Thursday, May 5, 2022

About That Leak

It is Thursday evening as I write this, and the biggest news story of the week still seems to be Politico’s publication, on Monday night, of a leaked draft opinion by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito which, if it goes into effect, would overturn Roe v. Wade.

Needless to say, the Left is indignant. Already there have been riots in several cities (ironically enough, that includes cities in California, where the police who got their squad cars trashed will pose exactly zero threats to abortion rights no matter which way the Dobbs case goes). Also, leftist news sources from the Washington Post on down have been spinning the presses to run opinion pieces about what a serious attack on “democracy” this is.

Since the general sentiment here at Twilight Patriot is that doublethink ranks even lower than rioting, I am not going to bother engaging with the arguments presented in those opinion pieces.

At the same time, I think that all the conservatives who are celebrating right now should be more cautious, and stay mindful of the fact that at this point, we don’t really know much about what the published opinion (as opposed to the leaked draft) is going to say.

Essentially, what happens with draft opinions is this: Immediately after hearing oral arguments in a case (for Dobbs v. Jackson, this happened last December) the justices meet in conference and hold a preliminary vote. Then the Chief Justice (if he voted on the winning side) assigns one of the justices the task of drafting the opinion of the court.

This justice’s goal is to write an opinion that at least four others will sign on to – if he or she can’t manage that, then the Court might produce a flurry of concurrences and concur/dissents; alternately, the justices are free to switch sides up until the day the ruling is announced. (This rather famously happened in 1992 in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, when Anthony Kennedy initially voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, but then changed his mind two months before the opinion was announced).

It's worth noting that Brett Kavanaugh, who is the swing-vote on the Court today, is one of Kennedy’s former law clerks.

So to sum things up, all that we really know at this moment is:

1)   At least five justices cast a preliminary, non-binding vote to uphold Mississippi’s 15-week abortion limit.

2)   Samuel Alito wants to overturn Roe v. Wade in its entirety.

3)   Whatever is going on inside SCOTUS right now made somebody – most likely a law clerk – angry enough to leak a draft opinion to the press, in an egregious and unprecedented breach of trust.

And this… doesn’t tell us all that much. For all we know, (1) could just mean that SCOTUS is going to let states ban abortion at 15 weeks, but no earlier. If this happens, Democrats will loudly yell that America is being dragged back to the dark ages. As usual, they will expect us all to ignore the fact that France, Italy, and Germany – three countries whose laws are usually held up by the Left as a model for America to progress toward – all ban abortion even earlier.

Alternately, the leak might really mean that five justices sat down in that December conference and decided they wanted to go all the way and fully overturn Roe v. Wade. We know (see No. 2) that Alito, with his draft opinion, is trying to make this happen. But we also know that each justice who voiced an intention of signing on with Alito would have been subjected to months of pick-off attempts from the four liberals – after all, Kennedy yielded to such persuasion back in 1992.

While we know, from a public statement by John Roberts, that the leaked Alito draft is genuine, we don’t know whether or not five justices still support it.

And then there’s (3) – we know that a law clerk (maybe a conservative, maybe a liberal) is really angry. If it turns out to be a liberal clerk, it probably means that the Left is going to lose this case, and that somebody is making a last-ditch attempt to change the outcome by… staking everything on a bet that the time has finally come for “democracy” to fall back on its last line of defense  the righteous anger of a callow, scofflaw twenty-something.

Yes, it sounds dumb. But you’ve got to remember that our civilization’s cultural output over the last two decades has trained young people to think this way. Stories like Mulan and Zootopia and the newest Star Wars trilogy – which is what these kids were raised on – all center on a young, righteous, highly self-confident, and usually female protagonist, who battles against evil while discovering that her elders have nothing of value to teach her, and that rules exist mainly to be broken for the greater good.

It may seem silly that I keep bringing up these kids’ movies in my seemingly serious essays, but this really is where the rising generation – a generation which by now is starting to wield political power – is getting its worldview. (No, this is not going to end well.)

If the leaker is a conservative clerk, it probably means that one of the five justices who originally promised to sign Alito’s opinion is wavering, and that the leaker is trying to lock in the vote by making it so that the wavering justice (probably Kavanaugh) would face great embarrassment if he gave the appearance of changing his mind under public pressure.

Now, even as most Republicans are cautiously optimistic about the contents of the Alito draft, a quick look at Twitter might leave you thinking they’re much more interested in the “appalling” leak and the “permanent damage” that it has done to the “integrity” and “independence” and “legitimacy” of the federal judiciary.

Methinks that these are the kind of people who, if they had written the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, would have made it end with the impudent child getting a good paddling with a birch rod, and a lecture about how he must never again undermine his countrymen’s confidence in their head of state.

If you are of the opinion that SCOTUS, at any time in the last half century, has been something other than the highest legislative body in a pyramid of bitterly-divided legislative bodies, or that it has been “independent” in any sense other than being above checks and balances, or that its members have generally acted with “integrity” when they declare the meaning of the laws and constitution… then I am going to be blunt with you: you are the same kind of person who, if you had lived in the world of Winston Smith and Julia and O’Brian, would have believed and repeated things like “Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia” and “Ignorance is strength.”

Granted, I still believe that the leak was a bad thing – just not a threat to the court’s integrity, or to the rule of law, since you can’t threaten something that’s dead.

I consider the leak a bad thing because (1) it was a breech of trust on the part of the person or persons who did it, and all people – but especially people living in chaotic eras – have a general duty to keep their promises, and (2) it is yet another piece of evidence there are people high up in the government who believe that most if not all laws may be justly broken for the sake of expressing maximum partisan rage.

Then again, we kind of already knew that from the George Floyd Riots back in 2020, and the brouhaha at the Capitol in 2021.

We live in interesting times.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

A Note on War Aims

 

By now, the war between Russia and Ukraine has been going on for almost forty days. It remains difficult to get an accurate picture of the situation on the ground, largely because all of the information coming out of Ukraine is being filtered through thick clouds of propaganda. Go to BBC or CNN and you will see one story; go to SputnikNews, and you will see a completely different one.

Still, I happen to think that, owing to Russia having had a much stronger military position to begin with, Sputnik’s version of the story is closer to the truth.

I suspect that a large part of the collective West’s inability to think rationally about this conflict – even to the point of imagining that the Russian offensive is on the verge of collapsing when it clearly isn’t – stems from the West’s lack of imagination regarding war aims.

To begin with, it’s probably not an exaggeration to say that at least 90 percent of the rhetoric about war that you hear in the West is based on comparisons drawn from a single historical event – World War II. And World War II was an existential war: the regimes on its losing side did not survive to the present day in any way, shape, or form. Generally speaking, this was a good thing, because if Germany, Italy, and Japan had won… well, suffice it to say that a world remade in the image of the Axis powers is not one that you or I would wish to live in.

Such is the nature of the conflict from which most Europeans and Americans get 90 percent of their ideas about war.

Also, our collective pop culture is totally dominated by existential wars in which the bad guys are obvious stand-ins for the Nazis. Whether it is Star Wars or Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or The Hunger Games or what have you, whenever we go to the movies or crack open a bestselling adventure novel, we are looking at a situation in which the heroes are forced to wage total war against an evil enemy who desires the complete destruction of their way of life. And the conflict cannot end until one side or the other is stomped into the mud.

The trouble is that, in the real world, most wars are not like that. If you look at the last few hundred years of Euro-American history, then what you see most often, in international wars, is a situation in which two countries – neither of which is wholly good or wholly bad – somehow come to blows, and fight until the stronger side achieves its war aims. And these war aims usually consist of disarming the losing nation’s military, extracting indemnities/reparations, and possibly seizing a disputed piece of territory (usually one in which there is already some degree of popular agitation for a change in ownership).

You can make a long list of wars that went down like this; it would include the Mexican-American War, the Crimean War, the Schleswig Wars, the Franco-Prussian War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I, to name a few.

In comparison, situations in which one side’s war aims include the complete destruction of the enemy nation, the enslavement of its people, the extirpation of their language, culture, and religion, or the systematic execution of civilians are much rarer.

But it so happens that this second, smaller category happens to include the one war that gets more media exposure than all other wars put together, and which has also been used as a template by the creators of pretty-much every epic fantasy/adventure franchise in the modern world.

So what does any of this have to do with the situation in Ukraine?

Well, if you assume that Russia has the same war aims as Nazi Germany – the complete destruction of the enemy nation/ethnicity/religion – then it looks like the Russians are doing a poor job of it. Forty days in, they still have not taken the capital. Many of Ukraine’s roads remain open, so that refugee caravans and trucks carrying food and other essential supplies can traverse them freely. Also, Putin and Shoigu have recently withdrawn some of their troops from central Ukraine and redeployed them in the east, in a move that the Western press is portraying as a retreat.

But what does the situation look like from the point-of-view of a Russia with more limited war aims – i.e. where the goal is simply to demilitarize Ukraine, prevent it from ever joining NATO, and secure the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics? Well, in that case it looks like Russia is winning.

One other potential consequence of the West’s lack of imagination concerning war aims – a hazard which I am glad to say ended up sputtering out – was the casual attitude toward guerrilla warfare held by some Ukrainians, and also by what seems like a majority of the Western press.

In short, it was very common, in the early days of the war, to read stories about how Ukrainians of all ages and sexes were going out to fight the Russians with no chain of command and no uniforms, using whatever improvised weapons they could get their hands on.

On the one hand, this is the sort of thing that looks great in an action-adventure movie like Avengers or The Hunger Games. On the other hand, in real life it is a good way to get a lot of a civilians killed – first, because a disorganized, untrained, and poorly equipped fighting force is weaker, man-for-man, than a professional army, and second, because abolishing the distinction between soldiers and civilians is a good way of ensuring that a lot of violence will be done to civilians.

This is why the matter of francs tireurs – men (and a few women) who would dress in plain clothes, sneak up on an advancing enemy column, fire as many shots as they could get away with, and then melt back into the countryside – has been such a hot controversy in wars like World War I. When you’re a soldier, and you have good reason to believe than any civilian you encounter might be about to shoot or bomb you, then your own survival is likely to depend on your willingness to strike first.

In other words, if everybody is a potential combatant, then everybody is a target.

Fortunately, the blithe promotion of guerrilla warfare that was so common early on seems to have won only a few converts, and most (though by no means all) of Ukraine’s civilians have proven content to keep behaving like civilians, or even to flee the country outright.

Now, there are situations in which guerrilla warfare makes sense – when the war is existential, and when the invaded nation has no conventional means of resisting the enemy. Again, think of World War II – if you are a Jew, or one of the Slavs whom Hitler and Himmler plan to work to death in vast slave-labour camps, and you’re hundreds of miles behind enemy lines, and your chances of being liberated by the conventional army are uncertain, then engaging in irregular combat makes sense.

In most other situations, it doesn’t. But Western pop culture pays little attention to most other situations.

Insurgencies, though quite costly in terms of civilian life, do in some situations have a proven record of working. (I trust that my audience does not need me to summarize the Vietnam and Afghanistan wars). Suppose, then, that the Ukrainians decided, like Ho Chi Minh and the Taliban did, that losing a lot more lives than the other side is an acceptable price to pay for ultimate victory. If they made this decision, and fought for long enough, could they win in the end?

Well, if Russia decided to set up a puppet government over all of Ukraine, then it’s likely that after a few years or decades of guerrilla warfare, it could be defeated, once the Russians decided they didn’t care about propping it up as much as the Ukrainians cared about tearing it down.

But yet again, we are projecting an imaginary set of war aims onto the enemy. Because if the Russians don’t want to control all of Ukraine – if they only want to secure the independence of the Donbass – then a Ukrainian insurgency is completely useless. After all, the whole reason this war happened was because the inhabitants of Crimea and the Donbass refused to accept the legitimacy of the new Ukrainian government which came to power after the 2014 coup, and have been fighting back, with Russian aid, ever since.

In conclusion, Russia’s position – thanks to Russia’s modest war aims – is much stronger than most people in the West are willing to admit. Yet this shouldn’t really surprise anybody.

After all, as the old saying goes, “politics is the art of the possible.” War, of course, is simply the “continuation of politics by other means,” and in both politics and war, the victory will often go to the side that does a better job of choosing attainable goals.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Some Thoughts on Boundaries and Cannons

 

I’m trusting that all of my readers have already seen plenty of news about the Russia-Ukraine war. Thus, I’m not going to try to begin this essay with a summary of the situation – either of the invasion that began this week, or of the whole tawdry history of Russia-Ukraine relations over the last ten years or so.

However, I do think it’s a good idea to say that people trying to understand these events would benefit from keeping in mind two relevant definitions from The Devil’s Dictionary, by the great satirist Ambrose Bierce.

 Boundary, n. In political geography, an imaginary line between two nations, separating the imaginary rights of one from the imaginary rights of the other.

Cannon, n. An instrument employed in the rectification of national boundaries.

Ambrose Bierce was writing at the end of the 19th century. During his childhood, his country had sent a great number of cannons to its frontier with Mexico, and emerged from the scuffle with a “rectified” boundary. As a young man, Bierce fought in the Civil War, and helped make sure that the Confederacy would fail in its attempt to establish a new international boundary where there hadn’t been one before.

Meanwhile, as a mature journalist, he frequently found himself writing about such exercises in boundary rectification as the Franco-Prussian War, the Saltpeter War, the Spanish-American War, and the two Boer Wars.

So we can be fairly confident that Ambrose Bierce knew his stuff.

Now, it just so happens that, since the end of the Cold War, the United States and its various coalitions of allies have been the principal cannon-wielders of the world. Yet curiously enough, almost none of America’s wars have ended with the drawing or redrawing of boundaries.

For example, Iraq was “liberated” from Saddam Hussein, yet instead of granting his most oppressed subjects, the Kurds, what they wanted – an independent Kurdistan – they were just forced against their will into a new polity erected on the old Iraqi borders.

How well did this work out? Well, within a decade of the (partial) withdrawal of US forces, Iraq had already degenerated into a failed state, been temporarily overrun by ISIS, and finally gotten transformed into a de facto client state of Iran.

America has repeatedly proven ready and willing to insert itself into conflicts all over the world, instigate coups and install American puppet regimes in countries both large and small, and heavily bomb its supposed enemies with little concern for civilian casualties. Yet it is largely uninterested in redrawing national boundaries – even though, historically speaking, a desire to redraw boundaries has been the main reason for nations to go to war.

It seems to me that the most likely explanation for this weird fact is that the neocons and neoliberals who have set American foreign policy for the last thirty years or so don’t really believe in boundaries.

Oh, they will certainly get good and angry angry when a country that they disapprove of, such as Russia, starts violating the “territorial integrity” of one of its neighbors. Yet at the same time, they see the idea of a boundary that separates two distinct peoples with two distinct ways of life as being rather strange and antiquated. After all, the world to them is a place full of interchangeable people who all want the same things that they want – that is, to live under a government that governs in accordance with the value systems of Harvard and the New York Times.

They refer to such a system of government as “democracy,” in blithe disregard of the question of how much power it actually gives to the voters/common people. Have you ever wondered why, here in the United States, SCOTUS’ ability to legalize same sex marriage and abortion without any kind of democratic mandate does not get points knocked off of the US’ standing in democracy indices, while at the same time, Hungarian premier Victor Orbán’s highly popular decision to refuse entry to most Middle-Eastern migrants gets him called a “strongman” or even a “dictator” by the western press? Well, now you know.

But I digress. The point is that, in the neoliberal imagination, all people are homogenous, or at the very least they ought to be. If Iraq is suffering under a dictator, it is good to ask whether the dictator should be gotten rid of, and who should govern Iraq in his stead. It is bad to ask whether there should even be a unified “Iraq” in the first place.

Or consider South Africa. When the Apartheid regime fell in the 1990s, too few people asked whether the Zulus and Xhosas and Tswanas and Boers and Cape Coloureds and all of that country’s other ethnic groups, who had been forced into a very unhappy union in order to satisfy the demands of British imperialism, should now be free to go there own ways. Instead, they just asked what needed to be done so that all “South Africans” could live like, and be governed like, US Americans.

I trust that I do not need to devote time to summarizing the results for South Africa.

The first thing to take into account when trying to understand Russia is that the Russians, like most people in the world, do not share the neoliberals’ attitudes toward boundaries.

Vladimir Putin is not interested in global hegemony. His concerns are strictly regional.

The proximate cause of the war with Ukraine was the secession of the Donbas – a.k.a. the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics – in the very easternmost part of Ukraine. The Donbas is full of ethnic Russians who have always favored closer integration with Russia, and who generally see the breakup of the Soviet Union as a tragedy because it separated them from their kinsmen.

Until 2014, the presidency of Ukraine was held by Victor Yanukovych, a member of the pro-Russian faction. Then Yanukovych was overthrown in a US-backed coup, and the Donbas, which refused to recognize the new central government which took his place, has spent the past eight years fighting a bitter war of independence.

Russia waited until this week to militarily intervene. For people who only heard the western side of the story, Russia’s recent actions are a senseless and unprovoked aggression. But for the inhabitants of Donetsk and Luhansk, the eventual arrival of the (excessively patient) Russians was the well-earned and eagerly celebrated reward for eight long years of struggle and bloodshed and heroism.

The United States’ leadership class cannot understand or respect this, because to them, a man’s national identity depends – or at least, it ought to depend – only on which side of a more or less arbitrary line he happens to live on.

And that man’s political desires should not include a desire for unity with, or separation from, this or that group of people. Rather, he should desire only to be governed by the best possible government – which in practice means a pliable government, possibly installed in a CIA-backed coup, which can be relied upon to implement whatever policies Harvard and the New York Times and George Soros say are the best policies.

Now, if you’ve read this far, you’ll probably be patient enough to believe me when I say that none of this is meant as an expression of approval for what Vladimir Putin just did!

My desire is simply to remind people of the fact that there is more than one side to this story, and that it isn’t the simplistic tale of good-vs-evil that you would get by watching CNN or reading the Times. It is important for Americans to understand the Donbas separatists’ side of the story. Yet it would also be stupid to deny that in most regions of Ukraine, the population is quite patriotic and loyal to Kyiv, and that these people deserve not to have their houses bombed and their cities occupied by the Russian army.

Had the United States and its NATO allies been more honest with themselves and with Ukraine about the limits of their reach, this situation might have been settled through some sort of peaceful compromise. Until a few days ago, mutual respect might have prevailed – or in other words, the leaders of Ukraine might have realized that the best way to avoid war was to commit to staying out of NATO, and to negotiate an honorable peace with the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, who (it must be remembered) have a legitimate reason for believing that they don’t owe allegiance to the present-day Ukrainian government.

But instead, we have leaders who loudly, and up to the final moment, insisted that Ukraine’s borders, and Ukraine’s right to join NATO, were and always would be inviolable… in the full knowledge that they were unwilling to do anything to defend them if war broke out.

If Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky dies in battle defending his homeland – something which he thinks is increasingly likely – then he will have died a hero, and he will live on in song and story for hundreds of years.

But Joe Biden? Antony Blinken? Olaf Shultz? Jens Stoltenberg? These people will be remembered by history very differently, to the extent that they are remembered at all.

And of course we must not leave out Victoria Nuland, the woman at Foggy Bottom who was the prime mover on the American end of the 2014 coup, and who then hand-picked the new Ukrainian government, and who, after four years out of office during the Trump administration, was put back into the State Department in a higher post under Biden, and confirmed by the Senate by unanimous consent.

Now, I also think it is still a big mistake to compare Vladimir Putin to Hitler. Indeed, it is a sign of the intellectual poverty of our times.

If Americans were still decently educated, then instead of always rushing straight to the Führer, they would have a whole plethora of historical comparisons to draw on whenever somebody set to work using cannons as instruments of boundary rectification. They could bring up the memory of James Knox Polk, or Otto von Bismarck, or William McKinley, or Cecil Rhodes, to name a few.

I think that a particularly succinct way to describe what is happening between Russia and Ukraine right now is that Putin is trying to be the Bismarck of the 21st century. Like Chancellor Bismarck, he is leading a beleaguered country on what he thinks is a path of reform and rejuvenation that will restore it to its rightful place in the world order. And like Bismarck, he is not above including a few carefully-planned, well-executed wars in his quest for greatness.

Putin does not make war in the way that the United States makes war. To begin with, because his hegemonial ambitions are regional rather than global, his wars are all fought near his own country. Also, Putin’s wars tend to be quick – for instance, the invasion of Georgia in 2008 (which was launched in defense of South Ossetia, another tiny separatist republic recognized only by Russia) was over in just five days.

Finally, the goals of Putin’s wars are more modest. For instance, while the United States spent 20 years trying to rebuild Afghanistan as a liberal democracy, Russia’s involvement in the Syria war had the simpler (and much more achievable) aim of killing a lot of ISIS members, and shoring up the authority of Bashar al Assad.

 The Ukraine war is clearly Putin’s most ambitious war to date. And it appears that this time he has gone the full Bismarckian route – tired of giving indirect aid to the separatists in a eight-year-long festering conflict with no hope of a clear resolution, Putin has decided to drop all pretenses, throw everything he can at the enemy, and make a hard drive deep into enemy territory in the hopes that, when the capital falls, he can quickly force his preferred peace terms on his prostrate foe, and then leave.

I think it is very unlikely that Putin is planning a protracted occupation like what the US did with Iraq and Afghanistan. I expect him to be content with demilitarizing the Ukraine and securing the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk. As a result, the human cost of the war is almost certain to be less than that of the United States’ recent Middle-Eastern misadventures.

Even so, it may turn out to be a price that’s too high to be borne, even, or perhaps especially, for Russia. From a military standpoint, Otto von Bismarck’s final war – the war with France in 1870 – was a brilliant and seamless victory. But it earned his country seventy years of enmity with France, and with that came the future losses in two World Wars.

For Russia, which I expect to face serious challenges later this century in the form of population decline and Chinese irredentism, the hatred of its western neighbors may more than it can handle. What will the long-term consequences be? At this point, no one can say.

Nor can one neglect the price that a nation pays at home when too many of its citizens come to believe that their leaders are sending them off to fight and die in needless wars of choice. America suffered a lot in this way from the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars; Russia may be at risk of something similar.

Since I started this piece with a reference to a work of satire, I may as well finish it with another. A few days ago, The Onion published an article entitled “U.S. Shocked Russia Would Invade Another Country After Seeing How Badly America’s Recent Invasions Went.”

Say what you want about The Onion, you’ll find more truth in it than you will in a lot of other news sources.

How badly (or how well) will this invasion go? At the moment, nobody knows.

All we know for certain is that Vladimir Putin, when forced to make a decision about how to deal with the situation in Ukraine, chose the quickest, most forceful option that was available to him. And we also know that the time has now come for the collective nations of Europe to endure the predictable consequences of outsourcing their security to the United States, and of becoming abjectly dependent on an ally that has turned out to be all bark and no bite.

And we know that Russia isn’t the only country that is positioning itself to take advantage of the coming international realignment. As American hegemony continues to weaken, more cannons will be employed, and more boundaries will be rectified. It would be naïve not to expect the world maps at mid-century to look quite a bit different than those of today.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Predictions for 2022

 

The year that ended about a week ago was, I daresay, not quite so full of surprises as 2020. Still, you could make a good argument that our whole country is still in the midst of living out Chamberlain’s curse about “interesting times.”

This is my third January since I started Twilight Patriot way back in early 2019. Each time the new year has rolled around, I’ve tried my hand at predicting some of its major political and economic events. This is, of course, a rather bold business – you probably remember the saying: “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.”

But I nevertheless see it as a crucial test of my abilities as an analyst, since if I really understand the big trends that are shaping my country’s history at the moment, I should be able to follow at least some of them into the future for a while.

Now, it’s been my consistent argument since I started this blog that American civilization as we know it is in a state of steep decline, but that this decline is going to be more gradual than sudden. Or in other words, we’re headed toward a future that looks more like modern-day Mexico, or Russia in the 1990s, than the Hollywood apocalypses that you see in films like Mad Max or The Hunger Games.

Because of this, I don’t try to predict cataclysms. While I freely admit that black swan events matter – things like 9/11, or a certain genetically modified bat virus escaping from a Chinese lab, can have a big impact on history – my vision of the future doesn’t give them top billing, because (1) they’re rare enough that when somebody says, “This is going to be the year of the happening!” he’s revealing more about his own psychological makeup than the likelihood of whatever “happening” he has in mind, and (2) a crisis matters most when it befalls a nation whose existing fault lines make it inevitable that trouble will come sooner or later.

For instance, 9/11 was such a big deal mainly because the Neocon foreign policy establishment, which was already in power and already hankering to regime-change the Middle East, saw it as a convenient justification for its nation-building adventures. Covid-19, as far as viruses go, is at about the same danger level as the 1957 and 1969 Asian flu pandemics, which most people hardly noticed. But it struck a much bigger social and economic blow to the collective West mainly because it was a convenient weapon in a whitehot political ragefest/class war that was already in high gear.

So when I make this coming year’s predictions, I’m going to follow the same pattern: assume that the past is the best guide to the future, identify and extrapolate the trends that have been building up for a long time, and pay attention to the lessons of historical cycles.

But first, a review of last year’s predictions is in order. In January of 2021, I foretold that the official economy would keep growing, and GDP would exceed $22 trillion by the end of the year. (It currently stands around $23.3 trillion). I also said that real inflation, as calculated by my own commodity-based method, would be at least 11 percent. (You can read about the method here; inflation for this year was 24.2 percent, compared to 24.7 percent last year, though even the official rate of 6.8 percent is high enough to be newsworthy).

I predicted, correctly, that the new Congress would spend liberally once President Biden was sworn in, but that most of the money would go to various interest groups rather than to ordinary Americans. I was also right about DC statehood getting passed by the House and ignored by the Senate, and court-packing going nowhere.

The censorship and firing of conservatives – or even just liberals who step on the wrong toes – is continuing apace. See, for instance, the case of Bright Sheng, a Chinese pianist and composer who fled to America to escape the Cultural Revolution, only to become a professor of music at the University of Michigan and then get relieved of his teaching duties for not writing a good enough apology letter after he showed his class a scene from an old Shakespeare movie with an actor in blackface.

Also, the people who think that this is only happening in the humanities, and that the hard sciences are safe, have another think coming. Perhaps you recall that time in October when the  physicist Dorian Abbott got cancelled from giving a lecture at Harvard because word got out that he supported race-neutral university admissions?

Another thing I predicted was that, while the United States might see plenty of civil unrest in the coming year, none of it would pose a serious threat to the continuity of government. Well, having to reroute traffic for a day because a bunch of vaccine protesters are marching up and down the Brooklyn Bridge chanting “Let’s Go Brandon” is annoying, but it does not a revolution make.

In the realm of foreign policy, I predicted that the United States, Russia, China, Israel, and Iran would continue to avoid going to war with one other, and while the dollar would continue its gradual decline, it would still be the dominant global currency at the year’s end. Also, the protests in Hong Kong would de-escalate in a mostly peaceful manner.

Now for what I got wrong. I said that after President Biden was sworn in, the Democrats, acting out of rational self-interest, would do an about face re covid measures and become the back-to-business party. Well, they didn’t, and I had to admit that, in this case, I had overestimated the role of interest vis-à-vis myth in shaping human behaviour.

It turns out that pretty-much all the men and women who make up the western neoliberal technocracy are very strongly attached  to their role as the good people in the ongoing covid morality play. Thus, our ruling class has continued to signal its goodness with extreme and largely symbolic virus-fighting measures, such as making elementary school children wear useless cloth face masks, even when their man in the White House is taking the blame.

My other wrong prediction was that the national debt, as displayed at usdebtclock.org, would grow to at least $31.5 trillion. Today it stands at $29.7 trillion, about the same as a year ago. Now, part of my mistake was using a source which sometimes changes its calculation methods, leading to discontinuities. But at the same time, I’ve come to believe that the national debt just isn’t as big a deal as I used to think.

Both the debt and the deficit are just too easy to gimmick. Also, national debt is not, as some people naively think, some sort of countdown to financial apocalypse – when you’re the government and the interest rate is whatever you say it is, bankruptcy is fairly easy to avoid.

By now, I mostly just care about inflation. All forms of money are, to various degrees, abstract – money, in itself, is not wealth, it’s just a collection of symbols that can be manipulated by the people in power. Thus, the unraveling of the US economy won’t be driven by events in the symbol world per se, but by the eventual inability of the symbol world to command economic force in the real world – and the disconnection between the two is what inflation measures.

So I will start off my predictions for 2022 with a prediction that commodity inflation – measured, as before, with my geometric mean method – will again exceed 11 percent.

I expect the Republicans to retake the House, since the president’s party is at a disadvantage during midterms to begin with, even without massive stagflation. I will not make a prediction about the Senate – it’s balanced on a knife-edge right now, split 50-50 with only a few competitive races – but I do feel quite certain that neither party will gain more than two seats. I also think that the energetic (?) period of Biden’s presidency is over, and even with another year in nominal command of a Democratic Congress, he won’t get any of his major policy goals passed into law.

Nevertheless, America’s plutocratic oligarchy – the combination of people in the universities, the press, the judiciary, the permanent civil service, and corporate management who collectively run the country – is still all-in on its weird brand of woke capitalist SJWism, and will continue to aggressively promote it. Expect more censorship and firing of conservatives, more leftist propaganda in every institution from kindergartens up to the military, more news stories about children changing their genders at school without their parents knowing it, and so forth.

I expect America’s foreign affairs during the coming year to be rather anticlimactic. Our country’s senior leadership will do its best to give the appearance of policing the world, but after the Afghanistan debacle, everybody knows better than to get into any situation in which fighting is even a remote possibility. Thus, I expect no wars with Russia, China, Iran, or any other competent adversary.

Nevertheless, Vladimir Putin’s recent “ultimatum” regarding the removal of NATO forces from eastern Europe is not to be taken lightly, as Putin is the kind of leader who only starts things he’s ready to follow through with. Thus, I do expect that, sometime in the next few months, Putin will find a way to “develop” the situation in that part of the world in a way that humiliates the US and its allies, albeit without open warfare.

As usual, I expect regime continuity in the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, and I expect the dollar to persist as the world’s top currency.

As far as covid goes, I expect that the continuing decline of the disease’s actual lethality won’t do much – at least in the coming year – to blunt its power as a political shibboleth.

Regarding vaccinations, I think my earliest prediction – the one I made back in May of 2020 – has panned out fairly well. That’s when I said that vaccines would be developed and used, but due to rapid mutation rates and other biological challenges (already known from experiments with older coronaviruses) they would end up having low but non-zero efficacy.

There are, nonetheless, powerful elements in American society that cannot admit this, because once you’ve become emotionally wrapped up in a story – and let’s face it, faith in vaccines is filling a mythic-religious role in a lot of people’s lives these days – it’s very hard to let go of it.

Therefore, masks and vaccines (Fifth shots? Sixth? Seventh?) will still be vociferously promoted in the media at year’s end. But I think that by then most Americans will be roundly ignoring the whole matter, and life will be back to normal except in places where it’s especially easy to enforce conformity (i.e. airports, universities, deep-blue cities with zealous mayors, etc.)

At the end of the year, life for most Americans will probably be going on in much the same way as before, only with pricier food, pricier gas, other incremental declines in the standard of living, more crime, more loneliness, a lower fertility rate – essentially, the same things I’ve been predicting for the last three years. Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea will keep on circling the moribund American empire like sharks, but they’ll decide that the time to strike (that is, the time to strike at American dependencies like Ukraine, Taiwan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia, not at America itself) is not quite yet.

And here in America, the people who make it to 2023 with the fewest scrapes will be those who prepare for the long game, and are careful to avoid getting too wrapped up in collapsing institutions. Winning against the system is, at this point, only possible on the individual and family level, and as I’ve explained in detail here, it consists of small but important steps like being choosy about where you send your children to school, becoming more economically self-sufficient, writing letters to your newspaper about issues that matter to you, and so forth.

In the long run, it’s going to be rough. There are people who are working quite hard to make sure our country remains on track toward having the social values of Sweden, the censorship and surveillance of China, the crime levels of Mexico, the infrastructure of Brazil, and the race relations of South Africa. I wish I could say that by voting for the right people, we could stop this. But at the present time, I just don’t see any realistic political solution.

Even when Republicans are nominally in power, they’re content to let things coast, making no efforts to reverse the Left’s dominance. It has been like this since the Nixon years, and the Republican base has responded to its repeated humiliations by electing politicians who are increasingly short on political competence and long on vacuous, crowd-pleasing rhetoric – from Nixon to Reagan to the Bushes to Trump, it is all one long downward spiral.

The American empire is imploding. It won’t happen quickly; it will probably be several decades, perhaps a whole century, before our country, or its successor states, restabilize. But if you can keep your head screwed on tight and look after your family in the years ahead, the reward is that you – or more likely your descendants – will get to have a hand in building whatever comes next.

End Year Inflation Table 2021

From time to time, I have devoted part of a blog post to explaining to my readers how I calculate inflation (as you probably guessed, it’s different than the way the Fed/CBO calculates it). Because I will be posting my New Year’s predictions later today, and because that post will start off with an evaluation of last year’s predictions, and because one of those predictions involved the inflation rate, I’m going to have to calculate inflation again.

But in order to avoid interrupting my forthcoming post with a cumbersome explanation of my method, I’ve decided to lay it all out here instead. If you already know the method, or if the whole thing bores you, you can skip ahead. Otherwise, read on.

Above you see a table with prices for eight commodities, both at the turn of the millennium, and at the ends of the years 2019, 2020, and 2021. All data are from tradingeconomics.com. At the bottom of each column, I’ve included the geometric mean of the eight prices.

The “geometric mean” means that instead of adding together all the numbers and dividing by eight, I multiplied them all together and took the eighth root. This saved me the trouble of having to decide how much of each commodity to include in my “basket.” (If I used the ordinary average, it would make a big difference whether I included an ounce of gold or a gram of gold, a bushel of corn or a ton of corn, etc.)

With the geometric mean, if you double the price of gold – or of any other commodity – the number at the bottom of the column goes up by a factor of 1.0905 – and it does that whether you started with an ounce of gold or a ton of gold. Similar relations exist for any other logarithm. The upshot is that the process is neutral – the personal biases of the tabulator (me) don’t influence the outcome.

Now, once you have a geometric mean of the eight commodity prices for each year, you can compare values year over year to estimate inflation (24.7 percent for 2020 and 24.2 percent for 2021) or divide by the mean price in 2000 to get the value, in current dollars, of one dollar in 2000. (Right now that figure is $3.55).

Now, I generally refer to the numbers calculated in this way as “commodity inflation,” because they reflect the price of commodities – that is, fungible goods like copper, cotton, and brent oil. What’s left out are non-fungibles like houses or college tuition. The weakness in this approach is that most of the things ordinary people spend money on are not commodities. The strength is that, because my method only looks at commodities, it can’t be gimmicked.

Suppose that the people who work at the CBO or the Fed or wherever sit down to calculate inflation, and notice that the average American family spends 2.5 times more on college tuition or health insurance or housing or what-have-you than they did 15 years ago. Is it because they’re actually getting 2.5 times more of what they’re paying for? Or is it because of inflation? Or is it some combination of the two?

The answer, of course, will depend on your politics. Which is why I don’t trust the numbers that come out of the CBO and the Fed. Their incentives to hide the true scale of economic decline are just too strong.

Now, commodities markets are more volatile than the economy as a whole, which means that the full force of the 24 percent inflation I’ve calculated for these past two years isn’t being passed on to ordinary people… yet. In due time it will be, since things like houses, and food and gas for the people who work at universities, have to be made from commodities like lumber, soybeans, and crude oil.

But at the same time, it’s hard to hide from the fact that inflation is hitting ordinary Americans hard nonetheless. Anyone who’s poor enough to pay attention to how much his or her food costs – and that’s a category that very much includes Yours Truly – knows by now that the true magnitude of the situation is being swept under the rug.

So if you’re reading this, and wondering why it feels like so much of what you eat costs two or three times what it did a decade ago… then I hope I’ve helped to make that mystery a bit clearer.


Sunday, December 5, 2021

The Optimism of a Twilight Patriot

 

I began writing the Twilight Patriot blog in February of 2019. While the landscape of American politics has changed a bit over that almost-three-year period, my opinions about my country’s past, present, and likely future have remained fairly constant.

Sometimes, I voiced those opinions by criticizing the same things that most Right-wingers criticize: the size of government, a welfare state that disincentivizes work and thrift, the dictatorial role of SCOTUS. Sometimes, I criticized things that the Right used to approve of, but has recently soured on, like military adventurism, or the dismantling of America’s industrial plant in favor of cheap imports.

Sometimes, I took positions that are heretical on the Right: ‘Global warming is real,’ I said, ‘and President Trump is only pretending to care about the border wall.’ And sometimes, I simply sounded alarmist: ‘Inflation is two or three times worse than the official numbers say, and the US military has grown so weak that even third and fourth-rate enemies can prevail against it.’

And I made a consistent set of predictions: The American Empire was going to continue its process of decline and fall. It didn’t really matter which party won the next election; neither party would make the changes that really mattered. In a little while – historically speaking – the United States would be a third world country, with third world levels of poverty, inflation, unemployment, political dysfunction, crime, and military ineptitude.

And I was saying all of this before the re-engineered bat virus, the five-month-long nonstop race riot, and the attempted coup.

I was talking decline and fall before the Afghanistan route, before the police and the military started using vaccine mandates to purge out their less conformist members, before… well, you get the point.

But there’s another curious thing. If you follow political commentary for a while, you’ll notice that whenever a big crisis happens, or seems likely to happen, a lot of people start talking doomsday scenarios: The coronavirus is going to kill >10% of the people who get it, causing a total collapse of the government in the process. Or the vaccines are going to do the same thing.

Or the Floyd Riots will be the permanent end of law and order throughout the United States. Or some other imminent event is going to cause the world as we know it to roll over and die.

When Qasem Soleimani was killed, I heard people saying it was going to spark World War III – but it didn’t, and a few days later, the excitement had died down. For years before the 2020 election, people on both sides of the aisle were insisting that if the Democrat won in a way that Trump’s base believed was unfair, we would have a civil war on our hands. Then Trump lost, and most Republicans did indeed believe that Biden had cheated… but one hour of LARPing does not a civil war make.

So we were left in the great in-between. We’ve seen, over and over again, that our civilization is not on the track of upward progress. It is not even maintaining a comfortable status quo. But in most people’s imaginations, the only alternative to those things is instant apocalypse, and we’re not getting that, either.

Just a gradual decline and fall, a slow slide into third world conditions.

It is a disappointment. We Americans feel that our nation is so unique that if it doesn’t keep progressing onward and upward indefinitely (to the point that we eventually learn how to make people immortal, or colonize outer space, or what have you) then it at least deserves to go out with a uniquely memorable bang.

But here I am, predicting that neither of these things will happen. Just a slow slide into the mud. ‘Look at the situation in Mexico,’ I say. ‘Look how the people are getting poorer and poorer, and central authority is weakening, and many of the rural areas are being divided between warring militias and gangs. That will probably be our future, too. Hopefully, our technology will decline quickly enough that our overlords don’t get a chance to set up a universal surveillance state like in China.’

And then, as if I wanted to make my readers go ‘huh?’ one more time, I say that I don’t find this depressing, that it’s far from the worst future we could have, and that there’s a lot of room, in the future that I’m sketching out, for hope, optimism, and plans to rebuild.

In large part, this is possible because of my belief in God and my fundamentally religious worldview.

Generally speaking, religious people – in other words, people who have hung their hopes of ultimate victory on something less feeble than human beings or institutions built by human beings – have no reason to hide from the reality of decline and fall.

In the Western religions, this is because the material world, and everything in it, is transient, and irreparably marred by mankind’s sins. We are only here on earth for a brief moment – ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust,’ and all that – and if we happen to live in an age of worldly decline, it shouldn’t be a source of sorrow to us, only another reason to serve God faithfully and lay up our treasures in Heaven.

The Eastern religions conceive things a bit differently. In their view, the world itself may well have no beginning and no end, but everything in it lasts for only a brief moment amid the eternal cycle of death and rebirth. Each of us has lived many lives already, and can look forward to many lives yet to come, and the way to wisdom and happiness lays in recognizing transient things for what they are, enjoying them while they last, and refusing to cling to them when it’s time to leave them behind.

Since Twilight Patriot is not a religious blog, I’m not going to comment on which of those two overarching philosophies I find more convincing. Suffice it to say that people who follow either of them will have an easier time weathering the storms ahead than the materialists who lean, for their sense of meaning and purpose, on the frail reed of human progress.

If you’re a regular reader of Twilight Patriot, and perhaps even if you aren’t, then you probably admire a lot of the same people as I do: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, the Marquis de Lafayette, Frederick Douglas, Winston Churchill, etc.

Men like that can only exist during times of adversity. And with that in mind, is it really depressing for me to say that America’s future will involve regression, fragmentation, poverty, and violence? Nothing else could toughen up the soft, effete, atomized people who presently live here into the kind of men and women who can do great things. As in nature, so with mankind – some trees can only take root in in the ashes left by a fire.

George Washington and the other founders grew up in a country that was poorer, more violent, and more technologically backward than the country we live in today. Because of my conviction that history is cyclical and that progress is never permanent, I am free to believe that America may yet produce a thousand Washingtons. Is that really such a bad future?

But what does that mean for the here and now? It means that each of us – each of us who desires to in some way be a part of building the next great North American civilization – should be eager to score a win against the system.

And we can win against the system by detaching ourselves from the system.

Whenever some American kid realizes that America’s days as the nonproducing consumer among nations are numbered, and decides to learn a trade that involves working with his hands instead of pushing numbers around, that’s a win.

Whenever a trad wife gives birth to three or more children, and raises them up in such a way that they imitate her decision to make family a bigger priority than the pursuit of wealth, that’s a win.

Whenever someone opens the town newspaper, reads a letter like this one, and is dissuaded from disfiguring his or her child’s mind with ADHD medication, that’s a win.

Whenever an American couple refuses to send their children to woke public schools where race hatred and gender dysphoria are taught, that’s a win.

Whenever someone grows his own food, and builds or at least repairs his own house, car, appliances, furniture, etc., rather than relying for those things on an increasingly dysfunctional global supply chain, that’s a win.

Whenever someone finds a way to work for himself, taking payment in cash and/or barter when possible,  and depriving corporate and government middlemen of the chance to skim off of his labor, that’s a win.

Whenever someone realizes that the fossil-fueled economy is going to wind down over the next few generations, and acts on that realization by making a hobby out of preserving the technologies that are appropriate to a more primitive world – technologies like sailing ships, home-built radios, letterpress printing, or traditional glassmaking, to name a few – that’s a win.

Acts of resistance against the state can be wins, but we need to be realistic about our expectations in this regard. People who do not have the courage to seek asylum abroad when their own children’s genders are changed by court order do not have the courage to repeat the events of 1776, or even 1989. Which is why the only kinds of resistance that I expect will be done, successfully, during the next few decades are the small and local kinds.

Our side does not have a path to nationwide victory – indeed, in times like these it makes little sense to speak of “our side” at all.

My favorite metaphor for the collapse of American civilization is the Blind Men and the Elephant. Just as the six blind men, though feeling different things, all knew that they had grasped onto some part of a large animal, a lot of the people living in the United States in 2021 can feel that their country is falling apart. But because we each feel only some aspects of the rolling collapse, it is easy to quarrel with one another about the real nature and causes of it.

Yet in our quarreling, we’re often all partly in the right. The people who think that the sexual revolution was a mistake, and those who think that treating petroleum as if it’s a renewable resource is a mistake, tend to be political enemies… for now. But the collapse of the gasoline economy, the re-agrarianization of America, and the disappearance of the technologies that make it easy to manage venereal diseases will, I think, bring each around to the other’s point of view.

None of this is going to be easy or pleasant or quick. There is, at this point, no turning back from the future that America has earned for itself. We will not get continued progress, nor will we get instant apocalypse; just a long, slow, multigenerational decline into third world conditions – into impoverished, violent, and politically repressive conditions – followed by an opportunity to rebuild. Or rather, several opportunities to rebuild, since by that time the United States will almost certainly have fragmented into multiple pieces.

So that, then, is what optimism means for me. It means looking at the situation as it is, with its challenges and opportunities, and choosing to meet the challenges manfully, and act on the opportunities.

It does not mean believing that one’s political party has its act together when the evidence suggests that it does not. Nor does it mean insulting the founders by saying that the constitution we have today is, for the most part, the same one they established, and that our country can be saved if only we protect said constitution from future assaults, when in reality the old constitution has been dead for a long time, and ought to have been given a decent burial already.

And once you admit that dead things are dead things, you can focus on the real challenges of our time: disengagement, survival, and rebuilding.