watching and China-watching are simple, compared to watching us Yanks! Our nation today is about as stable as were European nations in the epoch of monarchy, when a demented and self-obsessed hunchback like Richard III could succeed (after a brief interregnum of the doomed child Edward V) a capable purveyor of stability, law and order like Edward IV.

If you analyze causes, you can see two major reasons for this instability. The most immediate one was that our oligarchy was and remains split.

The term “oligarchy” implies a monolithic social class. But American’s business oligarchy is anything but monolithic. Our oligarchy includes people like George Soros, who uses his billions to support democracy around the globe, Bill Gates, who uses his money to cure disease and promote clean energy, and Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers, who just want government to get out of the way and, at best, disappear so they and their ilk can get richer. They describe all this as “freedom.”

Sometimes these diverse views among the oligarchy can create the appearance of a real democracy. The oligarchy rules through lobbying, extramural influence, special access to elected officials, campaign contributions and massive, expensive propaganda. When it can’t agree among its members, what looks like genuine discussions of public policy may take place.

But this is a sham, of course. The public—let alone the few percent who tuned in during the last week of the campaign and voted for Trump—can’t be bothered with nuances of policy. They’re much too complex for the average voter to digest, let alone to master. So demagoguery, from whatever source, decides the outcome.

This is the second reason for our national instability. Electoral campaigns inevitably degenerate into things that the general public can understand, like defects of character, gaffes, verbal inconsistencies, simplistic “red-meat” solutions to complex problems (like Trump’s wall), and conflicts of interest. If you replay the three Hillary-Donald presidential debates, you’ll find that less than an eighth of the discussion was about actual policy, on some of which the two candidates actually agreed. The rest—the vast majority—involved meaningless charges and countercharges and titillating trivia. Neither our own pundits nor foreign analysts can reliably predict how voters should or will respond to this nonsense.

The phenomenon of incessant negative campaigning focused on personalities is the culmination of something our Founders wanted to avoid: direct elections. They knew that ordinary people would be far too focused on their own busy lives and would lack the education, time and interest to follow and master nuances of public policy. So they bequeathed us a representative democracy, or at least they tried to. They envisaged a permanent political class of experienced, savvy leaders. We would elect these leaders through party apparatuses in close, local contact with the people they represented, and they in turn would select higher leaders all the way up to the president. (The Electoral College was supposed to work like that, but it has become a rubber-stamp for state-by-state direct elections.)

We Yanks used to have a simulacrum of this system, in which party conventions actually meant something. But slowly, gradually, since World War II, political parties atrophied and became vestigial organs, like the human appendix. Like the human appendix, they can become inflamed and offer us demagogues with minimal relevant experience, such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, or utter novices like Marco Rubio. None of these men any savvy, experienced pol would have thought of offering to the general electorate as little as a generation ago.

Once our direct primaries produced an incompetent candidate at the Republican Convention, our oligarchs were even more split. Those who don’t give a damn about anything other than lower taxes and repealing regulations went for Trump. No matter how much damage he might do in other respects, they thought, he would give them those things. (And so, if his Cabinet picks are any guide, he will.)

The rest of the oligarchs, many of whom are finely educated, intelligent and public-spirited, couldn’t abide Trump’s lack of experience, lack of self-restraint, and self-evident character defects. So they went for Hillary. They tried to gin up enthusiasm for her, despite the chain of failures and blunders in her long career—“Hillarycare,” Iraq, the 2008 racist campaign against Obama, and e-mailgate, a “scandal” of her own making that Comey’s October surprise exploited.

After some vacillation, the greatest propaganda machine in human history (Fox), which sells propaganda as entertainment and makes a fortune doing so, went with the first group of oligarchs, for Trump. It held its nose against the stench of character and went for the guy who promised lower taxes, less regulation, more fossil fuels, and a stronger oligarchy. Unbeknownst to the other group of oligarchs, which had a decisive advantage in oligarchic and popular campaign contributions, the Trumpets also had a secret weapon: Twitter and its use for 140-character lies. How could you do anything but lie when approaching complex, presidential-level issues in 140 characters?

So now we are nearing the final destruction of our Founders’ sensible plan. If elections depend on a tiny minority of voters in key states, who spend maybe two hours’ worth of total time making up their minds, and if they get most of their information from TV and the Internet, why not make it easy for them? Why not feed them lies in 140-character bites, which they can digest easily? Why not bank on their naïveté and echo-chamber online experience, which keep them from seeking, let alone finding, the truth? Why not wait to post your decisive lies until a few days before the election, when there is little time to respond?

Is there any better way to make the results of elections inscrutable and unpredictable? Is there any better way to give incompetents with zero relevant experience equal opportunity? Is there any better way to encourage late-campaign lies? And should we be surprised if foreigners join the fun?

As unlike as they are in so many things, including experience, Putin and Trump are two peas in a disinformation pod. They both got where they are by manipulating information and, where necessary, lying.

The two men only differ in methods. Putin uses the half-millennial lore of the Russian “special services” (once the KGB, now the FSB), honed for centuries under the tsars, then in Stalin’s Terror, the Cold War, and lately the rough and tumble of what passes for politics in Putin’s Russia. Trump has human history’s most effective single propaganda machine (Fox), which, after some hesitation, now works for him for free. And he has the Internet, including Twitter, to serve as both his watchdog and his echo-chamber central.

Putin’s government also resorts to violence. A number of journalists have been murdered in Russia, including several while investigating corruption and Russia’s subjugation of Chechnya. One of the most talented liberal pols in Russia, Boris Nemtsov, was shot down on the streets near the Kremlin like a mobster in Al Capone’s Chicago. A number of so-called Russian “oligarchs,” aka successful business tycoons, have been jailed and/or exiled. And Putin started a low-level rebellion in Eastern Ukraine that, so far, has killed thousands and displaced over a million, with purpose and outcome still unclear.

Not even China does stuff like that. It jails people after kangaroo “show trials.” It even abducts people, as it did four dissidents in Hong Kong recently. But it doesn’t kill them.

So a direct comparison between Putin and Trump is not appropriate, yet. After all, Putin is the professional, and Trump the amateur. When it comes to lies and disinformation, Putin has decades of KGB experience under his belt. His lies are subtle shading of the truth, or bolder lies not traceable back to him. In this case, his “disinformation” wasn’t even lies; it was real e-mails of real Dems, released and timed for the most potent effect.

Trump is a “natural” liar, to be sure, but he’s still learning. Will his lie that “millions” of fraudulent votes were counted for Hillary last as long as Dick Cheney’s lie that Saddam had a part in 9/11? Stay tuned.

As for Putin’s meddling and disinformation, we can and should fight them in his neighborhood with the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. They have been the most cost-effective antidote to lies and disinformation we Yanks ever devised. We initiated them as the Iron Curtain came down. But when I was on a Fulbright Fellowship in Moscow decades later, in 1993, they were still the most technically competent and professional news services anywhere on the air in Moscow. They succeeded precisely by avoiding bias and propaganda and sticking to facts and entertainment.

We need to keep them going and extend them into the Internet, Facebook and Twitter. Letting them languish would be about as prescient as our Supreme Court when it decided that the South no longer wanted to deprive black voters of their franchise. Just about three years after that decision, a federal appeals court ruled that a North Carolina voter ID law had been illegally designed to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”

Leopards do not change their spots so quickly, in any country. Willy nilly, our oligarchic American empire is now in a struggle with the Russian empire for control of the minds and hearts of our own and other nations. We are up against an experienced professional spook, with decades of deluding under his belt. We now have a president-elect who uses much the same techniques, less professionally and much more crudely, for much the same purposes.

We can be thankful that, in such a reality-free atmosphere, the competition has shifted to the information sphere, away from the nuclear arms race, with all its existential risks. We can be thankful that our president-elect, erratic and unqualified as he is, wants to reduce the risk of military conflict. But an almost equal danger lurks in this new competition: loss of the ability to see truth and even loss of belief in the existence of facts.

If Trump continues to play fast and loose with the facts, foreign leaders will lose confidence in us, too. China’s official comment, in its Global Times, that Trump showed the “ignorance of a child” in foreign affairs by calling up Taiwan’s leader on his own, does not bode well for respect for our government. If Trump cannot contain his lies to sources not traceable back to him, as Putin does with his many hidden sources of disinformation, our information war with Russia will be a lopsided and losing one. Foreign leaders are not nearly so credulous as our average voter surfing the Web.

The First Amendment is rife with danger, and the Internet is the First Amendment on steroids. It allows anyone and everyone to promote lies, which can “go viral,” reverberating in partisan echo chambers around the globe. Controlling lies and propaganda is almost impossible, as we have learned in trying to shut down IS’ recruitment for mayhem.

This is the darker meaning of Russia’s hacking and selective revelations, under Putin’s probable approval or direction. They have influenced, if not determined, the outcome of our presidential election, although Comey’s October surprise was probably more decisive. They have indeed helped give us an incompetent president. But the real fault lies in our own electoral system, which gave our untutored voters the choice of an incompetent, inexperienced man and somehow “normalized” him.

If other nations take advantage of the Internet that we invented to sway an election that our own system has badly botched, can we blame them? And can we do so when our own president-elect has achieved a similar status by similar, but much less subtle, lies?

The old saw that “truth is the first casualty of war” is accurate in essence. But untruth can also cause war. Or it can make wars much more bestial, as did demonizing and dehumanizing of Chinese by Japanese, of Jews and Eastern Europeans by Nazis, of the Japanese by us Yanks, and perhaps some day soon, of peaceful Muslims by Trump, Bannon and Flynn. The same techniques that the Russians and Trump used in the past election to reduce the risk of war can be used to start one, even a nuclear one.

Like an organism that is blind and deaf, a nation that cannot see the facts or the truth is destined for injury or death. Perhaps the greatest challenge of the twenty-first century is resurrecting the close connection with facts maintained abroad by the by Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, and in our own nation by Walter Cronkite when he ruled the news and there were only three networks. If we let the Internet continue to dilute or deny facts—if we let partisans, interest groups, troublemakers like Steve Bannon, and even whole nations see the world quite differently and live on lies—our nation and our whole species is in for a world of hurt.

The danger is no less than that posed by the proliferation of nuclear weapons, for it is human hands, and possibly deluded human minds, that control them. So the primary challenge of the twenty-first century is finding a reliable way to get truth, or at least basic facts, to the masses, over the noise of the Internet and deliberate disinformation campaigns by the likes of Putin, Trump and his sidekick Steve Bannon. The alternative is to let democracy go completely vestigial, at least in the great empires, so the modern tsars, commissars and oligarchs can rely on their intelligence services or private, for-profit sources of accurate information and keep the people, like peasants in the Middle Ages, passing rumors impotently in the dark.

Footnote 1: The best place for skeptical or ill-informed Americans to learn who really won the war in Europe is Part 2 of Oliver Stone’s “Untold History of the United States," now available under “Documentaries” on Netflix. Long before viewing it, I wrote a post summarizing Russia’s mammoth sacrifices and losses in the war, including deaths in the siege of Leningrad alone that exceeded all our deaths on both fronts in the entire war.

Footnote 2: I may have a case of sour grapes, but I’m not terribly sorry that Hillary lost. She would have been a mediocre president at best. Although she might have brought some good people with her, she had a high risk, as president, of committing blunders as disastrous as those she made as a candidate. Now that she’s out of the picture, we progressives have a chance to groom a woman who’s a real leader and doesn’t make silly mistakes: Elizabeth Warren. Give her some heft in foreign and military policy, so she can be a credible commander-in-chief, and she could become a female blend of both Roosevelts: Teddy and FDR. And with Trump’s presidency shaping up to be a disastrous mess, she just might win in four years if she can acquire the necessary credibility in foreign affairs, and if she can attract a critical mass of oligarchs (outside of Wall Street!) to her side.

Footnote 3: If you want to feel in your gut, not just think in your mind, how much Putin is Russia’s latest tsar, watch the first seventeen minutes or so of this footage on Putin’s inauguration as president in 2012. You can also hear his inaugural speech, which has many moderate and conciliatory elements. (The year 2012 came well before he started to raise his risk profile.) But take the time to let the whole ceremony sink in, as presented on Russian Television. Only by doing so can you understand that Putin is not the leader of a free people, but a much smarter, slier, more decisive and ruthless successor to the Romanovs, with a military-industrial complex no tsar ever had. If you haven’t the patience to watch for the whole seventeen minutes, just watch from 12:20 to 16:42. You’ll soon have a good idea exactly who and what Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is, and how greatly his position in Russia differs from that of any Western democratic leader.

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