Archive

May 29th, 2016

Right-wing populists are running out of time

    Politics are so different in Europe and in the U.S. that analogies usually look contrived. Yet the demographics of those who support right-wing populists are strikingly similar on both sides of the Atlantic. And these demographics are likely to be the reason why the populist right, which appears to be on the rise, is actually peaking. If it doesn't win any major electoral victories in the next few years, it will have to slink off to the fringe.

    Last Sunday, Norbert Hofer of the anti-immigrant Freedom Party lost the Austrian presidential election despite winning the first round and leading in the polls up to election day. He ran again a generic progressive candidate, Alexander van der Bellen, who was technically and independent but was backed by the Green Party. By election day, he was also running against everyone else who didn't want the far right, Hofer rejects, to win. The demographics of his voters in the run-off with van der Bellen are similar to those of Donald Trump's in the race against Hillary Clinton.

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Got cheese? And how!

    As if we didn't have enough to worry about already, here comes a new issue: The Great Cheese Glut of 2016. The Wall Street Journal reports that as of March 31, 1.19 billion pounds had accumulated in commercial cold-storage freezers across the United States, the largest stockpile ever.

    This affects an entire global industry, from Wisconsin Dells to Whole Foods shelves. Yet each American would have to eat an extra 3 pounds of cheese this year, on top of the 36 pounds we already consume per capita, to eliminate the big yellow mountain. Even for a society that piles the stuff on sandwiches and rolls it into pizza crusts, that's a tall order.

    Thanks, Obama!

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Google will become prey, not the predator

    Although monopolies get a bad rap, they're not always a bad thing. In the short term, modern monopolies are often a boon to consumers. They bring valuable new inventions to market, and, in the case of platforms, they build new communities and markets that would not exist otherwise.

    The downside comes much later, as the monopolist ages and starts to crowd out potential new competitors without delivering new value. As legal expert and author Tim Wu said, monopolies "tend to be good-to-great in the short term and bad-to-terrible in the long term."

    Unlike the monopolies of old, however, platforms today are highly competitive. This difference results from the different mechanics of platform markets compared with traditional ones. Platforms compete based on not their assets but rather their networks of users. Users today can migrate much quicker than productive capacity could in the 19th and 20th centuries, as they are locked in by the value the platform delivers, not the assets it owns.

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Why Trump might win

    A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Sunday finds Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in a virtual tie, with Trump leading Clinton 46 percent to 44 percent among registered voters. That's an 11 percent swing against Clinton since March.

    A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, also released Sunday, shows Clinton at 46 percent to Trump's 43 percent. In April, Clinton had led 50 percent to 39 percent.

    Polls taken this far ahead of an election don't tell us much. But in this case, they do raise a serious question.

    Since he cinched the Republican nomination earlier this month, Trump has been the object of even more unfavorable press than he was before -- about his treatment of women, his propensity to lie, his bizarre policy proposals.

    Before this came months of news coverage of his bigotry, megalomania, narcissism, xenophobia, refusals to condemn violence at his rallies, refusals to distance himself from white supremacists and more lies.

    So how can Trump be pulling even with Clinton?

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What to do for six months?

    When your hearing gets fuzzy so you hear the word "peanuts" as "penis," it's time to stop in at the hearing-aid shop, lest one day you go to the ballgame and get arrested for indecent exposure. A reasonable man will do this. A man who prefers to live by what he imagines is a danger to himself and others. You tell him his pants are on fire and he grabs you, thinking you asked him to dance, and now your pants are on fire, too. This is what we are seeing in America this year, and soon we shall find out if a majority of people prefer to be deaf. The Republican Party constabulary has rushed to embrace Mr. Btfsplk, a man whom they loathed, scorned, and despised a few months ago, and now begins the campaign to make Mrs. Clinton seem so despicable that Mr. Btfsplk will shine a little by comparison.

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Trumpism: Made in Europe

    Here's the irony of Donald Trump's "America First," immigrant-bashing, free-trade-averse, make-us-great-again nationalism: It is a European import.

    The American right has typically been anti-government, reverent of the Constitution, suspicious of political strongmen and resolute in insisting that "American exceptionalism" makes us different from other nations.

    But Trumpism is not an American original. Almost every plank in the candidate's vaguely defined platform is derivative of the European far right. It is gaining ground on the basis of opposition to immigration, fears of terrorism and crime, economic nationalism, and promises of a government wielding a muscular hand against the forces of disorder.

    While one would like to think that the copycat nature of Trump's ideology will, in the coming months, make it increasingly less attractive to American voters, his rise is no less disturbing for being emblematic of what's happening across so many democracies.

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May 28th

Deal aims to forget Greece, not forgive it

    The International Monetary Fund and European finance ministers hailed their new agreement on Greece as a "major breakthrough." In reality, it's the beginning of a permanent fudge designed to make the intractable Greek problem a political non-issue for Greece's EU partners and reduce the financial and reputational risk for the IMF. It's the equivalent of canceling visitation hours for a ward where a patient languishes on life support.

    Since Greece agreed to a $95.8 billion (86 billion euro) European-sponsored bailout last July, the IMF has been screaming about the nation's debt being unsustainable. It has refused to participate in the bailout unless Europe agreed to reduce the debt, creating political problems for European governments that championed the bailout, especially Germany's.

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Trump's Cult Of Lies

    "Those who can make you believe absurdities

    can make you commit atrocities."

    -- Voltaire, 1698-1774

    The first thing to understand is that, before it's a presidential election, it's a TV program. To the suits at CNN, NBC, and Fox News, that means it's about ratings and money. So of course they're going to play it as a cliffhanger.

    Do they ever say "Tune in Saturday to watch the Alabama Crimson Tide humiliate hopelessly overmatched Kent State!"?

    Never.

    So it's going to be with Trump vs. Clinton. Almost regardless of what political scientists and number-crunchers say, the race will be depicted as a nail-biter. The fact that Charles Manson could win Texas' electoral votes with an "R" after his name, while Democrats could take Massachusetts with a Kardashian sister, will prolong the manufactured suspense.

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The red herring in prosecuting officers

    Why are successful prosecutions of police officers so rare? Monday's acquittal of Baltimore police officer Edward M. Nero in connection with the death of Freddie Gray again raises that sobering question - and some of the usual explanations don't apply here.

    While prosecutors have all too often been reluctant to bring cases against those with whom they work, Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby charged the case promptly and aggressively. While jurors have all too often balked at convicting those sworn to protect them, Nero's case was tried before, and decided by, an experienced judge, who, as a federal civil rights prosecutor, had prosecuted police officers for violations of rights.

    Five officers remain to be tried, and there may yet be convictions, but the Nero acquittal reminds us of the limits of criminal prosecutions as vehicles for social change.

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Sore, Happy Feet on the Pacific Crest Trail

    Every spring or summer, in lieu of professional help, I ditch civilization for the therapy of the wilderness. I’ve just been backpacking with my 18-year-old daughter on the Pacific Crest Trail in California, abandoning our material world for an alternative reality in which the aim is to possess as little as possible — because if you have it, you lug it.

    Our lives were downsized to 10 pounds of possessions each, not counting food and water. We carried backpacks, sleeping bags, jackets, hats, a plastic groundsheet, a tarp in case of rain, a water filter and a tiny roll of duct tape for when things break.

    Few problems in life cannot be solved with duct tape.

    OK, I know I’m supposed to use my column to pontificate about Donald Trump and global crises. But as summer beckons, let me commend such wilderness escapes to all of you, with your loved ones, precisely to find a brief refuge from the pressures of the world.

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