Trump is a virus, and mainstream media are the host

Insightful piece in The Atlantic:

The most recent controversy provides the perfect metaphor for Trump’s part-symbiotic, part-parasitic relationship with the media: infection. In epidemiology, a virus cannot multiply on its own. First, it must find a host, whose cellular machinery it commandeers to reproduce. For a virus, all distribution—all amplification—is infection.

So it is for Trump. The president’s conspiratorial language is an odious virus that has found a variety of hosts in the U.S. media ecosystem. The traditional news media amplify his words for a variety of reasons, including newsworthiness (he is, after all, the president), easy ratings (cable-news audiences have soared in his term), and old-fashioned peer pressure (the segment producer’s lament: “If everybody else is carrying Trump, shouldn’t we?”).

But a virus doesn’t just borrow a host’s cellular factory to reproduce; it often destroys the host in the process. So, too, does the president seek to destroy the traditional news media that have often amplified his messages…

So why do editors publish headlines which essentially just paraphrase Trump’s tweets? Especially when they know that most readers only read (and remember) the headline.

Neoliberal overreach

Simon Wren-Lewis on Osborne & Co:

You do not need experts, or you are only interested in experts who are one of us, because you have an ideology to guide you to the truth, or you are suspicious of any expertise that does not share your ideology. One of us is one who shares an ideology, in this case the ideology of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism wants as much as possible to be organised as a market. If that includes democracy itself (democracy is just a market for votes) then there is nothing preventing you employing all the tricks of advertising, preferably not encumbered by any regulators. Politics becomes the art of selling, rather than the assessment of policy.

Why do I call the period after 2010 in the US and UK neoliberal overreach, as opposed to straight neoliberalism in the 1980s? After all there are some similarities in the UK between the two periods. Both Osborne and Thatcher started their terms in government with economic experiments that went against received economic wisdom. Both tried austerity (a fiscal contraction in a recession). I don’t want to minimise the harm Thatcher did to parts of the country, but her austerity was temporary [2] and the monetarist experiment was quickly abandoned, with the result that the recovery was only delayed by a year or two and the economy in aggregate eventually recovered in the true sense of the term. In contrast the slow recovery in the UK, US and Europe since 2010 seems to have had permanent and large negative effects. An interesting question is how much this difference between the two periods in the UK reflects different degrees of control over the media.

But the main reason I call what happened after 2010 overreach is that the neoliberalism of both Reagan and Thatcher was in many ways popular, and so there was less need to dress policies up as something they were not. In 2010 there was no popular demand for a reduction in the size of the state, so it required a form of subterfuge: what I call deficit deceit. Tight targets for immigration made no sense for neoliberals who wanted to reduce red tape for firms, but it was useful as a way to deflect anger over austerity and win votes.

A better way to describe Brexit than heart over head is the triumph of ideology over knowledge. Neoliberalism isn’t the only ideology behind Brexit. There are elements of English nationalism that William Davies discusses in his piece noted above and Anthony Barnett discusses so well in the Lure of Greatness. But the disinterest in facts or experts and the absence of shame in telling whatever lie is required to get what they want is very much part of what I call neoliberal overreach. To those to whom evidence based policy is natural they appear fools, but they know exactly what they are doing and in terms of deception they are rather good at it.

Trump on democracy

From the New Yorker:

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—Calling for an “immediate end” to the recount in Florida, Donald J. Trump warned on Monday that it could set a dangerous precedent of the person with the most votes winning.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Trump said that those in favor of the recount had a “sick obsession with finding out which candidate got the most votes.”

“Democrats are going on and on about counting every last vote until they find out who got the most,” Trump said. “Since when does getting the most votes mean you win?”

Trump said that, if the recounts are allowed to proceed, “We could be looking at a very bad, very sad situation where to be considered legitimately elected you have to get more votes than the other candidate.”

Just for the avoidance of doubt, this is a satirical piece.

Poverty is a political choice — and guess who made it?

From this morning’s Guardian

The UK government has inflicted “great misery” on its people with “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” austerity policies driven by a political desire to undertake social re-engineering rather than economic necessity, the United Nations poverty envoy has found.

Philip Alston, the UN’s rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, ended a two-week fact-finding mission to the UK with a stinging declaration that levels of child poverty were “not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster”, even though the UK is the world’s fifth largest economy,

About 14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty and 1.5 million are destitute, being unable to afford basic essentials, he said, citing figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. He highlighted predictions that child poverty could rise by 7% between 2015 and 2022, possibly up to a rate of 40%.

“It is patently unjust and contrary to British values that so many people are living in poverty,” he said, adding that compassion had been abandoned during almost a decade of austerity policies that had been so profound that key elements of the postwar social contract, devised by William Beveridge more than 70 years ago, had been swept away.

Yep. Now, two questions:

Q1: Who was the author of the “social engineering” mentioned in the first paragraph?

A: Why, none other than George ‘Oik’ Osborne, whose main aim in life was to “shrink the state”.

Q2: Of which political party was he a leading member?

A: The Conservative and Unionist party — aka the Tories.


From David Remnick, writing in the New Yorker:

Speaking to the Daily Caller, a right-wing Web site, Trump declared, without a crumb of proof, that the reason for the Republican losses in the election last week was people dressing up in disguises. Seriously. “The Republicans don’t win and that’s because of potentially illegal votes, which is what I’ve been saying for a long time,” Trump said. “I’ve had friends talk about it when people get in line that have absolutely no right to vote and they go around in circles. Sometimes they go to their car, put on a different hat, put on a different shirt, come in and vote again.”

The headline over the piece is “The case for optimism”. Oh yeah?

Good news?

Well, well. Maybe we’re — finally — making progress. This from Recode:

Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and other top Facebook leaders should get ready for increased scrutiny after a damning new investigation shed light on how they stalled, stumbled and plotted through a series of crises over the last two years, including Russian meddling, data sharing and hate speech. The question now: Who does Facebook fire in the aftermath of these revelations? Meanwhile, the difficult past year has taken a toll on employee morale: An internal survey shows that only 52 percent of Facebook staff are optimistic about its future, down from 84 percent of employees last year. It might already be time for a new survey.


… something on which I can agree with Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson:

Theresa May’s government faces becoming the first to suffer a defeat on its own budget bill in 40 years after Tory MPs including Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson and David Davis joined a rebellion over fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs).

More than 70 MPs from both sides of the House of Commons have signed two amendments designed to force the government to bring forward the timing of the planned cut in FOBT maximum stakes to April 2019.

Tracey Crouch resigned as sports minister this month after the chancellor, Philip Hammond, revealed in the budget that the policy would not take effect until October 2019.

These machines are one of the most pernicious devices ever devised for parting poor people from their money. They ought to have been illegal from the outset. It was a scandal that it took the government as long as it did to propose a palliative remedy — to reduce the maximum stake that people could wager. And then the industry — furious at the loss of its cash-cow — ambushed the Treasury with a ‘report’ that persuaded the Chancellor to delay the introduction of the new regulation. If you wanted an indictment of neoliberal governance, then this was/is a pretty good example.

Our new bi-polar world

This morning’s Observer column:

What the Chinese have discovered, in other words, is that digital technology – which we once naively believed would be a force for democratisation – is also a perfect tool for social control. It’s the operating system for networked authoritarianism. Last month, James O’Malley, a British journalist, was travelling on the Beijing-Shanghai bullet train when his reverie was interrupted by this announcement: “Dear passengers, people who travel without a ticket, or behave disorderly, or smoke in public areas, will be punished according to regulations and the behaviour will be recorded in individual credit information system. To avoid a negative record of personal credit please follow the relevant regulations and help with the orders on the train and at the station.” Makes you nostalgic for those announcements about “arriving at King’s Cross, where this train terminates”, doesn’t it?

Read on

Robert Mueller’s new boss

From Jack Shafer:

After treating Attorney General Jeff Sessions 10 times worse than one of his wives he had grown tired of, President Donald Trump finally jettisoned the Alabaman this week for Matthew G. Whitaker, a marginally talented former U.S. attorney from Iowa who thinks candidates for judgeships should be asked if they are “people of faith” with a “biblical view of justice.” He makes Steve Bannon look like Adlai Stevenson. Like Bannon, his highest qualification for serving the president as the nation’s top cop is his skill at slathering Trump with his fawning and bootlicking. As acting attorney general, Whitaker will now exercise oversight over special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation, an undertaking he has called a “lynch mob.” In 2017, Whitaker claimed not a “single fact” showed there was any evidence of foreign interference in the 2016 election. He also suggested on CNN that year that Mueller’s team could be throttled by cutting the budget “so low that his investigations grinds to almost a halt.”

Brexit is Suez 2.0

For me the most striking phrase in Jo Johnson’s admirable resignation statement was this:

“To present the nation with a choice between two deeply unattractive outcomes, vassalage and chaos, is a failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis.”

Suez is the right historical analogy. The only problem is that I suspect most British voters under 60 won’t have a clue about what it means. Which is a pity. The crisis stemmed from the response of the UK government, then led by Anthony Eden, to the nationalisation of the Suez Canal by Colonel Nasser, the leader of the military putsch which had taken control of the Egyptian state. Eden — with the vociferous support of his (Conservative) party, British newspapers and much of public opinion — saw this as a direct challenge to British interests in the Middle East. Accordingly, Eden embarked on a plan to launch an invasion of Egypt in collusion with the French (joint-owners of the canal) — and the Israelis. Since Eden knew that the US government — then led by President Eisenhower, whose wartime experience had led him to be sceptical about the Imperial delusions of his British allies — would not approve such unilateral action, all of the planning was done in secret.

The basic idea was that the Israelis (who had their own problems with Nasser) would invade Egypt, after which Britain and France would intervene to ‘restore’ order (and of course deal with the Nasser ‘problem’). It was, in a way, gunboat diplomacy in the time-honoured imperialist tradition, fuelled by hysterical references to the 1938 Munich crisis when the British had failed to “stand up to” Hitler.

On October 26 1956, the Israelis attacked. On October 30 Britain and France — which had assembled a larger invasion force and a huge number of fighter and bombers in British bases in Cyprus — sent ultimatums to Israel and Egypt. By November 1, most of Nasser’s air force had been destroyed. On November 5 British troops landed near Port Said. As the reality of getting seriously involved in a Middle Eastern war dawned on the British public, enthusiasm for the venture rapidly cooled. And while all of this was going on, the USSR found the international furore surrounding Eden’s action a convenient Western distraction as its forces invaded Hungary and crushed the democratic uprising that was under way there. As the then US Vice-President, Richard Nixon, later observed, “”We couldn’t on one hand, complain about the Soviets intervening in Hungary and, on the other hand, approve of the British and the French picking that particular time to intervene against Nasser”. Beyond that, it was Eisenhower’s belief that if the United States were seen to acquiesce in the attack on Egypt the resulting backlash in the Arab world might win the Arabs over to the Soviet Union.

So the Americans pulled the plug on the Brits. Following on the precipitous fall in the value of sterling (the Bank of England had lost $45 million between 30 October and 2 November in attempting to shore up the currency), the US piled on the pressure. Britain — which was running out of oil because of the closure of the canal (Nasser had blocked it by bombing ships that were in transit) — applied to the IMF for help, which was refused. Eisenhower instructed the US Treasury to prepare to sell part of the US Government’s Sterling Bond holdings. It rapidly became clear to those in London that Britain’s foreign exchange reserves could not prevent the devaluation of the pound that would follow such action and that the country would rapidly find itself unable to import the food and energy supplies needed to sustain the population. An existential crisis loomed, and the British caved in. Eden resigned (on ‘health’ grounds) and was succeeded by Harold Macmillan, who was the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time of the invasion, and probably had his own reasons for keeping the Americans informed about what was going on.

The Suez adventure was an epochal event that was widely seen in some parts of British society as a humiliation. But to detached observers it was the moment when it became clear that a UK that had been exhausted and effectively bankrupted by WW2 was no longer a global power. To believe otherwise would be delusional. Which is why from that moment onwards, the UK never did anything adventurous in a military or diplomatic sense without the explicit approval of the US. However, in some sections of the British establishment — not to mention in its tabloid media and in the psyche of many of its older citizens — subliminal imperial delusions lingered.

Which brings us to Brexit. This is — as Jo Johnson implies — another Suez moment. One of the (many) astonishing aspects of the Referendum campaign was that the question of the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland was never mentioned, despite the fact that — in the event of a decision by the UK to leave — that border would automatically become the western frontier of the EU (and therefore, of the Single Market). When the realisation dawned on people after the vote that there might be a problem here — given that an open, frictionless border had been an integral part of the Good Friday Agreement guaranteed by Ireland and the UK — the old imperial delusions returned. It was surely inconceivable, the Brexiteers fumed, that a puny state like the Irish Republic (which was determined not to return to a hard border) could be allowed to frustrate the will of the great British nation. One Brexiteer (I think it was Boris Johnson) even said that it would probably be a good idea for the Republic to leave the EU at the same time as the UK. And it was likewise seen as inconceivable that the EU would, in the end, allow such a piffling matter to get in the way of an agreement with the mighty UK.

Now, however, the penny has dropped: people in the UK are beginning to realise that this cavalier disregard of the ‘Irish problem’ was in fact another manifestation of imperial delusion. As the Financial Times columnist Robert Shrimsley pointed out the other day, the Irish government has from the outset played a smarter game than its UK counterpart. It made sure from Day One that the issue of the border would be one of the EU’s ‘red lines’. And so the UK’s failure to get the EU to budge on the issue — and Theresa May’s need to fudge the ‘backstop’ issue — provides a salutary estimate of Britain’s reduced role in the world. The EU is, in its way, an economic superpower; the UK is just another country — albeit one that once happened to have an empire. The experience vividly illustrates what the balance of power will be when an ‘independent’ UK has to negotiate with Trump’s US or other trading blocs.

The UK will continue to be a significant country and a sizeable economy. But a global power it ain’t any longer. So Jo Johnson is right — this is Suez 2.0. The main difference is that Theresa May is not Anthony Eden, who really was delusional about the extent of British power. May is just (as David Runciman once observed) a conscientious Head Girl doing her best to carry out a set of impossible instructions. But, in the end, she will go the same way as Eden. All political careers, as Enoch Powell used to say, end in failure.