Archives for category: democracy

A whole century has passed since the events described in Erich Maria Remarque’s Nothing New on the Western Front/Im Westen nichts Neues.

Not that we’ve learned much during this time…

1968

Brezhnev sends Russian troops to freeze back the Prague Spring.
Ceausescu, the communist dictator who ruled Romania at that time, refused to take part. He had even summoned enough courage to chastise the ‘outside intervention’.

Ceausescu praga

“No excuse can be found for…”

1978

Ten years later he was driven around London in a state carriage by Queen Elizabeth.
As a pat on the the back for his apparent independence from Moscow, as an attempt to weaken the communist ‘camp’ … both at the same time…
Never mind… We, Romanians, were very proud at that time while Elizabeth – and her advisers, must have had quite a heart-burn… specially later, after Ceausescu had started flying his true colors…

Ceausescu cu Lizica

1989

Romania’s was the second to last European communist regime to disintegrate and the only one which had ended in a self inflicted blood bath.  Ceausescu, and his wife – ‘the Presidential Couple’!, were shot at the end of a very short trial during which both had been found guilty of genocide, treason and subversion.

1989 Cu excavatorul la revolutie2005 Niagara

2014

Twenty five years later, Russia’s rising star was lionized by some in the European media.

the emperors clothes

Hungary’s Prime Minister was jokingly hailed as “the dictator” by the President of the European Commission.

Orban the dictator

 

Currently the Americans are trying to determine whether Putin has somehow influenced their last electoral process,

Putin Trump Hamburg

while Orban continues to build walls around Hungary.

hungary wall

Small wonder then for these two to become bosom buddies, regardless of what drives each of them…

Putin honorary

“Putin will receive the honor in the Parliament during his visit to the 2017 World Judo Championships in Budapest on Monday.”
“Putin will attend the judo by invitation of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. It will be Putin’s second visit to Hungary this year.”

 

 

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Before proceeding any further, let me introduce you to two other, more distanced, cousins of ours. Gorilla and Orangutan.

Orangutan leads a semi-solitary life in the Bornean and Sumatran Jungle. They are fairly large animals, males tip the scales at 200 pounds or so, and need a lot of food. They eat mostly fruit and, in times of scarcity, bark, flowers, insects and eggs.
It was their ‘eating habits’ which had shaped their social lives:
Food is often scarce in the rain forest and that is why the orangutan is a semi-solitary creature. In times of great abundance of food, orangutans may use the opportunity to socialize and gather in small groups.
Because they live solitarily, the young siblings must on one hand learn ‘everything’ before starting their adult lives and they don’t have anybody to learn from but their mothers. Hence they stick around for longest. A baby orangutan will nurse until about six and continue to live with their mothers for a few more years. Two or three for the males, five or six for the females – on top of everything else the females have to learn “mothering skills” and for them the only way to do it is to watch their own mother taking care of the next sibling.
As a consequence of all this, the females give birth only once every 8 years, “the longest time between births of any mammal on earth. (This results in only 4 to 5 babies in her lifetime.)” Not a very efficient survival strategy, for the species I mean…

Gorilla has adopted a different feeding strategy.
This is actually a joke. It wasn’t ‘the gorilla’ which has ever adopted anything, least of all ‘a survival strategy’. The ‘adoption process’ had been fueled by chance, had been ‘censured’ by  the realities of their living places and was later labeled as “evolution” by Charles Darwin.
Coming back to our distant cousins, gorillas are even larger animals than orangutans.
300-400 pounds, for the males, versus 200. Hence they need even more food.
An adult Grauer’s gorilla male is estimated to eat 30 kg of plants every day, an adult female about 18 kg.” The difference being that gorillas eat a lot of leaves.
When they have the opportunity to choose, they will surely pick up fruit but they are much more adapted to eating leaves than orangutans are. As a consequence they do not need to ‘spread around’ as thinly as orangutans do, the young can also learn from the rest of the pack so females can give birth every 4 years instead of every 8.

Is there any link between all this babbling and the stated subject of your post?

Actually yes.

As gorillas and orangutans are teaching us, together is easier than each by its own.
Being able to give birth every 4 years is a huge evolutionary advantage over having to wait 8 years before becoming pregnant again.

But this is not all we can learn from our cousins.
Male gorillas, at 300 to 400 pounds, are formidable defenders. Their only enemies, except for humans, are the leopards.
Compare 350 pounds with less than 100 for a chimpanzee/bonobo male.
That would be a good starting point to figure out why silver-backs – mature male gorillas who despotically reign over their 1 to 5 females – can afford to drive out their sons after they become sexually mature while the chimpanzee alpha males, who lead troops of up to 50 members, will allow other mature males to live by – and to have intercourse with some of the females living in the same group.
The second reason being that gorillas eat, almost exclusively, plant matter, supplemented with some insects, while chimpanzees form hunting parties in order to catch, kill and eat other animals, including monkeys. And one can ‘graze’ by himself while hunting is way easier in cooperation with others.

Feeding habits can explain quite a lot, isn’t it?

Let’s make a step further and turn back, as I promised in my previous post, to the differences between chimps and bonobos.
Well, bonobos hunt, just as efficiently as the chimps do, only they are less inclined to murder their neighbors.
Just one suspected killing observed during “92 combined years of observation at four different sites“, for the bonobos. In the other camp, 152 killings, 58 directly observed and the rest “counted based on detective work“, gathered over “426 combined years of observation, across 18 different chimp communities“.
The second difference, that I find interesting in the context of ‘capitalism’, is the size of the ‘colonies’. Bonobos live in way bigger groups than the chimpanzees. 100 versus 40 to 60, I’m not sure whether this had any impact over the relative fate of chimps or bonobos but it is surely relevant for how capitalism works. Stick around.

One more ‘animal story’ and I’ll wrap everything up.

“We previously reported that chimpanzees were unable to optimally select the smaller of two candy arrays in order to receive a larger reward. When Arabic numerals were substituted for the candy arrays, animals who had had prior training with numerical symbols showed an immediate and significant improvement in performance and were able to select reliably the smaller numeric representation in order to obtain a larger reward. Poor performance with candy arrays was interpreted as reflecting a response bias toward the intrinsic incentive and/or perceptual features of the larger array. In contrast, the Arabic numerals represent numerosity symbolically and appear to promote response choice on the basis of abstract processing of numerosity, with minimal interference from the inherent properties of the choice stimuli. The present study tested the hypothesis that, for mixed symbol-candy choice pairs, the requisite processing of the abstract numeral may foster a mode of numerical judgment that diminishes the interfering incentive/perceptual effects of the candy stimuli. The results were consistent with this hypothesis. Whereas performance on candy-candy arrays was significantly below chance levels, performance on numeral-candy choice pairs was significantly above chance and comparable with performance on numeral-numeral pairs.”

OK, OK, don’t shoot the messenger… those guys were writing a scientific paper, not a blog post… let me ‘translate’ it in simpler words.

There is a relatively simple psychological test involving two bowls full of candy.
One of them containing more pieces than the other.
The test consists of a child being asked to choose between those two bowls, after being told that the candy from the chosen bowl will be given to somebody else and the candy from the second bowl, the unchosen one, will be given to the child. The test is repeated a number of times and most of the children, 4 year olds and above, learn quite quickly to point to the bowl containing the smaller number of candy.
If, instead of children, chimpanzees are asked to choose between the two bowls, they continue to point to the bigger number of candy, even after the umpteenth repetition.
Now here comes the really interesting part.
Dr. Boysen and other scientists from Ohio State University, had previously taught a chimp, Sheba, not only to count but also to read numbers. One digit numbers…
When Sheba was subjected to the test, using real candy, she had responded exactly as the other chimps had done before her. She was unable to wrap her head around the notion that she will get the candy from the OTHER bowl. But as soon as the researchers had replaced the actual candy with digits written on small cartons… bingo! Sheba had become a lot wiser and had very quickly figured out that choosing the bowl with the smaller number (of candy) was a far better option.

Let me put two and two together.

Our cousins, the great apes, have given us a valuable lesson about cooperation.
Orangutans have to raise their offspring as single mothers. A very time consuming process which limits the number of siblings to 4.
Silver-backs don’t need much help to defend their families. So they can afford to drive off any potential competition… but they cannot hunt. Or do anything else ‘in concert’ with their peers.
Chimpanzees have learned to tolerate each-other, to a degree. They can form larger communities and engage in cooperative endeavors. Hunting and warfare.
Bonobos have developed a very efficient method to quell tension which may appear among themselves and to subdue rogue members of the community, without actually killing them. With no apparent benefit… except for us…

History is telling us, shouting at us even, that authoritarian regimes are short lived. Shorter and shorter lived, as we come closer to the present day.
Ancient Rome had lasted for almost a 1000 years. 2000 if we take Byzantium into account.
The British Empire was de facto dissolved, more or less peacefully, after less than 500 years, along with the rest of the European colonial empires.
The Russian Czarist Empire had buckled under its own weight after some four centuries, reinvented itself as the Soviet Union and faltered again after less than a century.
The rest of the ‘modern’ dictatorships have crumbled even faster, with only two notable exceptions: North Korea and Cuba.

Mighty commercial ventures, which had seemed impregnable in their heydays, are now almost forgotten memories. From the British East India Company to the now infamous ENRON…

Yet humankind, as a whole, had fared better and better.
OK, we did bring a lot of ‘man made’ misfortune over our own, collective head.
Only every little piece of that misfortune had been produced and inflicted in an authoritarian setting.

From Alexander the Great (?!?) to Hitler, history is full of ‘leaders’ who had somehow convinced their subjects to foolishly follow orders. Eventually, everybody got killed in the process. The leaders as well as the hapless subjects…
From John Law – ‘the son of a Scottish banker, a gambler and playboy who had killed a man in a duel‘ before insinuating himself at the top of France’s financial establishment during the first part of the XVIII-th century, where he had orchestrated a “system” closely resembling a Ponzi scheme – to Bernard Madoff, the economic and financial history is full of ‘tycoons’ who have led their their subordinates, and a considerable portion of the financial markets, to utter disaster.

And some of us still consider that ‘greed is good’… Maybe they should read again about Sheba and the candy bowls…

I can hear some of them protesting: “In the real world, there is nobody to switch the bowls! ‘Finders keepers, losers weepers'”
Yeah, right… tell that to some of those who had won the lottery… “About 70 percent of people who suddenly receive a windfall of cash will lose it within a few years, according to the National Endowment for Financial Education.

Then why are we still so obsessed with money?
Like Sheba was with those candy?
Why do we collectively continue to behave like a bunch of three years olds?

Maybe because money have proved, over the centuries, to be very reliable tools?
Because profit has been a very good measure for a company’s ability to survive? If corroborated with other indicators, but that’s another story…

At some point I mentioned that capitalism only works if the market where its wares are traded is really free. Meaning that that market has to work under the rule of law and that nobody in that market should allowed to become so powerful as to dominate the others.

Well, that was a lie.
Actually, capitalism works anywhere.
Those running the late Soviet Union have tried to convince the rest of the world that monopolies might work.  Various ‘business men’, including some very successful ones, try to convince us of the same thing. “Competition is for losers” they say… OK, I can understand why they keep trying… That’s what the entrepreneurs are for! “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”
My point being that markets which are not presently free will become free with the passage of time. No matter what!
No political arrangement has ever been strong enough to contain a dysfunctional economy. That’s why the Soviet Union, and the rest of the communist camp, had crumbled. That’s why we have a crises every time the government, with the best intentions, abruptly intervenes in the economy. Or fails to do so and allows monopolies to exist for too long…

Capitalism actually works.
Look around us.
I could give you a myriad examples. I’ll settle for two.
Romania, which less than 30 years ago was struggling under the communist yoke, now has one of the fastest internet in the world.
Some 40 years ago, when my uncle had emigrated to America, long-distance  phone calls were so expensive that he barely afforded to call his mother more than twice a year… nowadays two people can chat for hours across the planet, for free, over the internet. With video…

How about we letting it do its magic without some of us trying to drain ‘undeserved advantages’ from the process?
And no, those trying to ‘drain undeserved advantages’ are not the real culprits for what is going on!
A really free market is not one where a big bully with a huge stick makes sure that nobody steals from its neighbor.
That would be the definition for a police state!
A free market is one where people organize themselves, hire a normal guy with a smallish stick to take care of thieves and then call him every-time when they see a robbery taking place.

Nowadays too many of us actually admire the thieves and try to bribe the guardian.
While the rest idly walk by, as if what’s going on under their own noses is not going to affect them in a very short while …

That all things, at least those belonging to the real world, have a certain thickness… is a truism.

Yet so often we ignore this evidence and relate only to the appearance we are looking at.
At a given moment.
By chance, by design or by negligence.

Take for instance Marine le Pen’s ascension to the second tour in the French elections.
Quite a number of ‘pundits’ put the ‘blame’ for this squarely on ‘Bruxelles” shoulders. Including her and her followers. And, not at all surprisingly, Trump and Putin.

And not without reason!

After all the EU bureaucracy, headquartered in Bruxelles, is responsible for many of the consequences brought upon our heads by the very existence of what is currently known as the European Community.

what we gonna do

Click on the bloody picture, will ya!

First of all let me remind you what brought about the current edition of the ‘European Project.’

OK, it has been attempted before. By the Romans, by Charlemagne, by Napoleon, by Hitler… and don’t tell me that Putin wouldn’t love to be ‘crowned’ as The European Leader.

The problem is that all those attempts had started as individual initiatives and had happened to be ‘against the grain’. As in those who had to shoulder the burden for it didn’t see any benefit from it coming to life.

A small parenthesis. There is nothing ‘unnatural’ for strong willed individuals to try to widen their domination to the farthest possible corner. It had happened when and where ever geographical and historical conditions had allowed it.
The problem is that all imperia have eventually failed, usually in an abysmal manner. History is so full of examples that I won’t bother presenting any.

This edition of the European Project has started out of necessity.

At the end of WWII the continent was in a state of disarray.
The West was mired in self doubt and extremely tired while the East had experienced both the German occupation and the blessings of being liberated by the Soviets.

Understanding that Europe had to be helped, or else – it could have been, in a short while, overwhelmed by the Soviets, America had drafted the Marshall Plan.
For the sake of efficiency, the Americans had asked the Europeans to organize themselves at the receiving end. The Europeans responded by calling a Conference for European Economic Co-operation. It would be beyond the scope of this post to get into further details but this was the start of the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation which a short while later had set the stage for the European Coal and Steel Community – the precursor of the present-day European Community.

As we all know, the project has fulfilled its intended goals.

Europe has recovered nicely and the Soviet Union was contained.

‘But you haven’t mentioned, at all, the (professed?) reason for which the European Community was forged in the first place! To make sure that Europe will never again be drenched in blood as a consequence of war!’

Yes, this had indeed been the professed motive, “The European Union is set up with the aim of ending the frequent and bloody wars between neighbours, which culminated in the Second World War“.
It did its job, briliantly, only it was just a ‘marketing gimmick’. Ever since the Soviet Union had started to export, by force, its particular brand of (extremely authoritarian) socialism to the countries under its ‘sphere of influence’ it had become abundantly clear that the rest of Europe had only two alternatives. Stick together in order to be able to fend of the Soviets or be gobbled up piece by piece.
Fighting among themselves? In those conditions? Not even Stalin could have dreamed of something like that…

Why did America continued to help?
First of all, they were already heavily invested here. Just think of it. To save Europe from  the Nazis only to allow the Soviets to occupy it… doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Then why are so many trying to tear it apart now? From inside as well as from outside?

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand Putin’s motives so I won’t waste any of your time on this.

It’s a little bit harder to understand the Americans who wish the European Project would fail. After all we are their most important trading partner AND their closest ideological neighbor. I used ‘neighbor’ on purpose, instead of ‘friend’.

Distant neighbor, I have to add…

You see, being protected by two oceans and by a very effective ‘nuclear umbrella’ may induce a certain feeling of coziness… just remember how long they had waited before intervening in WWI and WWII. Add to that the fact that people’s memories are very short and you’ll understand why the ordinary Americans do not care much for what is going on this side of the Atlantic.
Why are some of the American ‘plutocrats’ weary of the EU and rather friendly towards Putin? For the very same reason for which their peers had done business with Hitler, even after the start of the war…. Some of them might still be convinced that their corporations would be more profitable under an authoritarian regime than under a more democratic one. And since Putin makes the right noises…

And we have reached now the really tricky part.
Why on Earth are some people trying to tear apart the EU from the inside?!?

One might very well consider they, or at least some of them, constitute a post-Soviet fifth-column, meant to destabilize Europe and make it more susceptible to be influenced by Putin and his eventual heirs.

Since I cannot prove any of this, one way or the other, I’m going to use a different tack.

History teaches us that people commit mistakes for two reasons. Alone or in conjunction: Lack of adequate understanding of the matter and/or callousness.

Take your pick: Quisling, Petain, Lord Haw-Haw… but don’t forget Daladier, Chamberlain and also von Papen.

But there’s a catch.
No amount of stupidity and/or callousness on the part of any of the politicos may produce any damages unless the situation is ‘right’. Or ‘ripe’?!?

You see, all these jerks had been able to make their ultimately stupid moves simply  because the social yarn had already been messed up by a long line of political, and economic, blunders. From the French insistence that the Germans pay huge war reparations after WWI to, but not exclusively, the Fed mishandling rates during the ’20es and the 30es.

The current situation is nowhere near as bad as it was before WWII but does share with that a couple of converging points.

To be continued

Dis de dimineață, în hală la Obor, o ‘babă PSD-istă’ le povestea unor vânzătoare impresii de la manifestația împotriva lui Iohannis.
Vânzătoarele, cu vreo 25 de ani mai tinere dar mult mai puțin ‘hotarâte’, i-au promis totuși ‘sprijin moral’.
Rămași între noi, le cunosc de cel puțin 5 ani și glumim de fiecare dată când cumpar de acolo, am continuat discuția. Prima pe teme politice, în toți anii ăștia. Foarte repede a devenit clar că ele nu se uită niciodată la știri și că se informează doar din ‘gură în gură’. Cu toate astea știau câte case are Iohannis și li se părea extrem de ciudat ‘cum de a putut el să strângă 6 case din meditații?’. ‘Sigur a mai făcut și altceva’. Adică ‘ceva necurat!’

Pe de altă parte au fost foarte receptive la observația mea ‘Păi da, dar pe el nu l-au prins încă!’
‘Da, aveți dreptate’, a spus una dintre ele. ‘Hoțul neprins, negustor cinstit’, a recunoscut ‘precupeața’.

De unde și nedumerirea care face obiectul postării de astăzi.

Segmentul +60ani a votat masiv cu Năstase 4 case și împotriva lui Iohannis 6 case.
Care să fie explicația?

Să fi fost OK să ai 4 case dar prea mult să te lăcomești la 6?

Au învățat între timp să nu mai accepte nici măcar un pic de corupție?
Ce bine ar fi…

Aș explora totuși și alte variante.

În primul rând trebuie să ținem cont de faptul că această categorie de oameni depinde în mod hotărâtor de ‘bunăvoința’ statului.
Și de ‘amănuntul’ că dinspre dreapta vin tot felul de mesaje cel puțin amestecate. De la ‘statul nu are de unde să dea pensii mai mari’ până la ‘voi l-ați făcut pe Iliescu președinte, acum tăceți odată din gură’.

Numai că astea două sunt insuficiente. Mai este ceva.

„Bogatul nu crede săracului” dar nici invers.

Oamenii de rând știu foarte bine ce este acela un profesor de liceu. Aproape toți au avut copii și au plătit meditații. Dacă nu ei, atunci măcar prietenii și/sau cunoscuții lor.
Nu e chiar același lucru ca un instalator sau un zugrav, dar tot cam pe-acolo. Un meseriaș ceva mai spălat.
Idea că un astfel de om – nu foarte diferit de ei, până la urmă, poate să ‘strângă’ 6 case e un fel de afront personal.
‘Dacă el a putut înseamnă că eu am fost un prost toată viața. Trebuie că a făcut el ceva necurat, altfel n-ar fi reușit!’

Năstase, pe de altă parte, a fost văzut cu totul altfel.
Ceea ce Iliescu îi reproșa ca fiind ‘aroganță’ a fost perceput ca ‘prestanță’.
Impresie întărită de abilitatea lui Năstase de a vorbi foarte elegant și, în același timp, suficient de inteligibil.
Pe cînd maniera oarecum ‘didactică’ folosită de către ‘sas’ îi indispune pe câte unii. ‘Ce ne tot dă asta lecții?’
Trecând la lucrurile care ‘nu se văd’, destul de mulți dintre oamenii din acest segment de vârstă nu prea înțeleg ei foarte bine cu ce se ocupă, și mai ales ce venituri are, un profesor universitar. Sau un ministru. Fie el și prim.
Pentru că Năstase așa a intrat în conștiința populară. Ca ministru de externe – care a repurtat câteva succese destul de notabile, ca prim-ministru pe vremea căruia lucrurile au mers – din punctul lor de vedere, destul de bine și, în tot acest timp, ca profesor universitar și om de cultură.
Oamenilor nu li s-a mai părut chiar atât de exagerat ca cineva cu o asemenea ‘statură’ să aibe 4 case. Sau, în orice caz, nu chiar atăt de greu de acceptat din punct de vedere emoțional.

OK, și dacă am ajuns la concluzia asta… acuma ce?

Păi hai să începem prin a nu le mai ‘înjura’ atâta pe ‘babele PSD-iste’. Nu de alta ci pentru că asta este echivalent cu a-l ‘înjura’ pe Iohannis pentru cele 6 case. Nu știm cum le-a agonisit – deocamdată e încă ‘negustor cinstit’, așa că ar fi mai normal să îl lăsăm în pace până ce situația va fi lămurită de cei ‘în temă’.
Tot așa nu e cazul să-i ‘înjurăm’ pe cei care au o părere diferită față de a noastră. Putem să fim în dezacord cu ei dar dacă vrem să asculte argumentele noastre am face mai bine să îi tratam cu respect, nu cu ironie sau chiar cu dispreț.

Abia după ce vom fi învățat să ne respectăm cu adevărat unii pe ceilalți, din ce în ce mai mulți dintre noi vor avea curajul de a încerca să își depășească condiția.

Și va înceta să li se pară ciudat ca unul dintre ei să aibă 4 sau chiar 6 case.
Dar vor veghea ca acestea să fi fost agonisite cinstit.

The Rorschach test consists of a trained specialist encouraging a subject to share his interpretations on 10 “ambiguous images“.
At the end of the discussion the trained specialist more or less ‘determines the fate’ of the subject, by filing his interpretation of the subject’s reactions.

The democratic process consists of everybody freely expressing their concerns about things.
Periodically some people are invested with enough power to solve the problems encountered by the community, in a manner consistent with the values agreed upon by that community. At the end of each such period the activity of these people is analyzed (interpreted ?!?) by those at the ‘receiving end’ of the political mechanism, with the intended goal of improving the ‘political process’.
The fate of the entire community being under a double determination. The diligence of the politicians invested to run the show and the diligence of the people when evaluating the results of the political process.

As you can see with a naked eye, there are a few striking similarities between  Democracy and the Rorschach test. Both depend heavily on the participants being honest and straightforward.

If the patient ‘doesn’t trust his doctor’ or ‘doesn’t feel like talking’ the ‘trained person’ will undoubtedly have problems in reaching a ‘fair conclusion’. Both will have to ‘suffer some consequences’.
If the ‘doctor’ has ‘ulterior motives’ and ‘unfairly labels’ his patient, it will be the patient to suffer the initial consequences but, eventually, those consequences will ‘bounce back’ to their source.

Same things happen in any society.
The difference between a democratic and an authoritarian one being that in a democratic environment ‘consequences’ become apparent, and are dealt with, a lot easier than in an authoritarian one.
This being the reason for which true, functional, democracies work better than any form of authoritarianism.

As long as both parties involved ‘interpret’ their roles appropriately, of course.

For more than a year now I was struggling to understand the circumstances that have produced the current political mess in America.

I finally figured it out.

Confusion and dissatisfaction!

If you have enough people that are both confused and malcontent then all kind of ‘strange’ things will happen.

Only one of them won’t be enough to explain the whole gamut of what’s going on and that’s why I wasn’t satisfied by any of the many articles that pointed out one reason or another for the ‘popular discontent that brought the Donald to the White House’.
In fact no amount of ‘unhappiness’ can explain how two mature parties can nominate such lousy candidates. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump fit, not even loosely, the profile of a decent President. That’s why the voter turn-out was the lowest in the last 80 years or so.

But if you add ‘confusion’… things begin to clear out.

And no, I’m not speaking here about the regular people being confused as a result of the ‘politicos’ having misbehaved horribly.
I’m afraid things are way deeper than this.
Even those who believe themselves to be educated in these matters seem to be swimming in a sea of thicker and thicker fog.

Take, for instance, the current debate about the differences between ‘republic’ and ‘democracy’.

A republic is a representative type of government, and its goal is to simultaneously control the majority while protecting the minority. For example, in the republic of the United States, the government is limited constitutionally, and power is divided between the three branches of government.

A democracy is a type of government that grants eligible citizens the right to equal participation. This right is provided directly through the creation and development of laws or through elected representatives. The interest of the majority is the most important aspect in a democracy.

A republic is a representative form of democracy. A republic has an elected head of state, such as a president, that serves for a specific period of time. In a republic, the interest of the majority rules through its elected representatives. However, a republic has a constitution that protects the minority from being entirely overruled or unrepresented.

See what I mean? Adding insult to injury this definitions were published by a site which calls itself ‘reference.com‘ …

I’m not going to pick truth from fiction in that quote, that would only add to the already too thick confusion.

Enough for me to say that ‘republic’ is indeed a manner in which societies are organized (a.k.a. ‘governed’) while ‘democracy’ is a manner in which societies decide for themselves. Yes, these two things have a lot in common but we should not confuse them.

There are republics which only pretend to be democratic – like the late Soviet Union or the current Democratic Republic of Korea, some which are democratic in a rather strange way – Iran for example, or which are slowly ‘loosing’ democracy behind – like Orban’s Hungary or Putin’s Russia. History has also a few examples of republics which had given up democracy all together. Hitler’s Germany, for instance.

On the other hand there are monarchies (OK, constitutional monarchies) which are perfectly democratic. The British Commonwealth, Sweden, Norway, Holland, Belgium…

What can explain the current confusion?
‘The interest of the majority is the most important aspect in a democracy’?!?
A major lack of understanding about what democracy really means?

A terrible confusion between the formal aspects of democracy – freedom to vote for what ever candidate accompanied by a fair account of the ballots – and the really important tenets of democratic behavior – honest, open and mutually respectful exchange of ideas about the current state of affairs between the interested members of the society?
My point being that true democracy is about the opportunity to rationally convince those around you/making yourself available to be convinced by rational arguments, not about the majority imposing its view on the minority. That is nothing but mob rule, a horrid perversion of what democracy was meant to be.

Basically, what happens – under all forms of social arrangements/forms of government: republic, constitutional or absolute monarchy – in a society is that people need to know where that society is headed to. Authoritarian societies are run by the ruler – and the people, willingly, unwillingly or with mixed spirits, agree for the time being – while the democratic societies entertain a certain ‘effervescence of ideas’ which bring forward the important problems that need to be resolved and what would be the socially acceptable manners for those problems to be fixed.

But in order for that ‘effervescence of ideas’ to be efficient, the ordinary people have to contribute in earnest to the exchange and the politicians need to pay close attention and to cooperate among themselves and with the rest of the society towards solving those problems.

That’s why I’d like you to remember when was the last time that people on the different sides of the political divide have actually talked together?
Why do we have a ‘political divide’ in the first place?

Aren’t we supposed to be ‘all together’ in our respective countries?

What’s gotten into us that made us fight each-other so bitterly?

Why do we succumb so easily to ‘divide and conquer’?

Why are there still so many politicos who keep using this method, despite the ample proof that has been provided to us, through out the history, that ‘divide and conquer‘ inevitably ends up in disaster?

When your own rhetoric gives you license to commit mayhem. And worse

Growing in a communist country, Romania, I was ‘exposed’, naturally, to all sorts of communist propaganda. ‘Embedded’ in almost everything.
One ‘sugar coating’ that was very popular among the apparatchiks of the day was ‘crime novels’. ‘James Bond’-like  ‘literature’ which was supposed to educate us, ordinary citizens  who could almost never get an exit visa to go to a ‘capitalist’ country,  about the perils ‘our’ trading agents/diplomatic personnel had to ‘negotiate’ when sent abroad to ‘serve the country’.
The most publicized ‘peril’ being the ‘prostitute trap’. Supposedly the ‘pure’ communist was trapped by a skillful prostitute into believing she was heavily enamoured  of him and then lured to an apartment were the couple would be filmed while ‘consummating’  their new found passion. Later, of course, the recording would have been used to exert pressure in order to influence the hapless fool into betraying his country.

The recent articles regarding ‘the art of kompromat’ tend to suggest that those ‘novels’ were nothing but yet another example of a wolf crying wolf… but who knows…

Fast forward to our times.

Is there anything clear in all this?

And no, I’m not wondering whether there is an actual tape of Trump ‘frolicking in bed’ with anybody. Even if it exists, it is well guarded. After all, such a tape is way more valuable as long as it is hidden away than when out in the open. The threat to reveal it works only as long as nobody else but the black-mailer and the victim know about its existence.

Then why all this brouhaha?

A preemptive strike meant to dull the effect of Putin actually publishing such a tape?
Putin trying to ‘soften up’ his intended target?
But what is Putin’s goal? He cannot dream of ‘controlling’ the President of the United States. Even when that position is fulfilled by someone like Trump… The actions of any POTUS are so public that any influence would very soon become apparent, on one side, and Trump, himself, is a very ‘unreliable’ person to start with.

But what if Putin has another, and way more insidious, goal?

What if he wants to compromise the very concept of democratic elections?
To ‘demonstrate’ to us that ‘the public’ is (has become?) incapable of electing a good man to lead it to the future?

Well… the problem with ‘kompromat’ is that it has to be tailored to its intended victim.
Just imagine what effect would have had a tape depicting Obama in bed with someone else but Michelle. Who would have believed such a thing?
But Obama was, to a degree at least – as Trump had very astutely estimated, vulnerable to a campaign focused on his birth certificate. We all know what kind of ‘passion’ the birthers have managed to instill into some of the die-hard conservatives.
And we should not forget that Trump had started his political life as a friend of the Clintons. His words, “that Hillary Clinton ‘had no choice’ but come to his third wedding“, are now world famous…

Now, bearing all these in mind, shouldn’t we ask ourselves how farfetched is Putin’s project of destroying our faith in democracy? Using ourselves as minions?

After all, Trump was elected democratically!

And do you remember those discussions about the US being intended as a Republic by the forefathers, and not as a Democracy? Or Orban’s – Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, one of Putin’s close political friends, concept of ‘illiberal democracy‘?

“I voted for Trump because I think his illiberal tendencies are actually a feature rather than a bug. When he undermines rule of law, I see not a danger, but someone who is undermining a system that has become a game for elites with access to armies of lawyers. When he browbeats Congress, I don’t worry about “checks and balances” which have become a recipe for dysfunction, but rather see him as a man taking on useless political prostitutes servicing everyone who can write a sufficiently large campaign check. When he strong-arms multinational companies like Carrier, I see someone standing up to the worst aspects of globalization.”

Who built the world as it is right now? The one where the young adult who wrote the words quoted above, had grown up into and was modeled by?

We did it? With both its good-s and its bad-s?

It is us who kompromised it?
Then it is us who’ll have to fix it!
Or we’ll have to endure the yoke the likes of Putin and/or Trump will undoubtedly try to put on our shoulders.

 

 

Modern technology has produced some rather perverse ‘side effects’.

What used to be called ‘democracy’ has slowly been driven into ‘mob rule’.

It is hard to determine whether this is the desired effect of some (un) ‘intelligent design’ or an unforeseen consequence of the callous machinations of the ‘power hungry’ but it doesn’t matter much, does it?

Let me first clarify some concepts.

For me ‘democracy’ is way much more than what happens in and around the polling stations.
Fairly counting the votes is indeed important but even more important is what takes place long before the ballots are cast.
A really functional democracy is that where every stakeholder has the opportunity to voice their concerns and where the rest pay attention to everything that is said in the public square. By both their political friends and by their political adversaries.
In fact no ballot can be cast efficiently unless the voters have developed a fair image of what is going on in their society. While no one can develop an actually complete understanding of anything, let alone one regarding such a complex system as an entire society, we must jealously keep in our minds that ‘not entirely complete’ is one thing and ‘heavily biased’ through a severe lack of pertinent information is quite a different one.

On the other hand ‘mob rule’ is a what happens when voters’ passions are so high that enough of them are no longer able to think with their own heads and allow themselves to be ‘led by the nose’. Into voting for a specific somebody or, alternatively, into not voting at all ‘because it doesn’t matter, anyway’.

At first democracy actually meant first hand, person to person, meetings in the public square.
The Ancient Greeks solved their ‘state affairs’ in the Agora, the Romans in the Forum while “Althingi” (the name of the oldest parliament that is still in existence, that of Iceland) means ‘General Assembly’.

Slowly, as the constituencies grew larger, the stakeholders needed some more sophisticated manners of keeping in touch. Luckily for them, Gutenberg had already invented the printing press. The American Founding Fathers – who had made good use of this first instrument of what was going to be the mass-media – had insisted passionately on the ‘freedom of the press’. And for good reasons. As I pointed out a little earlier, access to information is paramount for an efficient decision. Further more printed material is a very handy tool when it comes to conveying information from one person to another. Its rather stable nature allows it to survive unadulterated, at least for a while. So it can be handled around or kept for further reference since it is relatively easy to organize. And searched at will. All these discouraging the ‘communicators’ from lying – blatantly, at least. Since lies where relatively easy to pin-point and prove those who needed to maintain their credibility refrained themselves from ‘exaggerating’ too much. The fact that the general public was rather particular about this kind of things also helped in this matter.

Later, when radio and television were introduced, things had become more complicated. Given the fleeting nature of spoken – rather than printed – words, the ‘talking heads’ felt less compelled to stick to the straight and narrow.
Things were compounded by the advent of the ‘political-marketing specialists’ and of the ‘bean counters’.
The latter kept insisting that the mass-media venues have to be as profitable as possible – hence publish more and more of ‘what the audience asks for’ instead of bona-fide information while the former kept telling to the politicians that they have to ‘get under the skin of their constituents’ – by, again, telling them what they were more likely to believe instead of treating them as the grown-up adults they were.
The consequence of all this merchandising was that the erstwhile more or less compact public has been gradually carved up into discrete, and growingly separate, ‘publics’. Otherwise known as ‘echo-chambers’.

The apparition of the Internet/social networks has further deepened the already existent divides. People no longer know what the others really think or feel. But their ignorance doesn’t keep them from having opinions. Or from voting about things they do not really understand. So they vote how they are told by their trusted ‘analysts’/’experts’.

Now, is it of any use for us to blame anybody for what had happened?

Or would it be a lot better for all of us to grow out of this before the ‘whirlwind’ makes a ‘hard landing’ on top of our heads?

 

gambit noun [C] (CLEVER ACTION)

– a clever action in a game or other situation that is intended to achieve an advantage and usually involves taking a risk:

 – specialized games a way of beginning a game of chess, in which you intentionally lose a pawn (= game piece) in order to win some other form of advantage later

I borrowed this definition from Cambridge Dictionary, the on-line version.
You have already noticed, I’m sure, the accent on cleverness, the ‘intent to achieve an advantage’ and the relative downplay of the risk that is only ‘usually’ involved.

A more nuanced definition of the concept would mention that the person who uses this tactical maneuver has to get out of their psychological  comfort zone in order to perform it properly.
The whole thing involves offering a valuable bait which, once taken, might produce consequences favorable to the party that is ‘spending’ it.
Since the favorable consequences are not sure – otherwise it would have been a bribe, not a gambit – but the expenditure is certain the guy who initiates this has to thread very carefully. Hence the need for the bait to be really valuable. Valuable enough for the taker to take it and valuable enough so the giver would be really careful when performing the maneuver.

We have witnessed three gambits in close succession.

Britain’s David Cameron promised a Brexit referendum in an attempt to win the 2015 general election. He won the election but lost the referendum.

Quite a large number of Americans, fed up with what has been going on in their country, have pinched their noses and elected Trump into the Oval Office. The deal is not going exactly as they have planned it – Clinton is not going to be charged, the ‘swamp’ is more likely being repopulated rather than drained in earnest – but the jury is still out on this one.

Italy’s Matteo Renzi tried to cash in on his popularity and stream-line the constitution – a move which would have given more powers to the central administration. He has just lost the referendum, is about to resign – as promised and his losing the gambit has opened a wide venue for the opposition 5 Stars Movement led by a comedian – Beppe Grillo.

Need a moral to this?
Gambit works fine when playing chess. That’s a special kind of game where all the pertinent information is out there on the table and the sole variable is the opponent’s mind/will.

Real life, a.k.a. politics, is a completely different game. There are lots of stakeholders, instead of the two chess players, while most of the pertinent information is jealously guarded by each of the stake-holders – along with most of their real intentions.

If we add here the ‘detachment’ of the players – Trump and Cameron are both independently wealthy while Renzi is rather inexperienced – we’ll soon arrive at the conclusion that we’d be better off with some unadventurous, bland even, politicians.

taxation-is-theft

Americans voting in the last elections had four options.

Two authoritarians, one libertarian and a “greenhorn”.

I really like Dr. Stein but her lack of ‘high level’ political or business experience made her an unlikely choice.

The authoritarians have generated much hype but so little real enthusiasm that many voters have chosen to stay home.

voter-turnout

In this situation, with so many voters – who had shown up in 2004 and 2008 – dissatisfied with the mainstream parties, how come the libertarian candidate – who had both a solid experience, as a two term Governor, and a reasonable electoral platform did not manage a better score?
He did ‘rake in’ a little over 4 million votes – more than trebling his 2012 result – but he is still shy of the 5 % needed to qualify the Libertarian Party for federal funding in the next campaign.

Could it be that the libertarians need to ‘clean up their act’?

Judging by the antics performed by the current winner some ‘pundits’ might counsel them to ‘increase the pressure’ but I don’t think that that would be a wise thing to do.
Yes, today’s 2016 President-elect did display a rather unusual behavior for a presidential candidate, and ‘won’, but I’m afraid this was due to a certain set of ‘co-incidents’ rather than the American political scene undergoing a massive upheaval.
Trump is, we must admit that, a great ‘comedian’.
He does have a huge fortune – and presently enough  Americans are sufficiently obsessed with ‘financial success’ to forgive his rather unorthodox ways of amassing that fortune.
And we must not forget that there is a sizable number of Republicans so eager to regain power that they did tolerate his antics – precisely because they have perceived him as a ‘winner’ AND because he has successfully led them to believe that he will uphold their values.
Therefore I’m afraid that Trump’s performance would not be that easy to reproduce nor do I think that America should really go down this path.

Coming back to the Libertarians, they present to the general public such a wide spectrum of ideas that the ordinary American voter is actually bewildered.
For instance, everybody hates paying taxes but give them up altogether?

The business tycoons – those who successfully avoid paying taxes, as private individuals  or through their corporations – won’t give up this system simply because being able to avoid paying taxes constitutes a huge competitive advantage. Actually it would be rational for them to try to increase the ‘fiscal burden’ that weighs down everybody else but them.
The ‘man in the street’, the one who pays little to none income tax but who contributes hugely to the GDP formation simply because he buys the stuff sold by the business tycoons, won’t give them up because he knows that taxes pay for the roads he uses to go to work, for whatever emergency health care he gets, for his children’s schooling, for his meager pension, etc., etc….
It so happens that only the middle class would have any direct, even if highly debatable, benefit if the state would give up collecting taxes. They have private medical insurance, they send their children to private schools, they don’t rely on public pensions in order to have a decent retirement, and they think they have enough money to pay the tolls whenever they’d need to use the roads.

I’m not going to discuss here the practicality of the arrangements proposed by the ‘anarchists’ – private fire-fighters and private police, among others.

What grabbed my attention was the concept of ‘voluntary taxes’.

I work with the Catholic Church (on a consulting basis) and all payments are voluntary. If people don’t like what the church is doing, they either stop participating or stop donating. Similar idea for the government. If it performs a useful function at a friendly cost, people would support it.

This makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?

OK, I won’t bother reminding you what would have happened up to two or three centuries ago to the brave enough guy who decided to stop paying the tithe.

But I will mention the fact that there still are countries in Europe who continue to collect taxes in the name of the church.

And, because of that – where possible, many people leave their churches.

Which reminds us that in modern days belonging to a church is optional.
People who actively engage in church life constitute a subset of the entire population, a subset of people who have selected themselves into this (mental)state.

Living (somewhere) is (not yet) fully optional.
Really?!?
No matter how hard someone tries it is possible that they will never get to live where they wish. Sometimes the natives don’t accept them or they die trying to get there.
On the other hand there are ‘places’ that don’t allow their inhabitants to leave – North Korea and Eritrea are the first two examples that cross my mind. Romania also used to be such a place.
In this sense taxes somewhat resemble Schrodinger’s cat. They are optional – for those who choose to join a certain group, to remain in a certain country or to join one – and are forcefully levied from those who cannot, no matter how hard they try, to leave the place where they have to live.
To compound the situation usually the countries who allow their citizens to leave also determine in a rather democratic manner the amount of taxes that have to be paid by those who choose to remain while in those who act as a prison for their inhabitants it is the local ruler who imposes the fiscal burden unto his subjects.
Now, isn’t it rather strange that this idea, “taxation is theft”, is making furors in the freest country on Earth?
One can leave America at will and most Americans have enough money to live like ‘princes’ almost anywhere on Earth. Not as safely nor enjoying the same degree of civilization… no wonder that very few of them actually leave while so many ‘aliens’ try to get in there…
But why don’t they reform the tax system AND the (wasteful?) way the taxes are being spent, instead of dreaming of a tax-less world?
And how come they don’t realize that in a ‘voluntary’ situation the ‘rational’ think to do would be to save your money, leave the other to pay whatever they want to and benefit from whatever spoils are there to be enjoyed ‘for free’?
After all this is already happening with vaccines.
Many diseases have all but disappeared from the ‘civilized’ world. So much so that ‘rational’ people have begun to stop vaccinating their children.
‘What’s the use to submit my children to a risk, however small, if all the other children are being vaccinated?’
For how long do you think this ‘rationale’ is going to work?
measlesincrease2
You will tell me that people have grown doubtful about vaccines only after a scientific study was published in a peer reviewed magazine…
Well, people believe what they want to believe.
Even the defenders of Dr. Wakefield do not pretend that he is against vaccination as a principle but only that he still is, to this day, preoccupied with the safety of the ‘triple vaccine’ (MMR) involved in the initial paper.
He did not advise his patients to stop vaccinating, but instead to vaccinate for these three diseases with single vaccines, rather than the combo.
See what I mean?
Far from being rational – people are seldom rational beyond their field of expertise and sometimes fail to be so even in that realm – we are nevertheless convinced that we consistently behave in a reasonable manner.
And this conviction of ours makes us easy prey for the spin doctors who constantly stalk us.
We need to admit that our rationality is bounded before the reasonable libertarians, like Gary Johnson, will have a real chance of stepping into the lime light.
Until then the authoritarians will divide the spoils amongst them.
Not before staging a heated, but fake, fight for our benefit.
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