Friday, June 24, 2016

Brexit or the wages of frivolous stupidity

What an irony it would be if the Leave vote led the U.K. to break up before the E.U. does. But after a remarkable night and morning, that didn’t seem beyond the bounds of possibility. Very little did. John Cassidy - The New Yorker
British Prime Minister, David Cameron's totally gratuitous decision to convoke a referendum on Britain's remaining in the European Union, Brexit, is a perfectly amazing example of the effects of frivolous stupidity. The rest of us are to be helpless witnesses and perhaps direct victims of his decision for years to come. 
David Cameron, the British prime minister, has no one to blame but himself. In 2013, besieged by the increasingly assertive anti-European Union wing of his own Conservative Party, Mr. Cameron made a promise intended to keep a short-term peace among the Tories before the 2015 general election: If re-elected, he would hold an in-or-out referendum on continued British membership in the bloc. But what seemed then like a relatively low-risk ploy to deal with a short-term political problem has metastasized into an issue that could badly damage Britain’s economy, influence the country’s direction for generations — and determine Mr. Cameron’s political fate.  New York Times
If you like reading history, you'll come across many examples of such frivolity and stupidity doing massive harm to millions of people.  George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq is a textbook example. Millions of people have lost their homes or lives and one of the world's most critical regions is in the process of disintegrating.  

Could Cameron's Brexit have an effect in any way comparable to Bush's opening the gates of hell in the Middle East? 

Knock-on effects are about cascading disasters. The world's economy is still shaky after the crash of 2008 and in today's globalized finance everything is interconnected. How could Brexit set off a chain of disasters?

An example: UK capital, London, is today the world's most important financial center:
London has swapped places with New York to become the world’s leading financial centre, according to a detailed study of 86 cities. Financial Times
It is axiomatic that money hates uncertainty:
One of the only things we can say for sure after the Brexit decision is that the U.K. and Europe are entering a period of great uncertainty. The New Yorker 
It is easy to imagine the knock-on effects of a major disruption of the intricate and intertwined activities of a place where the good and the great of the entire world go to trade currencies, bonds, shares, privileged information, launder and store their money, you name it. 
One likely outcome of negotiations is that banks and financial firms in the City of London will be stripped of their lucrative EU “passports” that allow them to sell services to the rest of the EU. The Guardian
You can't imagine the knock-on effects of disrupting such a place? Think Lehman Brothers just for starters. If one major financial institution starts to unravel, the entire shaky recovery of the world economy could collapse.

Leaving Financial Armageddon behind, the ordinary human effects of  Britain's leaving Europe are worth describing: British young people will now find it difficult to reside or work in EU countries or study in their universities and talented young Europeans will find it difficult to do the same in the UK. This will have significantly negative effects on generations to come.

The future of  Britain's young people is finally the greatest victim of Brexit, but not just the young.

Here is an example of the sort of micro-tragedies that can befall elderly British people here in Spain, where I live. Thousands of British pensioners on retiring have sold their homes in grey and rainy Britain and with their life savings bought homes on the coasts of Sunny Spain, where as members (till now) of the EU, they have a right to residency, socialized medical care and even get to vote in municipal elections. Imagine their distress as they watch all of these rights disappear and even the value of their investment sink.

All this disruption because of what the President of the European Parliament Martin Schultz, calls "a whole continent (being) taken hostage because of an internal fight in the Tory party”. DS

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Muhammad Ali: An American Genius gone to waste

"Boxing is a lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up."

“They don’t look at fighters to have brains. They don’t look at fighters to be businessmen, or human, or intelligent. Fighters are just brutes that come to entertain the rich white people. Beat up on each other and break each other’s noses, and bleed, and show off like two little monkeys for the crowd, killing each other for the crowd. And half the crowd is white. We’re just like two slaves in that ring. The masters get two of us big old black slaves and let us fight it out while they bet: ‘My slave can whup your slave.’ That’s what I see when I see two black people fighting.”

"It's just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up."
Muhammad Ali

What modern athlete, much less one at Ali’s level, has ever talked with such political complexity, ambiguity, or engagement? David Remnick - The New Yorker

Muhammad Ali, a symbol of how racism wastes human potential

If I had to find one example to illustrate how deep racism and social injustice is in America's culture, it would have to be that someone as highly intelligent, brave, resourceful, serious and charismatic, with such a massive power of communication as Muhammad Ali, had to end up semi-illiterate with his brains beaten out in the prize ring... while a second rate, B-picture actor like Ronald Reagan or an immature blockhead like George W. Bush could end up as presidents of the United States or that today someone as weird, mean-spirited and grotesque as Donald Trump could be seriously considered for that job.

"But things are much better today for young African-American men than they were when Ali was a boy growing up in Jim Crow Louisville Kentucky in the 1940s and 50s", you say.

Are they? In the booming economy of the 1950s, Muhammad Ali like many young black people back then grew up in a stable two parent family, with a live-in father, where both parents worked, where his family lived in their own home in a safe, if segregated, neighborhood. How many young black men raised by a single mother in the ghetto neighborhoods of today's USA enjoy those privileges in our present leaky, creaky, drug and gun infested, economy. 

"But what about President Barack Obama?" you reply. To which I would humbly suggest that it is quite different to be raised in Hawaii, where there are practically no African-Americans, than to be raised in Jim-Crow Louisville; quite different to be raised in a prosperous, white, college educated, middle class family and attend an exclusive Hawaiian private school, than to attend a segregated school in Louisville Kentucky... or one on the South Side of Rahm Emanuel's Chicago today, for that matter. 

This is not a criticism of our president, he was fortunate of have his enormous potential recognized early and lovingly nurtured. When that happens, that is the result. Few Americans, white or black... certainly not many African-Americans had that opportunity then or have it now. Ideally, all children should receive that treatment

In short, if you wanted to analyze the dysfunction, injustice and waste of America's human resources, you could begin by meditating upon and answering at length the following riddle. 
Why could George W. Bush graduate with a C-average from Yale and a man who could say, "No Viet Cong ever called me nigger."”, someone who was that intelligent and amply talented enough, who under the right conditions, could have been or done anything, had to have his brains punched out of his head entertaining the "sports fans" he so lucidly described
I think you know why, so do I, but today I'm just too sad to answer that question. DS

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

To Explain Spain: Madrid - 2

To begin with, I have come to believe that simply learning why Madrid is where it is, is the key to understanding thousands of things about Spain, the key to understanding the past, present and future of one of the European Union's most important countries, with deep ties, linguistic, cultural, political and financial to all of the United States of America's southern neighbors.

There are masses of "facts" about Spain on the Internet: just reading what Wikipedia has to say about it could keep you busy for quite awhile. I'm not going regurgitate all of that here. What I'd like to do, within my limited abilities, is to give you some sort of feel for the place, a point of view to take with you before you get immersed in all the multitude of facts and cliches about Spain's culture and history. So if and when you really do begin to study, all that you learn might fall more easily into place.

What do I mean by the "feel" of the place?

When Spanish people who are going to the States ask me what they should see or do there, I tell them that the USA is more or less like it appears in the movies (except there are no subtitles), that American food is the same junk you can get on practically any street corner of the world and that the only thing they can't get from the films or McDonald's is the feeling of America's unbelievable size and distances. What I tell them to do is to spend a week or two in a Greyhound bus crossing "fly over America". The fatigue in their back muscles and the pain in their nether regions, combined with the conversations they will have with their continuously changing and almost always chatty seat mates... while crossing the Great Plains, day after day, will teach them more about America than reading dozens of books, or more correctly, help them make some sense of all that they read.

This, their own private "road movie", will make them "feel" America.

Short of that sort of direct experience of Spain, my readers will have to make do with what follows:

Getting Started

In the first chapter of this series we looked at a map of the population density of Europe, where we saw that the greater part of Spain and nearly all of its center is as sparsely populated as the outback of Sweden or Finland or the forests and western Steppes of Russia... or the Alps.  And we saw that floating in that emptiness, like an asteroid, is a city of over three million people with a population density comparable to London or Paris.

To put that emptiness into physical context, lets look at a relief map of Spain. Madrid being the tiny, red, dot in the middle of it all.
Relief map of Spain - Madrid, the Red Dot in the Middle                   

Looking at the relief map, the sparse population of the center of Spain makes sense, what is hard to understand is why there is this huge city in the middle of what looks like a moonscape. 

Also going there by land is uphill all the way. 

Examine this list of European cities by elevation over sea level.

1-Kruševo, Macedonia 1,350 m (4,430 ft)
2-Andorra la Vella 1,023 m (3,356 ft)
3-Madrid 667 m (2,188 ft)
4-Pristina 652 m (2,139 ft)
5-Sofia 580 m (1,900 ft)
6-Bern 542 m (1,778 ft)
7-Munich 519 m (1,703 ft)
Wikipedia - List of European Cities by Elevation 

Today's Spain is crisscrossed with modern superhighways and high speed trains, but this is a very, very recent development, even as late as the 1970s getting to Madrid from abroad or even from the Spanish periphery by car or even express train... any way except by air was a tedious ordeal.

Imagine during the centuries of Spain's imperial splendor, with no navigable river in sight, what it was like getting to Madrid on horseback, by stage coach or even on foot!

So then, the question arises: why is a city of over three million people and the political, cultural, communication and financial capital of a country of over forty million people and once the capital of one of history's largest empires, so high up in the middle of nowhereDS

(To be continued)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

To explain Spain: Madrid - I

I'm so sick of writing about Donald Trump that I've decided to write about the country where I live, Spain. I usually don't do this in my English language blog, because what knowledge of Spain I may have achieved by now is very long learned and intensely personal, with plenty of "skin in the game", and I would be loathe to do a superficial, touristy travelogue for English speaking day trippers; coyly loaded with bulls and flamenco and tips on where to dine, etc. That sort of thing makes me squirm.

However, I can imagine that I might have some things to say about Spain that someone genuinely curious to learn about one of Europe's oldest and most historically rich and important countries might find useful. 

To begin with, forget about all the classic cliches about Spain, from Bizet to Mérimée to Hemingway, and take a close look at this map:

European population density
You'll notice that most of the center of the Iberian Peninsula has a population density similar to the outback of Sweden or Finland or the forests and western Steppes of Russia... or the Alps... and you see that smack dab in the middle of that vast yellow emptiness on the map, floating like an asteroid, there is a blue star-shaped blob called Madrid (where I live). This is a city with a population of 3.165 million people.

According to the map's legend, the blue color of the blob shows that Madrid has a density of population similar to Paris or London. Spain has a total population of 46.77 million, while France has 66.03 million, Britain 64.1 million and Germany 81.1 million .

More or less one out of every 15 Spaniards lives in the blue blob in the middle of nowhere.

Madrid is not only the largest city in Spain, it is also the political, financial, cultural and communication capital of the country. To put this into an American context, try to imagine if Washington, New York and Los Angeles were all in one city... located somewhere in Montana.

If you now move your attention to the right toward the Mediterranean coast you'll see a large, long and narrow area with a brick-red color similar to most of Germany and the dynamic northern region of Italy around Milan.

At the top of the red patch sits Barcelona, the capital of the Catalonian region of Spain which produces some twenty percent of the Spanish GDP.

So without any knowledge of the history, culture and languages of the blue blob and red patch, separated as they are by a great expanse of yellow, it's easy to imagine the tension that might exist between the blob and the patch.

My next post on Spain will be about why the blue blob got to be where it is. DS

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Obama and Trump... The Hillary Connection

It would be practically impossible to imagine two more different human beings than President Obama and Donald Trump, but it occurred to me that they do have one thing important in common: they both chose to make their move and go for the presidency when their prime opponent was most probably going to be Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Clinton is now viewed unfavorably by 55 percent of the electorate, according to the HuffPost Pollster average, (...) Only 40.2 percent of people view her favorably, according to that average.(...) The historic comparisons are stark. At this point in the 2008 presidential cycle, then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was seen favorably by 62 percent of voters and unfavorably by just 33 percent. (...) In the most recent Gallup poll, released late last month, her unfavorable number was 53 percent versus only 42 percent who saw her favorably. The Hill
Most observers agree that however different they may be in every other way, one thing most successful people have in common is that eye for "the big chance", the instinct to catch an opportunity that perhaps only comes once in a lifetime, and I would argue that both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, if nothing else, share that instinct.

Obama has been a successful president and his only stumbling block to having been an even better one has been his inability to deal with the catastrophic obstructionism of the Tea Party infected, Republican legislators. That was always going to be very difficult, but I would argue that Obama could have been even a more successful president if he had spent a few more years in the Senate, learning the ins and outs of how that institution works and building personal relationships with its key members. But if he had stayed, he probably would never have become president. 

The moment to run against Hillary would have passed.

Donald Trump has been fondling the idea of being President of the United States for the longest time.
Establishment Republicans have watched the rise of Mr. Trump’s presidential bid this year with shock. And yet, Mr. Trump has been telegraphing his presidential ambitions for decades, including when the ever-confident businessman told Oprah Winfrey in 1988 that he would probably win the presidency if he ever competed for it. Wall Street Journal
Seeing an amazingly lackluster Republican field of what the British would call "odds and sods" and waiting for him and at the end of that rainbow... Hillary Rodham Clinton. 

Every fiber of his being must have shouted, "go for it".

We can only hope that he will have less luck with it than Senator Barack Obama did. DS

Friday, May 06, 2016

The Trump voters' message

The Trump voters' message to America and the world could possibly be contained in the two words: "Fuck + You", or then again their message might be described as "nihilism".
Nihilism: a doctrine or belief that conditions in the social organization are so bad as to make destruction desirable for its own sake independent of any constructive program or possibility. Merriam-Webster
I'm sure I'm not alone in not finding Trump interesting, but I have to admit that I am fascinated by the people who are fascinated by Trump.

When you come down to it, what is truly amazing is that Trump's speech is so contradictory as to be utterly meaningless... and that is the message and the key to his success. The only constant is his aggressiveness, his offensiveness. 

Nate Silver, one of America's most insightful political analysts, who admits having constantly "misunderestimated" the Donald, in analyzing his own puzzlement, sums up the heart of Trump's success.
Trump’s main differentiator was doubling down on cultural grievance: grievances against immigrants, against Muslims, against political correctness, against the media, and sometimes against black people and women. And the strategy worked. Nate Silver - FiveThirtyEight
Who is moved by this? Who is it working for? Where will it lead?

I know I shouldn't quote myself, but a couple of months ago I wrote:
We are looking at exasperated, paranoiac, xenophobic, racist nastiness, in short a fascistic mentality of crippled personalities in reaction to changing mores and a failing economy. All the unhappiness and frustration are searching for moral absolutes. Moral absolutes are what allow people to kill each other... if only in their imagination. All this hateful speech and dippy ideas are pregnant with death, they are about to give birth to a monster, but the Republicans are only the midwives... They are helpless in the face of the spirits they have invoked from the country's inner darkness. It is that darkness not any individual like Trump that should worry us, something very, very nasty is cooking in it.
In short I'm saying that if Donald Trump is not the genuine old Nick, could he be some sort of dark mirror "John the Baptist" for the very Devil himself? 

That what is really important is not Trump himself but the forces he invokes.

But returning to the present, aside from Trump's aggressiveness his only other constant is "making deals". At this he is an acknowledged master

Something that has been rolling around my mind for some time. Does he really want to be President of the United States or is he putting together the deal to end all deals?

For at this moment, for a deal maker, the Donald is in a very sweet if dangerous spot. 

Back in February I wrote:
Lets look at what's on the table. 
The Republican Party controls both houses of Congress... for the moment, and a Supreme Court that could mark the ideological slant for a generation is up for grabs. 
If Trump runs as either the Republican candidate or as an independent, all poll projections predict an Armageddon for the Republicans, with not only the loss of the presidency, but loss of majorities in both houses  of Congress, perhaps even in state houses too. 
Has the moment finally come for doing a "deal"?
It seems to me that Donald Trump is now holding the family jewels of some of the most powerful people in the world in his tiny warm hands and is squeezing them rather hard. We are talking about a political party that now controls both houses of Congress and represents the interests of the top 0.01% of the American economy. What laws could they write for him (which I'm sure Obama, as a patriot, would be quick to sign)? Or how much would, say the Koch brothers, or all the conservative super-PACs, be willing to cough up to kiss him goodbye 
The shape of a deal?
What are the Republicans still in a position to offer Donald Trump between now and the convention, something which would be more attractive for him than losing the presidential race by a historic margin and destroying the Republican Party in the process... in which case they could give him nothing?
I should have said "in which case they could give him the same medicine as was given to Jimmy Hoffa". 

Donald Trump has already made some of the most powerful people in America his blood enemies in exchange for what seems to be a slim chance of winning the White House.  

Is he insane? 

Is he not insane? 

I admit I don't know which of the two is the worse alternative. DS

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Nightmare of Clinton versus Trump: Hillary is not a shoo in

Is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse?   
"The River" - Bruce Springsteen 

The failure of the economy to deliver real progress to middle-class and working-class Americans over the past 15 years is the most fundamental source of public anger and disaffection in the US.  BBC News 
Forty years of hurt has driven some people to answer Springsteen's question, that the American dream is something worse than a lie, and from that bleak answer they are looking for a political leader who echoes their anger. So my answer to presenters' questions whether Trump can win, is now and was before the primaries started: "Yes."  Michael Goldfarb - BBC

As of Today

In this the strangest of presidential election years, a poorly flushed Donald Trump pops up out of the backed up drains of the American psyche and the only thing standing between him and the Republican nomination is Senator Ted Cruz, who could pass as Boris Karloff's baby brother. 

Republican debate has now moved from the size of Mr Trump's penis to whether the evangelical Mr Cruz sleeps around. And this, far from hurting Trump, is fattening his lead in the polls
Mr Trump has succeeded in breaking down the boundaries of political debate. He has drained all civility from politics and licensed a discourse that elides bigotry with patriotism, is derisive of women, scornful of minorities and permissive of racism. The Republican primaries have become a contest in which it is acceptable to throw a punch at those who happen to disagree, to threaten to muzzle the freedom of the press and to make jokes about those with disabilities. Mr Trump has tossed overboard any idea that politics and public service can serve a moral purpose. Philip Stephens - Financial Times
If The Donald wins the nomination, which as of today, seems probable, he will, unless a kind providence intervenes, end up facing the most soiled politician in America... except for her husband, of course: Hillary Clinton.

For no one, not even Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, has objectively done more to turn Bruce Springsteen's dream into a lie than the Clintons.

Here is how Thomas Frank lays it out:

Ukraine is considered the most corrupt nation in Europe

After the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000, the corporate scandals of the Enron period, and the collapse of the real estate racket, our view of the prosperous Nineties has changed quite a bit. Now we remember that it was Bill Clinton’s administration that deregulated derivatives, that deregulated telecom, and that put our country’s only strong banking laws in the grave. He’s the one who rammed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) through Congress and who taught the world that the way you respond to a recession is by paying off the federal deficit. Mass incarceration and the repeal of welfare, two of Clinton’s other major achievements, are the pillars of the disciplinary state that has made life so miserable for Americans in the lower reaches of society. He would have put a huge dent in Social Security, too, had the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal not stopped him. If we take inequality as our measure, the Clinton administration looks not heroic but odious. Thomas Frank - Salon

The Skinny
Assuming, as now appears most likely, that Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination and that either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz becomes the Republican nominee, the general-election ballot is set to feature a choice between two candidates more negatively viewed than any major-party nominee in the history of polling. Ruth Marcus - Washington Post
The only thing standing between such a nightmare choice for American voters is Bernie Sanders.

No two human beings could be more different than Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump and the most fundamental difference between them is that Trump is a very bad man and Bernie is a very good man,

However what they both have in common is that their campaigns are both propelled by the passionate anger that so many Americans feel at the failure of the "American Dream" and their mounting distrust of the "Establishment", Wall Street, the media and of course the government itself.

Hillary Clinton's basic problem is that no one incarnates that Establishment so much as she does.

If it's Hillary versus Trump, America and a watching world will be treated to probably the dirtiest, most depressing campaign imaginable and with the probable, massive abstention of grossed out voters of both the left and traditional conservatives too and therefore with a result infinitely more unpredictable than anyone can now imagine.

However if Bernie Sanders manages to pull off an upset and the race is between him and Trump, the world will be treated to an all-American, Hollywood-esque spectacle of good versus evil, Batman pitted against The Joker, Saint George kicking the dragon's ass.

Not only would it change America and the world, it would be tremendous fun.

Probably the most fascinating, indeed endearing thing about the USA is the "let it all hang out" transparency of such a huge beast. What is missing today, unfortunately, is someone like Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis or Norman Mailer to write about all of this. DS