Shock fatigue

Vox‘s Matthew Yglesias suggests that we’ve become exhausted by Donald Trump’s “shocking” utterances. He writes:

It’s a Trump story. And it’s about whether we, and the American public, are willing to stay shocked. We’re used to Trump’s lying and his nonsense because we’ve been hearing it for a long time. But it’s not normal. Candidates are supposed to want to demonstrate progressively growing mastery of the issues over time. They are supposed to learn and show humility and deference to experts. Trump just doesn’t.

There is absolutely nothing normal about Trump. My fear, and it’s one shared by Yglesias, is that so many Americans blindly and enthusiastically praise the shocks and will mark their ballots for the crazy one.

Disastrous war

John Chilcot produced his report on the British government’s decision to go to war in and against Iraq. The conclusion couldn’t have been clearer: there was absolutely no legitimate reason to attack and invade Iraq. Moreover, the consequences of the fateful action were entirely foreseeable.

Writing for the London Review of Books, Philippe Sands summarizes the report’s contents and offers a running commentary. Sands:

Chilcot portrayed the Iraq War as a total failure of government. Two hundred British troops had been killed and many more were injured; 150,000 Iraqis had been killed ‘and probably many more – most of them civilians’; and more than a million people had been displaced. Lives were ruined; Islamic State has emerged in the aftermath, and Britain has been diminished.

Tony Blair, then prime minister, pledged his support for “whatever” George W. Bush decided. And “the decider” had made up his mind not long after 9/11 to go after Saddam Hussein, despite no evidence that Hussein had anything to do with the attacks of that day. During the interim between the decision and launching the war, Bush and Blair busied themselves with justifying their action.

Sands suggests that Blair’s complicity may have its own personal consequences.

Later that afternoon a defiant Tony Blair took to the airwaves. Chilcot had spoken for 25 minutes; Blair spoke for nearly two hours. Not for him the apology of his deputy, John Prescott, who wrote in the Sunday Mirror that, in view of the report, he now believed the war was ‘catastrophic’ and ‘illegal’. Blair instead defended himself, saying he’d take ‘the same decision’ again. This unhappy intervention will not do him any favours. It makes it more likely he will be pursued, perhaps for contempt of Parliament, or by civil claims, or claims of misfeasance in public office. He might even face worse, a possibility raised in the resignation letter tendered in 2003 by the Foreign Office legal adviser Elizabeth Wilmshurst, whose position has been vindicated by the inquiry:

I regret that I cannot agree that it is lawful to use force without a second Security Council resolution … I cannot in conscience go along with advice within the Office or to the public or Parliament – which asserts the legitimacy of military action without such a resolution, particularly since an unlawful use of force on such a scale amounts to the crime of aggression; nor can I agree with such action in circumstances which are so detrimental to the international order and the rule of law.

Reputation theory and war

Many, if not most, of the wars fought and being fought have their basis in “credibility.” If the U.S. fails to take action against a putative aggressor, then the U.S. ceases to have credibility. And it seems that credibility trumps all other rationales for military intervention.

But upholding one’s “reputation” as a credible corrector of international mayhem turns out to be a false doctrine. Vox‘s Max Fisher reports.

If you have experienced even a few minutes of cable news coverage or handful of newspaper op-eds on American foreign policy, there is a word you will have encountered over and over again: credibility.

The United States, according to this theory, has to follow through on every threat and confront every adversary in order to maintain America’s global credibility. If it fails to stand up to challengers in one place, then they will rise up everywhere, and America will see its global standing, and thus its power in the world, crumble.

But there is a problem with this theory of credibility: It does not appear to be real. Political scientists have investigated this theory over and over, and have repeatedly disproven it.


Writing for The Nation, Joshua Holland reports on the motivations of ISIS bombers. Religion is certainly part of it. But most of the rationale for killing, often via suicide, is a reaction to actual and perceived oppression. He writes:

ISIS emerged from the insurgency against the US occupation of Iraq just as the Al Qaeda network traces its origins to the Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.

If you believe in causal chains, then we have to point the finger at G.W. Bush and his merry band of neocons, most notably Dick Cheney, for creating the conditions that led to ISIS.

As Sir Isaac used to say, for every action there is an equal, opposite reaction. We can call it “blowback.”



Oh, there’s money

I have read estimates of $8 trillion for the aggregate economic losses caused by the 2008 financial collapse. You will remember. Bigwigs at a bunch of very large banks conspired with bond-rating agencies and mortgage companies to extract billions of dollars from American citizens pursuing the American Dream. In the aftermath of the crisis, people lost their homes, jobs, pensions, and savings accounts. But special people, those who run the aforementioned large banks, received enough government bailout money to restore their balance sheets, lavishly line their own pockets, and resume their status as “too-big-to-fail.”

In its wisdom, the government also decided that austerity was the right elixir for the Rest of Us. Federal spending was cut dramatically and states followed suit. Essentially, America’s public infrastructure was allowed to crumble. Can’t afford to address homelessness, poverty, education, transportation, environmental protection, and so on—or so we were told.

But we may forget just how much money the U.S. “invested” in Middle East military excursions. This from Tariq Ali, writing for The London Review of Books:

Joseph Stiglitz (a Corbyn adviser on the economy) and Linda Bilmes have argued that America’s spending on wars since 2003, estimated now at nearly $8 trillion, is crippling the country. ‘A trillion dollars,’ they note,

could have built eight million additional housing units, could have hired some 15 million additional public school teachers for one year; could have paid for 120 million children to attend a year of Head Start; or insured 530 million children for healthcare for one year; or provided 43 million students with four-year scholarships at public universities. Now multiply those numbers by three.

As I said at the outset, there is money. Lots of it. Just not for you and me.

Inflation ghosts, Republicans, and depression

Many economists, who should know better, have predicted rising, if not runaway, inflation since the Great Recession. They sounded the alarms with Obama’s stimulus package, the Feds keeping rates near zero, and the expansion of the money supply. Yet, despite their fear-mongering, the consumer price index has barely budged from year to year.

Given the steady drumbeat by inflationistas the Federal Reserve finally capitulated late last year, raising interest rates. The Fed did so because its committee members believed that unemployment had sufficiently decreased while economic output continued to rise, albeit modestly. Several prominent economists disagreed with the Fed’s action, including Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, and Larry Summers. They believe that low inflation, depressed wages, declining labor force participation rates, and a sluggish GDP argue against raising interest rates.

Let’s look at two metrics: annual change in CPI and the civilian labor force participation rate.

cpi and labor force participation

Labor force participation rates rose steadily from the mid-60s to the end of Bill Clinton’s presidential terms. Inflation also rose, until peaking in 1980. The rate then fell sharply, and has remained far below five percent from 1990 onwards, even landing in negative territory during the Great Recession.

Republican orthodoxy views inflation as Enemy Number One. Conservative ideology equates the federal budget with those of individual households. Debt is therefore bad, regardless of circumstances; governments should never spend more than they receive. This stubbornness prevents a Keynesian solution, which is to stimulate consumer demand via government expenditures.

Way back in the 1930s Keynes argued that in a depressed economy only the central government could be effective. Private industry will not invest if consumers lack the means to buy goods and services. For Keynes, the more depressed the economy the greater the stimulus warranted. As it happened following the Great Depression, it took a world war and its associated massive federal spending to finally spur the economy.

Some economists hold that the central government should have acted more robustly in response to the Great Recession. While almost all economists agree that the stimulus package prevented worse damage, it was hardly sufficient to restore economic vitality. That so many people are still out of work, underemployed, or trying to live on stagnant wages attests to fundamental problems with the economy, which continues to sputter.

real gdp since 1980

As for government spending, there has been no better time than over the last decade to invest in public goods, those things that the private sector can’t or won’t provide. Among these are transportation and common schools. The tragedy of such neglect is that those investments would have enabled the economy to grow faster and sustainably for decades to come.

transportation spending

We note the effect of the stimulus package, that blip in 2012. But then spending contracted. The added shame is that during this time from 2008 money has been very cheap, given the near-zero interest rates. Also, for every dollar the government spends, there is a great-than-one return on the investment (Keynesian multiplier).

I’ve said previously that the Republican Party is injurious to all of us. It stands in the way of progress, its defining characteristic. And that progress would be improved lives for all and not just the top one percent.

This vision of a better world is not simply pie-in-the-sky thinking. We know that other countries have ventured much closer to realizing more equitable and just societies than America’s.

Repeating failure

First Saddam Hussein. Then Gaddafi. Now Assad. Regarding each of these Middle Eastern leaders, U.S. presidents have argued that they must go. After Hussein was ousted then lynched, Iraq descended into chaos. In the wake of Gaddafi’s ouster, Libya divided into fractious disharmony. Now President Obama insists that Syria’s Assad be gone as a condition for any negotiated settlements.

Russia’s Putin, however, counters that eliminating Assad will lead to even greater regional instability. So, Russia has acted to sustain Assad’s regime, however detestable its policies.

Seymour M. Hersh, writing (paywall) for the London Review of Books, suggests that people within the U.S. government, including the military, object to Obama’s position and, in effect, support Putin’s view. Indeed, U.S. military operatives are assisting Assad with intelligence and indirect arms. Hersh writes:

In July 2013, the Joint Chiefs found a more direct way of demonstrating to Assad how serious they were about helping him. By then the CIA-sponsored secret flow of arms from Libya to the Syrian opposition, via Turkey, had been underway for more than a year (it started sometime after Gaddafi’s death on 20 October 2011). The operation was largely run out of a covert CIA annex in Benghazi, with State Department acquiescence. On 11 September 2012 the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was killed during an anti-American demonstration that led to the burning down of the US consulate in Benghazi; reporters for the Washington Postfound copies of the ambassador’s schedule in the building’s ruins. It showed that on 10 September Stevens had met with the chief of the CIA’s annex operation. The next day, shortly before he died, he met a representative from Al-Marfa Shipping and Maritime Services, a Tripoli-based company which, the JCS adviser said, was known by the Joint Staff to be handling the weapons shipments.

But, Obama refuses to budge. He insists on Assad’s departure and resists cooperating with Putin.

Hersh quotes Tulsi Gabbard, Democratic representative from Hawaii, who served with the U.S. Army National Guard in the Middle East:

‘The things that are being said about Assad right now,’ Gabbard responded, ‘are the same that were said about Gaddafi, they are the same things that were said about Saddam Hussein by those who were advocating for the US to … overthrow those regimes … If it happens here in Syria … we will end up in a situation with far greater suffering, with far greater persecution of religious minorities and Christians in Syria, and our enemy will be far stronger.’