Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The New Year And The Old Year

 

“It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.”

So said the great Yogi Berra, and the events of the past twelve months have born him out. To begin with, there was the Coronavirus, which was unforeseeable, except in the statistical sense – that is to say, epidemiologists have always been saying things like: “there’s a one to two percent chance that a global flu-like pandemic will break out during the next year,” and over a long enough timescale, they’ll be right.

But non-virus related news can be even more strange and surprising. For example, I very much doubt that, even a few years ago, anyone would have foreseen a Russian state-owned news site running an opinion piece with the headline: “Don’t Dismiss US Coup.”

So if you go back and read the introductory section of my annual predictions piece from a year ago, it will probably leave you feeling wistful, as I talked long and loud about how, unlike most people in the media, I was going to make my predictions on the basis of steady trends, historical cycles, and the assumption that, on the whole, the upcoming year was unlikely to be any more exciting than any other year.

And because of that, I insisted, my readers could rest assured that my predictions would be more accurate than anything they got from rival websites, which tend to focus on dramatic events that make good clickbait but don’t get around to happening in the real world.

Well, I still think I was right in principle – steady trends, historical cycles, and the assumption that the upcoming year will be no more spectacular than the one before it usually produce better predictions than any other method. But as it turned out, 2020 was the wrong year to get into the prediction business using that approach.

So before making new forecasts for 2021, I should probably take a look at how my predictions for 2020 fared.

My election predictions were the worst of the set. I said that Joe Biden was going to win the Democratic primary, as indeed he did, but I also predicted that Biden would lose to Donald Trump in the general election, that the Republicans would hold the Senate, and that they would most likely take back the House as well.

Another Trump victory seemed like a sound bet when I made it, since it’s very rare for the White House to switch parties after just four years. In fact, it had happened only once in previous century, with Carter’s loss in 1980, amid circumstance that, so it seemed, had little in common with those facing Donald Trump in 2020.

To be fair, once summer came along, with the Covid Recession and the George Floyd Riots in full swing and Trump failing to show any apparent leadership, I admitted that I didn’t feel sure about his upcoming victory anymore. And when he refused to admit that he had lost in November and gave Democratic base a reason to come out in force in the Georgia elections, instead of resting on its laurels like a new President’s party usually does, I admitted that the Senate was up in the air as well.

Still, at the end of the day, my election forecasting record is one for four – I was right about the primary, and wrong about all three components of the general election. This is certainly not something that I would like to repeat.

Fortunately, my non-election predictions fared better. In short, I had said that, officially, the US economy would grow somewhat, but that the real economy would continue to contract while the authorities kept gimmicking the inflation statistics to hide what was happening. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping would still be the presidents of their respective countries at the year’s end, the United States would avoid going to war with Russia, China, or Iran, and Iran would avoid war with Israel.

The protests in Hong Kong would be de-escalated peacefully, while China’s much worse human rights abuses in Uyghuristan would continue to get little attention from the West. Also, nothing significant would come of the US-China trade war, and while the financial trends leading Eurasia to dedollarize would continue, they wouldn’t play out fast enough to threaten global dollar dominance during the year to come.

As it turned out, neither Covid-19, the George Floyd riots, nor the “Stop-the-Steal” lunacy got in the way of any of these things playing out the way that I said they would. And that includes, bizarrely enough, my prediction that official GDP would grow. Right now, the authorities are reporting a 33.4 percent gain in third quarter GDP that more than makes up for the 31.4 percent loss in the second quarter of 2020. Add in the 8.7 percent growth forecast by the Fed for Q4 (which exceeds the 5.0 percent loss in Q1) and you are looking at a positive net growth rate.

Obviously, these numbers don’t reflect the situation on the ground for ordinary Americans; the 100,000 or so small businesses that went under during the lockdowns are not, for the most part, popping right back up. Nevertheless, when the official figures are calculated, the collapse of real industry can easily end up being overshadowed by financialization, i.e. by an increase in the American upper classes’ supply of hallucinatory paper wealth.

Perhaps you have wondered why America’s Big Three automakers – Ford, GM, and Chrysler, are together worth $144 billion, while the combined market capitalizations of NIO, XPing, and Li Auto, a trio of Chinese electric car startups that have yet to make a dime in profits, stands at $171 billion? Or why Tesla is now valued at $809 billion, an amount of money it would take about 1,600 years to earn back at its current rate?

This is happening because, as I write this, the electric vehicle industry is going through a speculatory bubble that makes pets.com look like a sound investment. Eventually, the bubble will pop, as all bubbles do, but for now, this illusory growth – along with a great many other forms of illusory growth – counts for just as much in the official GDP numbers as any other economic activity.

When the people in power say that the economy is doing well – which they will be saying a lot more once Joe Biden is sworn in as President – you can rest assured that they are blowing smoke.

And this is a topic that leads nicely into my predictions for 2021. Fortunately, there are no elections during the upcoming year, so I can start with economics instead.

I expect that the official economy will keep growing in 2021, and that the real economy will keep contracting. Since phrases like “keep growing,” and “keep contracting,” are by themselves rather vague, I’ll say up front that you can call me wrong if the official GDP (as displayed here) is less than $22 trillion at the year’s end (it’s currently $21.3 trillion), or if the real value of a dollar (as calculated by my own method, described here) doesn’t fall by at least eleven percent during 2021.

I suspect that the Democrats in Congress will spend liberally once Joe Biden is sworn in, both because that’s their usual response to crisis, and also because having their man in the White House means that they get to take credit for any short-term economic gains this causes. The spending will probably start with ≥$2,000 payments to each citizen, plus fatter unemployment checks, but as usual most of the money will end up going to special interests. Expect the national debt to have exceeded $31.5 trillion by the last day of December, and the debt-to-GDP ratio to have risen to at least 140 percent.

As for other legislation, I expect that the House of Representatives will pass the DC statehood bill again (and perhaps also a bill for Puerto Rico) but I don’t think that either will get through the Senate, because the Democrats’ majority there is just too thin. After all, they talked about admitting new states in 2009, when they had 60 seats, and didn’t get around to doing it, so I don’t expect them to do it now. For the same reason, I’m confident that they won’t add seats to the Supreme Court.

After Biden’s inauguration, I expect a rapid diedown of the Democratic party’s enthusiasm for maximal Covid lockdowns. The explanation here is as cynical as it is obvious: once Democrats stand to benefit from a return to prosperity and normalcy, they will become the party of prosperity and normalcy.

Big Tech is going to crack down hard in the wake of Donald Trump’s riot/quarter-assed coup attempt last Wednesday. Expect way more deplatformings in 2021 than in 2020. And it won’t stop with just the QAnon people – anyone associated with any form of conservatism or Trumpistry is at risk of losing access to social media, web hosting, other online services, publishers, banks, etc. Meanwhile, right-wingers will keep on losing their jobs and professional standing for criticizing the BLM and LGBT movements.

Whether the upcoming year will feature as many riots as the last one is a tricky question. Before 6 Jan – that is, when riots in America were exclusively the purview of the Left – I expected the leftist troublemakers to get a lot calmer when their own guy was in the White House and they no longer had a bright orange hate object on which to focus their rage. But now that both sides are in on the rioting business, we may well end up with back-and-forth street violence and low-level thuggery all year long.

One thing should be clear, though: none of the insurrectionary rhetoric will lead to the fall of the government, or to a widespread breakdown of civil order. You may be thinking: “What about the breakdown of civil order that we’ve been having since last May?” But that, as I explained in this post back in August, was special anarchy, not general anarchy.

General anarchy means that chaos reigns because the laws, in general, aren’t being enforced. Special anarchy, on the other hand, means that specific people, with the support of elements within the government, can commit specific crimes against specific other people without facing the usual consequences.

The George Floyd riots were a case of special anarchy: perhaps you heard about the man who got 100 hours of community service for toppling a Christopher Columbus statue, even as most other statue topplers were never apprehended at all? Well, that sort of thing doesn’t happen unless there are powerful elements within the government that approve of statue toppling.

I suppose that a lot of people might disagree with my assertion that violence on the part of undisciplined street thugs, from either the Left or the Right, poses no real threat to the government. Perhaps they will point to Weimar Germany as a counterexample – after all, years of insufficiently-punished thuggery and street violence by the Nazi Party’ paramilitary arm, the SA, did indeed end with the establishment of a Nazi dictatorship. And this happened even though the typical SA Mann was an undisciplined thug when compared with the regular German Army.

But the comparison with our day still doesn’t hold. Next to BLM and the Stop-the-Steal people, the SA is the frickin’ Delta Force. None of the actors in America's current brouhaha have the wherewithal to pose a serious threat to the powers that be, and that isn’t going to change anytime soon.

As for the role of the Coronavirus in the coming year’s events, I honestly don’t have all that much to say. I’m not going to try to predict its future growth/dissipation in any detail; the only thing I’m fairly certain about is that by the end of the year it will have mostly faded away, either through successful vaccination, or else through the natural process of evolution into a less deadly form.

I have no idea how well any of the new vaccines will work. The fact that Covid-19 mutates rapidly, and that other members of the coronavirus family have proven resistant to vaccination in the past, certainly doesn’t bode well, and I have often criticized the belief, rooted in what many thinkers call the Myth of Progress, that every problem must have a technological solution if only somebody, somewhere tries hard enough to find it.

At the same time, I am not a Luddite, and I have nothing against innovation so long as it’s done by clear-headed people who are aware of their limits and recognize that success isn’t inevitable. I don’t believe that the Covid vaccines, or vaccines in general, are part of a conspiracy to harm people, and I will probably get vaccinated myself later this spring.

My foreign policy predictions are largely identical to what they were last year. The United States will not go to war with Russia, China, or Iran, and Iran will not go to war with Israel. At the end of 2021, Vladimir Putin will still be the President of Russia, and Xi Jinping will still be the President of China. Unless he dies of old age, the Ayatollah will still be in power in Iran, and the same goes for Joe Biden in the United States.

 Come December 31, the dollar will still be the global currency, and the American armed forces will still be occupying somewhere near half of the world. But both the economic and military power of the United States will be a bit more eroded than at the beginning of the year.

I realize that my predictions look too bleak for most Americans to take them seriously. But bleak doesn’t mean wrong. For example, to a patriotic citizen of the USSR living in 1975, an accurate description of what was going to happen to his country over the next two decades would have looked bleak, too.

The bright side of a future dominated by historical cycles – including the cycle of the decline and fall of empires – is that historical cycles don’t end in apocalypse. While the American Empire does not have a chance at a better future, the American people do.

I expect many great civilizations to rise and fall on this continent while the human race still walks the earth, and if we give up the delusion that ours is destined to last forever – or that its institutions will always stand for liberty and justice – then we just might find that we have what it takes to keep ourselves and our families alive and in good spirits during the troublesome times ahead.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Public Trust and the Electoral Count Riot

 

My original plan for the first post of 2021 was to review my New Year’s predictions from last January, discuss how the trends I was anticipating back then had played out (or failed to play out) in the real world, and make a new set of predictions for the coming year.

I was aware that some Republican Senators and Congressmen had caused a kerfuffle by threatening to raise objections during the 6 Jan counting of the electoral votes. I didn’t expect much to come of it, though I at least found the prospect interesting enough to turn on the C-Span feed from the Capitol yesterday morning to watch the show, and then feel rather annoyed when my own Congressman, Paul Gosar, made the first formal objection. (I have been saying since November that refusing to admit Biden’s win at this point is idiotic).

Then I found out that, after each objection was registered, the two Houses of Congress would have to go into separate chambers, debate it, vote on it, and then repeat the process four or five or six times for however many other states were disputed. The whole thing seemed immensely boring, so I turned off the feed.

An hour or two later I checked the news and, lo and behold, a mob of Trumpist rioters, encouraged by the President’s calls to “never concede,” had smashed their way into the Capitol, looted the place, immortalized their hooliganism with photo ops like the one at the top of my post, gotten themselves tear gassed, and finally dispersed after several hours of fighting during which four people were killed.

Holy hell.

My 2021 predictions will have to wait another few days. This event is worth discussing, both for what it says about the idiocy and impotence of conservatism in America these days, and for what it says about the American people’s loss of faith in their country’s governing institutions.

Because, contra the insistence of the mainstream media and the Neocons, the utter failure of the Electoral Count Riot to overturn the electoral count is not a heartwarming example of a well-functioning democratic government resisting an assault by a bunch of fanatics who want to bring it down. Rather, it is the sort of thing that only happens when a lot of people have already lost faith in American democracy.

If you have followed my blog for a while, you’ll know that I’m not in the “keep-it-strictly-legal” camp when it comes to resisting the Left. I’ve said before that the Right’s failure to resist the Left more forcefully in the past has led to America becoming much less democratic than it was a century ago. I have said that some of the Supreme Court’s abuses of power in the 1960s and 1970s deserved to be met with general strikes and barricades in the streets. And I have pointed to the numerous American parents entangled in transgender child custody cases, and their failure to flee the country and seek asylum in Russia, the Philippines, or some other likeminded place, as a sign of inexcusable cowardice on the part of the American Right.

Still, what happened yesterday was idiotic, self-defeating, and immoral.

There is no need to explain in great detail why our messy political situation will not be improved by the spectacle of one party’s fanatics breaking into the Capitol in a hairbrained attempt to prevent their own Senators and Vice President from certifying a member of the other party as the winner of an election which he actually won.

Even so, it’s a mistake to characterize the riot as an attack on a properly functioning set of democratic institutions.

Which is not to say that the country would be better off if the riot had succeeded. In the event that Trump had actually proven himself competent enough to stage a real coup and become dictator-for-life, then it would be naïve for me not to admit that our constitution was dead and buried. But just as there is more than one way to skin a cat, there is more than one way to subvert a republic.

In our current system, as I have lamented many times, the role of the voters in the political process is mostly perfunctory. What really happens is that, while the electorate gets a chance to swap out the President and the Congressional majorities every two or four years, America’s true rulers in the courts, civil service, universities, and woke corporate boardrooms just keep on advancing the same neoliberal agenda – an agenda which presently includes open borders, economic globalization, racial hatemongering, harassment of domestic industry and small businesses, and government-promoted sexual deviancy of every sort.

A large number of Americans are very bothered by these things. And they have come to realize that most Republican politicians simply don’t care. These issues get talked about during elections, but once in office, each new crop of Republicans does little or nothing to stop the courts, the civil service, and various corporations from carrying on policies which their base hates. Which is why such a big portion of the Republican base has come to loathe the Republican party.

Or in other words, America’s so-called “democratic institutions,” by deciding not to be democratic anymore, have lost the trust of America’s voters. And when people feel cheated, ignored, or betrayed, they tend to become angry and irrational.

Thus, while these abuses of power don’t excuse what the MAGA mob did (Biden, after all, really did win the November election) they do go a long ways toward explaining why the mob did it.

And the mob did it because, all too often, when a respected public institution loses the people’s trust, they don’t fill the void by trusting something better. They fill the void by trusting something worse.

For example, CNN (along with the rest of the mainstream media) has done a lot to lose the trust of middle Americans. But these former CNN viewers have not, for the most part, gone over to something better than CNN. Rather, all too many of them have turned to Newsmax, InfoWars, the Unz Review, or something else along those lines.

We saw something similar, but quite a bit more momentous, back in the 1960s, when the youth counterculture was feeding off of the (real) hypocrisy of many of America’s traditional authority figures regarding segregation and the Vietnam War. But the “never trust anyone over thirty” attitude didn’t make the rising generation better than their (flawed) parents, it made them worse.

Right now, the story is playing out all over again with the Trumpist Right. Having lost faith in America’s governing institutions (which only care about democracy as a façade for their institutional power) they have placed their faith in Donald Trump (who only cares about democracy when he wins).

There are plenty of reasons why Donald Trump is a flawed vessel for these people’s faith.

To begin with, Trump’s record on following through on his campaign rhetoric isn’t that much better than the typical Republican’s. Trump ran on a platform of ending foreign wars, but once in office, he kept on bombing Syria, vetoed an Act of Congress that would have gotten the US out of Yemen, and nearly started a war with Iran by assassinating Qasem Soleimani. Trump did not fulfil his promises to repeal Obamacare, defund Planned Parenthood, or build a border wall. He appointed the Kennedy-clerk and likely centrist Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. And so forth.

But none of this matters to the MAGA fanatics, because the old institutions and the old GOP have lost their trust so badly that Trump doesn’t need to offer something better, he just needs to offer something different.

Which he is doing, by leading the bulk of his party into a fantasy-land where he is the true winner of last November’s election.

Even before yesterday’s riot, Trump’s blitheringly stupid behaviour had already cost the Republicans their Senate majority. Georgia’s two Senate races on 5 Jan should have been easy wins for the GOP, since the losing party in a presidential election tends to win almost all special elections during the next two years. (i.e. the losing party’s voters, who feel spurned and disempowered, have a much higher turnout rate than the contented voters of the new President’s party.)

Of course, Trump’s refusal to admit that he lost scuppered that process, since it gave Democratic voters good reason to feel that Trump was still a live threat to their rights and liberties, leading them to turn out in record numbers and flip the Senate.

As I’ve explained here, Trump is not unique among recent Republican Presidents in leading his party into a fantasy land. Reagan, for example, led the Republicans into the fantasy land where Sandra Day O’Connor was a pro-life judge. George W. Bush led them into the fantasy land where the No Child Left Behind Act was an effective way to advance conservative principles. The list goes on and on.

The difference between those events and what Trump is doing now is that earlier flights of fancy simply ended in runs-to-the-left, i.e. Democratic policies being advanced on the backs of Republican electoral victories. Trump’s flight of fancy ended in full Democratic control of the government, plus a batshit crazy riot which has given a great many political moderates good reason to hate and fear the Republican Party.

The Electoral Count Riot didn’t happen in a vacuum, and it deserves a better explanation than Trump is a Mussolini wanabe,” or Republicans are awful.” The riot happened, in large part, because America’s governing institutions have lost the trust of the Deplorables. But the person and ideology which a great many of those Deplorables have chosen to trust in their place do not offer us a realistic path back to normalcy.

So if you are upset about the things that the lunatic Left and the plutocratic Center are doing to this country, then I have bad news for you: we cannot expect the Trumpist Right to offer effective resistance.

The only solution I can offer now – if it’s even worthy of the name – is to prepare yourself and your family to live in a country that looks like Russia in the 1990s or present-day Mexico, because that is where we are headed.

Monday, December 21, 2020

December Economic Update

My very first Twilight Patriot post, which is by now nearly two years old, involved a brief comparison of the then-current purchasing power of the US dollar to its purchasing power in the year 2000. My conclusion was that inflation was quite a bit worse than the official sources were willing to admit – a dollar in 2018 was worth only 43¢ in 2000’s money, not the 68¢ of the official sources.

By reanalyzing GDP numbers in light of the new dollar values, I determined that America’s per capita GDP was only 75 percent of what it had been at the beginning of the century. I then concluded that the Trump Administration’s failure to admit that this decline was going on was evidence that there was no plan to do anything about it, and that we could all expect it to just continue for the foreseeable future.

I didn’t really talk about why this was happening, or about how anyone ought to respond to it, and the context-free sense of gloom seemed to rub a lot of readers the wrong way.

But over the last two years, I’ve formed more detailed opinions about what is going on in America right now, and how ordinary people can respond constructively. (And I have also noticed that people pay more attention to my posts when I share these opinions, instead of sharing context-free gloom). Hence the premise of the current post – an update of my thoughts on the economic situation in the United States.

The central fact of this situation is that a set of unbalanced economic arrangements, which have allowed the American nation to consume more goods than it produces and make up the difference by exporting fiat money, is coming unraveled.

While these arrangements held firm – that is, from the middle of the twentieth century until the present day – the biggest losers were the American working class, whose labour was in little demand when the strong dollar made it easy to replace American-made products with cheap imports. But once the system finishes unravelling – that is, one the dollar is no longer the global currency and America’s imports and exports have to match again – the situation won’t immediately improve. Instead, the whole country will have to endure a period of third-world-level poverty. The reasons for this are:

1) Too many American industries have vanished beneath the tide of cheap imports. Whether you are looking at steel, microprocessors, ships, shoes, pianos, or any other manufactured product, you will almost always see the same story: a once-flourishing domestic industry has suffered relentless decline, and America now relies mainly on imports from some part of Asia.

2) Our transportation infrastructure is old, rundown, and heavily dependent on a prodigious rate of oil consumption: 21 barrels per person per year, compared to 12 for the European Union, 11 for Japan, and 3.7 for China. Without a better rail network, public transit systems, etc. – which nobody in power is seriously trying to rebuild –  the coming oil shortage will be devastating.

It doesn’t help that neither party’s central myths allow it to make a level-headed assessment of the situation and propose realistic solutions. The typical Democratic voter has only enough economic knowledge to ask, “Are the rich paying their fair share?” Democratic politicians draw on this sentiment by promising welfare programs to benefit the poor, which usually turn out to be wealth transfers from the middle classes to whatever monied interest groups administers the welfare program.

Republicans have a leg up on Democrats in that their base understands that, in nearly all cases, the thing that would most benefit the poor is steady work, and that government programs are not the best way to provide steady work. Hence their consternation when they see so many jobs are being lost oversees.

Unfortunately, the Republicans’ rosy views of big business and the profit motive, and their habit of framing geopolitical events in terms of the righteous USA needing to assert itself against the malign Other, have totally scuppered their ability to understand what’s really going under the seams. Hence the typical Republican voter’s perception that China is taking advantage of the United States and needs to be punished, preferably by a loud, brash president who calls himself a “tariff man.”

But the uncomfortable truth about trade deficits is that trade deficits cannot be imposed from without. They are only possible because the Federal Reserve and the US Treasury have chosen to pursue a loose monetary policy. If the US didn’t send so much newly printed currency abroad, then every dollar’s worth of imports would have to be paid for by a dollar’s worth of exports, lest the country run out of dollars. (Before the advent of central banking, when gold and silver were the principal medium of international trade, there were no significant trade deficits.)

And while there are certainly Chinese interests who benefit from what is presently going on with America’s trade deficit, the fact of the matter is that China does not have the power to unilaterally force that deficit on the United States. Only America’s own ruling class can do that.

What most commentators see as a matter of China exploiting America is really a matter of one class of Americans exploiting another class of Americans. Specifically, the professional managerial class, or PMC – that is, the people who work in government, finance, education, real estate, insurance, IT, corporate management, and various other high-paying, non-offshorable jobs – have subvehiculated the rest of the American labor force.

As with all historical processes, there is a fundamental dynamic of rise and fall going on here. The PMC rose with the US-centered global financial system, and it will fall when the rest of the world abandons that system and dedollarizes (My prediction right now is that the dollar will still be the dominant currency in 2030 but not in 2040).

For most people, the best way to weather a transformation like this – ironic though it may seem – is to join the class that is not presently on the top. In the America of 2040, few people will enjoy the same standard of living that a middle-class American enjoyed at the turn of the century; however, those who are best off will be those who know how to work with their hands, as farmers, carpenters, metallurgists, repairmen, salvage workers, etc. These are the jobs that make up the bulk of the economy in a normal country – i.e. one that is not experiencing a glut of cheap imported goods.

I will now make another attempt at estimating the real purchasing power of today’s dollar, as compared to the dollars of a year ago, or at the turn of the century. This should help highlight the reality of the decline, to any readers who still doubt it. My data are from tradingeconomics.com; the 2000 and 2019 data represent closing prices at the end of December.

Gold         $265/ozt in 2000     $1,517 in 2019           $1,881 today

Copper      85¢ per pound          $2.80                         $3.63

Nickel       $3.51 per pound       $6.98                          $8.71

Brent Oil $26.67 per bbl          $66.39                        $52.28

Corn         $2.09  per bushel     $3.88                         $4.37

Soy            $4.60 per bushel      $9.52                          $12.20

Cotton      61¢ per pound           69¢                             77¢

Lumber   $224 per kbf             $405                           $850

To get from eight sets of data down to one, I used the geometric mean. This is different than the arithmetic mean (i.e. the old-fashioned average) because instead of adding all the numbers together and dividing by eight, I multiplied them all together and took the eighth root.

The advantage of the geometric mean is that I don’t have to decide how much weight to give to each commodity. For example, it doesn’t matter whether I start with an ounce of gold or a ton of gold; if the price of gold doubles, the geometric mean of all the prices will increase by a factor of 1.0905, and the same goes for all of the other commodities. The mean prices are given below:

Geometric Mean            $8.52 in 2000           $19.43 in 2019          $23.96 today

Divide those numbers out, and you will see that a dollar at the end of 2019 was worth 44¢ in 2000’s money, and a dollar today is worth only 36¢.

Now, before I go any further I should note that one effect of measuring purchasing power this way is that economic swingarounds seem much more intense than in a conventional analysis. For example, by my metric (and if you want, you can go on tradingeconomics.com and repeat the calculations yourself), the US dollar lost about three quarters of its value between 2002 and 2012, then jolted back up to half its 2002 value by 2016.

Obviously, the typical American did not experience nearly so intense a swing in his or her cost of living; this is because the processes which take raw materials like corn, oil, copper, and wood, and convert them into things the average American is likely to buy, also spread those costs out over time. Still, over the long term, the one drives the other, so steep and lasting increases in commodity prices are nothing to wink at. (Keep in mind that in 2000, a Whopper at Burger King cost 99¢, as opposed to somewhere around four dollars today).

So as it stands right now, the US dollar has about 0.80 times the purchasing power that it had at the beginning of 2020, and about 0.36 times as much as at the turn of the century. (Officially, the latter figure is 0.66). This puts the present-day US GDP at 76 percent of what it was in 2000, and the per capita GDP at a mere 65 percent of where it stood 20 years ago.

As usual, the decline is being papered over. (Just how many people still believe the official estimates is anybody’s guess – recall that they’re now saying that the 31.4 percent GDP drop in the second quarter of 2020 was completely reversed by a 33.1 percent gain in GDP during the third quarter, even though most of the covid restrictions have yet to be lifted).

 In conclusion: the official reports of an economic recovery (and of net growth over the last two decades) are propaganda. The decline in the real economy of tangible goods is something that America’s politicians can’t even admit exists, let alone confront in a constructive manner, so the gap has to be closed with fabricated numbers.

Eventually, this fiasco will end – what can’t be sustained won’t be sustained – but Americans, especially in the working class, should expect hard times now and in the foreseeable future.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Gerontocracy, Imperial Decline, and Joe Biden’s Palmist

The upcoming decade is not going to be an easy one for America. To begin with, there are the currently ongoing crises: the Covid pandemic, an economy which has been in a state of (mostly papered-over) decline since the 1990s, etc. Then there are black swan events, like the 9/11 attacks – things that happen that nobody could have anticipated.

But there are also the problems that come with being an empire in decline: the ballooning national debt, the deindustrialization of the homeland, the rising income inequality, the breakup of alliances and the strengthening of hostile nations, and so forth.

This all became inevitable way back at the end of the 19th century, when the United States decided to become an empire. Empires – by which I mean nations that militarily occupy a large part of the globe and force other nations to act in the imperial nation’s  economic interests instead of their own – always end in decline and fall. (This is the case whether or not the subject nations are allowed to enjoy nominal independence.)

Lest my dislike of the American Empire and my desire to see it end soon be seen as unpatriotic, I invite you to remember that, within the worldview promoted on this blog, the main losers of the American Empire are the American working class. Earning a living by making tangible goods with your own two hands becomes a lot harder in a country whose unbalanced financial arrangements allow it to import far more goods than it exports. Late-stage empires have little demand for productive labor in the homeland, hence the rise in income inequality and the worsening standard of living which most Americans are experiencing right now.

This is how empire always ends. As the network of subject nations comes unraveled, the imperial core is exposed as an economic backwater, with a rundown industrial plant, weak institutions, fractious domestic politics, corrupt government, and an effete, overprivileged elite who are woefully unequipped to lead during a time of national struggle. Think of Spain in the early twentieth century, or Russia in the 1990s.

The United States is entering such a period right now. This is not to say that you should expect a rapid collapse of our civilization – as with Russia and Spain, this sort of thing will take decades to play out, and will not end with a return to the middle ages.

On the other hand, just because the process is slow doesn’t mean that it can be reversed. The end result, distant though it was, has been inevitable ever since America decided to become an empire back in 1898 (or in 1900, if you consider William Jennings Bryan’s election loss to be the moment that America’s voters ratified what the McKinley Administration was doing in Puerto Rico and the Philippines).

But enough about imperial overreach and imperial decline. I will talk more about that subject in due time. For now, the long and short of it is that the big mistakes were made in the past, the consequences can’t be avoided, and things are going to get worse before they get better. A meaningful response to the crisis has to happen at the level of the individual, family, and community. (That is to say, we should not hang our hopes on national elections or national political parties).

Now for the real topic of this post: the sort of leadership that America can expect to have during the coming crisis. (Did I say that this article was going to involve a palmist? I did. Well, it will, but you’ll have to wait till the end).

The order of topics will be as follows: The Gerontocracy, The Opposition,  and The Palmist.

The Gerontocracy

Joe Biden is going to be America’s oldest-ever president on the day he takes the oath of office. Nancy Pelosi, at age 80, is presently the oldest person ever to be Speaker of the House. Mitch McConnell, at 78, is the oldest Senate Majority Leader. Basically, America is about to achieve a first-ever trifecta of gerontocracy.

Having old people in positions of power is not, on its own, a bad thing, but when a country’s upper leadership structure consists mainly or entirely of decrepit chair-warmers clinging to power until the grim reaper shows up to pry their fingers off of it, something has gone wrong. Whatever you call it – a failure of imagination, an ossification of the elite, etc. – the facts are that the same thing happened with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and, historically speaking, it is a common sign that a nation is in decline.

How will that decline play out? Probably not as dramatically as some people think. The gradual erosion of America’s ability to influence foreign affairs will continue. Future attempts on the part of the United States to regime-change smaller nations will, if tried at all, end in failure. The last remnants of America’s occupying force will be driven out of Syria and Iraq.

Asia and Africa will continue to dedollarize. Severe inflation will reduce the standard of living for most Americans, though the Congressional Budget Office will do its best to make sure that the official figures don’t reflect this reality. Oil will become scarcer as North American deposits run dry and the growing Chinese and Indian economies suck up more of the global supply. The United States’ infrastructure will keep on decaying. Illegal immigration will continue. Crime will go up. And so forth.

And the people who are supposed to be in charge will be old Democrats who can barely stay awake, while policy is being make by their advisors – basically, another collection of Democrats who are younger and woker (in both senses of the word). These people will do their utmost to make sure that every crisis is met with more promotion of white privilege armbands, childhood gender changes, and the like, while loose monetary policy and globalist trade agreements continue to benefit the salaried class at the expense of those who work with their hands. And if you oppose any of this, you will be called a racist.

(Perhaps you still need one more reminder of how bizarre the Left has gotten? If so, then take a look at how they’re calling Tulsi Gabbard a traitor for sponsoring a bill to keep transgendered boys out of girls high school sports. I wonder if they have ever heard of an animal called an “ox?” Oxen are castrated male cattle, used for pulling carts and ploughs because, even with their testicles gone, the males are still much stronger than the females. The same goes for human beings. Mainstream Democrats getting their way will mean that athletes who were actually born female will have no chance at winning much of anything).

The Opposition

Now for a quick rundown on the state of the opposition party. (That’s the Republicans, because Donald Trump lost the election).

The Republican Party’s months-long vacation from this aspect of reality will make it a laughingstock, though it’s hard to say how much this will actually hurt the party. Frankly, the Democrats also do things to make their party a laughingstock, and then they come back and win. American voters do not all have the same taste in laughingstocks, or so it seems.

As an example of some of the insane rhetoric coming from the Right, consider what the conservative Christian radio host Eric Metaxas is saying about people who think the election is over and Biden won. They are, in his words, listening to “the voice of the Devil.” They “might as well spit on the grave of George Washington.” If you aren’t “hopped up about this,” then “you are the Germans that looked the other way when Hitler was preparing to do what he was preparing to do.”

“We need to fight to the death, to the last drop of blood, because it’s worth it.”

This isn’t even the beginning of the craziness. If you want to see more of it (including the part where Metaxas says he is “proudly ignorant” of what evidence, if any, Trump has presented in court to back up his claims), then read this article by Rod Dreher, in which a video of the original interview is embedded. Dreher talks a lot about how he’s worried that Metaxas’ bloviations might lead to violence. Metaxas insists this isn’t the case:

“I know that the lunatics who believe in violence and stuff, they’re going to do that. But I don’t know that it has to happen…”

If you can spend almost a whole hour talking about how your enemies are the equivalent of Hitler and we need to fight them to the death, while insisting that you’re not one of those “lunatics who believe in violence and stuff,” then my conclusion is that (1) whatever point you were trying to make could have been made more clearly without bringing up Hitler, and (2) if somebody like Hitler ever does take power in America, you won’t fight in the resistance. (After all, Biden was a tyrant on the level of Hitler, and you didn’t take up arms against Biden).

Needless to say, we can’t expect the Republican opposition to do much of anything useful so long as its energy is consumed with talking about the election in those terms. And if Donald Trump does what some people are worried he is going to do and announces a 2024 campaign on the day he leaves office, then the whole Republican Party might end up doing just that.

The Palmist

Joe Biden has two dogs, named Champ and Major. He has said that he plans to get a cat when he moves into the White House. (Really, I will get to the palmist before the end of this article, I promise.)

The dogs and the cat are a good move – people are naturally drawn to soft and furry animals, and most Americans either have pets, or would have them if their landlords allowed it. Donald Trump’s failure to get one or more pets when he assumed office was a mistake: as the first president to ever not keep animals in the White House, he made himself seem more cold and distant.

Also, Joe Biden is presently in a walking boot after he broke his foot while playing with his dogs. This is not something that Presidents and soon-to-be Presidents normally do. (It is unclear from the news stories whether he tripped over the dog, or suffered the injury in a less direct manner). Suffice it to say that when he hobbles up the inaugural platform get sworn in, Biden will not be projecting the image of a healthy, alert, and vigorous man.

This is because he isn’t a healthy, alert, and vigorous man. Rather, he is the sort of man who, when he can be bothered to get in front of a microphone at all, says things like the following:

“I'm sure we can, we can prosclaim a palmist, with a palmist who wrote these following words, ‘The Lord is my strength and my shield and with my song, I give thanks to him.’”

Obviously, Biden was not really trying to relate something that he heard while consulting with a palmist. (Consulting fortune-tellers, soothsayers, astrologers, and the like is the purview of serious statesmen, like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Ronald Reagan. Joe Biden is not on the same level).

What happened is that Biden was trying to quote the Book of Psalms, but he no longer has the mental presence to string three coherent words together. (The media’s relative silence on the matter, compared with the wall-to-wall coverage that “Two Corinthians” got five years ago, is rather telling).

A man who can trip over dogs or try to quote the Bible by “prosclaim[ing] a palmist” is going to stumble rather blindly through his four years as America’s nominal chief of state. Just what sort of military or economic trouble he stumbles his way into is anybody’s guess.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Following The President Wherever He Goes

My most recent Twilight Patriot entry has earned a rather unusual distinction. If you go to Google and type (with quotation marks) “A cowardly moron could have wrote this article,” complete with the bad grammar, then you will get exactly one result: Intellectual Conservative’s copy of my post from the week after the election.

Obviously, the quotation isn’t from the text of the article – it’s from the top-rated comment in the comments section. And how did I go about convincing my audience that I was a “cowardly moron?” Why, by saying that Joe Biden had won the election, and that Donald Trump was making a fool of himself by insisting otherwise.

Notice that I did not say the election was free of fraud. (There has never been an election that was completely free of fraud). What I said was that Biden’s margins are big enough that for Trump to change the outcome by proving in court that a sufficient number of Democratic votes are fraudulent – and to do that in at least three states – is not realistically possible. Conclusion: Joe Biden is going to be the next President.

But for a certain faction of the American Right, saying this out loud makes me a “cowardly moron.” Perhaps these are the same people who are threatening to boycott Georgia’s upcoming double senate election in order to punish the GOP for stabbing Trump in the back? (FYI, the outcome of those races is going to decide whether Chuck Schumer or Mitch McConnell will be the man who decides how much of the Biden agenda gets through Congress.)

But for too many people on the Right, politics isn’t about making a level-headed appraisal of reality, and then deciding how to act on it. Rather, their modus operandi is to borrow that line from the New Testament about how the elect will “follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth,” but with the populist leader du jour taking the place of Jesus.

This attitude is downright cultish, and as long as the Republican Party falls for it, Democrats and skeptical moderates alike will have every right to say that Republicans are blowing smoke whenever they claim to be the party of individual liberty and checks and balances and full-grown men and women who can think their own thoughts.

Nothing good can come from the Republicans’ refusal to be realistic about the role that the President is supposed to have in our system of government. He is not America’s CEO. He was not chosen to ‘run the country,’ or even to run his own party. He is one elected official among many. If he tries to lead his party on a flight from reality, then that party’s other elected officials ought to have the courage to say no.

Except that they don’t. When George Bush Jr. said that Saddam Hussein was building nuclear weapons and that invading and occupying Iraq would be a step on the way toward filling the Middle East with flourishing liberal democracies, only one Republican Senator and six Representatives had the courage to say no to his war. Meanwhile most Republicans, especially in the media, kept on defending Bush’s alternate reality years after events had stubbornly refused to accommodate themselves to the narrative.

This wasn’t even the first flight from reality on which Bush had led his party. Back in 2001, he and John Boehner crafted the No Child Left Behind Act on the premise that an elaborate system of federal bureaucratic controls would fix America’s school system – basically, he decided to start peddling an idea that was the exact, reverse opposite of the ideas on which small-government conservatives always run for office.

And the Republicans fell for it! Only 39 out of 263 congressional Republicans had the courage to vote against No Child Left Behind. The consequence was that Bush got to have, as his signature domestic policy enactment, an orgy of government overreach so dysfunctional that Barack Obama, of all people, ended up waiving most of its requirements.

Now let’s go back in time a little further, to when the elder President Bush said that David Souter, if confirmed to the Supreme Court, would be a great conservative judge. Bush had no real reason for believing this, because, in order to avoid a confirmation fight a la Robert Bork, he had intentionally picked a nominee with no record from which anyone might guess at his judicial philosophy.

But even though a lot of Republicans had doubts about Souter’s ideology, none of them had the courage to say no to a Republican President. The result was the near-unanimous confirmation of a leftist Supreme Court justice.

Ronald Reagan did pretty-much the same thing with Sandra Day O’Connor. Actually, what Reagan did was quite a bit worse, because (1) his party had a majority in the Senate at the time, and he could have gotten anybody confirmed, and (2) unlike Souter, whose record was a complete blank, O’Connor had a history of supporting leftist causes, which Reagan had to strain to overlook. The grousing from people like Phyllis Schlafly and Jesse Helms is evidence that movement conservatives knew that they were dealing with a slippery nominee. But at the end of the day, every Senator proved willing to follow Reagan into his fantasy land, and O’Connor was confirmed unanimously.

And this isn’t just a matter of playing follow-the-leader with the President. For far too long, the American Right has embraced an ethos in which loyalty consists of adhering to the narrative even when the narrative doesn’t adhere to the facts. You can see it in the rose-colored glasses through which Republicans view their Presidents; you can also see it in the way that so many otherwise intelligent Republicans are all-in for young-eartherism and climate change denial. Why? Because when holding an irrational belief becomes a marker of tribal affiliation, beliefs stop being checked to see if they fit the evidence.

And then it becomes way too easy to believe ridiculous things – for example, that it is a good idea to refuse to vote in the Georgia Senate runoffs in order to “punish” the GOP for its failure to keep Trump in office after his loss in the 2020 election.

Really, this shouldn’t take a lot of thinking to understand. When looking at a struggle in which your team clearly isn’t winning, and saying “I’m afraid that our team isn’t winning,” is a good way to get called a “cowardly moron,” then there is a simple way to sum up the situation: your team is setting itself up to lose again and again and again.

Donald Trump is not the Republican Party’s commanding officer. He isn’t its sole owner and proprietor, or even its CEO. Nor is he the divinely anointed end-times servant that the people at Liberty University want him to be, or the whitehat anti-puppetmaster extraordinaire that the dorks who follow QAnon insist he is. And Trump isn’t even the most powerful Republican politician right now (that would be Mitch McConnell).

From today until noon on 20 January, Donald Trump is just a citizen who happens to hold an important office.

And it’s the job of other well-meaning American citizens, whether their role in public life is large or small, to be candid about the President’s shortcomings, oppose his flights of fancy when they think there is a good reason to do so, and otherwise behave like citizens of a republic rather than deluded sycophants in a personality cult.

Monday, November 9, 2020

More 2020 Election Notes

One of the consequences of having had a presidential election six days ago is that people in the news are talking about politics slightly more than usual. (Circumstances being what they are, “slightly more than usual” is the only intensifier that makes any sense). I already wrote last week about how I don’t expect Biden’s win to have much practical benefit for Democrats – without the Senate, they can’t enact their agenda, and since the President’s party tends to do badly in midterm elections, there’s no reason to expect them to regain the Senate.

That being said, here are some other things I have noticed over the last few days.

1.      Donald Trump Is Making An Ass Of Himself

President Trump probably went to bed on Tuesday thinking that he was going to win and then woke up the next morning to realize that he wasn’t in the lead anymore. So did a lot of Republicans, including myself. It was a big disappointment.

            Honestly, though, I wouldn’t have guessed that almost a week later he would still be holed up in the White House, munching on an endless train of fast food and attended by only the most sycophantic members of his staff, as he carried on tweeting things like “STOP THE COUNT!” and “I WON BY A LOT!”

            One might be forgiven for thinking that the President has stepped into the role of the evil overlord in a children’s cartoon who spends the final minute or two of the episode pointing to his defeated army and shouting “No! This cannot be! I am invincible!”

             Needless to say, I don’t exactly regard it as beneficial to the Republican cause that Trump has decided to handle his loss this way.

            As for the possibility of Trump reversing the outcome through litigation like he was already threatening to do several weeks before the election? It’s a pipe dream. There is nobody serious who sees a potential repeat of 2000. To begin with, George W. Bush was ahead after the first count of the Florida ballots, and to win, he only needed to get the courts to halt the recounts, which he managed to do after a month of lawsuits. Also, the whole election hinged on just one state – if Bush won Florida, then he would become the next President.

            Trump, on the other hand, will have to flip three or four states in order to come out on top in 2020. And he will have to flip states where Biden won on the first count, by much bigger margins than the 537 votes (.009 percent of the total) that were at issue twenty years ago. There is a big gap between suspicion of fraud – of which there is plenty – and evidence strong enough to get the courts to disqualify two or three percent of the Democratic ballots in multiple states. The latter is not going to happen.

            Honestly, we would all be better off if Trump conceded defeat and then spent the next two months nominating judges, issuing pardons, and doing whatever else an outgoing President usually does during his final days in office. His present course of action just makes him look like a jackass.

2.     We Can Expect More Covid Relief When Spring Comes

Perhaps you remember how, at the end this summer (though it feels like a year ago) Republicans and Democrats talked about how they were going to pass a second Covid relief bill with another round of $1,200 checks for every American, plus other useful spending? Well, they didn’t pass it.

The reason is that the first bill, from back in March, gave people on unemployment insurance an extra $600/month beyond what they were already getting, and beyond the $1,200 one-time payment that went to everybody. The bill was passed in such a hurry that nobody had much time to debate the merits of this provision, but in the second bill, the Republican Senate decided not to reauthorize it.

After all, the Republicans said, people on unemployment insurance are already being paid money to make up for their lack of a job, so why should they get extra money, when so many people who aren’t on unemployment insurance but are still struggling – such as those who only had part time work, or who owned floundering small business – didn’t get anything along the same lines?

Democrats wouldn’t budge. Faced with the choice between $1,200 checks for everyone and ordinary unemployment benefits for the unemployed, versus no relief at all, they went for no relief at all, and went home shouting at the tops of their lungs about how Republicans hate the poor.

They could do that because Donald Trump was the President, and so it was his party, not theirs, that would be held accountable by the electorate for whatever happened. (One of the consequences of having a profoundly ignorant electorate is that it is nearly always in the opposition party’s interests to behave as obstructively as possible).

With Biden as President, the situation will be reversed. The Democrats will now benefit from trying to minimize economic hardship and get America back to normalcy as fast as they can. And most Senate Republicans have enough genuine love of their country to make a serious attempt to work with them.

Also, Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden, despite belonging to opposite parties, have a history of personal friendship. I am genuinely curious to see how far this friendship can get them.

3.     The Georgia Runoffs Are A Complete Mystery

When I wrote my last post, I said that Republicans would end up with 52 or 53 seats in the new Senate (53 turned out to be too optimistic, as Michigan was soon called for the Democrat). At the time, I wasn’t paying any attention to the Georgia runoffs; I had assumed that since Georgia was such a red state, the Republicans would easily win both races in this rare double-special-election.

As it turned out, Georgia this year made a surprise break for Biden. Neither Senate election produced a majority, so one Republican and one Democrat will contest each of them on 5 January. Naturally, Democrats are excited about their chance to get from 48 to 50 Senate seats after all.

There is a simple rule for predicting the outcomes of special elections, and it goes like this: The President’s party gets smashed. Just ask yourself why the Republicans won in Massachusetts in 2010 or the Democrats won in Alabama in 2017. It’s only possible because turnout is very low except among the people who feel like their party is the underdog and that it desperately needs to win in order to resist the tyranny of the incumbent President.

  It has been like this for at least three decades. The only special Senate elections in which the candidate from the President’s party doesn’t get beaten are the ones where an especially strong candidate is running on his party’s home turf, like when Cory Booker won in New Jersey in 2013. Even then, the margins are still smaller than usual.

So if there is such a simple rule to predict special elections, then why am I admitting complete cluelessness about Georgia?

The answer is that at this point, it is impossible to say which party is the President’s party. From a technical standpoint, it will obviously be the Republicans, as Biden won’t be sworn in until 20 January. But will the Democrats still feel like they need to turn out en masse to resist Trump, or will they act like he’s already beaten and let those seats slip away? And will the Republicans turn out en masse to resist Biden?

There are no examples from recent history of a special Senate election held during a transition, so I can’t answer those questions on the basis of experience. Speculation is all we have to go by.

Though if, by the time those elections roll around, Trump still hasn’t admitted that he lost, then the Democrats will be in a stronger position.