Torpedoing Trump

My news-watching habits have changed a lot during this election cycle. I’ve dropped my NY Times subscription, and I’ve stopped paying much attention to evening news, Meet the Press, Face the Nation or This Week. I’ve been watching Democracy Now! for almost fifteen years, but now DN and The Young Turks have become my primary sources, along with progressive sites like Truthdig, Common Dreams and Counterpunch.

I’ve been criticizing Clinton and the mainstream press so much that a lot of my Facebook friends probably think I’m pulling for Trump. Actually I’m appalled that the establishment media is so openly in the bag for the establishment candidate. It was fairly clear that most of the media, including so-called new media, sandbagged Bernie Sanders, declaring the race over long before it was over; now, there is no doubt that they are doing their best to torpedo Donald Trump. He certainly deserves scrutiny, but all pretense of objectivity has vanished and the election coverage has become strictly a matter of competing identity politics.

Richard King discusses some of the reasons in a persuasive article, MEDIA CULPA: JOURNALISTS TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR TRUMP, MANAGE TO MISS THE POINT which he has posted to 3 Quarks Daily:

To observe the rather pompous way that certain newspapers and magazines have broken with their traditional “neutrality” by endorsing Clinton or disendorsing Trump is to see this ideology in action. The implication is that a careful poise of detached objectivity has been momentarily abandoned in order to meet a political crisis the like of which the US has never seen. But there is a difference between “objectivity” and merely acting as the referee between two kinds of conservatism: the Democratic kind and the Republican kind.

King pokes fun at media “self-aggrandizement” but skips over the point that establishment media is going to bat for the establishment candidate. And like the mainstream media, King dismisses Trump’s politics as, “protectionist, parochial, paranoid.” Yes, many of his supporters are protectionist, and yes, they are parochial, but as the joke goes, they aren’t paranoid if someone really is out to get them. America’s hinterland economies have been sold out by the oligarchy in a way that the coastal and urban elites have (so far) avoided. Whether you like them or not, America’s white middle class electorate is actually staring into deep decline, and no longer expect any help from establishment government.

You don’t have to be a Trump supporter to wonder who will get sold out next.

Update: Alternet warns, We Are Ignoring the Worst Dangers of Trumpism at Our Own Peril

History shows that the support base for right-wing extremist movements tends to be primarily the petty bourgeoisie—small businesspeople, professionals at the lower levels—but populism never gets far without the support of large numbers of the permanently unemployed. The official economic statistics would have us believe—and Trump vigorously contests this—that we are at or near full employment. In fact, this is a gross deception, because there are tens of millions of Americans who have given up looking for employment, who for various reasons are not employable in any meaningful sense of the word. Trump claims it is 30 percent of the population, but whatever number it really is, experience shows that it is pervasive, outside a few humming urban centers that give the illusion of high employment. As a matter of policy, the U.S. has not been committed to full employment since the 1970s, as part of the anti-inflationary monetary policy inaugurated by Paul Volcker and carried on by other committed neoliberals.

It is interesting to read bemused articles by correspondents at elite magazines like the Atlantic and the New Yorker, wondering who the Trump supporters really are (as they do after every populist upsurge), acting as though they were writing about aliens from another planet (which they are in a sense, since the elite commentators cannot understand why the Trumpists take such a dire view of the economy, since everything, from their point of view, seems pretty decent, with a 5% unemployment rate, the stock market doing well, and the evidence of their own booming urban areas).

Update: Robert Scheer and Thomas Frank on Democrats’ Shift Away From Addressing Inequality (Audio)

In their conversation, [Thomas] Frank tells [Robert] Scheer how the [Democratic] party has become class-based, now representing primarily the “professional” or upper socioeconomic class. Frank also talks about the Clintons’ role in this shift and why he believes people who might have earlier voted for Democrats are now flocking to Donald Trump.

When Scheer suggests that Bill and Hillary Clinton may not represent a lesser evil—when compared to Republicans—but merely a “different kind of evil,” Frank responds: “You could make the argument that Bill Clinton did things in the 1990s that no Republican would have been capable of doing. … Reagan couldn’t push bank deregulation as far as Clinton did. Clinton did things that Reagan would never have dared to do: welfare reform … [and] NAFTA. George Bush couldn’t get NAFTA passed. … So you start to think that the game that the Clintons play with us, where we vote for them because we have nowhere else to go. … There’s a sort of political economics of how we the voters are manipulated in this situation, and they’re very, very good at playing that game. And so people like you and me who are on the left are captured, basically. We don’t have anywhere else to go. And they play us in a certain way.”

He continues: “I have a lot of friends who say you can’t criticize the Democrats because you’ll just weaken them and then the Republicans will get in. But I say that we can’t give up our critical faculties just because of the ugly historical situation that we’re in.”

Frank also adds that while he is no fan of Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner for the presidency leaves “no uncertainty in the minds of his listeners, after they’ve sat through one of his speeches, that he is a guy that is gonna get tough with American companies that want to move their factories to Mexico or China or anywhere like that. Left parties the world over were founded in order to give voice to and to help and to serve working people. That’s what they exist for. And those people are now flocking to Donald Trump, who is railing against things like NAFTA. We’re in this situation now where thanks to the Clintons and thanks to Obama, the social dynamics of the two-party system have been … mostly turned on their head.”

White Trash

A lot of media pundits – and also this Oliver Lee Bateman writing for Paris Review, who comes from humble beginnings – persist in thinking that only poor whites are voting for Trump, and only because it satisfies their racist, misogynistic, etc. leanings:

Scan the headlines and you’ll find that everyone’s talking about how the white trash have made their presence felt. The white trash support Trump; the white trash are losing ground; the white trash should be honored by the government for their hard work and sacrifices; the white trash are continuing to redirect their aggression at other racial minorities instead of the robber barons who exploit them.

But who exactly are these people, these trashy whites who have found themselves, in the words of sociologist C. Wright Mills, “without purpose in an epoch in which they are without power?”

Thanks to a spate of newly released books on the topic, we readers can begin fumbling towards some preliminary answers. For those interested in a first-person account of white-trash living, there’s J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a spare and poignant look at impoverished rural Ohio and Kentucky. Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America offers a concise and highly readable overview of the subject beginning with colonization and concluding with the Clintons. Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide examines a series of events, ranging from Reconstruction to the election of Barack Obama, after which seeming gains for African Americans were quickly met by massive resistance from whites.

I’m sure there are trashy white folk out there, but I know a lot of people voting for Trump – all my siblings in fact, and quite a few of my extended in-laws. My father was a successful marketing man, and my family was well-to-do middle class. My in-laws vary from railroad shop workers to lawyers and physicians, and none of them are poor white trash, though some of the millennials are having a tough go.

And there’s the crux. Millennials, and their parents, look around and they don’t see the jobs any more. That is why a lot of them went for Sanders, and that is why a lot of others are responding to Trump. I think the lack of prosperity is the fundamental reason for the anti-establishment movement.

Intercepting the Veep Debate

I couldn’t sleep this morning, so I opened the debate between Tim Kaine and Mike Pence on Democracy Now!, who let Green candidate Ajamu Baraka answer the same questions. What I saw were two corporate shills, arguing over which social value bones the government is going to throw to the middle class as they pretend to do something about our economic problems. Then I dozed off.

The Intercept stayed awake longer:

Debate Wrap-Up: Tim Kaine and Mike Pence Agreed on Some Terrifying Policies

[Kaine and Pence] agreed that Russia is evil and terrifying and must be aggressively countered. They agreed that the U.S. should militarily intervene in Syria. They agreed that the national debt is frightening. They agreed that community policing, a euphemism for doing nothing, is going to make everything better again. And they agreed to talk over the female moderator, Elaine Quijano.

Big Business Declares TPP the Winner in Vice Presidential Debate

Their running mates are both on the record opposing the hugely controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, but as the [US Chamber of Commerce] notes so happily, Kaine and Pence both have a long history of siding with big business. Both have praised the TPP and backed similar deals in the past.

The Chamber, a trade group that represents some of the largest corporate entities in the world, from Goldman Sachs to Dow Chemical, has spent over $1.2 billion just on lobbying since 1998, making it by far the largest influence peddler in Washington, D.C.

A Subtle Dialectic …

“A subtle dialectic pervades the consciousness of the elite bourgeois soul.” – Manfredo Tafuri

Manfredo Tafuri was an art historian, his densely-packed articles often featured in Oppositions, the glossy red architectural journal that seemed to magically appear in the hands of all the cool kids at CMU around my second or third year. Architecture professor Ed Levin had his students reading Tafuri’s book, Architecture and Utopia, and invited him in for a general lecture and a followup session with a theory class. Later, our own architectural history professor Howard Saalman warned us that Tafuri was a Marxist – in case we couldn’t figure that out from Tafuri’s opening line above, or from his predictions of apocalyptic capitalism.

Thanks to Tafuri, I almost always see dialectics pervading elite bourgeois souls – some not that subtle. Just now, the establishment media is both trying to assure us that Hillary Clinton is leading comfortably while at the same time desperately trying to persuade us that, say, voting for Jill Stein would be tantamount to courting nuclear annihilation. Comically-inclined media types, like John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, etc, admit that Trump is a godsend to infotainment and comedy, but are at the same time gobsmacked that Trump is actually a candidate for President. They make a little fun of Hillary, but reserve their harshest digs for the Donald. Peggy Noonan sums it up:

There is another aspect of this year’s media environment, and it would be wrong not to speak it. It is that the mainstream media appear to have decided Donald Trump is so uniquely a threat to democracy, so appalling as a political figure, such a break with wholesome political tradition, that they are justified in showing, day by day, not only opposition but utter antagonism toward him.

I wonder if the media realize a) how tangential they have already become, and b) that no one will ever take them seriously again.

Like many bloggers, Juan Cole tries to explain why Trump has gotten as far as he has in, Whose Fault is Trump? Top 7 Culprits. Cole’s bullet points are:
1. The use of media by politicians to create an alternative reality.
2. Elevating terrorism above other crimes, to the status of existential threat.
3. Islamophobia.
4. Misogyny.
5. The replacement of television journalism with infotainment.
6. Climate Change Denial.
7. Racism.

Cole’s points certainly have validity as problems in current American culture, but do not by themselves explain why Trump has the support of so many otherwise sensible people. In The Atlantic, Yoni Appelbaum comes closer with, Trump Is No Moral Exemplar—He’s a Champion:

… coalitions that believe the moral consensus is cracking, that see their values under attack, and fear their own eclipse may turn away from candidates whose own lives exemplify a moral vision that the broader society no longer endorses. Instead, they seek out figures who seem strong enough, tough enough, ruthless enough to roll back social change, or at least to hold it at bay. They look for a champion.

Appelbaum, however, mostly attributes white support of Trump to anxiety over shifting demographics and loss of supremacy. But is that enough? Could there be rational reasons to look for a champion, even a deeply flawed one?

Though they deride his values, left-leaning observers like Michael Moore and Cenk Uygur admit that Trump is on message insofar as he echoes Bernie Sanders’ criticisms of money in politics and the oligarchy. Cole, Appelbaum, and indeed most journalists are loath to mention the establishment corporate and governmental policies that have savaged the working class. To find that message one has to turn to media outsiders like wealthy Nick Hanauer seeing pitchforks, archdruid John Michael Greer discussing the wage class vs salary class, various pundits comparing Trump to the Brexit vote, or oddly enough, conservative Peggy Noonan citing the “unprotected” classes.

Trump is almost certainly the wrong champion, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need one.

Gut Bacteria, Obesity

In 1977, National Lampoon parodied Scientific American as “Scienterrific American.” I think they were on to something. I’ve written a few posts about whether we should trust scientists, whether scientists can trust each other, etc. Sadly, some scientists will publish what they are paid to publish, and some will publish whatever makes headlines, so they can continue to work. Some of their results are not reproducible, which means they aren’t really doing science. The charitable view is that eventually the scientific method will sort out the scientific from the scienterrific, but a lot of us were ingesting PFOA from Teflon long before we were told that it was a carcinogen.

Recent headlines advised that the FDA had banned sales of many antibacterial soaps, containing any of over a dozen chemicals, because “the risks outweigh the benefits.”

Studies in animals have shown that triclosan and triclocarban can disrupt the normal development of the reproductive system and metabolism, and health experts warn that their effects could be the same in humans. The chemicals were originally used by surgeons to wash their hands before operations, and their use exploded in recent years as manufacturers added them to a variety of products, including mouthwash, laundry detergent, fabrics and baby pacifiers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the chemicals in the urine of three-quarters of Americans.

That New York Times article notes that a trade group, The American Cleaning Institute, opposes the FDA ruling, and claims to have studies that support their opposition. I’m sure they do.

Scientific American (the real one) has posted an excerpt of a book, Let Them Eat Dirt: Saving Your Child from an Oversanitized World, written by two microbiologists: B. Brett Finlay, Ph.D., and Marie-Claire Arrieta, Ph.D.

Finlay and Arrieta point out that while antibiotics have certainly saved many, many of us from dying young from an infectious disease, they have also changed our environment in more subtle ways. Besides the fear about developing unstoppable superbugs, we may be making ourselves susceptible to a raft of non-infectious diseases. One concern is the use of antibiotics in meat, another is the use of antibiotics in early childhood:

While these studies didn’t prove that antibiotics directly cause obesity, the consistency in these correlations, as well as those observed in livestock, prompted scientists to have a closer look. What they found was astonishing. A simple transfer of intestinal bacteria from obese mice into sterile (“germ-free”) mice made these mice obese, too! We’ve heard before that many factors lead to obesity: genetics, high-fat diets, high-carb diets, lack of exercise, etc. But bacteria—really? This raised skepticism among even the biggest fanatics in microbiology, those of us who tend to think that bacteria are the center of our world. However, these types of experiments have been repeated in several different ways and the evidence is very convincing: the presence and absence of certain bacteria early in life helps determine your weight later in life. Even more troubling is the additional research that shows that altering the bacterial communities that inhabit our bodies affects not just weight gain and obesity, but many other chronic diseases in which we previously had no clue that microbes might play a role.

Watching Snowden

The Charles Theatre’s Revival Series matinee yesterday was The Conversation, a Francis Ford Coppola film about surveillance and eavesdropping. In 1974, having seen Gene Hackman in Bonnie and Clyde and The French Connection, and Cindy Williams in Laverne and Shirley and American Graffiti, I drove two of my siblings and their friends to some theatre on Wisconsin Avenue to watch it. John Cazale, Robert Duvall, Harrison Ford and Teri Garr played supporting roles. I already knew Duvall, but not the others. Even after Watergate, I found the idea that we could always be watched very dark and paranoid. Roger Ebert reviewed the film as one of his Great Movies, in 2001:

Coppola, who wrote and directed, considers this film his most personal project. He was working two years after the Watergate break-in, amid the ruins of the Vietnam effort, telling the story of a man who places too much reliance on high technology and has nightmares about his personal responsibility. Harry Caul is a microcosm of America at that time: not a bad man, trying to do his job, haunted by a guilty conscience, feeling tarnished by his work.

I had to work midday Saturday, but watching that film again would have been a fine lead-in to Oliver Stone’s new film, Snowden, which was showing at only a few local theatres. I had read several positive reviews – some recommended seeing Laura Poitras’ 2014 documentary CitizenFour first – and one discouraging review. One friend at work had heard (on NPR) a former NSA deputy director’s claim that it was all lies, that Snowden had actually stolen important state secrets, and that agents had died.

I stopped off to see Snowden on the way home Saturday afternoon. Joseph Gordon-Levitt was a convincing Edward Snowden. I had watched him telling Steven Colbert that he met Snowden in Moscow, which helped his characterization. Rhys Ifans was convincing as a composite of a CIA bigwig that took Snowden under his wing. Nicholas Cage was restrained as a composite of a disaffected techie genius, reduced to teaching young agents. Zachary Quinto, playing Glenn Greenwald, had a chance to yell a bit (at his cautious Guardian editor); Melissa Leo had more to do playing Laura Poitras, but I wonder if she is actually that warm and motherly on the job.

In the same way that Hannah Giles attracted right-wing fanboys to the Acorn entrapment story, Snowden’s outgoing girlfriend Lindsay Mills let it all hang out on the internet, and was a bonus ‘manic pixie dream girl’ for his libertarian supporters. Shailene Woodley gave a fine performance, but she doesn’t look that much like (how I remember) Mills, and reportedly never could meet up to learn her mannerisms. One of the dumbest criticisms I read beforehand was a complaint that the film spent too much time on their romance. Mills was, and is, a big part of the Snowden story.

Snowden was very dramatic, well-filmed, well-paced, etc, but I wanted to see more of his time hiding with poor refugees in Hong Kong, and more of his escape and refuge in Moscow. Towards the end when Toronto students cheer Snowden speaking via a video feed, I felt like standing up and cheering, too, but still I felt that a more balanced, less laudatory film – one that addressed and answered criticisms – would better serve Snowden’s desire for repatriation.

The film was careful to make clear that Snowden published all documents through the established news outlets, but just today, the Washington Post editorial board repudiated calls that Snowden be pardoned and may have become the first newspaper to call for prosecution of its own source.

The complication is that Mr. Snowden … also pilfered, and leaked, information about a separate overseas NSA Internet-monitoring program, PRISM, that was both clearly legal and not clearly threatening to privacy. … he also leaked details of basically defensible international intelligence operations: cooperation with Scandinavian services against Russia; spying on the wife of an Osama bin Laden associate; and certain offensive cyber operations in China. No specific harm, actual or attempted, to any individual American was ever shown to have resulted from the NSA telephone metadata program Mr. Snowden brought to light. In contrast, his revelations about the agency’s international operations disrupted lawful intelligence-gathering, causing possibly “tremendous damage” to national security, according to a unanimous, bipartisan report by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. What higher cause did that serve?

In response, the real Glenn Greenwald yelled, in The Intercept:

In arguing that no public interest was served by exposing PRISM, what did the Post editors forget to mention? That the newspaper which (simultaneous with The Guardian) made the choice to expose the PRISM program by spreading its operational details and top secret manual all over its front page is called . . . . The Washington Post. Then, once they made the choice to do so, they explicitly heralded their exposure of the PRISM program (along with other revelations) when they asked to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Our crusading mainstream media.

Bring Out Yer Dead

Bloomberg claims, Here’s One Sign That ‘Peak Oil’ Is Dead

Peak Oil: gone and forgotten? Google Inc. searches for the idea that once helped propel oil prices to nearly $150 per barrel have dwindled to almost nothing, according to a Sanford C. Bernstein analysis.

Bloomberg’s Tracy Alloway asserts that a dearth of google searches proves that no one – except maybe Bloomberg – cares about Peak Oil anymore. But another way of looking at it is that Peak Oil already happened, and we’ve all moved on. The peak in production of conventional oil reached a plateau in 2005. Prices increased rapidly, but instead of the Mad Max scenarios predicted by energy depletion gurus, civilization instead endured a Great Recession, reduced its demand for oil, and stumbled on, albeit with great pain and suffering for many. Meanwhile, energy companies continued their shift to alternate methods of extraction.

In places like Athabasca, Canada, companies mine bitumen from sandstone deposits, called tar sands, and use natural gas to heat and process it into a high quality synthetic petroleum. The environmental cost, though, is comparable to removing mountaintops to mine coal. The risks of transporting Dilbit led to the Keystone Pipeline controversy, and other dirty byproducts, such as Pet Coke, are sold as fuel to countries with less stringent environmental regulations.

In America and other countries, companies use hydraulic fracturing to extract so-called “Tight Oil”, or “Shale Oil” from shale or sandstone deposits. Fracturing, though, pollutes enormous quantities of water, seems to cause earthquakes, and has been banned in some areas.

America also extracts kerogen from what is called “Oil Shale” – a mix of sedimentary rock and organic matter – and converts it to synthetic crude and various dirty, lower-grade fuels.

These extraction methods were and are, however, expensive, and only made economic sense when oil was also expensive. Energy companies accumulated a great deal of debt using these techniques, only to find that the bottom had dropped out of the market. Moody’s Investor Services described US Oil bankrupties as “catastrophic”:

Oil Bankruptcies Leave Lenders With ‘Catastrophic’ Recovery Rate

Creditors are recovering an average 21 percent of what they lent, compared with about 59 percent in past decades, the credit-rating agency said Monday in a report that looks into lending to 15 exploration and production companies that filed for bankruptcy protection in 2015. … High-yield bonds recovered a mere 6 percent, compared to 30 percent in previous years going back to 1987.

Defaults in the oil and natural gas industry have been rising through a market slump that has exceeded two years as companies lacked the cash to make interest payments on their debt. Bankruptcies among U.S. producers so far this year are about twice the number among companies rated by Moody’s in all of 2015, the report said. The oil and gas figures have helped propel U.S. corporate defaults to the highest since 2009.

Less than half of the companies that negotiated distressed-debt exchanges in 2015 to try to stave off bankruptcy succeeded …

If Peak Oil is dead, why is the Oil Industry now coughing up blood?

Update 20160922: Robert Rapier has a post claiming that conventional oil did begin a decade long production plateau in 2005, but that there was a slight increase from that plateau in December of 2014.